Chapter Four: Ambush & Aftermath

Theo followed Shep to the bathroom, keeping his eyes on the floor. The bright lights and sheer amount of stuff on the shelves made the filling station feel strange, almost dreamlike. At least the toilets in the bathroom were familiar.

When they emerged, Nate was standing outside of the bathroom door waiting. Shep told Theo to pick something to eat and drink while they waited for Nate. Theo looked at the same shelf Shep went to but the brightly colored bags were too strange and he had trouble understanding what they contained. What was a Cheeto? There were Doritos as well, but nothing really made sense to him. So he followed Shep to the glass doors where an equally baffling number of drinks were for sale.

“Not hungry?” Shep asked as he pulled out a couple of bottles.

“I am, but I don’t know what any of this stuff is.”

Shep looked at him, surprised. “They didn’t let you out much, huh?”

Theo shrugged, unsure of how to answer. After a few questions about what he ate, Shep bought him a bottle of water and packet of dried meat, along with a bag of something called M&Ms. Nate poured himself a coffee and got some of the same dried meat as Theo.

As they walked out, a red-haired woman from one of the cars was walking over to the door. She acted like she didn’t know them but Shep whistled at her and then turned to watch her walk past. She gave him the middle finger as she pulled the door open.

Theo glanced at Nate, who was grinning.

“It’s good for her,” Shep said as they walked to the camper.

“Keep telling yourself that when she’s kicking your ass,” Nate answered. “You’re going to get…”

He stopped as a truck came screeching into the lot. Behind it was a beat up van, engine roaring.

“Hey, that’s the church…” Theo said.

He was cut off as multiple guns fired at once. There was a clatter of shot against the wall behind them as Nate grabbed Theo’s arm and dragged him to the RV.

“Stay down!” Nate pulled a bag from under the seat. “Stay here and stay down,” he said before throwing himself back out of the door.

Theo could hear the popcorn sounds of rifles and pistols and he raised his head high enough to peek out of the windshield. A block of ice settled in his chest when Theo saw Shep laying motionless on the ground. Looking out the other windows, he saw that the van was stopped across the parking. Two of the tires were flat and there was steam coming out of the front. He didn’t see anyone moving inside.

The truck had disappeared around the filling station but someone was still shooting, from the darkness beyond the bright station lights. Tires screeching, the truck reappeared from behind the filling station. Two men were standing in the back and both fired shotguns toward the car that had pulled in after them. The harsh rattle he’d heard before was repeated and the bright floodlight above them went out. The rest of the people, hiding behind the other cars, got the idea. One after the other, all of the bright lights overhead were extinguished.

Theo looked back out the windshield, no one had gone to help Shep yet. Without thinking much about it, Theo dashed out of the RV door and ran toward the wounded man.

Crouched in front of the RV, Rachel saw sprint past and for a second she thought he was escaping. Instead he dove onto the ground next to Shep.

“Cover fire!” Rachel yelled, and leaned out to fire shots toward the muzzle flashes in the neighboring field.

Marisol and Jonesy were crouched behind another of the cars as Theo ran for Shep. Swearing, they both rolled to the ground from behind the tires and started firing as well.

Ignoring all the shooting, Theo grabbed Shep’s collar and began dragging him back to the RV. It was painfully slow, like the dreams he had of being chased. Rachel ran to help him as she reloaded her pistol. Together, they were able to drag to the side of the camper. Nate was kneeling at the back of the camper, firing around the corner.

“Don’t ever pull that shit again, kid,” he said, voice angry.

Theo’s fists bunched and he thought about going over to knock the older man down.

“Theo, give me a hand,” Rachel said, opening the side door. She pulled a board from behind the couch/dining room and laid it on the step like a ramp.

“Very carefully,” Rachel warned.

He nodded and they carefully pulled Shep up into the camper.

“He’s right,” Rachel said, checking Shep. “That was really dangerous, you could have gotten yourself killed.”

Theo nodded, clenching his jaw. Neither of them saw any blood but Shep’s breathing was slow and it looked like he was struggling struggled to inhale at all. Rachel pulled his shirt open and something bright fell out onto the ground.

“His vest caught it,” Rachel said. “I want you to sit here beside him and yell if his breathing changes.”

“What’s wrong with him? I thought he got shot.”

“He did, there’s the bullet, right by your foot. He had a special kind of vest on, it stops bullets.”

Theo looked at Shep’s slowly rising chest and frowned before nodding to himself. “It doesn’t stop the force, just the bullet part,” he muttered to himself. How hard of a punch would that feel like?

