New – 20 August 2005
A Glancing Blow
It was nearly ten o'clock in the morning when Sally woke up. At first she merely stirred in the enclave's upper bunk. Then, as her purpose for the day was recalled, she sat bolt upright. It was time to go, she realized.
Immediately she inventoried herself, trying to estimate if she had in fact had enough rest. Glancing at her watch, she guessed that she had picked up close to nine hours of sleep. Good, she thought. She knew that she would need all her strength. Now for breakfast, a good hearty meal -- it might be a long time before she had another hot one.
As she sat near the stove, stocking her body up on salted ham and protein, she went over her plans again. It had been less than two days since the devastating flood but, miraculously, everything was already back to some semblance of routine. There had been no let up in the injuries, many were still seriously hurt. The only good news had been the return of George Fredericks and Beverly Losten with nothing more than bruises, sore muscles, and relatively minor cuts. But things were under control. Sally could leave on her trek without being quickly or sorely missed.
In point of fact, the timing was quite good. Few if anyone would note her departure because of the extraordinary circumstances. In more normal times there were duties that, when not done would immediately call someone's attention to her absence. But now she would not be as quickly missed. Perhaps more importantly, Fred Smith had taken several others and gone back to the other enclave for more help and supplies. With Fred gone and not due back until late, there would be little chance of his discovering her absence and promptly coming after her.
Sally had already made up her pack and had stowed it up toward the lake, in the direction that Edgar had said the others were camped. She could leave on a moment's notice, just as soon as she took care of a few details.
The first and most important detail was to let a trusted friend know what she was doing. Then if things got out of hand while she was gone, and if Fred went overboard, someone would be here to tell the others. She had thought to tell Beverly immediately after breakfast, but George had just squelched that. Apparently Beverly had been up for more than twenty hours, and had just gone to bed. George, like a mother hen, would “not consider disturbing her. And before Sally had finished breakfast, George had told her to head toward the lake to check on getting more water. The water would be sterilized, but it was essential they have plenty of the raw material available.
Sally had jumped at the chance since it gave her the perfect opportunity to walk out of camp. The only disadvantage was that she would have to leave right away. This limited her options, but Sally had decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss. Plus which she could easily duck in to see Brownson and, at the same time, tell Lois what was happening. Her breakfast finished, she went quickly to the lean-to covering Brownson's bed. She looked in quickly and to her surprise found Brownson alone. She quickly looked about for Lois; she could not imagine the young girl leaving her vigil by Mile. Intent upon finding Lois, she hardly noticed Diana approaching.
"Looking for something?” Diana asked.
Sally immediately turned her attention to Diana. "Lois. I expected to find her here.”
"She's busy." George has her working with the Doc and that Mary Cleveland broad." Then, as if to justify the action, "We can't afford to have anyone devoting themselves to watching over a single individual. Lois is not pulling her weight if she does nothing more than baby sit Mike.”
Sally frowned. "Mike was very seriously hurt, Diana. He needs someone close.”
Diana laughed in her face. “You're out of touch, sweetie. Mike's practically up and about. He's been awake all morning.”
“No. See for yourself.” Then, as if about to walk away, "But no loitering; there's too much to do. Get back to work.”
Sally had long since decided that Diana would never order Sally to do anything. But in this case a scene would be futile. “Let me check Mike first; it'll take less than a minute.”
Diana turned, dismissing her. She had apparently made her point and Sally had knuckled under to her authority. But just to add icing to the cake before walking away, she added, "Fine. Just keep it brief.”
Sally ducked into the lean-to. "Mike?"
'Mike immediately stirred and raised his head. Sally moved over to the stool, beside the bed and sat down. When she only smiled, Mike managed to say in a sleepy voice, "Hi there. You with the Red Cross?"
Sally laughed slightly. “I'm glad to see you're better."
"Oh yes. I'm absolutely unsinkable."
"I'm really glad to hear that, Mr. Molly Brown's son." Her jest caused a slight laugh from Mike. Then Sally got serious. "Mike, are you well enough to listen very carefully to something very important? Right now, you're my only hope."
