The medical trailer was a mess of gore.
The infected that Lee had brained with the microscope had not been removed but simply pushed to the side, like a pile of dirty laundry. A dark stain ran from the coagulated pool where the creature had first fallen to where it had been shoved aside. It lay up against the wall now, half on its side, half leaning on the wall, with one dead arm slung limply over its face. Lee could still see those blank eyes, as lifeless as a doll’s, staring up at the ceiling.
Doc had used Lee’s cot to conduct the operation, amputating Kara’s arm in a futile attempt to save her life. No anesthetic. No blood transfusions. Not even a real operating table. Just a dirty cot draped with thin plastic sheeting, now streaked and dappled with blood.
Outside, the sound of grief was like fingernails on a chalkboard to Lee. The weeping of families always made him feel strange and tense, and he thought of Afghani mothers pulling their limp children out of the ruins of a hut that a misguided JDAM had nearly disintegrated. Bus and Harper were with the people as they groaned and wept for another one lost. Not the first. Certainly not the last. But another one.
Only Doc remained in the tent. The younger man sat on a crate at the table where all his medical equipment lay, his scraggly brown hair hanging over his face. He stared straight ahead, perhaps at his bloody hands that lay like dead things on the table, or perhaps simply at the wall.
The sounds of grieving began to move away from the medical trailer. Lee took a few steps over to the table where Doc sat and put a hand on his shoulder. The skinny medical student cringed and shrugged it off.
“Wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” he shook his head slowly. “It wasn’t.”
Lee didn’t immediately respond. He felt awkward, like a bull tiptoeing through the proverbial china shop. Finally he decided to forgo the platitudes and stick to the facts. “Doc, you’re barely even equipped to stitch someone up after a bad fall, let alone perform major surgery. It had to be done, and you were the one that had to do it. No one blames you that it didn’t turn out well. It’s just the way that one went.”
Doc’s head tilted back and a strange, humorless chuckle escaped him. He met Lee’s gaze and there was something intense and disturbing in it. Something that immediately made Lee uncomfortable. “You don’t get it, man. It’s my fault. And they will blame me. Maybe not now, but they will. They will eventually blame me.”
Lee opened his mouth to speak, but a heavy hand fell on his shoulder.
He was preparing to turn and address the person, but then the hand was suddenly pressing down on him and spinning him around. Lee had just enough time to see the incoming haymaker and throw his left arm up to block. His arm absorbed most of the blow but whoever the hell it was had thrown their body into it and the fist still bounced off the side of his head, causing him to stumble.
Subconsciously, Lee’s feet spread wide and his elbows tucked in. He didn’t register the face, only the dark, aggressive shape, narrow slits of eyes, and a grimacing face broadcasting the next blow, this one a stiff right uppercut aimed at his solar plexus. Even as he saw the incoming strike, Lee’s mind raced, trying to explain what was happening. It couldn’t be an infected--it displayed too much control. But why would anyone in the camp want to hurt him?
Was it one of Milo’s men?
Lee pivoted to avoid the blow, but it still caught him in the side and had enough steam behind it to send a bolt of pain into his ribs. Lee managed to trap the arm against his side and held it tight. His attacker tugged back, attempting to free himself. Lee got low and sent a swift knee into the side of his attacker’s thigh, crunching the common peroneal nerve and toppling his attacker almost immediately.
Lee went down with him, still holding his attacker’s arm. He cocked his free hand back and was ready to deliver a hammer blow to the larynx and end the fight instantly when he took a breath and looked down, only to find a kid staring back up at him. Maybe a little more than a kid. But definitely less than a man.
Lee stopped himself.
The moment seemed to stretch awkwardly as he stared, shocked, at the eyes of his attacker and saw nothing but pure loathing. The only thought circling in Lee’s head came tumbling out of his mouth: “What the fuck’s wrong with you?”
There was shouting and Lee realized he was surrounded by a crowd that had poured in through the mouth of the medical trailer during the brief struggle. The shouting had a distinct sound to it that told him the crowd was not on his side.
A voice broke through the background noise: “Get off my son!”
Lee looked up in time to see a boot catch him in the shoulder and shove him backwards. Lee didn’t resist the force, but rolled with it. He felt the cold steel floor across his back and then white fire from his stitches. He winced as he recovered and got his knees back under him.
More shouts: “Did you see what he did?”
“He’s one of them!”
“He let those fuckers in!”
Are they talking about me?
Then Doc’s voice, stressed and high-pitched above the others: “Would everyone get the fuck out of my trailer! Get the fuck out! OUT!”
