Night fell like a dread cloak over the desert, bringing dropping temperatures. Carli never failed to marvel at how cold the desert could become. She huddled in her coat as she and Leo walked hand in hand to the west end of town, her slung AR-15 swaying under her arm. Her backpack was heavy with mostly ammo and water. The food rations were light; she’d be hungry for the majority of this trip. Leo was similarly provisioned.
As the gate came into view, she gaped at the clustered people gathered there. Under the floodlights and the flicker of torches it looked as if all of Freetown had gathered to see them off, the herd of wide-eyed faces like a grouping of ghosts. Everyone apparently understood how serious the situation might be.
“I guess they’re throwing us a bon voyage party,” she murmured to Leo.
“Looks that way, though not as good as the one we gave ourselves.”
“Pig,” she said with no rancor. Once they'd calmed from the terrible vision they'd shared, the lovemaking had been intense. And very satisfying.
As they approached the crowd, the townspeople shuffled back to make way. Hushed mutters of ‘good luck’, ‘be careful’, and ‘Godspeed’ greeted them as they walk through. At the end of the group stood the guardhouse where Arner and his half-dozen handpicked troops waited for them. Also in attendance were Elijah, Betty, and Gordon. Carli noticed half a dozen Becomings standing guard just outside of the opened gate.
Elijah stepped forward and hugged Carli. “This never gets easier, seeing you two off.”
Leo gave him a rueful chuckle. “Maybe we’ll have the good sense to retire after this one.”
Elijah’s grin as he looked at Carli was a brilliant flash of white in the semi-darkness. “I strongly doubt that. Be careful, okay?”
“You too.” Carli grabbed him for another hug, and then gave Betty one too. “Are you going with the children to the base?” she asked the prematurely aged nurse.
Betty beamed; the expression made her almost attractive. “They can’t leave their Ma behind.”
“They’re in good hands,” Carli affirmed. She turned to Gordon, who twitched nervously. “You’ll be fine.”
He managed a shaky smile. “I’ll do my best. Be careful, okay?”
“Always.” She wished Gordon wasn’t so sensitive about being touched. He looked like he needed a hug too.
Leo finished his goodbyes, shaking hands with well-wishers. The couple turned to Arner and nodded. He gave his attention to Pearson.
“Lock down as soon as we’re out.”
“Yes sir.” Pearson gave him a snappy salute, which Arner returned.
The recon team stepped out of Freetown, and almost immediately the gate began to trundle shut, squeaking along on its wheels as it cut them off from their settlement. The team paused to watch as loved ones and friends disappeared behind the dull, gleaming metal.
As she always did when setting off to attack a Pyramid, Carli wondered if she would live to return to the civilization she’d helped build. This time she also wondered if there will be a Freetown to return to.