Rachel and Jonesy were in the front seats, Theo was in the captain’s chair right behind them, staring out the windshield. He’d never seen real mountains before, it was amazing that something could be so big.
“They’re something, huh?” Kawehi said.
Theo nodded, looking back at her. “Someday I’m going to come back and look at them all day long.”
Kawehi smiled at the young man. “Getting tired of the road trip?”
He glanced at her for a second and then looked back out at the mountains. “I don’t think I’ve been happy like this before. Even with….” Theo gestured at his neck, still not comfortable talking about it. “I just wish we could stop and look at things sometimes.”
“We’ve got some time, why don’t you get out and get a better look?” Marisol asked from the booth.
Theo looked back at her, searching her face. He suddenly grinned and headed for the door. Marisol watched him go and shook her head slightly.
“I saw that,” Kawehi said.
“You almost actually smiled.”
“Just indigestion from that truck-stop pizza.” Marisol said.
Theo opened the door to the camper and hopped down. The mountains, seeming even bigger, were right in front of them and he climbed a small hill next to the parking lot. A few steps further and both lakes were visible as well. The others were getting out of the RV and the sedans, stretching and yawning. Theo turned back to the mountains and tried to figure out which one was the tallest.
Deidre stuck her head in the door of the RV. “Want me to stay close?” she asked.
Kawehi shook her head. “Let’s give him a few minutes. Do you see his sister anywhere?”
It was a nice spring day and the parking lot was full of people and all of their cars and motorcycles. Deidre shrugged.
“I don’t see her but she might not have made it this far yet,” she said.
Theo took a deep breath of the clean air, delighted to be out of the RV. The wind blew from up the valley, carrying the faint turpentine scent of the pines. He glanced back at the camper and for once, people weren’t running from one task to another. It made him wonder what they were doing here but he’d learned over the last few days that it was pointless to ask. Marisol hadn’t told him to hurry but Theo turned around and started back to the RV. Then something hit him, almost knocking him down.
There was a flash of panic as whoever had run into him grabbed him tightly as started making strange noises. Theo started to struggle, the person was grimy and smelled like they’d done a couple of long days in a hayfield. Then, underneath everything else, he caught a scent of something hauntingly familiar. He managed to take a half a step back and saw her face.
It was a surreal moment as Theo suddenly recognized as the face he saw in the mirror every morning. Especially the eyes.
“Hello, Sparrow,” Emma said, looking at him through tears spilling down her cheeks.
Something about her, the name, or just her presence, made him feel like something had finally been unlocked. There was no flood of lost memories but he knew exactly who she was.
“Tulip,” he breathed.
She nodded and wiped her face, tears and dust making it muddy. “I’m so sorry, I knew you were out there but no one would listen to me and…”
Theo wrapped his arms around her as tightly as hers were around him. “It doesn’t matter, I’m here now.”
The team stood around their vehicles, watching the reunion. Willi put his arm around Toni as they watched and Deidre sniffled a little.
“This kind of makes up for the rest of this mess,” Marisol said, leaning against Kawehi.
Nate still wasn’t over the aggravation the kid had caused but he had to admit, this was a pretty happy ending. The warm feeling was disconcerting, he usually didn’t think that way. Looking around, his partner, and the rest of Marisol’s squad were watching the pair. The discomfort got worse and Nate scanned the crowd of people around them, searching for the threat.
At first, it just seemed like a nice day with a lot of very happy people. There wasn’t anyone that wasn’t holding hands or hugging someone else. His eyes widened and he quickly walked over and put a hand on Kawehi’s shoulder. She looked back, smiling at him.
“They’re together again, see?”
“Yeah, great. Snap out of it, the kid is Casting,” Nate said quietly. “Look around you.”
Her happy expression disappeared as she glanced around. “Oh shit, he’s strong. Marisol, we have clear out of here.”
“We can give ’em a couple of minutes more,” the other woman said.
Kawehi grabbed her arms and stared into her eyes for a few seconds. Then Marisol shook herself and Nate started helping her get everyone back in their vehicles. Kawehi jogged up the slope to where the pair was standing. She led them back down to the RV and made sure everyone was moving before following them inside.
