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Chapter 8 - Implanted

“Are you sure they actually said Maryland specifically?” asked Jason Rawlings while unconsciously rubbing his arthritic knees.

“Look man, I wasn’t there. That’s what was reported to me from another Freeman. That part is third hand at best. Take it or leave it, I don’t care. Now the part about them coming this way, I know is true. I’ve caught some radio updates at other Listening Posts as I made my own way east,” responded Sid a bit defensively.

Gerald Farmer and his very unhappy Regulator escort had returned to the Reclaimer’s camp late that evening with an equally unhappy Sid in tow. They insisted on calling an emergency council meeting almost as soon as they had entered the camp, despite the hour. The gathered councilors had not been happy to be dragged out of bed, but once Sid had relayed his story, their annoyance had quickly changed to concern.

“It can’t be a coincidence that they are heading to Maryland as well,” speculated George Willard thoughtfully. “But how the hell would they know about us? We haven’t made any radio broadcasts.”

“That’s not entirely true,” said Anthony Simons meekly.

“What do you mean it’s not entirely true?” asked Jason, narrowing his eyes at Anthony.

Anthony took a deep breath before beginning. “It was back in Fairfield. Larry Borowski found an ancient ham radio in one of the more rotted houses and showed it to me. You know how Larry is with getting into everything. The antenna had long since disappeared and the equipment was in really bad shape, but I thought what the hell? So, I hooked it up to one of those hand cranked generators we found.”

“You found a working radio and didn’t report it to anyone?” questioned Carlo severely.

“Why don’t you let me finish, Generalissimo,” Anthony snapped back sarcastically, unintimidated by the military officer. “As I was saying, I was able to power it up and I attempted to broadcast a short message, but the damned thing shorted and caught fire a few minutes later. I almost didn’t get the fire out. I had to …”

“What did you broadcast, Anthony?” interrupted George.

“I can’t recall specifically. It was a long time ago and besides I doubt it even sent,” the ex-lawyer responded, shrugging.

“Did you mention Maryland?” Jason asked, exasperated with Anthony’s avoidance.

Anthony thought about it for a few seconds before answering. “It’s possible,” he said finally. “I may have broadcasted our location, our destination and reason for heading that way,” he said weakly.

Several of the councilors groaned openly at Anthony’s admission.

“What?” asked Simons angrily. “It wasn’t like that information was top secret or anything. We were telling every old shmuck that staggered into town, after all. And if you remember, it was a very different time back in Fairfield. We were still working under Jason’s ‘Community Building’ doctrine, despite my better judgement,” Anthony hissed.

“He’s right,” Jason said, quieting the tent. “It’s not his fault. This has never exactly been an undercover operation, has it? But what I don’t understand is why this giant group wants Theia so badly. Anthony, try hard to remember exactly what you said about Theia.”

“I can’t be certain,” Simons started, still trying to cover his ass. “But I believe I said something to the effect that this Theia project was in Fort Meade, Maryland and it could help find everyone’s family. And…” Anthony hesitated, unsure of whether to continue.

“And what?” prompted George.

“And I may have mentioned Jason by name,” he finished quickly.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” screamed Mike Hagen, his protective instincts kicking in automatically.

“I was just putting out information. It’s in my nature to be thorough and it just slipped out. What the hell difference does it make?” Anthony yelled back.

“Everyone calm down,” interrupted Jason before a shouting match could erupt. “It seems that they are heading there for the same reason that we are. Just because they are, apparently, a ruthless marauding horde doesn’t mean that they don’t have missing loved ones too. The crazy thing is that they won’t know exactly where Theia is, how to access it, or even how to operate the damn thing.”

George shook his head, “Jason, for all we know, they could have one of your former co-workers with them.”

Jason hadn’t even considered that. He suddenly realized that a part of him had started assuming everyone he used to know was gone. The guilt welled up inside him as the thought of Beth raced through his mind. Had he mentally given up on her already? The thought disturbed and distracted him as George continued.

