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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:
One of Devin Hellier’s men goes missing.
Alex Harris and Mark Gonzalez discuss contingency plans.
Abby kills Judith Israel and flees with Della, Ace, and Annabelle.
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Afterlife, Volume 2, Chapter 23
Bobby watched as a pair of vultures flew to a perch in the rocks above the glen where Richard Dayton’s house stood. The two huge black birds flapped their gangly wings and settled in, looking down as Bobby, Nat, and Tommy Dayton made their way towards the house. Bobby had major reservations about returning to Richard Dayton’s house. The last time he and Nat had been there, the racist old man had threatened to shoot them both. This time they had his nephew with them, but that only slightly calmed Bobby’s fears. Tommy didn’t seem to be very close with his uncle, judging from the conversations Bobby had with him. Still, family was family. At least Nat had been smart enough to leave Chuck Moore behind.
Bobby looked behind him at the three sand bikes they’d parked in the glen, and he looked past them at the hills and the desert that spread out in the distance. He turned again and followed Nat and Tommy as they approached the house. Bobby wished he were anywhere but where he was. The front door opened a little and Bobby saw a laser rifle pointing through the crack. “I thought I told y’all not to come ‘round hear no more,” Richard’s gruff voice said from inside. “Y’all hard of hearin’ or somethin’? Don’t take another step unless ya wanna be dead.”
“Uncle!” Tommy shouted.
“That you Tommy? What the hell you doin’ with a bunch of Moore thugs?”
“I work for Sheriff Bigum.”
“That makes you a traitor, then,” Richard blurted. “I always knew you was the yella one in the family. I ain’t gonna kill ya, though. Can’t say the same about those other two.”
“Call me yella all you want,” Tommy said. “You know I’m the best shot in the family.”
“Do I?” Richard asked. “Son, I was firin’ laser rifles when your mommy and daddy was still in diapers. By the time they was bumpin’ uglies and makin’ you and your idiot brothers, I was winnin’ prizes and taken out bandits by the dozen. Don’t talk to me about shootin’.”
“We were at your mine in Rider’s Canyon a couple of days ago,” Tommy said. “We caught three IAO men tryin’ to steal gold from you. We took out two of them and the other one’s in jail.”
“That was you? I heard about that. Messed up our operation. Boy, are you a part of this family?”
“They were stealin’,” Tommy said.
“How do you know that?” Richard asked.
“The one we caught admitted to it,” Tommy said.
“He’s back at the jail if ya wanna talk to ‘im,” Nat said. “He’s not in the best shape, but I’ll get ‘im to sing for ya if you want.”
The door opened and Richard Dayton stood there with his laser rifle pointing at the ground. He was wearing the same tan ten gallon hat he’d been wearing the first time Bobby had seen him. Though a gray beard covered most of his face, Bobby could tell he was frowning by the look in his eyes. “I never did trust those punks. What can ya do though? I needed help and it’s hard to find good men around here. Especially good men who aren’t Moores or their friends.”
“Will you help us?” Nat asked. “Will you help us take out the IAO?”
Richard scowled at him. “I appreciate your taken’ ‘em out. And I appreciate the information. But I ain’t helpin’ nobody. Now I got two enemies. The Moores and the IAO. You get those Moores to help ya, though. I ain’t workin’ with none of them two bit punks. Now like I said, I appreciate it, but get the hell off my property. Now.” He raised the laser rifle again.
Nat looked at Bobby and shrugged. “All right then,” Nat said. “You’ve been warned. The IAO ain’t nobody to trifle with. They might come after ya. And without our help, you’ll be a sittin’ duck out here.”
“So be it, then,” Richard blurted. “This duck has a mighty painful bite.” He nodded down to his laser rifle. “Let ‘em come. I’ll take ‘em all out. I’ll scatter these mountains with bodies if need be. Now get goin’.”
Nat, Bobby, and Tommy turned and started walking away towards their sand bikes. Bobby heard the door slam behind them. “He’s stubborn as a pregnant mule,” Tommy said. “I could’ve told ya that’s what he’d say.”
“Do you think your dad will be any better?” Bobby asked.
