The Turned – Chapter 4

Sarah left her house as soon as the sun was up.  She wore a grey cloak, loose fitting clothes underneath, and kept her hood up.  She didn’t want to look like she was hiding- that would attract attention, which was precisely what she didn’t want.  She made her way at a steady pace, not racing but not wasting time.  She knew Brogan would be in his office early, but wouldn’t have found an excuse to start drinking yet.

A few people were out early today, but not as many as usual.  The Turned had made more noise than usual the night before.  This wasn’t uncommon, but it still gave many people an excuse to sleep a little later.  Many of the people here would be going to work on the farms, anyway.  The preparations for harvest meant lots of work, and people needed all the spare money they could get- even if most of it would get taken right back in taxes.

She shook her head, angrily trying to get her mind back on track.  If she allowed herself to get angry this morning, Brogan would just kick her out.  She needed to be respectful, even where that respect was least deserved.  If she let her mind wander off into thoughts about the Cartersons, and how they ran the city they said they owned, she would be furious by the time she got halfway there.  She approached the square, stepped up onto the wooden planks that served as a sidewalk, and made her way around the outside edge.

The wooden walk formed a rough square, 50 meters across, and was two steps higher than the dirt and gravel of the town square itself.  The walk served the offices of most of the city’s important people; the Cartersons themselves were rarely down here, but the many departments run by their relatives, friends and cronies were made easy to find.  Whether these departments really did any good or not, it was important for them to seem accessible.

A pair of militia gave her a cursory glance as she passed, then turned away and continued their grumbling.  Her relief at being left alone made her steps a little lighter; her greatest concern about wearing anything even halfway flattering was the attention she’d get from the militia- the invasive kind of attention that often got women hurt or killed around here.  She was four doors from her destination when she noticed a pair of men step off the sidewalk on the other side of the square, dressed in better armor than the normal militia wore.  She stopped where she was, looking at them curiously.  They were larger than most others, and the swords they each carried on their backs were oversized as well.  As a general rule, people who expected to fight the Turned carried an axe, not a sword.  Swords were harder to make properly, and while they would make a magnificent slash through flesh, that wouldn’t slow down the Turned.  Axes, on the other hand, were made expressly for chopping things. A large sword, such as the ones these two carried, could potentially, be used against the Turned, but they were meant for use against living people.  They each carried a helmet under one arm, on the lookout for trouble but not really expecting it.  They glared around the square for a few moments, their trained eyes locking on every person, one at a time, and deciding if they were a threat.  One of them stared across at her for a long moment before his eyes moved on.

Then she saw Gina Carterson step up onto the sidewalk behind them, wearing one of her signature silk dresses- electric blue this time.  Her dark hair hung in a long braid behind her, and her sharp eyes darted around the square before she moved.  A third bodyguard was right next to her, outfitted just the same as the other two.  She stalked past the offices, seeking one in particular, then ducked inside.  She apparently wanted to be out in plain sight as little as possible – not that she cared to be around the lowly citizens, Sarah thought to herself.  She looked nervous.

Sarah shrugged, then walked the last few paces to Brogan’s office door.  It was unlocked, and she went inside quietly.  The front room had a warped wooden bench running its perimeter, and many windows looking out over the square.  There were two more doors, each open and each looking into another office.  Brogan was sitting at his desk inside of one of them, shuffling through reports and documents, trying to make sense of the endless mess on his desktop.  He was about as average a man as she had ever seen- a plain face with soft green eyes, hair left to grow long, but not past his shoulders, a beard that would have been called stubble the day before, and dressed in plain browns and greys.  He looked up from his paperwork, then took a deep breath.

“Come on in, Sarah,” he said, waving her toward the chair that faced his desk.

“Good morning, Brogan,” she replied, taking a seat and pushing back her hood.

“I take it your father hasn’t checked in with you, either,” he said, knowing the reason for her visit.

She shook her head.  “Is there anything else you can tell me?  I could go looking for him if I knew where to start.”

She had expected the same old, stock answer he’d given her the past two days, but this time he surprised her.  “Well, now, something did come up.”

He set down the stack of reports he’d been riffling through, then lifted a pair of heavily-bound books and slid a single page out from beneath them.  He glanced at it again, then leaned back in his chair.  “Turns out that Marion came back.  He said they found something.”

