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Chapter 17 - Exiled

Captain Carlo Olvera watched the Jolly Rogers slowly lift off the ground, ascend to around one hundred feet, then shoot forward toward the northeast. In less than a minute, the giant, awkward craft had disappeared beyond the horizon taking with it all his future hopes and plans. He looked around the empty field with a growing feeling of despair. Despite the tough image that he endeavored to project, Carlo was alone for the first time since the awakening and he had to admit, at least to himself, that he was seriously unnerved at the lack of human companionship.

The Reclaimers had not marooned him in a helpless state, however. He had survival gear, his rifle along with several hundred rounds of ammunition, and as much food and water as he could carry. His major problem was finding a new purpose. Since the Awakening, he had just moved from one crisis to another in an endless distraction from the true desperation in which the world was submerged.

He decided on shelter as his first goal. The large field where he had been abandoned was far too exposed for this dangerous world. He needed to find a dwelling for at least the night then he could make a new plan in the morning. He checked his compass then started heading down Route 50 toward the burned out remains of Chantilly where his dishonorable past had returned to haunt him.

As the army captain made his way down the deteriorated highway, the thought occurred to him that the man called Flash, had mentioned that he had been separated from his group by the wildfire. Could the rest of that group have been survivors of the mine as well? If so, they would certainly be dangerous and should be avoided, if possible. Of course, in this world, everyone was dangerous whether they were ghosts from his past or not.

He finally settled on an old cinder block house which sat on a hill about a half mile away, overlooking the decaying road. The structure seemed stable, with an actual surviving roof and excellent lines of sight in all directions. He unrolled his sleeping bag in what he could only assume had been the living room and was quickly forced to fend off a very angry opossum who had been living in the kitchen and was none too happy with the invasion of its home. Once the previous occupant had been evicted, he plopped down against the interior wall and tore off a strip of deer jerky with his teeth to celebrate his first lonely evening in exile.

The next morning, he was awakened by the sounds of people on the road. Alarmed, he crept to one of the windows, ensuring that he kept out of sight, then pulled out his binoculars to silently observe the intruders. Immediately his secret hopes were dashed. The people along the road were not Reclaimers coming back to fetch him after having reconsidered their horrible mistake. There were five well-armed men, which looked to be in their mid-fifties or early sixties, but seemed in excellent physical shape. They were all still wearing grey coveralls, which Carlo knew denoted an industrial worker. It was the first time that he had encountered one of the Greys as the Reclaimers had mostly been a collection of more rural workers. They also appeared older and far more disciplined then any of the bandit gangs that Carlo had encountered over the months, which peaked his interest. He continued to watch as they traveled in an almost military formation westward along Route 50 until they were nearly out of sight.

He frantically gathered his gear then quietly snuck out the back of the house and into the nearby tree line. He quickly caught up to the small band of men and shadowed them from a safe distance for several miles. From his observations, he was confident that this group was only a scouting party for a much larger organization and that further intrigued him. Although he would never betray the Reclaimers, he did need a new home and perhaps they had a place for another military man among their ranks.

Eventually the group stopped to relieve themselves along the side of the road, and Carlo decided he had better take the opportunity to do the same while he could. He slipped back further into the underbrush and let nature take its course, then quietly made his way back to where he could observe the mysterious scouting party. He crouched down and once again lifted his binoculars toward his prey. Four of the men were right where he had left them, but the largest fifth man was nowhere to be seen. Carlo assumed that the missing man had just moved further off the road to take a dump with more privacy, but was forced to reconsider his assumption when he heard the unmistakable click of a revolver’s hammer moving into firing position directly behind him.

“Don’t move a fucking muscle, asshole,” the stranger commanded in an authoritative tone as Carlo felt the cold barrel of a gun slowly press against the back of his neck.

On the outside, Carlo froze just as he had been ordered, but inwardly he was viscously chastising himself for falling into this trap. It was a rookie mistake and he had walked right into it. Obviously, they had detected his pursuit at some point and executed a subtle distraction to allow this man to circle back and get the jump on him. Now his only option was to play along and to see where it led him. The stranger efficiently stripped Carlo of his rifle and backpack before producing the loudest whistle Carlo had ever heard, no doubt a signal to his comrades down on the road.

“So, what’s your name?” the man with the gun asked in a relaxed manner now that he was firmly in control of the situation.

Carlo briefly considered giving a false name, but decided that if his name had consequences attached to it, he would pay them in full. “Olvera,” he answered steadily.

