Apocalypse origins, p.31
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       Apocalypse Origins, p.31

           R.A. Neely
 

  ***

  Olson made sure to follow the group from a safe distance. At night, they ate cold rations to avoid any chance of a fire being spotted. It was grueling but necessary work. He had to admit that he was impressed. In weeks this group was well on its way to being an organized military force. Daily, men flocked to his banner with families in tow. Olson used his binoculars to take a closer look at the flag flying from the center of the camp. It was a golden lion's head roaring defiantly over a field of white.

   

   

   

   

  15 Camp, Northern Wisconsin

   

  "Hey everyone," Greg said as he entered the tent.

  "Hey, Greg," James replied. "Did you see the flag?

  "What flag?"

  James motioned for him to follow and made his way outside. He pointed to the new addition flying from the command tent. "You like it?"

  Greg looked at the lion and thought. Weeks ago he would have felt subconscious about the whole thing but he had seen how proud his Gregorian Guard were to wear his name. The lion was fitting, especially the roar. As if they would stand against whatever came their way.

  "I like it."

  "Good," James replied, “we were gonna keep it anyway."

  Greg chuckled, “Fair enough."

  James motioned for them to head back inside and the first thing he saw was Carols smile. 

  "Did you like it?" she asked.

  "I did," Greg replied.

  "It was my idea. Some of the older women put it together."

  "Tell them I love it then," Greg replied.

  Everyone chuckled as Greg joined them at the table. It was covered in maps. Some had been taken from gas stations and pit stops while others had been hand drawn. "I think we've got something," Laura said drawing his attention to one of the maps.

  Greg looked at where she indicated and saw a town circled in red near the edge of Lake Superior. "What's it called?"

  "Lakeside," Laura replied. "Looks like the infrastructure is still intact. We'd literally just have to move in."

  "Is that our best bet?"

  Laura nodded, “It best matches the criteria you set. It's isolated, defensible, and has fresh water."

  "And the others?" Greg asked.

  "They're missing something," Laura explained. "They might have water but then they're in a bad spot for defense. If we can hold it then water is scarce. There are one or two that might work but the infrastructure is badly damaged."

  Greg nodded as he looked over the map. "How far are we?"

  "A few hours. It's a good thing too. Gas is getting scarce and Gio is having trouble keeping some of the vehicles running. It'll be easier once we're not on the move so much but it's hard right now."

  Greg nodded again, "It looks good. I think it'll work."

  "There's just one problem," James said. "It's occupied."

  "What are we dealing with?" Greg asked.

  "Just looks like some locals according to the scouts," Laura said.

  Greg thought for a moment, "I don't see the problem. We need a place and this looks good. We'll offer them the chance to join us."

  "What if they refuse?" Carol asked. "Are we just gonna kick people out of their homes?"

  "They're getting a better deal than anyone else would give them," Shirley said.

  "Shirley's right," Greg said. "We play by different rules now. Lakeside works so we're going to take it. I don't care if that makes us the bad guys. We need to be able to defend ourselves before Dray comes looking for us. I'm not gonna put us in a bad position to spare a few residents."

  Jackson nodded, "We need fresh water and a location that's easy to defend. That's so much easier if the infected aren't breathing down our neck."

  "I know," Carol said, "I just feel bad about it."

  "We do what we have to do," Greg said. "I have no intention of being a slave to Dray or anyone else. We'll give the residents of Lakeside a chance to join our ranks. That's the best we can do for them. And as far as that goes, I don't think any nation was forged without displacing someone else. I need you guys with me on this," he said as he held their gaze for a moment before nodding.

  "Alright, let's move. I want to be there before nightfall."

  The camp burst into a flurry of activity as everyone began packing up. The news about finally finding a place spread like wildfire. Soon enough, the entire camp was packed and headed toward their final destination. Several hours later the group reached the outskirts of Lakeside. As the group set up camp, Shirley headed into the town to speak with those in charge. She was escorted by a dozen of the Gregorian Guard. This wasn't what she wanted to be doing right now, but Greg had insisted. She thought back to their conversation the night before. 

  Greg had come to their tent and reminded them that they didn't keep prisoners. The other two survivors had been taken care of before made their way out of Denton. Shirley understood that he was referring to Jeremy and went to take care of the deed. Jackson had offered to do it but she felt doing it herself would give her so much needed closure. They'd taken care of it quickly.