“Or, it’s possible that they’ve already thought of those challenges and their primary goal is to find you,” George stated gravely while pointing a gnarled finger at Jason. “After all, they know who you are and where you’re going.”

“I find it hard to believe that these people could be so far gone after only three months. I understand why these outgrown gangs are so wild and dangerous, but a group this large surely has at least some civilized adults in charge,” stated Charles Patel. Doctor Charles Patel had been a specialist in pediatric oncology in his previous life and had only joined the Reclaimers two weeks earlier. He had quickly been invited to join the council after proving his wisdom and leadership skills by extinguishing a minor food riot without any injuries, not to mention his medical skills had been invaluable. “I refuse to believe rational adults can become ruthless savages so quickly.”

Sid chuckled aloud which drew an immediate angry stare from Patel.

“Look people,” Gerald began before Sid could have a chance to insult anyone further. “I don’t think you folks understand. The St. Louis Industrial Complex was the largest concentration of drones in North America. For the most part, you people woke up isolated, either by yourself or in a relatively tiny group.”

Carlo Olvera gave his Lieutenant a stern, knowing look. The obvious message was to keep her mouth shut. Amy weakly acknowledged the unspoken command by lowering her own glaze to the ground and quietly stepping out of the council tent. George caught the silent exchange and decided to file it for later investigation.

“Sure, it was confusing,” continued Gerald. “But you had time to think things out before your base survival instincts took over. Now imagine the same disorientation you experienced, but this time you wake in the middle of millions of other people experiencing the same damned thing. On top of that, some of them are armed. Any panic you might experience would be exponentially compounded by the fact that there are millions of people in close proximity suffering the same thing. Can you not see how those circumstances might bring out the worst in people, and in turn, how the worst people might be brought out?”

It was clear that all the council members were indeed trying to imagine the experience. Quiet fell over the tent as the mental horror show played in everyone’s mind. Finally, Jason broke the silence.

“I think it’s clear we have to assume this new force has hostile intent toward us. The real question is what do we do about it?”

All eyes swiveled toward Captain Olvera before he cleared his throat, straightened his back and began in his deep, commanding voice. “If our intelligence is accurate, then the enemy force has far superior numbers and equipment. My professional military advice would be to avoid direct contact.”

“Wouldn’t that mean abandoning our current destination, Theia?” questioned Charles Patel, the obvious concern tainting his normally calming, lightly accented voice.

Carlo nodded professionally, “Yes. If the enemy knows that is our objective, then logically we should avoid it.”

The tent erupted into loud arguments and acquisitions, until Jason stood and raised his hands. “Enough!” he screamed. “We’ll get nowhere if we keep this up.” The room quickly quieted before Anthony Simons stood to address the rest of the council.

“Who cares?” he started. “Is this machine, which probably doesn’t even work, really worth our lives? I know everyone has missing family, but would your family really want you to die? I mean this whole wild goose chase was fine, as long as it was just some warm mental blanket to keep up everyone’s spirits, but now there is a real danger of losing our lives.” He slowly paced the room as if he were once again making closing arguments in a California court room. “I hate to admit it, but our esteemed military commander here is correct. The enemy is too big to confront and the objective is not worth the risk.”

“Says you,” yelled Tammy Jenkins forcefully. “You don’t have children. I will do anything I can to find him and this wild goose chase, as you call it, is my best chance. I, for one, am still going.”

“Totally irrational,” retorted Anthony dismissively while still addressing the rest of the council. “There is no reasoning with these lost parents. Do not let their self-absorbed guilt drag us all down to our deaths. We need to find new purpose. Let us find a better reason to move forward. Fall is almost here. We should be looking for shelter. We should be looking for a place that we can hide when needed and defend when we are forced to. We should not be continuing to chase this fairy tale right into our own graves.”

“There is one point that I feel we are not considering,” calmly stated George, interrupting Anthony’s address and earning an evil glare from him for his efforts.

“Please enlighten us,” responded Anthony sarcastically.

George ignored Anthony’s jab and continued, “What happens if this other group does reach Theia first? Assuming they can figure out how to operate it, of course.”

