United We Stand
New – 20 August 2005
A Glancing Blow
United We Stand
Tom Warren stumbled again. It was positively frustrating. Underneath his feet, a tangle of scraggley brush, rocks and debris tugged at his legs while the gusty wind jerked his upper body in a variety of directions. And to add to the assorted tugs and pulls, there was always the safety line linking him to the enclave. Every so often it would jerk at Tom's waist, invariably bringing him down in a totally disorganized way. It was bad enough to trip and fall but Tom always ended up in a contortionist's heap, legs askew (and usually caught by the undergrowth) while his body twisted in a double helix. He sometimes had to stop and think for a moment after a fall, if only to find a way to untwist and maneuver out of his self-imposed maze.
Then something novel happened, he tripped and fell headlong to the ground. Choking on the dust and weed and hurting from a bruised nose, he suddenly wondered if perhaps his previous sprawls might not be preferable to this. This one had hurt! Reaching back toward his feet, he was determined to teach the offender a lesson. Fixing on the sticks entangled in his legs, he grabbed them, as yet undecided on their just punishment.
Glaring at them for a few moments, he had almost decided on death by burning when he recognized that they were manufactured wood and, perhaps more significantly, in the form of a cross. Once he had recognized the cross, he stared at it for only an instant then began to scramble about in the dirt. Unquestionably, he was on a grave. The thought of his possible desecration activity of falling on it full length momentarily unnerved him.
Then, looking about, he recognized another close by. The maddening factor was that they seemed to be fresh -- which could lead him to only one conclusion. Quickly he stood up and began frantically to search for additional clues. Then he saw the warped metal and recognized immediately the remnant of an enclave. Glancing back at the graves, he felt a sudden and profound silence. They were all dead, the graves testified to that. His enclave had survived without a single casualty and theirs had been destroyed, killing all.
His concern for the dead slowly vanished as he began to search through the wreckage. He moved from one part to another, heaving at metal, looking over and under, and doing his best to find the supplies. There should be plenty and, after all, Smith had impressed on him the need to scavenge for supplies.
But there were no supplies. Everything was gone. Tom cursed his bad luck. He would have preferred to return with a load of supplies and not just talk of the destroyed enclave. But all the damn supplies were gone, some bastard must have taken them!
Then slowly it began to seep through the rain forest of his thinking. Item: No supplies; Inference: Someone took them; Item: Graves; Inference: Someone dug them. Conclusion: Someone is still alive.
Suddenly excited, he ran to tell the others.
Whereupon he promptly stumbled and fell down again.
Tom's discovery linked three enclaves (Challenger, Pioneer and Corsair) and brought together thirty-two survivors. The total included nine men (with one seriously hurt), thirteen women, and ten children (although two were nearly of age). More importantly, those without an enclave now had sanctuary, albeit a crowded one. For the survivors of Corsair it was a Godsend. For those in Challenger, it was a release from the awful burden of trying to dig their way out. Finally, it gave everyone a purpose; the move of all the salvageable material and equipment to Pioneer's location and the beginnings of a settlement. The odds of survival for the group had just taken a quantum leap upward.
From Fred Smith's viewpoint, it also raised the critical question of leadership. Logic would suggest that Fred continue as before but this seemed chancy. In the intervening weeks it was possible that others might have grown accustomed to command. Being in charge is after all an addictive position. If this was the case, then it must be settled quickly with as little fanfare as possible. In Fred's mind the structure of their society must be clearly established to prevent serious mistakes which could endanger the entire community. More importantly, it was his responsibility to prevent the occurrence of such chaos.
With this in mind, Fred discreetly called a meeting, carefully selecting the attendees. Sally Hammond (as "acting captain") would represent Corsair, Mike Brownson and John Ryker would speak for Pioneer, and George Fredericks and Fred would act on behalf of Challenger. Their legitimacy seemed clear enough for Fred as he sought clear justification for his re-assumption of authority. Without such a mandate (however derived), he could not effectively govern. Furthermore, if he could not govern, it was unlikely that anyone else could. More significantly, Fred was not prepared to trust anyone else with the responsibility. Fred had very clear ideas of what was beneficial and what was detrimental to the community and he doubted its ability to cope with anyone else in charge. His time in Washington, D.C. had taught him many lessons.
