Chapter 15 - The Trial
“Let’s hear it, Captain,” said Jason as respectfully as he could under the circumstances.
The Reclaimer Council had gathered for an emergency meeting regarding the accusations made against Captain Olvera and his original company. The initial screaming allegation made by the stranger calling himself, Flash, was shocking, however, the Regulators as a unit had come to be trusted and respected members of the Reclaimers over the past months. It would take more than the wild claims of a burned-out stranger to truly shake those sentiments, but due to the extreme nature of the accusations, the charges had to be taken seriously and investigated.
The stranger, Flash, had been questioned first and his story, while disturbing, did not seem to describe the brave, noble, and loyal people to which the Reclaimers had become so familiar. The general feeling was that this must be a case of mistaken identity. The atrocities that he depicted in vivid detail could not be reconciled with the honorable man that Jason felt he knew so well. However, Jason also knew that the Awakening was a time of extreme fear and that was certainly an emotion that could drive good men to perform horrible acts.
Carlo Olvera stood stoically in front of the council while wearing a grim expression. He silently eyed each councilor in sequence before turning his attention back to Jason who was sitting uncomfortably in the middle.
“It’s all true,” he announced flatly, emotion totally absent from this voice.
An audible gasp could be heard from several members of the council. Jason found it a bit melodramatic but ignored the outbursts and tried to keep focused on the matter at hand.
“For God’s sake man! Why?” begged George, obviously shaken by the admission.
“Don’t answer that, Captain,” forcefully recommended Anthony Simons as he jumped to his feet.
All eyes landed on the dark haired lawyer as he worked his way around the small folding table that the council used for meetings and then stood beside the captain.
“What the hell are you doing, Anthony?” asked Jason, exasperated. “Let’s just get this thing over with, please.”
“Is this not still America?” he asked the room dramatically, while balling his fist. “Every accused man has a right to council, including the captain here,” he concluded by placing his hand respectfully on Olvera’s left shoulder.
Carlo rolled his eyes at Anthony’s theatrics, “Sit down Simons. I didn’t ask for nor do I need your help.”
Anthony’s bluster evaporated instantly. “Fine. Suit yourself,” he sneered as he dismissed the captain with a wave of his hand then retook his seat with the other council members.
“Can I continue now?” asked Carlo.
Jason only nodded.
“First off, I want it on the record that I alone am responsible for this incident,” Carlo stated emphatically. “My troopers trusted me and were following my orders. They should not be held accountable for the consequences of my decisions.”
Jason did not like what he was hearing. These types of statements typically preceded horrific admissions of poor judgment at the very best. He slowly shook his head, “I won’t make any promises at this point, Carlo. We need to hear everyone’s story first. So, let’s hear it.”
The Captain somehow succeeded in looking both stoic and disappointed at the same time. “Very well,” he began. “Things started falling apart at the mine shortly after the Awakening…”
It had been two days since Carlo awoke in this strange place. Nothing made sense anymore. He was used to his world being so orderly and defined. In the Army, there was a rule and procedure for just about every activity in the day, but now all that was gone and he was having a very hard time dealing with these unexplained, bizarre events. On top of that, he had assumed command of all these civilians when he had expected to make contact with the authorities within hours, but now he was beginning to suspect that there were no authorities to contact.
The strange situation in which he had found himself was fast becoming a dangerous one. The two hundred and ninety-two elderly people who had awoken together were quickly going through the small amounts food and water found at the mine. Both had been discovered in vast, almost empty bins that were now completely bare. To Carlo, the bins had reminded him of giant gerbil feeders attached to the outside of a cage, only someone had apparently forgotten to refill their pet’s food. Carlo assumed that, in the past, the mine had been supplied regularly with food and water from an outside source, but something had interrupted those deliveries. He was certain that all these mysteries were somehow related, but he still had no idea how to connect them. His scouting parties had ventured several miles from the mines in all directions but had yet to find any food or water sources, much less any traces of civilization. They appeared to be completely isolated.
People were quickly becoming desperate as their personal shares of food and water began to dwindle to nothing. As with all frightening situations where good information is lacking, viscous rumors and conspiracy theories began to fill the gaps. It wasn’t long before the favorite belief among the group was that the armed “Blue Uniforms” were hording all the supplies in a secret cache and were just waiting for the remaining “Green Uniforms” to die. The truth was that Carlo had been carefully monitoring the Blue Uniforms intake and had enforced strict rationing, while the Green Uniforms had strongly resisted any attempts to regulate their food and water consumption based on the argument that he was a “Nazi Fuck”. The effect was that the Blue Uniforms did have more water and food available, which only fed the rumors and building resentment among the Green Uniforms.
