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Chapter 12 - The Tower and the Future

Jason led the horse ridden by Grayson through the forest of evergreens and down into yet another steep valley. The boy had jabbered almost nonstop since leaving Clarksburg and Jason could feel his irritation beginning to rise as the throbbing in his lower back intensified. He had bitten back the phrase “Grayson please shut the fuck up!” at least three times in the last hour and he knew it was only a matter of time before he cracked and succumbed to the increasing temptation.

The party had been traveling through the mountainous terrain for much of the day and one glance at the dropping sun through the pine needle obscured sky told Jason that darkness would soon be upon them. If they weren’t going to get there soon, then they needed to start looking for a secure campsite for the night. While the boy’s memory for directions and landmarks was indeed miraculous, his six-year-old’s sense of time and distance still left much to be desired.

“How much longer, Grayson?” asked Jason, fighting to keep the irritation out of his voice.

The man-child looked worried, “I’m not really sure, maybe one minute?” he said in the form of a question.

“I think you mean one hour, sweetheart,” gently corrected the willowy Gail as she patted the boy’s knee comfortingly from her own horse.

“Yeah that’s what I said,” insisted Grayson childishly. “It’s not far. It’s right on the other side of this next hill.”

At their current pace in the rough terrain, Jason judged that it would take them at least another hour and a half to crest the next set of hills. If the boy was right, then they might have just enough sunlight left to get an initial inspection of the tower in before nightfall. And if he was wrong, then they would set up camp and start again in the morning.

The time passed slowly as their horses carefully navigated the steep landscape. As they finally neared their objective, Carlo and Gerald were no longer able to contain their enthusiasm. They simultaneously kicked their horses and trotted ahead to hopefully be the first to spot the prize. Jason followed at a slower pace with Grayson, but just as he was about to top the ridge himself, a very nasty thought occurred to him for the first time. Could this all be an elaborate ruse? It would have certainly been very clever of Sonya to tempt them with the possibility of a hover tower to get the doctor that she so desperately wanted. But what about Grayson? Could she get a child to go along with a bluff like that for this long? No, certainly not, Jason thought. But then Jason studied Grayson’s face a bit more closely. He could be much older than he looked. He could even be a very young looking forty-five, which would translate to a fifteen-year-old. And there was plenty of guile at that age to pull a con like this off. Plus, it would have the huge benefit of keeping the con from ever being exposed. Grayson could just lead them around the woods for a day or two, then start crying about how he let them down because he couldn’t find the tower. How mad could the Reclaimers actually be at a six-year-old? They would return to Clarksburg disappointed, but none the wiser that they had been duped.

Jason’s paranoia was reaching a fever pitch when Carlo yelled back from the top of the hill. “It’s here, and it looks pretty much intact!”

Relief washed over Jason. What did it say about him and this world that he could seriously start questioning whether he was being scammed by a six-year-old? He tried to shake off the feeling but knew that the idea would forever stick in his mind. Just because it hadn’t happened this time didn’t mean that someone might not attempt the trick in the future. He would never be able to quite trust the true age of an outgrown again. It was just too easy to be deceived.

When he finally joined Carlo and Gerald at the crest of the hill, all thoughts of deception were instantly pushed from Jason’s mind by the stunning sight of the ominous looking dark tower resting comfortably on the floor of the steep valley. A long trail of cracked and fallen trees betrayed the tower’s path as it had crashed from the sky and slid through the forest. Miraculously, the tower had settled in its normal upright position with only a slight lean toward the north end of the valley.

“There is no way that thing crashed from the sky and landed like that. It’s impossible,” observed Carlo.

“Maybe someone managed to pilot it in, at least to some degree,” Tammy theorized, as the path of splintered trees suggested a less than graceful landing.

“Let’s be honest. None of us has the slightest idea how these things work. For all we know there could be some emergency system that keeps the damn thing upright,” commented Jason.

