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Chapter 10 - Sins of the Past and Guilt of the Present

The rains seemed to move on as fast as they had appeared, leaving a soggy field of debris and bodies. Burial details were quickly formed and efficiently completed their grim task. Even the gruesomely implanted drones were buried respectfully as Tammy Jenkins updated her records, taking detailed notes, where she could, on the identities and locations of the dead. The wreck of the hover tower was picked over where it was considered safe, however nothing useful could be recovered. The only good thing to come out of the attack was the recovered weapons of the implanted drone soldiers, which were rapidly collected and redistributed among the group. A debate on whether to remove and study one of the implants was quickly ended after it was theorized by Anthony Simons that the devices might be used to track the group. While the scavenging continued, the remainder of the group began striking the camp and preparing to move on. The drone attack had made Jason’s decision much easier. The Reclaimers were going to be in danger whether they continued to Theia or not. So, Jason decided that they might as well attempt to reach their original destination and find the information that so many of them desperately desired.

The wagon building team, headed by Rich Turner, would stay behind with a small contingent of Regulators to finish the two wagons that were near completion. They would catch up to the main group as soon as they could, but the rest would continue to Maryland as fast as possible. Of course, “as fast as possible” is a relative term when talking about a group whose average age was 60. And, on top of all the other issues that the Reclaimers faced, colder weather was just around the corner. Jason knew that they didn’t have long before the falling temperature would start to become their next obstacle, in a world that seemed to delight in throwing hurdles in front of them. Thanks to Gerald, they knew that they were already heading into late August and, at their current pace, they would not reach Fort Meade before they likely had to face temperatures dropping below freezing.

The Reclaimer column continued wearily but uneventfully until they reached just outside the remains of Clarksburg, West Virginia along U.S. Route 50. The new wagons had mercifully caught up to the main group just before having to make the arduous trek up the Appalachian Mountains. They had been pushing hard, but the Reclaimers were exhausted and Clarksburg seemed as good a spot to settle in for a rest as any other. With no sightings of either the St. Louis group or implanted drones, it was decided to encamp in their current location for several days to tend to the blisters and creaking bones of their aged members despite those dangers which were surely closing in on them.

While the Reclaimers had lost many members to the rigors of the latest leg of the journey, they had continued to add even more to their numbers. Like a magnet being passed through a pile of iron shavings, people were irresistibly attracted to the group as they made their way through the countryside. However, with the new arrivals came disturbing information. Apparently, news of the Reclaimer’s passage was being passed by people fleeing before them. These misinformed people were spreading rumors and third-hand stories about the ruthless, evil nature of the Reclaimers. In fact, many of these stories featured the Reclaimers as the actual cause of the entire wretched situation in which people now found themselves. It was said that the Reclaimers were a group of fanatics following their prophet in the conquest and conversion of the rest of the world.

Jason frowned as he and the council listened to the tale being told by one of the newest arrivals. “As if we don’t have enough problems, now we have to worry about public relations,” Jason thought bitterly.

The new arrival before them was a 61-year-old woman of Korean descent named Janice Wong. She had very cautiously approached their last camp out of pure desperation. She had been accompanied by three outgrowns whom she had been caring for, but the burden of feeding and looking after the overgrown toddlers had become too much for her to handle on her own and the four of them were in the early throes of starvation. So, despite the warnings of cultist rituals and cruelty, she had decided that submitting to the Reclaimers and eating was better than the alternative of allowing the children in her care to starve to death in the woods.

“And that is how I came to be in your camp,” Wong concluded, her gaunt face wearing an expression of someone who was expecting to be punished.

Aghast, Tammy Jenkins began, “My God. Let me start by saying you have been gravely misinformed about us, Ms. Wong. We are a community of mutual support and defense, not this monster cult that was described to you. Hopefully, you have seen enough of us by now to know what I’m saying is true.”

Janice bowed her head slightly, “I do. My children and I have been well cared for since our arrival and none of the Reclaimer’s spiritual beliefs have been in any way forced upon me.”