Mike's immediate physical reaction gave her the answer, but he confirmed it verbally. “My hip is next to useless but my head is okay."
Sally relaxed slightly. "Good." She took a deep breath, "Just before Edgar Morris, that stranger that Tom Warren brought into camp… before he died, he told me he had been with the crew from Intrepid and Eagle, and also how to find them.”
"Good Lord!" 'Mike was clearly shaken. "Have you told Smith?”
“No. I don't think that he would believe me. Besides, I still don't exactly where they are. I'm going to have to find them. But I do know where to look; Edgar told me enough for that. They're out past the lake to the north. And they're near a steel yard. I think I might actually know where that is -- at least I did before the comet.”
Mike suddenly became suspicious. "Don't tell me that you're going off on your own.”
“I have to. But don't worry. I've got a pack of supplies stowed on my trail. I'm going to leave right now. It may take me a week or more, but I'm going to find them. Then I'll bring them back here and, once and for all, put Fred Smith in his place."
Mike didn't like the idea. "Sally, Fred is not our, enemy. You mustn't take things so personally.”
"Mike, dear. You need blood. Smith won't let Beverly, the only other person with your blood type, give you any blood until she's more fully recovered. He claims that he doesn't want to risk her, but in fact he wants to penalize you. It may be that you can get better without more blood; but if we don't stop Smith now, we may not have a second chance.”
“I don't know, Sally. It seems too risky.”
"Mike, I don't have any options. We don't have any options. My only real chance of getting away with enough of a head start is to leave right now.” For a moment she hesitated. “My concerns though is leaving you alone."
Mike shook his head. "Don't worry about me. I'll be okay. All I've done lately is sleep. I think I'm getting pretty good at it. Of course, it's really not that hard to do. My only concerns are about what you're about to do.”
“Listen, Mike; I'll be fine. With any luck I'll be back in less than three days, and hopefully with a lot of friends right behind me.”
Mike smiled slightly. “I never could talk you into doing anything but what you wanted to do.”
Sally smiled. “It's right, Mike. I'm sure of it." They both smiled at each other for a moment, before Sally bent over and kissed him on the cheek. "'See you in a few days," she whispered. Mike watched her duck out of the tent, and then despite his mind conjuring up all sorts of possibilities, drifted back off to sleep.
Outside, Sally took another quick look around to get her bearings. Then she took a deep breath and started out. She failed completely to notice Diana who had come up from behind the lean-to. Had Sally seen the hate and amazement on Diana's face, she would have known that the eavesdropper had heard the entire conversation.
The rage that Diana felt almost burst through her self control. But years of survival-instinctive living had taught her well. When your ass is on the firing line, it's no time to panic; it's time to shoot back. And with any luck, Diana thought, to get in the first shot. The question was in placing her shots.
Diana did not yet feel that she had total control over Smith. There was a trace of liberal thinking idealism that Fred still carried; that yearning to do what was best for 'the others', and not necessarily what was best for number one. Fred just might not react to Sally's actions in the way Diana would prefer. There was that small possibility that Fred would welcome the others with open arms. He might even let Tom Griffith run the show. And that meant, quite simply, that Diana would no longer be the First Lady.
For a moment Diana had thought to stop Sally. But that would only have delayed the inevitable; perhaps it would be better to have the showdown now – particularly when only Diana really knew the score. Shoot first and ask questions later; that was the key. But how?
Slowly, things began to jell. In the process her fury turned to confidence. It was all becoming very clear. First, she'd tell George a carefully fabricated story about Sally running to get help from Edgar's ‘gang'. George would relay it to Fred and Fred's paranoia about roving marauders would set the stage. Quick as a flash the whole group would clear out of the area so that on Sally's return with the others, they'd be long gone. In the meantime, Diana would have to take care of one very important detail. It was obvious that Mike could not be allowed to tell the others the truth.
Of course that was the risky part; murder was always a last and drastic step. And Diana had never really considered it before. But now, with death so commonplace, it seemed almost natural. Besides, who would question the fact of Mike passing away after the extent of his wounds?
Diana smiled. She liked her plan. She was beginning to really enjoy the 'intrigues and ploys' of modern man. It was just the sort of thing that kept the mind active and the blood flowing. It was, in fact, almost addictive!
