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Chapter 13 - Shortcut

Dawn came late to the deep mountain valley and everyone took full advantage of the opportunity to sleep in a little after the tiresome previous day. As usual, it was Carlo Olvera who woke first and finally began to roust the others from their precious sleep.

The day’s goal was clear, to remove as many supplies from the tower as possible. Jason knew that if they couldn’t get the central elevator working, then the process of manually removing the food from the 9th floor was going to be difficult, if not impossible, in one day. It wasn’t like they could just drop the supplies from that distance and still expect to have anything more than crumbs remaining at the bottom. Jason was really hoping for a little good luck today, because getting the food out of the tower was only the first and probably, easiest step. They were still going to have to figure out a way of hauling all those supplies back to the main body of the Reclaimers through the mountainous terrain. Neither problem seemed possible to solve at the moment, but Jason had learned over the past few months to take problems one at a time and often one solution would help with another.

It was decided to keep the occupants of the tower to an absolute minimum during the system test just in case some catastrophic failure occurred. The first test observers would be limited to just Jason, Mark and Sherry Radisson. It was hoped that Sherry would be able to determine any structure problems with the elevator, if they were successful in activating it.

The three of them soon found themselves back at the intimidating looking control console on the third floor. Jason could still make out the faint, electronic buzzing sound that gave him the smallest hope that this console was still active. He looked to Mark, who was nervously staring back at him, and gave a slight nod.

“Go ahead, Mark. Give it a try,” Jason said, encouraging him.

Mark swallowed hard and nodded. He took a deep breath then appeared to let his eyes unfocus in an attempt to clear his mind and allow the muscle memory to take over. His hand reflexively shot toward the same small, yellow button that it had on the previous day. In anticipation, Sherry instinctually grabbed onto some of the nearby machinery to brace herself.

Mark pressed the button and the faint electronic buzzing quickly ramped up to a steady whine. Jason found himself stepping back from the console for fear of an overload causing the machine to explode. But instead, the noise seemed to level out and in the distance the sound of other machinery coming to life could be heard.

“So far, so good,” announced Jason, smiling.

Just as Jason closed his mouth he was forced to close his eyes to protect against a blinding glare as previously unseen lights in the ceiling began flicking on throughout the level. All three people slowly blinked open their eyes and nodded to one another.

“Let there be light,” Mark called out triumphantly.

“It looks like there are lights on the other levels too,” confirmed Sherry after running back to the elevator shaft and peeking toward the other floors.

“Well at least we won’t have to work in the dark,” said Jason as he dowsed their torches with his drinking water. “Now how about that elevator?”

The console now seemed fully alive as the crazy dials and gauges scattered along its surface began to fluctuate wildly and without any perceived pattern. Other buttons began to light up and even flash, creating an overwhelming temptation to press them.

“This is amazing,” beamed Mark. “I have no memory of this thing, but at the same time, it’s so familiar at an instinctual level that I feel like it’s almost part of me.” He then happily flicked his hand across the console, pressing several buttons and moving two sliding controls to their maximum positions as he went. “I think I got it, Jason.”

A loud whirling sound began abruptly as additional machinery kicked on and Sherry once again dashed back to the central shaft to investigate. “Holy shit, there’s an elevator car waiting here. He did it!” she yelled back enthusiastically. “At least visually it looks to be in good shape. I’ll check it out as best as I can.”

Jason slapped Mark on the back, “Outstanding man. Well done.”

Mark radiated pride as he responded, “If I’m reading this right, then everything is operational with the elevator and folks should be able to control it just like any elevator from now on.”

“Well that’s one problem solved. Now we just need to figure out how to get all this food back to the main camp.”

“I might be able to help you there too,” Mark said to Jason cryptically.

“Oh? What did you have in mind?”

Mark pointed to a set of four gauges on the immense console, “You see these here? I’m pretty sure they each represent the status of an engine. I think all four engines are operational.”

Jason blinked hard as the realization of what Mark was suggesting hit home, “Are you telling me ….”

“That I think I can fly this thing. Yes, sir,” Mark finished Jason’s sentence.

“Have you seen the outside of this wreck?” Carlo asked rhetorically. “You honestly think we can safely fly this thing?”

