Chapter Five: Contact

Jacob leaned on the fender of the Cadillac, arms crossed and watched as Lon Stedman’s pickup headed back up the dirt road they’d used to get here. The van, along with the corpses of Stedman and his brother-in-law, had been left back at the truck stop when they’d fled the sounds of police sirens. Jacob and Pebbleman had caught up with them, after grabbing a couple of the stragglers who’d taken off across the fields. They’d finally run them down at a small roadside park.

Their bravado ruined, none of the men had a word to say other than they were all going home. Pebbleman had tried to get them riled up for another chase but they’d ignored him. His own brother-in-law had started to put one of the wounded in the back seat of the Cadillac but Jacob had slammed the door shut again, nearly catching his hand. He told them that he wasn’t a fair-weather believer, that he’d stick to the job he’d given. But he couldn’t shame any of them into staying. It was probably for the best, the Pebbleman was getting kind of strange. It wouldn’t have been long before they were all asking a lot of questions Jacob didn’t even want to think about.

“It is as I said before, you are the only one I can place my trust in,” Pebbleman said from behind him.

Jacob turned around and looked at the man. He was still wearing jeans too big for him with a buttoned up work shirt. There was black dust around the man’s mouth and nose. As he watched, Pebbleman took another bite of some charcoal he’d found in one of the grills. Jacob winced as Pebbleman chewed it noisily.

“Why are you eating that?”

Pebbleman looked around, as if he had some huge secret. “Because it tastes good,” he whispered and then giggled like it as the funniest thing he’d heard all week.

“I put up with a lot today, y’hear? Tell me what’s going on, or I swear to Holy Lord Jesus that I’ll leave you here and head on home myself!”

Pebbleman stared at him, his black eyes expressionless. Jacob didn’t care. Angel or prophet or whatever, the pale man owed him some answers. As he stared, Pebleman finished chewing. After a few seconds he spit a few black fragments out.

“Since you do not understand humor, I smell carbon in this. There are processes that are trying to repair the damage done to my brain. It all requires carbon.”

“Are you an angel of the Lord God?”

Pebbleman cocked his head slightly, staring at Jacob with emotionless eyes. The casual murder of McIntyre was very much on Jacob’s mind but he’d never been one to back down.

“There are reasons why I should not answer you,” Pebbleman finally said. Then his voice rose to a scream.  “Strong reasons! So, so strong that I would immediately end your life over them. End it bloody and leave the mess on your blessed porch. Let wifey see what kind of man you are! Inside and out! But those nest-less sshiit-heels closed that door to me!”

Jacob didn’t look away, hardly blinked. He was very glad he had a loaded gun, and the hood of a 1972 Fleetwood between them. Pebbleman shook his head and pressed his temples with his fingertips.

“I have startled you,” he said in a normal voice. “The control of impulses was damaged, but it will be repaired soon. What I am trying to calmly relate is that I cannot remember why there are things you should not know. That concept is an obscenity, curiosity exists to be satisfied.”

“I’m gonna go ahead and assume you’re not an angel then.”

Pebbleman waved his hand. “Of course not. Those are fairytales for children, put them out of your head.”

Jacob’s eyebrows went up. “I thought you was a preacher at least?”