Carlo already regretted separating the two groups based on the color of their coveralls on the first day. At the time it had seemed expedient, but it had instantly created artificial distrust and animosity between the two groups. It had enforced the classic “Us versus Them” scenario where one group was much smaller, but much better armed. It felt like he had landed right in the middle of some uninspired undergrad’s sociology experiment, and he was sure that he was proving the sadistic little bastard’s hypothesis for him.
Amy Hammersmith interrupted Carlo’s thoughts as she plopped down onto the rock beside him and exhaled heavily. The two Regulators were seated on small boulders along and above the rim of the mine entrance. From their vantage point, they could look down and watch all the activities of the surrounding area, including the increasingly heated arguments.
“This isn’t looking good, Captain Olvera,” Amy admitted.
“You can call me Carlo,” he said without taking his eyes off an escalating fight below them.
Amy slowly shook her head, “Nah, I think I actually prefer Captain Olvera,” she said with no humor in her voice and a malaise brought about from two days of hunger.
Carlo shrugged weakly. He too was feeling the effects of limited rations while still hiking several miles a day in search of supplies. “Suit yourself.”
“That asshole, Martin, is really riling up everyone against us. We might have a riot on our hands,” Amy reported half-heartedly as if she had only remarked on the reliability of a neighbor’s new car.
Carlo continued to dispassionately watch the growing fight down at the mine entrance as several other green-clad men joined in and began throwing arthritic fists at each other, “Riot? Who are you kidding? We’re about to have a full on lynch mob. This situation is FUBAR.”
“FUBAR?” Amy asked.
“Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition,” Carlo explained.
Amy nodded, smiling for the first time that day, “FUBAR… yep, that about sums it up.” Amy hesitated for a few minutes as the two of them watched the fight below finally get broken up. “So… you got a plan or are we just going to sit around here and die?”
Carlo sat limply and silently for a few moments as he considered what he was going to say. He did have a plan, but he just wasn’t sure how much of it he could tell this stranger, no matter how much he was starting to like her.
“Well,” he began finally. “I don’t think anyone’s coming for us. We’re on our own.”
“Yeah,” Amy agreed simply.
“And, as you so eloquently put it, if we stay here, we’re going to die. It’ll be from dehydration or mob violence, but either way, I don’t want to stick around for it.”
“Again, agreed,” said Amy.
“So, that really only leaves us one option. It’s time to leave and make our own way out.”
“Where?” she shrugged.
“We’ll head south and keep moving until we find something… anything. I’ve got a bit of survival training, so as long as you people listen to me, then I think we’ll make it.”
“Why south?” asked Amy.
It was Carlo’s turn to shrug, “Why not? We’ve been hiking around this area for the last couple of days and we know it’s not a desert. I also know that we’re still in the northern hemisphere, and pretty far north judging by the position of the stars. So, we keep heading south and we’re bound to run into fresh water or at least a road eventually.”
Amy looked unconvinced. “Are you planning on leading everyone out of here?”
Carlo thought about the question for a long moment before answering, “I’ll take whoever wants to come, as long as they’re willing to listen to me.”
Amy rubbed the sore muscle in the back of her neck, “I don’t know, Captain. I think you’re…”
The sound of a distant gunshot cut Amy’s sentence short.
“What the fuck?” said Carlo while grabbing his rifle and jumping to his feet. “Did you see where that came from?”
Amy scanned the scene below and pointed to a group out on the edge. A man in blue coveralls was splayed out on the ground, apparently dead, while a group of green-clad people hooted and pumped the dead man’s rifle triumphantly above their heads.
“That’s fucking Martin!” snarled Carlo in white hot anger as he jumped off the rock and began making his way down to the scene as fast as he could.
Amy quickly gathered her own rifle and chased after the Captain. She had only known this man for two days and yet she was already willing to follow his commands unquestionably. She had no idea where this instant loyalty had come from, but she realized that she had been taking great comfort from it and didn’t want it to end. A strong, previously unknown part of herself, craved this structure and even thrived in it.
She pushed hard to keep up with the Captain as he deftly made his way down the hill and toward the oncoming conflict. She absently wondered how a man who appeared to be in his sixties was so nimbly navigating his way down the steep slope. The distance between them continued to grow as Olvera easily outpaced her, fueled by his rage.
Carlo practically skidded into the blue uniformed man ingloriously laying in the blood-soaked dirt, completely surprising the surrounding crowd who had not noticed Carlo’s approach through their celebrations. He immediately applied pressure to the gaping hole in the man’s chest then quickly checked his pulse before slumping his head in defeat.
“You assholes!” he screamed, bringing the crowd’s reverie to an abrupt halt.
“That fascist had it coming. He had no right to threaten us,” the dark-haired woman named Martin retorted, totally unintimidated by Carlo’s rebuke.
