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CHAPTER 27 – Jury of Her Peers



The sun climbing above the eastern horizon was a dull, brown colored disk. The continuous infusion of smoke swirling about the globe for three days had created an eye-stinging haze from ground level to the edge of space. Brown light fell upon the world outside the old Victorian.

“Nuclear winter without benefit of radiation.”

“What’s that, Judge?” Adam asked.

The man maintained his dignified, professorial demeanor even with his white shirt streaked and smudged, his suit jacket snagged and torn in three places—one lapel hung limply to his waist—but his tie was neatly knotted and snug beneath his Adams apple.

“It’s darker than it was yesterday morning. More and more smoke going up all over the world, blocking sunlight; same as if there had been a nuclear war. I’m afraid we may be in for a long, cold winter. That is, if any of us live to see it.”

Breakfast for the refugees was a makeshift affair. Nothing could be cooked, so their choices were cold slices of canned ham, un-toasted bread, slices of canned peaches, half a handful of raisins. There was no central table for all of them to sit at, but most congregated in the large parlor and adjoining dining room where Adam and Jason described their midnight sortie to The Judge.

After explaining how little they had learned before the arrival of more invaders interrupted them, Adam concluded, “So, they can be killed, but we still don’t know how easily.”

“They’s quite a store of dynamite up at the digs. Why don’t we go get a coupla cases and eliminate a good lot of ’em all at once’t while they’s inside their hut-thing?” Delmar Reese was a pick-and-shovel man at the rock quarry at the south edge of town.

Jason’s mouth gaped.

With a slow shake of his head, Adam said, “No, listen, any kind of frontal attack would be outgunned and doomed from the beginning. And there’s every reason to believe their dome would withstand something as primitive as a dynamite blast, at least enough for most of them to survive. And then what? What vengeance would they take?”

“Well,” Delmar argued, “what could they do that they ain’t already done?”

“They leveled San Francisco—completely incinerated it,” Jason said. “How long do you think it would take them to obliterate what’s left of Petaluma?”

“If they could, why the hell didn’t they?” Delmar countered. “I think they did their best against us. They just couldn’t come up with enough to wipe us out, though. It’s been tried before, you know. This old U. S. of A. has stood up to would-be conquerors before, little hip-pocket dictators that figured to strut their stuff into some poor neighborin’ country and just take over. And they’s always wound up with kicked asses. I say we should go kick their asses right now.”

Jason and Adam just looked at each other, unbelieving but unwilling to give up on trying to make everyone understand their enemy.

Before either one could compose a reasonable or convincing comeback, Bill Hughes stepped forward from where he had been leaning against the wall next to a painting of a stormy seacoast. As he moved forward, he gave the painting a last, backward, appreciative glance.

“Hell, if you ask me,” he began, “a number of men with guns could even things up here on the ground real quick.”

Everyone looked at him, a few made knowing glances at others about the room. Bill was well known in town as the proprietor of a tavern decorated with trophies of his many hunting trips over the years. Numerous sets of antlers and heads of every hoofed, horned or fanged game animal on the North American continent adorned his place. The wall behind the bar in the high-ceilinged tavern was devoted to animals of Africa, many of which had since been listed as endangered. Waiting to greet visitors just inside the bar’s main entry was a towering, stuffed grizzly bear with raised forepaws flashing five-inch claws and a ferocious snarl revealing three-inch fangs in a challenge forever frozen on the creature’s long immovable face.

“I mean, hell, those things don’t look all that bright. I’ve seen uglier faces on wart hogs, but not many. They don’t seem to me to be much more than apes. Hell, I’ll bet it could be downright fun to go out and track one down in the brush. They—”

“Bill, Delmar,” Adam reasoned, “These are not Nazis or Commies or Bengal tigers or anything else from this planet. They’ve got weapons so far ahead of ours it wouldn’t even be a battle. Believe me, Bill, these are not trained apes. Regardless of what they look like, they may be as far ahead of us as we are ahead of apes.”