“Sherry’s best guess is that it will hold together, but she’s the first to admit that she’s no expert in this design,” Jason conceded with a shrug. “And what the hell is safe in this world anyway? We need to take some risks and this is exactly the break that we’ve been hoping for.”

“I can do it,” Mark insisted excitedly. He had not been invited to the private conversation taking place a short distance from the tower but he had been surreptitiously listening until he could no longer restrain himself. “I know I can do this,” he repeated in a calmer voice. “Ever since I joined this group all the way back in Fairfield, I’ve felt pretty useless. This is my chance to really contribute.”

Jason and Carlo looked at each other and then back to Mark. Carlo frowned, “You really think you can fly that monstrosity on just muscle memory alone? I mean turning on the lights is one thing, but actually flying that high rise out of this valley, navigating it to somewhere successfully, and then landing it in one piece? And that assumes everything is going to continue to work mechanically, which is absolutely no guarantee with the condition that it’s in. Are you that confident, or should I say arrogant, as to risk all our lives in an attempt to alleviate your own pathetic feelings of inadequacy?”

Jason cringed as Mark’s confidence appeared to instantly deflate under Olvera’s very pointed argument. In just a few sentences, Captain Carlo Olvera had a talent for being able to verbally wither a man to the bone. Often this treatment was well deserved, but Jason thought that, in this case, the captain was being unfair to the enthusiastic operator, but before he could intervene, George Willard spoke up.

“Captain, I hardly think that’s fair to Mark here,” George said diplomatically. “Now I fully understand your concerns and agree with them; however, I think there’s a simple way to mitigate the risks.”

“What are you thinking, George?” asked Jason.

“I suggest a test flight with a very limited crew, perhaps just Mark and one other. I also recommend we continue to unload all the food so that in the unfortunate event of another crash, we don’t lose our supplies. I think the test flight should be to Clarksburg and back. If he can do it without problems, then we load up all our supplies and horses and ride it back to Clarksburg,” George explained.

“Why Clarksburg? Why not all the way back the Reclaimer camp?” Carlo asked.

George raised an eyebrow, “Come on, Captain. Think about it. What do you think is going to happen if another hover tower lands in the camp? At best, it would cause a massive panic.”

Jason nodded, “He’s right. We can’t do that to everyone. We can land in that field outside of Clarksburg without causing too much of a scene. Hell, it’s on our way anyways.”

Carlo grunted his agreement, “OK, then who goes with him on the test flight?”

“I’ll go,” said Jason flatly.

George and Carlo both shook their heads emphatically.

“No way, Jason,” said George. “We aren’t risking you in that thing. Are you forgetting that a lot of people’s hopes are depending on you at the end of this crazy journey?”

“I’ll go,” came the raspy voice of Gerald Farmer. The rumpled Freeman had worked his way up to the group without anyone noticing. “I’ve wanted to ride in one of those things for twenty years and I kinda like the idea of having my own personal chauffer. Plus, fuck walking back through those damned mountains. I’m not sure old Adelene could make it anyways. She’ll be coming with me, of course.”

“Of course,” repeated Jason while wearing a wry smile. “OK, Mark are you sure you still want to try this? If you manage to hurt that old nag of Gerald’s, I’d hate to think what he’d do to you.”

Jason meant the remark as a joke, but Farmer shot Mark a look of pure malevolence at the mere idea of his beloved horse being injured in any way.

It was obvious that the normally timid Mark Rogers was a bit shaken at the idea of sharing the flight with the cantankerous old Freeman. Especially now that the well-being of his beloved, ancient horse now seemed more important than the survival of the two human passengers.

“I’m sure. I know I can do it,” he finally answered with slightly less confidence than he had originally displayed.

“OK then,” Jason said nodding his head. “Let’s get this thing unloaded. Because frankly, if you crash that thing, the rest of us still have a long way to go to get home.”

It took the better part of the day for the group to fully unload all the food supplies from the hover tower, but with the help of the large central elevator, the work seemed to progress quickly. Unfortunately, there were too many dead bodies for the small Reclaimer group to remove from the tower on their own in the limited time available. So, the decision was made to seal the 6th, 7th and 8th floors as best as they could and plan on a larger removal and burial operation once they had secured the tower and proven their ability to fly the behemoth.