“Olvera? Is that your first name?”

“Carlo,” he answered simply.

The stranger’s eyebrow rose ever so slightly. “OK Carlo, how about you tell me why you’re following us.”

“Can I move? This isn’t exactly a comfortable position,” Carlo asked, risking a confrontation.

“Sure,” the man said in a friendly manner, as if this was just a casual conversation among friends and not one taking place at gun point.

Carlo slowly stood up and turned around to face his assailant. The man was huge, at least as big as Mike Hagen but with much harder, intense eyes. Carlo had seen those types of eyes before, and, in fact, had been accused of having them himself. They were killer’s eyes and they were firmly fixed upon Carlo, undoubtedly trying to evaluate the level of threat that he posed.

“I was just being cautious,” Carlo answered the man.

“Not cautious enough, it would seem,” replied the man as he waggled the large Colt revolver in his right hand. “Me and my men here are really sociable types, you know. We just get all offended when people don’t want to meet us. It really hurts our fragile self-esteem, you know,” the man said in a sarcastically genteel tone.

“Look man, I was just curious who you guys were. I got lost from my group a while back and… well you know how dangerous it is out here on your own,” said Carlo.

Before the man could speak again, the rest of his crew burst through the bushes, “I guess we got’em then. Nice going, Jonas. You were right,” announced a short, skinny man with what Carlo recognized as a thick south Texas accent.

“Yep. Gentlemen, this here is Carl,” Jonas said, seeming to intentionally mispronounce Carlo’s name. “And he was just telling me about how lonely he is out here all by himself.”

“Looks like he’s pretty damned well supplied though,” added the skinny man as he began pulling things out of Carlo’s backpack. “Shit, look at all this damn ammo. This guy’s loaded.”

“Really?” asked Jonas suspiciously. “So, Carl, what’s with all the good stuff, huh?”

“It’s just things that I’ve been lucky enough to scrounge over the past few months. I’m a firm believer in always being prepared,” Carlo responded as evasively as possible, while ignoring Jonas’ distortion of his name.

“A real boy scout, eh? Well, we’re always looking for a good scrounger,” Jonas said with a wide toothy grin. He then turned and addressed the other four men, “Whatdaya say, boys? Should we bring Carl here to meet the Boss?”

The rest of the group unenthusiastically shrugged, then gave a collective, “yeah, whatever” as a weak response.

Jonas broaden his fake smile, “You see there, Carl? We’re an accepting bunch. All souls welcome.” He then narrowed his ‘killer’ eyes and peered penetratingly at Carlo. His false jovial demeanor evaporated instantly. “We’ll see what the Boss wants to do with him. Grab his shit and let’s go. We’re running late. I don’t want to keep her waiting.”

The forced march took several hours, taking increasingly worse roads and even a few animal trails before finally arriving at the strangers’ camp. And it was a large camp. Carlo lost count at four hundred tents and that was only a small portion of the total number which he had been paraded past. This was easily the largest group he had encountered since the awakening. Given that, and the fact that most of the people he saw were wearing the distinct grey coveralls of the industrial worker, he arrived at the only logical conclusion: this was the St. Louis Horde they had been fearing.

The group was certainly not what he had expected. By the descriptions of the Freeman, Sid, Carlo had imagined drooling throngs of savages, wild with the lust for destruction and murder. What he had found was very similar to a Reclaimer camp except for its far more immense size. Older people of every conceivable race and origin busied themselves with the normal day to day routines of camp life. Cooking fires were being built, animals were being butchered, and clothes were being washed. He suddenly felt very foolish, having envisioned brutal slavery, roads lined with heads on pikes, pits filled with ferocious half-naked warriors fighting to the death for the enjoyment of the masses, essentially every Road Warrior film he had ever seen. But there was none of that, only very skinny people trying to survive in a newly cruel world, just like the Reclaimers. Despite the feeling of familiarity, the armed men walking beside him were a sobering reminder that he was still an outsider, a prisoner, and potentially in great danger.

Carlo and his escorts made their way through a seemingly endless sea of gawking, emaciated people until they arrived in front of a massive structure of faded and torn multicolored canvass that he could only assume had once been a circus tent. The effort that hauling the monstrosity around must have taken baffled Carlo, especially since he had yet to see any horses. Obviously, the Horde was not short on cheap labor nor the will to use it.