With the decision already made in his mind to continue as the single leader, Fred gathered the others within the partial shelter afforded by the salvaged equipment and supply lockers. The wind was relatively calm, allowing for a reasonable conversational tone. Fred glanced around at each of them as they made themselves comfortable and then began.
"I'm sure that you all feel as I do, that it's great to be among friends again. By the same token, we will have to continue our search for the other three enclaves.” There was a momentary sigh of agreement. "But I'm afraid that I already have some bad news. Les Rodgers was found dead by George Fredericks, less than fifty yards from Challenger.” A muffled shock ran through them as George acknowledged the statement. "For some of us, the shock is less severe. Les' death was not totally unexpected.” Hardly noticing the slight flare of surprised interest, Fred continued, “Les never quite made the adjustment from the old world. More than physical causes, his inability to cope in his mind was the thing that killed him."
Several of the others indicated a non-verbal agreement, as George offered, "When I found him, I thought he was asleep or unconscious. Even when I realized he was dead, I still couldn't find a cause."
"Inability to cope," Fred explained. "Technically, he died of exposure. In reality, he simply gave up." As the others accepted this, "The possibility of others going the same way is, of course, still with us. Linda Middleton is excessively grieved over the loss of her husband."
Sally asked, "What about Sally Rodgers?"
"She's been told, of course. And her reaction was perhaps more heartening. I suspect that she saw the problem developing. But, in any case, the critical factor is that we keep our eyes on her and any others who are having trouble coping with this new reality. We must remain alert and on guard." As the others seemed to agree, Fred said, "An essential factor in our being able to help others to cope is a clear and decisive leadership. There must be no question of our goals or direction which might allow for confusion, frustration or unprofitable conflict." Fred could sense the surge of interest as he continued. "I don't think that there is any question but that Sally represents Corsair and, of course, Mike is still in charge of Pioneer. These choices were decided by everyone before the collision. But as we regroup together, it becomes essential that we once again provide a single focus of leadership for the others in our community. It is the only realistic means we have of avoiding disaster."
Fred saw immediately that Ryker was in agreement and that he would easily acquiesce in his favor. But the other three seemed less sure. Mike voiced it, "I take it you're available for the part?"
"If you mean, will I take the job, yes. As far as I know, John Ryker and I are the only survivors present who constituted the original leadership.” Fred had watched Mike very closely, ignoring the hint of sarcasm. It was evident that Mike was opposed, just as expected. But it was also obvious that he had no idea of how to counter Fred's arguments.
But Sally had her own ideas. "What about the others? Don't they have a say?"
Fred smiled slightly. "My reason for gathering this smaller group is that you people seem to constitute the cooler heads among us and I knew that I could count on your rational contributions. I would think it unwise to suddenly throw open to everyone the question of leadership and then haggle for it. This is precisely the indecision and lack of clear direction that I think we want to avoid. It would be far preferable to continue with a stable, consistent set up." When neither Sally, Mike nor George seemed convinced, Fred abruptly cast in a token compromise.
"Effectively, of course, the five of us do in fact constitute the leadership, the Board of Directors, so to speak. Our choice of a leader could then be laid before the 'shareholders' for their ratification. The essential item is that one person be identified to the others as a single focus of leadership. We cannot appear divided and at odds. Nor can we afford a lengthy debate in times of crisis."
Immediately the compromise scraped against his composure. In Fred's mind it was crystal clear that the question must be decided now and there was really no other rational solution. Fred glanced from one person to the other. None of them seemed to be able to reach a decision. ‘And they would presume to lead?' he thought. They were unsure and unable to take the next obvious step. All except, perhaps, Fredericks; George was clearly making his own plans, his decision already made.