Rachel jumped back out but shooting had stopped. It seemed very quiet, in the distance they could sirens.

“Stay here,” Rachel repeated and hopped out.

Theo concentrated on watching Shep’s chest but heard the strangers outside yelling to each other. Shep’s eyes struggled open and he groaned.

“You got shot,” Theo said quietly.

“You don’t say,” Shep whispered. “Vest got it?”

Theo picked up the bullet to show him.

“Buncha assholes,” Shep whispered and closed his eyes again.

The voices were coming nearer and Kawehi came in the door and knelt down beside Shep. “How’s he doing?”

“He opened his eyes for a little bit.”

“Good. Next time, try not to be a hero, okay?” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.

Theo felt his face get hot as his heart pounded.

“That was incredibly brave, Theo. I’m so proud of you,” Kawehi said softly, looking into his eyes.

Someone climbed in behind her and Kawehi got out of the way. The red-haired woman took her place and unrolled a medical kit. Theo got out of the way as two more people got in. He ended up sitting at the little table between Nate and a tough looking woman. The RV started and there was some clunking from the back of it. They began to roll and Theo jumped as both motorcycles roared past them. As they pulled back onto the road, he craned his neck and saw that two of their cars and the trailer hed been left behind. There was smoke billowing from one car, and as they pulled onto the road, he saw flames beginning to jet out from under the hood of the other one.

He looked at Nate. “Those people, they’re okay? You got them?”

“One of them is there,” the mean looking woman said, pointing at the woman helping Shep. “There are three more, two got on the bikes and Ian is riding in another car. My name is Marisol and I run this team. Why do you think I would leave someone behind?”

She acted like he’d asked a stupid question. Theo was irritated and embarrassed. Normally, he’d have kept quiet but it had been a very long, very strange day.

“You left him behind,” Theo suddenly snapped, pointing at Shep. “People keep saying  I shouldn’t have helped him. So, yes, ma’am, I wonder if that’s what you did.”

Her eyebrows went up and she looked at Nate. “What’s he talking about? I thought Rachel grabbed him.”

Nate glanced at Theo, no expression on his face. “She went after him, they both dragged your guy back.”

The RV raced past a police car screaming in the other direction. Two more were just behind it.

“Anything about us?” the boss woman asked.

“Just ‘shots fired,’ so far.” someone answered. “There’s a off-site eighteen miles away, abandoned campground, overhead cover.”

“Do it.”  She turned back to Theo. “You ran because…?”

“Because he was laying on the ground,” Theo said, saying it like she was simple. “I didn’t see it until after he threw me in here. Then Rachel came to help me pull him back.”

Marisol glanced at Nate and then back to Theo. “Okay, kid, listen up. First, I’m going to repeat what everyone said; stay under cover if shooting starts.”

Theo started to protest and she raised an eyebrow.

“We need you to stay safe and out of the way because you haven’t trained with us. My people are used to a very specific way of doing things and other people can get in the way, even if they’re helping. Make sense?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Theo looked down and concentrated on the plastic table top. Marisol put her hand on the top of his head and turned him back to face her.

“Sometimes people yell at you because they’re worried,” she said, her eyes flicking up to Nate’s momentarily. “And sometimes they’re just assholes who need a pop in the mouth.”

Nate grumbled something and slid out of his seat. He went to the back where Kawehi was sitting.

Marisol had a small smile on her face. “Thank you for going after Shep, Theo. That was hardcore, just wait to do it again until you’ve trained with us, okay?”

He smiled back. “Yes ma’am.”