A perimeter of well-armed men, many wearing the blue coveralls of Regulators, patrolled the outside of the massive tent, keeping any unwanted intruders well clear of the area. As they approached, a short, stocky, shirtless man, covered in tattoos stopped them at the entrance. This man’s appearance was exactly what Carlo had imagined for a member of the St. Louis Horde. Wearing a viscous sneer, he seemed right out of central casting for any post-apocalyptic movie, with his entire upper body, including his bald head, covered in faded, swirling tribal tattoos and a mouth full of horrifically crooked and rotting teeth.

“About damn time you got back. She’s been waiting on your report,” scolded the tattooed man angrily.

“Relax Greg,” said Jonas, totally unflustered by the rebuke. “I decided to take us out a few more miles and it was worth it.”

“Who the hell is this?” Greg asked tilting his bald head toward Carlo.

“Just a wanderer we found, but I think she’ll want to meet him,” responded Jonas.

“And why would she want to do that? She’s far too busy to grant an audience to every ragtag straggler who falls out of the woods. Just assign him to one of the work gangs and be done with it,” ordered Greg dismissively.

“Oh, she’ll want to talk with this one,” insisted Jonas. “And you don’t want to be the one that prevents that from happening,” he concluded menacingly.

The tattooed man shifted his dark gaze between Carlo and Jonas, as he considered his next move. It was clear that he desperately wanted to know what was so important about the new arrival that warranted a visit with the Boss on his first day in camp, but after several seconds of considered silence, he stepped aside. “Your funeral, Jonas. But just you and him. Your men stay outside,” Greg demanded, trying to maintain at least an appearance of authority.

“Fine,” said Jonas, “Let’s go man. It’s time to meet the Boss.”

Jonas turned over all his weapons to one of the guards at the tent flap, then politely ushered Carlo into the massive canvas pavilion. Inside, the structure was even more impressive than its multi-colored exterior. They passed through multiple room with heavy canvas walls which had been lavishly painted with beautiful outdoor murals. Carlo could not fathom the tremendous, indifferent ego required to waste resources on such indulgent luxuries while hundreds of people were obviously starving only meters away.

Another beefy guard stopped them before they could enter the next chamber, “Hold on. You need to wait here. She’s in there talking with the Major now.”

Jonas gave the guard one of his sly smiles, “I didn’t know the Major was back. I thought she was still out with the forward units.”

The guard shrugged, “What do I know? She’s in there now, so you gotta wait.”

Carlo was shaken by the knowledge that they had “forward units” in addition to the vast numbers in the camp. He also didn’t like the idea that they were using traditional military ranks and terminology. It strongly suggested that they weren’t just a massed horde milling about, but had at least some organization and experience. He feared that his beloved Reclaimer Regulators would be no match if these two groups were to engage each other. By sheer numbers alone, the Reclaimers would be overrun, but if this group were able to execute actual military tactics and maneuvers, the result was not something that Carlo wished to contemplate. He decided then and there that he had to do everything in his power to prevent that tragedy from happening.

At that moment, a woman came bursting out of the chamber in a huff, obviously distressed. She wore the blue coveralls of a Regulator, with closely cropped graying brunette hair and several nasty scars marring the otherwise attractive face of a woman in her mid-fifties. She noticed Jonas immediately and quickly made a point of rebuilding her composure.

“Major,” Jonas greeted her with a warm smile. “I’m surprised you’re back.”

She approached Jonas and spoke in a volume that would prevent the guard from overhearing, but Carlo was still able to easily eavesdrop on the conversation.

“Jonas Mulligan,” she said curtly. “Did you know what she was planning?” asked the military woman with a steely tone that Carlo instantly recognized as a superior addressing a subordinate.

Genuinely surprised, Jonas shook his head, “I just got back myself, Major. I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.”

The Major shot a cautious glance back toward the chamber flap before continuing in an almost conspiratorial tone, “She’s fucking insane, Jonas. You know it, and I know it.”

“Easy, Major,” Jonas warned in an equally soft tone. “That’s something you really ought to keep to yourself, if you know what’s good for you.”

She grunted in disbelief, “What’s good for me, really? As if any of this shit is good for anyone.” She shook her head incredulously. “I’ve got to get back to my men. Watch yourself, Jonas.”

With that meager warning said, the Major briskly exited the tent and disappeared, leaving Carlo wondering if he had stumbled onto a potential ally or just witnessed some personal internal drama. At the moment, he didn’t have enough information to know for sure either way.