Jason stepped forward. “Didn’t you listen to me, yesterday, about how they shot down every plane and missile that went up against them? How they destroyed cities a whole lot bigger than Petaluma? Those little planes shooting up the town were just their fighters, not their space ships. Delmar, they came across space from another star in ships half a mile wide, at least the one that I saw, and probably a whole fleet of ’em. Do you really think you could just blow them up with dynamite?”

“Hell, yeah! Hey, you ever see what a couple sticks’ll do to a big, old oak stump? I guarantee, that big tent thing they set up in that parking lot ain’t as tough as a well-rooted oak stump, and it ain’t any more likely to stand up to a good blast.”

“Delmar, don’t be a damned fool.” said the Judge. “You don’t know what they can stand up to. Until we know more, it would be suicidal to try to fight them in the open.

“Oh, hell, Judge—”

“Delmar, shut up!” Charlie Dickerson said. “Why don’t you ever listen when someone tells you something?”

Delmar looked around in shock at his sometime drinking buddy. Charlie had never spoken to him that way, not while they were both sober, anyway.

“Whadju say?”

“I said, shut up! And sit down! Let someone talk that knows what they’re talking about. This ain’t the back room at Archie’s, and these are not the guys at the Lido Bar beating their gums to impress each other. This is real, Delmar. People are dying! People we know! Our friends! So just sit the hell down and shut up and listen!”

“Wha—why, I—you—”

“Stop blustering, Delmar,” the judge said. “Adam, Jason, do you think we could extrapolate our knowledge of human and animal biology to even guess at their vital areas?”

“I don’t see how, your Honor,” Adam said. “Except for Vonnie Dickerson, there’s not one person among us with any medical training beyond advanced first aid. Would any of us, including Vonnie, recognize internal organs of even animals from earth, let alone from somewhere out there? What are the odds they’d even have a liver or kidney, or a heart, for that matter? My arrows killed one last night, but I’m still not sure of the best spot to aim for. We could wind up shooting something equivalent to an appendix, or maybe a toenail.”

The judge scratched his chin for a moment before saying, “I don’t know that they’d be all that much different from earthly animals. Their body chemistry can’t be that much different from ours. After all, they do breathe our air.”

“But so do Delmar’s oak trees,” said Jason. “They may even have some kind of filter or respirator that allows them to function in our atmosphere, something so different, or so small we wouldn’t even recognize it as such.”

Adam said, “And, against the lethality of their lasers, I sure wouldn’t want to confront them with just bows and arrows. Of course, if it comes down to it, I’ll throw sticks, stones, and broken bricks at them.”

Jason said, “Going back to Bill’s idea, maybe with a scoped rifle from a distance, and in daylight—but no more midnight excursions for me. And, whatever we do, we have to avoid attracting their attention to this place.”

“Guerilla-war and snipering is what you’re talking about,” Charlie said. “It could work, if we had the weapons, which we don’t.”

Erin said, “Meanwhile, we’ve got to keep ourselves from starving to death or dying from disease.”

A man named Rollin leaned forward from his spot against the wall and said, “When we get our search groups organized, we’ll have plenty of food.” Rollin had been scavenging in the area northwest of the Victorian, in the hills away from downtown. “I’d say there is a lot more food that survived than people to eat it.”

“Maybe for today, or this week,” Jason said as he shook his head. “And that’s if we can stay clear of those things out there, if they don’t find this place or wherever else we can find to hide, if we get cooperation from everyone we run across. But what about next week, or next month, or next year? Remember, as far as we know, no one is ever going come to our rescue. And, even assuming those creatures don’t increase their activities, and they don’t find this house, there is still only so much food and supplies out there. No more food is going to be produced anywhere, not for a long time. I know there aren’t a lot of people left, but there are still enough to go through a lot of food over an extended period.”

“And, another thing,” Nate interjected. “You are presuming the good intentions of everyone that is left alive. I remember a guy by the name of Vince Morgan. And, I’m sure he’s not the only one left alive that is happy as hell that the only law now is the law of the jungle.”

