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Chapter 9 - The Red Sea

Carlo Olvera watched helplessly from the back of the long line of aging Reclaimers as they miraculously walked their way straight through the marching formation of drone fighters. He had no idea what was happening, but he couldn’t deny that it was working. Every soldier’s instinct inside him told him to fight, but he relentlessly suppressed the urges and passively continued forward following the crying, old woman in front of him.

“Why are they letting us go?” asked the woman in a quivering voice between sniffs.

Carlo could only shake his head in confusion as he answered, “I have no idea, ma’am.”

As soon as Carlo cleared the drone formation himself, he risked stealing a glance back at the strange intruders. He watched as the three formations slowly converged on the same spot from three different angles making a new formation of drones that looked like a box missing a side. The marching drones then came to an abrupt halt as if they didn’t know what else to do. They remained perfectly motionless while surrounding the position that the Reclaimers had once held, a position that Carlo knew all too well, had just become a death trap if anyone had still been there.

Carlo bumped into the woman in front of him as the line suddenly stopped. He could see that Jason was talking with Gerald Farmer but he couldn’t make out what was being said from this distance. He felt utterly useless in the back of the insane conga line of sacred old people. He didn’t know what voodoo Jason was using to pull this off and his lack of knowledge was just adding to his feeling of complete impotence.

At the front of their strange procession, Jason began splitting the line in two. One line hurried off toward the left side of the tower, giving it a wide berth and the other line did the same but moving to the right of the tower. Jason rapidly directed alternating people toward one line or the other while telling them to hurry. Carlo could see that Gerald Farmer was leading the left line, while his Lieutenant, Amy Hammersmith, was leading the right line. The army captain was still confused, but at this point it no longer mattered. He merely waited his turn to be assigned a new line.

“Move faster, people!” Jason screamed, “They are starting to notice.”

“Who’s starting to notice?” thought Carlo before a sudden realization gripped him. He twisted his head around to look at the soldier drones. Indeed, they had noticed the Reclaimer’s new activity. It was as if the magic spell Jason had cast had worn off and the drones were now resuming their original mission. They had quickly reformed and were now heading back toward the Reclaimers in an orderly but menacing fashion. Carlo’s tactically trained brain instantly recognized the serious danger. The entire Reclaimer group was now directly between the heavily armed hover tower and the advancing drone Regulators. It was the proverbial rock and a hard place.

As more of the group realized that the drones were once again advancing on them, the orderly lines began to break down. Jason called out, repeatedly beseeching everyone to remain in line, but the fear was taking its toll. Given the age and physical condition of the average Reclaimer, it was not surprising that many could not move as fast as the one in front or behind them. This was causing large gaps in the lines and frustration for those trapped in them.

“Carry those that need it,” barked Carlo as he pulled ahead of the slow woman in front of him and unceremoniously yanked her into a fireman’s carry position on his back. She protested at first, but abruptly fell silent as her new position allowed her to see the drone army rapidly closing the distance to them. As soon as they passed him, Jason fell into step behind Carlo and they followed the line to the left of the hover tower.

“You mind telling me the plan here, Jason?” asked Carlo, huffing as he carried the woman on his back.

“We just need to circle around the tower and get to the tree line at the other end of the meadow,” explained Jason.

“What the hell good does that do us? We’ll be in a worse position than we were to start,” protested the army captain.

“Don’t worry, Carlo. I told you, there’s a bug,” responded Jason, smiling.

Confused and frustrated, Carlo frowned. “You said that before. How about you explain …”

Olvera’s words were cut short by Gerald Farmer’s screaming, “Get the fuck away from the tower! You’re too close, you morons!”

Jason and Carlo looked up to realize in horror that the middle section of their line had meandered dangerously close to the hover tower. People quickly began to move away from the looming structure, but it was too late. Grisly looking automated guns mounted along the outside of the tower sprang to life as their proximity sensors were triggered.