Cheryl Martin had become a pain in Carlo’s ass within the first hour of waking up in these mines. Where Carlo had instinctually attempted to instill order into the turmoil of the awakening, Martin seemed determined to embrace and even encourage that very same chaos. She fought his every suggestion, no matter how benign. She delighted in undermining any perceived authority Carlo may have possessed. She took actions, even those that were detrimental to herself and others, for no other reason than to be contrary to the Captain’s recommendations. In short, the woman was a masochistic, anarchist, asshole in Carlo’s opinion and she did not care if she got people killed while expressing her particular brand of instigation.
Carlo could handle normal troublemakers without much difficulty. In fact, the Army was quite good at training their officers for just this sort of thing, but the problem was that this woman was not your average troublemaker, she was a fanatic. Cheryl Martin was a true anarchist at her very core and the world into which she had awoken was a dream come true. She had a natural talent for sensing people’s fears and suspicions. She would then nurture those suspicions like some perverted gardener growing a greenhouse full of lush distrust. On top of that, she had the verbal eloquence and confidence to change a peaceful crowd into a vengeful mob with minutes. She was the antithesis of everything that Carlo believed in and, as far as he could tell, her only motivation was that she enjoyed the mayhem that she caused. Once she had latched onto an issue, she didn’t stop until she had worked up as many people as possible into a murderous rage over it and now her sights were firmly set on Carlo and the blue uniforms.
Still kneeling over the dead man, Carlo tried to control his anger. He knew the murdered man sprawled out in front of him, but to his shame, he couldn’t remember his name. “Why?” he was able to get out through gritted teeth.
“I already told you, pig. He was a fascist bastard hording food and water from the people. He had it coming,” Martin shouted, more for the benefit of the growing crowd then to answer Carlo’s question.
Carlo Olvera’s anger finally got the better of him. Springing to his feet as quickly as his old body could manage, he lunged at the insane woman completely forgetting his own rifle slung over his shoulder in his rage. He wanted to kill the woman with his bare hands. The rapid movement startled Martin momentary but she quickly recovered and lowered her newly procured rifle directly at Carlo’s chest before his older, slower body could reach her. The combat veteran froze as he instantly recognized the murderous look in her eyes. He could tell that she fully intended to pull the trigger and Carlo braced himself for the inevitable impact and pain.
“BAP! BAP! BAP!”
It took Carlo only a split second before he realized that he hadn’t been shot. He quickly opened his eyes that had involuntarily closed and assessed the situation. The mob had disintegrated into individual frightened people running away in all directions. Alone, Cheryl Martin was still squarely aiming the rifle at Carlo’s chest but her eyes were no longer looking at him. They were firmly locked onto something behind Carlo. He took the chance of moving his gaze off Martin to swivel his head around. There stood Amy Hammersmith pointing her rifle directly at Cheryl Martin’s head. She was heavily panting, trying to catch her breath but managed to keep her rifle steady enough to do the job if necessary. In addition, several of the other armed Blue Uniforms had joined Amy and were cautiously making their way behind Martin to encircle her.
“Drop the weapon, Martin,” Olvera ordered coldly.
Carlo could almost see the wheels spinning inside of Martin’s head. She was trying desperately to think of any way to turn the situation to her advantage, but without a mob to draw power from, she was helpless. After several moments where she seemed frozen in place, her expression and posture relaxed dramatically in a way that scared Carlo more than her pointing a gun at him. She casually flipped the rifle and offered the butt to Carlo.
“Relax Der Fuhrer. I wouldn’t want to kill you,” she said, eyeing him like a cat looking at its helpless prey. “You’re my meal ticket around here. Who would I blame everything on if you were gone?” she shrugged, then frowned slightly as she nodded her head toward Amy. “On second thought, maybe that skinny bitch back there would do. I guess we’ll have to see.”
Carlo snatched the rifle from her offering hands and pointed it back at her. “You’re going to answer for what you did here.”
Her grin only widened, “What are you gonna do? Shoot me? Go ahead. See what happens. There are more than two hundred desperate people here that will string you and your merry little band up, armed or not. Thanks to me, they hate you all with a passion.”
Carlo shook his head, “I think you greatly overestimate your importance here, Martin. If you were to disappear, I think people would forget all about you very quickly.”
Cheryl pounced on the Captain’s statement as if he had walked directly into her trap. “Is that a threat? Typical fascist authoritarian, killing anyone who doesn’t agree with them!” she shouted in a failed attempt to gather another crowd.
“That’s a pretty ironic statement considering the body that’s here at my feet. Save the theatrics, Martin. No one can hear you. Unlike you, I’m not a coldblooded murderer. We’ll hold a trial.”
Martin snorted and stifled a laugh, “A trial? Really? Here?”
“That’s right,” Carlo responded seriously.