She kept her face neutral, but it took some effort.  Marion was the youngest of the team, an excitable young man that her father often used as a messenger.  He often came back from the missions early to request more help or equipment.  Sarah waited for Brogan to continue.  He took his time, watching her for a reaction.

“They did locate the bunker that your father had found on his last trip, and this time had gone inside.  Marion wasn’t sure what it is your father had found down there, but apparently he and Trent were very excited.  The message Marion carried back asked for a large team of carriers, to meet him in…” he glanced at his report again.  “Red Hill.  He said that village was small, but close enough for them to get to the site and back during the day.  He wanted three wagons, said they could fill them completely with whatever it is they’d found.”

After a moment’s silence, he put the report back on his desk.  Her face remained neutral.  “Are you going to send them?” She eventually asked.

He shook his head.  “I’ve already sent the request up the chain, and been denied.  For those kind of resources, they need proof that it’s worthwhile.”

“That figures,” she muttered.

His face became stern.  “You know how it is, Sarah.  We don’t control the use of those things- and you know I certainly don’t.  It’s not our place to decide whose needs are more important.”  He paused.  “They’ve authorized a team to go find him, and report back.  Surprisingly, they were issued horses, but I think Mr. Casper is going on this trip.”

She fought the urge to snort at the mention of Casper Terreth’s name.  A cousin of the Carterson family, he was born into privilege, and had a good amount of influence even if he was denied real power.  He was also living under the illusion that every good-looking woman in town owed him their virginity.

“You know, he came to visit me not long ago, asking about you,” Brogan went on.  Her eyes snapped up, but she didn’t respond.  She had encountered Casper directly a few weeks earlier, and brushed aside his attention.  It had been in the back of her head that he’d had a hand in recent events, but it had never been said.

“He was real interested in you.  You know, given that you and your dad have been scraping by, you might be able to do yourself a favor.”  Brogan’s eyes had an odd look in them, one that Sarah hadn’t seen before.  “He’s mentioned to me that he’s about ready to settle down, if he can just find the right woman to settle with.”

She paused for a moment before saying what was on her mind.  “Is that what this is all about?”

Brogan didn’t answer; he merely looked back at her, impassively.

“My father requested twenty people to return to that bunker, but didn’t even get half that.  And this despite his discovery of a bunker that was obviously built by the ancients, and could have any number of useful things in it.  He told me that we had to be patient with the people in charge, that they’d see to reason eventually, but I have a different notion.”  She kept her voice even, not letting emotion creep in no matter how hard it tried.  “I believe that someone in the family wants to have credit for the find, so they don’t have to share it with us.  Perhaps that is the reason Casper is leading the team to locate them?”

“That’s always possible, I suppose, but if you go spreading that rumor around you’re going to find yourself in a lot more trouble than even Casper can make for you.”  He held up his report again, turning it around for her to see.  “This has Mr. Donovan’s signature on it – so it was Mrs. Gina Carterson’s own clerk who took official record of this report, not just me and my boss.”  He jerked his head toward the other, empty, office.  “Can you work that out in your head?”

Her gaze went down to the floor.  Now she was certain she knew what was happening…  Her father’s discovery had gotten the attention of the ruling family, and they wanted it all for themselves.  Whatever it was they found, it certainly wouldn’t be shared.  She stood, slowly enough that she wouldn’t seem too discourteous, then turned and walked toward the outer door.

“You know, Sarah,” Brogan called after her.  “It may not be a bad idea to ask Casper if you can go along with him.”  She turned, and he was smiling.  “May go a long way to help your situation.”

She turned away, and had to fight the urge to slam the door behind her.

*****

Marion shifted in his chair, uncomfortable in the present company. He’d seen each of them before – the city wasn’t so big that people didn’t know everyone else – but he’d heard stories of people disappearing after meetings like these.  Donovan was the one who made him most nervous – a small, slight man with no hair on his head, wearing dark grey pants and a red shirt.  He felt the man’s gaze penetrate him no matter where in the room he stood.  Marion had watched the man pace around the room as he spoke, asking for clarification on several parts of the report.

But Gina Carterson’s presence was the most disturbing.  Being in the presence of her attack dog was bad enough, but it was worse to see the hand holding the leash.  She sat in her high-backed chair, watching him, almost like a statue that occasionally turned its head.  Marion wasn’t even sure she was drawing breath, she sat so still.