Sprays of red mist filled the air as large caliber rounds found their targets causing people to fall like ragdolls and disappear among the meadow’s thick carpet of wildflowers and grass. The chainsaw-like sound of the guns firing caused the remaining Reclaimers to panic. Without any real cover in the field, the only option left was to run toward the far tree line.

“Move it people, get to the trees,” bellowed Carlo as he increased his speed as best as he could while still encumbered by the old woman over his shoulders. “Was this part of your God damned plan!” he yelled bitterly at Jason who was now carrying someone himself.

“I don’t know. This is all messed up, man,” Jason answered, ignoring the Captain’s verbal jab. “I’m not sure if it’s going to work now that the tower has engaged us. Hopefully we were far enough past it to allow the corrupt target profile bug to still work on the drones. We’ll know soon enough.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Carlo grunted as he was pelted with dirt thrown into the air from bullets slamming into the ground near his running feet. “Shit!” he cursed.

“Can you two save this conversation for later?” yelled the woman over Carlo’s shoulder right before a strong force slammed into Carlo’s side causing him to lose his footing and fall. It was as if a schoolyard bully had brutally shoved him to the ground without warning. At first, he thought he had been hit, but felt no pain except a slight twist in his ankle. His second thought was for his passenger, who had fallen with him and was now lying limply on his back.

“Ma’am? Are you all right?” he asked weakly as he struggled to twist his body around and examine her.

It was then that he felt the warm, thick liquid begin to ooze down his back. He recognized the distinct smell of blood from his years of combat experience and immediately suspected the worst. She was gone. The force that had knocked him off his feet was a large round impacting with the woman’s body and shredding it from her shoulder to her kidney. He was now literally drenched in the poor woman’s blood and he realized that he didn’t even know her name.

“Carlo, are you hit?” called Jason as he approached, winded.

“I’m fine, keep moving,” he responded as the guns continued to chatter in his direction.

Carrying an older man over his shoulder, Jason took Carlo’s words at face value and continued toward the tree line as fast as his old knees could move them.

Carlo took a second to rub his ankle, then got up leaving the dead woman in her place. He saw that many had already made it to the distant tree line, where it appeared that the tower’s guns lost interest. Unfortunately, he also could tell that not everyone had been so lucky. Even with the thick ground covering, he could still make out the gruesome forms of dead bodies littering the once tranquil field. He listened briefly for any sound of wounded, but heard nothing over the steady clatter of the tower’s guns. Knowing that he was still dangerously exposed, he quickly continued his run for the tree line in coveralls that had turned wet and black with the blood of a woman he didn’t even know.

Once in the relative safety of the tree line, Mike Hagen helped Jason unload the man he had been carrying across the field. Unburdened, Jason plopped to the ground, panting, and rubbing his throbbing knees. He knew that he was going to have trouble walking once the adrenaline had worn off, but he didn’t have the luxury of worrying about that now. He watched as Carlo Olvera came running into the group soaked in blood.

“Holy shit, are you OK?” asked Mike.

Carlo locked his fingers behind his head and walked around in tight circles attempting to catch his own breath. “It’s not my blood,” he said grimly before turning his attention to Jason who was still panting heavily on the ground. “Jason, you need to tell us what this crazy plan is now. Those drones are still heading this way. We need to get organized immediately if we’re going to fend them off.”

“We should know if it’s going to work any second,” Jason responded cryptically.

What is going to work?” screamed Gerald Farmer, who also had quite a bit of blood splattered across his clothes.

“The tower is shooting again!” someone yelled off in the distance.

Jason smiled, “That. Take a look,” he said as he pointed out toward the field and the approaching drone army while wearing a slightly impish grin.

Carlo, Gerald and Mike all unslung their rifles and pointed their scopes out into the field as the sounds of distant gunfire intensified. Carlo first focused on the tower itself and was baffled to see the automated turrets firing directly into the drone formations. And the drones appeared to be firing back at their own hover tower. The scene was inexplicable.

“What the hell am I looking at?” demanded Captain Olvera.

Finally catching his breath, Jason slowly got to his feet, groaning as his knees straightened. “You, good sir, are looking at the infamous Corrupt Target Profile Bug in action. Its most often referred to as ‘Caterpillaring’.”