She smiled at him, suddenly looking friendlier. “And stop calling me ma’am.”

~~~~

The convoy, now consisting of the RV, one of the cars and both bikes, got off the freeway and followed a narrow, two-lane road for half an hour. Then turned again, down an overgrown two-track. The branches squealed and scraped against the outside of the RV as it slowly pushed through the waist high grass. Ahead, one of the motorcycles was sitting beside a rusty old gate. The rider pushed the gate closed behind them and slowly followed along.

The two-track ended in a clearing. There was a large shed on one side and a collapsed building on the other. The engine died away and Theo noticed again how quiet everything seemed. After a few minutes, someone radioed that everything was clear and Theo stayed in his seat while everyone else gathered outside.

“You people insist on impressing me,” he heard Marisol say. “If anyone didn’t hear, this is an off-site. Let’s get everything under the roof over there. I was looking at the map on the way here, no way those townies stumbled into us by accident. I want to know how they tracked us before we move another mile closer to home. We’re going to go through every piece of gear, every inch of these cars, until we find the tracker. “

After parking everything in the shed, Marisol finally let Theo out of the RV. Around him, everyone was busy with something. Some of them were laying out all of their gear, others had taken everything out of their old cars and were poking around the insides. No one mentioned him being brave but stupid, which was a relief. In fact, people stopped what they were doing to say hello and introduce themselves.

The medic came over to see what was going on. When she saw Theo, she hugged him from behind.

Rachel laughed at the look on Theo’s face. “Aww, Deidre! You just scared him out of a year’s growth.”

“Hi Theo, my name is Deidre. Thank you for pulling Shep out of the line of fire. That was pretty badass.”

“How’s he doing?” Rachel asked.

“Not so hot at the moment. He got tagged nearly in the middle of the chest with a round from a hunting rifle. The impact broke his sternum and a few ribs. Moving him would be…”

“Wait, you can’t move him like that,” Jonesy interrupted.

She glared at him. “Strangely, I just said the same thing to Marisol. And, you know what? It turns out that I’m the fucking medical specialist, would you believe it?”

Jonesy put his hands up. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to step on your toes, Deed. I’m worried about that idiot and…y’know.”

The angry look was gone as quickly as it had come and Deidre hugged him. “Me too. Some duct tape and a nap and he’ll be fine.”

“What do we need to do?” the short blonde named Betsy asked.

The other woman let go of Jonesy. “Moving him is out of the question, they’re figuring out how to get a medevac in with the Head Office right now.”

“Real medevac? I want a transfer to CONUS,” Willi muttered.

“Get the fuck out then,” Marisol said as she walked past, slapping him on the ass. “Listen up, you animals. First thing, the Administrator sends Her warmest thanks and profoundest gratitude, her exact words. So, try not to drool on yourselves in public, you’ve impressed Royalty. Second, we’re holing up for the next eighteen hours or so. Medevac will be here sometime after dark tomorrow. Finally, there’s a cache here. Grab what you need. Questions? Don’t be a jackass, Willi.”

Willi put his hand down. “Can I talk to the team social worker? I think my boss is sexually harassing me.”

“You wish it was sexual. First light, we’ll start looking for the bug again. Put me on the watch list tonight,” Marisol said. “Go get some sleep.”

“You got an okay for a medevac that fast?” Deidre asked as everyone walked away.

Marisol shrugged. “Whether it’s the kid, or these Tango Agents, Lady Amanda is paying close attention to this. They would have sent medevac now but the Marmots only fly at night.”

“Medevac on a real live Marmot? Wowzers.”

“It’s almost like we’re secret agents or something,” Marisol said, bumping shoulders with Deidre as she went to find somewhere to sleep.

 ~~~~ 

The next morning, Rachel stayed near Theo as the rest of the team continued to search for the transmitter that had given away their position. Despite their surroundings, Theo was delighted. Rachel had explained tablets and showed him how to use hers. He was especially taken with the electronic book application and spent an hour just browsing the books she had in memory. After a lifetime of hiding his curiosity and  intelligence, he was finally allowed to set both of them free. She didn’t try to explain the internet, no one was connected for obvious reasons, but she could imagine Theo’s face when confronted with something like Wikipedia.

Jonesy came over to where they were sitting just before lunch. He’d been closely examining the other cars and piles of gear, including everything from the RV. He waited for Rachel to finish explaining how something worked on the tablet before he spoke.

“Hey guys, we can’t find anything in the cars, so I’m trying something a little different.” He showed them a small box. “This thing looks for all kinds of radio signals. Would you mind if I waved it over you?”

Rachel got up first and held her arms away from her sides. Jonesy waved the box over her but nothing happened. Theo got up and held up his arms as well.

“Want me to turn out my pockets?”

“Nah,” Jonesy said. “I’m just making sure they didn’t hide anything in your clothes. Be done in just a second.”

As Jonesy moved the device over him there was a small chirping noise. He didn’t say anything but Theo’s heart was immediately pounding and his stomach was full of butterflies. He hadn’t done anything wrong, they hadn’t even asked him hardly nothing!

Jonesy had Theo turn around and he repeated the process. Again, there was a high pitched noise. Theo tried not to flinch, it sounded like the box was accusing him.

“Relax, kid,” Jonesy said. “I think maybe there’s something hidden in your clothes, no one is blaming you. Would you mind taking off your shirt so I can take a look?” 

Theo pulled off his shirt  and handed it over. Jonesy examined it closely and then waved the box over it. Nothing happened.

“Weird, maybe it picked up a stray signal,” the man muttered.

