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Chapter 4 - The Freemen

The Reclaimers had left Fairfield four days earlier in a disorganized column of over two hundred backpack laden elderly people, followed slowly by three full horse drawn wagons. To any outside observer, the ragtag procession would have looked like a sad carnival troop slowly snaking their way to the next performance. They had made better progress than Jason had anticipated thanks to their system of rotating people into the wagons for short breaks, but it was still slow going and hard on their aging bodies.

They had developed a routine of stopping for the day several hours before nightfall and sending a scouting party with one wagon out to scavenge for supplies. Since they had been staying mainly on what had once been major roads, finding old dwellings and stores to “reclaim” was never too difficult. They tended to stay outside in tents rather than sleeping in the decaying buildings that they encountered. The weather was pleasant and warm and the risk of structural collapse in the middle of the night made the tents seem like the better option.

The group had decided to camp for the night in a field about a hundred feet off Route 34. Jason had finished setting up his tent and was in the middle of helping a frustrated Larry Borowski with his when they heard the scout wagon quickly racing back up the road. Since they had only been gone about fifteen minutes, Jason knew something was wrong, so he dropped what he was doing and hurried to meet the wagon.

The wagon had barely come to a halt with Mike Hagen still holding the reins, when Ray Parker jumped down, slung his hunting rifle over his shoulder and approached Jason excitedly.

“What’s wrong?” asked Jason as a small crowd began to gather around the unexpected wagon.

“You ain’t gonna believe it ’til you see it, no sense in me even trying to describe it. You’ll just think I’m crazy. It’s right up on the next hill,” Ray exclaimed.

“Jason, trust me. You need to see this. Get George too,” assured Mike.

Intrigued, Jason fetched George and the four men rode the wagon down the road and up onto a grassy hill with a small knot of trees overlooking the next valley. Finally, Mike stopped the wagon abruptly and pointed out into the distance.

“There,” he said bluntly. “I have no idea what the hell that thing is, man,” Mike said.

Jason followed Mike’s finger and squinted at the sight, but he couldn’t quite comprehend what he was seeing. To Jason’s eyes, it appeared to be a black skyscraper building somewhat reminiscent of the Freedom Tower in New York, which would be fine, except for the fact that this one seemed to be floating impossibly several hundred feet off the ground. The massive structure hung there lazily as if it were some glimmering onyx ornament dangling from a giant invisible Christmas tree. The effect was unnerving to put it mildly.

“God damned, aliens! I told ya!” screamed Ray, finally succumbing to his excitement. “I told ya from day fucking one. Are you gonna sit here and tell me that ain’t no alien spaceship?”

Jason ignored his outburst as he took Ray’s rifle and pointed it at the distant object. He examined the structure through the rifle’s scope in an attempt to make sense of what he was seeing. “It had to be some sort of illusion or trick of the light,” Jason thought.

“Can you see anything?” asked George once he managed to close his gaping mouth.

Jason adjusted the scope before describing what he saw. “It’s definitely floating. I can see the base. It looks square. It looks like it tapers slightly as it goes up too. It’s hard to tell at this distance, but it’s big. I mean, really big.”

While the men watched, dumbfounded, the mysterious floating structure quickly rose further into the air then shot away at a seemingly impossible speed. Within seconds, it had disappeared beyond the horizon leaving the shocked group wondering if it had really ever existed.

“What the hell was it?” murmured George to no one in particular.

“We just call them towers,” answered an unexpected strange voice from behind the men.

Startled, the group whirled around raising their rifles toward the intruder. A tall, wire thin man emerged from behind a nearby stand of trees. The stranger wore tattered camouflaged fatigues with an assault rifle slung comfortably over his shoulder. His long, thick, white beard and hair gave him the surreal appearance of an anorexic Santa Clause who had been drafted into the army.

“Take it easy. Lower your weapons,” the man growled in a gravelly, hoarse voice. “If I had wanted to hurt ya, I’d already have done it. The name’s Gerald Farmer, last survivor of the 1st Illinois Freemen Regiment. I’ve been following your little merry band for the last couple of days and I figured it was time we talked.”

Jason motioned for his group to lower their weapons as he carefully eyed the new man for any clues as to his true intentions. “My name is Jason Rawlings, and this is…”

“I know who you all are Mr. Rawlings,” Farmer interrupted with a dismissive wave of his wrinkled hand. “I told ya, I’ve been collecting reconnaissance on your group for the last few days. I’m thorough. I wouldn’t still be alive after all this time if I weren’t.”

