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Chapter 14 - You Can't Go Home Again

The next several days were very busy for everyone. The main group of Reclaimers had moved up Route 50 to temporarily settle in the open field outside of Clarksburg where the looming hover tower currently resided. Everyone who had ever worn orange coveralls had been drafted into the newly founded organization jokingly referred to as the Reclaimer Air Corp. It was quickly discovered that the same techniques used by Mark Rogers to rebuild his lost piloting skills could be used by others with the same training to achieve the same results. Unfortunately, the process did not work for everyone, and the pool of candidates had already been whittled down to only five pilots capable of flying the tower safely. Of course, five pilots were more than enough for the group’s purposes and everyone was excited with the idea of traveling the remaining distance to Theia by air.

For their part, the residents of Clarksburg had completed packing their supplies along with their few personal belongings and were preparing to join the Reclaimers on what everyone hoped was the last leg of their journey. Of course, there were several holdouts who refused to leave their adopted home town, but the vast majority of Clarks, as they were now being called, at least begrudgingly acknowledged that the Reclaimers represented their best chance for long term survival. The feeling was even more emphasized once they were warned about the impending possible arrival of the St. Louis group.

Jason’s original fear of the St. Louis horde had greatly abated recently. Although he still thought of them as a real danger, the fact that the Reclaimers themselves had been portrayed to the Clarks as bloodthirsty marauders left him reconsidering the accuracy of the reports concerning the St. Louis group’s true intentions. Perhaps their apparent threatening behaviors had been misinterpreted by frightened and confused Freemen. It was certainly possible that Sid and his fellow Freemen just didn’t understand what they saw in the chaos that followed the Awakening at the St. Louis industrial complex. Either way, Jason didn’t want to wait around and find out for sure. The Reclaimers had been stationary for far too long and Jason was anxious to get underway again.

Unfortunately, the grim task of removing the gruesome remains of the crash victims from the tower still had to be completed. It was a horrible job, especially without the modern cleaning conveniences such as rubber gloves and plastic trash bags, but most people were able to persevere through the revulsion and nausea to get the macabre chore completed. The remains were placed into a large, shallow, mass grave just outside of town and a quick memorial ceremony was held on Tammy Jenkin’s insistence. After that, every attempt was made to purge the tower of the putrid smells that had settled into the interior of the massive vessel and make it as livable as possible. For the hover tower was not only a wonderful vehicle capable of transporting the entire group, but it also provided shelter and protection to weary, elderly travelers who had seldom slept under a roof over the past few months. Overall, the heavy cost of removing several hundred decomposing bodies from the tower was considered a fair price to pay for the many fantastic benefits that it granted.

After several days of preparation, the Reclaimers, with their freshly swollen numbers, carefully loaded all their possessions and boarded the hover tower with great anticipation and not a little trepidation. With membership just over a thousand people, the Reclaimers were barely able to fit everyone inside the gigantic flying machine, but managed to find the room among the warren-like passages of the mysterious vessel.

Before departure, Jason made a point of moving throughout the structure to reassure as many of the passengers as possible. There were clusters of people crowded into hallways and machine rooms as well as the barracks floors. Everyone recognized and greeted him enthusiastically, thanking him for personally providing them with the great boon of the hover tower, despite the fact that others had far more to do with obtaining the mighty structure than him. Jason tried to give credit to Mark many times over, but all his attempts were rebuffed with cries of “he was only doing your bidding”. He made a particular effort to find and visit with the group of pregnant Clarksburg girls who had been granted ten of the scarce bunks on the 6th floor. To his untrained eye, the middle-aged women huddled together didn’t look any different than any of the other scared people in the tower, but he knew they were all incredibly special in this world. They represented the future of humanity whether their simple underdeveloped minds knew it or not.

After almost an hour of handshaking and bows, Jason finally pulled himself away from the last group and made his way to the bridge. Anthony Simons and Mike Hagen were looking over the shoulder of a new orange-clad pilot whom Jason did not know. It was clear that Anthony and Mike were annoying the poor man to death with their continuous stream of questions and pointing at the many buttons on the huge control console. In one instance, the pilot slapped Mike’s hand away from a particularly shiny red button before he could push it. Mike yelped and yanked his hand away, rubbing it with his other hand while wearing a hurt expression.