Tommy shrugged. “Maybe. My dad’s got more sense than Uncle Richard, but my uncle’s the older one. Dad might just do whatever he tells ‘im to.”
“That’s where you come in,” Nat said. “Once we get your family and Chuck’s family workin’ with us, we can look for the IAO’s hideout in these parts and take those punks out once and for all.”
Tommy chuckled. “Yeah. Gettin’ my family and Chuck’s family workin’ together’s gonna be about as easy as movin’ one of these mountains.”
“It can be done,” Nat said. “With enough dynamite. And I think the IAO is just the dynamite we need.”
Shelly’s hands were in the pockets of her sweats as she walked towards the cemetery where Sera was waiting. She was considering telling Sera she’d had enough. She’d spent most of the past two mornings and early afternoons running, doing pushups and sit-ups, and then returning to Sera’s room at the inn and pretty much being her slave, doing dishes and cleaning. Shelly hadn’t signed up for all that. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to learn martial arts. She’d had an easier time running the two miles yesterday than she had the day before, and she’d already gone from doing thirty pushups and fifty sit-ups at a time to thirty-five and sixty, but she was exhausted and had yet to learn even the simplest punch, kick, or block. She’d originally agreed to let Sera train her in order to give Sera a sense of importance. Shelly knew losing her sight had been hard on Sera, and she thought she was doing her a favor. As she approached Sera with the intention of telling her this was over, the dark-skinned Buddhist stood with her arms crossed over her chest. She was frowning, and though the burnt sockets where her eyes had once been were wrapped in bandages, Shelly couldn’t help but think Sera was glaring at her. “You’re late again.”
“I’m here earlier than I was yesterday,” Shelly said bitterly. She took a deep breath and tried her best to change her tone, smiling at Sera though she knew Sera couldn’t see her. Sera had said she could hear Shelly’s facial expressions through her voice, and she could sense the energy she was giving off. “I’m sorry,” Shelly said. “I’ve come to tell you that I’m…”
“We’re going to meditate today.”
Shelly frowned. “Meditate?” She remembered her brother, who’d been a Zen Buddhist, meditating often. He’d sit silently, sometimes looking at a mandala, sometimes closing his eyes.
Sera nodded. “I’m going to show you how to meditate and explain the importance of doing it.” Shelly nodded and followed Sera as she walked with the help of her staff.
They walked the same path Shelly had been running the past couple of days, though she was able to take in a lot more of the beautiful but rocky terrain while walking. Sera led the way, feeling ahead of her with her staff, but Shelly had the feeling Sera was very comfortable, like she knew where things were without seeing them. Shelly figured Sera had spent a lot of time walking through the area. They reached a ledge high above the hills and the desert far beyond and Sera sat in the lotus position, placing her staff on the ground. “Sit,” she said. “The first thing we’re going to do is clear our minds. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breaths. Breath in and out.”
Shelly nodded and sat in the lotus position next to Sera. She looked out at the view for a few seconds, then closed her eyes and breathed deeply, concentrating on the process. She remembered Horseman telling her a little about mediation, but she’d never tried it herself. She thought of her brother as she sat with her eyes closed. “Let the thoughts enter your mind,” Sera said, “but let them settle and melt like snowflakes. Don’t dwell on them.” It was a curious simile, since no one alive had ever seen real snow as far as Shelly knew. Still, she thought of the rain in the oasis and realized that anything was possible. “Sit and breathe,” Sera continued. “Count your breaths as you breathe deeply in and out. Let your thoughts come and pass and clear your mind. Don’t dwell on any thought, especially the negative ones.” Shelly did as Sera said. They sat doing this for several minutes. Soon the minutes seemed to become hours, though Shelly had no idea how much time had really passed. She’d lost track of time, but she was starting to feel very calm. She felt the breezes of the mountains brush past her and heard far away animals calling.
After some time, the calmness gave way to uneasiness. Shelly realized she still hadn’t learned any real martial arts techniques from Sera yet. “When am I going to learn to fight?”
“When you are ready. For now, let the negative thoughts pass. Don’t speak.”
“But how long are we going to be doing this?” Shelly frowned and opened her eyes.
“Give me forty pushups and seventy sit-ups,” Sera said. “And remember to call me master.”