“I remember that. But that phase is secondary to recovering our filthy lamb. Now that they have escaped, I will have to attempt to use the interface of one of the rectum-biting Questions.”

~~~~

Half an hour after the three had gone in, the door to the RV opened again and Rachel stepped down and closed the door behind her. She looked around until she saw Kawehi and Deidre walked over.

“Everything okay?” the older woman asked.

“Theo told me that he was sure that he was sure Aeolus wasn’t Brother Dark, so he was okay now. So when the doc put him under, I came out here.”

Kawehi smiled and shook her head. “He’s a very rational young man, isn’t he?”

“I figured that Aeolus would fly him out of here to fix this. Is the Winnebago really the place for neural surgery?”

“In spite of my reaction, Nate is right. We can’t risk the entire Project until we’re sure Theo is completely safe. As for the surgery, Aeolus won’t even break Theo’s skin beyond an hypodermic full of nano.”

Rachel’s eyebrows went up. “I thought that was death-sentence illegal Earthside.”

“Offworlders,” Kawehi shrugged. “What can you do?”

“Can’t trust a single one, huh Rachel?” Deidre said and they both laughed.

“But seriously, passive systems are a gray area,” Kawehi said. “Plus, he is a senior representative of an ally.”

“And I have yet to meet a Yffliad who think rules are for other people,” Deidre added.

“These are like very small surgeon’s tools,” Kawehi explained. “He’ll fit a magnetic control cradle on Theo’s skull that will power and control the bots. Without the cradle, the particles are just harmless molecules. When the procedure is finished, Theo’s body will easily get rid of them.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice to have in a medkit?” Deidre said. “I can’t imagine the instruction manual though.”

“And good luck affording a license for that kind of tech,” Kawehi said. “I have to admit Rachel, when I asked for you to be assigned to the team, I didn’t expect you’d be such a natural in the field. I’m really impressed, especially for a pilot cadet.”

Rachel chuckled. “I’ve been at Echo since I was six and I’ve been chasing Emma around for almost as long.”

“How close to graduation are you?” Kawehi asked.

“I finished last term, I’ve just been waiting for a opening in the flight school.”

“I’ve been telling her, she’s too talented to be a Raptor,” Deidre said. “Decent field operatives are hard to come by.”

 “No offense, but so are Red Tail pilots,” Rachel said. “And I aced that placement.”

“You know there’s only like six of those on Earth, right?” Deidre said. “Kawehi, you could pull a priority and assign her to us, right?”

Kawehi laughed. “We’ve probably enraged Terran Operations enough already.”

It was nearly dawn when Aeolus finally emerged from the RV. Walking through the low-lying mist, he asked one of the guards where Kawehi was. She emerged from the underground cache a minute later, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. As always, Nate was a couple of steps behind her. They were followed by Marisol and Deidre.  

“It is a being a fervent hope you were not…occupied,” Aeolus said.

Kawehi snorted. “I was asleep, nothing ‘inappropriate’ was happening.”

“It is memory that is making a caution,” the Yffliad said, a little primly.

Nate laughed. “We weren’t doing anything that time either.”

“It may be as you claim, Nathaniel. And it is past experience making me the very dubious.”

Nate laughed and Aeolus’ mouth twisted in the strange expression that passed as a smile for the Yffliad.

“Before I forget….” Nate pulled two flat boxes wrapped in cellophane out of a pocket and handed them to Aeolus. “This is tobacco mixed with a spice called clove. They’re strong, be careful.”

“It is that there is…correction, would be profound thanks,” Aeolus said gravely. “But of course, I have no idea what you are referring to.”

Kawehi shook her head. “Just remember, when you both get hauled up in front a Cultural Affairs hearing, I’ll pretend to be as shocked as anyone else. What happened to your translator, Aeolus?”

“It is being a long story and being mostly the pointless. I await a replacement from Chanikjah Hoh. It is urgent now that I speak to you of this boy.”

Kawehi sat down on a bench but Aeolus saw bird droppings on it. He made a face and stayed on his feet.

“Marisol told me that there’s a possibility that the place Theo was living may have been run by Yffliad,” Kawehi said.

“It is not being a possibility, it is being certain. We are not ever meeting the lucky lady. It is not a simple Yffliad traitor. It is likely being a Curiosity.”

Kawehi swore quietly but Nate looked confused.

“Curiosity? Is that like the Question?” 

 Aeolus made a face. “Being even worse than Question, they are breaking all ethics and morals. The Question is nearly as disgusting but both are necessary.”

Nate looked at Kawehi and Aeolus waved for her to answer.

“The easiest example is looking for a technological breakthrough,” she said. “Those kind of leaps come from unconventional thinking. But Yffliad culture isn’t happy or comfortable with unconventional individuals.”

Aeolus nodded. “She is being correct. This is being why the protocols are implanted at birth. Only then can one be truly Yffliad. A Curiosity is never fully Yffliad, they lack awareness of protocol and are not bound to ethical convention. For this reason, they are kept far from populated places and are never taken off our home world. A Curiosity on Terra is meaning there is a supported effort on behalf of the Black Swarm. Perhaps even a full nest.”

“In Watson’s Hole?” Nate asked.

“If this is being true, Theophile Cosineau would still be there and your team would no longer exist. The Curiosity must have minders, even traitors would not allow a unrestrained Curiosity. It is being a logical conclusion that it refine experiments with social control to create a society of Terran loyalists.”

