After sunset, Tom assembled the men around the front porch. Once they’d finished straggling back from their chores, he called them closer to him.
“Earlier today we captured ourselves the first living outsider since the end of the world. Yes, he is a zed-eating mutant, but after considerable interrogation I discerned that this outsider is a skilled and experienced wilderness scout. He’s been all over the region, stalking zeds and feeding from his kills, for all this time. He knows where things we want, and things we need, are. He’s agreed to help us get them.”
Many of the younger men cheered, but the older men remained unmoved. Tom saw this, and he preempted the question.
“I know that he can be trusted because I have what he wants, and there is no way that he can get it without my approval. He has to cooperate, or he gets nothing.”
Again, the older men seemed unimpressed.
“Tom, just what is it that this freak wants?” one of them said.
“What he wants is not anything that any of you have, use or rely upon for anything; what he needs is not necessarily what we need, so trading with him costs us nothing.”
“Have it your way for now, Tom.” The older man said, “But all of us know damn well that you need us to keep this place going, and by now we know this place and the land around it as well as you do. You may’ve been the boss before the end of the world, but all that burned with the fires that killed that rotten society that you came from. You’ve not been in a position to treat us like this for years, and if you push us like this you’ll find out right quick just how little we need you.”
Tom felt a chill. Jane, Rick and Sally—all inside, but within earshot—shuddered. As for Ken, he too heard that threat, for he was also inside; turning away from the others, he grinned wickedly, as this is exactly what he expected to be Tom’s problem.
Tom looked directly at the older man. “Is that so?”
“You serve us, Tom. So long as you fulfill our needs and wants, and treat us right, you can go on being the man in charge. We’re not your employees, as we sure as Hell ain’t your serfs. You’re not the lord of the manor; you’re the major of a town, and we men are the voting public that decides who’s in and who’s out. We, not you, have the final say now. Your right to rule rests on our acceptance, and we don’t take kindly to you holding out on your treating with freaks like that zed-eater.”
Ken, hearing this, saw an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.
Softly, he went to Jane, Sally and rick and said “I’ll fix this.”
Ken stepped out on to the front porch, surprising the men gathered around the foot of the steps as well as Tom.
“You want women? I know where to get them.” Ken said, “There’s an enclave of them on the other side of the city; I know because the zeds of the city once raided their enclave and dragged many of them away.”
“Wait!” one of the younger man said, “They didn’t kill or eat them?”
Ken nodded affirmatively. “Now, I came upon those women while trailing the raiding party. The few left after the last raid asked me to help them, and being that I found it strange—as all of you did—that these zeds took living prisoners back towards the city, I accepted.”
Ken now stood before Tom, taking center stage.
“I sped through the wilds, stalking the raiders. They were a score in all, and they had a dozen women. Unlike other zeds, these had facemasks on, covering their mouths. One of them seemed to’ve a spark of intelligence to him.”
Ken paused, scanning the crowd, and saw that—despite some disbelief—they were attentive.
“I had but a knife and a hatchet—the same weapons that you men took from me—to do my work with, and I reduced them slowly. As chance allowed, I hacked and cut away zeds as lion culls the weak from the herd of gazelles.”
While some of the younger men didn’t catch his meaning—they seemed a bit young to remember what lions or gazelles were—the older men nodded, and that encouraged Ken to go on.
“Once I reduced the raiding party down to a dozen zeds, I took a big risk; seeing that they were nearing the Great Wall of the city, inside which the zed incidence is much higher, I decided that my best chance to rescue the women would be as they emerged from the forest near the wall. I deduced their path, ran ahead of them, and then executed an ambush.”
Tom, still taken back by Ken’s bold intervention, said only “How?”
“I used the hatchet to hack down some limbs and small trees. I used the knife to whittle the ends into points. With a suitable rock, I dug a few shallow pits. Then, remembering a trick that an uncle taught me from his days in the army, I used some of the stakes in the pits while finishing the rest to use as spears.”
Some of the older men nodded and whispered amongst themselves.
“The zeds came along. When some of them stumbled into the pits, driving stakes into their feet or legs, I struck! “ Ken said, demonstrating passionately as he spoke, “I cleft the skulls of those stuck in the pits, splattering brains, blood and bone. I shoved and pressed those not stuck either against a tree or to the ground and impaled them with a spear, then caved in their skulls also. Minutes into it, and the women ran for safety while I dealt with the one that seemed aware.”
Ken now saw, and felt, that everyone’s eyes and ears were upon him utterly.