“Spiritual beliefs?” Jason questioned. “The Reclaimers come from a wide and very diverse background. I can assure you that we do not espouse any single religion or belief system.”

“Of course, sir,” Janice answered quickly. “I didn’t mean to imply otherwise or to offend you,” she finished meekly.

Jason was about to question her further but George jumped in with his normal soothing baritone voice, “Ms. Wong, you say you’ve been around this region since the Awakening. Can you tell us about the area? For instance, who told you these awful rumors about us?”

“About a week ago we ran into several men heading east. I begged them to help us, but they could only spare a little bit of food. They said we would just slow them down,” she added sadly. “They warned me an army calling themselves the Reclaimers was marching this way and enslaving everyone they encountered.”

Tammy Jenkins snorted in disgust before George continued gently, “Anything else you can tell us about the area that might help?”

Janice Wong looked hesitant as if she were trying not to betray a confidence, but she took a deep breath then spoke. “Maybe. The men did mention a settlement where my children and I might find some food and shelter. We were heading that direction when we found you. And as I said, we were so hungry that I didn’t think we could make it the rest of the way on our own.”

Captain Olvera sat up a little straighter as the conversation finally caught his interest, “A settlement? Where exactly? Did they mention how large it was?”

“I … I don’t think they said anything about the size, but they did mentioned Clarksburg specifically.”

A murmur grew within the tent before Jason spoke up, “Thank you Janice. You’ve been a great help. Please let us know if there is anything else we can do for you or your children. You may go,” he said, gesturing toward the tent flap.

Wong gave a respectful bow before hurriedly making her way out of the council’s presence.

“An army,” snorted Olvera after she had left. “Can you believe people think this circus is an army?”

“I can definitely see it,” countered George Willard. “We are large, probably close to a thousand now. We are organized and we do have a military arm after all.”

“Fine,” Carlo conceded. “But I do think we need to send some scouts on ahead to Clarksburg and see if we can find this settlement she mentioned. I don’t like the idea of folks knowing more about us than we do about them, plus our route leads us right through there.”

“Agreed,” said Jason. “But let’s keep it fairly small with a very cool headed person in charge. If people are afraid of us out there, I don’t want to cause an incident that reinforces that misguided perception.”

Carlo nodded, “Understood. I’ll take care of it.”

“I can’t believe the things that I’ve been hearing lately from the new arrivals. Isn’t anybody as angry as I am?” Tammy blurted out, obviously unable to hold back her outrage any longer.

“I think I can speak for everyone here that this revelation is unfortunate, but I think that it is equally unavoidable that some will see a group such as ours to be a threat. People fear what they don’t know and they tend to fill in those gaps with conjecture and outright confabulation at times,” calmly stated Charles Patel with his slight Indian accent that seemed to add more weight to anything he said.

“But how do we combat that?” asked Tammy earnestly. It was obvious that she was taking these slanders against the Reclaimers quite personally. She had dumped much of her heart and soul into the organization in an unconscious attempt to distract herself from the loss of her family, and now some idiots were soiling the good name of all her hard work. She was angry and offended.

“I think all we can do is to keep going as we have. If we are going to be judged, then let us be judged for what we are. Hopefully the truth will win and history will treat us kindly,” said Jason.

“History is written by the victors,” stated Olvera grimly.

“You mean the survivors,” countered Gerald Farmer from a dark corner of the council’s tent.

Lieutenant Amy Hammersmith guided her horse through the forest of Reclaimer tents and onto Route 50 heading east toward Clarksburg. She was closely followed by four other Regulators and Professor George Willard. The esteemed council had decided at the last minute that if the scouts did find the rumored settlement, it would be a good idea to have someone there with the direct authority to negotiate peaceful relations and eventual passage along Route 50. Amy personally found the presence of the councilor a burden despite his pleasant nature. As far as she was concerned, he only added a huge security risk while diluting her personal command authority among her troopers. But orders were orders and she had a job to do.