Fred dropped down from the enclave and looked around. Everything seemed to be going well. They could make it back to the other enclave and the wounded by late this afternoon. Everyone was pitching in and contributing. Fred felt a real surge of pride in his people and his own leadership. It was through the dust and haze which had returned since the rain (although not to the same degree) that he saw George Frederick running toward him. Something about George's gait told Smith that they had real trouble. Fred began walking rapidly to meet George.
As Fred approached, George recognized him and stopped; then tried to get his breath.
“What's wrong?" Fred demanded.
"We've got real trouble. Diana just told me that Sally has lit out on her own to find the group that was with Edgar.”
"What group?" Fred looked betrayed.
"Apparently the fellow that Tom Warren found was a scout for a much larger group which included at least a dozen men. Sally has somehow gotten the idea that they can help her.”
"Good Lord, where the hell did she get that idea?”
“I don't know," George admitted. "That gal is a real screwball."
"But where did you find out all of this?"
"Diana. She apparently overhead Sally telling Mike Brownson that she was going for help.”
"Brownson!” Fred almost spit it out. "That bastard!"
"Diana came to me right away, but before we knew what happened, Sally was already gone. I guess she hadn't realized that Sally had already packed.”
Fred's face began to crystallize into a hard granite frown. "We've got to stop that bitch!"
"Diana wanted me to let you know right away. She's back getting everyone ready. She says that our only chance is to run."
Fred was now thinking. "No. We can't run. We've got too much luggage, too much at stake, and we're simply too badly hurt for any mobility."
George suggested, "How about a good old-fashioned ambush.”
"No. That's no good either. An ambush means we would have to wait no telling how long to spring the trap. I don't want to leave the time and place of battle to a bunch of marauders. And if we're sitting around waiting for them, we'd never get anything done. Don't assume that they won't check us out first. They'll have to figure we know Sally's plan. We simply cannot afford to sit and wait for that bitch to bring her troops in."
Fred frowned even more. Cynically, he said, "She might not even find the others, die trying, and then we'd be sitting around waiting for an attack that might never take place."
George shook his head slightly, agreeing with Fred's logic. "You're suggesting we attack first?"
"Exactly. The best defense is always a good offense. A sneak attack is one effective offensive move. We take what people we can, anyone who can walk and carry a weapon, pick up Sally's trail and hit them before they have a chance to even hear her story.”
I'll go back and start getting ready." Then George hesitated. "Who goes along?"
"Obviously you and me. And don't forget to include that Steward kid, Dan. He may be only sixteen, but it's high time for him to grow up fast. We need every gun that we can bring to bear. I'll bring Trippe and Warren from here.”
What about Ryker, the old farmer, and Ted Andrews… that would give us eight guns.”
“I need reliability and the ability to take orders more. None of those three know how to handle a gun, and they'd end up being more of a liability. Plus which, none of those three are in the best of shape right now. Better to let them think they're the home guard.”
“What about the women?”
“The only one I can trust in a crisis would be Diana."
"What about Mary Cleveland? She still owes you for bringing her from D.C."
Fred hesitated. Cleveland had been loyal to Fred in all the machinations -- at least as far as he could tell. And she had learned to take orders on their long drive. But she lacked the hardness that Fred was now requiring. "I need someone in charge of the enclaves while we're gone. That would be Diana. We can make Mary second in command and see how she does.”
“How about leaving Beverly in charge. We need every gun. Besides, Diana is plenty tough enough.”
Fred grimaced, but agreed. “Okay. Diana's in. Now go! Get the packs together. I'll be right behind you with Warren and Trippe.”
“Yes, sir!” George acknowledged. Then he was off and running.
Fred stood for a moment, his adrenaline flowing. Abruptly, he brought his fist hard against his other palm. Holding them tight, every muscle in his body taut, he decided then that, no matter what else happened, he was going to kill Sally Hammond himself.
Sally gently eased herself to the ground where she found a smooth rock to rest on. She stretched her legs out, as if to put as much distance as possible between her and the pain in her feet. She had not remembered ever walking as much as she had in the last two days.