Jason’s triumphant explanation was met with only blank stares so he continued a bit deflated.

“It’s running a damned video game, specifically a computer tactical combat game called ‘Fury Campaign’. My development team used to play it back at the NSA when we needed a bit of stress relief. It’s a fantastic game where you and a buddy direct virtual armies against each other. It’s great when you’re playing against a real person, but the single player mode sucks. The game’s AI is unimaginative, repetitive, and has several well-known bugs in the code that makes it unplayable. The worst of which has been dubbed ‘Caterpillaring’ and it’s what we just pulled off in the real world.” He let his words sink in for a second before continuing, “Essentially the bug works by not giving the AI the attack profile it expects and it has no routines to deal with the situation, so it just continues with its last objective as if nothing has changed. That’s the reason for the single file line. It confused the AI and essentially made us invisible. I know, it’s an incredibly stupid bug, but the game developer had not gotten around to correcting it because no one played the game in single player mode. I guess it wasn’t a priority.”

“I know that game,” Mike injected, ignoring Jason’s crazy explanation. “I tried it a couple of times, but I just couldn’t get into it. By making it so realistic, they made the game too complex and hard to be any fun, in my opinion.”

All three men shot Mike a strange look for his inappropriately timed game review.

“What?” Mike asked defensively once he noticed the stares.

“You mind if he continues?” questioned Carlo sharply, his impatience showing.

Mike shrugged, “Sorry.”

“Anyways,” Jason continued with a gentle smile toward Mike. “In the game, if you can Caterpillar your forces past your opponent’s base, then the AI goes totally ape shit. It knows that it has not met any victory or defeat conditions, but its objective is no longer present in its virtual field of vision, so its soldiers actually attack the only thing left on the field, their own base. And the base will automatically defend itself, so you get what we see up there.”

As if on cue, a large explosion erupted from the side of the hover tower causing everyone to flinch reflexively. Gasps of concern were audible among the frightened group of Reclaimers as fire began to envelope the tower. Incredibly, the drones, who had already taken heavy casualties from the tower’s auto-guns, were running heedlessly into the burning structure, mindlessly following their corrupt programing to the end.

“Jesus Christ, Jason. How did you know?” asked Carlo without removing his eyes from the burning tower.

“I recognized the patterns. The first hint was the exact two hundred man formations and how they moved. But the biggest give away was the ‘loss\rush ratio’, which is the technical term for the behavior you and Sid described, Gerald.”

“You’re talking about how they charge if you kill more than twenty of them?” asked Gerald.

“Exactly,” responded Jason excitedly, “As a programmer myself, I recognized their AI patterns of behavior. When you put them all together, it’s like a fingerprint that you can use to identify a particular set of code or coder.”

Gerald blinked hard and shook his head. “Wait one damned minute here. You’re telling me that the Regulators have been running off a video game this whole time? How the fuck is that possible?”

Jason shrugged, “Why not a computer game? This mysterious Intelligence you’ve described, suddenly needed tactical resources to defend itself after the Freemen began attacking it. I guess it found the Fury Campaign game somewhere and decided it would serve as a good tactical subroutine to turn worker drones into soldiers. And if you didn’t know any better, that game would be a natural choice due to its extreme realism. And most importantly, it worked for thirty years. Why would it change?”

“Last question,” began Carlo. “Why did you divide us up into two lines at the end?”

“We needed to move faster,” Jason responded quickly. “I thought that we could clear the tower twice as fast if I split the line and we’d still stay under the bug’s detection threshold,” he paused and lowered his gaze. “I guess I was wrong about that part. We didn’t keep them far enough away from the tower. I’m not sure how many people we lost out there but it was too many.”

As if to punctuate Jason’s remark, another violent explosion burst from the tower ejecting burning debris throughout the dry meadow. Small brush fires began popping up and threatening to spread and engulf the entire area.

Carlo quickly scanned the field with his binoculars, “I think all the drones are dead and it looks like that tower is totally incapacitated as well. I recommend we try and contain those fires, while we collect our crap and prepare to evac out of the area.”