Amy silently shook her head in bewilderment as that thought crossed her mind. Seemingly less than six months ago, she had been a housewife, mother and substitute teacher in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. She had thought she had been happy. She had tried to find fulfillment in raising her son, a part-time teaching career, and a mediocre marriage to a husband who was usually travelling. But now, her old life was gone and she was routinely leading combat troops into battle. And she was good at it, really good. Perhaps she was born for it. Who could have ever anticipated the bizarre series of events that would steal her family and youth, but, at the same time, put her into the position she was born to fill, a military officer.

“Something funny, LT?” asked Ray Parker who had ridden up beside Amy while she had been lost in thought.

Amy realized that she had been smirking before clearing her expression. “Just thinking about how strange life can be sometimes. I mean none of us are where we would have thought we’d be a year ago, but…” She hesitated, wondering if she was revealing too much to a subordinate. “… well… you know,” she concluded weakly.

Parker, who had volunteered for the Regulators shortly after they had joined the Reclaimers, did indeed understand his Lieutenant. He shifted uncomfortably on his horse as he again adjusted his baggy blue coveralls. It had proved difficult to find a uniform to fit his boney, thin frame and he continually suffered from the excess fabric getting in his way.

“I do understand completely, ma’am,” Ray responded in his thick North Carolina accent. “Most people think the Capture ruined their lives. Not me,” he said shaking his head emphatically. “Hell, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Really?” Amy asked, genuinely interested given Parker’s zealous reaction. “How so?”

“Well, you might find this hard to believe, given my obvious sparkling personality,” he started with a crooked smirk. “But I didn’t have the easiest life before…”

“Get your fat ass in gear, Parker. The brake pads on that Ford ain’t gonna replace themselves,” screamed Jim Gaston, the manager at Palmer’s Tire and Auto Center. “Jesus, those donuts were for everyone. I swear if you weren’t Donny’s cousin…,” his voice trailed off in disgust as the angry man left the break room muttering and headed out to the shop floor.

Ray Parker once again felt the daily shame of his existence as he greedily licked the donut glaze off his fingers and started the process of lifting his 450-pound bulk out of the well-worn break room couch. He knew that merely standing up shouldn’t cause someone to be short of breath, but he was more than used to his extra-large size and the limitations that it had imposed throughout his brief twenty-three years.

He made his way toward the office counter to get his work orders for the day and was rewarded with the one thing that had made the last year working here worthwhile.

“Morning, Ray,” Sandy Chambers cheerfully greeted him with that warm inviting smile and those gentle eyes that always made his heart ache. Her long flowing blond hair nicely framed her low-cut blouse which in turn displayed the cleavage of her ample breasts. Physically, she was perfection, but more importantly, she actually treated him like a human being. He was hopelessly in love. They had gone to the same high school, but they certainly hadn’t traveled in the same social circles. In fact, until she had coincidentally started working here at the garage, she hadn’t known that Ray Parker had even existed. But now, he got to see and talk to her every day. And, she actually talked back.

Deep down, he knew that he was just torturing himself. There was no way a beauty queen like Sandy would ever end up with the likes of him. He also knew that she was probably just being nice to him out of pity, but it didn’t matter. She was the one kind, bright spot in an otherwise gloomy existence and if seeing her briefly throughout the course of a work day was the best he could hope for, so be it.

“Hey Sandy. What do ya got for me, today?” he asked, beaming at her.

She handed him several sets of work orders encased in plastic sheaths to protect them from the grime of the shop floor. “Looks like Jim’s got you on that brake job first thing this morning. Then you got a tire patch and an alignment before lunch. Good Luck. Come back and see me when you’re done. I get lonely back here,” she said smiling.

When she had first said that to Ray months ago, he had naively thought she was actually flirting with him. His misinterpretation could be easily overlooked given his total lack of experience with the opposite sex, but he had still been crushed to find out later that she said that same phrase to everyone in the shop. She was just naturally friendly.

“Thanks,” he said, trying to look as cool as possible as he waddled away toward the shop floor.

“About damn time fatso,” yelled Jim Gaston as Ray entered the work area. “Sammy’s already got the truck up on the lift. Get to work. I promised the man it would be done by 9:30.”