Jason shook his head, “Not possible,” he stated flatly.

“Please Jason, let’s assume for the sake of argument. What could someone with ill intent do with this machine presuming it is working properly?”

Jason frowned and unconsciously rubbed his sore, aging knees again. “For one thing, they would have near perfect intelligence about … well… everything. It would be damn near impossible to surprise them at that point or to hide from them for that matter.”

“Are we talking real-time surveillance here, Jason? What is the information lag time?” questioned Olvera.

“The system was designed with pairs of stationary corresponding satellite detectors. The detectors were staggered between the northern and southern hemisphere and continually swept the surface to perform a global scan. Due to budgetary concerns, we didn’t have all the satellites that we would have liked. So, this left us with an 8-hour window between scans. If the system worked well, we had plans to launch plenty of more detectors to help fill that gap.”

Carlo scratched his chin “A lot can happen in eight hours.”

“I’m afraid that’s not all. The project did have two pairs of mobile detectors that we could position anywhere in geosynchronous orbit. They weren’t quite as powerful, but once we had them in position, they would be able to provide real-time continuous intelligence on a specific location.”

“I don’t get it,” said Emily Goyeau. “Couldn’t the government already do that with the normal spy satellites? What makes this so different?”

Jason nodded, “That’s true, but normal spy satellites can only take pictures from above. They can be easily fooled and certainly cannot see through buildings or the ground itself. There is literally no way to hide from Theia if it’s looking in your direction.”

“Like I always said ‘Poof, there goes any concept of privacy’. The government finally did exactly what everyone predicted. Frankly, I think this thing should be destroyed,” said Anthony, disgusted.

“Shut up, Anthony. We don’t need this shit right now,” grumbled Tammy.

“So, I think we can safely say that it would be extremely dangerous for this thing to fall into the wrong hands?” asked George in an attempt to bring the conversation back in line. “And if that is the case, the real question is: what are we prepared to do about it?”

“Are you agreeing with Councilor Simons? Are you suggesting that we destroy Theia?” asked Charles Patel.

George’s expression turned deadly serious. “I think it’s worth seriously considering. Let’s say we do find a place to hide out in the hills. If this other group is as dangerous as our Freemen friends are telling us, then it certainly wouldn’t take them long to find us if they could use Theia. For that matter, they could easily hunt down any opposing group and establish a permanent dominance over the entire country. We are talking about the future of the human race here.” He sternly looked at each councilor in turn as he summed up his argument, “Do we really want to be at the mercy of that group of murderers?”

Heads rotated back and forth as councilors attempted to gauge the reactions of their fellows. Their expressions were a mix of fear, uncertainty, and disappointment.

Finally, Tammy Jenkins spoke, “Is there no way that we can still use the machine, even for a single sweep? My boy… I …” Her voice trailed off with her real question left unasked.

Charles picked up from Tammy. “We’ve got a good head start on them. They can’t physically be in much better shape than we are. Until now, we’ve been taking our time and being as deliberate as possible. What happens if we go for broke and try to beat them there?” asked Patel hopefully.

“They may have better transportation,” said Rich Turner, the Reclaimer’s Wagon Master. “They could even have one of those damn hover towers. For all we know, they are already in Fort Meade just waiting on us to start the machine up for them.”

“Rich, how much more time do you need to complete our planned wagons?” asked Jason.

“Hell Jason,” Rich said shaking his head. “We aren’t even close to finishing the first one yet, much less the five we had planned. We’re talking at least three more weeks.”

Jason frowned, visibly disappointed but not surprised by Rich’s report.

“We’re a bit better off on the horses,” volunteered Emily Goyeau. “We’ve managed to corral the entire band of mustangs we found. That’s an additional twenty-five horses, not including the five foals,” she added smiling. “Give me another couple of days and all the adults will be ready, at least for experienced riders. They’ll still be plenty spirited and will need a firm hand but they’ll get us from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’.”