“I wasn’t gonna touch it,” protested Mike in a teenaged manner that betrayed the giant man’s true age.

Jason cleared his throat to break the tension. Startled heads swiveled around to identify the intruder, but broad smiles quickly replaced the suspicious frowns when they realized who had stepped onto the bridge.

“Jason!” exclaimed Mike happily. “Have you seen this crazy thing yet?” he asked excitedly while pointing to the console.

“I sure have,” he said smiling. “Just wait until you experience this place while it’s flying. You won’t believe it. Best view you’ll ever see.”

“Speaking of that, any idea on when you think we’ll be leaving, or taking off, or whatever the hell this thing does?” asked Anthony.

The pilot looked expectantly at Jason for his response. It was obvious that he was anxious to get started himself.

“As soon as I hear back from Carlo that they have completed their sweep. He’s got the Regulators out double-checking that we’ve got everyone aboard,” Jason said.

As if on cue, Tammy strolled around the corner carrying her familiar notebook, “There you are Jason. I’ve been trying to track you down for the last twenty minutes. I was always one step behind you.”

“Sorry about that. I was making the rounds, ya know?”

Tammy gave a slight nod of acknowledgement, “Well, I just talked to Captain Olvera. He says that all his people have reported back in.” She flipped through a few pages of her notebook. “And as best as I can tell, everyone is accounted for. We are good to go whenever you’re ready.”

“Wait,” said Mike. “There’s one more thing we need to do before we leave.”

Jason raised an eyebrow, “Yeah?”

“This bucket needs a name. Its bad luck for a ship not to have a name.”

“Really?” ask Tammy skeptically.

Mike shrugged his bulky shoulders, “Yeah. I saw it in a movie somewhere.”

Jason smiled, “I’m not sure we can classify this monstrosity as a ship, but we could use all the good luck we can get. Did you have something in mind?”

“How about the Jolly Rogers?” suggested Anthony, unexpectedly joining the conversation.

Jason’s smile broadened with the pleasant surprise, “After Mark Rogers?”

“Sure, he earned it,” Anthony shrugged. “And besides, when I was a kid, I always wanted to be a pirate,” he said, returning Jason’s smile.

Jason looked around the small gathering of people and was met with only nods of approval, “OK. I hereby christen this the …”

“Wait, Tammy should say it,” interrupted Mike. “I think a woman is supposed to do it.”

“It’s not like we’ve got a bottle of champagne here,” Tammy protested. “But fine. I declare this vessel to be named the Jolly Rogers after our lost friend.” She then looked to Mike, “Satisfied?”

“Yeah, perfect,” he responded excitedly.

“OK,” Jason said. “Now that we got that out of the way… Pilot, take us up.”

Once the initial excitement of the takeoff faded, both Anthony and Tammy quickly excused themselves from the bridge as the disorientation of the piloting screens began to affect their stomachs adversely. Mike Hagen, however, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the ride and Jason knew that it would have been very difficult to get rid of him even if he had wanted it. The experience reminded Jason of a 4D theater ride at an amusement park. It also reminded him of Beth, who had always avoided those rides like the plague due to the high nausea factor. He remembered the one time he had been able to convince her to try one while they were visiting Busch Gardens amusement park. She had been forced to run out of the theater and ended up vomiting all over her new shirt and sneakers. Of course, she had blamed Jason, who couldn’t help but snicker at the situation. She did get the last laugh, however, as she made him travel the thirty-minute walk back to the remote parking lot to get her a change of clothes from the car while she hid in one of the public restrooms. The memory of Beth instantly drained Jason’s high spirits and his expression melted into one of sadness.

Oblivious to his emotional state, the pilot pulled up the navigational controls and a large map appeared on the front screen. He expertly scrolled the map until it was zoomed out but centered on Fort Meade, Maryland.