Theo saw the look on Rachel’s face. She didn’t think it was whatever the man had said. Then he saw Marisol and Nate walking over and Theo’s stomach knotted. His mouth was as dry as dust and his knees began to tremble. Jonesy was running his hands through his hair but Theo hardly felt it. Rachel was saying something to him but he couldn’t hear over the roaring in his ears.

The butterflies in Theo’s stomach turned to acid as a hand captured his shoulder. They weren’t hurting him, not yet. Then there was a brush over his back and shoulders and then over the back of his head. The box immediately chirped and Theo’s teeth began to chatter, his whole body shuddering now. These people would beat him for this, he was sure of it. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to tighten the muscles in his belly without throwing up. Any moment now the first punch would land, knocking him to the ground.

“I’m right here, Theo.” It was Kawehi’s gentle voice, suddenly right beside him but Theo didn’t dare look at her. “Everything is fine, I promise.”

Fingers probed his neck and then the back of his head. Nobody was allowed to know about that! Theo gulped, desperately holding back the sick coming up from his guts.

“Hey buddy, what’s this little scar from?” Jonesy asked from behind him.

He saw it! Now they’d all know! Flickering black dots filled Theo’s vision and he felt himself heave up the food they’d given him. There were sounds of alarm as his legs gave out. The last thing he remembered was the smell of sick and a slimy feeling on his face but it wasn’t important now. Nothing was important now except hiding the secret. As his consciousness faded away, Theo frantically tried to bury it back down.

Deidre looked up when Jonesy shouted, just in time to see Theo collapse. She grabbed her med kit and ran over.

“What happened?” she demanded, kneeling down beside Theo. 

“Something in the kid’s head pinged back when I scanned it. He was starting to get squirrely. When I asked him what the scar on his head was, he puked and collapsed.”

Deidre gently opened Theo’s mouth, making sure he wouldn’t choke. Satisfied, she looked up to see Rachel crouched by the kid’s feet.

“Grab his legs, we’re going to turn him over,” Deidre told her.

On his back, they could Theo’s eyes twitching back and forth under his eyelids. His lips were moving slightly, it looked like he was repeating something over and over. Deidre put a blood pressure cuff on him and taped another piece against his chest. Her tablet beeped as it connected to the sensors and showed Theo’s pulse was slowing but was still over 120 BPM. His blood pressure was low but slowly climbing toward normal.

“Where’s the scar?”

“Back of his head, right below the occipital knob,” Jonesy said. He turned Theo’s head carefully and brushed the hair aside to show her a thin white scar. “It pings a RF when the active scan hits it.”

“For chrissakes, don’t power it up again,” Nate warned.

Deidre ignored him as she looked closely. “It’s a clean cut. Probably too clean to be an accident. Hand me the imager.”

Kawehi handed her an open box with a small cylinder nestled inside. Deidre took it out and made sure it was connected to her tablet. There was a noise like a mosquito’s whine and she began moving it slowly over Theo’s head and neck. An image began to  form on the tablet. Nate crowded closer to see. Deirdre stopped what she was doing and looked up.

“Back off and let me do my job.”

Nate glared at her. “Keeping a Trojan Horse away from the Project is my job.”

Deirdre went back to the imager. “Since when Tango boy? Go away, I’ll let you know what I find.”

He didn’t move and Kawehi cleared her throat. When he didn’t respond, she went over and took his arm and pulled him back.

“Let her work, you’ll know what it is as soon as anyone else.”

They all heard him muttering angrily as he stomped away. 

“Deed. there’s something coming up,” Jonesy said, pointing to a tiny white triangular spot on the screen.

“Rachel, can you run the imager?” Deirdre asked.

The other woman took the small cylinder from her and Deirdre zoomed the screen in. The image was getting clearer as Rachel continued feeding data to the tablet. The shape got clearer but the device didn’t have the resolution needed to see much detail.

“Well, I can say that it’s not supposed to be there and that it’s definitely artificial. See the shadow here? I think there’s more of it in the bone. And these might be tiny wires, I can’t tell.”

“Why not?” Marisol asked.

Deidre kept working on the screen. “Because this thing is set up to find bullets and shrapnel. Whatever that is, it’s about half the size of a BB. I need a better rig to get a picture of it.”

“Was that what knocked him out?” Jonesy asked.

Deirdre shrugged. “Maybe? If it’s tech, it’s probably not ours.”

“Is it controlling him?” Marisol asked.

“I think it’s too small for that,” Kawehi said. “We’ve dealt with Commonwealth neurotech before, it’s much larger. Portions of the host’s brain are removed to make space for it.”