“What?” Shelly asked. “Are you joking? All I’ve been doing is running, exercising, and being your slave. And sure, this meditating was cool and all, but when am I actually going to learn something?”
Sera smiled. She turned her head to face Shelly, who looked at the bandages where Sera’s eyes had once been. “You’re going to learn something when you choose to,” Sera said. “I can’t teach you if you aren’t ready to learn. Learning is a two way street. Without a strong mind and a strong body, learning anything else would be useless to you. Do you understand?”
Shelly frowned. “Yes, master.” She realized it was the first time she’d said it without a hint of sarcasm.
“Now do forty pushups and seventy sit-ups.”
“Yes, master.” Shelly got on her stomach and started doing pushups as the hot sun blazed down on the mountains.
Juanita was fuming as she walked towards John’s tent. She knew Abby and Della had disappeared the night before, Ace and Annabelle had escaped, and a member of the council had been murdered, but all Juanita could think about was John Bernard. He’d told her he was going to be working on the hover truck all night. He must have thought she was a complete idiot. She was really hoping to find the woman in the tent with him, though she’d made sure to leave her laser pistol in her tent. She didn’t want to let her anger get the best of her and do something drastic. She was surprised to see John fully clothed, walking back to his tent across the dune. He was wearing oily clothes and his dark brown skin was slick with sweat. “Hey, baby,” he said with a smile, looking at her through his glasses. “I wanted to get an early start, but I came back for some water.” He frowned when he saw how angry she must have looked. “Is everything okay?”
“No it’s not okay!” Juanita shouted, hoping to make a spectacle and embarrass him in front of anyone who could hear. “What did you walk her back to her tent? What a gentleman!”
“What?” He was trying his best to look bewildered.
“I know you were banging some slut last night,” she shouted. “I came over to give you some food and I could hear her! In your tent!”
“You sound really cute when you’re angry,” John said. “Your accent comes out way more.”
“Are you kiddin’ me right now? Do you think that was supposed to be some sort of compliment? I could kill you right now! And don’t try to blame this one on Paul like you did last time. He wasn’t even with you.”
John grinned. “Look, honey. We’re not exclusive, right?”
“What?” Juanita asked. “Of course we are, you asshole!”
“But don’t we both have to agree if we’re exclusive? I mean we never had an agreement. I was under the impression we could see other people.”
Juanita bared her teeth and breathed through them. “You crazy bastard. Don’t you know commitment at all? I thought you cared about me. How would you like it if I went and banged some random soldier?”
“Go ahead,” John said. “I mean, if that’s what you want to do.”
“You asshole!” she screamed. She walked up to him and slapped him hard across his face, knocking his glasses askew so he had to readjust them. “You don’t think I could? Take a look at me!” She ran her hands up and down her sides, showing off her small but sexy body. “Take a look at my body! You know I’m smokin’ hot. I know I’m hot. I could get any guy on this base if I wanted to.”
“Go ahead then.”
She shook her head. “You don’t know what you’re about to lose. You don’t know how good you had it.”
“Don’t be like that,” John said, reaching out towards her. She pulled away, her eyes burning holes through him. “Look baby. Calm down a little.”
Juanita turned and stormed off through the sand. She realized dozens of eyes were on her as people peeked out from their tents and others stood outside watching her. She didn’t care. What she did care about was that she’d have to continue to work closely with John unless she wanted to find a new assignment. Mark was her commander, though. And she didn’t want a new assignment. She’d grown too close to her fellow soldiers. She didn’t have anyone else now. Her family was probably dead. She’d tried to contact her father and her brothers several times since she’d left Primrose, and she tried to hold out hope, but deep down she knew the truth. They were dead, just like everyone else there. Her unit was all she had now. And besides, once their group left, it would just be John and her again. She wouldn’t have to share him with anyone else. At least not until they reached the next town. She stopped walking and kicked some sand. Why was she always doing this to herself? Why didn’t she just leave him once and for all? He was a good guy. He had a lot of good qualities. And on some level she knew he cared about her. But then why was he always cheating on her? She shook her head and continued walking quickly towards her tent. “I’m gonna leave that asshole once and for all. Or I’m gonna end up killin’ him.”