“What’dya all standing around here for? We’re losing daylight,” yelled Gerald Farmer excitedly as he snapped the reins on his ancient horse and started working his way down the valley toward the tower.

The rest of the group was quick to follow and soon they were all riding along the floor of the valley enveloped by the long shadow of the crashed hover tower. The sun had long ago slipped beneath the tops of the hills causing the remaining light in the basin to take on a pale grey hue that seemed to sap away any remaining color. It had the effect of giving the tower an even more intimidating and malevolent aura than its glassy black exterior normally projected.

“I don’t wanna go,” mumbled Grayson as his eyes transfixed on the looming tower.

Gail stopped both their horses, “You said he didn’t have to go close. He did his job,” she said protectively.

Jason nodded, “That’s fine. Why don’t you two start clearing out a campsite and collecting some firewood. At least there’s plenty of that around,” he said gesturing toward the hundreds of downed trees that had been caught in the violent descent of the hover tower.

The remaining members of the party eagerly covered the lingering distance to the wreck, then quickly dismounted and secured their horses. An initial visual examination of the exterior revealed that the damage had been a bit more severe than could be seen at a distance. Some of the black glass siding that encased the vessel was broken and scattered across the valley leaving small swaths of the tower’s superstructure exposed. To everyone’s great relief, there were no signs of any automated weaponry mounted on the vessel. It was likely that they too would have been destroyed in the crash as debris of every conceivable origin littered the area, including human remains.

Jason was immediately relieved that Grayson had wanted to stay behind, as the scene before them reminded Jason of some of the more violent horror films he had seen in his short life. After almost four months exposed in the hot, summer wilderness, there wasn’t too much that was immediately identifiable as human, but the hundreds of skulls were a grisly give away to the tragedy that had taken place. The unmistakable signs of predators and scavengers appeared throughout the crash site. Their macabre work had been so thorough that barely any flesh or tissue could be seen among the shredded coveralls which had been dispersed over a wide area.

“My God,” Tammy practically whispered. “No wonder all of those poor children were too scared to come back here.”

“It’s a miracle that anyone survived, much less was able to hike out of here and find help,” added Jason. “Sherry, from the looks of it, do you think it’s safe to enter?”

Sherry Radisson had been a structural engineer in her previous life and had easily been able to convince Jason that her services might be useful at the crash site. Her vibrant personality and excitement had not been dampened by the grim scene. In fact, Jason doubted that she even noticed the human carnage laid out before her, as her attention had been firmly fixed on the tower since the moment they had arrived in the valley.

“It’s a bizarre lattice structure, but it should make the thing sturdy as hell. It looks a lot like the one that attacked us, but of course I didn’t really get a lot of time to study that one,” announced Sherry, fascinated.

“Will it handle us traipsing around in it?” questioned Olvera.

The engineer shrugged, “I’d say the superstructure should easily support our whole party, but you never know what other internal damage there could be. A floor collapse is a real possibility. We should definitely limit the number of people in any one area.”

“I knew it was a longshot, but I guess we can totally discount the possibility of flying this thing out of there,” Jason asked.

Sherry shook her head, “I’m not an aerospace engineer and even if I was, I wouldn’t have any reference for this thing. But judging from the amount of external damage, I can’t imagine that it would be safe to fly even if the engines were working.”

Jason nervously checked the sky and attempted to gauge its quickly fading light. “Let’s get some torches going. I want to get at least a quick look into that thing before we lose all the light. I don’t think I’d be able to sleep otherwise.”

The walk back into Clarksburg had been a short one, but with each nearing step, Amy’s apprehension grew. It was different from the first time they had visited the town. She could feel hidden, watching eyes crawling all over her body like ants swarming over a forgotten chunk of cookie on the floor. Charles Patel, however, seemed oblivious to any covert observation as he futilely attempted causal conversation with a tight-lipped Sonya.

At last, the small group reached the same court house building where Amy had encountered the Clarksburg people for the first time.

“All right missy, hand them over,” ordered Sonya, wearing her normal severe expression.