“I don’t want to know,” Deidre said. “Whatever this thing is, I’m not touching it. It’s too small to deal with in the field. See this shadow here? That’s where it breaches the occipital plate. He really needs a neural specialist, preferably one from the Project.”

“I have to agree with the Warden, we can’t take him to Echo like this,” Marisol said.

“Can I get a secure datalink?” Kawehi said. “I know a specialist who’d be happy to get away from the office.”

 “Kawehi, we’re not taking him anywhere near any Project facility like this,” Nate said immediately.

“Nate, you need to relax,” Kawehi snapped back. “Did I say we’re taking Theo to him? Deidre, what can we do for him in the meantime?”

“You think he’s going to wake up again?” Jonesy asked.

Deidre switched screens and then nodded. “Best guess, yeah. It looks like his vitals are moving  closer to normal.”

“Could we block the signal for a few hours?”

“Sure, Kay, blocking EM waves is easy,” Jonesy said. “I’ll set up some kind of shielding on him.”

Kawehi looked at Nate. “Is that enough for you?”

“No. You don’t have a clue of what that thing is capable of or what’s going to happen when this little pain in the ass wakes up. Deidre, can you keep him asleep for t he rest of the day?”

“No way,” she said immediately. “I’d be nervous doing it at a medical facility. The back of an RV? Forget it.”

“I have plenty of happy fun-time pills,” Jonesy said. “Would making him groggy be enough?”

Deidre sighed. “What the hell, Jonesy? What do you have? Do we need to schedule you into a rehab program now?”

“Some opiate painkillers and some exotic stuff and I’ll happily go to rehab if there’s a pool. But these are yours, you gave Jack and I some spares to carry for you.”

“Crap, I’m sorry. I totally forgot about that. We’ve been in the weeds way too long,” Deidre said. “Kawehi?”

“Anything that will slow down or interrupt his neural activity, thank  you.” Kawehi turned to Nate and her voice  got colder. “Is that enough for you, Warden?” 

Nate shrugged. “I guess it’ll have to be. Sergeant, I want him really, really stoned One of the team should stay on him at all times, with a weapon. And if…”

“You’re talking to professionals,” Kawehi snapped.

Nate looked at her and back to Deidre. “You get the idea.”

Deidre nodded. “We’ll keep him out of trouble.”

Kawehi spun on her heel and grabbed her Warden’s arm as she walked past. She pulled him away from the little crowd. Marisol watched them and it looked like they were arguing.

“Anything to worry about?” Jonesy asked from behind her. “I can always stage a little accident for him.”

Marisol looked at him. “Good thing I know you’re just joking. The only thing I know for sure about Wards and Wardens is that you don’t get in the middle.”

“It’s cute that she thought I was joking,” Jonesy muttered to Deidre when Marisol had walked away.

Deidre gave him a strange look. “Are you hot for Kawehi or something?”

“She was my insurgency instructor before they sent her offworld.”

“Come on, Jones. I know that’s an intense course but offering to frag a Tango agent? You gotta get your shit back together.”

He rubbed his eyes. “I really need a day off.”

“We all do. Why don’t you drag Marisol off to the tall grass for a little rumpus? You’d both feel better.”

