It was a pretty substantial convoy. A troop of about thirty men in camouflage green uniforms mounted atop horses, all armed with M-16’s, escorted two humvees and a pair 2 ½ ton trucks, one with a covered cargo bed, the other a tanker, obviously for the fueling the other vehicles. The trucks weren’t that surprising. Even fifteen years after The Fall you could still find humvees operating. They were built to be tough, and could run on wood alcohol in a pinch. It was the men that caught Cleo’s eye though. They were a militia of some sort, that much was obvious. But they were cleaner than your average community militia, and the uniforms were, well, uniform. Nothing ragged, no more dirt and mud than could be expected after travelling along the old crumbling asphalt road that ran along the northern edge of New Hope. When the convoy stopped they formed up ranks in what looked like a well practiced drill, dismounting and holding their horses as they stood at the ready, their rifles held down politely.
“I count thirty,” Phil said beside her, lowering his field glasses. “Maybe ten more in the trucks. Think we can hold them off?”
Cleo tapped her teeth nervously. They had a hundred fighters in their little community, all armed with pistols and long arms, about a quarter of them drilling regularly. Organized enough to hold off the average bandit gang, sure. Organized enough to hold off people who acted like soldiers was another question. “They’re in range of the mortars,” she noted. Which were sighted, sure, but they didn’t have the ammo to test fire them more than once a year. “Jonjon got his pet 50 cal up yet?”
“I told him to stay under cover in the church tower. Might need him for close up, if they breach the gate.”
“Agreed,” she said. “I think we might be all right. They’re a mile away, right at the sign. A far stretch to go if they charged, even mounted.” The lead truck was parked right next to it actually, a neatly painted wooden sign that warned visitors to stay right where they were until they were invited to come forward.
Cleo raised her own binoculars as she saw movement by one of the humvees. A man was coming out, followed by another uniformed soldier, this one unarmed. The first fellow was skinny, blond haired, and my dear lord wearing khaki pants, a pressed white shirt and a neat black tie. “When was the last time you saw anybody in a tie?” she asked aloud.
“Not since that last speech by the President, before the networks went off the air,” Phil said, squinting into his own binoculars again. “If that guy came all this way to tell us about the Latter Day Saints, I’m gonna make him eat his copy of the Newsletter.”
“Haven’t heard a word about Utah in the past eight years,” Cleo noted. The fellow in the shirt and tie was waving a white flag. She waved back to him, and turned to Phil and said, “We’ll meet him halfway.”
“Armed?” Phil asked.
Cleo paused. “No,” she decided. “If it goes to hell, we won’t be able to outrun horses anyway.”
“Right.” They climbed down the catwalk to the steel front gate, slipping through the sally port, and walking up the dirt road leading to the old two lane asphalt, stopping right at the half mile point marked by a red painted pole.
When they stopped, the man in the tie cupped his hands by his mouth and shouted, “May we approach?”
“Yes! Two people only!” Cleo shouted back. “Unarmed!”
“Thank you, ma’am!” The man in the tie and the unarmed soldier approached, the latter holding a large stainless steel briefcase in his hand. As they got closer, Cleo could see the blond fellow was in his mid twenties, the soldier perhaps in his thirties. One too young to remember life before The Fall, one just old enough to have grown up in the aftermath. A survivor, she guessed. Even unarmed she wouldn’t underestimate him. The pair stopped stopped ten feet away from her and Phil, keeping a polite distance. “Good morning, ma’am, sir,” the blond fellow said, giving them a polite nod of his head. “I’m Thomas Kincaid, and this is Lt. Bill Silvers. May I know your names?”
“Mayor Cleo Jackson,” she answered. “And this is Phil Ng, my deputy mayor.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mayor Jackson, Mister Ng” Kincaid said. “Um, if it isn’t an intrusion, may I ask system of governance y’all have here?”
“Elected mayors, serving five years terms. No one can serve consecutive terms, but a mayor may run again after their successor comes to the end of their own term. I’m serving my second,” Cleo answered. “We’ve also got four elected town councilors, and four appointed, representing Farming, Defense, Health and Safety, and Maintenance.”
“Sounds very sensible,” Kincaid said. “What’s your definition of a voter?”
“Anyone over the age of sixteen who isn’t doing community service.”
“And what’s your definition of local justice?”
Cleo cocked her head at the neat young man. “Son, where is this going?”
Kincaid made an apologetic gesture. “Please indulge me, Mayor Jackson. I’ll admit it’s important to my presentation.”
“Folks who commit minor crimes, like personal theft, falling asleep on watch, breaking something important out of stupidity, or starting a fight, get community service. Persistent idiots who don’t learn, break something important out of malice, or hurt someone seriously, get exile. Rape, murder, or betrayal of New Hope to bandits get hanged,” she said flatly.
Kincaid nodded, looking unsurprised. “You get many hangings?”
“Not for six years,” Cleo said. “Most of the idiots have gone to greener pastures, or gotten kicked in that direction.”