A gleam in her eye warned Carlo that this might not be the best move but he felt that he had little choice. If he could show the rest of the group that he was a fair man and could be trusted, then maybe he could head off this growing disaster and convince the remaining people to follow him out of the mines.
“Fine. I trust that this will be a jury of my peers and not some bullshit military tribunal?” Cheryl asked.
“Not that you have a choice in the matter, but yes, we’ll have a jury,” he answered. “We start in an hour,” Carlo motioned for one of the other Blue Uniforms to approach. “What’s your name again?”
“Todd,” the man answered in an obviously offended tone.
“Of course, Todd. Tie her up and keep her out of the way for a bit while we get this thing set up. Don’t let anyone else talk to her, either. She’ll have her turn to talk at the trial. Oh, and get a couple more people up here to bury Jerry.”
Amy winced, then whispered, “His name was Jake.”
“Um… I mean Jake,” Carlo corrected himself, embarrassed that he hadn’t learned the dead man’s name.
The newly appointed guard nodded, oblivious to Carlo’s mistake, and then gleefully shoved Martin squarely between the shoulder blades to get her walking. Cheryl looked back at the Captain and cracked her sly smile once again, “I’ll see you in a bit, dear,” she said sinisterly while mockingly blowing him a kiss.
Amy waited silently until she and the Captain were alone before speaking, “Are you crazy?”
Carlo was taken a bit by surprise, “What?”
“A public jury trial? This is exactly what she wants, a public forum to spout her shit.”
“The truth will come out,” Carlo said confidently.
Amy shook her head disbelievingly, “You are crazy. That is totally her element. She’s gonna bend, break, and mold the truth to whatever she wants it to be and then we’re gonna be up shit creek.”
“I’m not that pessimistic. I think there’s enough good, logical people left out there to see through her hateful bullshit. Besides, we need to discredit her, not just denounce her.”
“We should just leave,” Amy suggested. “If you think you can get us out of here, then let’s just go. Now. Fuck her and the mob she rode in on.”
It was Carlo’s turn to shake his head, “How many do you think will come?”
Amy shrugged, “I’m not sure, but I know we can count on at least thirty of the blue uniforms to come with us. Fuck anyone else. They’re adults and can make their own decisions… well… most of them anyways,” she concluded weakly thinking about all of the strange child-minded people they had discovered in the group.
“There’s the problem,” Carlo began. “Do we really want to leave all these folks to die? Most are good people who are just scared and confused. Martin is manipulating them for God knows what purpose.” He threw his hands up in frustration and practically growled to the sky before continuing, “I’m not going to force anyone to come with us, but if we don’t do something a lot of people aren’t going to make it.”
Amy was unconvinced, “I know it might sound cold, but I don’t give a shit about those people. Like I said, they’re making their own choices. I guess you’re just a better person than me, but this is no time for this hero shit.”
“This is exactly the time for hero shit,” corrected Carlo forcefully. “In fact, …”
Amy cut him off mind-sentence. “I understand that you’re all Army gung-ho and shit, but I never signed up for that macho crap and neither did anyone else here,” she shot back vehemently. She was not going to let herself get distracted from her point by some speech on the virtues of self-sacrifice and commitment. Her husband had been a master of those tactics, constantly convincing her to postpone her own dreams for the good of the family and she was no longer in any mood to worry about someone else’s Greater Good.
Amy’s statement had taken Carlo by surprise once again. Like a balloon being popped by an insolent child, his bluster deflated and blew away along with the inspirational speech he was just about to give her. “So much for the movie moment,” he thought absently. He studied her determined expression for several tense moments before finally speaking.
“You’re right,” he admitted solemnly. “I keep forgetting you’re not soldiers. Get everyone together who you know wants to follow us and meet me down in the mine’s barracks room.”
Amy looked relieved, “So, you’re giving up on the stupid trial idea, right?”
He nodded, “Yeah, we’ll cut her loose when we’re ready to go. I’ll also give everyone one last chance to come with us.”
Amy shook her head, “We really should just sneak away. You’re just giving her a …”
“That’s as far as I’m willing to go,” Carlo interrupted her. “I’m agreeing to abandon these people to a madwoman, but I won’t do it without giving them one last opportunity to make the right decision.”
Somehow, word of the impending trial of Cheryl Martin spread quickly. By the time Carlo and his thirty-two followers were assembled in the mine’s main barracks room, the remainder of the original group, including ten of the armed blue uniforms, had gathered outside the mine’s entrance in anticipation of the show. While Martin herself was still being held safely with Carlo’s group, several of her rabblerousing disciples were already present outside in the crowd busily riling them up to a fever pitch like an opening act at a concert. The instigators paced back and forth on the huge concrete pad, using it as a stage, and spouted the same anti-Olvera rhetoric over and over. The term “Nazi” was used numerous times in reference to anything relating to Carlo and his followers.