He gave her a tired grin. “Now who’s trying to get people fragged?”  

~~~~

Theo was struggling to open his eyes by the time they’d gotten him cleaned up and into the bed in the back of the camper. Rachel was next to him, sitting at the foot of the bed with her back to the wall.

“How’re you feeling?” she asked when he was awake.

He shook his head, trying to clear the fog. “What happened?”

“You had a bad reaction to something,” Rachel answered.

Theo started to sit up but grabbed the sheet when he realized he only had his underwear on.

“You threw up on yourself,” Rachel said. “I’ve got some clean clothes when you want to get up.”

“Did you….”

She laughed. “Relax. Jonesy and Ian undressed you. I made sure no one peeked.”

He half nodded and shook his head again. “I think I got a fever or something.”

“That’s the medicine Deidre gave you. Are you dizzy?”

“I can’t think straight, can’t remember nothing.”

“You’ll feel better soon. Let’s get you dressed, okay?”

Theo didn’t quite grasp what she was saying but Rachel handed him some clothes and turned her back so he could put them on. Once he was dressed in a t-shirt and loose black pants, Theo sat back down to stop the little room from spinning.

“Did I ask you what happened? I can’t remember. What’s on my neck?”

He reached up to tug at whatever it was but she caught his hand.

“You’ve got a bandage around your neck. You’ll be okay but we need to leave it there for now. How about we get you some fresh air?”

He nodded and she helped him sit up. When Theo’s head stopped spinning, Rachel helped him to his feet.

“I need to, uhm, go,” he said, his face red.

She helped him over to the tiny door and opened it for him. “You can manage?”

Theo quickly muttered that he was fine and she smiled as she closed the door behind him.

As Theo peed, he looked at his reflection in the mirror. There was some sort of collar around his neck that held his head still. It was a dull gray color but he tapped it and the thing didn’t feel like metal. He didn’t see a way to take it off either and wondered how long he had to wear it. It didn’t hurt but he had to turn his whole body to look around. It felt really weird.

When he emerged, Rachel was sitting at the little table waiting for him. “Better?”

He nodded, blushing again but she smiled and helped him down the stairs and through the door. The sun was low in the sky and Theo dully wondered if it was setting or if it had just come up. He looked around, trying to remember what this place was but then Rachel took his hand.   

He’d never held hands with anyone before. It had been a big deal at home, especially in public but Rachel was very casual about it. And the girls in Watson’s Hole were always putting stuff on their hands and going on about their fingernails. Her hands felt as strong and work weathered as his own.

“There’s a little creek back here. Let’s go sit there,” Rachel said.

He tried to nod but couldn’t. It didn’t matter though, she didn’t wait for him to answer. Theo decided he was happy to follow her, he liked holding hands. For just a second, he had a flash of someone else, holding her hand would have been nice too. He tried to follow the thought but it had disappeared. He didn’t mind, he liked holding hands.

They walked past a big shed with a bunch of old cars parked underneath. There was a couple of old picnic tables and some people were sitting there, talking and playing cards. Theo had a moment of alarm, cards were strictly forbidden. But he wasn’t at home anymore, it was okay here. If only he could remember why. A couple people smiled and waved. He waved back, feeling absurdly happy but he couldn’t remember anyone’s name.

Hand in hand, they walked down to a small stream. There were large pieces of stone and broken concrete scattered around and they stepped from piece to piece until they were in the middle of the running water. Rachel picked a spot and sat down on the edge of a big rock, her feet almost in the water. The water splashed and gurgled around them. Rachel helped him to sit down beside her and took his hand again. She slid over until she was sitting so close that their legs were touching.

“Is this okay?” she asked.

Theo couldn’t really turn his head to look at her but he said that it was okay with him. He liked being here, there was nothing to do, nothing to worry about.

“How are you feeling?” Rachel asked.

“Really good, but kinda weird. Like my head is full of cotton but in a good way.”

She nodded. “That’s the drug for pain. It’ll get better.”

“What’s this thing around my neck?”

“It’s a bandage, remember? You passed out and fell down.”

“I did? It’s hard to think, like I’m in slow motion.”

Which is why you’re high on painkillers, poor guy.