Vonnie Dickerson shifted the baby she held to her other arm, and then put in, “But don’t you think people will tend to pull together more with things so desperate? Surely, even Vince Morgan could see that we’ve got to stick together if we’re to have any chance at all.”

“Yes, I think most people will tend to pull together,” Jason agreed. “But not people like Morgan. I don’t think he will ever be concerned with anything that doesn’t affect him personally. His sense of values is so warped by what has happened on top of whatever problems he had before, he really doesn’t care about the survival of the human species or anyone in it unless it’s to his benefit. As long as he can maintain a certain level of security and comfort, he would probably even get a kick out of seeing the rest of us go up in smoke. I don’t know; I’m not a shrink. I don’t know what goes on in the head of a guy like that, what makes him turn out that way. From what little bit I know of him and his family before all this, and from the way Erin described him to me, he’s got a rage on at the whole world. The slaughter of the people at Muir Beach was senseless. We can ask each other why he did it, but we can never know. It just comes down to the fact that he’s wacko, loony, crazy as hell. What’s the right term for him? Psychopathic? Sociopathic? Or simply evil? Does science even have a name for him?”

“I have had some experience with the Morgan family,” said The Judge. “Before I retired, I’m afraid I had occasion to have Vince’s father and older brother in my courtroom more than once. They were both troublemakers and bullies. And, although my court didn’t handle juveniles, I was aware of a few of the times the two boys, Vincent and Victor, attracted the eyes of the law. Those two were trouble from the time they were children. I blame their father, mostly, because of the abusive home he gave them. Many times, I have wondered why they were allowed to remain under his dominion and control. Perhaps I should add myself to the long list of persons, agencies and authorities that must share the blame for the way those two turned out. I’m sure I could have—I should have interceded in some way. If it had been done soon enough...”

“But, the point is,” Jason said, “he is what he is. He and others like him are out there.”

“There’s an old Viking saying,” said Nate. “None so good he has no faults, none so wicked he has no worth. But they hadn’t run across Vince Morgan.”

Adam said. “Even if we were able to defeat every one of the invaders tomorrow, we’d still have a mighty tough time ahead of us. Until the survivors begin to establish themselves in organized groups big enough to protect their own interests, there’s just going to be a lot of desperate people digging in the ruins of a dead civilization. We need to establish perimeters, and then protect them. We aren’t going to be able to do anything to help the rest of the world, but that’s no reason not to do what we can for ourselves. That is, if we aren’t all killed first. How about it, Judge?”

The judge looked slowly around the room while he focused his thoughts. “I fear you are correct. Even if by some great favor of the gods, the invaders just packed up and left, it wouldn’t save humanity from its fall into, not just barbarism, but savagery for probably most of the survivors. There has been too much lost, not enough of our civilization left to hold itself together. Of course, now I’m judging strictly from the state of things here and from what Erin told us about what her friend told her was on the radio.”

“What do you mean by ‘savagery’? Isn’t it the same as barbarism?” said a nervous little man sitting on the arm of the couch.

“Well, those of us that survive will find the world substantially more difficult to live in than it was before. There will be no government for one thing. None at any level. All lines of authority are severed, all communication cut. Without communication between the different parts of the country, there can be no country. The first thing we will notice missing will be commerce and vital services. Food production and distribution has stopped, as Jason mentioned. The only food that will be available is what is here now—whatever can be found. The same goes for clothing, medicines, anything that consumers consume.

“And the utilities are gone. The generation of electricity on a large scale will not be resumed for a very long time. Without electricity, practically everything comes to a grinding halt—industry, transportation, communication, even modern farming.

“So, with all those things gone, what happens? Everyone starts grabbing whatever is at hand regardless of prior ownership. Remember, too, the protections government provides is no longer in existence. No more courts to settle disputes, no more police to enforce laws and keep order and peace. Anarchy will reign. The law of the jungle: Survival of the Fittest, as Nate mentioned, will be the only law. And it will be a jungle in every sense of the word. Every person—every animal—that survives will be solely responsible for acquiring their own sustenance, or in making wise choices of which others to partner with in combining their efforts. An unwise choice of partners could be worse than remaining alone.