When she had stolen out of camp, with provisions for a week, it had seemed quite straightforward. Edgar had told of the others and he had been found along the edge of the lake by Tom Warren. It had seemed reasonable that, by finding the lake (which, in itself, had been easy enough), she could then move along the shore line and thereby find some sign of the others. Or just the concrete ruins.
But when she arrived at the lake, she encountered a drained lake and an exposed bottom debris. Seeing it had been a momentary surprise, until she recalled where the water had gone. Another surprise had been the size of the lake. Having decided to stay out of the mud and debris and walk along the shore line, she had discovered that it was a very long shore line.
But now more than her feet were tired; her spirits were tired. Had she been right to strike out on her own? Had she oversimplified the task of finding the others? It was clear enough in her mind that Fred Smith was literally out of control and would easily kill, if only to maintain his position. His decision to ignore Mike's injuries was sufficient evidence for that.
But was running away to find help the answer? Should she have stayed and tried to change things there? It was just that Edgar had given her such hope that the people from the last two enclaves would be willing and able to come to her rescue. Surely Griffith, Scott and the others would be able to put the lid on Smith. And then everyone could get down to the business of building lives instead of letting Fred end them. She was convinced that Griffith or Scott, either one, could stop Fred. And probably without a painful confrontation. It seemed the only way.
Her will somewhat restored, she slowly and deliberately got to her feet and began to walk the shore line again.
Ed Parsons looked at the muddy edge of the lake. Smiling, he turned to greet Aekie as she closed the distance to him. Waving his hand in a grand gesture, he said, “Behold, my lady.”
Aekie, half smiling, glanced around. Seeing nothing, she asked, “What?”
“The lake. She is no more."
Aekie laughed quietly. "How can you tell?"
Ed frowned. "The mud, my dear. There's no water but there is mud. This is where the lake used to be." As Aekie's face began to register enlightenment, Ed continued, "Just as I hoped. The tremors shifted enough earth to drain the area.”
Aekie smiled up at him. "Is that good?"
Ed looked at her for a moment, thinking. Then, a little more seriously, "Maybe. There's a chance we can reach Eagle now. And, if we do, we might be able to salvage some of the equipment that was attached to the outside of the hull."
Aekie quickly understood. Unconsciously biting her lip, she said, "You're right, of course." Then, turning to face him, "Let's make sure first. Let's check it out before we tell the others."
Ed smiled and easily agreed.
They moved in single file, silently, each with their separate thoughts. Heavy packs rested on their shoulders and hips while their hands carried rifles in the variety of ways typical of a long march. They moved quickly, skirting the dried lake bottom, its boundaries now marked only by debris washed ashore in the past. As the wavering mist cleared, their faces could be distinguished.
In the lead a young woman walked with purpose, carefully scanning in all directions, maintaining bearings and searching for landmarks. Behind her a large man walked with eyes intent upon the woman and upon the surrounding desolation. He, too, must locate landmarks and establish bearings; the information might be essential later. But for now he was in unfamiliar territory and depended entirely upon the female.
A second man, younger and with a serene but tired look, kept pace with the larger man. He appeared tired from the long trek but seemed to gain strength from the man in front of him as he matched him stride for stride. His exterior attitude fluctuated between complete exhaustion to a cheerful optimism, depending only on whether the larger man turned to look back at him or not.
Behind them walked three other men. The first wore a serious face and mimicked the man in front of him by noting carefully the surroundings for later use. Behind him a fourth man strode casually on, seemingly at peace with an unpeaceful world.
The last man in the column moved silently behind the others. He moved like a cautious sentry, constantly aware of any slight movement from any direction. Occasionally he would observe the others in front of him, wondering about their thoughts and their reactions to the myriad of possible futures.
Then the woman in the lead spoke, her arm outstretched and pointing to a small pile of rocks. Diana said simply, "That looks very much like a marker. As if someone was leaving a trail so that they could, find their way back.”
Smith behind her agreed. "Let's keep moving. We may still be able to catch her before she finds help” To himself, he added, ‘And then I can kill her.'
Chapter Ten -- Two Degrees of Freedom
Chapter Twelve -- Opposing Camps
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