George returned Fred's gauging look as he considered his own motives. He had already recognized Fred as having the command capabilities. And, with Smith's support, George could have his own position of authority, sufficient to maintain some control over his own life. It would not be a question of selling out but of choosing the best candidate for a difficult and thankless job. But if George Fredericks could act as a kingmaker, so much the better. For Beverly as well as himself, he quickly noted.
While the others continued to ponder, George acted. "Fred's right." Sally looked surprised while Mike merely turned toward him. "We do need a single leader, one person that can act in a crisis for all of us. And, for obvious reasons, I think Fred should pick up the pieces."
Fred watched George, trying to gauge the intent and the price he would pay for the support. Then when Mike did not speak, he said, "Then I think we should tell the others. It would be best for Mike to individually tell those who came in Pioneer." Then, to Mike, "Just make a simple statement, Mike, in the normal course of conversation. There's no reason to make anything big of it."
Mike hesitated for just a moment before he acknowledged, "Sure, Fred. I'll start passing the word."
Turning to Sally, Fred continued, "And Sally, if you could mention it to Nancy and Jim."
Sally watched him for a second then shook her head in agreement. Something gnawed at her but would not crystallize. Perhaps Fred was right and he was the best man for the job. There seemed no obvious reason to question him. Not at this point, anyway.
They broke up, as easily as they had begun, with Fred carefully suggesting several things that needed to be done, and then painstakingly acquiring their agreement or at least their acquiescence.. Fred then watched them leave from his new vantage as their undisputed leader.
The meeting had been as successful as he had hoped. Only he was not completely pleased. He hadn't liked the necessity of flattering their egos with the collective leadership noise (and it had been just noise!). The barest possibility of constant aversions to a committee-like decision making process disgusted Fred. He had never liked committees nor considered them of any value. He had tolerated them before but only because their effect on his own life was minimal. But to choose a leader in such a way seemed particularly inept. Better for the true leader to assert himself than to haggle.
Leaving the shelter and walking slowly about his domain, he noticed that the wind seemed less vicious, the visibility noticeably improved. Probably just a lull, he thought, but he nevertheless welcomed it.
Then, as he glanced about, things seemed to jell. As leader of three of the enclaves, he had established his power base. If they could now find one other enclave before the other three linked together, he could assure himself of his tenured position. He would have to take definite steps toward that goal, and very soon.
His plans taking form, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that Diana Riddle was talking to Mike. Then Diana turned to look at him. As Fred nonchalantly turned away, he realized that she had started toward him. He moved slowly away, almost to the limit of visibility, until she called his name. "Fred!"
Turning slowly, he faced her and watched her approach. "Yes, Diana, what can I do for you?"
Smiling broadly and with a hint of larceny, she kidded, "Mike tells me you're the number one honcho now.”
Fred took an immediate dislike toward her attitude and assumptions of intimacy. Curtly he answered, "That's one way of putting it, I suppose.”
"I meant that you were able to browbeat that schnook Brownson into backing down and handing Pioneer over to you.”
"Watch your language, Diana. It's unbecoming of a recent widow.”
Diana watched him for a moment. "Come now, Fred. We both know the score.”
"And what is the score?”
“You manipulated yourself into power. And you intend to stay there.” Then, with a touch of malice, "Come hell or high water.”
"Is that so?" Fred found the conversation more and more interesting. Diana was a bit too familiar and perhaps not sufficiently respectful. She really could not be allowed to run amuck in this way. It might undermine his position.
"Don't misunderstand me, Fred. I don't dislike having you in charge. Actually you're the best man for the job. We both know that.”
As Fred smiled slightly, Diana smiled as well. "In fact, it's rather convenient. That bastard, Mike, keeps me playing nursemaid to a bunch of rotten kids. Which is just so much crap as far as I'm concerned.”
Still smiling, "Well, Diana, we all have to do what we can. We all must pull our share of the load.”
"What I meant, Fred, was that I'm a whole lot better at playing with the big kids."