At last, Mark and Gerald found themselves alone on the third level of the hover tower in front of the now familiar, bizarre control console. The rest of the group retreated to a safe distance from the tower to give Mark as much room for error as possible, but now that the time had finally come to actually try to fly, Mark was terrified.

“Let’s get this show on the road, son,” prodded Gerald. “If I’m gonna die, I don’t wanna be just standing around waiting for it.”

Mark took a nervous, deep breath then started performing his technique for clearing his mind. Without thinking, his right hand moved forward and pressed a green button in the upper right hand corner of the console. With a soft whirling sound, six massive glass screens lowered from the ceiling, completely surrounding Mark, Gerald and the console in a hexagon made of transparent glass. Panic was the first emotion to materialize as the two men suddenly realized that they appeared to be trapped in a glass prison cell, but Mark quickly pressed the same button and the screens obediently retracted back into the ceiling. Secure in the knowledge that they could leave at any time, Mark once again lowered the screens and the glass, hexagon room quickly reformed.

Within seconds, the six screens started becoming increasing opaque until the two men could no longer see through them. Images then began to appear on the screens, blurry at first, but they quickly became more defined as if someone was focusing a camera. The screens were projecting a landscape view moving from one screen to the next in a continuous 360-degree circle.

“That’s the outside,” Mark shouted as he realized what he was seeing. “We’re looking at a live 360-degree view of the outside. This must be how we navigate.”

Gerald rolled his eyes at Mark’s excited observation. “Yeah, I think I figured that part out,” he said flatly.

Mark’s beaming smile faded as his wild enthusiasm smashed headlong against Farmer’s apathy. The operator fumbled with a few of the controls as he tried to regain his composure.

“It looks like a few of the external cameras suffered some damage in the crash,” Mark reported as he pointed out large cracks which appeared throughout the projected images.

“Is that going to affect flying the thing?” asked Gerald.

Mark shook his head, “I don’t think so.”

“Then what the fuck does it matter? Let’s go already.”

His excitement totally neutralized, Mark’s demeanor took on the appearance of a scolded five-year-old. He frowned then began moving dials on the console. A whirling, high-pitched sound began to increase in volume from all around them.

“All four engines are responding. We are at 50% flight power and climbing,” Mark reported over the increasing noise.

“It sounds like you are actually remembering this shit,” Gerald observed. “I thought this was all just supposed to be muscle memory.”

Mark shook his head. “It’s weird. The more I play with the console, the more familiar it seems. I think I might be starting to experience real memories. For instance, see this indicator here?” he said while pointing to a red light.

Gerald just nodded.

“I know that it means that the main cargo door is still open.” Mark flicked a switch in the lower right hand corner of the seemingly incomprehensible console. The red light began flashing for several seconds, then turned green. “Now it’s closed. That can’t be just muscle memory. I mean I actually knew what those controls were, not just some reflex.”

Gerald shrugged, “You got me. For all we know, all of you people will eventually get all your memories back. But if you ask me, I think you’re much better off without them. Who wants to remember thirty years of being a mindless drone, performing repetitive, menial tasks for decades with no real human contract? Shit, that actually sounds a little bit like my first marriage.”

Despite Gerald’s attempt at humor, the thought chilled Mark. Maybe he was better off never remembering anything that happened over the last thirty years. Would flying this tower eventually open all those potentially horrible memories, like some Pandora’s Box? Did he really have a choice in the matter? He had pushed for the chance to fly this thing. He couldn’t back out now and the truth was that he didn’t want to. For no matter how scary the thought of being overwhelmed with decades of nightmarish images was, his deep desire to fly the hover tower overrode everything. He felt like it was what he was born to do, and not doing it was a waste of his entire life.

Another light began to flash green on the console, pulling Mark back to the task at hand. “It looks like the engines are at full flight power. Grab onto to something. Here goes nothing.”