Amy returned a confused look and Sonya once again rolled her eyes.

“Your guns, genius. Hand them over.”

“That wasn’t part of the deal,” Amy said defensively.

“Neither was you coming here,” countered Sonya. “So, either hand them over or stay out here with Frank and James. But you aren’t coming inside with those weapons. Go ahead. Make up your mind. I haven’t got all day.”

“I think it’s OK, Lieutenant. We’re here to help these people,” Charles said in his usual wise and comforting tone.

Frowning, Amy unslung her rifle and handed it to the dirty man Sonya had referred to as Frank.

“All your guns,” insisted Sonya while pointing to the handgun holstered on Amy’s hip.

“Fine,” Amy said flatly as she removed the gun and handed it as well to Frank.

“That’s better,” said Sonya. “Well, come on you two. We’ve got patients to look at.”

Just as they were about to enter the building, Sonya gestured to her two armed escorts, “You two morons stay out here and keep any Nosey Nancies from poking around. This isn’t some show.” The two lumbering men shrank back from her words but obeyed without comment.

Once inside, Sonya led them directly into what had once been court room “A” for the District Court of Northern West Virginia. The room had been reconfigured from its once intimidating nature, into a makeshift hospital ward. Ten beds of varying configurations were scattered throughout the room. Clotheslines had been strung up between the beds with tattered and stained sheets draped over them to give the patients some semblance of privacy. The patients themselves were meekly sitting on the beds, waiting with blank stares upon their faces.

“Wasn’t there an actual medical facility in this town?” asked Charles.

Sonya shook her head, “The buildings weren’t safe. We got whatever we could from them, but there wasn’t much that was still viable after all this time. Whatcha see is whatcha got.”

“You told Jason that you had a pregnant woman here. Are all these patients pregnant?”

Sonya nodded, “You’re looking at the Clarksburg Maternity Ward.”

“Your people have been busy,” said Amy offhandedly.

Sonya scowled at the comment, “One person in particular, actually. A real right bastard.”

“One man is responsible for all these pregnancies?” asked Charles incredulously.

“That’s right. A real sicko. He was one of the few adult survivors of the tower crash. The pervert figured out the true mental ages of these poor children. Then he proceeded to manipulate them into sex just like any fucking pedophile would.”

Amy’s face flashed with disgust and anger as she finally noticed the childlike expressions worn by all the patients. “That sick bastard! These are all outgrowns?”

Sonya nodded gravely, “Yep, we think one is as young as two.”

“Where is this… person now?” Amy practically spat out.

Sonya raised an eyebrow at Amy’s anger, “Oh he was a real charmer actually. He was the leader here for the first few weeks. Even I believed in him, I’m ashamed to say.”

“Where is he?” Amy asked again.

“After it became obvious what was going on”, Sonya gestured toward all the waiting woman, “I killed him myself. We threw his body out in the woods for the buzzards. Burial was too good for the likes of him.”

Sonya’s final words hung in the air for several moments before Charles dragged the conversation back to a more practical course. “Why are they all here? They certainly don’t need to be hospitalized at this stage of their pregnancy.”

“They’re here waiting for you, idiot,” Sonya said in her now familiar exasperated tone. “However, we do have to keep them all under very close supervision. Remember their actual ages, right?”

Charles let Sonya’s verbal rebuke wash over him, ignoring it and refocusing on his task, “So, you’d like me to examine them all?”

“Of course, but most importantly, we need you to train us to deliver these babies when it’s time. That is unless you want to stay?” she said with the slightest grain of hope.

Charles politely refused the offer then commenced with his examinations. While the doctor performed his duties, Amy finally could attempt to talk with Sonya about her people. Now that her primary concern with the pregnancies was being addressed, Sonya appeared to let her guard down slightly and information started to be exchanged between the two women.