“The Boss is ready for ya now,” announced the guard while motioning from them to enter the chamber.

They both stepped through the flap and into what could only be described as a throne room for some ancient nomadic tribe. Carlo could easily imagine Genghis Khan himself sitting comfortably in the room. Animal hides of various species festooned the walls and carpeted the floor. Armed guards stood lazily at regular intervals along the curved walls. Gorgeous painted murals could be seen through the few spots where the canvas was not already covered in animal fur and ornate golden chairs lined the outer wall. In the center of the room, seated in a plush, high-back, mahogany chair was none other than a grim-faced Cheryl Martin.

Martin’s sour expression sweetened immediately as recognition dawned on her. A broad, sinister smile stretched across her face, exposing her top row of yellowing teeth. Carlo’s eyes bulged with shock and horror at the sight of his old tormentor perched before him like a viper waiting to strike a hapless mouse. Alarms fired off inside his mind as the adrenaline began to be pumped vigorously through his veins in preparation for fight or flight. He chose both options.

Reflexively, Carlo balled his fist and rounded on Jonas, connecting squarely with the mammoth man’s iron jaw. Carlo felt the bones in his hand shatter with the strike, but caught off guard, Jonas was thrown off balance and stumbled to the ground groaning and cursing. Carlo took full advantage of the stunned guards’ hesitation and confusion. Cradling his broken hand, he wasted no time in darting back through the flap and out toward the exit of the massive circus tent. As he ran he could hear Martin’s furious screech, “It’s Olvera! Get him, you assholes! Don’t let him get away!”

The all too familiar banshee scream of Cheryl Martin only drove Carlo to run that much harder. He burst out of the lavish tent, knocking over the tattooed Greg who had been coming in to investigate the commotion. The collision caused Carlo to stumble, but he quickly recovered and pushed hard for the distant tree line. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder to check on his pursuers and when he turned back he saw only an outstretched arm at face level before he forcefully collided with it. The impact broke his nose and immediately stop all forward momentum of his head, while his feet kept obediently advancing at their original quick pace. The predictable result of these two opposing forces was Carlo unceremoniously slamming to the ground hard on his back. The fall knocked the breath out of him while blood gushed from his crushed nose and raw pain seared up his arm from his shattered right hand.

As he began to catch his breath, he briefly glimpsed the owner of the arm that had so effectively brought his escape to a violent, unsuccessful conclusion. Through pain obscured vision, he saw the stern face of the Major looking down at him with strangely concerned eyes.

“You poor bastard,” was all he heard her say before he blacked out.

Throbbing pain was the first thing that his mind registered as Carlo began to slowly regain consciousness. As the fog began to lift from his thoughts, his memories returned in a flash. He sat up quickly and was rewarded with searing pain radiating from the center of his face and his right hand. He winced as he assessed his surroundings. A heavy chain was wrapped around his left ankle on one end and securely padlocked to a thick tree trunk on the other. He gave the chain a few experimental yanks with his good left hand, but quickly discovered that whomever had restrained him had known what they were doing. He wasn’t going anywhere for the moment.

His nostrils were clogged with clotted blood, but someone had taken the time to wrap up his broken right hand. Suspecting what Martin had in store for him, he found this amount of first aid surprising. The tree in which he had been attached seemed to be isolated from the rest of the Horde camp. He could still hear the many sounds of camp life only a short distance away, but he could see no one except a grey uniformed guard sitting up against a nearby tree watching him closely.

“Can I get some water?” Carlo croaked out.

The guard eyed him as if he were a curious bug, but said nothing and made no effort to fulfill his request.

“Come on man. Just a little water, please,” Carlo tried again.

“Go get him some water,” ordered a female voice from behind him.

Carlo swung his head around to identify the speaker and once again saw the Major emerging from a thicket of trees. The guard grunted his displeasure with the order, but obeyed the officer. He leisurely got to his feet and disappeared into the same thicket from which the Major had arrived, leaving the two of them alone for the moment.

“Thank you,” Carlo managed to say in a hoarse and nasally voice.

The woman snorted, “So, you’re the Boss’s boogie man. Captain Carlo Olvera?”

Carlo only nodded.

The Major shook her head in disbelief, “Good Lord. The way she’s been describing you, I half expected you to have hooves, horns, and a pitch fork, not some worn out wanderer from the wilderness.”

“You’re not exactly catching me at my best,” he managed to reply with a bit of mirth.