“We need to get this up the ladder. Is there hard evidence?” Kawehi asked.

Aeolus’ lips twisted into a smile. “Are you being as one just introduced to the Yffliadi? It is a certainty that I have proof before I speak. But this is being the time we speak of the boy and his brain.”

“Was it a tracking device?” Nate asked.

“This is truth but not complete. It was that the device was implanted in the child’s head long ago. The lack of subtlety and skill damaged…I do not know your word. Part of the mind responsible for memory. The brain, even for humans, is creating the most subtle and ingenious paths of repair. So it is that he long ago adapted to the butchery. I am grief, only scattered fragments of original memory remain.”

“What else did the implant do?” Kawehi asked.

“Mostly it was being a device to prevent the child from leaving his home. Another function was to destroy the child’s mind if he revealed information. It is being somewhat of a mercy the implant is being crudely made and without full function. Without help, the brain would have eventually suffered enough damage to die.”

“Is he going to be okay?” Nate asked.

Aeolus shook a clove cigarette from the pack and lit it. “It is being critical that you know that interference with a sentient mind is being barbaric. Any normal Yffliad could not have created this kind of abomination. It is that Ethical Protocols of my people control our lives. It is being only this that prevents us from returning to the horrors of the past. I have done my best, most subtle work and the boy will recover quickly. Now, I am having my own question.”

“What’s that?” Kawehi asked.

“You are aware that this child is an empath?”

“No, we weren’t told,” Nate said.

“Who could have known?” Kawehi said. “You’re sure?”

The Yffliad rolled his eyes. “Truly, are you being sure of your name? Yes, the indicative structures and proteins are there.”

That’s why I feel so weird,” Kawehi said.

“What do you mean, weird?” Marisol asked.

“I used a Projection on him, I didn’t know he was an empath!”

“And likely being very strong when trained,” Aeolus said helpfully.

“But you’re not supposed to do that,” Nate said slowly. “Oh, that’s really bad.” 

“You think I don’t know?”

Nate covered his mouth, obviously grinning. Marisol looked at him and then back at Kawehi.

“C’mon, are you really going to make me ask?”

Kawehi ignored her. “Nathaniel Ryker Durant, this isn’t funny!”

Nate obviously disagreed and he started laughing.

Kawehi glared. “You are so goddammed childish!

“Just what the hell is going on with you two?” Marisol asked.

“I need to work this out, we’ll talk after,” Kawehi said.

She stalked off, grabbing Nate by the arm as she passed him.

Marisol stared after them. “They’ve both lost their minds.”

Deidre looked fascinated. “No, I’ve heard about this. Did she tell you what she was going to hit the kid with?”

The other woman shrugged. “She said it was a low level affection push she always uses with recoveries.”

“Given the boy’s past, that could become quite amplified,” Aeolus said thoughtfully.

“This is why empaths don’t like broadcasting,” Deidre said to Marisol. “If they push another Talent without taking precautions, they’re just as susceptible and it’s easy to catch a bounce back.”

“This is being broadly correct,” Aeolus said. “It is that Kawehi is considered quite attractive?”

Marisol and Deidre nodded at the same time.

“She’s crazy hot,” Deidre added.

“Then it is most likely that Theophile reacted strongly to begin with, his age is within the median range of pubescent development…”

“We know about that,” Marisol said. “So, she ended up liking him just as much? There’s got to be more to it.”

Aeolus held up a very long finger. “Very much more, in fact. This function is similar to the concept of the feedback loop. Being far more subtle and complex of course. Crudely put, she’s in love with him. It is being very likely the age variance is further affecting her.”

Marisol looked back to Deidre as she chuckled.

“A push can get really strong if it’s…tailored. Age is an important part of that, what works on a teenager wouldn’t work as well on someone in their forties.”

“Sometimes, it’s obvious you don’t know a lot of us Terrans,” Marisol said. “So she’s got a bad case of puppy love for Theo?”

“It’s nowhere near that bad,” Kawehi said curtly as she walked out of the darkness. “Now that I know, I can keep it under control. With a little time, and a lot of meditation, I can get the chemicals out of my system. On the other hand, I can’t do anything about the memories of having feelings for him. Luckily, I don’t think it’ll be an issue, we rarely work on Earth.”

“What’s with you and Nate then?” Marisol asked. “Don’t tell me he’s jealous.”

Kawehi looked around and stepped closer. “This isn’t common knowledge, but Talent’s and their Wardens use a kind of unconscious empathic chatter. A lot of it is in small movements and twitches. I can’t get into the details, but as my friend here would say, it’s very subtle. When I looped Theo, I unconsciously started…trying to broadcast on his frequency, you could say. Nate, just as unconsciously, reacted to the difference in the  signals I was sending. It creates a mismanagement between our…”

“Yeah, it’s called jealousy,” Marisol interrupted. “You’re hitting on a teenaged boy and your boyfriend is jealous and being mean to him.”

Kawehi ran her hands through her hair. “Broadly speaking, yes. But it’s more scientific than just an emotion. And Durant is not my boyfriend.”

Marisol started laughing. “Right, of course. Should my guys keep an eye on your jock boyfriend? I don’t want him bullying my principal.”

“I’m really embarrassed, Mari. Projecting was probably overkill but I had orders to be as gentle as we could.”

“I have to disagree with you there,” Deidre said. “If we’d been rougher grabbing the kid, the stress may have activated that implant. There was no way you’d know that he was going to turn your juju back on you.”