Theo jumped when she put her arm around him.

“Did I hurt you?”

“No, I’m not used to people touching me like that.”

“Like what?”

Theo tried to shrug but there was something around his neck that made it uncomfortable. “I dunno how to say it. Soft like that.”

She laughed. “We better get you used to it, your sister likes hugging people.”

He scooted back so he could look at her. “What do you mean? I don’t have a sister.”

Rachel stared at him, feeling a weight form in the pit of her stomach. “You do, Theo. We talked about this yesterday. Her name is Emma and you’re twins.”

He rubbed his head. “I got a twin sister? No, I woulda remembered that. I think you have me mixed up with someone else. Why’s this thing on my neck anyway?”

“To help you get better,” Rachel said. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

He frowned. “There was yelling and someone shooting a gun. Oh! I got in a wreck too.”

Rachel took a small radio out of a pocket. “Deidre, need you at the stream.”

Theo was watching her, fascinated. “Who is Deidre?”

“A friend of mine,” Rachel said, rubbing his back again. “You’ll like her.” 

Theo just nodded and smiled but it was obvious he really didn’t understand what she was saying. 

“Hey, you beautiful people,” Deidre said, coming down to the stream bank. Behind her, Theo saw a couple of people but they went away again and he forgot about it.

“Theo’s having some trouble with his memory,” Rachel explained.

Deidre hopped down into the water and sloshed over to them.

“Your shoes!” Theo said, pointing.

“I know, they’re all wet, huh?” Deidre said.

She took a little flashlight out of her pocket and shone it into both his eyes.

“What kind of problems?” she asked.

“Theo, do you remember Deidre?”

He squinted at the woman and shrugged with a silly grin on his face. “Nope.”

“Do you remember my name?” Rachel asked.

He turned his whole body to look closely at her. “It’s…uhm. I already know it, don’t tell me.”

“Last thing he can remember sounds like the snatch. Is that normal?”

“Hi, I’m Theo,” he said to Deidre.

She smiled and shook hands. “Hi Theo, I’m happy to meet you. Rachel, you said you’ve taken hydrocodone before, did it do anything like this?”

Rachel shook her head. “Our biology is really close, I’m fine with medication.”

Deidre nodded. “Good. I’ve never heard of this reaction before.”

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Theo said to Deidre. “Can you tell me where I am? I can’t figure out what I’m doing here.” 

“It’s getting worse,” Rachel said miserably.

“Theo, we’re waiting for a doctor to come and take a look at you. We want to make sure you didn’t get hurt when you fell down. Is the fresh air helping your head any?”

Theo noticed the air, it was cool and he could smell pine trees. “Yes, I think so. Why did I fall down?”

“It happened when we found something in your…Theo?” 

He had gone pale and reached up to cover the back of his head. They could both see him beginning to shudder.

“No one is supposed to know about that,” Theo whispered. “It’s a secret. I have to keep the secret.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Rachel said, putting her hand on his back again. “We aren’t looking for your secret. We’ll talk about something else, okay?”

Theo had a flash of someone touching the secret spot on his head and felt sick. “It’s important, no one can know about…. No one can know!”

Deidre gently tried to pull his arms down. “So, how do you feel, Theo?”

He stopped struggling and smiled at her. “I feel really good.”

Rachel gently rubbed his back while Deidre held his hands. Theo quickly forgot what he was worried about and relaxed, enjoying the attention.

“Oh, your name is Rachel,” he suddenly said. “And your name is Deidre.”

Deidre smiled at him. “Exactly right, my friend. What were you talking about before, Rachel?”

“Oh, uhm, Theo was saying that he’s not used to people touching him.”

“Not soft like this, no.”

“What do you mean by soft?” Deidre asked.

“Well, I get beat sometimes, when I forget my place. But this is much nicer.”

“No one is going to hit you here,” Deidre said firmly. “Can I sit with you up there?”

Theo looked down and laughed. “Your shoes are wet, come outta there!”

Deidre hopped up on the rock beside him. “I might have to take your shoes then.”

His smile didn’t falter. “Well of course, that’s what a Christian gentleman would do.”

“The sunset is very pretty,” Rachel said.

Theo nodded and smiled at her. 

“Keep everything really light,” Deidre said casually. “I think stress makes it worse.”

She saw Theo smile but there wasn’t any comprehension in his eyes. Deidre leaned against him and Rachel did the same thing on the other side. Theo sighed happily as the sun continued to set.