Farmer looked around nervously for something to hold onto but found nothing available in their enclosed cell except the console itself. Not wanting to accidentally hit any controls, he decided to simply sit down on the floor. Ignoring Gerald, Mark moved four slider controls on the console to their top position. The ever-increasing whirling sound became a roar as the entire structure began to shake.

“Here we go,” yelled Mark over the oppressive engine noise. “One meter... Two meters.”

At first Gerald felt no sensation of rising, but the floor of the cell quickly caught his attention. Just like the six screens that surrounded them, the floor itself was now displaying the view from beneath the tower. Gerald looked up and saw that a projector in the ceiling was now pushing the image to the floor. The effect was more than a bit disorienting as the ground appeared to pull away as the tower rose into the air. Gerald experienced the strange sensation of flying as his stomach began to turn somersaults. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until this moment that he remembered his one horrible experience on a flight to Florida as a child. It turned out he was heavily prone to motion sickness, which had been completely forgotten thanks to a lifetime of being limited to walking and horseback riding.

As the tower rose higher, the view became increasingly impressive. The screens detected the group who had been watching the takeoff from a safe distance. A flashing white circle appeared over their position. The system was capable of distinguishing all eighteen people individually and strange writing appeared on the screen above their markers.

Mark, who was still ignoring the increasingly ill Gerald Farmer at his feet, marveled at the incredible view displayed before him. As the tower reached fifty meters of altitude from its base, a graphical directional beacon appeared on the front right screen. It was a simple white dot with what appeared to be to the distance to the target displayed below it. At first Mark was confused as to how the tower already knew their destination, but then he realized that what he was seeing was the tower’s original waypoint for its last doomed flight. He tried to think about how to use the navigational systems, but he couldn’t remember a thing. Once again, he closed his eyes and emptied his mind as best as he could, then just allowed his hands to work.

A soft ringing sound prompted Mark to open his eyes. His hands had indeed found and activated the navigational controls seemingly all on their own. He smiled as he was presented with a topographical map of the area displayed on the screen in front of him. He could see the original destination marker gently blinking, almost beckoning for passengers that would never arrive. He familiarized himself quickly with the touch screen display. The scrolling and zooming functionality of the map would have been familiar to any smartphone user and Mark soon had found and targeted the small field outside of Clarksburg.

He closed the navigational controls and the white dot, which was his directional beacon, repositioned itself on the screen for a course to Clarksburg. Beneath the dot, a distance of 7.2 kilometers was displayed. Mark’s smile increased in size. He had successfully completed two of the four biggest challenges: taking off and navigating. Now all he had to do was actually fly the thing and, of course, land safely.

He looked down at the confusing console and instantly recognized the flight controls. It was strange because he was certain that he had no idea where they were just moments before. He pushed the fear of nightmare memories resurfacing to the back of his mind and used the controls to line up the hover tower with the directional beacon. He then goosed the acceleration and the tower began to move forward, slowly at first, but rapidly increasing in speed. Terrain whipped by below him as his confidence in controlling the massive flying structure increased. The nasty sounds of someone retching finally brought Mark’s attention to the suffering Freeman lying on the floor.

“Oh shit, are you OK?” Mark asked as he shifted his feet to avoid the soupy vomit that was quickly spreading along the floor.

“Oh, I’m just fucking peachy. What the hell does it look like?” Gerald responded with all his usual venomous sarcasm as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“Jesus, sorry. You know you don’t always have to be such an asshole,” Mark replied angrily. He actually surprised himself. The cantankerous old man typically scared the hell out of Mark, but here he was standing up to him.

Gerald’s expression seemed to soften a bit with Mark’s unexpected rebuke. “Sorry,” he finally said in his gruff voice. “I guess I deserved that. I just forgot how bad I get motion sickness. It’s been damn near thirty years since I’ve ridden in any type of vehicle, much less this fucking funhouse,” he ended abruptly by retching again, but having already emptied his stomach, a dry heave was all he could muster.

“Don’t worry about it … I guess. We’re actually almost there,” said Mark grudgingly.

Gerald wiped his nose, “Damn, already?” he asked, breathing heavily. “Almost makes this shit worth it.”