“Are you implying that you didn’t just wake up three weeks ago like the rest of us?” George asked excitedly. “Do you know what the hell is going on here?” he continued as the group stared at Farmer expectantly.

Gerald Farmer was silent for several seconds as he considered his answer. The momentary pause caused the tension in the air to grow thick with anticipation.

“We don’t know everything, but we’ve been collecting information for the past thirty years, ever since the ‘Capture’.” He paused for effect again. “I recommend we head back down to that camp of yours and we settle in with some food. I’m sure you’ve got lots of questions, but I can’t promise that you’ll like the answers.”

They quickly agreed to bring Gerald back to the camp to see what he could offer. They rode in their wagon, while Gerald Farmer followed on his own weary looking horse. It wasn’t until they were in sight of the freshly built campfires that Jason suddenly realized they had abandoned and forgotten all about the bizarre floating tower for the mere chance at discovering some answers. He wasn’t sure if he trusted Gerald Farmer yet, but he was certainly ready to hear him out.

Word seemed to travel instantly in the camp and soon all the Reclaimers had gathered around the wiry, old man in army fatigues. Gerald, for his part, had made himself at home quite quickly and found a cozy spot by one of the larger fires. He gave the impression of a man who was used to taking comfort wherever he could find it. The crowd encircled him at a respectful distance as if he were a monarch at court or a judge about to render a verdict. They watched him in silence as he leisurely finished his baked beans then casually tossed the empty can into the fire. He leaned back onto one elbow and crossed his legs, seeming to make himself very comfortable on the hard ground, almost as if he were about to turn in for the night.

“Let’s see here, I’m not even sure where to start,” he began as he scratched his overgrown beard. “I’ve never spoken with any drones before today, so this is a little weird for me too.”

Mike Hagen silently mouthed the word “drones?” to Jason, but Jason could only shrug in reply.

Farmer continued, “We suspected, but weren’t sure until I confirmed with Mr. Rawlings here, that you folks have no memory of the past thirty years. I know that’s got to suck, but you’ll have to believe me when I tell you that it’s probably your greatest blessing. You have not been asleep or magically transported to this future. Your bodies have been very much alive and functioning for the past thirty years as I’m sure you’ve already suspected. To be honest, I have no idea where your minds have been. We had assumed that they were all long gone.” He paused to let the information sink in before continuing. “It started thirty years ago. I was a forty-one-year-old high school chemistry teacher on summer break the day it happened. We came to call it the ‘Capture’, because that’s what it seemed like. Everyone in the world appeared to have been simultaneously captured and controlled by some unknown force. It was terrifying, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“But you weren’t … umm … captured?” asked Anthony, struggling with the new terminology.

“I was just getting to that,” snapped Gerald, obviously annoyed at having been interrupted. “For a long time, I thought I was the only one on the planet that wasn’t affected. I tried to wake people up or interfere with their tasks, but I was just mostly ignored by the drones. After about three months of that, I was ending each day with my gun in my mouth just trying to come up with reasons not to pull the trigger. It was a real lonely time…” Farmer’s attention and voice seemed to drift off to a dark place. Jason took the opportunity to ask another question.

“That’s the second time you mentioned ‘drones’. Are you referring to us?”

The question appeared to pull Gerald back to the moment and he glared at Jason with something close to disdain. “Of course, I mean you… all of you. Up until three weeks ago, there were only two kinds of humans on this planet for thirty years, drones and Freemen. The very second the Capture began, you people all became drones, mindless and without personality. However, each drone instantly seemed to have a purpose, like a worldwide, enormous ant hill. You were organized and efficient, as if some sort of hive mind was controlling your every action. Everyone appeared to have a specific job. That’s what those colored coveralls are all about, if you hadn’t figured that out yet.” Farmer pointed to various people wearing different color coveralls as his story diverted onto a tangent. “Brown is agricultural or food production. Green is resource extraction, essentially mining. Red seemed to be some sort of technical support. Grey is manufacturing and construction, which happens to be the most common. Orange is transport operations, you know, pilots and drivers and such.”

“At first everyone seemed to be interchangeable, doing multiple jobs whenever needed,” Gerald went on. “But after a while, the coveralls were produced, and then folks appeared to stagnate into the same job. The theory was that the hive mind figured out that there was such a thing as muscle memory and that it was more efficient to keep drones doing the same tasks whenever possible.”

“Are you telling me I was nothing but a damned field slave for the past 30 years!” Ray Parker shouted indignantly, while pointing to his own brown coveralls. Ray then seemed to reconsider his outburst before addressing George directly in a gentler tone, “No offense.”