As usual, Ray silently accepted the abuse and meekly collected his tools for the brake job. He was well into his work when he noticed two of the other technicians, who seemed to especially delight in picking on him, approaching. Normally, Ray’s cousin Donny kept the other’s antics under control, but today was Donny’s day off and there was no one to rein them in. Ray braced himself for the expected barrage of insults and physical abuse.

His current job had turned out to be even worse than high school. He had always thought that the bullying would stop once he was out in the real world. Unfortunately, harsh reality had taught him that bullies didn’t just disappear after high school. They got jobs just like everyone else and for the most part, they continued their sadistic ways right into the workplace. Worst still, sometimes they became the boss.

“Hey Ray Porker,” Sammy Rico opened the verbal attack with the shop’s favorite derogatory nickname for Ray.

“I’m busy here,” Ray responded, pretending to be so engrossed in his work as to not be affected by their presence.

“Not too busy for that pretty little chica, Sandy,” he smiled cruelly before continuing his harassment. “I see you in there flirting with her every day. You like her, don’t you?” Rico asked in a mocking tone.

Ray failed to keep the flush of embarrassment from flooding over his face. “No,” he answered weakly while still fiddling with the exposed brake pad.

Rico and the other mechanic, Rob both laughed, “Bullshit, Porker. You got it bad for her. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes. I bet you’re getting a fat tiny chubby just thinking about her now.” Rob continued, laughing and slapping his knee as if Rico were a professional comedian instead of just a juvenile bully. “It’s fucking hil-a-rious that you think your fat butt would ever have a chance with that fine piece of ass.”

Ray could feel his anger beginning to rise, but he knew all too well it was exactly the reaction that Rico and his crony were trying to illicit. They wanted to put the “Ranting Fat Man Show” on hilarious display to the entire shop. For the millionth time in his brutal life, Ray swallowed his pride and tried to ignore his assaulters until they got bored and left him alone.

“Can you image Rob, his gigantic ass getting on top of that pretty little thing?” Sammy continued mercilessly.

“Crush her like a fucking pancake,” Rob agreed. “Of course, it’s not like he could ever find his pecker under all that flab to do anything anyway. I bet you haven’t even seen the damn thing in years. Hell, he’s got bigger tits than she does.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Rob. Sandy would probably be able to fish it out for him. She’s pretty handy with a stick shift, if ya know what I mean,” Sammy announced proudly while grabbing his own crotch suggestively.

Ray’s mental wall dropped ever so briefly as he took the bait and snorted, “Yeah right, like someone as nice as Sandy would ever be with a jerk like you.”

The two bullies erupted into hoots and laughter, “Well holy shit, Rob. Looks like Porker here doesn’t like the fact that his precious Sandy is a bit on the slutty side.”

Ray frowned and instantly regretted his outburst. After all their months of probing, they had finally found a weak spot in his physiological armor and he knew they were going to exploit it without mercy.

“That’s right big fella,” Sammy continued the attack. “Didn’t you know that your little angel has been with everyone here at the shop? Hell, even Jim bends her over his desk in the office from time to time.”

“Shut up, Sammy,” Ray demanded as he felt his control slipping and his anger rising. He knew it wasn’t true. He knew that the asshole was just saying those things to get a rise out of him, but it didn’t matter. He was verbally defiling the only person that gave his life any real joy, even if it was only in his own mind.

“Oh yeah, Porker. She gives one hell of a great blow job too. Hell, maybe if you weren’t so damn disgusting, she’d give you a little action. It’s not like the slut has a lot of standards.”

“Leave me alone!” Ray yelled loudly enough to be heard in the office, momentarily catching both bullies off guard.

Jim Gaston came bursting into the shop floor, “What the fuck is going on?” he demanded. “Parker, what the hell is your problem?”

“Everything’s all right, chief,” Sammy announced. “It just turns out that the big fella here’s all in love with our Sandy,” he said while trying to suppress his previous laughter. “And he doesn’t like hearing the truth, if ya know what I mean,” he said while nonchalantly winking at his boss.