“Thank you, Mayor Jackson. That fits with what we’ve been able to learn about New Hope from traders like the Faradays.” The Faraday family being the most regular traders coming the little community, perhaps three times a year.
“Who is ‘we’, Mr. Kincaid, and who are you?” Cleo asked pointedly.
“I’m the Deputy Community Outreach Administrator for the Union of the Western United States,” the young man answered. “Have you heard of us?”
“Vaguely. Some big outfit out west of the MIssissippi,” Cleo said. “What I see is a young man with an impressive title, and lots of boys behind him with guns. So I’m assuming you want to start collecting taxes.” New Hope had gotten “tax collectors” visiting before, and had always driven them off. Of course most hadn’t been as well-armed as this little group.
“No, actually,” Kincaid said.
Cleo blinked. “Sorry?”
“The Union isn’t interested in collecting taxes from communities like yours, Madame Mayor. New Hope looks like it’s prospering, but we both know that can change fast. One bad growing season, maybe two if you’ve been careful with your reserves, could destroy everything you’ve built here. So could an outbreak of influenza, or cholera. The Union doesn’t want to take from you, we want to give.”
“Give what?” Phil asked.
Kincaid made a brief gesture, and Lt. Silvers lifted up the aluminum case, unfolding a set of legs underneath it and opening it up. Ten vials of pills sat in two neat rows in the padded interior. “Penicillin,” he replied. “Manufactured less than thirty days ago in the Union pharmaceutical labs in Austin.” His voice grew earnest. “How many people have you lost to an infection, a scratch, that could have been so easily treated prior to The Fall?”
“Too many,” Cleo murmured, still looking at the little vials. They couldn’t be real, they couldn’t.
“There’s more medicine in the trucks,” Kincaid went on. “Insulin, heart medication, others. Nothing particularly sophisticated I’ll admit. It’s going to be at least a decade before we can suppress AIDS again for example, but we have the basics already. We also brought along a refrigeration unit with enough solar cells and batteries to keep it running, so the medications stay fresh. Just tell us what you need and we’ll bring them to you. If you’ve got a doctor we can even provide anesthesia, so they can perform operations without doping the patient with alcohol.”
“We’ve got a doctor,” Cleo said. Doc Razu was seventy-five, nearly blind, and desperately trying to teach his skills to the younger generation of New Hopers that wanted to learn. If they can make drugs, they must be training doctors.
“Do you need another one?” Kincaid asked, making her wonder if he was telepathic or something. “We have ones that are willing to travel in return for their schooling. We even have transportable surgical units for sophisticated operations.”
“Your very generous,” Phil noted laconically. “You doing this all out of the goodness of your heart?”
“Just because civilization took a nosedive for a couple of decades doesn’t mean charity died, sir,” Silvers said, speaking up for the first time. “I remember how things were, when The Fall came. The people that survived did so because they were willing to work together and support each other. The idiots riding things out in their personal play bunkers were left out in the cold.”
“You’ve built a community here,” Kincaid went on. “It’s held together for fifteen years. With just a little help it can grow.” The boy’s face practically glowing with the earnestness of a True Believer, if Cleo was any judge.
“Charity or not, I think you want something out of this,” Cleo said.
“Yes, we do,” Kincaid finally admitted. “I’d like two people from New Hope to come back with us to New Columbia, chosen by however you do things around here. Two people who understand your community’s needs intimately, and are able to explain those needs to strangers. Two people who can look at what the Union is trying to accomplish, and report back to you and your town council, Mayor Jackson. They’ll each have a vote in the House of Representatives, so you can participate in the Union’s government.”
“You seem to have things planned out pretty well,” Cleo noted, trying to suppress the urge to grab the medicines in that case and go running back to town, shouting You have to see this!
“It took a while to put things together, but the Union is expanding,” Kincaid said. “We can defend our borders, we can feed and clothe our people, and we can afford to be generous. We don’t want to make the mistakes the old USA did. We want the Union to grow through cooperation, not bloodshed.”
“What if we say no?” Phil asked, folding his arms across chest.
“Then we’ll respect that, and move on to the next town,” Kincaid. “I’m not going to say we won’t try to persuade you again with a different set of goodies, but we won’t do it with guns. Those guys,” he pointed back towards the soldiers, “are for protection against bandits, not conquest.”
“I have to bring this before the council,” Cleo said cautiously.
Kincaid nodded. “We can wait here a few days, while you make your decision.” He gestured to Lt. Silvers, who closed up the case and offered it to Cleo. “Take this with you. Whether your decision is yes or no, consider it a peace offering.”
She chuckled. “You know damn well it’s going to be yes.”
“I’ve been told no before,” he admitted.
“Not today, I don’t think.” Cleo took the case and started walking back towards town, where a crowd had gathered atop the wall to watch the show. Penicillin, no one has to die from a cut anymore, she thought. We don’t have to be alone.