George was taken aback. “Well, I wasn’t offended until you said that, you, ignorant hick. Is that what you think black people are for: picking cotton out in a field somewhere?” George responded angrily.

“Hell no,” replied Ray, seemingly hurt by the implication, “I was just trying to be…you know…racially sensitive.”

George just shook his head and rolled his eyes before redirecting his attention back to Farmer.

A man in the crowd pointed down to his coveralls. “What about Blue? What did they do?” he shouted.

Gerald sat up from his reclined position and shot the man a look of pure hatred. “And then there are the blue,” he practically spat. “Blue are the Regulators. They are the hive protectors. They didn’t even exist for the first year or two. We think they were created in direct response to us, the Freemen.” Gerald’s back stiffened noticeably at the mention of the name.

“It was about three months after the Capture before I saw another free human being. I was salvaging around Chicago when I caught a radio transmission on a shortwave that I had been hauling around. It was a call for anyone still alive to come to a specific meeting place in Ohio. It took me awhile, but I got there and thank God I did.”

Every single person in the area was listening in complete silence, enraptured as Gerald continued his tale. “It turned out there were other people unaffected by the Capture, but not many. After comparing some stories, we found that we all had two things in common: we were all men and we all suffered from some form of synesthesia.” He paused and looked around to see if anyone recognized the medical term. None did. “It’s a brain condition where two completely different bodily senses can get mixed up or combined. For instance, I actually taste the sound of birds singing. Most taste like graham crackers, but a few taste like buttermilk. There is a huge amount of variation among us Freeman. Hell, one fellow I knew heard the color red as a blowing horn. It would scare the crap of out of him every time, but the bottom line is we all experience at least one form of synesthesia.”

“We have no idea why this particular affliction seemed to insulate us from the Capture, but it did, and now that we knew each other existed, we got organized. We called ourselves ‘Freemen’ for obvious reasons. At first, it was only local, then after a while, we hooked up with other groups around the county and developed a crude communications network. Eventually, we even made contact with groups as far away as Brazil and France.”

“And that’s when you started fighting back against them aliens?” questioned Ray Parker with enthusiastically clenched fists.

Gerald gave Ray a strange look. “I don’t believe I ever mentioned aliens. I’ve never seen or even heard of one in thirty years.”

Ray looked confused. “But what about that tower thing. I thought that was an alien mother ship or something.”

“I never said it was an alien ship. Those towers are entirely built by drones… err people, I mean,” Farmer said, correcting himself. “We’ve watched the entire building process. There wasn’t anything off-world about its construction,” responded Gerald. “But I’ll get to the towers in a minute.”

“Now, where was I? Oh yeah, I joined the 1st Illinois Freemen Regiment, which was actually only about 250 men at the time. We decided it was our duty to save humanity from this slavery and our first course of resistance was to disrupt any activities of the hive mind or as we came to call it, ‘The Intelligence’. By this time, massive factories were producing strange materials and equipment that we had never seen before. The Intelligence was building something and we figured that we’d try and stop it or, at least, slow it down. We kidnapped and detained drones by the hundreds. We blew up roads and bridges. We burned crops and supplies. And, at first, it seemed to really be making an impact. But that’s when the blue jumpsuits started appearing,” he said solemnly, casting his gaze back to the man wearing the dirty blue coveralls in the crowd. “We came to call them Regulators, because it was their job to regulate all operations and make sure they ran smooth. Basically, that meant they had a directive to get rid of us.”

Gerald looked pained as he forced himself to continue reliving the past. “We had apparently become irritating enough that the Intelligence finally took notice, just like we thought we wanted. The problem was we had already become complacent and lazy because we were used to basically being ignored. Well they stopped ignoring us all right. The Regulators totally surprised us during a raid on a drone alloy mill. It wasn’t like they were any sort of tactical geniuses, we just weren’t expecting armed resistance and got caught with our pants down. We lost about fifty men on that raid alone, and from that point on, we were continually hunted.”

“The Regulators were relentless. They seemed to find us no matter where we hid and always outnumbered us greatly. We split up and ran as best as we could, but for almost five years they kept hunting and killing the Freemen wherever they found us. Those were horrible times. We had to keep moving every day or they’d drop a blue squad on us and wipe us out. Then, as quickly as it had started, they stopped hunting us. The Intelligence seemed to of lost interest in us, or more likely, just didn’t consider us a threat anymore. And to be fair, it was right. We were in no shape to threaten anything. Slowly, the survivors filtered back together and reformed, but this time as observers only. The idea was to collect and share as much information as possible and try to find a weakness or at the very least, a purpose.”