“Mr. Chairman, can you point out a more specific destination for us?” asked the pilot in a very professional manner.

Jason oriented himself on the map, then ordered the pilot to scroll down to the southwest. The pilot was confused but followed his leader’s instructions until Jason stopped him. He wasn’t sure if it was the exact location as the map didn’t have too many landmarks that Jason could recognize, but he followed what he thought was Route 50 and picked out a spot close to where he assumed Chantilly, Virginia used to be located.

“There,” Jason said with more confidence than he felt. “Find a good spot in this area to put down.”

Once again, the pilot looked confused and even shot a glance over to Mike Hagen to confirm that someone else was witnessing these new, seemingly bizarre orders. Mike, aware of the necessity to go to Chantilly, only gave the pilot a slight confirming nod.

“Yes, Sir,” responded the pilot in a resigned tone of voice. He tapped the screen and then manipulated several of the more complicated looking controls on the console. The view on the giant screens began to alter as the massive Jolly Rogers altered course toward Chantilly, Virginia and Jason’s home.

***

Jason had insisted on keeping the group small. Only he and a tiny detachment of four Regulators would venture out to complete the task. Jason hoped that the foray to find his old apartment would be quick and that he could be back before they felt the need to unload any supplies from the Rogers. He also didn’t want to expose anyone unnecessarily to the dangers of the urban area. Fortunately, the pilot, whom Jason discovered was named Bill, found a suitable landing spot after an hour of searching the area. Unfortunately, the landing zone was quite a few miles from where Jason felt his old apartment had been.

As he trotted along on his horse, he couldn’t believe how much the area had changed in thirty years. Most buildings were collapsed and unrecognizable. Streets, once packed with bumper to bumper honking cars, were now crowded with trees and grasses. The power lines and poles that were still standing, were completely wrapped in tangled green vines, as if some overenthusiastic reveler had gone wild with the Christmas garland.

As the storm drains became clogged over the years, rain water had turned the roads into creeks and rivers. Since the entire area had been covered in a thick layer of asphalt and concrete, there was nowhere for the storm waters to drain. The results were predictable, as any buildings still standing showed signs of obvious repeated flooding and any low-lying parking lots were now stagnating ponds full of slimy, mosquito-infested water.

Of course, Jason had seen these same phenomena many times throughout their travels, but this was the first time he was seeing the withering effects of nature on a location that he knew intimately. It was a bizarre feeling because his memories of the area were from only a few months ago to his perspective. This left him feeling like he was experiencing some sort of movie time travel to a dystopian future. He kept expecting to see Charlton Heston down on his knees screaming about how we had “blown it all up” or apes riding horses coming to capture him in a net.

He was lost. Lost in his own home town and he couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed about it. He tried to stick to what was left of Route 50 as it currently was the only landmark that he could recognize. He suspected that the repeated flooding had long ago destroyed any street signs that may have helped them, but all he needed was one small familiar sight to orient himself. He could feel the gazes of the Regulators riding behind him burning hotter into his back as their patience continued to fade with his lack of direction. He just need one small landmark. That was all.

As they crested a slight hill on Route 50, his heart sank. As far as the eye could see, there was only charred earth and smoldering debris. In places, small flames were still weakly flickering from the ground. Jason stopped his horse and rubbed his forehead in frustration. After thirty years, the universe had waited until now to burn down his home town. It was as if someone was playing a joke on him personally, only no one was laughing at the punchline.

“Holy shit, Jason!” said Ray Parker, finally breaking the silence of the last forty minutes. “That looks like it just burn’ itself out in the last few days,” he observed in his thick North Carolinian accent.

Jason ignored Ray’s comment and silently stared ahead, taking in all the devastation before him. He was confident that the safe where he had stored his credentials could have withstood the fire, but finding the relatively small object beneath the tons of charred debris was going to be akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. He didn’t even know where to start digging. He had imagined this task as being so easy. He’d just ride up to the old apartment building and head on into the abandoned structure with nothing to stop him. His only real worries had been that the building would be structurally unsound or that the safe itself would be difficult to open after thirty years exposed to the elements. The idea that he wouldn’t even be able to find his old neighborhood had never entered his mind, much less that half of the area would have been destroyed by a wildfire just days before his arrival. His spirits sank as his brain tried desperately to think of a solution.