Jim Gaston looked disgusted. “Jesus, Parker, as if you don’t have enough problems, you’re gonna fall in love with that whore?” he turned back toward the office door shaking his head in revulsion.

A lifetime of abuse finally overcame Ray Parker’s mind. Every bullying incident he had endured over the course of his life came flooding in all at once. Enough was enough, he didn’t care anymore. Ray Parker didn’t even realize that he had picked up the 30-pound pneumatic impact wrench. Nor did his mind really register the fact that he had lifted the heavy tool above his head. He did, however, make the conscience decision to swing the wrench down toward the back of Jim Gaston’s head with all the force his large frame could muster. However, a split second before the tool impacted the fragile head of his boss, the Capture began and Ray Parker’s own brain was suddenly flooded with an overload of noise and light seemingly coming from everywhere all at once. The effect completely overwhelmed his consciousness and just like that, the murderous, twenty-three-year-old, morbidly obese Ray Parker ceased to exist, only to be reborn thirty years later a new man, completely free of the twin prisons of his overweight body and his past. Thanks to the sheer inertia of Ray’s swing, his boss, Jim Gaston, ceased to exist at that moment as well, although his condition turned out to be far more permanent.

“… and I guess you could say that I was reborn on the day of the Awakening as a completely new person,” Ray said smiling at his Lieutenant.

“So, no details, huh? That’s all you’re going to give me? You didn’t have an easy life, but now it’s better?” Amy questioned, a bit disappointed in Ray’s nebulous explanation.

“That’s it, ma’am. I was just say’n that the Capture gave us all the opportunity to not have to play the hand we were originally dealt,” Ray said smiling. “For some that’s a curse, but for others, like me, it was the greatest blessing imaginable.” He gave a brief, casual, salute before kicking his horse in the side and moving on ahead in the line to take point for the detail.

Amy was genuinely surprise as she watched the North Carolinian trot on ahead. She had always thought of Ray as a bit of a dumb hick. She now realized that her perception was probably based more on her bias of his accent than in any reality. A flash of familiar guilt crossed her mind as she considered the wisdom of Ray’s words.

To most, the Capture had been a horrible, traumatic thing, but now, for the first time thanks to Ray, she realized that there were probably many others whose lives had actually been improved. She had always assumed that she was the only one who felt that way and had actively hid those feelings from others. She was afraid she would become a pariah if she ever admitted the truth. She had a hard time even admitting it to herself, but the fact was she was happier and more fulfilled now than she had ever been as a wife and mother. As the forbidden thought scurried across her mind, she was forced to fight the choking guilt once again. What kind of a monster could feel so little for the loss of their husband and child? Apparently, she was that type of monster and her feelings toward her own child weren’t even the worse thing she had done to qualify for that title since the Awakening. She knew that one day there would have to be a reckoning for the events back at the mine, but until that time, she was certain she was now living the life she was truly meant to have.

Jason Rawlings sat close to the campfire and warmed his hands. The humidity of the summer was fading and the night was chilly in the higher mountain elevations where the Reclaimers found themselves camped. He looked up at the mysterious orbiting object in the sky known as “the Egg” and let his imagination drift. Currently, the space structure was catching the light just right and was easily the brightest object in the moonless night sky. He knew that thousands of his fellow humans were trapped on that thing, but for what purpose, he had no idea. Was it a weapon, a ship of some type, or simply an observation platform? There was no good answer, but he suspected that if humanity was ever going to truly recover from this catastrophe, then the mystery of the “the Egg” would have to be solved.

He redirected his attention out onto the field where dozens of other campfires appeared like a miniaturized version of the twinkling night sky he had just been observing. He missed being in the midst of his fellow travelers, but Captain Olvera had won the argument in the council concerning Jason’s increased need for personal security. So, the area where he placed his tent each night was now always separated and cordoned off from the rest of the Reclaimer’s masses to protect him from the constant crush of supplicants and well-wishers. He had become a genuine celebrity among the Reclaimers, not just a leader, and for the first time in his life, Jason could empathize with all the movie stars who had described their fame as a prison.

