Authors: Jf Perkins
Tags: #Science Fiction
Renewal 7 – When the Student is Ready
By J.F. Perkins
Copyright 2011 J.F. Perkins
Renewal 7 – When the Student is Ready
Chapter 7 – 1
Terry Shelton drove into the square in Manchester and found a circus. The normally empty courthouse lawn was covered with people, ordinary citizens in typical work clothing, and not a sad face among the crowd. Apparently Dusty’s propaganda was working. Terry honked Big Bertha’s air horn to make a path through the swarm. People in the street moved out of his way, barely, and stopped to stare at the big armored truck. Terry pulled in beside Dusty’s regular pickup truck and climbed out. Seth piled out the other side and walked around the front of the truck. If the ordinary citizens were excited by the imposing truck, it was nothing compared to Terry‘s amazement at the happy throng.
Dusty was heading their way, trailing a ragged line of people who were shouting questions over each other. If Terry had been born fifty years earlier, it would have reminded him of a ravenous gang of reporters. In this day and age, it was probably just the nosiest neighbors. Manchester had once been the source of a local newspaper, but it had never restarted after the Breakdown. Folks got their information by word of mouth, supplemented by an occasional public notice pinned to the board on the far side of the courthouse.
Dusty was tired, clearly. He had been at it since before eight in the morning and it was nearly noon when Seth and Terry arrived. He deftly took a break by announcing, “Hey folks! Here are two of the men who put the Judge and the Dragon in jail.”
Terry and Seth were immediately surrounded by the same pack of question-shouting people. Seth just smiled and let Terry handle the questions. His first comment was a sarcastic, “Thanks, Dusty.”
Dusty shrugged and grinned at his young friend, and ducked out of the mob to grab some lunch at one of the food counters on the north side of the square. Terry had no time to see where Dusty went, other than the strange fact that there were actual lines at the food counters, rather than the usual bored and lonely girls waiting for a customer. He was too busy trying to pull a single question from the babble. Finally, he turned to Seth and whispered in the big man’s ear.
Seth went from amiable wallflower to avenging god of wrath in a heartbeat. To the crowd, he simply expanded until he filled their view. He held out his arms for quiet, which he didn’t get. He bellowed, “People, PEOPLE!” The sound was so loud that the crowd was stunned into silence, and Terry literally felt the wind of its passage. “Terry will happily answer your questions, but you gotta be polite about it. Let the man hear his own thoughts.”
“Thanks, Seth,” Terry said over his shoulder.
“No problem, Buddy.” Seth looked quite pleased with himself.
“Ok, folks. I’m Terry Shelton, and this here is Seth Aker,” Terry said, throwing a thumb in the big man’s direction. “I’m happy to tell you anything I can. Help me out, and let’s take turns. You there... Stan, you first.”
“First off, where’d you get that truck?”
“We got it as a reward for rescuing state police officers from Nashville. We call her Big Bertha.” Terry made a sweeping gesture, introducing the truck like a friend.
“Was it bad in Nashville?”
“Not until we found the bad guys,” Terry replied, provoking a sprinkle of laughter in the crowd. “Seriously though, it’s pretty messed up, lots of wreckage and scorched ground, but it’s not very radioactive anymore. We didn’t see any zombies.” Another, louder round of laughter.
The questions went on and on. Terry took Bill’s advice and told them everything he knew, except for the inner details of the community, and most importantly, its location. Bill was hoping to hold that information until the last minute. It depended on how much the Jenkins family knew as to whether he could pull it off.
After almost an hour of constant talking, Terry understood why Dusty was worn out. Just talking that long was hard. His throat was dry and verging on sore, and his voice was getting rough. Being charming and funny made it even harder. He had made several broad hints that he was wrapping up his session, but new questions kept coming.
Terry was saved by the sound of new trucks approaching from the east. That was the direction to the Jenkins farm, at least by road, and Seth made the cautious conclusion. He leaped into the truck like the world’s biggest cat, and came out with two military rifles three seconds later. He handed one to Terry and set up with Big Bertha as cover over the highway entrance to the square. Terry moved to the front bumper and raised his rifle in the same direction.
The diesels grew louder. Terry saw Dusty scoot into the survey office and come out with a near twin to his own rifle. The crowd in the square began to realize that this could mean danger, and started moving in an aimless search for safety. They had lived under the gun for so long that it was never a matter of panic. It was more a fatalistic token effort to avoid being run over by brutal chance.
The first truck was a twin to Big Bertha. It was followed by two more of the same style and two flatbed trucks. Terry saw the State Attorney General, Charlie, waving from the passenger seat of the lead truck, and lowered his rifle. “It’s Charlie!”
Dusty looked at Terry and asked, “Charlie? Who the heck is Charlie?”
“He’s a friend. It’s ok.” Terry replied. “He’s the AG. We saved his son in Nashville.”
“Oh, that Charlie...” Dusty said.
“He’s bringing food, the aid supplies.”
“That’ll help when we start asking the hard questions,” Dusty said.
“That’s Bill’s plan.”
“How is it that you suddenly know more than me, Young Shelton?” Dusty asked with a sideways grin.
“Right place at the right time, I guess,” Terry said.
Charlie directed his trucks into a broad, side-by-side line on the wide north side of the square. They pulled up in turns and hissed to a stop. Charlie stayed in his seat until state police deployed from the vehicle. Terry knew that, with these officers, virtually the entire operational state police was here in Coffee County today. Terry walked over to Charlie’s truck, Seth right behind him. Dusty came along more cautiously. The people in the square were taking their cues from Terry, and the crowd noticeably relaxed, letting the festival atmosphere recover the mood.