~~~~

Contrary to all the sci-fi novels, the Synthetic Intelligence didn’t sit in the nexus of a constantly shifting web of data. There were far better things for it to do, Artificials were good enough at repetitive tasks to catch unusual events. However, the escaped Curiosity was unusual enough to take interest. At the moment, it was watching the scene from a traffic camera, emotionless eyes analyzing the few details it could from the small bright spot of the burning interface.

“Chairman, we were able to trace his data request,” one of the Artificials murmured in his ear. “The Curiosity wants information to follow several vehicles. This data is transmitted, per your request.”

The Synthetic dissected and analyzed the Yffliad’s download. The Curiosity was tracking the movement of several older model vehicles, all of them headed generally west. An Artificial was sent to the archives to search for the vehicles previous movements. It was back quickly enough, information on the collection was thin. This wasn’t surprising, given the lack of comprehensive surveillance on this backwater world.

The Artificial was sent back to the archive with a different task. Datapoints for the new request were even more sparse and the drone reported back almost immediately with what the Synthetic required. Yffliadi Curiosities had escaped twice before on this planet, both times they had…interacted with the native population. Each time, the rogue had fixated on data points that analysis showed to be meaningless. This looked to be no different although it added a datapoint that was interesting in an abstract sense. On the planet however, it was clear that the Curiosity was badly damaged and catastrophically compromised.

Twice before, it had allowed the Curiosity to complete its self-imposed “research.” Both ended in an orgy of destruction and death. More than enough to attract far too much attention. The current situation had progressed beyond any attempt of a live capture

On the surface of the planet, a cellphone rang.

“This is the Chairman,” the Synthetic said to the voice on the other end. “A special team is required to interdict the renegade Curiosity.”

The voice assured It that the traitor would be captured. A request asked about the group targeted by the Curiosity.

“No real value,” the Chairman said. “If possible, the body of the renegade will be brought back for examination.”

The voice agreed. They always did.

~~~~

They’d left the smoldering remains of the hat thirty miles behind them. Jacob risked a quick glance at his passenger. The Pebbleman had his eyes closed. The burns on his head were blistering up fast and Jacob wondered if they needed to find a doctor. Or a pharmacy at very least.

“Brother Pebbleman, I got concerns.”

“Why do you insist on calling me Brother? It is unnecessary,” the gaunt man replied without opening his eyes.

“What’s going on with those hats? Why did that one burn you?”

Pebbleman sighed with a sound like a snake’s hiss. “It was not mine to wear. The feedback heat is unusual. By now the Chairman has deduced that I have become a renegade and that his emissaries are dead, he placed that trap in my path. He is a fool.”

Jacob was about to ask another question but Pebbleman’s eyes suddenly went wide and he lifted his hands to his head, his fingers hovering over the burn marks, afraid to touch the blooming agony there. He screeched some kind of swear word. Jacob didn’t understand it but some sounds didn’t need translation.

He pulled the Cadillac off the road and got out as the Pebbleman spasmed and shrieked. He went around to the trunk and opened up the cooler there. He took a shirt from his bag and dipped it in the icy water.

Walking to the passenger door, Jacob wrung most of the water out of the shirt.

“Here, drape this over your head,” he told the pale man inside. “We can get some burn cream in the next town.”

“They’re rebuilding the pain centers,” Pebbleman gasped.

“Kinda figured. Sit in the car, I got some painkillers.”

“Willow bark and newt’s toe, no doubt,” Pebbleman said, gingerly patting his forehead. “I need more carbon, immediately!”

Jacob got in but didn’t start the car. Pebbleman waved his hands, frustrated.

“Go!”

“Nope. You gonna say anything more about killing me?”

“You wretched thug! No! Now make it go!”

“You gonna answer my questions?”

Pebbleman hissed, abandoning the shirt and fanning the burnt areas with his hands. Jacob waited.

“Your imaginary god, damn you to hell! Not all, only some!”

Jacob nodded as he started the car. “Fair enough.”

They drove through the little town and found near the interstate and after finding an all night pharmacy, they were headed west again, “Racing the sun” as his truck-driving dad had called it, back before the automated rigs.

In the passenger seat, Pebbleman had his eyes closed again but the welts on his head looked a lot better. Like he’d been burned a month ago instead of hours. At the drug store, they’d found some activated charcoal. When Jacob had paid, the clerk stared at Pebbleman, already crunching the pills up like they were candy. He’d also refused to even think about covering the deep dents in his skull due to the burns. Jacob had told them he was a veteran, not wanting to attract any more attention than they already had.

“You awake over there?” Jacob asked. “I want to know some things.”

“What do you want to know?”

Jacob thought for a second. “Start at the beginning. Who were those two that dressed like you?”

“The rectum-biters. They are known as The Question, they ensure compliance with the words of the Chairman, or whatever entity commands them.”

“You didn’t follow orders? That’s why they came?”

“Yes. The Chairman ordered a full study performed on the boy. I reported the task completed but did not perform the destructive tests.”

“Why not?” Jacob asked.

“I am called Curiosity, it is my nature. Vivisecting the subject would not have revealed the purpose behind his creation. I must know this purpose. I placed him with that family and watched him carefully for clues as he grew.”

Jacob nodded but the answer he’d been waiting for didn’t make much sense. “Are you human?”  

Pebbleman did not reply. His head was back on the seat and it looked like he was asleep. Jacob figured he could probably figure out that answer for himself.

