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Afterlife is a sci fi/western action serial published every other week. Join us in a post-apocalyptic journey through a future where life has become little more than a struggle for survival. However, where there’s life, there’s always hope.
Read the previous chapter here:
Tommy Dayton goes to work for Nat Bigum as a deputy.
Abby attends the meeting in North Point.
Abby and Della devise a plan to capture the spy.
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Afterlife, Volume 2, Chapter 21
The sun rose over the mountains to Shelly’s left as she walked towards the cemetery. The road was still dark and scattered with shadows as the faux wooden crosses came into view. Ominous cliffs rose above the cemetery and Shelly wondered if any unwanted eyes could have been watching her. Her fears were somewhat justified with everything going on with the feud and the IAO, but Shelly still wrote them off as owing to the setting. “They’re all dead,” she muttered as she approached the graveyard. “They aren’t going to hurt anyone.”
There was one living figure standing amongst the graves. It was Sera dressed in a long, plain tan dress that resembled a robe. Her eyes were wrapped in bandages still and she was holding a staff to help her feel her way as she walked. Shelly thought she looked like someone from ancient times, like a monk or priest or something. “It’s about time,” Sera said as Shelly approached.
“You said six,” Shelly said. “I still have five minutes.”
“Don’t question me,” Sera said. “If I’m going to be training you, I’ll expect your responses to be ‘Yes, master’ or ‘No, master.’”
Shelly chuckled. “Really?”
Sera stood still, frowning at Shelly. Sera was like a statue, and it made Shelly uncomfortable. She was doing the thing where Shelly felt like she was staring at her even though she had no eyes. “To begin with, you’re going to run.”
“Run?” Shelly asked.
Sera nodded. She handed Shelly a bag that had been on the ground next to her. “You’ll need this water. Take the path that veers to the right after the graveyard. Run as fast as you can. The path is two miles and it curves around the foothill and ends up there.” She pointed at a trail head several yards away. “I’ll expect you back in fifteen minutes.”
“Fifteen minutes?” Shelly asked. “It’s been a while since I’ve run any real distance.” She’d ran and worked out a lot to prepare for roles in the past but it had been a few years since she’d needed to.
“Fifteen minutes would be an acceptable time. Get going, though. I’ve already started your clock.” She was holding a small stopwatch.
“I thought you were going to be teaching me martial arts.”
Sera nodded as the stopwatch beeped. “I am. And you have fourteen minutes and thirty seconds left.”
Shelly strapped the bag over her shoulder and started running. Good thing she was wearing sneakers. She had no idea what she’d be doing with Sera, so she wore sweats and sneakers just in case. She ran up to the path and started running up the steep hill. This was going to be tough, running through the foothills. She’d have to make sure she kept herself hydrated. At least the sun wasn’t fully up yet. Regardless of why she was doing it, Shelly was happy to be running again. She was in the worst shape she’d been in for a while and the only exercising she’d been doing recently was running away from Rennock’s men or other enemies.
She continued running as the sun rose over the mountains, spreading its light through the foothills and valleys. After some time, Shelly slowed her pace down and drank some water as her breathing got heavy. She listened to her footfalls, trying to concentrate on the rhythm as her legs started to grow tired. She was out of shape and it was showing. Still, she was going to power through it. Shelly was nothing if not determined.
As Shelly rounded a cliff, she slowed down and stopped, leaning over as she tried to catch her breath. Her legs were wobbly and she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to run. She drank some more water, realizing she’d overestimated the pace she’d be able to go. “I should have taken it easy at first,” she said, shaking her head. She drank some more water and started jogging again, this time slower.
When Shelly finally scrambled down the path that led to the graveyard, she found Sera waiting for her with folded arms. “I said fifteen minutes. That was closer to twenty.”
Shelly collapsed, sitting on the ground and drinking water as she tried to catch her breath. “Are you trying to kill me?” she asked once she’d caught her breath a little. “It’s been a while since I’ve run like this and this place isn’t flat, in case you didn’t notice.” She took a big swig from the water bottle.
Sera frowned. “You have five minutes to regain your strength. Then, you’ll be doing pushups and sit-ups. Thirty pushups and fifty sit-ups will be good to start for now.”
Shelly glared at her. “Then I can start learning some moves?”
Sera shook her head. “Then you run some more.”
Shelly’s jaw dropped. “I didn’t sign up for this. I thought you were going to teach me martial arts and how to use a sword and stuff like that.”
“You can leave at any time,” Sera said as Shelly looked at the bandages where her eyes would have been. “If you don’t think you can handle it.”
Shelly grinned. “No. I’ll handle it.” She took another swig from the water.