The people of Clarksburg had accumulated much of the same knowledge about the Capture and the Awakening that the Reclaimers had. However, in their case the stories had been amassed from people passing through the town. Typically, the travelers were desperately trying to go back to their old lives by returning to the homes that they still so vividly remembered. Sonya didn’t know if any of those souls ever found what they were looking for, but she did know that many had never made it out of the valley. Mangled bodies were frequently discovered by the town’s hunting parties, victims of wildlife and human predators both.

The population of Clarksburg was smaller than Amy had assumed. Only 126 people lived in the town at the moment. Sonya confirmed that most of the population had come from the crash of the hover tower, and there had been a much larger number of people at one time. Unfortunately, many had died of infections without access to the precious antibiotics that they had once taken so much for granted. Of the survivors, most were outgrowns of varying ages. This gave the town a very unique demographic as the small number of true adults tried to manage and care for a much larger population of children. It was not unlike a boarding school or, perhaps more precisely, a juvenile detention center.

“So… what did you do before?” Amy asked Sonya as Charles began his fifth examination of the day.

The short, stocky woman’s expression instantly turned sour, “What the hell does that got to do with anything nowadays?” she spat.

Amy raised her hands in a surrendering gesture, “Whoa, I didn’t mean anything by it. I was just curious, that’s all. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine.”

Several minutes of silence followed as both woman watch the doctor perform his rounds. Amy was disappointed that she had inadvertently destroyed any rapport the two women had been building. She was actually beginning to like the tough woman standing beside her.

“Housekeeping,” Sonya finally said in almost a whisper.

“Excuse me?” responded Amy, surprised by the sudden break in the silence.

“The answer to your question. I was in housekeeping. You know… the maids that come and clean up the hotel rooms?”

Amy nodded.

“Yeah, well that was me. But that doesn’t define me, damn it. I was only nineteen for God’s sake. I had my whole damn life ahead of me. I was gonna make something of myself. I had plans for fuck’s sake.”

Amy knew when to shut up and just listen. She only nodded, encouraging the woman to unburden herself.

“I was getting my GED and getting my life on track. I had all the time in the world. Shit, believe it or not, I was fucking wicked hot at nineteen. I could have had just about any of those greased up losers from the neighborhood if I had wanted them. I had bigger plans…” She paused and Amy could swear she saw the formation of a tear in the corner of the gruff woman’s eye. “… but, of course, that all went down the fucking toilet in the blink of an eye. We got our lives stolen from us. All of us,” Sonya ended bitterly while stealthily wiping away the forming tear. She recovered quickly and the stoic mask she normally wore was once again firmly in place, hiding the abundant pain and regret that swirled violently underneath.

Amy only nodded.

“Umm … sorry about that,” Sonya said, almost embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to unload on you like that. I don’t know why I said all those things to you.”

“It’s OK,” said Amy gently. “Sometimes a stranger is the only one we can really open up to.”

Sonya looked unconvinced, “Maybe.”

“Are you leading these people all by yourself?” asked Amy.

“Yeah, ever since I got rid of that sick bastard, Wayne,” Sonya confirmed.

“You know you don’t have to do this alone. You could come with us and that way our doctors can help with the deliveries when it’s time,” suggested Amy.

Sonya actually laughed, a deep, throaty, crackling sound. “Are you kidding me? You people don’t give up, do you? I was wondering when the recruiting pitch would start.”

Amy frowned, “It’s not a recruiting pitch. It’s a good survival option for you and your people. Do you think you’ve seen the worst of it? This world is an even more dangerous place than you know,” she said seriously.

“We’re not going to ‘bend the knee’ to you and your Mosiah. I’ve already seen what a corrupt leader can do and we’ve already been warned about the cult you people have going.”

“It’s not a cult, damn it,” Amy bit back angrily, “It’s a community and a dammed good one. Your people would be lucky to join it. Do you believe every little rumor that comes floating through your town?”

Sonya raised an eyebrow in surprise, “OK, convince me.”

“What?” Amy asked, confused.

“Convince me that my people would be better off following your little merry band all over God’s creation.”