  Jackson had dragged Jeremy outside the camp and Shirley had put a bullet between his eyes. It didn't give her the closure she had been looking for though. She still didn't feel safe. How could she? Men had entered their heavily armed camped and taken her. Later she approached Greg and informed him that she wanted to be part of the scouts. She didn't like feeling unsafe and felt that was the best way to get over it but Greg had refused. Even after explaining her reasoning he still shook his head. He'd told her that he needed her as an ambassador of sorts. He wanted her to be the one to make first contact with any survivor groups they found. The one concession to her desire was that the roads were still unsafe so there would probably be plenty of time for her to gain the skill she wanted.

  As she began walking through the town she thought this would be a good place to set up. To her right there appeared to be a farm. She guessed it was such due to the livestock she glimpsed milling around. She didn't think one would have a farm so close to a town but who was she to judge? She'd lived in the city all her life. To her left a street headed towards what looked to be a residential section. Everything appeared to be intact just as Laura had said. Their group would easily be able to fit in here. After a few minutes of walking, she entered the town proper. On either side of the street there were various stores where one could spend their time. As she neared the center of town she noticed a group of people standing in the street. They leveled their rifles in their direction as she stopped at a respectable distance.

  A middle aged man stepped forward from the group. He was slightly overweight but bore a stern expression. "That's far enough," he said. "Who are you and what do you want?"

  Shirley bowed her head respectfully. For this initial meeting, she had adopted the uniform of the guard. The group had reasoned that this would put forth an image of professionalism. Hopefully the town would see them as such rather than merely a group of bandits and this could all go peacefully. They had discussed what she'd say beforehand but she wasn't particularly pleased to have them pointing rifles at her. She spread her hands to her side as if to indicate that she meant no harm. 

  "My name is Shirley O'Hara and I represent Gregoria."

  "I'm Brian Hicksel, the mayor. Gregoria?" the man asked. "What's that? You some type of foreigner?"

  Shirley shook her head, "Not at all. We're a group of survivors that banded together for safety. We've named ourselves after the man who's kept us safe all this time."

  "What do you want with us?"

  "We've been looking for a place to resettle and your town looks to be a perfect fit. Our leader was hoping you'd be willing to meet to discuss a possible arrangement." Shirley hoped this went over well. If the roles were reversed, she wouldn't be pleased about some random people showing up and saying they wanted to move in.

  "I see," Brian said thoughtfully. "And if we refuse to come to an arrangem
ent?"

  "I can see that you need some time to consider. That's understandable. I'll give you some time to think. I'll come back around five this afternoon. If you decide to meet with us, there'll be fresh venison," she said with a smile.

  "I see," Brian replied. "Haven't had fresh meat in some time. I'll have your answer then." She nodded and Brian watched as she led her escort back towards their camp.

  Brian turned to the group behind him. "We're alright for now, guys. You can head on back to your chores." The group dispersed until David Renner, the town's sheriff, was the only one remaining.

  "What do you think, David?"

  David shrugged, "I think we might have to consider their offer. As it stands, they could simply come in and take over. If they're willing to play nice we should at least hear what they have to say."

  Brian nodded, "Alright, let's call a meeting. We'll have to run this by the Three."

  About half an hour later Brian walked into the council chambers. It was a fairly simple affair. A dais as the head of the room boasted a long table with several chairs. The floor of the chamber held several rows of chairs the citizens of Lakeside could use if they felt inclined to attend a meeting. Not that there had been much point of that for years. Today everyone was seated around the long table. All the major players were there. David was there along with Mary Higgins, the village treasurer. After that there were the trustees. They were "elected" officials that were supposed to manage the village's assets in the best interest of the people.

  For years there hadn't been an actual election. Years ago the village had hit some hard times. A significant portion of their population had left and the village had little in the way of income due to the lost property taxes. They had a single tourist attraction, a mock farm on the edge of town. It had been popular at the time but hadn't generated nearly enough income to keep the village solvent. Enter the Three, as they had come to be called. North of the village the wealthy had taken to building lavish summer homes. For the most part it had been a good arrangement. They paid a significant amount in property taxes and weren't that disruptive to village life. They'd show up for two to three months in the summer, throw a few parties and then go back to wherever they had come from. That changed about fifteen years ago. Three of the families, the Apples, the Wests, and the Scalas decided to help the village.

  They opened their wallets and the village's money problems disappeared overnight. In exchange however, they had themselves appointed to the village board of trustees. No one argued at first. These people had literally been the saviors of the town. Soon however, they began making decisions that weren't in the best interest of the village. Their main goal was trying to look good so they would vote for policies that raised the profile of the village. It didn't matter if the policy was sound or not so long as it made the village look good. They had a brand new high school built that they didn't have nearly enough people to fill but it looked good so it happened. He could go on and on, he hated them fervently. All that influence and they just worried about themselves. When people complained and thought to elect someone else to the board, the Three implied that they'd withdraw their financial support. That quickly put an end to anyone interested in running against them. It wouldn't do to get rid of them only to find themselves back in financial straits. 