“Now, this paper you brought back with you,” Donovan was saying, “has a lot of interesting things on it.  Many pictures, and descriptions of some fascinating things.”

Marion nodded.  “I don’t read, sir, but the team was sure excited about it.”

“Did you look at the pictures?”

He nodded.  “Yes, but I couldn’t make sense of them.  Darren understood them, mostly, and he told me what some of the pictures were.”

Donovan looked at him, quietly waiting for him to continue.

“He said they were plans for building things – things that would make blocks out of stone, if you mixed up the right things.  Some of the other pictures showed a person how to stack the blocks together, attach them so that they became a wall.”

“And Darren was interested in this, was he?”

Marion nodded.  “He thought this stuff could be used to make a perimeter wall that would be real hard for the Turned to break – maybe impossible.  He was talking about all kinds of ideas, like building homes out of it or shelters in case the perimeters fail.  He thought the walls would be great for some of the smaller villages, especially when they get attacked by the Believers or something.”

Donovan nodded.  “Now, we haven’t heard from him in a few days, and then you come back alone.”  He paused.  “An old-timer bunker like this could have a lot of valuable stuff in it… and if you were able to lay claim to it, that could make you a wealthy man.”

Marion tried hard not to shake.  “They sent me back to get help.  I didn’t bring anything back with me, and I’m not even sure I can find my way back there.”

Donovan smiled.  “Well, all the same, you will accompany the next team to go looking for Darren and the bunker.  Casper Terreth is going to be leading you this time.  This should be a much more productive trip.  We know the general area around the site, and I’m sure that once you’re close, you’ll be able to find it again.”

Back and forth – from accusations to confidence.  Marion knew just enough to know he was being kept off-balance on purpose.  He’d had no idea what to expect when he returned from this trip, and that was what they wanted.  If Terreth was leading the trip, then the Carterson family would be taking whatever prize the trip would yield, and he would be lucky if he was acknowledged to have been along for the ride.

“All right, Marion, I think we’re done,” Donovan said after a pause, motioning for Marion to stand.  “You’ll receive notice when the team will be leaving, so spend some time relaxing.  I’m guessing you’ll have a day or two.  This is something we want to move on quickly.  And I must stress how important it is that you keep this information quiet.  People get excited easily around here, and rumors of a bunker holding ancient treasures could have people running off into the wild to get eaten.”

Marion nodded, then left the room as quickly as he politely could.  His relief on being back on the street was obvious to anyone who was passing by.

*****

Gina stood when the young man left the room, and paced around slowly. She was silent at first, and Donovan did not interrupt her thoughts.  He merely waited, looking over his own notes and organizing his own advice to her.

Soon she stopped, and turned to face him from the far end of the room.  “Your thoughts, Donovan?”

“Quite simple, ma’am.”  He set down his notes, and stood.  “If the technology Marion describes can be made to work, it can mean a great deal more security for our city.  It could also be very helpful in protecting the nearby villages from the Turned.  If we let them know we can provide such a service, they could be heavily in our debt.  And if this stuff works as well as it sounds, we could name our price- up to and including government and taxation.”  He paused, and as he did, she resumed her pacing.  “The only trouble that I can see with it is this; we need to make certain that this benefit can be taken away if we see the need.”

She nodded.  “My thought exactly.  This is merely another construction system, and like any other it must have its weakness.  We must find it.  But more important than anything else, we have to make sure that we have complete control over it.  We have to be the only ones who understand it, the only ones who can implement it.  Make that clear to Casper when you brief him.”

Donovan nodded.  “He’ll understand.  I wouldn’t have recommended him if I wasn’t confident in him.”

She smiled in agreement.  “Casper is a good boy.  But he is a little to friendly with people, and he may not have the spine to see this through.”

Donovan paused for a moment, making sure he understood her meaning.  “Do you intend for Casper to be the only one who returns from this trip?  If that is the case, perhaps we should arrange something for their return, just outside the city, and leave Casper out of that aspect.”

She shook her head.  “I’m not certain it will be necessary, at least not yet.  But we do need to make sure that the team, whoever returns from this trip, either does not understand what they have, or does not return.”

“It’s a difficult selection,” Donovan continued for her.  “We need people who will be smart enough to be useful on the trip, but not so much that they can make personal use of what they find.”  He took a breath, then said, “There is another aspect of this mission that at least should be discussed.  Darren’s daughter will certainly want to go looking for him – whether on this mission, or on her own.  We may be able to make use of her.”