Alex folded his hands on the plastic table as he faced General Rodriguez. “I have no idea where Abby could be heading. I know her ultimate destination was originally going to be Valhalla. I can only hope she’s still heading there eventually, but who knows? A lot of things have changed now.”
“So you don’t think Ace and Annabelle escaped and then kidnapped her?” General Rodriguez took a swig from the bottle of whiskey he was holding. Alex and the general were alone in the general’s tent. They’d even asked Foxtrot to leave, since they’d be talking about top secret information that only select members of the council knew. The light was provided by the naked woman lamp which stood in the middle of the table.
“I’m pretty sure Abby killed Judith,” Alex said. The words pained him. He still couldn’t believe it had happened. “She tried to kill me when she thought I was the spy. I wouldn’t put it past her. Then, she went ahead with her plan of taking Ace and Annabelle with her to rob banks. I hate to say it, but it’s what she seemed to be heading towards. Now she’s actually gone through with it.”
General Rodriguez frowned and nodded. “So you traveled with her. You know her. Do you think she’ll come back to the resistance? Do you really think you’ll be able to meet up with her in Valhalla?”
“Who knows?” Alex asked, stroking his gray beard. “We may even be able to meet up with her before that, if she decides to try to contact me. It’s our only hope, though. Either way, we’ll have to apprehend her if we do see her. We can’t let her actions go unpunished.” He frowned. “At least we still have most of the diamonds in our hover truck. She has Einstein. She’ll get the last two batches of diamonds. We have about four hundred billion. She’ll get the last four hundred billion plus whatever she ends up with after she robs any banks, if she robs any banks.” He shook his head.
“And you’re still planning on going to Las Colinas?” General Rodriguez was one of the few people who knew Alex’s true identity. Heather Cylburn was another.
Alex nodded. “Once I sell the Warner Company, I should end up with another hundred and fifty billion. That leaves me with five fifty plus whatever Abby has when I meet up with her.”
“If you meet up with her,” General Rodriguez corrected. He frowned and shook his head. “I was going to say we should check with Judith to make sure that will be enough. I keep forgetting. I just can’t believe it’s going down this way.”
Alex let out a deep breath. “Yeah. Well, you have to play the hand that’s dealt you.”
“Don’t I know it?” General Rodriguez looked gravely at Alex. “Alex, be very careful on your way to Las Colinas. There are religious extremists down there. Muslim extremists, I believe. They’re dead serious and very dangerous.”
“I know,” Alex said.
“They’ve lost some of their power due to fighting with the Mexicans and Rennock’s forces, and I’ve made a good dent in their numbers myself, but these people aren’t to be trifled with. They don’t care if they live or die. They’d do anything for their cause, and people like that are extremely dangerous.”
Alex nodded. “We’ll be on the lookout for them. Maybe we can get them to join us, if they’ve been weakened like you say. We have common enemies, after all.”
General Rodriguez shook his head. “They don’t see things that way. I wish they did, but they don’t. They lump us all in the same group. If you aren’t one of them, you’re their enemy. They were trying to start a new nation down there or something. They thought they were God’s chosen people.” He shook his head. “Now that they’re on the run, they’re more dangerous than ever.”
“All right,” Alex said. “We’ll be careful. Don’t forget, I’ll have five of the best fighters we have with me.”
“Speaking of that,” the general said, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I don’t mean to diminish your group at all. I know you’ll need all the men you can get. But you said you had a pilot with you?”
Alex nodded. “From what I hear he was a very good one. Hasn’t flown in a while, though.”
General Rodriguez swigged from his whiskey bottle. “We’ve recently stolen several aerial assault vehicles from Rennock, but we’re short on pilots. I need several more. Do you think you could spare that one man?”
“I’ll have to check with Mark.”
“No you won’t,” the general said with a grin. “He’s a sergeant. I’m a general. I tell him to give me one of his men, he gives him to me.”
Alex grinned. “Very well, then.”
“Send the pilot to me,” General Rodriguez said. “I’d like to talk with him.”
“All right,” Mark said. He stood from the folding chair. “Is that all, then?”