Mark ignored the suffering Freeman as the distance indicator ticked down to 200 meters. He began decelerating the hover tower until the distance indicator read 0. Mark looked down at the floor to confirm that they were indeed hovering above the field. A short distance away, the dilapidated buildings of Clarksburg, WV could be clearly seen. Mark slowly began moving the four engine power sliders down and the view on the floor showed the ground gently approach the tower. Eventually the ceiling projector turned off as the view on the floor went dark, much to Gerald’s relief. A moment later, the entire structure shook violently as the tower made contact with the ground and settled into the soft earth.

“And touchdown!” Marked exclaimed excitedly.

“Thank God,” Gerald grunted. “Get me the hell out of here.”

Mark hit the control to open the main cargo door then pressed the button to retract the view screens and free the two men from their technological confinement.

“I’d say that was a successful test,” Mark said proudly as he helped Gerald to his feet.

“Yeah. Congratulations, kid,” Farmer said begrudgingly as he steadied himself. “But for the ride back, I think I’ll just ride in the cargo hold with Adelene. Speaking of, let’s get down there. I want to check on the old girl.” The Freeman moved a few steps toward the elevator, then stopped and whirled back to face Mark, pointing a bony finger at his chest. “And what happened to me is no one’s damned business. Got it?”

Mark raised his right hand in an oath-taking gesture. “Hey… what happens in the tower, stays in the tower,” he said smiling. “I thought you’d be staying here. Isn’t that why you brought your horse?”

Gerald started moving back toward the elevator. “She came because she goes everywhere I go. They are going to need all hands on deck to get that food loaded back in. I ain’t one to shirk my responsibilities, kid. Now I’ll be downstairs with my girl. You just get us back to the group and keep your mouth shut about my stomach problems.”

And with that, the rail-thin old man disappeared from Mark’s view. Mark shook his head, then closed the main cargo door and reactivated the tower’s flight systems. He felt at home, as if at the controls of this giant was where he belonged. It was funny to think that he had only been nervously operating a car for just under a year when the Capture happened and now he was confidently flying around a building.

The flight back to the crash site seemed to take less time than the first trip and Mark found himself almost disappointed when the massive structure once again settled firmly onto the ground. The landing in the valley was certainly more difficult than the field outside of Clarksburg, but Mark managed to fit the tower delicately between several rows of fallen trees.

Mark could not remember ever feeling as proud as he felt at that moment. Everyone from the group had come to congratulate him on a job well done, including the Captain, who seemed genuinely apologetic about his earlier comments. He knew that his status within the Reclaimers had risen immensely that day and for a boy who had spent his entire childhood as a “nerd” and social outcast, the feeling was like basking in the warm sun after having been in a dark closet his whole life. It was intoxicating. He was now more than useful to the Reclaimers, he was critical and he loved it.

Reloading the hover tower with the food supplies was much faster as they only had to move the items directly into the first level cargo hold and not transport them back up to the 9th floor. Within an hour, everyone along with their horses were loaded safely into the tower. It took a lot of gentle prodding to get Grayson and Gail to join them in the tower, but ultimately, Tammy convinced them that they didn’t want to travel back to Clarksburg through the woods on their own.

Finally, it was time for the return trip. Jason and Carlo both insisted on being with Mark at the console or what they were now referring to as the bridge. They were both fascinated with the controls and Jason was particularly interested in the software that ran the behemoth. The three men spent the short trip happily asking Mark questions about the tower’s handling and ignoring the obvious puddle of puke on the floor. Before long the hovering building once again put down in the overgrown field just outside of the small town of Clarksburg, WV.

Jason again patted Mark on the shoulder as Mark beamed with pride. “That was the smoothest flight I’ve ever been on,” said Jason as the three men rode the elevator down to the first level.

They were greeted with the thick smell of sweat, horses and manure.

“All right people, deploy. We’re here,” shouted Carlo in his best military officer voice.

“We’d love to General, but the door is still closed,” responded Gerald Farmer, who looked queasy, but much better than his first trip in the tower.

Mark actually blushed, “Whoops. I’m sorry I guess in all the excitement, I forgot to open it. I think there’s a manual control right by the door itself. Hang on.”