Fred smiled at the obvious. "No doubt.”
Diana made a quick and subtle appraisal of Smith's physique. “The man in charge always needs the rest and relaxation due his rank."
Fred suddenly warmed. The sexual play did not arouse him as much as the allusion to his power. And ultimately to the implications of his having power. But then his thoughts turned suspicious. "How so?" he inquired.
Diana could sense the opening in his armor and knew that she must now be careful. "The plain facts, Fred, are that we are all in a great deal of trouble unless someone is clearly in charge." As Fred seemed to respond favorably, she continued, "And it's obvious that you're that person. But you can't do it alone. You need help. All good commanders have a staff. Fredericks may be your Secretary of Defense, but you need a Secretary of State as well. Someone to stand by you in any crisis."
Fred was noticeably impressed. It suddenly dawned on him that Diana was particularly well informed of the situation. What she said made a lot of sense.
Diana could sense even more her conquest. So she poured it on. "Your second-in-command must be loyal. And to ensure such loyalty, it would always help if that second was a woman -- a woman who does not have ambitions for higher office; a woman who could be ruled by the man in charge."
Fred smiled at the last statement. Diana could feel his agreement and she returned his smile with a beautiful and submissive one. Fred felt like a king and Diana knew that she could now be queen.
Quietly, without a word, without a spoken acknowledgement of their agreement, Diana turned and began to walk away. She looked back at Fred and Fred felt a surge of vitality. He continued to watch her as she moved back toward the enclaves.
She had been right, Fred thought. They needed a leader and a leader needed a staff. In order to survive they must pull together. They must work as a unit, with common purposes. Going their own ways, they would all succumb to this nightmare world.
To follow a single purpose they would need a single, strong leader. They must be led for their own good. And Fred felt deeply that he was their best hope. Others might succeed but Fred knew that he could succeed. And, 'come hell or high water', he would succeed. For all of them.
Scott turned at the sound of his name as Penny moved toward him. The leather wrapped around the bandages on her foot hobbled her some but she tried to make it into a natural gait. To some extent she succeeded and it did not seem too unnatural for her to be up and about. She was still unable to carry anything substantial, but her seemingly inexhaustible energy to do all the small things served just as well. She was still Scott's right arm.
"Yes, Penny," he smiled.
“Everything's ready to go. And, since we seem to have a lull, I think everyone's quite eager to leave."
"Fine. Then let's go."
“I'll tell the others." And she moved to leave.
"Oh, Penny." Scott had a sudden idea.
"See if you can divert Aekie a bit. I want to talk to Ed alone."
Penny watched him for just a second. "Sure." And she was away.
Scott watched her as she started the others to move. They would carry most of the supplies with them on the first trip. If the wind and weather remained clam, they would return for the rest immediately. Otherwise they would wait until the next lull. It was a meager crew, he thought, but they were all pulling their weight. Tom Wirth would lead the troop, since he knew the way.
Tom's role seemed fitting for he had been the one to find the steel yard. From his description it seemed ideal. The area rested in a slight valley, flanked on three sides by gentle hills and sloping down toward the water, nearly three hundred yards away. But the best part was the variety of steel pipe, fittings, and heavy gauge sheets of metal. Apparently even the gale winds could not blow the heavy steel very far. A brick work shed nearby, while partially destroyed, had also left a large store of acetylene, oxygen, argon and various kinds of welding equipment. With a little effort they could put together a pretty substantial home for themselves.
The welding possibilities caused Scott to suddenly miss Sally Hammond. As their premier welder, she would have been in her element. But now they must all rely on what they had learned from her brief lessons just prior to the comet's arrival. Perhaps Tom Wirth had picked up enough that he could do the work. Or possibly Aekie Hawkins who seemed to have been sufficiently intrigued by Sally's lessons on the process that she might make a good welder as well. There was no sense in being chauvinistic, Scott thought, with a slight smile.