Terry stepped up on the massive bumper of Charlie’s truck, swung his rifle over his shoulder on its strap, and held out his hands for quiet. This time, they stopped talking. “Folks, you know those aid shipments we’re supposed to get? The ones that Jenkins and the other families always steal and sell back to us? Well, things have changed. The State has agreed to handle the distribution of the shipments until we can get a real government working here, and this is the first shipment.”
The crowd struggled to comprehend what he was saying. They had never seen a free lunch – ever.
“Here to deliver the first food into your hands is the Tennessee State Attorney General, Charlie Bell!” Terry had to start the applause himself, since clapping was another nearly forgotten expression. There were few older people in the crowd who joined in, but most of the people simply waited to see what would happen next.
Charlie dropped from the tall seat of the truck and scrambled up on the bumper with Terry. He was a true politician. He gauged the crowd full of suspicious faces before he said a word. Terry intended to step down, giving Charlie the stage, but Charlie subtly held Terry’s arm, locking him in position.
“Folks, my name is Charlie Bell. I’m in charge of the law in Tennessee, and I know that doesn’t mean much these days. I came here for a number of good reasons today, but before I talk about that, I want to apologize to all you good people. Thanks to Terry and Seth, and some friends of theirs, we’ve learned about the terrible injustices going on down here in Manchester. That is my fault. I’m the one who takes responsibility for making sure that law and order and justice rule in our fine state, and for you good people, I have failed. I’d like to fix my mistake, starting today.”
The crowd listened politely. Charlie was thankful no one was shooting or throwing garbage. “It’s been a long hard road to recovery, not just here, or even in all of Tennessee, but everywhere that we have seen. Some folks have it bad. Some folks have it worse, and I’m sure there are places we know nothing about who have it worse than we can imagine. I’m not saying it’s been easy for you, or anybody, but I do say that every day I wake up and count every blessing I can name. Today, I’d like to say a public thank you to my friends in Coffee County. I’ll start right here with Terry Shelton, the youngest Reclamation Engineer in the entire state, and a key member of the team that not only rescued seventeen state police officers from the grip of some very bad men, but managed to capture their leader. He’s a purely evil man known as the Grand Dragon. He burned two good men to death. Seth Aker... Wave to the nice people, Big Man. Seth was part of the same team. I’ve heard it said that when the fight was over, Seth was the very man who tied the Dragon to the top of that truck over there,” Charlie said, getting into the rhythm now, “And drove him back into the arms of our state police where he awaits a public hanging in Murfreesboro.”
Terry caught the hitch in Charlie’s delivery at that point, and wondered what it meant. The crowd was finally starting to respond with a few cheers scattered across the square. They had never seen the Dragon or suffered his deeds, but the idea of capturing bad guys was good enough for some.
“Dusty Baer! Where are you? I see you hiding in the shade. Dusty is the senior Reclamation Engineer in this part of the state, and while he’s not known for killing bad men, he should be known for all his other good deeds. He’s an important man in two roles. I can see some nodding heads out there. I’ve been watching Dusty’s work for a long time, and I know he helps everyone he can. Dusty has another life, one you probably don’t know about. In that life, he is every bit as responsible for bringing the bad men of the world to justice as anyone.”
The cheering rose into real excitement through Dusty’s portion of Charlie’s speech. Terry was surprised. He had no idea that Dusty was so popular. Apparently Bill Carter did know. He gave Dusty the assignment of rallying the town for good reason.
“Which brings me to Jerry... Doan... Jenkins,” Charlie reported dramatically, with a look of disgust. “I don’t need to tell any of you who the Judge is. He is, in a nutshell, the man who has worked his entire life to keep you down, and to lift himself up by standing on you good people.”
The square was filled with booing and hissing.
“When the Judge was taken to be held accountable for all his crimes against the people of Coffee County, Dusty was there...” The boos shifted to cheers again. “Terry was there, and Big Seth was there.”
Charlie paused to let the noise fade, and gave Terry a nod to say it was ok to step down.
“Now, behind these good men, there is another good man, and a whole community of hardworking people under the leadership of this man. You probably don’t know him, but he knows you, and he’s been fighting for you for most of his life. His name is Bill Carter, and whether you believe it or not, he holds the key to your prosperity in his hands.”
Dead silence from the crowd.
“The Jenkins and the other families organized early after the Breakdown. That gave them a big advantage over the rest of us, who fought and scraped and starved in the beginning. They used that advantage to take the power over your lives, to stand on your backs and get richer while the rest of you barely held on. Bill Carter’s family got organized early too, but they did something different with their advantage. They took the best ideas from the old world, and worked until they built a community that shares the work and shares the rewards, a community that looks out for its people instead of using them to get richer.
Bill Carter took the Judge, and it goes without saying that the Jenkins and all their cronies will be out for revenge very soon. And it gets worse... The Judge and the Dragon had a talk in jail, and decided to team up to get the man who took them both. As we speak, the Dragon’s son is plotting against Bill Carter on the Jenkins farm, and when they decide to fight, they will be able to outnumber Bill Carter’s people by wide margin.
So, I ask you, good people of Coffee County. Do you want to spend the rest of your lives under the boot heel of rich families, or do you want the kind of life that Bill Carter believes you should have?”
The crowd burst into chaotic chatter, various groups shouting at others. Charlie held up his hands and waited. Finally they remembered he was there and settled into whispered arguments.
“It’s a real question, people, because for the first time in your lives, you have control over which way it goes. If you pick the wrong side, even if you sit back and do nothing, you may discover that you will die without ever having a real chance at life. If you get the call, think hard and make the right choice.”