The general smiled. “Not unless you want to join me for a few drinks. We’ll be starting a new poker game soon. And some nice women should be stopping by. If you decide you’re tired of barking up that ice cold Heather Cylburn tree, you should join us.”
Alex smiled and shook his head. “That’s okay, Javy. We’re leaving this evening. I need some rest.”
“If that’s what you want,” General Rodriguez said. “But send Foxtrot back. And don’t forget to send me that pilot.” Alex nodded and left the tent.
Barney Chambers finished watching the footage which had appeared as a three-dimensional image projected by nanobots above his wristwatch computer. As he sat in his hover chair, a frown appeared behind his thick, gray beard. He looked up at Mavery, who was sitting in a metal folding chair in his tent. “We can definitely use this. We’ve never had actual footage of Rennock’s forces murdering civilians. Not like this, anyway. It was hard to watch, but it’s very important that people see this.” He frowned and shook his head. “I knew it was bad in Primrose. Now we have proof.”
Mavery nodded nervously. She’d always idolized Barney Chambers and what he did for the resistance. “Thank you. I’ll send it to you, then.”
“I’d like you to do more than that, if you could.” Barney looked at her gravely through his glasses. “I’m a crippled old man, Mavery. I’m not going to be able to do this forever. I’ve followed your work with the Mountaintop Herald through the years. You’re a good reporter and a good writer.”
“What are you saying?” Mavery asked.
“I’d like you to come to Rose City with me.” Barney smiled. “That’s where I run my pirate radio station and my blog from. I want you to start working with me. Maybe start a blog of your own. You can post this footage yourself.”
Mavery smiled. “I don’t know what to say. I’m flattered.”
“Don’t be,” Barney said. “It’s hard work, and it’s dangerous. People don’t realize how dangerous stuff like this is. We aren’t on the front lines, but we’re just as important as the people who are, and Rennock knows that. That’s why he murdered your boss, Liana Pinkney. That’s why people like us always have to watch our backs.”
“Speaking of which,” Mavery said, “I have a good bodyguard. Can I bring him with me?”
“Of course,” Barney said. “And we have our own guards, too. And I have hackers who get our information past Rennock’s security measures and onto the Satellite Net so people can actually access it.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I can give you an audience, Mavery,” Barney said. “The resistance has grown immensely in recent weeks. Our information services are one of the biggest reasons. With your footage and the work you’re going to do, I believe we’ll grow even more. The sky’s the limit.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Mavery said.
“Pack your bags, then,” Barney said with a grin. “And tell your bodyguard to pack his bags. We leave tonight.”
“How are we traveling?” Mavery asked.
“The safest and fastest way I know of,” Barney said. “Through the sky. I have an electromagnetic propulsion cargo craft I use. It was stolen from Rennock and repurposed. I have a good pilot, too.”
“Sounds good,” Mavery said.
“I’ll see you after dinner then. Be here at, say, seven o’clock.”
“Seven it is,” Mavery said as she stood from the folding chair. “It was wonderful meeting you, Mr. Chambers.”
“It was nice meeting you too,” he said with a warm smile. “And call me Barney.”
Paul Jacobs ducked into the tent to see a chubby Hispanic man seated at a plastic table. He was smiling profusely through a bushy black beard, and his ample chest was covered with colorful medals. Paul immediately recognized him as General Rodriguez and saluted him. Behind him stood a thin, middle aged officer who wore glasses. His insignia showed that he was a colonel, so Paul saluted him also. General Rodriguez saluted Paul back in an exaggerated way that was almost comical, then reached for a bottle of whiskey that had been on the table. The thin colonel also saluted Paul. Paul realized that the light in the tent was being provided by a lamp sculpted in the shape of a nude woman. “Welcome!” General Rodriguez said as he swigged some whiskey. “Have a seat. Have a drink.”
Paul grinned. “Thank you, sir, but I don’t drink.” He sat in a folding chair at the table.
“I suppose you can be forgiven for that,” the general said. “As you know I’m General Rodriguez.” He nodded to the man standing behind him. “This is Colonel Frank Fife.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
“So Alex and Sergeant Gonzalez both tell me you were a pilot a few years back,” the general said.
