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Chapter 7: Family Double Dare
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Terminal City was a buzz with excitement. Logan had called. Carr was safe, three states away and wanted money for the black market medicines. The transgenics decided to skip the middleman and hit a medical supply truck heading for White. It served two purposes: annoyed and deprived White and got Carr the best medicines on the West Coast.


The operation went down without a hitch. The transgenics got the cargo without any witnesses, repackaged it so that it took up half as much space (the Manticore spatial relations testing made transgenics awesome packers) and then packed it all into a van chosen for the trip. They even had time to send a transgenic to the hospital and grabbed all of the Medical Journals that Carr was missing.

Gem was given the keys to the van and a mission to get her and Reggie to Ghost Town, South Dakota. Gem was outside of Seattle’s city limits before White knew the transgenics had stolen his supplies.

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Gem knew that there were many reasons she was picked to sneak out of Terminal City and Seattle and drive to Ghost Town, South Dakota. The main one was Reggie, her daughter. Yes, she had named her daughter after ‘Normal,’ much to the surprise of those who knew the man, but Reggie and Gem probably would not have survived without him. With Dr. Carr now sixteen hours away, Normal was the mid-wife of choice for the transgenics. He had been horrified by the realization, but he never transferred his anger at being kidnapped by Alec or Max to the laboring mother or the new child. In fact, having a namesake meant that the crotchety man would get Gem a sector pass and they wouldn’t have to strain Eyes Only finances.

Since Gem was easily Reggie’s mother, she was often discounted as a transgenic. The baby also gave her an apparent weakness. No one assumed that Gem could take care of herself. They underestimated her every time.

Reggie was also someone who couldn’t pull her own weight in a place like Terminal City. She was a liability that they couldn’t afford. If Gem could use Reggie to make allies in Ghost Town, transgenics would have a safe place to which they could flee.

Knowing that Dr Carr would protect her when she finally arrived to sleep, Gem drove through the night, stopping only to feed her daughter. It was the early morning when Gem approached the territory of Ghost Town. Logan had briefed her on what to expect. Gem had kept her eyes open for sentries and fences or blockades. She hadn’t seen anything. Where was the patrol? It should be here: this was the main road coming in from the west.

At the top of the next hill, she saw…

No, that couldn’t be right.

Gem strained her eyes. She glanced at the van’s clock. 0430. What were children doing playing in the middle of the road? The one headlight of her vehicle caught their attention. (The transgenic had disconnected the other light so that she could use her own cat-vision. She had left one light so that others could see her and she’d look less suspicious.)

The children made no move to get out of the road. They stood there waiting for Gem to slow down and stop. They crowded the van, hanging on the windows. Gem rolled down the driver’s side window, full of a cat’s curiosity. She was greeted with a barrage of questions.

“Why are you trying to get into town?”

“Why now?”

“Is that a baby in the backseat?”

“Is it a girl or a boy?”

“It’s a girl, stupid,” another answered.

“What’s her name?”

“She’s little.”

“What’s your name?”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Do you know that one of your lights’re out?”

“How long are you staying?”

“Where are you staying?”

“Do they know you’re coming?”

“How come your van’s got all those boxes?”

“What’re in them?”

They never gave her a chance to answer a question, but that didn’t seem to stop them from asking more. Gem had to laugh at them. That sparked a breath of silence.

“My name is Gem,” she told them. “My daughter, Reggie, and I are here to see Dr. Carson.”

“He’s not up yet,” one little girl told her seriously. “And his name is Dr. Carr.”

A man trudged out of the woods. He appeared to be fifty years of age with a graying beard and hair. His eyes were dark and not hidden from transgenic sight by the cap he had pulled low. “Kids,” he huffed. “We discussed this.”

The children converged on him, their excited words telling everything they had learned from Gem. The transgenic had to be impressed with their report. A couple of the older children conversed with the older man too quietly for Gem to hear them. How could they hear each other? Finally their spokesman stepped forward. “Get.” He said to Gem. “The town’s that-away. Ben will meet you in the square.”

As one, all the children stepped away from the van to let Gem drive through. Gem took advantage of the space. She glanced in her rearview mirror and saw that the children had resumed their play. The old man was watching Gem carefully. Why would the adults in Ghost Town allow such a dangerous activity in the middle of the early morning? Gem could have been any sort of a predator and it wasn’t as if the kids were transgenics who could take care of themselves. When she finally topped the hill, she saw the barricade on the outside. Two adults were opening it for Gem. Why were the kids playing outside the barricade in the pre-dawn hours with only one sleepy adult to mind them? Normals protected their children better than that.