  "What's going on?" Roland Apple asked. "I don't appreciate being summoned outside of regular meetings.

  Apple, such an innocent sounding name that concealed a complete snake. Roland's irritation did improve his mood somewhat. With the power out, the Three had to suffer along with everyone else. They probably didn't know what to do with themselves without access to their bank accounts and everything else that made their lives so easy.

  "There's been a development," Brian said as he took his seat.

  "Well? What happened?" Roland demanded. "I don't really care but anything is better than this incessant boredom."

  Roland's wife, Kerri, laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. Roland's life of indulgence meant that getting overly excited probably wasn't good for his blood pressure. Roland was basically the leader of the Three. Brian didn't know what he held over the others but they hung on his every word as if it were gospel. Even now they were laughing as if his comment was the funniest thing they'd ever heard.

  Brian waited for the laughter to die down, "An armed group showed up today. They're camped near the edge of town."

  "What do they want?" Roland asked. "We're cut off from our funds. There's little we can do for them."

  "I think they want the town," Brian said.

  "The town? Well they can't have it!" He glanced at David, "Do your job and get rid of them!"

  David chuckled. He'd come to work for the village about six years ago and never toed the line like everyone else in Lakeside. This made Roland hate him. He fancied himself as the real leader of Lakeside and the thought of someone not bowing and scraping around him drove him insane. Unfortunately for Roland, David was good at his job. As much as Roland hated him, the village bylaws didn't allow firing someone because you felt they didn't show you the deference you thought you deserved. Roland couldn't get rid of David without risking a lawsuit and that would have been bad for the profile of the village.

  "I've got three deputies under my command," David said calmly. "Their spokesman had an escort of twelve armed men. We're already outnumbered right there."

  Roland waved a hand dismissively, "Then have the people of Lakeside fight. That should even the odds."

  David shook his head, "We have no idea how many men they have in their camp. In addition, they had the look of being well trained."

  "What do you know?" Roland asked.

  David smiled, the way you would at a small child that was having trouble understanding you. "I spent most of my career working the streets of Chicago. I know the difference between an organized group and a bunch of thugs. These guys are professional. If we try to fight, we'll lose and they'll take the town anyway."

  "What do you suggest then?" Roland asked with a sneer. "That we just turn over the village to them? That's preposterous!"

  "They mentioned an arrangement," Brian explained. "It's worth hearing what they have to say. If we play our cards right we might still be able to have some influence over what happens here."

  "Influence? This is my town!" Roland shouted. "I pulled it from the gutter and kept it afloat. I'll be damned if I'm just gonna turn it over to some lowlife who shows up with a gun."

  "The woman mentioned resettling," David said. "That means they want the town intact. It's not a bad deal. Assuming they leave us alone, the next group might not be so generous."

  Roland shook his head fiercely, "I still say no. I'm not turning over my town!"

  "It's not your decision," Brian said quietly.

  "Excuse me?" Roland asked.

  "It's not your decision," Brian repeated. "I'm the duly elected official and I'm going to meet with this man. If he has good intentions, it's in the best interest of the village to hear him out."

  "How dare you talk to me like that?" Roland demanded. "What if he doesn't have good intentions? What then?"

  "Then it's in the best interest of the village to hear him out," David said. "We'll lose if we try to fight. We've only got a few pistols and some hunting rifles."

  "This is happening," Brian said. "What will you do? Withdraw your financial support as you've threatened every time someone questioned you? Your money is worthless now."

  Roland's face turned beet red at Brian's words. "Fine," he said. "Let's have the meeting. But I'll be coming as well," he continued, trying to maintain some sense of authority. "I'm not just gonna turn this town over to anyone."

  "Thank you for your vote of confidence," Brian said sarcastically. "The woman said she'd return around five p.m."

  "Fine," Roland said. "I'm going to go change. We'll need to impress this would be warlord." The Three stood and left the council chamber while the remaining village officers stayed at the table.


  Brian waited until the door shut and laughed. "That felt great! I've been wanting to tell that man off for years."

  David chuckled, "I could tell you enjoyed that."

  "Do you really think it's gonna go well?" Mary asked.

  "It can't be much worse can it?" Brian asked.

  "There's some hope here," David said. "They want to resettle so they're not looking to raid the village."

  "If you can trust what they said," Mary replied.

  "True," David said nodding somberly, "that's the kicker isn't it?"
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