“And remember,” Sera said. “It’s ‘Yes, master’ or ‘No, master.’”
Shelly shook her head. “You’ll never get that out of me.”
“Then we’re wasting our time here.”
Shelly took a deep breath and drank some more water. “Yes, master,” she said with a sarcastic grin.
“So you think these guys are workin’ for the IAO?” Nat asked as he walked through the narrow canyon. There was a riverbed but the river was long gone. Now there were just rocks and ditches. Bobby wished there was another way to get to the mine in question.
“I know they are,” Tommy Dayton said as he hopped over a hole. “My uncle hired ‘em.”
“Leave it to your uncle to hire guys who’d steal from ‘im and not even check in on ‘em,” Chuck Moore said, shaking his head as he walked. John Bracken was bringing up the rear, constantly checking the cliffs above for possible signs of an ambush.
“We don’t know they was stealin’,” Tommy countered.
“Lazy Fillman said he saw them loadin’ up a truck which headed south,” Chuck said as he scrambled over a boulder. “If that don’t sound like stealin’, I don’t know what does.” Lazy Fillman was one of the other deputies who was currently back in town guarding the sheriff’s office. Bobby had no idea how he’d gotten his name. Lazy was probably one of the hardest working people Bobby had ever met.
“Richard Dayton don’t seem like the kind of guy who’d take kindly to someone stealin’ from ‘im,” Nat said as he continued leading the way. “If we can catch these guys in the act, we may be able to get Richard on our side and help both your families start to see what’s really goin’ on here.”
“What’s that?” Chuck asked.
“Well,” Nat said, “your family controls the water around Dead Man’s Bluff. And the Daytons have most of the gold mines. Seems to me if y’all worked together, you could make a fortune. Instead you’re always fightin’, so the Dayton’s are getting all the gold but they have to pay exorbitant rates to ship water in from outside town. Meanwhile, the IAO are playin’ y’all against each other so they can steal from right under your noses and try to blame the other family for it.” He shook his head as he walked. “If your dads and uncles could get their heads outta their asses for two seconds they’d see it. But they can’t so we need proof.”
“Don’t you go talkin’ ‘bout my dad,” Tommy muttered.
“I merely stated a fact,” Nat said. “He does have ‘is head up ‘is own ass. You got a problem with that?” Tommy muttered something under his breath as the five men continued trudging through the canyon.
As they neared the mine, Chuck and John climbed up to a ledge where they’d be able to see and shoot if needed. The other three men cautiously walked towards the mine entrance in the opposite cliff face. As Bobby approached the entrance, he could see a shadowy figure inside. Nat stopped walking, his hand hovering over his revolver. Bobby and Tommy stood beside him. “Come out where I can see ya before I scatter that mine with what little brains you got,” Nat said.
“Sure thing, sheriff,” the man said. There was movement and something flashed.
Nat’s gun was drawn and there was a loud crack as the figure fell to the ground. The gun he’d drawn clattered to the ground before he had the chance to fire it. Nat motioned for Bobby and Tommy to go to the left of the mine entrance and he went to the right. They leaned against the cliff face for cover. “If there’s anyone else in there, come out!” Nat shouted into the mine. They waited for an answer and there was none. Nat motioned for Bobby and Tommy to stay where they were and he snuck in through the mine entrance.
“Is he crazy?” Tommy whispered.
Bobby nodded. “Yeah. He’s crazy.”
“He just killed one of my uncle’s employees,” Tommy said.
“Your uncle’s employee was about to kill us,” Bobby said.
There was a loud crack and a scream. Moments later, Nat was coming through the entrance dragging a frightened young man along by his neck. He threw the man to the ground and stood over him, pointing his gun at his head, flanked by Bobby and Tommy. The man’s face was covered with blood that didn’t appear to be his. “I killed the other one,” Nat said. “Seems this guy was scared enough seein’ his friend’s brains blown out he didn’t want the same thing happenin’ to him. Now tell Tommy here how you all were stealin’ from his family.”
The man swallowed. He was wearing a leather vest and jeans which were full of holes. His head was shaved and he had a bloody goatee. “I was stealin’ from your uncle.”
“All right then,” Nat said. “Put some cuffs on ‘im, Bobby.” Bobby nodded, took the hand cuffs off his belt and put them on the man’s skinny, pale wrists.
“You all are gonna pay for this,” the prisoner said. “Beretta ain’t gonna take kindly to you messin’ up our operation.”
“Now we have a name,” Nat said. “Beretta. And I didn’t even have to torture you for it. I can’t imagine the song’s you’re gonna sing later.” He pulled the man to his feet and started dragging him back the way they came, followed by his deputies.