“That little girl?” Gina chuckled, darkly.  “She’s a troublemaker, and if we can use this as an opportunity to rid ourselves of her, so much the better.  Perhaps she’ll find someplace else to live while she’s out there looking for her father.”  She continued pacing, folding her arms in front of her.  “Casper was interested in her, was he not?”

Donovan nodded.  “In passing, at least.  Apparently his advances were not well received.”

“I’d like to see Casper happily married, but I’d prefer she cool her heels first,” she replied.  “Bringing someone with her opinions into the family could be an invitation to trouble.”

“An invitation to trouble, or perhaps a way to calm her ourselves,” Donovan said, thinking aloud.  “Perhaps if she was elevated to a higher station, she wouldn’t harbor such harsh feelings about us.  If she saw more clearly what we do for the people of Carter’s Hill, how well we provide for them, perhaps it would turn her opinions around.”

“Perhaps.”  Gina continued pacing.  “Well, apart from this opportunity, our plans must continue.  Do not assign anyone to the exploration team that we’ll require here.  I trust you’ve kept our plans compartmentalized, if not secret?”

“Of course.”  Donovan had masterminded the next step in their master plan, and so far it had proceeded without a hitch.  “The emissaries will be going out within the next week.”

Gina nodded, then fell into her silent pacing once more.

*****

Locating Marion had been a tougher job than Sarah had expected. After spending half the day looking for him in vain, she steeled herself and knocked on Terreth’s door.

“Well, good afternoon, Sarah,” he said, with a surprised and amused look as he opened the door.  “You’re welcome to come in if you like.”  He moved aside far enough to let her pass, then closed the door.  “I must say I’m surprised you’d call on me, considering our last conversation.”

She took a deep breath.  “Casper, I’m sorry if I seemed harsh, but I needed to be clear.  I didn’t want you to waste your time, continuing to pursue me, just because there was doubt in your mind.”

He laughed.  “Well, I promise you, there was no room for doubt.”  He motioned toward the couch in the main room.  “Sit, if you like.”

“I won’t stay long,” she replied.  “I came to ask if you’d mind me accompanying you when your team leaves the city.”

“News travels fast,” he observed.  “I had wondered if you’d come asking this question.”  He paused for a moment.  “It is your father we’ll be looking for, so of course you may go.  I’ll have to get approval, of course.”

She nodded.  “I appreciate it.  But I also don’t want you to think that-“

He held up a hand to stop her.  “You’ve already expressed yourself clearly on that score, Sarah, and while I’m confident that you’d change your mind if you got to know me, I won’t bother you further.  I would like to say that I had no ill intentions toward you when I approached you.  But for our purposes, I consider the matter closed.”

She nodded.  “I won’t keep you.  Please let me know when you are prepared to go – I won’t have much to pack.”

“You don’t own a horse, yourself, do you?” he asked.  “We’ll be issued horses, so I’ll need to know if I should request one for you.”

She shook her head, her face neutral while she considered this.  “No, we don’t own a horse, so I’ll need one to keep up.”

“Simple enough.”  He said, opening the door for her again, and watching her leave.

Issuing horses? She thought to herself.  That was a fairly sizeable cost for an exploring trip that could easily amount to nothing.  The Cartersons were taking it seriously if they were sending the team on horseback.  It wasn’t so much that they didn’t have many horses- they had more than a hundred- but on a trip like this, there was a risk that the horses wouldn’t return. A sizeable risk, considering that her father hadn’t been heard from since he’d left.  She made her way through town, eyes lowered, thinking as she walked.  Marion would at least have an idea of what they’d found, and even if he wasn’t allowed to speak of it publicly, he would tell her.

*****

She reached Marion’s home just as he was turning onto the street, and stood by his door while he approached.  “There you are,” he said, quietly.  “I’m glad you came to see me before we left again.”  He opened the door to let them both in, then closed it behind him.

“Marion, tell me my father is still alive,” she said, the words spilling out of her before she could stop them.  He set his backpack down on the floor beside the front door, moving slowly, his eyes on Sarah.

“I haven’t seen him in days, Sarah.  He sent me back to come get help, and now the Cartersons are sending help.”  He sighed.  “This doesn’t really mean much.  They had enough food for a week, more if they hunted.  That bunker had a good, thick front door and we didn’t find any other way for the Turned to break their way in.”