“Modern human beings are not well suited for living in a world of savagery. Compared to most of the members of the animal kingdom, we are slow, have poor night vision, poor hearing, poor senses of smell and not very strong for our size. Read that as the amount of meat our bodies will provide. And our offspring is totally dependent for a considerable time after birth.

“We cannot compete in the wild without taking advantage of our brain and our capabilities for communication and cooperation. In order to survive an attack by dogs gone wild—or cats, pigs, and even hordes of rats—we must have options other than running away or hiding from them. And, yes, we must be prepared to protect ourselves from attacks by other humans. There will be many men, both singularly and in groups, who will use force to take whatever they desire. Even, I’m afraid, for the purpose of acquiring the meat of our bodies. I’ve no doubt that cannibalism will surface. Anything you can imagine, others can imagine and, perhaps, desire. That is a world of savagery.

“But, the savagery won’t last forever. A few years. Perhaps through our lifetimes. Your Emmie may see the beginnings of re-growth. Eventually, groups of survivors will unite into permanent larger groups with bonds of interdependence holding them together.

“But it will require strong men, or women—leaders—to bring this about. Not necessarily good men—but they must be strong. They must have that burning ambition for power—that urge to control. A mere willingness to take the lead may suffice in some cases, where the led are willing and able to help with the load. But even then, the leader must also be willing to resort to ruthlessness if necessary. They must have the strength to stand up and say, ‘No, I will not accept that. We must do things this way. Follow me, and I will show you a better life.’ A man such as Vince Morgan could even be such a leader—ruthless, to be sure, but strong enough to hold the allegiance of others. The other things we know of him, though, I’m afraid would hinder his effectiveness. That world is one of barbarism.

“In any case, from this new barbarism there will be feudal lords of the new centers of culture that will begin to emerge. And, of course, they will begin to desire their neighbors’ lands, holdings, and treasure. So, there will be wars between these newly formed city-states. Each will develop its own mores and ethics from the circumstances of its existence. There will be a great diversity of living conditions and many conflicts. And history will begin again.”

The room remained silent for long moments while each person digested the judge’s prophecies.

“But, Judge,” said Delmar. “Are you sayin’ the President ain’t goin’ ta do nothin’ to help? Nothin’ at all?”

“That’s right, Delmar. Even if the President is still alive, he is now, I’m afraid, just another mere mortal. Without the infrastructure of government, the Presidency is a position that is meaningless. He can do nothing without the organization of government to carry out his directions.

“Of course, things may not be so bad in Washington, or in the rest of the world, as we see it here. In that case, rescue may be imminent. But, I doubt it. Things may be much worse in other places than they are here, although, I can’t imagine how. But, if it is so, we could be talking about thousands of years instead of hundreds for a recovery back to where we were a couple of days ago.”

“Oh, come on,” Delmar said with a sneer. “Ain’t you layin’ it on just a bit heavy? Hell, look around! Sure, a lot’s been burnt, but they’s still a lot that ain’t. It ain’t like we’d have to start over from scratch.”

“But, I’m afraid, we probably will.” The Judge’s eyes became steely as he peered at Delmar, and then about the room. “Unless things are a lot different from what they appear, it won’t be long before the land is wilderness. Other than a few vegetable gardens that might be maintained here and there, it will revert to its natural state. Fields that had produced crops of grain and other foods for millions of people will become prairies and forests. Cities will be deserts—diseased and lifeless. Livestock and domesticated animals will turn feral.

“There will be packs of dogs roaming the land that will be deadlier than the wolf packs of a hundred or a thousand years ago because they will not have behind them the thousands of generations of learning to avoid men. Men will also form into packs to prey upon travelers and unprotected home sites. You couldn’t call them outlaws, because there will be no law. A man will own whatever he can take and hold.”

Even Delmar was silent for a few moments as the images inspired by the judge’s prophetic descriptions played through his imagination.