Abby and Heather Cylburn stood outside of Heather’s tent as the gusting breeze blew the tall, middle aged woman’s blonde hair in front of her face. She brushed it away with her thin fingers and smiled at Abby. “You know I knew your father well.”
Abby nodded. “Everyone knew my father well.”
“He did have lots of friends,” Heather said. “So you said I’m the last person you’ve talked to?”
“I met with several people last night and the rest this morning,” Abby said. “You’re the last.”
“Well I think it’s good that you’ve been meeting with each of us individually. You can’t really get to know someone in a room full of people.”
She was right, but Abby’s brief meetings hadn’t been much better. Most of the talks she had with people were inconsequential. She did get Averil Jones to open up a bit more, though she only talked awkwardly about her cats and how much she loved reading science fiction books when she wasn’t creating computer programs. Judith Israel had talked about her two daughters the whole time. She seemed to be a proud, loving mother. Elias Long had asked a lot of questions about how Abby was feeling and he was happy to see she hadn’t touched any drugs since he’d last seen her. Glen Stratus was very abrupt and a little rude, but Abby knew that didn’t necessarily mean he was a spy. It may have just been his personality. And Barney Chambers had gone on and on about the similarities between the International Anarchy Organization and the Muslim extremist terrorists to the south. It was very interesting, but that wasn’t why Abby was there. She was trying to see if she could get anyone to slip up. She was trying to weed out the spy. So far she’d learned very little. And now she was with Heather Cylburn, last but most definitely not least. “Do you have a family?” Abby asked.
Heather grinned. “Everyone has a family. But if you’re asking if I have a husband and children, alas, the answer is no. I’ve given my life to the resistance and have had to make some sacrifices along the way.”
Abby nodded. “You seem like a very devoted woman, though.”
Heather chuckled. “I try to be.”
“So you knew Alex in college?”
“I did,” Heather said. Abby could tell there was regret in Heather’s eyes and her somber facial expression. “I knew him in college. We went to business school together.”
She must have known who he really was, then. Still, Abby didn’t want to say anything. She’d promised Alex she wouldn’t mention it to anyone. “How long have you been with the resistance?”
“As long as your father and Alex have,” Heather said. “And Barney. The four of us were a part of the resistance back when Stuart Tillman was still alive.” Abby had heard the name, but she didn’t know much more than that. He was an important historical figure who many saw as a criminal while others considered him a hero. Her father was definitely one of the latter. He’d told Abby some stories here and there about Stuart leading some refugees to safety in Mexico. “Thirty years ago I guess was when we all joined.” Heather smiled. “We were all so young back then. Young idealists. Not yet confronted with the realities of the world.”
Abby frowned. “I don’t know if I ever had the chance to be an idealist. Reality set in early on for me.”
Heather nodded. “I know it’s probably been hard for you, Abby.” She looked at Abby with her wise blue eyes. “Abby, I hope you don’t think I was trying to put you down yesterday. We always vote on important matters. I hope you understand.”
“Compromise is what makes us great,” Heather said. “A nation whose inner political rivals are unable to compromise will eventually devolve into civil war and destroy itself from within. I believe that’s what happened to many countries as the old world was ending.” Her expression was grave. “There’s no ideal that is so important that someone should stand by it leading to the destruction of the world around them. That’s one of Herman Rennock’s biggest problems. He believes that he’s right and is willing to stand by his decisions no matter what harm they bring. His ego keeps him from ever admitting that he’s wrong. But he was created by a larger mindset. The evil mindset that some people hold where they need to stick by their beliefs no matter what others are telling them, no matter what is happening in the world around them. It’s important to listen to the voices of all of your people when you’re a leader, Abby. It’s important to bring about a compromise that best helps everyone in your nation and not just a select group. In Herman Rennock’s case that select group is the super wealthy. In Mexico’s case that select group is the workers and laborers and politicians who support communism. Just remember this, though Abby. Compromise is the key. Compromise is what will keep us all alive and bring about peace. It’s the only thing that can bring peace and prosperity to a nation. War is necessary when your people’s lives are in danger, but compromise is the only way a nation can survive.”
Abby nodded. “I know.” Her words mirrored Pastor Earl’s and Alex’s. Still, Abby wasn’t sure why Heather felt the need to lecture her.
“Now, Abby. Back to Ace and Annabelle.”
Abby frowned. “What about them?” She felt like she’d heard more than enough about Ace and Annabelle.