“Obviously,” she responded dryly. “You know she’s been offering a huge reward for anyone that kills you, double if they managed to capture you alive. Jonas is one lucky bastard, except for the broken jaw you gave him. He’s a bit pissed about that.”

“That woman is bat shit crazy,” he stated, while secretly deriving some satisfaction from the knowledge that he had inflicted some pain on his capturer.

“And yet she claims that you’re the one that slaughtered hundreds of unarmed people. What does that make you: a madman, a monster, or both?”

Carlo looked unrepentantly back at her, “A survivor. She didn’t leave me much choice. If you’ve worked with her for any length of time, you must know I’m right. She’s crazy. I’m guessing that you’ve seen her do vile things, or more likely, convince others to do those horrific things for her. She has a gift for that.”

Carlo saw instantly that his words had struck a nerve in the Major. He suspected that the Major herself had been one of those people whom Cheryl had persuaded to do unspeakable acts in the cause of the common good. He decided to press the advantage while he had it.

“I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. She’s…”

“You don’t know shit,” she shot back vehemently, cutting him off. “You have no damn clue what it was like at the Complex, what we had to do to survive. She managed to wrestle order out of that nightmare. She kept us alive.”

“And it only cost you your soul,” he added solemnly. “Believe me, I do understand. I woke up with that monster and I saw firsthand how she evilly manipulated people for the sheer joy of it. Whatever she has planned, it’s only going to benefit her in the long run. I can see that you know the truth, whether you want to admit it to yourself or not.”

“Sacrifices have to be made,” she said regretfully. “You can’t be some gentle, goody two-shoes leader and hope to survive in this world,” she rebutted, but Carlo noticed a distinct lack of conviction in her tone.

“That’s not true,” he argued back. “I was with a group just like that. They have noble intentions and everyone is treated fairly.”

The Major raised an eyebrow, “If they were so good, why aren’t you with them now?”

Carlo lowered his eyes, “I was banished, because everyone is treated fairly, including me.”

Realization dawned on the Major’s face, “My God, you were with the cult, weren’t you? What do they call themselves… the Reclaimers?”

Carlo hesitated, not knowing whether he should confirm or deny the question. He regarded the scarred, yet graceful features of the Major’s quizzical expression before making the decision that he had to trust her. He had to try and convince her that the Reclaimers were not their enemy and the only way to do that was to be honest.

“Yes, I was with the Reclaimers, but they’re not a cult.”

“Bullshit, we’ve all heard the firsthand stories about their prophet and his magical ability to control the drones. Those people are dangerous and they want to convert the world to their beliefs whether other people want it or not.”

“Those are all lies,” protested Carlo bitterly.

“Oh, I don’t believe he’s a prophet either. But I do believe he has something to do with this whole fucked up situation, and if our intel is correct, they are trying to restart it. I will not become some zombie again, not if I can fight it.”

“That’s not true. The Reclaimers are good people, maybe a little naïve at times, but good. They’re just trying to find their families.”

She shook her head, “You really believe that, don’t you? The people in the cult are always the last ones to realize it. They are all marching happily forth to drink from the Kool-Aid, only this time it’s not just them that will pay the price, it’s the whole damn world.”

“Listen to me,” pleaded Carlo. “Just talk to them before you attack them. If you don’t trust me, then at least trust yourself. Don’t let Martin decide for you.”

The annoyed looking guard exited the thicket of trees and stomped over to Carlo gloomily. He dispassionately tossed a small canteen to Carlo, then plopped back down in his original spot. Carlo reflexively tried to catch the flying object with his right hand, resulting in another sharp zap of pain, but he managed to quickly twist off the cap and drink greedily from the container.

“Enjoy your water,” the Major said as she started leaving. “You’ll need your strength once the Boss is ready to talk to you.”

“Remember what I said,” Carlo beseeched her as water dribbled from his parched lips. “Be your own woman.”

As he watched her disappear, he could only hope that he had managed to at least plant a small seed of doubt in her mind. With any luck, that doubt would grow large enough to allow Jason and the Reclaimers the chance to finish the conversation and convince her of the truth.

Carlo lost track of time while he sat chained to the tree suffering from his throbbing face and hand. He knew that his prospects were bleak at the very best. Cheryl Martin was going to have her way with him and he was certain that the experience was not going to be pleasant. He had sat through the routine prisoner of war training that the army had mandated, but despite the fact that he had been deployed to several combat zones around the world, he never really expected to be in this situation.