The mood inside the barracks was tense. Everyone could hear the shouts of the crowd outside and knew that the situation was growing more dangerous by the minute. Carlo had briefed everyone on their intentions to leave the mines and had ensured that everyone had packed all their personal supplies. He realized as well that the environment was quickly deteriorating and that they could no longer afford to wait.
Cheryl Martin, who could hear the same shouts from the growing mob outside, had a completely opposite reaction. She allowed yet another smirk to cross her withered lips in expectation of the oncoming conflict. She would use the mob’s anger like a match used a pool of gasoline. She had been building this emotional bomb for two days and now all she had to do was ignite it and watch the fireworks. In a rare moment of introspection, she realized that she was more sexually excited than she had ever been in her short life. The knowledge that the entire contentious situation was entirely of her making was the most potent aphrodisiac that she could have imagined.
“All right people. Let’s get this over with. It’s going to be incredibly hostile out there, but everyone needs to keep their cool and suck it up. I’m going to make one final offer for anyone who wants to come with us, then we’re out of here,” announced the Captain. He looked around and saw a bizarre mixture of steely resolve and horror among the elderly faces of who he had come to think of as his troopers. The only exception was Martin, who appeared to be wearing a strange expression of ecstasy that seemed completely inappropriate for the situation. She creeped him out, but he shook off the feeling and continued. “No one is to fire their weapon unless I order it! We have a powder keg out there and we are not going to be the ones to set it off. Is that understood?”
A chorus of “Yes, sir!” was shouted into the echoing chamber.
Carlo nodded his satisfaction, “Very good. Let’s go. Keep your eyes open but your fingers off the triggers.”
The small troop of pseudo soldiers bravely followed their leader out toward the ranting crowd. Cheryl Martin was roughly shoved along even though she wasn’t resisting. On the contrary, she was extremely anxious to get back to her audience and prime power source. As they moved from the cavernous entrance of the mine and into the open, one of the agitators on the concrete pad quickly noticed them and pointed angrily.
“There they are! The goose-steppers and their beloved Fuhrer!”
Many in the crowd jeered loudly at them, but Carlo noticed that not everyone had been so easily manipulated. There were pockets of people who seemed much more nervous than angry and Carlo took that as a hopeful sign. However, he was equally unhappy with the tactical situation. The crowd of people were spread out, blocking the entire entrance of the mine in a loose semi-circle. He immediately realized that in order to leave the area, his group would be forced to make their way directly through the crowd. This was an incredibly risky proposition given the current climate and he was certain that the crowd’s placement had been entirely intentional. He silently cursed himself for allowing his troopers to be so easily cut off from a quick retreat. It was a stupid mistake that any first year cadet would have been able to avoid, but in his hubris, he had been blinded to the danger and walked right into the trap.
“Please! Let me speak!” Olvera shouted in an attempt to get over the din of the mob. The roar decreased slightly but random cries and insults continued to be hurled in his direction.
“Where’s Martin?” someone from the crowd yelled.
Carlo motioned to have Cheryl brought forward so that everyone could see her.
“You have no right to try her. Release her immediately!” demanded one of the men up on the pad.
“I’m not going to put her on trial,” Carlo countered as calmly as he could. “We’re leaving this place and I recommend all of you come with us. Anyone who stays here is going to die. Don’t let Martin or anyone else tell you otherwise. No one is coming to rescue you. We must save ourselves. If you come with…”
“Lies!” screamed several members of the mob.
“Where is all the food you’ve stolen?” screeched another.
Martin violently twisted her body, breaking free of the two troopers holding her arms then darted to the front of the crowd, “Don’t let them deceive you! They are taking the food with them. I’ve seen it with my own eyes!”
As the mob erupted with furious calls once again, Carlo silently mouthed, “You lying bitch” at his nemesis’ back. He turned to Amy, who was nervously standing at his side, “Let’s get everyone out of here. Start making your way along the side of the hill toward the edge of the crowd. If we’re lucky, we can…”
The military officer was once again annoyingly interrupted, however this time it was a sharp pain from an impact with his shoulder. He turned back to the crowd just in time to see the second barrage of stones being hurled at his troopers. These were not small irritating pebbles. They were potentially deadly projectiles with sizes ranging from golf balls to softballs and they were now raining down on his troops with devastating effect. There was no way there had been this many perfectly sized rocks just laying around randomly on the ground. Once again, he realized too late that he had been outmaneuvered. The crowd had been pre-armed as well as pre-positioned.
“Get cover! Get back into the mine!” ordered Carlo, knowing full well that he was leading his men into a place with even less chance to escape, but if they stayed where they were, they would be overrun in seconds. His men didn’t need to be told twice. They quickly fled back into the relative safely of the mine to escape the multiple volleys of stones.