“We all have more experience than you when it comes to things like this,” Heather continued. “You have to trust our judgement. Ace McCoy and Annabelle Rose aren’t the kind of people you want to associate with. Not only are they dangerous, but they can hurt your public image. I don’t think that’s something we mentioned yesterday but it’s very important. We need people to see us in a positive light. We need to be the beacon of hope people turn to when they learn the truth about Herman Rennock. If we associate with criminals, people will think that’s what we are.”
“But there are a lot of people who idolize Ace and Annabelle,” Abby said.
“But they’re controversial at best,” Heather said. “Even if they don’t kill you in your sleep, they could tarnish your image. Something like that can be very hard to come back from.”
Abby nodded. “I understand.” It was time to get to the point, though. “There’s a reason I’ve come to talk to you other than just getting to know you.”
Heather frowned. “What is it?”
“I need your help,” Abby said.
Heather nodded, concern in her blue eyes. “What can I do? Anything, Abby.”
“The next diamonds are located in safe deposit box 1701 in the central bank in Tequila City.” Abby frowned. “I need you to remember that. The road’s going to be dangerous, so if something happens to me on the way, see that you find a way to get them. Alex is going into harm’s way himself, so I had to tell someone here. I know my father trusted you, so I do, too.”
Heather nodded. “1701, central bank in Tequila City. Well I surely hope nothing happens, but I’ll do what I can. Thank you for trusting me. While we’re talking about your safety…” She smiled at Abby and pulled a device out of the pocket of her sleek blue pants suit. It was a metal box about the size of a pack of playing cards. The box was covered with tiny pinpoint holes and had a clip to attach it to a belt. “Do you have one of these?”
“What is it?” Abby asked, looking at the small object.
“A camouflage projector. It spreads nanobots around you which project an image of whatever’s behind you, hiding you from site.”
Abby nodded. “I know what a camouflage projector is. And no, I don’t have one.”
“You should get one,” Heather said as she put the device back into her pocket. “It’s gotten me out of many a sticky situation. It’s a hard truth, but our lives are often in danger. It’s important to take precautions.”
“It would come in handy,” Abby said.
“See Averil Jones or Javy,” Heather said with a grin. “They’d probably be able to hook you up with one.”
Abby smiled. “Thanks for the advice. Anyway, it was good talking to you, but I need to be on my way.”
Heather nodded. “We’re both very busy. I’m glad you stopped by, though, Abby. And if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to come see me.“ They said their goodbyes and Abby headed back towards her tent to wait for the meetings to resume. At lunch, she’d talk with Della. Hopefully the spy would be revealed by then. As far as Heather Cylburn went, she talked a good game, but so did many of the others like Alex and Barney. Still, one of them was lying. One of them betrayed Abby’s family and was complicit in their deaths.
The next day’s meetings were very similar to the previous day’s meetings. They sat around the table discussing finances, recruiting, and other things. However, while the first day’s meetings focused mostly on the current state of the resistance, this day’s meetings were more focused on planning for the future. At lunchtime, Abby met Della in a valley between dunes, far enough away from the farmhouse and the tents to avoid unwanted ears. “So what do you have for me?” Abby asked. She was both excited and angry. She was possibly about to learn the identity of someone she’d been seeking for years. Someone who would be perhaps the first step in her finally avenging her family.
Della frowned as he looked at his communicator. “It’s not good, Abby. I just got a message from Dwight Harris. He’s my resistance contact in Black Rock.”
“Black Rock?” Abby asked. “That’s where I told Alex.” She gritted her teeth in anger. So it was Alex after all. She should have shot him while she had the chance.
“Wait,” Della said as he continued looking at his communicator. “He was in Black Rock. I’m reading his message now. He moved from there to Tequila City.” Tequila City was Heather Cylburn. “He stayed there for a few months and is now stationed in Salt Plains. That’s where the enforcers went to the bank to find the diamonds. They were there less than an hour ago. Asked some questions, looked around. And then they left. And he apologized for not knowing anything about the bank in Black Rock, and that’s it, basically.”
Abby nodded. Salt Plains was Judith Israel, the treasurer. The devoted mother. Abby pictured her kind face in her head and spat on the ground. Judith was the worst kind of hypocrite. Leading a double life, apparently. “All right. Thanks, Della. Let’s go see General Rodriguez. We’ll let him know everything. We’ll have him arrest her immediately and keep her somewhere isolated and under heavy guard.” Della nodded and the two of them walked back towards the camp.
Continue on to the next chapter:
Afterlife, Volume 2, Chapter 22
One of Devin Hellier’s men goes missing.
Alex Harris and Mark Gonzalez discuss contingency plans.
Abby is forced to make an abrupt exit.
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