He could have dealt with just the fame, but the worship was truly disturbing to him. Try as he might to discourage it, he was increasingly being referred to as a prophet, a modern-day Moses, by a larger and larger portion of the Reclaimers. Any time he moved through the camps, he found himself in the center of a crowd of people while blue uniformed Regulators desperately attempted to push the tide back and clear him a path.

People would call for his blessing, beg for his advice on how to live a good life, or attempt to shower him with gifts. On more than one occasion, people actually asked him to tell them the future, as if he were some sort of oracle. And the more that Jason protested and insisted that he was just an ordinary man, the more people proclaimed that his very refusal to accept the mantel of prophet was, in itself, just more proof that he was in fact one.

The problem had gotten exponentially worse since the attack of the implanted drones. People refused to believe the truth no matter how many times he explained it. It was as if a Las Vegas magician meticulously explained all his tricks on stage, but the audience continued to think he was actually magical despite all his protests to the contrary. It was almost infuriating. Perhaps it was because Jason had not been raised in a religious home, but he just could not understand how people could interpret a simple game programmer’s mistake as direct intervention by God to save their lives. And as if that had not been bad enough, the coincidental rain storm that followed the attack and extinguished all the fires had only made matters worse because he had no explanation for that. The term “Act of God” had taken on a whole new meaning at that point and the situation felt beyond his control.

“You seem deep in thought, my friend,” Dr. Charles Patel observed, breaking the silence.

Patel and Mike Hagen were the only two sharing the fire with Jason. His circle of trusted friends had felt like it had been steadily shrinking since the drone attack and he was worried that he was starting to lose touch with the common man.

“Jesus,” thought Jason. “Did I really just used the term ‘Common Man’?” Maybe this whole situation really was starting to go to his head. Which was all the more reason to stay close to people he could trust like Mike and Charles. He was confident that they would bring him back to Earth if he started really acting the part of “The Prophet”.

“Just got a lot on my mind,” Jason finally answered the Indian.

“Indeed, you do, my friend. Heavy is the head that wears the crown of thorns,” responded Patel.

“Don’t even joke about that crap!” Jason snapped in a flash of anger.

Unflustered, Patel smiled, “On the contrary Jason, it is when you start taking the situation too seriously that problems will begin to arise. People’s spiritual beliefs are funny things. The very act of challenging them tends to only make them stronger. In other words, there is nothing more for you to do. Just continue to be honest and direct with the people and the truth will eventually follow. Besides, I believe we have several far more serious concerns at the moment than your impeding accession to Godhood.”

Jason slowly nodded, “Yeah, sorry about biting your head off. It’s just… frustrating, but you’re right, we do have bigger problems.”

“Yeah, we do, like the fact that we’re running out of food,” injected Mike, who had conspicuously stayed out of the previous conversation. “There are just too many of us now and the area we’ve been traveling through is just too rural to have enough supplies to forage. People are starting to starve, Jason.”

“Are we supposed to start turning people away now?” Jason asked bitterly, unintentionally taking his frustration out on the teenager.

Mike looked genuinely hurt, “Of course not, Jason. But we need a plan. I had hoped that we would find enough food in Clarksburg to get us out of these mountains, but if there really is a settlement there, we got a problem.”

“Which is?” Patel asked.

Jason looked at Patel suspiciously. Charles had an annoying tendency to force people to fully verbalize their thoughts by asking questions with obvious answers.

“Because they are going to claim any food in the town is theirs,” Mike said. “And then we get the nasty little choice of either starving or taking what we need by force.”

Patel shrugged, “Those are not the only possibilities. Perhaps they have plenty of food and are willing to part with enough for our immediate needs.”

Jason snorted, “From your mouth to God’s ear.”

Charles leaned in close to Jason and spoke directly into his right ear. “I thought that was exactly what I was doing,” Patel said while grinning at Jason.

All three men chuckled aloud, and for the first time in weeks, Jason relaxed and felt the stress drain away, at least for a few minutes.