Paul nodded. “Before I joined Sergeant Gonzalez’ unit, sir.”
“And I did some research,” General Rodriguez said. “You were a very good pilot. An ace, even. You shot down twenty-two enemy airships.”
“I did,” Paul said. He could feel the excitement rising inside him. He hadn’t flown in years, and though he didn’t mind crawling through caves and foxholes and laying out explosives, he’d always thought he was born to be in the air.
“You were a lieutenant in the air force, but you took a demotion in rank to join the Bloody Six.” General Rodriguez’ brow furrowed. “Why is that, corporal?”
“It sounded like a great assignment,” Paul explained. “And there weren’t any airships available for me to fly and weren’t likely to be in the foreseeable future. When I heard Sergeant Gonzalez was trying to build an elite squad of soldiers to take on daring missions in Mexico, it sounded right up my alley. If I wasn’t going to be flying, of course.”
General Rodriguez nodded and leaned forward. “What if I were to tell you we have airships now? Plenty of them. We stole them from one of Rennock’s airbases we liberated. And we don’t have anywhere near enough men to pilot them.”
“Are you asking me to be a pilot again, sir?”
“Once a pilot, always a pilot.” The general took another swig from his whiskey. “I’m asking you to join a squadron of airmen in my army. You’ll immediately be promoted to captain if you accept this assignment.”
Paul was beaming. “When do I start?”
“You can say your goodbyes to your friends,” General Rodriguez said. “They’re leaving tonight. Then, Colonel Fife will introduce you to the other pilots in your squadron. They’re called Hell’s Eagles.”
Paul nodded, still grinning ear to ear. “Thank you, sir. Thank you so much.”
“Sure you don’t want a drink to celebrate?” the general asked with a grin, holding up the whiskey bottle. “I’ve never heard of a pilot who doesn’t enjoy a drink every now and then. Maybe Jewish pilots are different. I don’t know. One drink maybe?”
Paul frowned. “It has nothing to do with being Jewish, sir.”
General Rodriguez nodded. “I’m sorry if I offended you, corporal. Anyway, I look forward to having a new pilot in my air division, then.”
Paul smiled as Colonel Fife walked towards the tent’s exit. “Thank you, sir.” He stood and saluted the general, who saluted back haphazardly, then followed Colonel Fife out of the tent.
Alex watched through the back of the hover truck as the dunes went by, one after the other. The sun was setting over the desert off to the left, to the west, as they headed south towards Las Colinas. The tents were growing smaller and smaller as the truck left North Point in the dust. Juanita was sitting on the same bench as Alex, and she looked pissed as she looked out at the dunes. Alex figured it would be best not to talk to her until her mood improved. Sergeant Mark Gonzalez was known as “Mad Mark,” but in Alex’s experience, Juanita had an even more fiery temper. Across from Alex, Jane was resting her head on her husband’s shoulder, catching some shuteye, and Mark was smiling as he stared off into space, his arm around his wife. John was silent as he drove.
So this was going to be Alex’s company for the next several weeks. The Bloody Six had become a Bloody Four after Sera’s injury and Paul’s decision to join General Rodriguez’ new fighter squadron. Abby had run off with Della, Ace, and Annabelle to rob banks, and Mavery and Big Ed were joining Barney Chambers on his journey back to Rose City. It was just Mark, Jane, John, Juanita, and Alex, at least for the foreseeable future. Alex was going to be a fifth wheel, and his mind started drifting off to Heather Cylburn. He wondered how things would have been different if she’d chosen him rather than Henry Song so many years ago. June came along and Henry became infatuated with her. Heather was left the odd woman out when Henry and June got married and started their family. By then it was too late for Alex and Heather. He’d married Jessica. It was an amicable marriage, but it didn’t last. They divorced after just a few years. For Karl Bergson, and now Alex Harris, and whoever else he’d become in the future, it had always been and always would be Heather Cylburn. He watched the orange spread across the desert sky as the sun sank below the horizon, wishing he had someone to share the moment with.
Continue on to the next chapter:
Afterlife, Volume 2, Chapter 24
Warrick Baines interrogates Mark Strongman.
Paul meets his fellow pilots.
Abby settles into her new role.
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