George Willard ran his fingers through his snow white, curly hair then stood. “Well it seems that we have boiled this down to a simple decision. Either we continue on toward Theia and risk encountering the St. Louis group, or we abandon that quest and find a new place to build a home.” He looked around the tent in an attempt to judge the expressions of his fellow councilors before continuing. “I think it’s time for a vote. I move that the Reclaimers continue on toward Fort Meade despite the potential danger.”

Almost before George finished his sentence, Tammy Jenkins shouted, “Seconded!”

Jason performed his expected duty and grimly called the question, “All those in favor?”

Hands flew up and Jason counted carefully.

“All opposed?” he asked, however he already knew the outcome of the vote and it was a worst-case scenario.

“The council is split, Jason,” announced George. “That means the decision rests with you, Mr. Chairman.”

Jason rubbed his temples. He could feel the tension headache already beginning in earnest as all eyes once again turned to him. Anthony was obviously agitated that his wondrous oratory skills had not swayed enough of the council to his side, but he remained silent for the moment. Captain Carlo Olvera seemed unusually placid as he watched Jason, awaiting his decision and silently evaluating his leadership skills.

“It’s late,” Jason began finally. “I’m going to sleep on it. We’ll reconvene tomorrow afternoon and I’ll give you my decision then.”

There was a mixture of groans and sighs of relief as the councilors slowly stood and made their way out of the tent. Jason could tell that his lack of decisiveness had not been popular. People were tired; however, they were also anxious to know what direction their future was going to take. He just needed some sleep and hopefully the answer would be obvious by morning. He was certain that they would forgive the delay once the decision was actually made.

He made his way through the forest of tents careful to be as quiet as possible. Most of the Reclaimers were fast asleep and he didn’t want to wake anyone unnecessarily. An eerie silence had settled on the camp in the early hour. The crackles of dying campfires and the occasional distant snore were all that broke the stillness of the night. Jason knew that Carlo had pickets stationed around the perimeter of the camp protecting them, but they were well hidden and didn’t disrupt the illusion of peace that Jason saw all around him. Exhausted, Jason crawled into his small tent on his aching knees and then zipped close the flaps behind him.

He laid down on top of his filthy sleeping bag and tried his best to get comfortable on the hard surface. Although he had gotten used to sleeping on the ground, it had never gotten easier on his aging body. He stared at the ceiling of the tent, unable to even close his eyes due to the weight of the decision on his shoulders. If he knew for certain that the group would be safe, he would gladly lead them away from Theia, despite the fact that it might mean he would never see Beth again. But the truth was, there were no guarantees in this insane world. They could find a nice, safe, new home somewhere, only to be continuously raided by ever increasing numbers of invaders. There were no easy answers. Eventually his restless mind gave up the fight and fell into a deep, snoring slumber.

A deafening thrumming sound abruptly woke Jason from his fitful sleep. The noise was so strong that he felt the vibrations through his body more than he heard the sound with his ears. He could literally feel the pulsations in his teeth and the effect was disturbing. Before Jason could even clear the fog of sleep fully from his mind, he began to hear the shouts of alarm from outside his tent. These were quickly followed by screams of terror and panic.

He scrambled out of his tent as fast as his old body could manage and assessed the situation. It was chaos. People were still desperately crawling out of their own tents and running toward the road as fast as they could while armed Regulators were heading against the tide of fleeing humanity toward the open field. Jason moved his attention in the direction of the field and was horrified at what he saw.

It was difficult to see in the dark early hours of morning, but the massive, black silhouette of a landing hover tower was unmistakable. The floating structure was huge, much larger than Jason imagined when he had last seen one of the behemoths at a distance through a rifle scope. Its black, glassy surface was almost invisible against the equally darkened sky; however, the thrumming noise generated by its engines seemed to intensify as it grew closer to the ground, making it impossible to ignore.

Jason quickly ducked back into his tent to retrieve his hunting rifle and reemerged just in time to see the floating skyscraper finally touchdown in the grassy field, creating large plumes of dust as it appeared to sink several feet into the soft earth. Finally, the structure seemed to settle into a stable foundation before the engines abruptly shut down. Jason felt an instant physical relief as the violent vibrations subsided, but the feeling was quickly replaced with a deep fear for the safely of his people.