Gerald nodded his agreement, “If we let those fires get out of control, there’ll be no one to put the damn thing out. It will burn for weeks and it’ll probably move faster than we can,” he warned gravely. “You don’t want to be caught in a forest fire.”

Jason didn’t hesitate once the new threat was defined and quickly took the initiative. “All right everyone,” he yelled loud enough for all to hear. “The drones are gone, but we need to get those fires under control as fast as possible before we lose everything,” he bellowed before walking away to organize the effort.

Carlo began to follow Jason to assist but Farmer gently grabbed his upper arm and motioned for him to remain behind. Once the two were alone, Farmer spoke in hushed tones.

“We need to keep an eye on that,” the old Freeman said while motioning toward Jason with his head.

Carlo turned his gaze to Jason who was calmly organizing the firefighting effort in the distance and was confused. “What are you talking about?” he asked with a tinge of annoyance in his voice.

“I’m talking about the fact that his whole damned Kumbaya group is starting to feel a little too Jim Jonesy to me. Don’t tell me you’re starting to drink the Kool-Aid too, General.”

Carlo chose to ignore the jab about his rank, “Are you saying you think the Reclaimers are becoming a cult … with Jason as their leader?” he asked incredulously.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, Chief. I’ve overheard people actually praying to him out in those campgrounds. Some are starting to ascribe all sorts of supernatural powers to him, and that’s just based on pure fucking rumors and fairy tales. What the hell do you think is going to happen now that the whole lot of them just witnessed him pulling off a God damned genuine Moses parting the Red Sea miracle?”

It was an idea that Carlo had never considered and it was a bit disturbing. “Is Jason aware of this growing perception among people?”

Farmer nodded, “Yeah, I’ve been trying to keep his feet on the ground. Don’t get me wrong. I think Jason is a good guy and generally has good intentions.”

Carlo arched an eyebrow, “But...”

“But, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and when you’re worshiped like a God, that road can become a superhighway pretty damned quick. We just need to keep an eye on him and the whole situation. We need to be prepared to intervene if things start to get out of control.”

“Out of control?” Carlo asked, looking for clarification.

Gerald grunted, “I’m sure you’ll know it when you see it.”

Carlo shook his head trying to reassure himself that the entire idea was ridiculous. He was sure it was just the paranoid delusion of a cantankerous old man who had spent far too much time by himself. He left Farmer and walked out into the field to assist with the fire control efforts, however, he quickly realized that the situation may have been more dangerous than he had first realized. The overgrown, dry, meadow grasses and lack of substantial water was severely hampering the Reclaimer’s efforts to stamp out the growing fires. In additional to that, pieces of the giant burning tower continued to fall off the structure and add to the expanding number of hotspots. Carlo realized quickly that they were losing the fight as he continued to hear Jason encouraging everyone to continue the struggle.

Olvera was beginning to formulate an evacuation plan, when a dark shadow suddenly blunted the rays of the morning sun. The army officer looked up with a soot covered face and realized that a dark grey storm front had appeared seemingly from nowhere and was quickly enveloping their position.

“Where the hell did that come from?” he asked aloud as the clouds opened up and a wall of water began falling from the sky and moving across the burning meadow.

As the exhausted Reclaimers became drenched in the cold torrents of rain, the once blazing grasses quickly turned to smoldering pools of soot. The destroyed structure of the hover tower disappeared behind a thick blanket of steam as the first waves of heavy rain instantly evaporated against the warped, glowing hot metals.

Carlo looked up to the sky and felt the fat drops of rain smacking his face and he began to actually laugh aloud. His laughter joined the growing chorus of cheers erupting from the Reclaimers at their good fortune.

“Thank you,” Carlo called out to the sky smiling.

“Yes! Thank you Jason, Destroyer of Drones and Bringer of Rain!” yelled a woman as she danced by Carlo like an old Hippy in the pouring rain at Woodstock.

Carlo’s smile instantly faded.

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