“I’ve got movement!” snapped Sergeant Perkins, interrupting Jason’s thoughts as he quickly pulled his rifle from the saddle. “1 o’clock… about 300 meters,” he shouted with more urgency. “Dismount and take cover!” he ordered.

Everyone obeyed the Sergeant without hesitation, including Jason. After almost jumping from their horses, they crouched and quickly scurried behind a crumpled section of corroded guard railing.

“Are you sure it was a person?” questioned Jason in almost a whisper. “There are a lot of deer around here.”

“With all due respect, Chairman, I know the God damn difference between a person and a fucking deer,” Perkins answered, failing to keep the disdain out of his voice while he double-checked the magazine on his assault rifle.

Ever since Darryl Perkins had been unceremoniously captured by the Freeman Sid at the Listening Post, the Sergeant had developed a bitter dislike and distrust for all Freemen. This animosity also reached beyond to those who appeared to support the Freemen, which included Jason. Although he was aware of Perkins’ hostile feelings, Jason did not know the root cause of them, nor did he care. He knew that Perkins was one of Carlo’s best troopers and that he would perform his duty despite any personal ill feelings.

“How many did you see?” asked Ray as he scanned his rifle along the last reported position of the intruder. “I don’t see shit, Sarge.”

“I only saw the one person and I’m sure he saw us too. He’s hiding. There’s plenty of crap down there to take cover under.”

“Just because he’s hiding doesn’t make him hostile,” insisted Jason. “I know that I’d be hiding too if I was traveling alone and ran into a strange, armed group.”

“Maybe,” conceded Perkins. “But there could be others out there waiting in ambush and he just got spotted because he fucked up.”

Jason rubbed his temples in frustration, “This is pointless.” He stood up, fearlessly exposing his body to possible gunfire then cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled out into the smoldering debris field, “We’re not going to hurt you. Come on out. We just want to talk.”

Perkins shook his head and spoke just barely loud enough to be heard, “dumbass”. The sergeant then adjusted his voice to a more normal level, “Chairman, will you please get down. If you get shot, the captain will have my ass for dinner,” he said while tugging down on Jason’s brown coveralls.

“Hold on,” responded Jason while waving the Regulator off.

“No one is gonna show themselves down there, Chairman.”

But just as the words left Perkins’ mouth, a scrawny, blonde man slowly emerged out of a pile of charred debris. He was covered in soot which had acted as a very effective camouflage in the ashes of the field. He raised his hands above his head then carefully began making his way toward Jason and his escort.

“You were saying, sergeant?” Jason said, relishing his small victory over the condescending Regulator.

Perkins huffed but said nothing directly in reply. “Keep him covered. Don’t let him try anything funny,” the sergeant ordered his men in a firm but slightly defeated tone.

The filthy man slowly and deliberately approached to within easy earshot before finally speaking, “Don’t shoot, dude.”

“We don’t plan on it,” said Jason as he extended a hand to help the stranger over the guard rail and onto the broken asphalt of Route 50. “I’m Jason. What’s your name?”

The man attempted to brush the heavy ash and soot off him, but only succeeded in smearing them deeper into his clothes, making the situation worse. “Ah man, I’m never gonna get this stuff out. Bummer. Oh, um… I’m Flash, dude.”

“Like Flash Gordon?” snickered Ray.

The man looked confused, “Um… no. Like, The Flash. Ya know, man… the superhero?”

“So… you’re super-fast?” asked Perkins skeptically.

Flash laughed goofily, “Um…no way, dude. I’m kinda the exact opposite, for realz. It’s like one of those joke names… ya know? It’s like calling a 7ft tall man Tiny.”

