Jane leaned back in her chair, rubbing her temples with both hands. The fucking paperwork was killing her. You’d think in the apocalypse, bureaucracy would’ve gone the same way as most of humanity. But no, shoot one person that pulled a gun on a towner, and you had to write reports on it, stating exactly why you had put down a homicidal asshole. She looked at the empty whiskey bottle on her desk longingly. She’d completely forgotten to grab a new one from The Post last night, and it didn’t open up before 11:00 AM.
For the most part, she liked being sheriff. She had authority here in Burlington, she sat on the city council. Honestly, more people listened to her than the mayor. The town was small enough that she only needed herself and the guards to manage it. Crime wasn’t an issue. Most things were punished by death around here, and most people knew that they were always just a hairbreadth away from becoming Worm food, which garnered a lot of cooperation. She chuckled a little at her pun, then picked up her pen again. The biggest problem with her job was the goddamned paperwork. But she’d almost finished her last report, then she could get down to some real business. The Runners from Sterling Outpost had brought an answer to her request for a communication line to be established between the two towns. They’d split the cost of repairing and replacing the fiber-optic lines that already existed. More importantly, they’d be setting up something in each town that could actually make that connection work. All it would allow was sending information back and forth from the towns. Burlington’s chief engineer, a genius really, had tried to describe it to her. She called it ‘basically a really fucking big LAN’, but Jane had no idea what that meant. All she was concerned about was dispatching the guards to defend the repairmen from Worm attacks.
She sighed. Nobody would willingly volunteer for that dangerous of a job, so she’d have to designate them. She’d probably rotate the shifts, even though it was inefficient, so everyone got the short end of the stick. She also had to find a way of convincing her best friend, the chief engineer, to not go along with them. Providing the normal repairmen with the task worked just as well. Besides, Jane would never put her in that kind of danger. They’d met on the day the world ended, while a Worm was attacking Jane’s sedan on the highway out of Denver. The only reason she’d survived is because the crazy girl had run over the Worm, pinning it under her car long enough for both of them to escape on foot. After that, they’d made their way east, surviving as best they could, avoiding the Worms through a combination of luck and cleverness. Burlington was where they ended up. Jane’s companion refused to go any further, saying that she wouldn’t leave Colorado. So, they settled in the little town, and had stayed there for nearly nine months now.
She heard footsteps coming down the hall towards her office. Jane straightened up, trying her best to look professional. She swiped the whiskey bottle off the desk and stashed it underneath. She had to keep up the pretense of authority as long as possible. She relaxed as the door burst open without a knock. There was only one person in this town who had the stones to do that. She looked back down at her report. Maybe she could finish it up while they talked.
“Hey,” she said, studying her paperwork, “What’s up?”
“Jane,” an angry female voice spoke, “You have a lot of fucking explaining to do.”
Jane froze. Oh shit. She guiltily looked up at her friend. She was a smidge above average height, with large grey eyes and black hair that was tied in a ponytail. She was wearing a plain white tank-top smudged with grease, a torn-up pair of jeans, and work boots that had seen much better days. Normally, she had an impish smile or a goofy grin plastered on. Currently, her lovely face was twisted in rage, and her grey eyes burned.
“Two weeks,” Camille growled as she walked up and slammed her palms on the desk, “Two fucking weeks since those Runners came, and the first I’m hearing about that Paladin is now? From Tommy McPrickhead over in the general store?”
“Look, Camille,” said Jane, panicking a little, “I can explain. With everything that’s been going on, it slipped my min-“
Camille snarled, “Don’t give me that bullshit Jane. I know you too well to fall for it. You just didn’t want me to up and go after him, didn’t you?”
Jane stared at her, tapping her finger on the desk, “Yeah. I didn’t. The only thing that’s changed is that someone, not necessarily your boyfriend, is running around in a Paladin.”
Camille threw up her arms, “I can’t believe this shit. I seriously can’t. I’ve told you, nobody can get into Camelot. It’s absolutely secure.”
“Nobody could break through the Alaskan Line,” Jane said quietly, “and look what happened there.” She sighed, “I get what you’re saying. But you also told me that high-ranking military personnel would have access to the base. They could’ve taken control of the Paladins themselves. I’m not saying that’s what happened, or even that it’s likely, but do you remember what we learned out there?”