Olvera quickly assessed his situation. Many of his troopers were bleeding from various locations but appeared ready to fight. Only one man had been dragged into the mine unconscious with a nasty looking head wound, but Carlo knew this wouldn’t be his only causality before the day was over. Thankfully, within a few seconds, the stricken trooper had come to and was wearily getting to his feet.
He could hear Martin yelling outside, probably trying to rally her mob for a final assault into the mine to “finish them off”. For the hundredth time, he wondered what mental problems this woman was suffering from and yet how she could so easily influence people toward her perverted will. The question was really irrelevant now, but he knew it would always haunt him.
He called Amy over and quickly examined the bleeding gash on her cheek, but she waved him off. “I took one to the face,” she said wincing as he lightly touched it. “It hurts like hell, but I’ve actually had worse. My boy accidently hit me with a baseball bat once. It cracked my cheek bone. This is nothing in comparison,” she said dabbing at the blood trickling off her chin. “What’s the plan now, Captain?”
“We’re not staying here, that’s for damn sure,” he answered softly before turning to the rest of his beat up troopers and raising his voice, “I didn’t want it, but it looks like we’re going to have to fight our way out of here. I’m sure once the shooting starts, most of that mob is going to run like hell. Then we’ll have our opening to get out of here. Remember that there were at least ten Blue Uniforms out there, so they do have guns and I suspect they will not hesitate to use them. If you…”
“Captain!” yelled Darryl Perkins running up to him.
Carlo cursed, “God damn it! Can I not finish a fucking sentence today?”
Darryl cringed at the rebuke but did not hesitate, “I’m sorry, sir, but this is really important!”
“Well?” Carlo coaxed impatiently, beckoning him furiously to continue.
“The mine’s explosives are gone.”
“All of them?” the Captain asked incredulously. They had discovered the large cache of explosives in a chamber just past the main entrance during their initial scouting of the mine after the Awakening. At the time, the fact that an operating mine had a storeroom full of explosives seemed to be one of the few normal things about the situation and had quickly been relegated to the back of his thoughts. But now, the knowledge of their unexplained absence had suddenly taken on a deadly importance.
“Yes, sir! I just went down there, thinking maybe we could blast a different way out of here, but they were all gone, including the detonators!”
Suddenly Carlo understood Martin’s plan and knew why she had not yet pursued him into the mine. She had to know that sooner or later he would be forced to unleash his troopers and allow them to open fire on her people. While she did have a few rifles, the vast majority were under Carlo’s control and he had been professionally trained how to use to them to best effect. She had needed to get him and his people isolated and contained and what better place to do that than the mine itself.
“Force them inside and then blow the mine entrance? Was that even possible?” he thought quickly to himself. “There was no way that Martin could have foreseen all this. Besides, she couldn’t have coordinated with anyone since we had her most of the day under guard… oh shit!” his thought ended abruptly.
“Where’s Todd?” bellowed Carlo.
“I saw him out in the crowd. He was one of the assholes with Martin,” someone answered weakly.
“Fuck!” roared Carlo, balling his fists. She had done it to him again. The entire thing had just been an elaborate con to manipulate him into this very situation and he had fallen for it lock, stock, and barrel.
She had performed the murder while she had known he was watching her, drawing him into her trap like a mosquito to a bug zapper. She knew that as long as she didn’t resist, he wouldn’t kill her, but his antiquated sense of justice would force him to do something, most likely detaining her in some fashion. She had planted Todd at the scene for insurance and probably the other Blue Uniform as well. She knew how bad Carlo was with faces and could easily take advantage of that. Her original plan had probably been to use her detainment as the final rally cry to the mob. The idea of an actual trial was just the icing on the cake for riling up the people in one central location. Once the mob had been properly stirred up, Carlo would be forced to gather all his loyal troopers together to protect each other. Then it was just a simple matter of forcing all of Carlo’s group to take cover inside the mine itself before blowing it up. There was no telling when she had stolen all the explosives, but Carlo suspected it had probably been on the first day, soon after they had been discovered. No doubt Martin and her ilk were busily setting the charges at that exact moment.
“This woman is totally insane but in a genius ‘Professor Moriarty’ sort of way. She isn’t just a few turns ahead of me, she’s already finished the damn game and just waiting for me to realize it,” he thought bitterly.
Carlo’s mind raced as he tried to force reason ahead of his blinding rage. He had to get a hold of his emotions and think of his next move. If she’d been able to set all of this up, then Martin was almost certainly prepared for Carlo’s group to just come running back out of the mine before she’d had a chance to blow it up. Without a doubt, there would be a trap there as well. He needed a new plan.