Amy took a deep breath to calm herself then proceeded to list all the advantages included in life with the Reclaimers. She watched Sonya’s expressions very carefully and tailored her responses based on those expressions. Amy counted off the reasons on her fingers and, by the time she got to her second hand, Sonya stopped her.

“Enough. I can see you’re a true believer. And I believe you that you think you’re not a cult.”

Amy relaxed a bit, “Good. I guess that’s a start at least.”

“This Jason has given you no proof of the existence of this magic machine of his?”

“How could he? Do you have any proof of your old life? Besides, that’s why we’re going to Maryland. If it’s there and working, great. If it’s not, then at least we’re no worse off than if we had settled down in some small town along the way like you.”

“Except you’ve lost a lot of people along the way,” countered Sonya. “A trip like this isn’t easy on even the youngest of our bodies. Especially if you’re pregnant.”

“You know as well as I that those deliveries are going to be dangerous to both mother and child. Even with the risks of traveling, their chances are much better if they are with trained professionals when the time comes.”

“Maybe,” Sonya granted, her faint New England accent becoming more prominent.

“They all seem in good condition considering the circumstances. Of course, many have problems effectively communicating what they’re feeling given their mental age,” announced Charles, startling both woman as he approached. “However, the deliveries could be very problematic under these conditions. I seriously doubt that I can sufficiently train your people for all contingencies in the short amount of time that we have.”

“And if they were to travel with you? Would that improve their odds or put them in more danger?” Sonya asked.

“Normally, I would recommend,” Charles cut himself off and began again. “There’s nothing normal about this situation. If you’ll allow them, then I firmly believe they would have greater chances for a healthy birth if they came with us.”

Sonya rubbed her neck in an attempt to massage away the tension that was quickly building up there, “You two stay here and look after them for a few minutes while I go talk to some people.”

Without waiting for a response, Mac swiftly exited the courtroom leaving the two Reclaimers alone with the ten pregnant and confused outgrowns.

“What was that about?” asked Patel.

Amy smiled, “I may have convinced her to join us.”

“All of them?” Charles asked with a bit of shock in his voice.

“I think so,” Amy said, her smile fading with Charles’ tone.

Charles sighed, “The rest of the council will not be thrilled to hear that.”

“Why not? What do they care? We’ve had groups of people joining us from the start.”

Charles looked at the Regulator officer trying to decide if she was being serious. “One of my patients told me a little bit about this place. Did you know that there are around one hundred outgrowns in this group? Not to mention that ten of them are pregnant. We are already having problems feeding everyone without adding another one hundred helpless mouths to feed.”

“They’re not all helpless. Some are old enough to be plenty useful. Besides, I seriously doubt that the Clarksburg folks are going to just abandon all their outgrowns to our care,” Amy said defensively.

Charles shook his head then smirked while silently motioning his hand around the room at the ten outgrown woman sitting on their beds. The point that Sonya had already abandoned the ten girls to their sole care was driven home without him even opening his mouth. Amy found his ability to counterpoint her statement without using a single word infuriating.

“You know what I mean,” she shouted, frustration growing in her voice. “Aren’t you a damned doctor, sworn to help people or something?”

“Calm down, Lieutenant. Of course, I want to help these people. I’m only pointing out that it will not be popular with the council because it will represent an increased burden on the entire group.”

Amy’s indignation at the doctor instantly evaporated when she heard the term ‘burden on the entire group’. She had heard that exact phrase before, in fact, she had said it herself back at the mines. The memory was enough to calm and center her emotions. Because she knew that, just as it had been at the mines, cold logic, not sentimental emotion, would lead to survival.

“OK, Doctor,” Amy said in flat voice that surprised Charles with its coolness.

Charles watched, confused as the Lieutenant wordlessly disengaged from him and wandered over to play with one of the patients who had pulled out a tattered doll. Finally, he shrugged to himself and then followed Amy’s example by trying to help entertain the other nine increasingly restless outgrown children in the room. After about an hour of babysitting, Sonya returned wearing her normal scowl.