“Yeah, I do,” Camille said, “and I get the need for caution and distrust. But I need to find Sam. I’m not stupid enough to wander out into the plains to look for him, but I need everything I can get my hands on about him. And beyond that, beyond any of this crap, the thing I’m most pissed off about is that you, my friend, felt it was okay to withhold the first piece of information we’ve ever received about the person I love. And you actually had the balls to let the Runners think you wanted to harm him. That’s real fucked up, Jane.”
Jane was surprised at that, “How’d you even hear about that part?”
“It’s a small town, dipshit,” Camille said, rolling her eyes, “People talk. Jon the bartender told Shelly who told Jackie who told Tommy.”
“But you never listen to the gossip!” said Jane, and she winced. Bad choice.
Camille’s eyes flared, “Oh Christ, how long were you planning on hiding this? Yeah, I don’t gossip, I’m too busy for that shit, but I still talk to people, and those Runners were big news.”
“Damn. Alright, I’m sorry, okay?” Jane muttered, “I know I should have told you, but I just… I just didn’t want you to do anything stupid,” she held up a hand as Camille opened her mouth, “I know you’re not stupid, but I also know how much you want to find him. The plan you came up with is still our best shot. We lay the fiber optic line between us and Sterling. The base, Camelot or whatever the fuck it is, is somewhere between the towns, according to what you told me. If he’s going out at all, he’ll notice the work crews, it’ll be damn hard to miss them. They’re under strict instructions to tell any non-hostile person they find that it’s a joint project between Burlington and Sterling, to advertise the towns or some bullshit, and they’ll say that the Chief Engineer is Camille Evans. If that doesn’t work, I still have that big-ass folder of other ideas you’ve come up with. Nothing about what I did changes that.”
“Are you kidding me?” Camille said incredulously, “What if he talks with those Runners before he gets the message from the repairmen, and decides that Burlington is a threat worth avoiding? And on that note, why the fuck didn’t you just tell them to give him my name if they saw him again?”
“Well I thought it might be a backup,” Jane said, intently studying the desk, “From what you told me, if he thinks that someone is actively looking for him, it’ll make him want to come to us. And I didn’t tell the Runners your name because… well it’s a paranoid reason in hindsight, but I haven’t told anyone you’re even remotely connected to the Paladin, because they might use you for leverage, to get their hands on a suit or to threaten Sam.”
Camille stared at her. Then her eyes narrowed, “I see. You’re trying to keep me safe, even if it means I can’t find him. I’m not a child, Jane. I don’t need to hide behind you, and I never have. I saved your ass, more than once, remember?” she paused, gathering her thoughts, then continued, “And you want to bring him here, right? So you can have home turf and the hovertanks in case it isn’t actually Sam and you need to kill him? He’s in a Paladin, dumbass, those won’t even slow him down.”
“Better them than nothing,” said Jane quietly, “I’m not letting you meet up with something that dangerous without protection, and we can’t move those tanks out of the town right now.”
Camille made a growling noise and whirled around, stalking towards the door. She stopped with her hand on the knob, and looked back, “The only reason, the only reason that I’m still talking to you is because you’re right, this doesn’t really change anything. I can’t go searching for him in Worm country alone without getting killed. I don’t even know where Camelot actually is. You should’ve told those Runners that I was looking for him, but I’m levelheaded enough to see the logic in your reasoning, shitty as it was. But I’m not going to stand for it if you ever hold back information about Sam again. And I’m going with those repair crews in a month. I know it’s just you trying to protect me, but frankly I don’t give a shit anymore.”
Jane’s eyes opened wide, “Wait, we talked about this, you just have to be patient for a little longer and-“
“Fuck patience,” Camille said, “I’m done waiting around helplessly. I’m not going to be a princess sitting in a castle for another second. I’m going to finish repairing the mental interface in my hovertank, and I’m taking it with me out there.” She opened the door and walked out, then slammed it shut behind her.
After making sure that the storm had really passed, Jane leaned back in her chair, rubbing her temples. She really needed a drink.