“Everyone get back further into the mine. They’re going to blow the entrance!” Carlo shouted, waving everyone back and starting to run deeper into the mine himself.
For the briefest of moments everyone froze as the warning penetrated their confused thoughts, then as if someone had fired a starter pistol, all the troopers simultaneously turned and ran after their leader further into the mine. The Captain quickly led them into the first barracks chamber off the main shaft just as a deafening sound erupted from behind them. The violent shockwave shook the smooth, carved rock walls of the chamber as if they were made of Jell-O instead of the solid formations that they appeared to be. First thick dust, then darkness enveloped them as the torches in the chamber were blown out by the pressure wave of air that had been forced down the shaft from the explosion.
“Is everyone all right?” Carlo coughed out into the darkness after a few moments.
The loud ringing in his ears, prevented him from making out the first responses, but slowly the annoying sound dissipated and his normal hearing returned. He realized that his entire body, including his throat, was covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt. Heavy coughing could be heard all around him and despite the darkness, he could tell that the air was still filled with the dense particulate matter thanks to the scraping sensation he experienced every time he attempted to inhale. He turned on the small light at the end of his rifle and the barracks chamber was immediately flooded with illumination. At first, he couldn’t make out any of his troopers through the dust choked environment, but slowly their forms materialized around him as the air began to settle.
“Again, is everyone all right? Sound off,” he ordered.
Despite the occasional coughing fit, everyone announced their presence and condition. All of Carlo’s troopers had survived the explosion but they quickly confirmed that the blast had successfully accomplished its purpose. The once cavernous entrance to the mine, was now nothing but a giant pile of dirt and rubble, totally blocking any hint of the exit that had existed there only moments before. Carlo could sense the wave of panic rolling through the people who had trusted him and he knew that he had to act quickly before they lost all reason and succumbed to fear and despair.
“Perkins!” Carlo called.
“Yeah, Capt’n?” Darryl replied hoarsely.
“You said that you were getting the charges to try and open another exit. What did you have in mind, exactly?”
Darryl scratched his head in confusion, “I’m not really sure what difference it makes now that…”
“Where were you planning on setting the charges and why?” Carlo interrupted forcefully. “You had something in mind, didn’t you?”
“Well… yeah. I was just thinking that we might be able to widen one of the ventilation shafts.”
Olvera’s dust coated eyes tightened, “What ventilation shafts?”
After about fifteen minutes of searching, Perkins was finally able to lead the rest of the group to the location of the two main ventilation shafts. The small shafts were covered with dirt clogged grates and therefore easily overlooked if one were not overtly searching for them, however, they were just wide enough to fit an average sized man. For the first time, Carlo realized and appreciated the fact that he had encountered no overweight people since awakening and he estimated that the small 45-degree angle shaft should easily accommodate all his scrawny troopers plus their equipment. Relief washed over him and the tension in the tight space seemed to instantly evaporate with the discovery of their new escape route.
Carlo looked to Perkins questioningly, “Why would you try to blow these?”
Perkins shrugged, “I dunno. They looked a lot smaller with the grates on. I just thought we wouldn’t be able to fit. I guess I was wrong,” he said with a crooked smile.
Traversing the shaft was slow going even for the nimblest of the elderly troopers, but eventually they broke through the final grate and exited back into the fresh air of the open world one filthy blue uniform at a time. Carlo was the last to emerge from the dark tunnel and took the opportunity to brush himself off as much as possible before checking his gear and assessing the tactical situation.
They had surfaced on the opposite side of the hill from where the now collapsed mine entrance and camps were located. Even from this distance, loud cheers and hoots could be heard and Carlo knew that it would be Cheryl Martin leading the mob celebration in front of what she assumed was his tomb. The fury that Carlo had suppressed earlier in order to survive now surged back to the forefront of his mind.
“Lights off. Follow me and stay low. Everyone silent from here on out,” commanded the army captain in a coarse, gravelly voice.
No one questioned his orders as the small troop of thirty-two old men and woman quietly crept back to the ridge above the remains of the mine entrance. As they neared their target, Carlo motioned for everyone to go down into a prone position and approach in a low crawl. Carlo settled behind the same boulder that he had been sitting on only hours before while witnessing the murder of one of his troopers. Now the scene below was very different. The bickering individuals had been replaced with large bonfires illuminating a cheering crowd which could only be described as jubilant. Cheryl Martin stood on the massive concrete pad and pandered to the crowd, evoking continual roars of approval from the mass of people.
Carlo’s rage grew white hot at the sight of the treacherous demagogue. He had only ever tried to help these people and here they were cheering for his murderer. From their current position, his unit had a perfect field of fire from higher ground on the unsuspecting group beneath them. He would never have a better opportunity for revenge. Slowly, he propped his rifle barrel on a rock to steady it and carefully aimed at the screeching woman on the concrete pad below. His finger wrapped around the trigger and was preparing to squeeze when a hand gently settled on his shoulder.
