River Of Night – Snippet 17
“How can it not be critical?” Jason said, carefully not raising his voice. “You could’ve saved a lot of people! Ones with important skills.”
“Could have is the operative phrase, Mr. Young,” Green said, raising one finger in ritual protest. “At this time, nearly everyone has been exposed to the virus that is going to be exposed to the virus. The calculus is clear. Fifteen percent of those exposed die. Three quarters become mostly insensate cannibals and the remainder recover and… live. Of course, the surviving ten percent is being rather heavily winnowed by the current harsh conditions. That’s where I come in. And perhaps you, as well.”
Jason drank some ice water, marveling at the feeling of refreshment that a simple cold beverage was creating. Still, he held his peace. He might not be a cop any longer, but letting suspects talk at their own pace without interruption was practically the first thing that he had learned as rookie.
“From the beginning I required my associates to have a certain skillset,” Green said and looked back towards his guard. “Mr. Loki here is a former law enforcement officer, like yourself. His assistance has been invaluable as we managed certain members of our team.”
“Eva, Miss, said that you recruited from prisons?” Jason said. It wasn’t really a question. “Convicts and cops aren’t known for being on good terms. Why pick them to begin with?”
“I needed the nucleus of a team I could rely upon.” Green answered, gesturing towards Loki. “Even as the pandemic progressed, my forecasts predicted the fabric of our old society would wear completely through. Criminals aren’t without a code, Mr. Young. They merely have a very different code from those you call civilians.”
“Do you mind if I asked how you got started?” the cop asked. “You’re pretty far along and it hasn’t been even four months since I left metro D.C. – you even have an MRAP outside.”
“I don’t mind, Mr. Young,” Green replied, smiling. “A lot can happen in a few months and I’m not your average criminal. Make no error, by the standards of the recently expired civilization, I am a criminal. I laundered digital funds transfers for anyone that could pay my fees. I hacked into every level of government and law enforcement networks, I funded and later directly participated in the illegal collection of human tissue to manufacture vaccine. But by the standards of the world-that-is, I’m just a survivor.”
“A very well equipped survivor, with access to some military grade equipment that had been seconded to a local police department, courtesy of the now expired War on Terror. More importantly, I have the only organization that is clearing zombies, re-establishing the road network and enforcing any kind of discipline. At the final analysis, I am still just a survivor.”
“I see,” Jason said. “That’s a lot to take in. But your system is already working. Why me?”
“As we move forward, my organization will require new skills in order to succeed,” Green said, gesturing expansively with his glass. “As we transition from simple clearance and asset collection, we will have to create a different framework for governance. The communities that we rebuild will need some symbols of reassurance. The presence of former law enforcement personnel will be attractive to certain kinds of survivors. A sort of familiar symbolism, you see. In addition, some of my existing team exhibit a certain over enthusiastic moral flexibility and that requires… the occasional enforcement of a Gleaner boundary, as it were.”
“What kind of boundaries are we talking about, Mr. Green?” Jason said, falling naturally into the cadence of his host.
“Excellent question,” Green replied, setting his drink down with a slight click. He steepled his fingers and leaned back in his chair. “Boundaries. Well, whichever boundary I select, and drawn to whichever extent I dictate at whatever time I choose. In general my goal is to preserve life and well being where I can. However, I have no intention of re-establishing some sort of illusory representative government. I mean to be in charge. Mine will be the first word, and the last word and my Guards…” he inclined his head towards Loki’s bulk “…will be my sword.”
“That doesn’t seem too drastic, given the current conditions,” Jason said, reflecting for a moment before continuing. “This is the first organized group that I’ve seen so far. But there’s got to be more to it than that, no?”
“Tell me, Mr, Young,” Green countered. “Are you a particularly religious man?”
“Parochial school as a kid,” Jason replied honestly. “Not so much as an adult. Law enforcement can make you question the concept of a god.”
“Just so. Our current total personnel at this base, from laborers to entertainers to technicians and Gleaners, is just under three hundred and fifty.” Green said with a smile. “About that many again are living in the original areas where we found them, maintaining our presence at potentially important points. You see, when you have less than ten percent of the population to work with, and little industrial age machinery on hand, what works is feudalism. And the true authority is the feudal lord, not God.”
“So when you say “governor” what you really mean is “baron”, right?” Jason asked, finally grasping what his host was selling.
“Baron, count, duke, king,” Green replied cheerfully. “Who knows? What I know is that in order to save even a quarter of survivors which I’ve encountered since the collapse of civil authority, a form of governance rather less random than democracy and much less benevolent than religion is required. And I say this from experience: if the old American government had acted quickly and decisively, they could’ve saved much more. They might even remain relevant.”
“A quarter?” Jason was still digesting the implications of Green’s… confession? He finally asked. “What of the rest?”
“They weren’t required for our operations.” the would-be king, warlord or dictator-for-life answered, quite simply. “And I couldn’t leave them behind me.”
There was a pause in the conversation while Green allowed Jason to consider that tidbit.
“Eva explained about your name, the Gleaners.” Jason said, electing to pursue a different tack. “Is that an official label or just your team’s nickname for themselves?”
“Gleaning was the old practice of carefully searching an already harvested field for useful bits of the original crop” his host replied before collecting his whiskey and sipping again. His smile was distorted by the rim of the crystal glass, making his teeth seem abnormally large. “Sometimes the bits you find are edible, lifesaving. Other times they are rotten, dangerous. Very dangerous. This virus has already reaped its harvest. We now look for what’s left. What’s valuable. What I value most is people. I mean to rebuild civilization, Mr. Young. What I need to know is if you are as useful a bit of gleaning as you appear to be.”
The interview went on for a few hours. Green carefully interrogated him, not just about what Jason had seen during his journey from the Washington D.C. Area, but about the decisions he’d made as he fought to survive. He probed rather more deeply about Jason’s reasons for walking away from his job, from the city and ultimately from his police partner. Neither the details of his decision to honor his infected partner’s dying wish for a quick death nor his ultimate decision that it was every person for themselves had occasioned a comment from Green. Even Jason’s Irish Catholic roots came in for discussion, not that Jason, a self-described Easter and Christmas Catholic, was especially devout.
Green had closed with a provocative statement, signaling the end of the meeting.
“You seem to have decided that the world was over and therefore, your responsibility was over. I am telling you that a new world will rise from the wreckage. You’ll have to decide if you want to be a part of it. In the meantime, Mr. Loki here will further orient you.”
The giant standing behind Jason rumbled affirmatively.
“He’ll insert you into our organization. You’ll get an escort for a few days while you look around and regain some amount of personal equanimity. You won’t be armed, of course. I give my team considerable latitude, but I expect complete loyalty and obedience. After you clean up and get used to eating regularly, I may have a little job to do, and you can help. It might go a little way towards earning yourself a place among my people. Or not.”