Eventually two more guards arrived to escort him back to the camp and into the presence of his nemesis, Cheryl Martin. The Boss sat on her cushy throne and eyed Carlo silently for several moments as she considered her prey. A moody looking Greg stood beside her chair like a well-heeled dog while the giant Jonas Mulligan stood off at a distance brooding angrily and rubbing a bruised and swollen jaw. This time Carlo knew that he wouldn’t catch anyone by surprise.

“My dear captain, you have no idea how much I’ve wanted this day to come,” started Martin, almost gleefully. “You will shortly pay for your crimes, but first, I have some questions.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Carlo suggested defiantly.

The Boss simply nodded her head toward one of the guards flanking Carlo and the big man grabbed Carlo’s broke hand in a crushing grip. The intense pain forced the army captain to drop to his knees while screaming through clenched teeth. Cheryl’s smile only broadened at the captain’s discomfort.

“Let’s begin,” she said joyfully as if she were addressing a kindergarten class and not conducting a torturous interrogation. “What are the defensive capabilities of the Reclaimer cult? How many armed men do you have?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Carlo lied.

“Let’s not play this game, Olvera. You’ve already been positively identified by an eye witness as the cult’s military commander.”

This statement worried Carlo greatly. Had they managed to capture another Reclaimer or was she just bluffing, “What witness?” he asked weakly as he slowly rose back to a standing position.

“You’ll meet him soon enough, but that’s really neither here nor there at the moment,” she again nodded to the guard and a beefy hand slapped Carlo squarely on his broken nose. Stars flashed into his vision as reality was whited out by the immense agony of the strike. Once the pain subsided enough to regain his senses, Carlo realized that he was once again on his knees.

“Not too much,” chided the Boss angrily. “I don’t want him blacking out again before we finish our talk.”

Carlo once again defiantly rose back to his feet on wobbling legs.

“Again, Captain. What are the defensive capabilities of the Reclaimer cult? How many armed men can you muster?”

“You don’t need to do this,” he stated weakly. “They aren’t a threat to you or anyone.”

“Irrelevant,” she countered. “Now if I have to ask you again…”

“Around ten thousand,” Carlo answered dishonestly.

Martin looked to Jonas who shook his head emphatically, “No way they have that many. Our reports say that they don’t have more than a thousand total people,” the big man managed to say through his swollen and clenched jaw.

The Boss looked disappointed, “I can see you’re not going to be much help. Let’s try a different tack. What exactly is Theia? Tell me honestly and I’ll make your death quick and painless. Lie to me again, and I’ll be sure that you get to see all your internal organs before you eventually die.”

“It’s just supposed to be some sort of spy satellite network.”

“The radio broadcast from your cult a few months ago claimed that it could find anyone anywhere and control them,” stated Greg, speaking up for the first time. “That sounds like a hell of a lot more than just a spy satellite to me.”

Carlo silently cursed Anthony Simons for making that original broadcast, but he knew that something wasn’t quite right. There was no way that Anthony would have said “control them” as well. Maybe the broadcast had been garbled and misunderstood by the receivers.

“I don’t know what you heard, but from what I was told, it’s just supposed to be able to help find people. That’s the only reason the Reclaimers are trying to use it, to find their families,” Carlo said, trying to correct the misinformation.

“How do we use it? The transmission mentioned a Jarred somebody. Is he the person who knows how to work the machine?” demanded Greg again.

Now Carlo was certain that the broadcast has been mangled and that these people were working with bad information. It really wasn’t surprising given the condition of the equipment that Simons had used to make the transmission, but none of that mattered now.

“I never met him,” Carlo answered honestly. “I just heard he was some low level programmer with the project before the Capture. I always just though the damned thing was just a wild goose chase, but it gave people a purpose to move forward.”

Martin looked at Greg and Jonas who both nodded slowly. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to find out for ourselves then, won’t we,” she said menacingly. “Whatever Theia is, it’ll be ours soon enough.”

She nodded to the guards once again and they both grabbed one of Carlo’s arms and began dragging him from the chamber.

“You don’t have to do this, Cheryl!” Carlo yelled back over his shoulder. “Those people have done nothing to you!”

“Exactly. And I don’t intend to give them the chance,” she said ominously. “I’ll see you a few minutes, Captain. I hope you don’t miss me too much until then.”