He confidently strode to the massive cargo door and quickly found the manual opening mechanism. Mark pulled hard on the lever and was rewarded with the loud whine of the colossal ramp beginning to descend. He stood in front, watching as the crack slowly widened to reveal more and more of the blue sky as the door leisurely lowered itself into its ramp position.

Once the ramp was completely deployed, Mark proudly stepped out toward Clarksburg, almost strutting. He felt like the cavalry, the high school football star, and a triumphant fighter pilot all in one. It was only proper that he was leading his people from the tower, after all, he was directly responsible for their…

That was the last thought that Mark Rogers ever had. His body crumpled to the hard surface of the heavy steel ramp, milliseconds before the sound of the rifle shot finally caught up with its fatal bullet.

“Hold your fucking fire!” screamed Carlo back at the town, once the realization of what had just happened hit him.

Heedless of the danger, Jason reflexively ran to Mark’s limp body to begin administering first aid. But it was immediately apparent that the wound was fatal as a large portion of the back of Mark Rogers’ skull was missing. Jason buried his face into his hands, devastated.

In the distance, a group began rushing toward the hover tower from the outskirts of Clarksburg. At first Carlo thought that they were still under attack from the townspeople and prepared himself for the assault, but as the figures racing toward them got closer, he could make out Doctor Patel and his Lieutenant, Amy Hammersmith, leading the pack.

“What’s his condition?” shouted Charles Patel hoarsely as he practically skidded to a stop just before Mark’s body and quickly began to examine him.

Jason slowly shook his head. “He’s dead,” he answered softly.

Charles did not take Jason’s diagnosis as conclusive and continued to professionally complete his examination before finally looking up to the quickly gathering crowd and solemnly shaking his own head. “He’s gone.”

“Oh geesh. I’m … I’m so sorry. I… I thought he was a bad guy,” stammered the forty something year old man from the town. “You… you know? I… I can’t believe I even made that shot. It wasn’t my fault. How… how was I supposed to know?” The man had a hunting rifle slung over his shoulder and a tattered baseball cap that he nervously fidgeted with in his hands.

“God damn it, James, you idiot!” shouted Sonya MacMurphy as she stormed onto the scene. “I told you some shit like this would happen with you and that damn gun.”

The squat woman approached the man named James, who was easily a foot taller than her, and bopped him on the back of the head with her open hand using enough force that he dropped his hat.

“Owww!” exclaimed James as he rubbed the back of his skull. “That hurt, Big Mac.”

Sonya immediately smacked his head again. This time it seemed even harder. “You know I hate that fucking nickname,” she screamed, red in the face with anger.

“That’s enough,” said Jason weakly.

The red-haired woman whirled on Jason viscously, “And you!” she shouted, pointing an angry finger directly in Jason’s face. “This shit show is all your fault. Who the fuck lands one of these things in someone’s backyard, not once, but fucking twice in the same day? Maybe a little warning might have been nice? We got a lot of frightened children here for Christ’s sake.”

As almost an afterthought, Sonya quickly snatched the hunting rifle from James who was still rubbing his throbbing head and looking like a thoroughly shamed child. She handed the rifle to another one of her men then turned back to Jason and addressed him in a slightly calmer tone.

“This man’s death is squarely on your head. James here will be punished for doing something stupid, but he’s really just a dumb, scared kid. You should have known better than to create this situation.”

Jason, who was still kneeling by Mark’s body, nodded slowly. “You’re right,” he said softly. “We should have found a way to warn you.”

Sonya seemed momentarily taken by surprised. She was obviously not expecting such a quick acquiescence from the leader of the feared Reclaimers and it had thrown her off-balance.

“Well … yeah,” she said awkwardly, “You damn well should have.”

Jason stood solemnly, ignoring Sonya, and silently retreated back into the tower. The crowd wordlessly parted for him, allowing him to leave unmolested. Everyone present felt the loss. It was a feeling that had unfortunately become all too familiar in this new world, but it still hurt nonetheless. Mark’s accidental death had seriously marred what, up until that point, had been considered one of the Reclaimer’s greatest successes. Now they needed to put the incident behind themselves and complete their journey. At least today they had achieved a substantial shortcut to their ultimate destination.

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