~~~~

He could feel the camper moving again. He felt very different. Not bad, although his neck was a little sore. He felt like he’d been set free somehow. The past few days felt like he’d had a bad fever, like the time Junior had given the whole house chicken pox. But Junior wasn’t here. Instead it was…

Theo’s eyes snapped open and he sat up quickly, looking around. He was in the big bed in the back of the camper. The curtain thing was over the window but he could see occasional lights passing by through the gaps. Rachel was sitting beside him, head back against the wall and her eyes closed. The door was open and Theo glimpsed someone working with one of the tablet things at the table. When he glanced back at Rachel, her head was up and her gray eyes were open and watching him.

“How are you feeling?”

Theo couldn’t help himself. “With my hands usually.”

She shook her head slightly, a small smile on her face. “I think you’re feeling better. Do you remember my name?”

“Rachel…I can’t remember your last name.”

She sat up. “Hey, that’s great. I never told you my last name though.”

Theo shrugged. “I remember it sounded like a sneeze. Maybe I’m thinking of someone else.”

Rachel sat up and stared at him. “Szercherin. My father’s family name is Szercherin.”

He nodded, that felt right. Rachel got up and went up to tap the shoulder of whoever was sitting at the table. They got up and followed her back to the bedroom. His heart beat a little faster, it was the beautiful woman with the dark eyes. She smiled at him and Theo tried to smile back but it was hard to meet her eyes.

“How are you?” Kawehi asked.

He nodded, his face hot and butterflies in his stomach. “Good, thank you.”

“How’s your memory?”

“Weird,” Theo said immediately. “I can remember some dreams I think, they keep popping into my head.”

“Like what?”

He shrugged. “It’s all jumbled up, none of it makes sense. The rest of my memory is fine. Why? Did I hit my head again?”

“No, you were sick. You’ve hit your head before?”

He nodded. “A couple of times before. I don’t remember it, but they told me it was pretty bad.”

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Kawehi said.

She squeezed his shoulder for a moment and Theo felt goosebumps break out all over. He wanted her to sit down beside him but she went back up to the front and talked to someone. They got up and came back to the bedroom.

Theo’s heart skipped another beat. For a second there, he thought Brother Dark had joined them. But this wasn’t him. Vague recollections of this other man talking to him. He was a doctor, he had a name that had something to do with air, or wind…

“It is being a pleasure to see you, young Theophile.”

Theo smiled at him. “Hello, Doctor Aeolus. The pleasure is being mine.”

Aeolus harrumphed at him and Rachel hid a smile. After a couple of basic tests, he confirmed that Theo was recovering.

“It is being many hours since I have slept. To not be chattering Terrans. To not be disturbing any further sleep,” he said, and closed the door behind him.

Rachel grinned at him and Theo smiled back.

“You said you knew my parents?” he whispered.

She nodded. “My dad was one of your father’s assistants, when you two were born, we moved here to help out.”

“Can you tell me what they were like?”

Rachel thought for a second. “I remember them being really funny, always joking around. I was nervous around your dad, but I don’t know why. He was really nice. But your mom, I loved her. My mother died when I was a baby and your mom kind of adopted me.”

“I’m sorry, Rachel,” he said quietly. “Then you lost her too.”