“Well we won’t know anything until George and the scouts get back. Until then we hold out here as best as we can. We’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it, in other words,” Jason said while opening the road atlas of Virginia and West Virginia, “Until then, let’s talk about our next destination.”

Mike looked confused, “We’re not going directly to Fort Meade?”

` “We have to make a stop first in Chantilly, Virginia,” replied Jason.

“And where is that?” asked Mike.

Jason flipped a page on the atlas and pointed, “Right here, about 25 miles west of Washington.”

“And the reason for this unexpected detour?” Patel asked, raising an eyebrow.

“We need to make a quick stop at my old apartment,” Jason said, bracing himself for the response.

Patel looked disappointed, “That’s quite the diversion for a personal trip down memory lane. I’m quite certain that everyone here”, Charles gestured all around them, “would like a similar trip to investigate their own homes.”

“No,” Jason shook his head, “It’s not like that at all. My NSA security key card is there. We’re going to need that to get access to the Theia Project facility and its systems once we arrive.”

“And you expect it to still be there and in working condition thirty years later?” Charles asked incredulously.

“It was in a fireproof floor safe in my apartment. Even if the building has burned down, it should still be there,” Jason explained hastily.

“I’m somewhat familiar with the area. It was well developed if I remember,” Patel countered, “Do you think it will be safe to bring everyone through there with all the decay? We’ve had a policy to avoid such areas in the past.”

“I’d call it heavy suburbs, but you’re right. It probably will not be the safest route to Fort Meade for all these people,” Jason agreed.

“Why not just send a small group to retrieve the key while the bulk of the group keeps on the safer back roads,” Mike suggested. “The retrieval party can catch back up once they have it. It shouldn’t be hard with the speed we’re going.”

“I like the idea,” Jason said. “But am I going to be able to get away from the Reclaimers without some of them really freaking out? And before you ask, I know how strange that sounds.”

Charles considered the question, “I think it would be best if the mission were kept secret, but you’re right, your absence will be noticed. It could cause some unrest.”

“Just tell everyone he left on a spiritual quest, or some other mystic bullshit,” Mike suggested.

“Absolutely not,” protested Jason. “I will not encourage that crap under any circumstances.”

“Well then, we’ll just keep your trip a secret. With these new security measures the Captain put in place, most people never get to see you anyways. It shouldn’t be that hard to divert people’s attention from your absence for a few days,” said Charles in his usual wise sounding tone.

“Sounds reasonable, as always, Doc. We’ll discuss it with the rest of the council once George gets back and we know what’s happening in Clarksburg.”

“Hey Doctor Patel, can I ask you a question totally off subject here?” Mike Hagen asked once he was sure Jason was finished with his thought.

“Please Mike, such formalities have no place here. Call me Charles, as I’ve asked you before.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Of course, you can ask me a question.”

“It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot about the future lately,” Mike started.

“That’s good. At least it’s better than dwelling on the past,” reassured Jason.

“Yeah… but maybe not,” Mike said sheepishly, “I mean, what kind of future do we have? And I don’t just mean us. I’m talking about humanity in general.”

Both Jason and Patel looked at each other seriously. The subject had indeed been discussed many times privately among the senior council members but no solution had been decided upon and the subject had been tabled until their more immediate circumstances had stabilized.

Mike continued, oblivious to the other’s unspoken communication, “I mean it’s pretty obvious that there’s no kids and we’re all old. If it keeps going like this, we’re gonna die out as a species. My question is how old is too old to have children? Are we too late?” he asked worriedly.

Charles took a deep breath before starting, “First of all, you are very right to be worried. The situation is of great concern to us all and the human race is definitely going to go to the brink even in the best of circumstances. But to answer your question, there is no firm age prior to menopause at which child birth becomes impossible. It’s certainly not unheard of for woman to still have children after the age of fifty. However, the risks to the mother and the child in such pregnancies are very great,” he concluded solemnly.

“So, we still got a chance,” Mike said hopefully.

Jason smiled and gently placed his hand on his friend’s broad shoulder, “Always.”

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