Scott began to move with the others as they began their trek. He shook his head slightly in bemused bewilderment, remembering Tom's return and the excitement at his discovery. Better yet was the effect on Tom, who was doing more and more for the group, gaining in confidence, and seeming to enjoy himself thoroughly. As long as he had someone to assume the major responsibilities, he could take a simple order and make it succeed beyond all expectations. He was the type of soldier who could make his captain look brilliant. Ironically, he would never aspire to be the captain and, in all likelihood, would not be a good one even if it were thrust upon him. Imminently responsible for his own actions, he could never assume responsibility for other people's welfare or their actions.
Walking behind Tom were George Harvey and Ernie Shaw. It had been Tom's wife, Ida, who had found the three survivors from the sixth enclave, Intrepid. Besides Ernie, Ed Parsons and Aekie Hawkins had made it and joined their group.
From Ernie's brief description, all three had been outside at the time of the explosion and had been blown clear of the enclave when an ignited pocket of gas had gutted the interior. Astoundingly, they had somehow managed to stay alive afterwards. Now, after only a few days rest, they were full-fledged members of "Intrepid Eagle".
Behind the three men Monica Harvey guided Mildred who was still almost blind. Monica was thus intrumental in preventing falls by her strong hand on Mildred's shoulder. It was an odd gesture and Scott was sure that he could not fully understand why Monica would want to be especially kind to Yasaitis' wife. Perhaps she wanted to show that she could share Scott's burdens as well as his company. And perhaps, Scott surmised, maybe share his bed.
The thought briefly surprised him. But then as it roved about his mind, he began to see the inevitability of it. Penny already watched them whenever they were together and some of the others seemed aware as well. They never seemed to make anything of it, though, always accepting the possibility as a probability. Scott wondered why they would do that. Perhaps because they were decent people harboring no ill will toward others. Or perhaps it was more than that. Maybe it had something to do with ‘Rank has its privileges.'
Of the remainder of the troop, Yasaitis plugged along by himself, shouldering much more than his share of the load. Penny walked with Ida and her daughter, with Ed Parsons and Aekie Hawkins bringing up the rear, Scott watched Aekie, her hand near Ed's broken arm. That arm had been the only lasting injury to the three of them. It was, according to George Harvey, a serious break. The fact it had gone effectively untended for some time had eliminated the possibility of it ever completely mending properly. George assumed that Ed would soon have the use of it again, but that it would never be 'quite right'.
Then Scott saw Aekie increase her pace and move up with Penny. Scott took immediate advantage of the moment. "Ed?"
Ed slowed slightly and turned toward him, and they both continued to walk. "Yeah Larry?"
"How's the arm?"
“It only hurts when I laugh or play handball."
"It hurts. It seriously hurts!” He tried to smile. "But if I keep busy, it doesn't seem to bother me too much. It's just that it stiffens up really easily, especially when I lay down to sleep. I have to stretch and exercise it every morning."
"Can George give you anything?"
Ed glanced at Scott, thinking that he would not want to be misunderstood. "It doesn't hurt that much. Certainly not enough to warrant the use of irreplaceable drugs." Then, quickly, "Don't misunderstand me: I'm not being noble. I'm just saving the medicine for when I really need it."
"I hope you had George put your name on it."
Ed smiled. "Not quite. But I did get him to give me one helluva prescription."
"Yes. He prescribed that if Aekie could lay very close to me on the other side, the pain would rapidly go away." Both laughed as Ed continued, "And it worked. Best damn prescription I ever had filled." Thoughtfully he added, “George is a good man. We'll have to keep him.”
"I plan to." Ed glanced up at Scott for just a moment then turned back to the march.
"Ed. Tell me about the explosion."
Ed was quiet for just a moment. "Not much I can tell. The three of us were out on the enclave's outer skin, trying to see through the damn fog. The next thing I knew, I felt a deafening roar and I was flying through the air. Then there was this horrible pain in my arm and a blast of cold water. I'm sure the water saved us by breaking our falls. I just happened to hit a log or something.