“We’ve talked it over,” Sonya announced to the room. “Not all of us are happy with the situation, which includes me, but most of us are willing to come with you.”

Charles looked surprised, “And this is all just for the welfare of these expecting mothers?”

“Not entirely,” she said with a slight shake of her head. “We’ve been getting less confident over the last few weeks about our chances of surviving in this town long term. We’re not idiots. We’ve seen some of these gangs that have come through. We lost two people last week to them. Honestly, we thought your group would finish us off after everything we had heard about you. You got here sooner than we had expected or we would have already been gone.”

The red-haired woman paused as if the next thing she had to say was extremely difficult, “Once I met you folks, I knew all those rumors probably weren’t true. A huge group that slaughters and enslaves people for fun doesn’t have to spend time trying to convince people that they don’t, right?”

“How long do you need before you’re ready to leave?” asked Amy who had been gingerly brushing the hair of one of the pregnant outgrown women.

“We can be ready by tomorrow,” said Sonya flatly. “It’s not like we got a whole lot to take with us.”

Charles looked sideways toward the line of beds and pregnant woman, “Only the future.”

“Jackpot!” an excited voice called from somewhere in the dark corridors of the hover tower.

Jason stopped his digging through a pile of debris and yelled back into the darkness, “Who was that?”

“It’s me,” the voice called back.

Jason rolled his eyes and sighed. “Who’s me?” he asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep the aggravation out of his voice.

“Oh sorry, it’s Mark, sir. I’m one level up from you. I think I found the food stores.”

Jason abandoned his fruitless search through the pile of garbage, grabbed his torch and headed back toward the empty elevator shaft that they had been using to climb between the levels of the tower.

The team had initially entered the tower via the massive, open loading ramp door at the base of the structure. The thick sheet of metal was warped in places from the hard impact of the crash, but still seemed more than strong enough to support their combined weight. The team was extremely cautious at first. In fact, their movements could have been considered timid by most standards as they half expected the floor to collapse after each tender step. However, as time went on and disaster failed to materialize, they became increasingly confident and the speed of the search increased dramatically.

The first few floors of the tower appeared to be dedicated exclusively to cargo loading and storage, which made sense to Jason, but the layout became increasingly bizarre as they raised in levels. Unfortunately, the cargo holds held nothing but unprocessed coal and other chucks of rock that Jason could not identify. This would not be much help to the Reclaimers during their journey, where wood was plentiful and could be harvested anywhere along their path, so they continued the search further up the tower.

When they reached the fourth level, Jason could immediately make out a faint buzzing noise. It was obvious that the sound was being generated artificially, either mechanically or electrically. The idea of any working technology spurred the entire team into action and they quickly spread throughout the level searching for the source of the noise.

The level was filled floor to ceiling with intimidating looking machinery in neat rows, but none of the immense machines were the source of the buzzing sound. They were all built into the structure of the tower itself, perhaps part of the power plant or engines, but all appeared to be inactive. This gave the entire level an increasingly tomb-like feeling as row after row of the dead, mysterious machinery presented itself.

The search continued almost frantically until the origin was finally pinpointed. Mark Rogers was the first to find the expansive console near the center of the level. During the Awakening, Mark had found himself wearing orange coveralls, which he later found out, to his great relief, designated him as an Operator and not a convicted criminal. According to Gerald Farmer, those wearing the orange coveralls had operated all the drone’s machinery and it was assumed, but never confirmed, that they had driven the huge hover towers as well. This was the very reason Jason had included Mark in the expedition to the tower.

Judging only by its dimensions, the console was obviously built for humans to operate, however the actual control layout could not have been less logical in nature. It was approximately ten feet in length with hundreds of unmarked buttons, switches, knobs, and displays littered across its surface. Jason remembered thinking that it looked either like a Radio Shack had puked all over the device or a five-year-old’s idea of a complicated machine. There was no perceived rhyme or reason to anything on the console, but nonetheless, Mark found it somehow familiar.

