The armored vehicle smashed through the thick wall like a battering ram. Chunks of reinforced concrete shot out into the air and fell on the ground in front of the assembly line at the feet of workers as Amos drove through the cloud of debris, clearing a path through the manufacturing facility for the other cars.

He smiled as the fortified steel bars installed on the front of his custom-designed vehicle shattered machine and sent the workers fleeing in all directions. Jedidiah watched from the front passenger seat, amazed at how easily they swept past barriers intended to prevent a raid like theirs.

“This is incredible,” Jedidiah remarked.

“Don’t get too excited. We still have work to do.”

Ahead of them, heavily armed mercenaries approached with riot shields that deflected the gunfire coming from the other two cars in Amos’ command. Flanking from the sides, they turned to encircle the mercenaries and workers together.

However, the mercenaries were better equipped than they thought. While their riot shields gave them cover, they produced armor-piercing rockets. The two cars spun around and drove back to a safe distance.

A man’s voice came through their private messaging system. “Where are they getting those?”

“Have we identified which group they are yet?” Amos asked.

“Laurence couldn’t figure it out before we left. All he learned is that they were hired last week.”

“They have to be well-paid to afford those rockets, right?” Jedidiah asked.

“Either that or the man who runs the facility provided them. We’ll find out either way. This is an order to everyone: I want the mercenary leader alive.”

“What about the workers?”

“The Commonwealth wants them captured alive or dead, but I’d prefer alive.”

“That takes the fun out of it,” Jedidiah said.

“We’re not here for fun.” As if to prove Amos’ point, a stray bullet struck the front windshield. It didn’t penetrate the thick glass, but it left a distinct mark right in front of Jedidiah’s face.

“Don’t worry,” Amos said. “You’ll do fine. Just follow my lead and do as you’re told.”

One of the cars maneuvered through the labyrinth-like assembly line that stretched across the facility, offering the mercenaries no clear shot. A gunner appeared through a door on the car roof and fired several smoke grenades into the cluster of riot shields. He then immediately fired a tremor shot, a grenade that produced an earthquake-like vibration

“Hold on,” Amos said as he gripped the wheel.

The tremor shot exploded. An invisible wave of energy came out and pushed aside sections of the assembly as it rocked their vehicle back and forth like a cradle. The blast sent the smoke grenades into the mercenaries in a whirlwind manner. Although they all wore protective masks, the quake knocked them off their feet.

Striking instantly, the two cars raced toward them and opened fire. Several mercenaries dropped dead, while others recovered and clutched the riot shields as they backpedaled toward a door leading to another part of the facility.

“Do we have the schematics yet?” Amos asked.

Laurence piped in, still operating out of Cambridge Hall. “Still working on it. They rebuilt that section five years ago and didn’t get permits for the construction. Good for us they didn’t, or else I would have overlooked them.”

Directing his instructions to his other men, Amos ordered them to block the door with their cars. “There are to be no escapes.”

One of the drivers accelerated toward the door. A mercenary instinctively tried to shoot out the tires, but the bullets ricocheted off the metal flaps.

“Good thing we added those last year,” Amos said. “I knew they would come in handy.”

The car drove past the mercenary; the gunner on top took him out with a single shot from his pistol. Hitting the brakes as he swerved, the driver slapped the car up against the door, knocking aside two men attempting to open it. The gunner dispatched them both before snatching his rifle and turning on the remaining mercenaries. By then, the other car had come from the other side of the room, offering suppressing fire to keep the mercenaries pinned down behind their shields in a circle formation, unable to move.

Rather than drive right into them, Amos braked and yelled through the loudspeakers on vehicle roof: “Surrender or be shot!” He then told his men to cease firing for a moment before issuing his ultimatum again.

During that short respite, one of the mercenaries stood up and tossed his shield. His face still concealed behind his mask, he loosened the ammo belt and gun holster around his waist and dropped them to the ground before raising his hands up slowly. The others watched him as if stunned, then copied his actions.

“Collect their weapons,” Amos ordered one of his men as he jumped out of the vehicle. “Have the workers and mercenaries separated. They are not to speak to one another. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Amos walked up to the door and had the driver pulled the vehicle away so he could open it. His pistol at the ready, he pushed it back. Jedidiah followed with a gun held right above Amos’ shoulder.

Right away they found a small flatbed car sitting empty on a set of tracks that extended back through a long hallway. There were no doors on any side. Carefully, they moved forward until they reached a turn in the hallway that took them around several corners before another stretch of hallway also devoid of any doors on either side.

They finally reached a pair of doors. Amos cautiously opened it and peered inside.

