After the Apocalypse
Chapter 114: Reluctant Testimony

by Mark Bollman--> and Steve Donohue

Milon walked across the cabin, entered the other bunkroom, and pointed at the shooter. "You. Come with me. Harig, Tim-bring him along." The other invaders stared at Milon, but he refused to meet their eyes.

The foursome crossed back to where Ron had moved the bunks to open up some space. Tim motioned the prisoner to a chair.

In accordance with the predetermined protocol, Ron began in "friendly" mode, confident that his mere physical presence would evoke compliance, even if it didn't generate full cooperation. "Before we begin, do you need anything? Water? A bathroom break?"

Jim Peterson shook his head, resolving to say as little as possible. His primary goal, beyond his own survival, was that no one discover that he had shot Atkins. So long as the other Flockmen weren't being allowed to compare experiences, he felt he had a good chance of success.

"All right then. I'm Ron. And you are?"

Peterson ignored Ron's outstretched hand. "I prefer not to say."

"Fine. I'll call you Al, then." Peterson shrugged. "So, Al, what brings you out to these parts?" Peterson remained silent.

In the silence, Tim whispered to Dave. "Where'd he get 'Al' from?"

"I don't know. Short for 'Alpha', maybe?"

As a full minute passed, Dave knew it was time to take more significant action. "Not interested in talking, eh? Fair enough," he said. He lowered his voice until it barely exceeded a whisper, and fixed his gaze directly on Peterson, speaking so only he could hear. "Listen, Al, you and I both know that there's something you want kept quiet. I suspect your buddy with the bullet in his arm would be very interested to know who put it there." Peterson turned pale as Dave continued. "I imagine he'd take about an attosecond to tell us what we need to know if we offered to trade him his assassin's identity. And I don't have to remind you that he's a big guy who could do some damage even without a gun." Peterson didn't know what an attosecond was, but Milon's words had had an intense impact.

Dave stepped back as Ron jumped back in. "Look, Al, I'll level with you. We're not all that interested in you and your guys except as you pose a threat to our guys. All we want to know is what you're really up to-and if you don't mean us any harm, we'll see about letting you go unharmed." As he spoke, Ron doubted how true his words were-he was rather certain that there was no chance of releasing the invaders any time soon; the threat they posed, together with their new knowledge, made that probably too great a risk to Winter Camp.

"Doesn't explain all the guns," grumbled Peterson.

"The best defense is a good offense," said Ron. "Mel, the cook on Alice, said that. And he's right, to a certain extent. You'll recall that only one shot was fired back there, and as near as we can tell, it wasn't one of our guys." A trace of pride crept into Ron's voice as he continued. "Our offense turned out to defend us rather well, I'd say."

As Ron finished speaking, John returned with a box of supplies from Trout Lake. In addition to a bottle of whiskey and one of vodka, he had a vodka bottle which he'd filled with water and several small glasses. "Break time, gentlemen," he announced as he filled three glasses from the bottle of water, in full view of Peterson, and passed two of them to Ron and Dave, who both looked at him quizzically.

"Down the hatch-this has to be a short break." John raised his glass in a half-toast before draining it. As Dave and Ron followed suit and tasted the water, the plan became slightly clearer to them.

"Okay, where were we?"

The alcohol had caught Peterson's attention. Perhaps if he talked, he could get a drink-but he decided there was no gain in offering that trade right away. Ron was quicker to make the connection. "Care for a shot?" he asked, holding up his empty glass.

Peterson was careful not to appear too eager. "At what price?"

"You catch on quickly, Al." Ron grinned. "Let's start with your name."

"Peterson. Jim Peterson."

"And what brings you and your crew into these parts?"

"The Deacon sent us."

Ron was unsure what that meant. "Who was the Deacon again?" he thought. "What did Emily say his name was?" He turned and whispered to John. "Get on the radio to BC and tell Mark we need him up here. He's got a better record of who's who and what's what in Lapeer than any of us."

Turning back to Peterson, Ron continued. "That would be Deacon-who, exactly?'

"Whateley. Calvin Whateley." Peterson was surprised at the relief he felt in talking to his captors.

"And why would he send you here?"

Peterson spoke slowly, carefully choosing his words. "His son got shot about a month ago-right after all the bombing. Somehow he got the idea that the shooter was somewhere at the Boy Scout camp. Wanted us to investigate."

Ron connected a few dots in his mind as Peterson spoke. If this was true-and there was a part of him that still doubted every word he was hearing-then the invaders might be looking for Steve. And while he and Steve weren't identical in appearance, there was enough familial resemblance-especially under layers of winter clothing-to make him wonder how safe he personally was. Though this invasion force had been discovered, he could easily concoct scenarios where their temporary advantage could be lost.

"Tell me more about the Deacon."

"He's been going on and on about how the bombs were God's retribution against mankind for turning too far away from Him. He wants to take all his followers south-"

"That would be the Flock, right?"