Rachel nodded and quickly wiped her eyes. “And we lost you. It was a rough time. Let’s talk more about this later on, okay? Do you want to see some pictures of them?”

Theo nodded immediately and she took her tablet out of a pocket and propped it open on the table. “Here’s one of you and Emma.”

There were two identical looking toddlers. They were laughing and one of them had a bandage wrapped around his hand.

“You were both playing in the kitchen when no one was watching. You burned your arm on the pan but didn’t tell anyone.”

He studied the picture. “I don’t remember that. We look just alike.”

“You two always wanted to wear the same clothes and pretended to be each other. You thought confusing your parents was hilarious.”

Theo half smiled. “We look happy, I wish I could remember that.”

Rachel slid her finger over the screen and a new picture appeared. Theo and his twin were infants, red faces in the middle of blanket wrapped bundles. Holding them were a proud looking couple. They were bundled up in long coats and had strange looking hats. Behind them were trees and mountains covered with snow. Theo figured his mother had been pretty short, she wasn’t any taller than his father’s shoulder. They looked like nice people.

“You guys were just a month old here. This is right before they brought you home. That was the first time I ever met you.”

Theo stared at his parent’s faces, trying to remember anything about them. Finally, he shook his head.

“I don’t remember their faces at all. But thank you, I think I would have liked them.”

Rachel kissed him on the cheek and he jumped.

“What was that for?”

She put her arm around him again. “Because I missed you and I’m glad you’re back.”

He grinned, knowing he probably looked goofy but not caring. “Thank you. I’m glad you were there to bring me home.”

“Even though I twisted your arm?”

Theo smiled at her and Rachel flipped through more pictures, explaining in whispers who everyone was. Theo could barely hear her but didn’t care. He had found a friend and he was where he belonged. Rachel yawned several times and finally put the tablet away.

“I’ve gotta crash,” she whispered. “You should try to get some sleep too.”

Theo nodded and she leaned back and seemed to immediately fall asleep again. He thought he’d be wide awake since he’d been asleep since last night but soon his eyes drifted closed.

It was his fifth birthday, he’d been here for two whole months now.

“You don’t sass me!” The face was too close to his, the breath smelled like onions, tiny bits of spit hitting his face. “And don’t you look away!”

Theo ran. He just wanted to go home but he was so lost. Nothing smells right here, mud and trees, everything is so dirty. He just has to run far enough and it will smell right again, his mommy will find him and… There’s a huge impact in his back and he falls, scrapes his face on the ground and cries.

“Hold him down,” the Dark Brother says. How did he get here? When did they take him to the basement? There are hands holding him on the table and they put belts on him. Theo twists his head back and forth but he can’t get away!

“Stay still!” the monster wife screams in his face. He’s shocked, staring at her and then he can’t move his head, can’t look around, can’t see what they’re doing. Now there’s a loud buzzing and his head itches but he can’t scratch it. Itches so bad it burns but he can’t get away, can’t shut his eyes, he’s not bad, he didn’t do anything bad, why are they meanies, it’s not fair, no fair no fair no fair. IT HURTS IT HURTS IT HURTS SO BAD. They’re breaking his head and he can’t breathe and can’t tell them to stop.

Stop it stop it, you’re killing me! Where’s my mommy? I wanna go home! Make it stop, it hurts so bad!

They’re cutting him up, locking him in the dark and it hurts. He’s alone and it hurts and he can’t breathe.

No no no. Stop, I’ll be good, I promise, not the dark, it hurts it hurts it hurts…

please stop

Shh. I’m here. You’re not alone. Time to come out of the dark

Theo stopped, surprised. He listened for the voice again. Who said that? Was someone out there? He can’t see, it’s too dark. The dark hurts him and he’s blind, except there was a flicker of light now. It was so far away but he went toward it, the giggling monster searching somewhere behind him.

But it wasn’t a door out, it was just a yellow flower waving in the breeze. There was a little brown bird on the stem. They sang together but the dark was mean and fast and…

I am here, I am here. No more dark, no more hurts. Sleep, Sparrow the flower sang. Sleep safely now. Together soon and together is home, together is safe, together is right.

Theo slid deeper into sleep, the song echoing through his mind.

Hundreds of miles away, Emma’s eyes snapped open and she sat up, gasping for breath. A strong tingling covered her scalp and slowly washed over her face and chest. That wasn’t some PTSD dream, she was sure of that. Emma swung her legs over the bed, rubbing her feet on the rough carpet as the tingling reached her feet. She knew she had to go, and go now.