“Are the Freemen the reason we are awake again? Did you figure out how to break the control?” Jason asked timidly.

Gerald slowly shook his head “No. I wish I could say it was us, but the truth is, we don’t know why you all woke up after all these years. Like I said earlier, it was assumed that you all were brain dead and there was no coming back for any of you. At least there had never been a report of a drone waking up before last month.”

“And the tower thing, what is it?” asked Mike Hagen before quietly explaining what they had seen floating in the air from the hilltop to the crowd.

Farmer frowned. “Well I guess this is the ‘questions and answers’ period now, huh? Maybe I should just have you all raise your damn hands,” he grunted with a heavy sarcastic overtone, obviously annoyed. “Fine… the towers, let’s see… they started showing up about eleven years after the Capture. Like I said, they are totally man made. I personally watched one get built outside St. Louis at a huge assembly plant. There are thousands of towers all over the world based on reports I’ve heard,” he stated while scratching at his beard like a dog with fleas before continuing. “Mostly the towers are just enormous people and equipment movers, but we think they act as some sort of processing plants as well. They move drones and supplies around by the thousands to wherever they are needed. They just land, open up these massive cargo ramps and then disgorge hundreds of drones like an anthill that’s been kicked over. Typically, they’ll load up supplies too like food or other raw materials while leaving drones to complete some task, then move on to their next destination. In a week or so, another tower would repeat the process, replacing the drones on the ground with fresh labor.”

Jason looked to Mike. “I bet that’s what that giant concrete slab in the middle of the cornfield was used for, a landing pad.”

Jason then turned his attention to Gerald and mockingly raised his hand like a petulant school child.

“What?” Gerald growled, exasperated.

“Did any of the Freemen ever make it inside one of the towers? I mean, what’s powering them?” Jason asked.

“Nah, we’ve never made it into one, at least not that I’ve ever heard about. They didn’t start showing up until after the Regulators were on the job, so we didn’t dare attempt it. The days of us just being ignored were long gone. As to what’s powering them, I got no damn idea.”

“But how do they float like that?” yell a squeaky voiced woman from the back of the crowd.

Gerald rolled his eyes. “Are you asking me how it works? Hell, I don’t know. I didn’t invent the damn thing. You people have to remember that it’s been thirty years. Technology has advanced just like it did when you were kids, and with the drones, the tech advanced pretty fast when they wanted it to. I guess for you folks, this is the future,” Gerald said the phrase in an exaggeratedly dramatic voice that could have be used in a Sci-Fi ‘B’ movie marathon. “All I know is that the towers are fast when they want to be, but most of the time they just sort of leisurely float from one destination to the next, like a never-ending conveyor belt.”

“Why did it hurt so much to talk the first few days after waking up? I mean, were they force feeding us or something?” asked Rich Turner as soon as Gerald paused.

It was obvious that Farmer was becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the group’s interrogation continued. Gerald seemed to consider the question for a second before answering. “I’m not sure, but I would suspect it’s because you hadn’t spoken in thirty years. I never heard of a drone speaking before. I’m guessing it would be something hard to start up again after all that time. It would probably hurt like using a muscle that’s atrophied.”

Tammy Jenkins raised her hand next.

“Jesus Christ, people, I was joking about raising your hands,” barked Farmer. “What do you want to know?” he asked more calmly.

Embarrassed, Tammy quickly pulled her arm down before continuing. “What about the children? Where are all the kids?” she asked emotionally.

“Children?” Gerald repeated, seemly confused by the question. “Lady, there are no children. In fact, to my knowledge, there hasn’t been a human birth on this planet for thirty years,” he announced gravely.

Gasps of shock rippled through the crowd as the implications quickly sunk in. If it were true that no child had been born in thirty years, then the human race was on the brink of extinction. It was a horrifying scenario that may already be too late to recover from.

“What happened to all the young children when this Capture thing happened? I have…I mean, I had a five-year-old son,” Tammy pressed on, desperately seeking more answers.

Gerald’s expression took on a mask of sympathy for the first time and he rose to his feet, bones creaking as he did. “That was a hard thing to watch, probably the worst of it,” he started in a sober, gentle tone. “All the really young children, like babies and toddlers, died very quickly after the Capture. It was like the Intelligence couldn’t tell the difference between a fully developed human and a child. If a drone couldn’t do the task, it just kept trying, until it died of exhaustion or exposure. At first, I tried to collect babies and keep them safe, but it was no use. They just kept trying to follow their program or whatever. I couldn’t stop them from attempting to move toward some unseen objective even though their undeveloped bodies made it impossible.”