“He wasn’t big, or particularly strong, but he moved as if he was alive and his eyes—still there—seemed so also. Yet, as the long-dried flesh made clear, he was dead. He pulled one of the spears out of a now-headless corpse and came at me. Carefully, I tested him, to see if he was all that he appeared to be, and he proved himself to be so quickly. I took away the spear, cut the tendons in his feet as if he were alive, pushed him over and impaled him to the earth. Fixed, I made to finish him, but then his lips moved and he spoke, raspy, to me.”
“It spoke?” one of the older men said.
“Yes!” Ken affected the raspy voice for emphasis, “He spoke, and this is what he said just before I drove my hatchet down and buried it up to the shaft into his dead skull.”
Again, playing the crowd, Ken paused as he moved like the odd zed at hand.
“The master sees you. He will not forget your face.”
Ken then acted as if he had a hatchet in hand, and made a swift and violent chopping move.
“Dead, again, I took my fill and rounded up the women.”
The younger men cheered. The older men nodded approvingly.
“I found them, all twelve of them, and explained what just happened. I guided them back to their homestead, and then I helped them all move to a new place- a place that no one but me, and those women that live there know exists, let alone how to find it.”
Tom recognized the opportunity before him.
“You see?” Tom said, “Have I treated poorly on your behalf?”
“Tom and I had a long talk.” Ken said, “He told me of your needs and wants. Yes, I know where those women are and how to get to them, and get you to them I shall- but first, there is something in the city that this community needs. Once that is done, then I shall take you to them.”
One of the men groaned.
“Again?” another said, “You’re going for that library again?”
Tom turned to the men. “Not just the library. Ken’s told me where we can find the parts and materials needed to get it together and running; we can grow the crops needed to make fuel.”
“You have tools here.” Ken said, “ You have some machines that you have the fuel to run. Those things break down, and I hear that you’ve exhausted all of the nearby supplies over these last 15 years. You also need to find ways to keep the more delicate things going, and I can tell you that most of the stores and caches elsewhere are either looted or rusted by now so you either make your own or do without.”
Tom nodded. “We get that book and those tools, and then we can make our own machine tools, leaving only materials left to search for. Need I remind you how dependent most of you are on your guns, and how hard ammunition is to find anymore? At the very least, we have to be able to maintain our guns and make our own ammunition.”
The men grumbled, but eventually stopped.
“All right, Tom.” one said, “What’s the plan?”
“Ken and I will lead a team into the city to find what we’re looking for, get it and get out again. I’m taking one of the radios, and the other stays here. Rick will have another team waiting here for our signal; when we’re ready, Rick’s team will come out and cover our return. Once that’s done and the follow-on tasks complete, Ken will lead another team—a smaller team—to the women’s location so we can make contact.”
“You men will split into three groups. One stays here at all times. One goes with Tom and I, while the third goes with Rick. Assignments will be allotted tomorrow morning.”
“That’s all. Night watch, get to stations. The rest of you, light’s out.”
The men dispersed, and once all were gone Ken and Tom went inside.
“You can thank me now, Tom.” Ken said, “You won’t lose face.”
Tom turned to Ken. “You’re quite the showman. Was anything of that true?”
“All of it.” Ken said, “The thing about this ruined world is that there’s no need for a man like me to lie. The truth itself is so fantastic that it can, and often does, beggar the imagination of those who hear it. Yes, there is a small community of women almost exactly at the opposite location of this home of yours. They survive by hiding well, as they have neither weapons nor fighting skills, and the only men they’ve seen—aside from me—are zeds. They want men. Your men want women. It shouldn’t be that hard to bring them here, especially since they’re living in caves right now.”
“Caves?!” Jane said, from the kitchen.
“Yes, caves. They fish from the river and gather from their nearby gardens. They’ve gotten very good at it over the years, and the caves that they live in now are very good for storing food over long periods of time since they have the means to do so.”
Sally sighed, relieved.
“Once those men out there set their eyes on those women, all of your present problems will evaporate like fog in the morning sun.”
“What about this ‘master’?” Rick said.
“Oh, him.” Ken said, “According to some of the others I’ve encountered, he call himself ‘The Necromancer’ and appears to have power over the zeds. The stories I’ve heard range wildly about what this guy can do, and none of them are pretty. What I know for certain is that deep in the heart of the city there is a new building--a ziggurat made of steel, glass, concrete, tar and plastic—that dwarfs all.”