“My God, is the St. Louis group here already?” he thought.

“Get the fuck back!” screamed someone from behind Jason.

Jason looked behind him to see Captain Carlo Olvera running toward him with his weapon at the ready.

“We’ve got to get these people away from here,” shouted Jason as Carlo came skidding to a stop beside him.

“You think we are going to out run them when they have that?” the Captain replied incredulously. “It’s too late for running. We’ve got to make a stand. I need everyone who can fire a weapon right now.”

Jason nodded, accepting the wisdom of his military expert’s assessment, “OK, I guess this is where we fight,” he said, resigned to the situation.

Carlo sprang into action barely acknowledging Jason’s statement. “Lieutenant!” he bellowed into the sounds of growing panic.

From seemingly nowhere, Amy Hammersmith appeared beside her commander. “What’re your orders, Captain?”

“We have no idea what’s about to come out of that thing. Get everyone back to the tree line on the other side of the road. There’s a bank there where we can take cover and set up our defenses,” Olvera calmly ordered.

Amy nodded then ran off shouting orders of her own. Jason and the Captain also joined the task of herding Reclaimers toward the newly designated defensive line. It helped that most people had already been running in that direction, but some of the older members of the group could not move as fast as he would have liked. In some cases, clusters of people were carrying the more infirmed of their numbers toward the relative safety of the trees.

“Get back to the tree line. Bring any weapons and ammo, then take cover behind the bank.” Jason shouted over and over as the camp cleared out. He was just making it across the crumbling asphalt road himself when he heard the whining hydraulics of the hover tower’s enormous bay door begin to slowly open.

Jason jumped over the bank and skidded down the other side further than he had intended. A hand reached down and pulled him back up to the brim. The help had come from Anthony Simons, who already had his rifle at the ready, pointing it back toward the Tower.

“I’ve never actually fired a gun before,” Anthony admitted nervously.

“Neither had I before all this happened. You’ll do fine,” Jason reassured the lawyer as he pointed his own rifle toward the dark, hulking tower. He peered through the scope, attempting to make out any approaching threats through the hundreds of abandoned, flapping tents, but all he saw was the giant ramp lock down into place, revealing the gloomy, cavernous entrance of the giant vehicle.

“No one fire until I give the order!” yelled Carlo down the line of scared defenders. He had dispersed his trained Regulators at predictable intervals along the bank to help bolster his mostly green force of civilians. “Those of you without weapons will act as medics and replacements for those that fall. If we get overrun, try and regroup at the top of that hill over there!” he shouted, pointing back through the dense woods.

“Here they come!” shouted someone further down the bank.

The tension instantly rose to an almost unbearable level. Jason felt a drop of sweat trickle down his forehead and drip off the tip of his nose as he returned his gaze to his rifle scope. The pale light of dawn had begun to color the horizon behind the intruders and cast an eerie, shadowy illumination upon the open field. Dark figures moved orderly down the ramp of the hover tower and began to approach the empty camp at a steady march.

“They don’t look like a marauding horde to me,” mumbled Anthony in an uneasy tone.

“No, they don’t,” agreed Jason, perplexed. Something about the formation seemed very familiar, but he quickly dismissed the distracting thought.

“Jason,” shouted Carlo, waving him over.

Jason clumsily made his way over to the captain’s position where he had already been joined by Gerald Farmer and Sid.

“I’ve seen this before,” began Farmer without preamble. “That is a drone formation, the real Regulators.”

“What?” asked Carlo, confused. “We all woke up. There aren’t any more drones.”

“Look Man, I don’t know what to tell you. We’ll worry about the details later, but those are drones,” Gerald said testily while pointing out into the field. “In about two minutes, they will split into three groups. One will attempt to flank us on the right, one will attempt to flank us on the left and the third will march right up the middle. It’s the classic drone Regulator attack formation. It’s not very innovative, but effective when you have vastly superior numbers.”