It was like trying to remember a forgotten locker combination that you had used hundreds of times. If you thought about it too hard, you could never get it correct, but if you cleared your mind and just let your hands work, the locker would pop open almost magically. Mark was experiencing a deep seated muscle memory with the console and he was trying his best to keep his mind clear and allow his hands to just work.

He moved to press a small, yellow button in the lower right hand corner of the console, but his wrist was abruptly grabbed before he could make contact with the device.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” questioned Carlo Olvera while still gripping Mark’s wrist tightly.

The question seemed to snap Mark back to the present. “I … I don’t know. It just felt like it was what I was supposed to do.”

“But you have no idea what pressing that button will do, right?” Olvera asked sharply.

Mark shook his head. “No … look I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything,” he said weakly while looking down at his wrist which was still being tightly restrained by the Captain. “Can I have my hand back, please?”

Carlo released his grip almost reluctantly, “Let’s not go around pushing buttons unless we have some idea what they are going to do, agreed?”

Mark nodded his head, “Again, I’m sorry. It just felt like … I don’t know.”

“Carlo’s right,” said Jason. “We’ve got to be careful here. We might all find things strangely familiar about this place. According to the Freemen, we all spent a lot of time aboard these things. For now, let’s keep our hands to ourselves and try to find what we came for, supplies.”

“Do you know what this monstrosity controls?” asked Gerald while motioning toward the eclectic console.

Mark cocked his head and squinted his eyes as if trying to remember an old dream, “It’s really just a feeling, but I think it controls everything.”

“We’ll come back to it once we’re done with our search and extracted anything of value from the structure,” said Jason in an attempt to keep them on track and complete the initial sweep of the tower before it got too late.

The group continued their exploration, with the fifth floor looking very similar to the fourth, being filled with the same complex looking machinery. But as the group began to make their way to the sixth floor, they were hit by the smell of corruption and rot. Cautiously, they spread out on the level universally wearing contorted expressions of disgust and dreading what they suspected was waiting for them to discover.

The floor was configured as a maximum efficiency dormitory. Built into every inch of wall space were crammed bunk beds stacked five tall. The entire level was a twisting warren of beds, each stack of bunks identical to the next. After only a few minutes of exploring, Tammy made the grim discovery. Her shouts of horror quickly brought the rest of the group to the scene.

The corpses were all piled along the northern wall where the cold physical law of inertia had slammed the fragile bodies at the final, abrupt halt of the hover tower. The predators and scavengers had not yet made their way this far into the structure of the tower. Absent nature’s efficient animal cleaning crews, the remains of hundreds of drones were quickly liquefying in the hot, humid, dark, semi-sealed environment of the tower.

Assaulted by every sense, many members of the group hurried away from the horrid scene cupping their mouths in a vain attempt to prevent themselves from vomiting. Jason didn’t make it far before he lost his battle and retched all over a nearby bunk. Strangely enough, it wasn’t the putrid smell or the ghastly sight, but the sound that had pushed him over the edge. When he had realized that the dripping noise had not been a faulty faucet, but human flesh literally liquefying and dribbling into an ever-spreading pool of organic goo along the metal floor, his revulsion hit the point of no return.

“My God, can you imagine waking up in this thing as it was going down?” asked Tammy as she wiped the vomit off her own chin. “And it’s almost a certainty that the survivors had to crawl out of a pile of bodies like that. No wonder none of them ever wanted to come back here.”

Jason didn’t even want to think about the level of horror that it entailed. One second you’re making breakfast, safe and sound in your own kitchen, the next you’re in a dark room falling from the sky with no idea where you are or how you got there. And just as soon as you begin to regain your senses, the entire thing crashes and you find yourself in a pile of crushed, dead bodies. Increasingly, Jason was realizing just how lucky he was for his Awakening. There was just no comparison between waking up in the peaceful solitude of a cornfield to the painful, violent, gory crashing of a slave ship into a mountain.