His pistol came down as he lowered his arm.

“What is it?” Jedidiah asked. “What’s inside?”

“Don’t look.”

“Why? What’s there?”

He closed the door. “Don’t look. Go help the others.”

“I want to see.”

“No.”

“I have a right to see!”

Amos laughed sardonically. “What kind of right is that? It’s the kind you’ll wish you could get rid of, but you never will. You want it that badly?”

“Yes.”

Amos placed a hand on the door and gave him a severe look. “I warned you. Remember that.”

He then pushed the door back and led Jedidiah inside. As soon as he got a full view of the room, Jedidiah gasped and nearly fell backwards.

The room was large, the ceiling tall. On one side was a row of fully assembled sexbots lying in open boxes, where they would be shipped out to dealers across the nation. They came in all female types of every age. On the other side of the room was a pile of sexbots discarded due to an assembly flaw or malfunction. Though they were machines composed of wire, metal and artificial flesh, it was as though the two men beheld the victims of a massacre.

His lips quivering, Jedidiah fell to the ground and mumbled a prayer as he covered his face. Maintaining a reserved demeanor, Amos walked beside the boxes and closed them, as if to give the corpse-like figures some dignity.

He then turned to Jedidiah sternly. “Get up. I won’t have you cowering like this.”

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s just…”

“I know. I warned you, didn’t I?”

“Yes, sir.”

They exited the room and stood in the hallway. Amos took out his clay pipe and took several draws on it as Jedidiah recovered his nerves.

“I thought I would be able to handle this by now,” he said. “I suppose I’ll need some of that herbal drink of yours when we get back.”

“Yes.”

“It’s so disgusting that these exist.”

“Remember what they are. They were built. And don’t forget why their creators built them.”

“Of course. Have you seen this before?”

Amos’ face was shrouded in tobacco smoke as he answered. “Yes, I have. But they weren’t robots.”

Jedidiah stared at him for a long time. Then, without a word, they began walking back toward the main assembly area. Amos offered his companion his pipe after adding more tobacco. “It will do you good.”

Jedidiah accepted it gratefully and took rapid puffs.

“Slowly,” Amos said. “You’ll make it too hot.”

“Sorry.”

“I’m glad the Commonwealth decided to keep tobacco legal. However, I don’t see how they could have banned it.”

“Was that ever a question?”

“In those days, as it is still in some ways, everything was in question,” Amos recalled. “Everything had to be justified, all things had to be defended.”

“Is that why they allow the use of pipe tobacco, but prohibit chewing tobacco?”

“Something like that. One day, they might change that. But not for now.”

In the main part of the facility, the workers had already been placed in the back of Amos’ armored vehicle. The mercenaries were quietly sitting by one of the cars, their masks removed and thrown into a pile beside their equipment and weapons.

A puritan was collecting the weapons to store in the car. Amos examined one of the rifles, then asked, “Where is their leader?”

The puritan pointed over his shoulder. “That one.”

Amos turned and confronted the man, who had his head lowered. “Wise decision to surrender. Now let’s talk.”

The man looked up at Amos, revealing a bloodied but familiar face.

Amos’ complexion went pale. His voice trembled.

“Ronnie? That can’t be you!”

“Yes,” the man said softly, forming a tight smile. “Let’s talk, shall we?”

***

Amos entered the prisoner cell inside Cambridge Hall, finding Ronnie content with the restrainers on his wrists and feet. On a small table in front of him was a meal of bread and cheese, which he hadn’t touched.

“Not hungry?” Amos asked.

Ronnie looked up and grinned. “We never ate until both us got back, remember?”

A bottle of sherry in hand, Amos plopped it on the table and produced two glasses from his pocket. He filled them both with sherry and offered one to Ronnie. After they had taken a sip, Ronnie grabbed a piece of cheese and chuckled as he ate it.

“Just like the old days, isn’t it?”

“Not quite.”

“Oh, not quite like that, but you know what I mean. It seems like ages since we last spoke. What would you say: 15 years?”

“It has been a long time.”

“Got a family and all that?”

“Yes.”

Ronnie chuckled again and tore a piece from the loaf of bread. “Never thought that would ever happen. But then again, we didn’t think we’d make it out alive. How many times did our flying column go out on some suicide mission and somehow come back? We thought we were damned invincible.”

Amos gestured at his facial scars. “Except that one time.”

“Ah, yes. Well, I still owe you a drink, or two, or 20 for that one. I’m surprised to see you still drink, though. With all the religious fervor going on, I figured all you ‘puritans’ would have banned it along with everything else that makes life worth living.”