Jason shook his head. It was a bit disorienting to hear a man in his 50’s talk like he was a teenaged burnout, but he had overcome worse realities in this world. “What are you doing here, Flash?”

“I was trying to find my folk’s house. It was crazy. After I woke up at…”

“You’re from here too?” Jason interrupted, not caring to hear the stranger’s complete backstory.

“…um… I grew up here, dude,” Flash answered. “Just over there actually, on Birch Drive,” he said pointing to the northeast.

Jason peered out toward the indicated direction but only saw indistinguishable burnt devastation. “You’re shitting me. You’re able to actually find a specific place in that damn mess?”

Again, Flash looked confused, “Um… yeah.”

“How?” Jason asked suspiciously. “There’s no landmarks left out there.”

“I’ve been here a little while, since before the fire. I was able to find my way around.”

Jason was guarded but his hopes raised slightly, “We’re looking for an apartment complex called ‘The Meadows of Chantilly’. It was on Westmore Street, right off of Walney Rd. Have you ever heard of it?”

Flash scratched his chin which only smeared more soot along his face. “Um… never heard of those apartments, but what’s left of Walney Road is right there,” he said, pointing to a barely noticeable flat stretch of land.

Jason smiled. He had his orientation point at last and could finally impose his mental map over the unfamiliar terrain he now occupied. He climbed back onto his horse and motioned for the Regulators to do the same. “Come on. It’s not too far.”

“Whoa dude, can I come with ya? I’m all by myself now. The group I was with got all split up by the fire. I haven’t seen anyone in days, man,” asked Flash desperately once he realized that they were about to leave him behind.

Jason was about to offer the burnout a hand to help him onto his horse, but hesitated once he realized the extent to which the stranger was covered in soot.

“Hey Ray, give Flash a ride on your horse, will ya please,” Jason ordered a bit guiltily. Leadership was often a terrible burden, but it sometimes had its privileges.

Ray Parker grumbled but eventually lowered his hand and pulled the filthy stranger up onto the back of his horse.

“Thanks, dude,” said Flash while smiling broadly.

Jason led the small team off Route 50 and down into the blackened debris field. He turned right onto what had once been the major suburban artery of Walney Road and continued heading south. Once they were on the road, the path became a little easier and Jason knew that they were less than a mile from his old apartment. In fact, he would have been able to see it had it still been standing. Finally, he paused, nodding his head.

“This is it,” he said. “Those are what’s left of the apartments,” Jason announced while gesturing toward several huge piles of blackened rubble.

An audible groan could be heard from the Regulators as they scanned the remains of the apartments for themselves, however, Jason was actually please by what he saw. He had expected the worst since seeing the fire damage to the area, but from here he could still make out individual buildings in the complex and his particular apartment building seemed to have escaped with the least amount of fire damage. Of course, the “least amount of damage” was a relative term. The building’s second floor was completely gone along with a good portion of the first floor. But the apartment which had been directly below Jason’s still appeared to be relatively intact. If gravity had done its job as expected, then they should be able to find the floor safe in a pile of rubble in the bedroom of the first-floor apartment.

Everyone rolled up their sleeves and began digging through the pile of debris. Even Flash enthusiastically helped despite the fact that he had no idea what they were looking for. Jason suspected that he was trying hard to endear himself to the group and prove that he could be useful. Jason couldn’t blame him. No one wanted to be left alone out in this harsh world and the numbers of people continually joining the Reclaimers helped prove that every day.

After an hour spent pulling out melted asphalt roofing tiles and charred 2x4s, they finally found what they had been searching for. Ray Parker was the one who discovered the singed, heavy, composite strongbox and had yanked it out into a clearing, dropping it with a thud. The fire had damaged it far more than Jason had hoped as the entire outside was melted and looked like an ice cream cone on a hot day. The lid seemed fused to the rest of the safe which caused Jason to be extremely nervous that the contents may have been destroyed by the heat. He stared down at the safe blankly, afraid to try to open it for fear of what he might find. The rest of the group gathered around the safe expectantly, covered in ashes and soot from their search.