Lee fought off the blazing pain in his back and focused. In front of him he could see Doc’s back, his arms spread wide. They swooped rapidly back and forth as though the crowd that had gathered were a flock of birds that might be shooed away. Over the tops of Doc’s shoulders Lee caught the stares of several people and he didn’t like what he saw.
The man that Lee had earlier identified as Kara’s father stepped forward quickly and pulled the kid up off the ground. Get off my son, he’d yelled. Which meant that Lee’s attacker was Kara’s brother.
They were all family.
The crowd absorbed Kara’s father and brother as they backpedaled, all eyes still on Lee while Doc raved at them to get out. Watching those people stare at him, Lee thought that he had never felt so abundantly alienated, so obviously on the outside. Did they truly blame him for what had happened? Was it just because he was a stranger to them? Or was there something else that he was missing?
Bus made his way through the gathered people like a ship’s bow cutting through water. He did not look happy. Nearly a head taller than everyone else, Lee could see his eyes glaring from underneath furrowed brows.
“What the hell is all this about?” He shouted.
Lee wasn’t sure whether the question was directed at him or the hostile crowd. The big man now stood between Lee and the crowd, with both arms stretched out as though he were holding the two parties away from each other by the sheer force of his will.
Kara’s father stepped out of the crowd, but didn’t try to get past Bus. He just pointed one finger at Lee and began shouting. “He’s with Milo! He’s gotta be! We heard about the breach in the fence! He did it! It had to be him!” Spittle flew from his mouth as he screamed, his cheeks and forehead becoming red with rage.
Lee could tell that Bus hadn’t expected that. He stood there, looking taken aback.
Doc sounded like he was on the edge of panic. “I don’t know what you’re fucking talking about. The captain has been in the medical trailer all night.”
Kara’s father--Steve, wasn’t it?--directed his ire at Doc. “How do you know he was here? You were in the Ryder building for almost an hour. He could have done it then.”
Bus tried stepping in. “Steve, this is ridiculous...”
“Ridiculous?” Steve shouted. “Ridiculous that I don’t want to trust the guy that just got here? Is it so crazy what I’m saying? Have we ever had a breach like that in our fences before? Someone cut that shit--Miller said so himself. And here we are, harboring strangers. So who do you think did it, Bus? One of us?”
Bus floundered for a moment. He could say that it was Milo’s men that cut the fence, but Steve and his supporters obviously believed that Lee had allied himself with Milo. It was also clear that they were so incensed at this moment, nothing Bus could say would sway their opinion. He needed time to let the people calm down. And he needed Lee to speak with them. If Lee could speak with them, he could convince them, just like he’d convinced Bus.
Forced to ride the fence, Bus nodded curtly. “Okay. Everybody out. Let me handle this.”
“How are you going to handle it?” Steve demanded.
“Steve,” Bus said with a quiet warning in his voice. “You know me. You know you can trust me. Now go. Let me handle this.”
Steve seemed to consider the words as he stared at Lee with barely controlled anger. His fists, balled at his side, his lips a thin gash across his face, tears welling up in his eyes. But eventually he nodded to Bus, and he turned away from them.
The hostile grumble of the crowd died to a low murmur as everyone followed Steve out of the trailer. Lee stood up, feeling weakness in the muscles along his spine and then a brief chill washed over him that stung at the wounds on his back and then quieted. The two men faced each other a few feet apart, and Lee waited.
“Are you okay?” Bus spoke quietly and for the first time Lee sensed the complicated depth of the relationship between Bus and the people of Camp Ryder. The strong man, yes. The figurehead, yes. Their brave spokesman, yes. But he was not in control in a situation like this. When fear was the dominate emotion, he issued orders and people listened, because fearful people need a leader. But when anger took over, the mob became more powerful, and the leader became just a mouthpiece.
Lee nodded slowly. “I’m assuming that was Kara’s family.”
“Yes.” There was a long silence, in which Bus looked deep in mental calculations. After a moment, he looked to Doc. “How long until his stitches heal?”
Doc, flustered and sweating now, raked a finger through is natty hair. “Uh...Six weeks until I take them out.”
“How long until he’s healed enough to go out?”
Doc looked at Lee, his jaw muscles bulging and a vein beginning to stand out under his left eye. “Probably a week before I could be sure the wounds won’t get infected. But they won’t be properly healed and they could tear open and renew the chance for infection.”
Bus let a slow, deep breath hiss through his teeth. “Captain, is there any proof you can give me that you aren’t with Milo’s men?”
Lee’s stomach dropped.