When he heard the word 'Flock", Peterson suddenly wondered how much these Boy Scouts knew that they weren't telling. How did they know that the Deacon's people used that name? "Uh, uh…yeah. Could I get that drink now?"

"All in good time, Jim," said Ron. "We need you fully alert for awhile yet. To continue: What are the Deacon's plans? You said something about 'taking his followers'."

"He's got some crazy idea about forsaking all tools and manmade implements and heading south."

"What makes him think it'll be any better to the south of here?"

"Warmer, for the most part. When he says 'no manmade implements', he includes clothing on that list."

Ron, John, and Dave were taken aback by Peterson's admission. While they'd known about the plan to move south, the notion of a crowd of nudists living through a Michigan January was another curious piece in the puzzle that made up the post-nuclear world-but a puzzle piece that defied rational understanding. Ron decided to let that pass and to continue working on reinforcing Peterson's trust in his interrogators.

"Let me make sure we understand you. You say that the Flock is in Lapeer somewhere, trying to make a go of it without anything manmade? Including something as basic-and these days, necessary-as clothing?"

"Sort of. That's the goal, eventually, but even Whateley isn't so crazy as to make that shift all at once. Some of us-he calls us the shepherds-are still allowed to use tools and stuff, but only as we're preparing for the move or working for the good of the Flock. Everyone else is supposed to be easing their way away from manmade things."

"How are they getting along in the cold?" Ron's curiosity had temporarily supplanted the need for an investigative interview focused on the intruders.

"It's been rough, but our generator is still kicking out enough power to heat our building. That's been enough to keep people comfortable enough in simple clothing."

"Aha. So where are you based?"

"At the hospital. It took some slight damage, but most of it remains structurally sound. Plus, there's a good supply of emergency food and surgical gowns there. That's what most of the followers are wearing now-surgical gowns. They're simpler garments, so the Deacon says they're better."

Those revelations would prove ample grist for the next Future Society meeting, but Ron thought that the time had come to move on. "Okay then. What else can you tell us about the situation in Lapeer?" He decided not to reveal that Winter Campers had made several sojourns into the remains of the city. "Let him think we've been in hiding for a month," he thought. "It might attract attention away from this quest for Steve."

"Hold on. That information comes with a price tag."

"Fair enough," said John. "Do you prefer Jack Daniels or Absolut?"

"I'll have a Jack, thanks." Peterson watched closely as John broke the seal on the bottle.

John poured a shot of whiskey and watched as Peterson sipped it slowly, still unsure if it was safe. The second sip convinced him that his captors were on the level, and he finished off the rest in a single gulp. He exhaled deeply and began talking.

"There's another group of survivors in Lapeer. Kind of the remnants of a militia group. They're blowing a lot of stuff up in town."

Ron tried his best to look surprised, but Peterson wasn't paying attention to subtle facial expressions anyway. "Why in the world would they want to do that? Why destroy anything that could be a resource in these difficult times?" Dave and John remained composed-no significant expression was visible on either face. Dave left the interrogation room in anticipation of Mark Bollman's arrival-he felt it important to brief him on the course the questioning was taking.

He met Mark at the main entrance to Hilltop. "Ron's in there now talking to the first guy. We're getting confirmation of a lot of what Emily's already told us."

"Which faction are they with?"

"The Flock. There, he's been giving us some useful information. Turns out they're based at the hospital." Dave deliberately left off the more exotic details of the Deacon's plan.

"So what can I do?"

"Just sit in the back-they're in the bunkroom on the right-and listen. We need you to put together what he-and the rest of them-are saying with what we already know. Don't say anything unless you absolutely have to-we're letting Ron do all the talking."

"Are we at risk of another invasion?"

"It's hard to say just yet. I think we'll have to keep these guys with us for a long time-there seem to be serious unfriendlies in Lapeer, and they know too much about us now."

"Sounds like we're running a Roach Motel here-'People check in, but they don't check out.'."

Dave laughed in spite of his resolve to remain serious. "And on that note-see what you can do."

Mark entered the cabin and Dave stayed outside for a few moments. After his experience in Lapeer, and despite his outburst during the cake incident, he had come to regard the Ranch as a secure haven, but the recent developments had forced him out of that worldview. As he sat on the edge of a picnic table and stared out at the woods, he found himself mentally checking off security problems that needed fixing.

Tops on his list was resolving Steve's situation. He'd been gone 4 weeks, and there was no sign of him for good or for bad. "He looked like he was headed for Lapeer, but we stopped tracking him. We won't be able to pick up that track now, but we need to get back on the hunt," he said to himself.

Dave knew, though, that he could not be part of that quest. Only he and Ron among the Winter Campers knew that Peterson had shot Ron Atkins, and that information was too valuable to pass on to anyone else or to justify his leaving camp-no matter how worthy the cause. He knew he'd be willing to carry out his threat to Peterson to reveal his identity to Atkins, but he couldn't do that if he was on a search patrol.

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