“Well? Are we going to open it or what?” asked Perkins impatiently. “We didn’t come all this way for nothing.”

Jason knelt and examined the box more closely. The touch combination pad had completely melted away. This fact along with the general condition of the safe left brute force as the only real option to open the box.

“I didn’t really expect it to be like this. The combination pad is useless. Anyone got any ideas?” asked Jason.

“We could blow it. We’ve got grenades,” suggested Parker.

“Don’t be stupid, Parker,” chastised the sergeant. “That would destroy the contents. We need the ‘jaws of life’ or something to force the thing open.”

“It’s pretty heavy, but I’m sure we could get the horses to drag it back to the Jolly Rogers. Hopefully we can find something we can use to open it there.”

“Maybe ya don’t have to do that, dude. I think I know a way to open that thing, man,” said Flash.

Jason looked interested, “What did you have in mind?”

“A guy I used to run with made it. He called it his poor man’s jaws of life. We used it to break into all sorts of locked things looking for food and supplies.”

“What is it?” asked Perkins.

“It’s just an old tire jack that he rigged up with teeth so that you can wedge them into a crack and then wind the jack up and force it open. Dude, I can’t promise that it would work on that thing, but it might. I’ve got it back at my old camp. If one of you can give me a lift, I’ll go get it, dude. It shouldn’t take but a few minutes with those bitch’n horses.”

Jason eyed Flash suspiciously but settled on the fact that it was worth the risk, “OK, I’ll take you…”

“No,” Sergeant Perkins broke in forcefully, “Chairman, you’re not running off with this guy alone. Parker, you take him and keep an eye out for a trap.”

Flash seemed almost offended, “Relax, dude. I ain’t no threat.” But he still mounted up behind Ray and the two galloped off with Flash directing the Regulator back toward his camp. Only fifteen minutes later, they trotted back with Flash cradling a bizarre looking contraption.

“Like here it is, man,” announced Flash while proudly handing the device over to Jason. “Just put those two points into any opening you can find between the lid and the base and then crank that bitch open.”

The device worked exactly as advertised. Jason continued to crank open the jack until finally a loud cracking sound announced that he had succeeded. The lid popped open and Jason instantly found himself holding back a tear as the first thing that appeared was his wedding picture. Beth had insisted that they keep a copy of the photo in the fireproof safe despite the limited amount of available space. He remembered thinking how ridiculous that was because they had a million copies of that picture spread throughout their computers, tablets, phones, and the entire damned internet. He couldn’t get rid of it if he tried. Now, he knew this was probably the only picture left of him and Beth in the world. He gingerly picked up the old 5x7 picture and studied it silently.

Ray let out a soft whistle as he leaned over Jason’s shoulder to get a closer look at the photo, “She’s real pretty, Jason. I take it that’s Beth?”

Jason only nodded. He was afraid his voice would break if he attempted to talk at that moment. He reverently slipped the photo into a pocket then continued to dig through the contents of the safe. Most of the documents were worthless. Insurance policies, social security cards, and birth certificates were just some of the critical things that society once demanded a person possess, but now they were all utterly without value. Jason tossed those things aside and continued his search a bit more franticly. He let out a long sigh of relief as he pulled out his NSA ID badge and Passkey card.

He had gotten everything he had come for, almost. He quickly pocketed the credentials then continued searching the open box. Soon he had found his secret second objective. It was an antique locket that contained a lock of Beth’s mother’s hair. He quickly shoved the object into his coveralls as if it were the crown jewels and then, ignoring the others, busied himself stuffing the bags on his saddle with as many of Beth’s family mementos as possible. He knew that once he found her, and he knew he would find her, she would desperately want these small connections to her past and it was the least he could do to retrieve them for the woman he loved.

“Are we good?” asked Ray excitedly. “Did we get what we were after?”

Jason smiled, “Oh yeah. We got it,” he confirmed.

Ray Parker hooted triumphantly then hefted his rifle and fired off two rounds into the air to celebrate. The rest of the group cringed as the shots cracked unexpectedly through the atmosphere.