As if on cue, the massing figures in the distance, divided up into three distinct square formations. The ranks were so perfectly formed that Jason found it hard to believe that any group of humans could reach such a level of perfection. The three formations then began the exact movements predicted by Gerald. Again, a vague memory flared in Jason’s mind.

“Where have I seen this before?” he thought, knowing instinctively that the answer would be important.

“Damn, he’s right,” Carlo said while shaking his head. “How many typically are there in these attack formations? The lighting makes it hard to get numbers.”

Sid spoke up first, “There are always precisely two hundred drones in each formation.”

“Exactly, every time?” asked Jason excitedly.

“Exactly,” confirmed Gerald. “The drones don’t innovate much. Once they find something that works, they stick with it. The difference this time is that there has never been this large a force of Freemen before. Typically, we’re scattering and running long before now. I think the drones might have severely underestimated us in this situation.”

Carlo nodded at the new information “Interesting. If you’re right, then we have six hundred drones slowly marching on us over open ground. They’ll be in effective range of most of our weapons in a few seconds. They are totally exposed out there. We should be able to mow them down…”

“Not so fast, General Custer,” interrupted Gerald. “Drones might be dumb, but they ain’t stupid. As soon as any formation loses twenty or more drones, the rest will charge at a very high rate of speed. And it’s the spookiest damned thing you’ll ever see. They move fast but they still stay in perfect formation. It’s extremely … unhuman.”

“It’s like watching one of those huge flocks of starlings all moving together. It looks more like a giant single organism than a bunch of individuals,” added Sid for effect.

“But it takes exactly 20 down from a 200 man formation to make them charge, a 10% loss? Are you sure?” Jason asked, his excitement increasing.

“Yeah, I’m sure. At least it’s always been that way,” responded Gerald a bit defensively. “What are you thinking Jason?”

“And do they only open fire when they get three quarters of the way to their objective from their starting point?” Jason questioned again, ignoring Gerald’s response.

“About that, I guess. I’ve always thought they waited too long to open up, but you won’t hear me complaining,” answered Farmer.

“What the hell is this about, Jason? In case you didn’t notice we got incoming hostiles here and I’ve only got about a hundred and fifty armed people to hold them off,” testily asked Carlo. “I need to reposition our flank defenses before we’re surrounded and slaughtered.

“No time to explain. You’re going to have to trust me!” exclaimed Jason, smiling. He slapped Carlo on the back grinning from ear to ear, “Don’t worry, there’s a bug,” he said, as if it would explain everything.

At that moment, a panicking Reclaimer fired a shot toward the advancing drones. The gunshot seemed to signal everyone to open fire at once and in the distance drones began to drop out of line and fall to the ground.

“Hold your fire!” screamed Jason. He turned to Carlo. “We need to get everyone walking in a single file line directly behind me. No shooting. If we drop more than twenty drones, this is over.”

Carlo’s eyebrows furrowed deeply in confusion. “What the hell are you …”

“No time, we need to move now. Trust me,” said Jason as he slung his rifle over his shoulder, stood up and started calmly walking directly at the middle drone formation.

Gerald’s mouth dropped and he looked to Carlo who could only shrug while wearing an equally stunned expression.

“Oh, what the Fuck. Who gives a shit anyways, right?” mumbled Gerald as he followed Jason’s example and got in line directly behind him.

Carlo shook his head in disbelief but couldn’t deny the fact that the drones appeared to be ignoring Jason and Gerald. Carlo started relaying the insane plan up and down the bank and soon a long snaking single file line emerged from behind the road closely following Jason.

“Don’t get out of line!” shouted Jason continuously. “Keep it single file no matter what you do!” he warned. The message was passed down the line of nervous and disbelieving elderly people. There were gaps where some people could not move as fast as others, but everyone obeyed and the line remained only one person wide.

“Jason, what are we doing?” shouted Mike Hagen from about twenty people back in the line. “Have you totally gone nuts?”