“But, what can we do?” Erin’s voice shook a bit with the palsy of frustration and fear. “What can any of us do? I’m...or, I was, a photographer. But what good is that now?” She looked around at the gathering. Tears were not far behind her large, frightened eyes. “ many people have the knowledge and training, not to mention the experience, to cope in the world that you describe?”

Jason took her outstretched hand and held it firmly. He said, “People are adaptable. They always have been. That’s how the species has made it through other radical changes. Although, I will agree, not many changes have been as abrupt or extreme as this one. But, still, people have abilities. I was a cop. Well, I don’t think there is going to be much demand for a cop in the next few years, either. So, you and I will just have to find something else that we can do. Actually, I think everyone is going to be doing pretty much the same things for a time. Things like hunting and fishing and gathering and just staying alive. I think you may be amazed at what you can do when you don’t have any choice. Remember, I saw you in action back at Muir Beach.”

Erin shuttered at the memories that flooded through her mind. “Oh, my God! How can I ever...I never...I killed him, didn’t I?”

Neither Erin nor Jason noticed the raised eyebrow reactions the simple statement got from others in the room.

Jason squeezed Erin’s hand and looked deeply into her eyes as she returned the look. “You did what you had to do. If you hadn’t stepped in when you did, he would have killed me. And, then there’s Emmie. She would have been left alone to join you on the chain?”

Fighting down the sob that suddenly grabbed her throat, Erin nodded with closed her eyes.

“He was a murderer several times over. If there was still law and order, and if he had been brought to justice, he would have been sentenced to death. What you did was justified in any court of the land. What you did was as right as what he did was wrong. You...we all have got to be strong—be ready to react to dangers and threats like Vic and Vince. Like the judge said, until law is re-established, and that probably won’t be for a long time, each man—each person—is law unto himself.”

“I...I suppose you’re right.” Her hands trembled under Jason’s strong grasp. “I know you’re right.”

After a moment, Bill Hughes broke the silence that had befallen the room. “Uh...did one of you leave something out of your story, yesterday?”

Erin reeled within the storm of emotions that suddenly engulfed her. Her rising spirits plummeted again as, in flashes of memory, she relived her ordeal with Vic. And then she began to believe with increasing certainty that those in the room with her now would not believe or understand. How could they know the terror and degradation she had known? They had not witnessed the slaughter of the people of Muir Beach by Vic and his brother. They had not seen the smashed head and face of Nate’s wife, or the ghastly wounds on the woman who bled to death after Vic removed her tourniquet. They did not know and talk to Crissy or listen to the way she described Vic and Vince’s decline into a savagery unrivaled in any jungle. They had not lived on the end of a chain—brutally whipped for resisting being used as a thing for pleasure—already raped in every other sense of the horrible word. They had not listened to Crissy’s dying. How could they understand? But, she had killed a man. Would these people see her as Jason did, or would they say she is a murderess?

Erin’s eyes dropped from Jason’s as her hands did from his hands. Her head drooped to hang forward as the weight of her memories pressed down upon her. She turned away from the others.

Jason faced the room. “We didn’t mention it before because it...well, with everything else happening, it just didn’t seem to matter. But, I guess, maybe it does. Back in Muir Beach, Erin was held captive, like I mentioned before, by Vic and Vince Morgan. But her captivity involved more than a cell.”

He began to relate to them most of the details of Erin’s captivity, at least those events of which he had since been made aware by Erin or Nate. Where he had quickly passed over Vic’s death in his brief narration the day before—some may have even gotten the impression that it had been an accident of some kind—he told of his and Erin’s part in bringing it about.

He had hardly begun his story when Emmie joined Erin near a lace-curtained window overlooking a carefully tended rose garden. They stood with their arms about each other, backs to the room, and listened to Jason’s narration.

Jason laid out Erin’s “crime” in a factual monotone. He resisted embellishing the tale with opinions that couldn’t help but be biased. He simply recounted the incidents as they played back in his mind’s eye as he had done so many times in actual courtrooms.