"After that I don't remember too well. I know that I was able to hang onto something for a few minutes. Then Aekie found me. We floated for a bit while Aekie tried to find some others. Apparently the enclave was fuming like a volcano, so she soon realized that there was no hope there. Then Ernie managed to get near enough so we could see each other.
"We drifted a bit until Ernie found his footing. Then we were able to get to land and literally collapsed from exhaustion. After that I had a continuous fever and I don't really remember a damn thing. Until I found myself in your shelter."
Scott remained silent for a moment. Then, "I gather it was Aekie who realized you could eat the manna?"
“So I've been told. But that's pretty much Aekie. She is very observant."
"What about Ernie?"
“What do you mean?"
"How did he react?"
"Hard to say. I don't remember a lot.” Ed's smile slowly vanished as he realized that Scott was very serious. “I'm sure he didn't panic. He's not the type.”
"What type is he?”
"I'm not sure I know him that well. But he seems to be a thoughtful individual; smart, but unassuming. He was a civil engineering associate professor before, so I expect he's pretty down-to-earth. Of course, he lost his fiancé, Mary Ralston, in the enclave and that has got to affect him somehow.”
Ed glanced again at Scott and began to wonder if the man was even listening. He remained silent as it appeared that Scott did not really need for him to talk.
They walked in silence for several moments before Larry said, “You know, of course, that Tom Griffith was also killed in a gas explosion?"
“Yes, I heard.”
"When he was killed, we all sort of reacted by doing whatever seemed essential. Then a little unexpectedly I found myself starting to give directions. Before I fully realized it, I was their leader."
Ed continued to watch ahead, but answered clearly, “And it's apparent you're doing a good job. A blind man stumbling in on this group would know you're in charge in an instant.”
Scott winced. Thinking fiercely, he recalled Pat and Linda Wells. If Scott was thought of as a good leader, it was only because he was burying his mistakes. He remained silent for a moment, as Ed began to suspect that it might have been better if he'd said nothing.
Then Scott took the final step. "Ed, you were the enclave captain for Intrepid." Ed barely nodded, knowing that a spoken acknowledgement was superfluous. Scott went on, “When you were made captain, it was done with a little more authority. You were put in charge because it was a good idea, and more importantly, everyone agreed. On the other hand, I took my title by default. I may have been captain of Corsair, but I couldn't even make it back to the enclave when it really counted."
It suddenly became crystal clear where Ed what Scott was leading. Quickly, he replied, "Wait, Larry. That's not what's important.”
Scott sloughed off the interruption. "If we're to maintain some sort of continuity, it might be best for me to step down in favor of you." There! He had said it! It was off his chest.
Ed didn't hesitate at all. "That's pure crap, Larry! You're best fit to lead and you should. As far as I'm concerned, you're in charge.”
"I can't accept that! Perhaps you don't know about Pat and Linda Wells.”
"Hold on, Larry." Ed pulled up short, his hand on Scott's forearm. "I know enough about them. And even if you blame yourself for their deaths, don't forget that I lost twelve people. One dumb decision and I burned twelve people to death. But I don't incriminate myself, because it's pointless. I just know I don't want to find myself in that position again. I intend to be responsible for me and Aekie and nobody else!”
Scott watched Ed very closely. In his inner mind, he knew that the burden could not be shifted; it had to be borne. And watching Ed's determination, Scott suddenly knew that he was the one who would bear it. Scott would lead and would lead well. His confidence surged.
Ed sensed the resolution of Scott's will. Smiling, he clapped him on the back and started them to walking again. "Come along, your majesty; we must be about our business."
Scott's mind stumbled at the jest. Then he suddenly realized the near-truth. The thought gained force and he decided that he would, in fact, have to assume some of the responsibilities of a king. But he doubted that he would ever want to be addressed in such a way; he might laugh out loud. And to laugh in such a manner would be very unkingly.
Chapter Six -- First the Good News...
Chapter Eight -- Murder Most Foul
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