Jason could hear the growing, deep sobs of several in the crowd whom he knew had very young children. It was the only thing he knew about those people, because it had been the only thing they had wanted to talk about. But now, with this new information, the very thought of their children was too much to handle. The idea of your precious infant wasting away while under a heartless monster’s all-powerful control was understandably more than most parents could bear. He knew they were going to be in for a rough few days.

Gerald looked directly at Tammy and spoke softly. “If your son was five, then there’s a good chance he survived the Capture, at least physically,” he added ominously. “You do understand what he would be like since the awakening?”

Tammy understood all too well about the outgrowns. “He’d be an outgrown, unable to take care of himself. Essentially he’d be a five-year-old in a thirty-five-year-old man’s body.”

Gerald just nodded slowly, obviously relieved he did not have to explain the phenomenon to Tammy.

“You mentioned all this new technology? Where is it? All we’ve seen is desolation and decay,” Anthony asked after a few moments, radically changing the subject and breaking the funeral-like silence that had settled on the group. Jason was grateful for the conversational detour and he noticed that Gerald seemed to appreciate the escape as well.

“The Intelligence seemed to centralize most of its efforts whenever it could. There is a massive assembly complex outside of St. Louis and I’ve seen one in Texas as well. We have reports that there are a few others located around the world, at least one on each continent. These complexes are where you are going to see most of the fancier technology, … at least on the planet’s surface,” he added mysteriously as he bent over and picked something out of his threadbare backpack.

Gerald expanded the brass cylindrical object he had pulled from his backpack into a three-foot telescope. He then quickly scanned the sky, before seeming to find what he was looking for. He lifted the telescope to his eye and pointed it to the same spot in an apparent effort to confirm his previous, naked-eye observations. Gerald grunted approvingly, and then handed the telescope to Jason, pointing to the spot in the sky.

“There… about a foot up from the top of that big tree over there.” Farmer again pushed the telescope to Jason, “Take a look.”

Jason accepted the telescope and aimed it in the direction that Gerald had instructed. It took him a couple of minutes to zero in on what Gerald had wanted him to see, but as the image came into focus, Jason found himself confused. The reflected light of the distant sun made the orbiting object easy to spot in the dark night sky, however it was difficult to hold in frame using the primitive handheld telescope. Jason could make out enough of the object from the vast distance to discern a few details. It appeared to be a mesh of cross connecting metal beams forming a cylinder. At regular intervals along the outside surface of the cylinder, illuminated domes appeared, as if it were a precious piece of jewelry speckled with gleaming gems. Jason quickly realized that to be able to see this level of detail at this tremendous distance with this ancient telescope, the object had to be truly vast in size.

“My God, how big is that damn thing?” Jason whispered while still peering through the telescope.

“The last estimate that I heard was that it had a five mile circumference and a fifteen mile length. Of course, it didn’t start that way. It’s grown quite a bit over the years. No one even noticed it until about fifteen years ago. By that point, we were getting reports of multiple rocket launches, sometimes as many as three or four a day from those massive assembly areas I mentioned.”

Jason lowered the scope and looked at Gerald in amazement. “Do you have any idea what it is?” he asked Farmer as he handed the telescope to George who was anxiously awaiting his turn to view the orbiting structure.

“We call it the ‘Egg’ and of course we’ve used much better telescopes to watch it over the years. So, we’ve been able to get some pretty detailed views of it, unfortunately, it just didn’t look like anything we could identify. There is one thing that I am sure of, however. Whatever the ‘Egg’ is, it’s the end result of all of the drone labor over the past thirty years. The Freemen believe its construction is the purpose of the Capture.”

George passed the telescope on to the next nervous viewer then looked to Gerald. “Are you saying that there are people up there building that thing?”

“That’s correct, thousands of them by our estimates,” Gerald answered.

Gerald endured another hour of questioning as others took turns looking through the telescope at the Egg. Finally, Jason stepped in and put a stop to the inquisition for the evening, sending everyone to their tents to rest up for another long day of travelling. Once most of the fires were extinguished and the group had dispersed, Jason took Gerald aside and asked if he was interested in travelling with their group and perhaps acting as a guide for them in this strange new world. Gerald was reluctant at first, seeming to prefer his own, solitary company, but he was quickly intrigued when Jason described the Theia Project and its potential. After a few minutes of wrangling on food ration amounts and rules concerning Gerald’s horse, an agreement was struck and the two old men retreated into their own tents for the night. Maryland was still a long way away.

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