Was this for real? Were they all serious about this? An hour ago, he was their friend, and now they were accusing him of being a spy for Milo? It bordered on absurdity. But as absurd as he thought it was, he had no way to refute it. No way but to simply deny the charges. “No. I don’t have any proof. Just my word.”
“Okay. We’ll figure something out.” Then Bus turned. “Miller! Harper!”
The two men appeared suddenly out of the crowd, appearing red faced and uncomfortable. They walked awkwardly into the medical trailer, flanking Bus. Miller on the right, Harper on the left.
Lee tensed. He eyeballed the two men, finding himself evaluating them as he would an enemy combatant. He did not want to harm these people, but if it came down to violence, he intended to be the one walking away. Harper looked mean but Lee was confident in his earlier assessment of the man. As hard-assed as Harper had become, he’d still led a cushy life prior to the collapse of society. Lee could probably overpower him easily. Miller posed a bit more of a problem. He looked like he enjoyed a fight and had the look of someone that got into his fair share of them. While he might not have any formal training, experience was more important. Lee hedged his bets that Miller was a stand-up fighter. He would need to take his legs out.
Bus looked at Lee, but spoke to his men. “Watch the captain while Doc tends to him.” Bus swiped a quick hand across his brow. “I’m sorry, captain. But I don’t think you should leave the trailer for right now.”
Lee’s shoulders pinched up slightly. “Am I being arrested?”
His eyes traveled back and forth between Bus, Harper, and Miller. None of them had an answer for him, because it was the truth, but they didn’t want to admit it. He was being arrested. He had come to Camp Ryder and promised them supplies and assistance, and rather than accept his help, they were holding him in a trailer against his will.
Looking the gift-horse in the mouth.
Lee had the urge to tell them to go fuck themselves. He could make a break for it, still in possession of the GPS. He could continue his mission with another group, one less paranoid and less hostile. But the nagging thought occurred to him: what if there’s no one else?
And what about Angela and Abby and Sam?
And what about the mission?
He had to focus on the mission.
In this surreal situation, the concept of the mission was, for once, a comfort. It grounded him and gave him a sense of the big picture. This was not personal, it was business, and his business was the completion of his mission. This was a community that he could render aid to, a community that eventually could not only provide stability in the region, but a waypoint for him to base further operations out of. This was the first step.
But he had to earn their trust.
It would not be given.
The only alternative was to abandon them. If he abandoned them they would conclude that they had been right about him all along. Their group of survivors would either whither and die, or eventually Lee would have to deal with them again. And they would be much harder to convince the next time around.
If Camp Ryder was going to be an asset to him, it was now or never.
Lee stood up and very slowly raised his right hand. With his left, he pulled up the smiley-face t-shirt, exposing the small pocket pistol he’d stuck in his waistband. He watched them all stare at the pistol, even some of the people outside. The implication Lee made was obvious. A guilty man, someone spying for Milo, would have kept the weapon so he could later escape with it. Instead he was choosing to cooperate.
Lee nodded to Harper. “Go ahead.”
Harper glanced up at Lee’s face, his eyes sharp as arrowheads.
Lee thought that maybe Harper would get some sort of satisfaction from this, considering he had not been a fan of Lee’s to begin with, but he did not appear to be enjoying himself. In fact, he looked even more miserable than usual.
“Miller,” Harper spoke quietly. “Take the gun from Captain Harden, please.”
Miller stepped forward cautiously. Lee could see that Miller was at odds with himself. Part of him wanted to believe in his friends and family, that Lee was the enemy, that the untrustworthy outsider had been the cause of all this great misfortune. The other part of him knew that this was wrong, that Lee was there to help.
A third part was just scared that Lee was going to snap his neck if he got to close.
But Lee remained as frozen as though he were sculpted of marble. Miller stepped forward slowly, his eyes meeting Lee’s, and in them Lee could see a silent apology. He plucked the gun from Lee’s midsection.
Someone from the crowd yelled, “What about that thing in his pocket?”
And another, “Yeah, take it away from him!”
Miller and Lee both glanced down at his right front pocket and the handheld GPS unit bulging awkwardly from the athletic shorts.
Miller didn’t move for it. He looked at Lee as though asking permission.
Lee shook his head slightly and said, “Don’t.”
The younger man nodded and retreated.
There was a disapproving grumble from the crowd and Bus spun on them. “That is his personal property and we won’t be taking it from him. He’s been detained based on your accusations but we’re not treating him like some common criminal.”
The gathering remained silent this time.
Bus turned to Doc. “See to him, Doc.” Then to Lee, “I am truly sorry, Captain. But the situation being what it is, you may have very limited time to recover. I think you may have to produce what you promised sooner than either of us expected.”