“Trust me,” Jason shouted back for the hundredth time. “I’ll explain when it’s over, just stay in line and keep moving.”

The knot of fear continued to grow in Jason’s stomach as the distance to the menacing marching drones shrank. If he was wrong about this crazy notion of his then he was about to get a lot of people killed. But if he was right, then he knew he could save everyone if they would just trust him a bit longer.

The three perfect square formations of marching drones continued along their predetermined paths seemingly unperturbed by the Reclaimer’s bizarre maneuvers. Jason walked steadily toward the gap between the 10th and 11th rows of drones in the middle formation. It was the exact dead center of the drones. Everything in his being told him to run the other direction and that what he was doing was just plain crazy, however he continued forward despite his fear.

As he drew closer and the light of dawn increased, Jason could start to make out specific features of the approaching drones lines. Just as he assumed, they were all wearing the matching blue coveralls of the Regulators, but there was something a bit wrong with the outline of their heads. The distortion become painfully clear as the two groups closed to within thirty yards. Each drone appeared to have an inch-wide mechanical protrusion sticking out of the tops of their heads about 8 inches like some gruesome antennae. The sight was repulsive but Jason forced himself to move forward acting as confidently as he could.

“Don’t freak out. Just keep moving right through them,” Jason called back down the line. “You must stay single file and don’t touch them. Keep moving.”

In no time, Jason reached the gap in the drone formation and kept walking straight through. He briefly closed his eyes as he breached the perimeter of the drone line. He half expected to be impaled or have some other grizzly form of death thrust upon him, but nothing happened and he continued through the formation unmolested. For their part, the drones continued to ignore the Reclaimers and stayed entirely focused on their original objective of the road bank. The left and right formations had already begun their flanking maneuvers and were starting to each turn back in toward the ends of the original Reclaimer position.

Flanked on either side by the marching, deadly rows of automatons, Jason tried to look only straight ahead toward his goal, but it was impossible not to steal glances at the oblivious, tormented abominations all around him. The gruesome implants not only drove straight down through the top of the head but reemerge at the base of the skull, as if some cruel machinist had sledgehammered the spiked devices into place while in a rush. The effect was that the implanted drones were forced to keep their heads slighted bowed forward. Jason only prayed that these poor creatures could no longer feel pain.

He noted that any noise from the line of Reclaimers behind him had stopped cold as they walked through the columns of drone Regulators. It was as if everyone was afraid that if they spoke, the spell would be broken and the creatures would finally take notice, realize their mistake, and attack. Or, Jason realized, they were just as freaked out at the sight of the implanted drones as him.

After several of the most frightening seconds of Jason’s life, he emerged at the rear of the drone formation. He exhaled and released a deep breath that he had not realized he had been holding. He couldn’t believe that it had worked, but the day wasn’t over yet. He had one more objective to complete. He kept walking directly toward the looming hover tower at the far end of the open field.

“Keep in line,” he shouted again. “It’s working. Keep following me.”

Once people emerged from within the drone ranks, the questions began in earnest. Farmer, who was directly behind Jason, began the interrogation.

“Well that was a hell of a thing. What the fuck were those things sticking out of the drones?”

Jason shrugged, “I was hoping you could tell me.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” responded Gerald. “Maybe it’s the reason they are still drones. Like a signal amplifier or something.”

“Maybe,” responded Jason, thinking the idea over.

“Can we stop walking like this this now? I feel ridiculous, like a bunch of kindergarteners all lined up to go to the bathroom,” growled the old Freeman.

“Not yet,” Jason said tersely. “This isn’t over.”

“Where to now, Dear Leader?” Gerald prodded in his usual sarcastic way.

“There,” said Jason as he pointed directly ahead to the looming, dark, glassy structure absurdly parked in the middle of an overgrown meadow.

“What? Jason, maybe you weren’t listening when I told you about those things. They have automated defenses that can tell the difference between a drone and a man. They will chew us up,”
warned Farmer.

“If we do this right, it won’t matter,” announced Jason with a confidence that he didn’t feel.

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