Carlo was unceremoniously hauled out of the tent and quickly tied to a thick post that placed him on display in front of a massive gathering crowd of jeering people. To his right was another post with yet another victim secured to it. The short, stocky figure’s head was slumped over onto his chest but Carlo could still make out a bloodied and disfigured face with multiple dark bruises. The poor man had obviously been beaten to within an inch of his life and the sight of him made Carlo thankful for his relatively light treatment. As Carlo examined him, the prisoner’s head limply lolled to the side to look back at Carlo through eyes that had almost swollen shut.

“Olvera?” the beaten man asked in a gravelly, broken voice.

Surprised, Carlo intensified his examination of the wretched man’s face but still could not recognize him through his brutal injuries. “Yes, who are you?”

The man coughed, producing a spray of blood which stained his long mustache and dribbled down his chin. “It’s Sid, Captain,” he said hoarsely.

Carlo was horrified at the extent to which the young Freemen had been beaten to an unrecognizable pulp. “My God, what did they do to you?”

“They caught me about a week ago, but the real beating didn’t start until you arrived. I’m sorry, I’m the one that told them you were with the Reclaimers.”

“Don’t worry about,” Carlo assured the Freemen. “The bitch leading this rabble was going to kill me no matter what. I’m sorry they put you through that.”

Sid painfully coughed again then forced a weak smile. “Well I guess that’s good. How did they get you? Have they already attacked the Reclaimers?”

“It’s a long story on how I was captured, but I was alone. They haven’t attacked the Reclaimers yet. But I think that’s about to change soon.”

A loud cheer broke out among the crowd and Carlo craned his neck back to see the cause of the excitement. Cheryl Martin along with her ten-person entourage had made her entrance onto the scene and Carlo braced himself for what he knew was coming next.

“Well at least I won’t die alone,” said Sid bravely. “That’s every Freemen’s worse nightmare.”

Cheryl stepped in front of the condemned men and raised her hands in a theatrical flourish which silenced the crowd.

“Today we take justice for ourselves!” she announced loudly. “The two men before you have been convicted of horrific crimes. This one”, she gestured toward the bloodied Sid, “is a spy and saboteur working directly for the Cultists in their efforts to enslave us all again.”

The mob erupted into boos and jeers which reminded Carlo so vividly of that fateful night at the mines. He had to acknowledge that Martin was a master at public speaking and manipulation. She could take the most docile of people and expertly work them up into a frothing rabble willing to do whatever she commanded.

“And this man,” she continued, moving her hand to point back at Carlo. “Is the infamous Carlo Olvera himself, the Butcher of the Mines, the Slaughterer of the Innocents. And where has he been, you ask? Why leading the very same cultist that want to subjugate you all to their bizarre beliefs. Where else would you expect to find such a villain?”

Again, the crowd hissed loudly at Carlo who felt naked against their auditory assault. He allowed his eyes to wander through the mob, focusing on specific angry faces. Individually, none seemed all that threatening, but as a whole, their power was palpable. As he continued his search, his gaze settled onto a single familiar face. The Major was standing in the second row staring at him with pity filled eyes. Carlo noticed that she was not cheering, but standing silently in an almost reverent manner. She was a calm island in a turbulent sea of screaming faces, and Carlo chose to focus on her until the end. He hoped that the tiny seed of doubt he had planted with her would be allowed to grow, but unfortunately, he would never know the result.

Another roar erupted as Cheryl Martin produced a large serrated knife and held it high for all to see. Then, without warning or preamble, she slashed the knife downward, slicing deeply through Sid’s throat. Blood gushed from the gaping wound, drenching the poor Freemen’s shirt and producing a pulsating spray in time with the pumping of the dying man’s heart. Sid’s body convulsed for a few gurgling seconds, then slackened and collapsed into lifeless meat.

Cheryl then turned toward Carlo with her characteristic sinister smile. “And now my dear captain, it’s your turn,” she said quietly, privately savoring her revenge.

Carlo returned his focus to the Major’s kind face and kept it there. He tried with all his soul to project his thoughts directly into those eyes like some sort of telepathic connection, but he knew it was only a dream, an illusion caused by the certainty of his imminent death.

He felt the knife cutting through his flesh, but strangely felt no pain. He sensed his consciousness fading as his precious blood squirted from the yawning, fatal injury in his neck and he tried desperately to focus one last time on the Major. He saw her sad expression as she gently mouthed the words, “I’m sorry” before he passed out, never to awaken again.

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