The group quickly retreated from the horror of the sixth floor only to be greeted with similar scenes on the seventh and eighth levels. Not wanting to find yet another tragic, disgusting sight, they almost called the search off for the night but Carlo convinced them to proceed to one more floor. Finally, on the ninth level, the party found what appeared to be the storage section.

Jason quickly found his way to where Mark had called out and arrived just as the rest of the group converged on his position. Mark had discovered a series of large storage compartments that contained vast amounts of what appeared to be protein bars. Gerald was quickly able to identify the bars as “Drone Food” and stated that the Freemen had happily eaten them whenever they had gotten a chance.

Jason tore the wrapper off one of the sealed bars, critically inspecting its smooth, unnatural, brown surface. Then cautiously, almost instinctually, he gave the food bar a deep sniff. Satisfied that the bar’s smell wasn’t too offensive, he took a small, tentative bite and began to chew. Everyone in the group watched him expectantly, as if he might fall over dead at any moment.

“Well?” Tammy finally asked once Jason had completed swallowing.

Jason shrugged, “Not bad. Kind of like eating a really bland granola bar. It’s no gourmet food, but it will keep us alive.”

“Well this is just an estimate, but if each of these compartments are similarly full, then we should be good for a while, provided we can get it all out of here and back to the group,” said Tammy.

“That’s really the trick now, isn’t it,” stated Jason. “It’s late. Let’s grab what we can carry for now then make our way back down out of this mausoleum and get some rest. It’s been a long day.”

There was a chorus of grunted agreement as the group began filling their packs with as many of the food bars as possible. Once everyone had as much as they could carry, they began the long, dangerous climb down the ladder in the empty central elevator shaft. The only thing that kept Jason from being paralyzed by his crippling fear of heights during the descent was the fact that he couldn’t see any further down the dark shaft than the flickering torch precariously strapped to Gerald Farmer’s backpack below him on the ladder. Nobody said it, but everyone was relieved to be leaving what they now all thought of as a tomb. And with that thought firmly implanted, the sickening feeling that they were all now tomb robbers was inescapable.

When they finally emerged from the hulking wreck, the sun had long ago set and the deep valley was filled with an oppressive moonless darkness. The explorers quickly made their way toward the beacon of a large campfire about a quarter of a mile up the valley where they had left Gail and Grayson. As they grew closer, it became obvious that the two Clarksburg residents had been busy. The camp ground had been cleared of debris, tents had been erected, and there was some sort of an animal cooking over the fire.

Upon seeing them, Grayson ran to meet the returning group. He slammed into Tammy and would have knocked the poor tiny woman to the ground if he hadn’t simultaneously wrapped his beefy arms around her in a large bear hug. Stunned, Tammy attempted to steady herself and wriggle free from the outgrown’s strong grip and horrendous breath.

“It’s good to see you too, Grayson,” she managed to say, smiling, as she extracted herself from the hug.

Everyone was exhausted and quickly found a place to settle in around the fire. Many crawled into their tents, thankful to have them already set up, and were soon asleep. But the rest opened several of the “Drone Bars” and enjoyed picking small pieces of warm meat off the freshly cooked rabbit that Gail had prepared.

“I’m surprised we didn’t find more weapons on that thing,” said Carlo before slurping a greasy sliver of rabbit meat into his mouth. “I would have thought that all those hover towers would have an arsenal of some sort on board.”

“Maybe we just didn’t find it yet,” suggested Jason. “What I’m more interested in at the moment is seeing if we can get that central elevator working. It would really help in getting all those supplies out of that thing,” Jason turned to Mark. “You think you’d be willing to give that wacky looking console another try tomorrow under more controlled circumstances?”

Mark’s eyes involuntarily shot to Carlo then settled back on Jason, “I can try, but I can’t promise anything. Hell, even if I am pushing the right things, it doesn’t mean anything on that wreck is gonna work.”

“Understood,” agreed Jason. “I’m not expecting miracles, but at least we can try.”

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