Amos leaned back in his chair. “We’re not having this argument, Ronnie. We argued enough in the old days.”

“Yeah, and your people won the coin toss. I suppose that’s God’s way of saying you’re in the right.”

“You of all people should understand why.” Amos’ voice became harsh. “But then again, I didn’t figure you sell your services to those heathen scum.”

“Coming from a glorified bounty hunter, I take that as a compliment.”

“If it weren’t for us bounty hunters, there would be no order. There would be anarchy. The Commonwealth is broke; it doesn’t have the resources to create a permanent police force, and its military is hard-pressed as it is to maintain our borders.”

Ronnie laughed as he poured himself more sherry. “It’s good to see you again. Since the first day I met you, you’ve never changed. You have always been the principled warrior, the soldier fighting for God and country. Even after all we did and saw, you still have hope.”

“If not for hope, then why did we fight?”

“I had hope. But then I survived a war instead of dying like I thought I would. The story was supposed to end well before that. But it went on. What do you do when your life story keeps going after the ending? Oh yes, we were good at war. But what good is a killer in peacetime? No one had any use for me, especially your Commonwealth.”

Amos put his glass down and glared at Ronnie. “You could have found me. I would have hired you.”

“When? 15 years ago, when you were working bit jobs here and there?”

“You could have done the same until you found better work.”

“No. You see, our paths were destined to go separate directions. Even in your darkest moments, you were a defender of the Church, and its leaders never forgot that. All you had to do was wait and opportunities created by them would come to you. But I always had to find my own way. The bounties they put out can only be collected by approved peoples. You know why I will never be accepted.”

“You made your choice, or choices.”

“That is one way of putting it.”

Amos shook his head. “I still can’t believe you’d agree to protect those monsters, the kind of men who started the whole war.”

“When you’re desperate, you’ll do just about anything. I didn’t think I’d ever take money from those people. But things change when you’re our age and you have nothing to show for it. We spent the best years of our lives in a fight we didn’t start. What do we have to show for it? So what difference does it make who I earn my pay from?”

“Much. I have a family, a home, and the foundation for a nation that will last after I’m gone.”

“It went well for you. But what about men like me? What did we get for all those years killing and trying not to be killed? What reward do we get for all the nightmares we have of the things we saw and had to do? The Commonwealth doesn’t want them even discussed, let alone praised.”

“It has its reasons, ones which I agree with.”

Ronnie rolled his eyes as he tossed his glass on the table. “What happens now? Am I to be handed over so you can get your bounty?”

“I was hoping to find a way to avoid that.”

“Ha! The Commonwealth would never allow it. They want me dead one way or the other.”

Amos paused. “What do you mean?”

Ronnie smiled again. “They gave a ‘dead or alive’ order, didn’t they?”

“Yes. How did you know.”

Ronnie leaned back in his chair. “I know they don’t like me. But it’s not because I disliked the Commonwealth. It’s because I know too much, things they would not want to be made public.”

Amos was not convinced. “If that were true, why haven’t you said anything?”

“What profit is that for me? I’d rather make money if I’m going to divulge secrets.”

“Then tell me.”

“Sorry, Amos. I love you like a brother, but even with you, I feel safer if I say nothing. If you think I’m wrong, then by all means, hand me over to them. Just don’t be surprised when I’m dead in the next few days, especially before they form that new government of theirs.”

Refilling his glass, Amos took slow sips as he studied his old friend, who maintained his smile. Finally, he put his glass down and left the room.

Outside, Jedidiah was waiting to bring him news. “Christoph and other Commonwealth officials are here to collect the mercenaries and the factory workers.”

“Have them escorted outside.”

“What about this one?”

Glancing back at the cell door, Amos sighed as he turned back to Jedidiah. “We’re keeping him here. That is to remain between yourself and I. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir!”

As Jedidiah left, Amos opened the cell and pointed at Ronnie. “I hope I’m not making a terrible mistake right now keeping you here. I love you like a brother, but if I find out you’ve deceived me, I promise that I will kill you myself and personally hand your body over to the Commonwealth.”

Ronnie nodded. “I am not lying to you. But I can’t wait to see what you do when you find out who has deceived you.”

***

“Are we really going to keep this from the Commonwealth?” Jedidiah asked incredulously as he walked alongside Amos away from the prisoner cells. “We’ve never done this before.”

“You’ve haven’t been here long enough to say that,” Amos replied.

“You have?”

“No. I simply stating that as the newest member of this organization, it’s not your place to say what has been done before.”

“Sorry, sir. But I’m concerned about withholding this information from them. Aren’t we supposed to hand everyone over to them?”