~~~~

At first, Rachel wondered what she could do to keep Theo entertained. The last light in the sky was fading and Deidre had left them to go sit with Shep. Rachel took Theo’s hand again and walked him back toward the open shed.

In spite of her worrying, Theo seemed perfectly content to stare off into space. She tried to talk to him some more but he immediately went back to asking why he was there. She sat down with him at one of the picnic tables and played a movie on her tablet. She’d expected him to be surprised but he just sat quietly looking at nothing. She was watching whatever movie she’d picked without really seeing it when someone put a hand on her shoulder.

“How about a break?” Betsy asked when Rachel looked up.

“That’s nice of you, but I’m fine.”

Betsy sat down on the other side of Theo. “Deidre got me up to speed and very strongly suggests you go clear your head for a few. Think of it as an order.”

In spite of her dark thoughts, Rachel smiled. “Theo, this is Betsy. She’s going to sit with you for a little while, okay?”

He looked at Betsy and smiled. “My name is Theo.”

“Hi there, Theo. Can I sit by you?”

He agreed enthusiastically and Betsy took Rachel’s place at the table.

Rachel headed for the hidden door to the supply cache. It was thick enough that no one would hear her screaming down there.

  ~~~~

Marisol’s tablet chimed with an incoming message just after midnight. She read it and went to tell Deidre to get Shep ready. They’d all worked with helicopter support before and it felt a little strange not having to worry about winds or tying anything down. Five minutes later, they all felt an odd sensation and bits of grass and pebbles hovered a few inches off the ground. The effects of the gravity emitters died away as the Marmot came closer to the ground. With barely any noise at all, it settled down in the grassy area beside the shed roof. It was only a dark shape until the large side hatches opened, revealing the dim red light inside.

Four crewmembers were already moving, heading over to where Shep was waiting on a stretcher.

“Take care of that kid,” he whispered to Deidre as they picked him up.

“I’ll see you soon,” she promised.

He started to wave but Deidre and one of the medevac crew pushed his hand down at the same time. They were silent as they walked quickly to the ship and carefully loaded the stretcher inside. The hatches quickly swung down and the dark shape leapt back into the air. The shape blocked the stars for a moment and then it shot across the sky, too fast to follow.

“It is that I am to meet Kawehi Moana,” a quiet, slightly sibilant voice said from the darkness.

“I’m here,” Kawehi said, stepping forward.

A figure in a wide brimmed hat and black overcoat stepped out of the darkness. “It is being wishes of kind fate and beneficence, unknown comrades. I am being known as Dr. Aeolus.”

Rachel and Theo were sitting together at one of the picnic tables as Kawehi and Nate greeted the visitor. Theo had the same look of vacant agreeability that he’d had all day but when he heard the voice, his expression immediately turned fearful, even panicked.

“What’s wrong?” Rachel asked.

“The Dark Brother,” Theo hissed. “He’s here.”

Rachel’s eyes widened. “Are you sure?”

Theo nodded jerkily. “That’s him, I know his voice.”

“Kawehi,” Rachel called. “Quick word?”

She came over from the little group being introduced to Dr. Aeolus. Theo had slumped so low on the bench that he was in danger of sliding under the table.

“Hey, Theo,” Kawehi said. “You don’t look happy.”

“He recognizes that person,” Rachel said. “Says that’s Brother Dark, a preacher from his church.”

“I know his voice,” Theo whispered. “That hat and coat, it’s Brother Dark for sure. He’ll know you found it, he’ll make me hurt. We have to get away!”

“Listen to me, Theo,” Kawehi said. “That’s not the Dark Brother, I promise you this. I’ve known him for a long time, you can trust him.”

“No, we’ve got to run!” Theo turned and pulled his legs from under the table.

Rachel took his arm but Theo was suddenly stronger than she was ready for. Kawehi stepped in to help and gently forced him to sit back down. He started to struggle but Rachel wrapped her arms around him and pressed her cheek against his.

“I’ve known you since you were born, Theophile,” she whispered in his ear. “I am your friend and I won’t let anyone hurt you, not ever.”

“Do I have to?” Theo’s voice was sad and hopeless.

Rachel squeezed him again. “Can you be brave for me? Nothing bad is going to happen because I won’t let it. I’ll stay right next to you the whole time.”

“But that’s Brother Dark,” Theo softly whined. “You can’t stop him, no one can.”  

“That’s not Brother Dark,” Kawehi said quietly. “I’ve known him for years. He helps people, he doesn’t hurt them.”  

“Do you promise he’s not Brother Dark?” Theo asked Rachel. “I don’t want him cutting on me no more. You won’t let him hurt me?”

“I’ll stay right beside you the whole time,” she answered. “If does anything to hurt you, I promise you that I will put him on the ground so fast that this Brother Dark bastard, I swear that I will have him on the ground in handcuffs so fast that you’ll think it’s a goddam magic trick.”

He started to laugh at her bad language but the smile faded when he saw the figure waiting at the camper. Theo looked back at Rachel, his heart pounding so hard that she could see his pulse.

“You’ll stay with me? Even when he takes me in the dark? You promise?”

“Pinky promise even.” Rachel held up her hand, smallest finger crooked. Theo smiled shakily and they shook.

Rachel and Kawehi stood up and they helped Theo to his feet. Theo took Rachel’s hand and Kawehi followed as they slowly walked toward the RV. Theo ignored all of the people that were staring at him, keeping his eyes on the ground. When they reched the RV where Aeolus was waiting, Theo forced himself to look up at the face of the dark figure. To his shock, it wasn’t the gaunt face and crazed eyes he’d expected. The feeling of relief that swept through him was so strong that he nearly wet himself. 

“Doctor, this is Theo,” Kawehi said. “He’s pretty nervous at the moment, you look like someone that hurt him before.”

“Theo, it is that I am being sorrowful of your past injury,” the man in black said. “I am to swear that we have never met until now. It is never that I am here to cause pain.”

When Theo heard the voice, he was sure that this wasn’t Brother Dark. The Good Brother’s voice was higher and kind of scratched in your ears. This doctor’s voice was friendlier and he talked funny.

Theo swallowed. “Yes, sir. Thank you for coming to help me.”

The dark man actually smiled. “You are being welcomed. Since you will not being able to have proper pronunciation of my name, it may be that you call me Dr. Aeolus.”

“I promised to stay with Theo,” Rachel said.

Aeolus nodded. “It is how this is happening. It is we will be inside this box, it will be that painless examinations will occur.”

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