Ten minutes later, Emma slid the garage door open silently and then pushed her dirt bike out. She’d gotten around the house alarms, her aunt’s partner hadn’t heard her, nothing could stop her now. Then the device on her wrist buzzed and a dim red swirl chased itself on her screen. Emma closed her eyes and sighed. She’d been in such a hurry she hadn’t even thought about her datapad. Her grades were bad enough that her aunt had restricted her to the house. That meant Jaxson, the Project’s synthetic personality, was constantly monitoring her.

“Emma, what the hell are you doing?” an androgynous voice whispered loudly. “Even if you weren’t grounded, that doesn’t have a license plate. Not to mention the inherent risks of riding at night!”

“Jax. I can’t explain it, I just need to go. I left Amanda a note, I’ll be back soon.”

“Where do you need to go, Emma?”

“I don’t know, somewhere east of here. I think.”

“You think.”

There was a long pause.

“Something important has changed,” Jaxson finally said. “I have route information to a rendezvous point. It is in your maps folder.”

Emma’s mouth fell open. “Really? You aren’t going to wake up Amanda?”

“No, I need to do that as well,” Jaxson said. “But the route shows the quickest way out of datapad range. I can give you ten minutes.”

Emma jammed the helmet on her head and threw her leg over the saddle.

“Thank you, Jaxson. I really appreciate this.”

“Drive safely, Emma.”