A man only two or three years older than Gem was waiting where the main road dead ended onto a town circle. Gem pulled the van close to the man and rolled down her window again. She noticed that this man was carrying at least two hidden handguns and two knives in addition to the shotgun lazily resting on his arms. Why was he armed so and the children had been left in the middle of the road with little adult supervision and no guns?

“Ms. Gem?” the man asked.

Gem nodded. The children must have had radio contact with this man. Could the children possibly be escaped X-7’s? They hadn’t smelled like it. They hadn’t smelled like anything in particular so they were masking their smell very well. X-7’s were becoming more and more probable. “Ben?” she asked in return.

The man smiled at her, obviously liking (and appreciating) what he saw. “The doc’s not up yet, but Jo’s got the pot on if you’re interested.”

“Pot?”

“Coffee and tea.”

Gem had heard about rare substance. Several of the X-5’s that had experienced it and enjoyed it, but not Gem. Reggie was hyperactive every time she had tried it. The caffeine was transferred through her milk. Since she had overheard the Ghost Town briefing, Max had handed her a wad of cash with the hopes that Gem could barter for a couple bags to present to Logan. “Yes, please.”

Ben waved her over to the Roadhouse parking lot and waited while Gem unhooked Reggie from her ancient car seat, yet another practical gift from Normal. Then he held the door to the Roadhouse and let Gem lead the way. He scooted around her and walked straight through the dining room and into the kitchen where there was a coffee pot in the corner and a teapot hot on the stove.

“Coffee or tea?” Ben asked.

“Tea, please.”

Ben pulled two mugs out of cupboard and proceeded to fill one with hot water. Then he opened an unmarked canister and filled a tea infuser. That he plopped into the hot water. Next he prepared his own cup of coffee. He pulled a study wooden tray from a bottom cupboard and placed the mugs, two spoons, a honey bowl and a milk pitcher from the refrigerator. It was obvious that he was comfortable in this kitchen.

He picked up the tray and nodded back toward the dining room. “We really want to be out of the kitchen before Jo gets back to start breakfast for her regulars.”

Gem walked back into the dining room and picked a table where she would be able to see all the exits. Ben looked amused, but just slid the tray into reachable distance and sat across from her. He waited as she checked on Reggie and then offered her the mug of tea.

“Anything you want to talk about while we’re waiting?” he offered. He added a dollop of honey and small amount of milk to his coffee. He stirred the additives slowly.

“Why is this town named Ghost Town,” Gem asked out of curiosity.

Ben sobered almost instantly. Then he covered his tell with an engaging grin. “That’s a story better suited for a late night and a camp fire.”

Gen didn’t understand. “Why?”

Ben blinked. “You’ve never told a ghost story?”

“Why would I?”

“It’s a childhood tradition to tell the scariest story you know and scare yourself and all your friends.”

“…And stories about ghosts accomplish this how?”

Ben gestured at Gem with his mug. “You are a transgenic.”

Gem had a momentary thought that she should grab her baby and retreat, but Ben wasn’t threatening. He simply made his declaration and waited. “And you know this because I am unfamiliar with ghost stories?”

“Yep.”

Gem waited, but Ben didn’t add any more intelligence to his assessment. “Perhaps you should tell me the story of Ghost Town, so that I might have a tale when someone presses me for a ghost story.”

“Ghost stories lose something if they aren’t told after dark and around a campfire.”

“I believe that a good enough storyteller can create their own ambience.”

Ben laughed and leaned back in his chair. “Challenge accepted. Before the Pulse, the name of this town was Brinton’s Fort. It was the epitome of a small town: one school k-through-12, a post office and the number of taverns were only outnumbered by the number of churches. Most everyone knew everyone else. The grudges and the friends had been passed through the generations. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. Then the Pulse happened. While Seattle and Los Angeles were rioting, this town was organizing. Within a week, they had figured out what they needed and how to survive. They divided duties until they could be self-sufficient. They had everything figured out. They would survive the Pulse unlike few others. Even the children were involved. They were told to look after each other and the kids promised that they would.

“But they never planned for travelers. They never thought that the madness of the outside world would affect them.” Ben paused to take a sip of coffee. Gem wasn’t sure if the timing was staged for the storytelling or if Ben was trying to decide how to word the next chapter of the story. “Meanwhile, in St. Paul Minnesota a grown daughter loved her father. Her father ruled the mob and a significant portion of the Twin Cities by the time things settled down. The daughter wanted to make her father proud, wanted to show him that she could rule too. Her options were either to sideline her father and rule in his place, take out one of her father’s competitors and rule in his place or to move a significant distance away and make her own little kingdom. Because she loved her father, she chose the third option. Because her father loved her, he gave her money, men, equipment and his blessing.