“What the fuck are you doing, Parker?” shouted the sergeant angrily at the North Carolinian. “Are you trying to give away our position to every bandit in the area or are you just trying to spook our horses? Dumbshit!”

Abashed, Ray cringed under the furious rebuke, “Sorry Sarge. I was just excited and all. Ya know?”

“You know that’s really dangerous, right? Those bullets have to come down somewhere.” lectured Flash.

Flash’s statement stirred a memory in Darryl Perkins of an event that he had desperately been trying to forget. He snapped his head around to stare at the man and truly study his soot covered face for the first time. Recognition washed over him and a fear began to grow in the pit of his stomach. Fortunately, Flash had not recognized him in return.

Flash noticed the extra attention and shrugged, “What? It is dangerous,” he said, misinterpreting Perkins’ interest.

Darryl abruptly mounted his horse and ordered his Regulators to do the same.

“Let’s get back to the Rogers,” he said tersely. “We’re losing daylight.”

Jason sensed the sudden change in the Sergeant’s behavior, but mistakenly attributed it to his anger at Ray’s foolish actions. The five men mounted their horses with Flash once again doubling up with Ray then made their way back to the waiting hover tower.

The ride back proceeded in an awkward silence that seemed inappropriate for such a successful mission. Sergeant Perkins rode steadily in the front of the group, never turning to speak or look at anyone. Once the familiar dark tower came into sight, Perkins kicked the side of his horse, increasing his speed and distance from the group.

Jason wasn’t sure why the sergeant was in such a hurry to return, but he was beginning to suspect that something was seriously off with the situation. By the time they arrived at the Jolly Rogers, Jason could see many of the Reclaimers milling about outside of the gigantic vessel, starting cooking fires and preparing the night’s meals. Jason dismounted then carefully collected the saddle bags which contained his precious cargo. George Willard rushed over to greet them with his typical friendly smile.

“Did everything go OK?” George asked with concern in his voice. “I got a little worried when the sergeant ran right by us without a word.”

“Yeah, I got everything we needed thanks to this guy here,” Jason answered while gesturing to the filthy man dismounting from the back of Ray’s horse. “George Willard, this is Flash… um… I never got your last name.”

“Just Flash, dude. No need to get all formal in the apocalypse. Ya know, brother?” he said while extending his soot covered hand to George.

George hesitated to shake Flash’s filthy hand momentary, but his ingrained politeness finally overcame his revulsion. “I’m glad you were there to help. Welcome to the Reclaimers.”

Flash looked up at the looming hover tower and seemed genuinely impressed, “Whoa dude, you got a tower too?”

Both Jason and George nodded enthusiastically. “Sure do,” confirmed George, completely missing the “too” at the end of Flash’s question. “So… Flash, what’s your story? How did you wake up in the mess?”

Jason’s attention drifted from George and Flash’s conversation as he watched Sergeant Perkins rush up the tower’s cargo ramp to meet Captain Olvera and Lieutenant Hammersmith at the top. From that distance, Jason couldn’t hear what was being said but Perkins began gesturing wildly down towards the new arrivals and the three Regulators appeared to become increasingly agitated as the heated discussion continued. Jason narrowed his eyes as a bad feeling began to take shape.

“Did you hear that, Jason?” George asked, pulling Jason back to the conversation in front of him.

“I’m sorry… what?” was the only response Jason could muster.

George looked frustrated, but patiently recapped their discussion, “Flash here says that he woke up outside a mine in Wisconsin too. He said there was a hell of a mess and a lot of people got killed. Carlo and his people woke up around there. I wonder if they…”

Flash’s eyes popped wide open at the mention of Carlo’s name, “Dude! Did you just say Carlo… as in Carlo Olvera?” he asked with growing panic in his voice.

George looked confused, “Sure, in fact, he’s standing right over there,” he confirmed while gesturing up toward the Regulator officer who was now looking directly back at them with a steely gaze.

Flash slowly raised his arm and pointed a trembling, accusing finger directly at Carlo Olvera before screaming in a quivering voice, “Murderer!”

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