“We can just leave,” whispered Amy Hammersmith. “No one even knows we’re alive. We don’t have to do this. We can just leave like we planned all along,” she pleaded.
Carlo returned his gaze to the sights on his rifle then squeezed the trigger, “It’s too late for that,” he said coldly as the single bullet shattered the revelry of the chanting crowd.
The captain’s shot hit the man standing beside Martin in the throat. On display for the entire crowd, the poor man’s body was knocked backwards off his feet while a rooster tail of blood arched through the air spraying anyone with the misfortune of standing too close. The cheering crowd immediately broke into panic as the repeating staccato pops of automatic rifle fire rang out into the night.
As soon as Carlo’s shot was fired, Amy cursed and rolled back over into firing position herself. The die had been cast and now they were in a fight for their lives whether they liked it or not. The other troopers immediately understood the same fact and they all began openly firing down into the cluster of frightened, scattering people. The thirty-two trooper’s combined firepower and tactical position were vastly superior to that of their opposition and, unchained from the shackles of any moral ambiguity, they poured down death in the form of hundreds of high caliber rounds. The shooting did not stop until no motion could be detected from the mass of bodies below them. While some undoubtedly escaped, the phrase “total massacre” could never have been more appropriately applied.
The council watched the captain silently as he finished his dramatic and shocking tale. No one spoke for several moments as the council members collected their thoughts. Jason was simply dumbfounded. He just couldn’t believe that the man he had come to trust with his life over the past months could have instigated such a heinous slaughter no matter how terrible the circumstances had been for his men.
“Well, did you at least kill the bitch?” callously asked Gerald Farmer, breaking the shocked silence.
“We never found her body, so I can only assume she escaped,” Carlo answered in a matter of fact tone that gave the impression that he was simply presenting an after action report to his superiors.
Farmer grunted disapprovingly, “Damn shame.”
“They butchered almost two hundred and fifty people and that’s the damn shame?” forcefully protested Anthony Simons, obviously now grateful that Carlo had refused his offer to be his defense council. Simons had already seamlessly slipped into the prosecution role, determined to put his obsolete legal skills to good use one way or another.
“Look, I’ll make this easy on all of us. As long as you leave the other Regulators out of this, I’ll just leave the Reclaimers quietly. You can call it an exile if you need to,” offered Carlo.
Anthony looked disgusted, “And you just walk away from this atrocity as if…”
“Enough Anthony!” Jason said, shutting down the lawyer before he could really get started, “What would you have us do? Confine him to a room in the Rogers? Execute him? We don’t have the space or resources to open a damned prison and I certainly am not going to execute a man who has risked his life countless times in defense of this group. Besides that, I don’t feel I have the right to pass judgement for something that happened in this world before we even met him.”
“What about the other Regulators that were with him, Jason?” asked George, his voice full of concern. “They were just as much a part of the massacre as he was. Do we send them all away?”
“We can’t afford to do that, not now. At any moment, we could be attacked by implanted drones, the St. Louis Horde, bandits or any of a hundred other threats. Those troopers are still the core of the Regulars and if they all are forced away, our defenses will be greatly diminished,” Carlo argued passionately for the first time.
Jason was impressed that the captain was still using the term “we” and his main concern was not for himself, but for the good of the Reclaimers in general.
“That mob had tried to kill my troopers once and I wasn’t going to give them a second chance. My men were following my lead in a dangerous and uncertain situation that I put them in. I know that we all regret the high loss of life that night. It’s been a burden and a shame that we have all shared, but I firmly believe they have earned their redemption many times over since then. Allow me and me alone to accept the responsibility for this incident. My troopers deserve their second chance.”
“And what if they all want to leave with you?” asked Charles in his typical reasonable tone.
Olvera shook his head, “That won’t happen. I’ll talk to them before I leave and make sure it doesn’t. Lieutenant Hammersmith is more than qualified to take over command.”
Jason examined the faces of his fellow councilors and saw a strange mixture of concern, anger, disappointment, and indecision, “Thank you, Captain. If you’ll step outside, we’ll talk and make a decision.”
Olvera nodded solemnly then marched out of the tent without another word. After a few moments, the question was called and a vote was taken. As Jason had already expressed, the council didn’t have too many options. It was a unanimous vote to exile the captain for his crimes, but grant amnesty to all the other troopers who had participated in the tragic incident. It was decided that Carlo Olvera would not technically be sent away, but just left behind as the Jolly Rogers flew the Reclaimers to their final destination: Fort Meade and the Theia Project. Their long perilous journey was finally coming to an end and now the truly dangerous work was about to start.