She nodded.  “He had told me he’d be back within five days.  He’s never been wrong about how long he’s gone.”

“He sent me back.”  Marion sighed, then stepped close to her and put his hands on her shoulders.  “Look, sister,” he said affectionately, “you father found something in that bunker that could be invaluable.  I couldn’t make out everything he was saying, but it was instructions for building things the way the ancients did.  He said it could be made into a wall that would be as hard as stone, and just as difficult for the Turned to break through.  And that much harder for bandits to attack, not to mention the Believers.”

“The Cartersons are planning to take it all for themselves, aren’t they?”

He nodded.  “I’m sure they wouldn’t be so swift to send another team down there, especially on horseback, if they didn’t see some potential profit.”  He paused, reading her face.  “But listen, Sarah – if they use this find to build a stronger perimeter for the city, doesn’t that benefit everyone who lives here?  Doesn’t that make us all safer?”

She smirked at this.  “Do you really think they have the best interests of the normal people in mind?”

“They have their own interests in mind, but things like this could be of a common interest.  If I’m part of this team, then I have a chance to try to make this benefit everyone.  Think of the nearby villages, who never know for sure whether the Turned are going to break through their fences.  If this wall-building works out as well as your father said it could, we could make them all safer.”

“And the Cartersons would become more powerful for that, as well,” she said.

He didn’t answer.  He turned, and moved toward the couch, letting himself fall into it.  Dust billowed up around him.  He threw his hand up slightly, a defeated gesture.  “If you’re determined to see them in a negative light, I can’t stop you.”

“You see them the same way – or you did, before they began to give you work.”

He shot her a defensive glance.  “All I’m saying is that we could use this situation to help out everyone, and to do that, we’ve got to be involved in it, right?”

She nodded.  “So were the things you found too heavy to be carried back alone?  You didn’t bring any evidence of what you’ve found.”

He shook his head.  “No, it was all writings.  Information, ideas, guides on how to do stuff.  Nothing material that I could bring along.”

She thought about this for a moment.  “All information.  Do you know anyone else who will be going?”

He shook his head.  “They didn’t have time to get the team assembled- I’ve just gotten back from being interviewed about my trip.”  He paused for a moment, wondering whether to continue.  “Donovan interviewed me after reading my report, and Madam Gina was there herself.”

Sarah’s eyes narrowed slightly.  “They are interested in this, aren’t they?  Do you think… do you think there’s a chance that they will make the team disappear when we get back here?”

Marion lifted one eyebrow.  “You mean kill us off?  Seems like a waste, and they’re not going to be sending idiots out there.  If they want to keep this stuff for themselves, there’s easier ways to do it.  They’d just send family out to look.”

Sarah shook her head, slowly.  The idea was beginning to take root in her own mind.  “Marion, they need you, at least, to show them where the bunker is.  They need smart people out there to figure out what will be valuable, and what won’t.  Especially if what my father found was information and records.  But once they got back, everyone who has seen that information will be a potential problem for them.  If everyone can get it, then it has no value to them.”

Marion shook his head, an incredulous look on his face.  “You get more paranoid about them every time I see you.  They’re sending Casper Terreth along – they’re not going to kill him, too, are they?  Look, Sarah,” he stood, and crossed the room to her.  “I know they’re opportunistic, and I know they do everything they can to keep this place under their total control, but they’re not that bloodthirsty.  Whatever this is, it can’t possibly be that great a threat to what they have- and that’s the only thing that could make them want to make people disappear.”  He put his hands on her shoulders again, squeezing gently.

“You seem to have forgotten about Lindsay,” she replied, looking right into his eyes.

It took him a moment to gather himself.  “I have certainly not.  Sarah, you don’t need to treat me like a traitor.  We agreed, a long time ago, that we have a better chance of making a change working things from within.  We all did.  Now, whatever it is that’s gotten you so angry at us, you need to step back and remember that we want the same things.  We are working together, aren’t we?”

She lowered her gaze, then nodded at the floor.  “You’re right.  I’m sorry.  My father being gone is hurting my judgment.”  She sighed.  “I just need to find him.  Even if he’s dead.  I need to know.”

Marion nodded, then embraced her.  “We’ll find him, Sarah.  We have to.”

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