“The caravan wandered west. When they stopped in Brinton’s Fort, it was self-sufficient and already a safe place for truckers. They had had a wonderful harvest with plenty surplus and supplies that the Twin Cities had gone without since the Pulse. The daughter decided that this was the place for her kingdom. She could have whatever she wanted here.

“The townspeople, though, had no interest in a self-proclaimed queen who neither knew nor cared to know them. They told her to move on. The daughter had never been denied a thing in her life and now that she had chosen her kingdom she would force the peasants to accept her. She had learned how to strong arm lesser mortals at her father’s knee and even had a plan.

“She and her men surrounded the school the very next school day and kept the children –and teachers- captive inside.” Ben took another sip of coffee and Gem followed suit with her tea. It was cold now. Very cold. Too cold for a normal thermodynamics equilibration.

Ben took a deep breath and continued. “From here on, the reports conflict. Some say that the kids were out of control and the daughter set fire to the entrances to keep them in line. Others say that the kids’ escape attempt created the fire that quickly spiraled out of control. The fact is this: that day, the school burned to the ground. Every child inside died. Half of the daughter’s men died as well. Those who hadn’t died were hunted down and hung by the residents. The daughter was torn apart by mothers.

“The school’s destruction touched every single resident. It tore a hole in the community. The survivors either committed suicide or moved away. They easily survived the Pulse, but could survive losing their children. Within a year, only handful of residents remained.

“And then the sightings started. Children, clean, happy children were seen running through town and stopping travelers on the road outside of town and questioning their intentions. And it was said that the town could not be found by those with ill intentions. The daughter’s father had heard of her destruction and had brought an army to South Dakota to raze Brinton’s Fort to the ground, but he never arrived. Some say he got lost and returned to the Twin Cities, some say that the children got their own revenge and made him crazy. What is fact is that the father never arrived in Brinton’s Fort.

“There are people who believe in ghosts, that some ghost are very dangerous. They believe that it is their job to put them to rest. They call themselves Hunters. When they heard about the children, they came from all over the country to help. They wanted to give the children peace before they became dangerous. For the most part, Hunters know of one way to disperse a spirit: burn the body of the deceased to ashes. But the children were already ashes and they weren’t dangerous. The child ghosts and the Hunters eventually came to an agreement: they would co-exist. The Hunters didn’t want to live anywhere where the Feds were in control and the children wanted town residents who would never let bad people in. The Hunters worked with the few remaining residents and built off of the initial Post-Pulse plan. Soon truckers were stopping regularly again and the community flourished. The Hunters built a newspaper and an Archive. The archive was mostly a recording, complete with photos, of the children who had died in the fire. New residents visit the archives regularly within their first several months because they want to know if little Billy who is their son’s best friend is alive or dead. The families are long gone but the children remain. Most of them are dead, but they still play in town and they still interrogate all visitors. They still keep their promise to look after those younger than themselves.

“Because the number of ghosts is greater than the number of the living, the residents of the town voted to rename Brinton’s Fort Ghost Town.” Ben grinned at Gem’s white face. “And that’s how Brinton’s Fort became named Ghost Town.”

“That’s quite a story,” Gem acknowledged, “but still…”

“Hey, Cindi,” Ben interrupted her. Gem twisted around and saw one of the children from the edge of town standing there. Gem wondered when she walked into the Roadhouse, since Gem hadn’t heard the door open and she still didn’t smell anything like a human being. Gem’s mind was insisting that Cindi had to be an X-7 and was flatly refusing to grant any possibility of Ben’s story being truth.

“Hi,” Cindi waved awkwardly. “Gem, he’s telling the truth and we like you and think you should stay.” Cindi bounced. “You could marry Mr. Ben and have more kids like Reggie and CJ and then me and Becca and Sarah could watch out for them.” As she mentioned her friends’ names, they appeared at her side. Just shimmered into existence. “We promise to do a good job.” The other girls nodded their heads happily.

Ben huffed in embarrassment. “Thank you girls, for the show-n-tell, but now’s not the time for matchmaking.”

“But Mr. Ben,” Becca whined.

“Not now,” Ben insisted. “Now scoot before you break Ms. Gem’s brain. It’s time for me to take her over to Doctor Carr’s and he doesn’t know about you yet and we’d like to keep it that way.”

The girls pouted but disappeared. “Please come back to live, Ms. Gem,” Sarah’s voice whispered after she had faded from existence.

Gem was stunned.

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