Nate was not so hesitant to voice his opinion. “Let me just say that if Jason hadn’t come along when he did, and the course o’ things changed, Vic would be just as dead from a bullet out o’ my rifle. I can’t say he’s the one that killed my Patty, but he had enough blood on his hands without hers. The man’s time had come. Justice with a capital J wanted its due. There never was a man needin’ killing as much as Vic Morgan—except, maybe for his brother. It’d be a toss-up.”

With his testimony finished, Jason felt as though he had betrayed Erin in his attempt to portray the killing of Vic in a dispassionate, impartial manner. Hell, I’m not in a courtroom! I was there! I know what the situation was! I know what had to be done! I think I know how she’s feeling now. I’ve seen enough rape victims over the years. She’s a hell of a lot more screwed up in her mind right now than I am, and I’m not making a lot of sense even to myself. But, I’ve got to let her know I’m with her. Even if no one else is. “And I would like to say that I’m forever grateful to Erin for saving my life, and for saving my daughter from a living hell.”

“Well, I should think so!” Claire Flores said as she stood up. “The very idea that what the poor girl did was a crime, why, it’s a crime itself. Judge, wouldn’t that have been self- defense?”

A general murmur of assent around the room died as the Judge stood. He said, “Yes, Claire, without a doubt, Erin’s act was self-defense. In taking such action, she not only rescued herself from a state of unconscionable slavery, but as Jason pointed out, she saved his life, and that of his daughter. Erin, let there be no doubt in your mind, the killing of Vic Morgan was fully justified and excusable. You are not a murderess.”

“God, I guess not!” It was Delmar. “Wish I’d gotten my hands on that son-of-a-bitch!”

“Delmar! Watch your language!” Claire scolded.

“Oh, language be damned! Look at her! She’s standin’ over there thinkin’ she’s an outcast. Thinkin’ she did somethin’ we’re all condemnin’ her for. Like it was her fault. Well, it ain’t so! I don’t think...hell, none of us do, that she done anything wrong. But she was sure sorely wronged. And, if nothin’ else, I’d like to sincerely apologize to her in the name of every man who ever wore pants for what she went through.”

“I’ll second that,” Charlie said. “Delmar, sometimes I forget why I like to drink with you, man.”

To the buzzing harmony of accord that floated about, Erin slowly turned back to face into the room. Charlie’s wife arose to stand beside him, cradling her baby in one arm and laced her other arm around his hanging at his side and rested her head on his shoulder. Like the others in the room, she returned Erin’s searching gaze with steadfast if unspoken support.

“And what he says is so.” The little man sitting on the arm of the couch spoke up again. “If, like you say, the law is a thing of the past, it will be up to each one of us to try to live up to what we know is right. And if we see something that we know is wrong, given the circumstances at the time, we are each responsible to stand against it. Even if we do have to live in the shadow of those demons from another star, or Hell, or wherever they came from, right against wrong is still a responsibility we cannot abandon. Not if we ever hope to achieve humanity again.”

“Well said.” The Judge reached down to Erin’s side and took one of her hands in his. He spoke softly to her, but in the silence of the room, his words were heard by all. “Erin, please feel no guilt, or remorse, or shame. None of us can truly understand the horror you experienced. But we can try—and we do try. We offer you our empathy, our regrets, our strength, and our friendship. And, just in case you are laboring under the misconception that only the Law, even in these new circumstances, can absolve you of guilt, I believe I am still empowered to take such action, even though I am retired. I am still a judge of the Superior Court of the State of California. You have been judged by this assembly—this jury of your peers—and you have been found not guilty. Court is adjourned.”

With tears streaming down both cheeks, a faint smile worked its way across her taut face. “Thank you.” It was little more than a whisper, but they all heard her. “Thank you, all.”

Emmie clasped her arms around Erin’s waist in an enthusiastic hug. Erin returned it with an arm about Emmie’s shoulders and a kiss to the top of her head. She reached a hand out to Jason. “And thank you most of all,” her voice beginning to break.

He took two steps across the room to clasp her trembling hand in one of his. With a gentle squeeze of her hand, and a discreet wink, he let a smile turn up one corner of his mouth. “You’re welcome, most of all.”

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