“Don’t ask that question in front of Archbishop Hughes, or you might not ever get a solid answer.”

“But this old friend of yours is wanted by the Commonwealth, not the Church. I’m not sure why we would keep them in the dark.”

Amos nodded. “We’re not on a time schedule. We can hand Ronnie over to them tomorrow if I feel like it. But until then, we keep him here with us. I will remind you that you are not to share this information with anyone else, including the others. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Hearing the bell tower ring, Amos closed his eyes and breathed loudly. “Let’s give this up to God.”

The puritans gathered in the chapel in the front pews, taking their hats off as they knelt with their hands in their lap. With their heads bowed reverently, they silently mouthed the words of praise, requests for forgiveness, and protection for the Church and the Commonwealth. Amos stood by the pulpit with an open Bible, glancing at the stained-glass windows artwork that had been recently been installed. When his organization had taken over the building, there had been nothing there but large gaps in the wall. Many churches had been destroyed, but it was one of the few that had suffered due to neglect by previous occupants. When enough money had been appropriated, they conducted a thorough search for the blueprints and used it as the basis for the extensive renovation work. However, everything in the chapel portion of the church was to be restored to its original condition, including the artwork in the stained-glass.

After the time for prayer passed, Amos was supposed to conclude it with reading a preselected Psalm. However, he remained distracted by the artwork to the point where one of the puritans coughed loudly to remind him. He scrambled to recite the passage before closing the Bible and dismissing them.

“Something bothering you?” Jedidiah asked as he walked up the steps to the pulpit.

“No. I’m just impressed with the new windows.”

“Well, they are beautiful. In fact, the entire chapel is beautiful. It’s no wonder the council loves to meet here.”

“That, and their original meeting place was wrecked by terrorists. Fortunately, none of them were there when it happened.”

They walked down the center aisle together as Amos continued speaking. “To be honest, it is strange sometimes to be worshipping in an actual church. In the old days, we met in basements, attics, even bedrooms or under a house’s foundation. We had to walk there because too many cars would attract attention. Oh, and we had to come one by one so no one would get suspicious about a group of people meeting at one place. Most of the time, we had to worship in the dark. And we couldn’t hardly whisper a hymn.”

Jedidiah’s eyes widened, to which Amos smiled. “Oh yes, I can’t tell you how odd it is for us to be able to pray in the open, let alone have the Church that was once persecuted by the government now act as the government. It’s as though we either live in a dream now, or that world was itself a dream.”

“Was Ronnie with you then, sir?”

“He was with me from the beginning.”

“Do you trust him?”

Amos regarded the question seriously. “I trust him to be who he is. I’ve known him long enough to tell when he is lying and when he is telling a very unpleasant truth.”

“What did he tell you?”

“The possibility that the world we’re living in now is the dream that we might wake up from soon.”

“I hope he isn’t taking advantage of your friendship.”

“Well, what do you think? Do you trust the Commonwealth? Do you think the council can be trusted?”

Jedidiah was confident. “Of course. They haven’t let us down yet.”

“Yet.”

“Is that the best attitude to have?”

Amos was quiet as they went into the dining area where the other puritans had gathered to eat lunch. They poured themselves coffee and sat in a corner. Talking was allowed during mealtimes, but it was considered an extension of prayer. Most of the time, the puritans ate in silence.

“What attitude would you recommend?” Amos inquired.

“I believe we should not take Ronnie’s word over that of the Commonwealth’s.”

“Fair enough. I haven’t made a decision either way.”

Jedidiah gestured at the main table. “I’ve noticed I speak more than any of them. Is that normal?”

“No. We tend to avoid speaking unless we have something important to say. The less you say, the more people put stock in what do you say. Also, it means less opportunities for quarrels between us. You may have also noticed we never fight or bicker.”

“I have noticed that.”

“Internal unity is critical. Bear that in mind here. Better to say nothing than to say something that produces conflict. But when you do say something, be direct and plain.”

“I’ve tried to do that.”

Amos chuckled. “You’ve done well so far.”

They were grabbing food from the counter when Laurence walked in and called for Amos. He turned and found his intelligence analyst in a petrified state. Everyone then noticed and rose from their chairs, their hands instinctively reaching toward their guns.

“What’s wrong?” Amos asked.

He then received an urgent message from his wife. After he read it, he slowly fell to his knees as his men surrounded him and read the message:

“House on fire. Please come.”

***

For all installments from The Pilgrim’s Digress, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Prologue
  2. Chapter 1
  3. Chapter 2
  4. Chapter 3
  5. Chapter 4
  6. Chapter 5