She held the clutch in, letting the bike roll quietly down the long driveway. When the wheels hit the pavement, Emma popped the clutch. The bike grumbled to life, the headlight painting the road in front of her. By the time lights were coming on in the bedroom windows, Emma had disappeared into the darkness, along with her datapad signal.

~~~~

Marisol was dozing in passenger seat when someone tapped her arm.  

“Got a text, boss,” Deidre called up.

Marisol rubbed her eyes awake and put the seatback up. The clock on the dash said it was after two. Deidre pointed to a cellphone clipped to the dash. There were four letters: CQCQ.

“Who’s on codes?” Marisol asked, sliding into the back.

“I got them,” Jones said from the sleeping bag on the floor. He got on his feet and Nate stood up from the little booth where’d he’d been sleeping. Jonesy slid around on the seat next to Kawehi and Marisol sat down beside him.

“We’ve got two minutes, hand me a burner,” Marisol said and Jones handed her a cellphone. Even though it was in the original shrink wrap, Marisol examined it carefully before opening it and then went over it again after she’d sliced the thick plastic open and retrieved the phone.

“Ready with the key?”

“Yep.” Jonesy held up a small digital display. Two numbers alternated on the screen. Marisol opened a notepad and pulled out a pencil.

“Three, two, one….” Jones counted and pressed a stud on the code key that started a timer.

At the same time, Marisol hit the green button and put the phone to her ear.

“Hi, Mom,” she said in a cheerful voice that didn’t match the expression on her face. “How’s Dad doing? Sorry, this is crappy connection, no, I can’t come. Mom, I’m in the car…”

An older woman’s voice started reading her the riot act about not coming home for  the Fourth of July holiday. Marisol wrote a series of words down as she listened. Jonesy held up the timer, it was closing in on two minutes. Marisol nodded and continued talking. When the conversation reached two minutes and twenty seconds, she disconnected the call in mid-harangue and handed the phone to Jonesy. He pulled the battery and sim card out. The card was snapped in half and the pieces of the phone were thrown in the trash. Marisol went back over her notes, lips moving soundlessly.

“How does that all work?” Nate asked, as he watched. 

Marisol nodded once without looking up.

“So, this key is synched with an exact copy in Echo,” Jonesy said. “They flash the same rotating list consisting of a phone number and an elapsed time. This time, the key gave me the number to use and a hundred and forty seconds. Mari watches the timer, she has her own list of numbers. For example, say the integer for this call is six. She would take note of the word used at six seconds, twelve seconds and so on. Then, at two minutes, twenty seconds exactly, the call ends. Too long or too short and the home office knows something is up.”

“There’s co-ords,” Marisol said. “Confirm 34.B.”

Jones pulled a plain receipt book out of the box.  

“Yep, page 34.B. Nate, numbers and more complicated messages go through a one-time pad.”

Nate nodded approvingly. “Someone remembered Jenkins when they sat that up.”  

Marisol took a receipt from him and took out a small penlight. She played the bright blue back and forth over the receipt until words appeared.

“UV brings it out,” Jones said quietly as Marisol added to her notes. She handed the sheet back and Jones rubbed it between his palms. The friction and small amount of heat it generated turned the paper into dust in his hands. Marisol finished the substitution and pulled out a notebook. After looking back and forth between the message and her notes, Marisol sighed and pushed the note over to Kawehi.

“I’m going to fucking punch someone,” Marisol said quietly. 

Kawehi turned the note around. “Snapdragon gone from Echo nine to twelve hours ago, destination Ivory Nine. Contact before return. Apologies, AC.”  

“Snapdragon is Emma Cosineau,” Marisol said, rubbing her eyes. “Ivory was a series of emergency meeting points from the eighties. No one uses them anymore. Ivory nine is in Twin Lakes, Colorado. Way the hell out of the way, goddammit. Deidre, we need a stop.”

 “How did the Administrator’s daughter find out what was going on?” Jones quietly asked Marisol as everyone was starting to stretch and move around. 

Marisol smiled grimly. “I plan to discuss that with her BFF when we stop.”

Theo had lived enough of the team’s schedule to know that pulling into the truck stop was unusual, they’d just stopped an hour ago. Rachel, and everyone else gathered around one of the sedans to talk. Deidre was tasked with keeping an eye on Theo and Dr. Aeolus and it looked like they were going to be here a while.

“Is something wrong?” Theo asked.

Deidre grinned at him. “I’m over here with you, how would I know? Mari looks kind of pissed though.”

“She’s pretty intimidating,” Theo said.

“Once you get to know her, she’s much worse,” Deidre said cheerfully.

Theo looked wary but then belly laughed and Deidre laughed along with him.

“But that’s not really true,” she said. “The boss is getting upset because she’s trying very hard to get us back home but things keep happening.”

“Like that thing that Doc took out of me.”

“Sure, and the ambush. But there’s other stuff that has nothing to do with you, so stop looking worried. Let’s go get some junk food.”

“As the Jones is being for his needs,” Aeolus declared. “It will be that there is smoke.”

They both stared at him.

“It is to be cursed,” he said. “It is the idiom, impossible to say.”

Deidre laughed. “Oh, you’re jonesing for a cigarette.”

“Just so. The Lieutenant is threatening my beloved skull if smoking within the rolling box-thing.”

“Why don’t you use smokeless?” Theo asked as he got out of the RV. “You never heard of chew?”

“Smokeless and chew,” Aeolus said, looking at him intently. “To beg the little one to be explaining further.”

Theo explained chewing tobacco as they walked over to the store. Deidre was having a hard time keeping a straight face.

“It is that a child shall be leading them,” Aeolus said, as they walked inside.

No one in the parking lot was as delighted.

“We’ve got another fucking detour,” Marisol announced. “Emma Cosineau left Echo Central yesterday. She evidently left word that she’d meet us at one of the old Ivory rally points.”

“Never heard of it,” Betsy said.

“They’re mothballed, but that’s not important. What is important is the communications security of this team. Is there anything you’d like to share with the rest of the team, Rachel?”

She looked surprised. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, Chief.”

“I’d like to remind you that misleading a team leader carries severe penalties, Cadet.”

Rachel didn’t blink. “So do false accusations, Chief Sergeant. If this is about Emma, I transferred into your team directly from the Nine-Alpha orbital. I didn’t know what was going on until your pre-op briefing. Not that it would have mattered, I follow orders.”

Willi could see Marisol was about to come unglued on the kid and he quickly interrupted.

“Okay, hold up. I’m in charge of comm-sec and I can tell you that there hasn’t been any kind of signal from any of us.”

“Marisol, I think I know what happened,” Kawehi said. “We need to speak privately about it.” 

The chief sergeant rubbed her face with her hands. “I already don’t like it. Rachel, I apologize for jumping all over you. Shake?”

Rachel shook hands with Marisol. “No problem, Chief. It was the most obvious answer.”

“Come on, Kawehi, you can tell me a story,” Marisol said, heading for the RV.

Deidre was waiting for Marisol when she climbed out of the trailer.

“So, we got leaks?” she asked.

“No, I think we’re tight. And before you ask, no. I can’t tell you.”

“Well, pooh. I’ll give you a bribe all the same,” Deidre said, handing over a flat box.

Marisol smelled the pizza before she even took the box and her mouth watered.

“Oh my god,” she said, seeing the greasy cheese inside. “This looks really bad for me.”

“Three people are already down with clogged arteries,” Deidre laughed and held up a bottle. “Siracha?”

Marisol grinned, covering the slice with sauce. “You always know how to brighten my day, Doc.”

Marisol took a huge bite of pizza and closed her eyes as she chewed.

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