“Kid, where’s your bike?” Marisol demanded as Emma came in.
“It died a couple of miles up this road, just leave it.”
“Is it a Project vehicle?”
Emma shook her head. “Junkyard project.”
“It’s clean,” Rachel confirmed.
“Get us out of here,” Marisol said to Nate as he climbed into the driver’s seat. The RV eased its way through the parking lot of affectionate tourists. After a few minutes, both sedans pulled out and followed.
The first person Emma saw inside of the RV was Rachel. Emma glanced at her strangely but concentrated on making sure Theo sat down and put his seatbelt on.
“What are you doing here?” she finally asked. “And why do you look so nervous?”
“Kawehi wanted someone he might remember making the snatch so they brought me down to help. I don’t want you thinking I knew about this and didn’t tell you.”
“Come on, I’m not that bad.”
Rachel snorted. “When it comes to Theo you are.”
Emma surprised her with a brief but tight hug. “Thank you for bringing him back.”
Marisol took one of the seats at the table as the RV started to accelerate. Emma sat next to Theo and Rachel took the other captain’s chair. She introduced Marisol, Kawehi, and Nate to Emma.
“Am I under arrest?” Emma asked Marisol when she found out she was the team leader.
The older woman shook her head. “I was just told to meet you. I’m concerned about how you found out about this rally point? The Ivory network was abandoned before you were born.”
Emma looked at her blankly. “I didn’t know anything about it. Jax just gave me a route to get here.”
Marisol frowned. “Jaxson. We’re talking about the Synthetic running Echo?”
Emma nodded. “He caught me sneaking out of the house. I thought he’d bust me for sure, but he helped me instead. It was kind of weird.”
“Very weird,” Kawehi said. “There aren’t a lot of people that can influence a Synth.”
“And I bet you know exactly who they are,” Marisol said. “Chauffeur, can we please go home now?”
“Twelve hours,” Nate called back.
As they headed for Echo, Kawehi watched the twins. They were sitting side by side at the table. Emma occasionally said something in a quiet voice. Theo would nod and then they’d be silent again. Then she noticed their hands.
At first it looked like they were playing a game on their fingers, tapping each others fingers and hands with the tips of different fingers. Theo movements were clumsier than Emma’s and she repeated a gesture over and over until he was as smooth as she was. As she watched, Emma looked up at her and smiled. Kawehi braced herself for a Cast, not sure if Emma was a Talent as well.
“Is there any spare clothes I can borrow? I smell worse than a Ta’avi’s goat.”
“Racist,” Deidre said from the passenger seat.
Beside her, Nate laughed. “What’s racist about a goat?”
“Why would a goat of ours smell worse than a Terrie’s goat?” she protested, laughing herself.
Kawehi searched until she’d found something Emma could wear. Theo was already asking what Ta’avi and Terries were and she was happy she didn’t have to deal with that conversation. Things were starting to feel more relaxed. They weren’t home yet but they were in easy range of Echo City airport. She doubted they’d have any other issues, Lady Amanda was hell on the any of the competition that accidently stumbled anywhere close to Her town.
Jacob had driven like hell for the last fourteen hours. Pebbleman said over and over that they would be waiting for the RV when it came. The whole time, Jacob figured he was guessing wildly but he didn’t have a better idea, so he followed the man’s directions. They got off the interstate and Pebbleman pointed out places to turn. On a deserted two lane road, he urgently pointed at a turn out at the top of a hill. Jacob pulled over at the turn out and switched off the car.
“It won’t be long. We must be ready.”
“How are we gonna do this?”
“Hide the weapons, we must appear to be innocent victims of a malfunction.”
Jacob nodded and tucked his pistol under the seat where he could grab it quickly.
“My…machete device is ready?”
Jacob nodded and got out of the car. In the distance, they could see the glow of approaching headlights. If this wasn’t them, some poor bastard was going to get quite a surprise. Then something hit him in the middle of his back, knocking him onto to hood of the car. Jacob tried to catch his breath but couldn’t as he slid to the ground. Pebbleman was immediately kneeling beside him. The approaching engines passed by without slowing down.
“You’ve been shot.”
Jacob tried to nod but it was too much trouble. He wanted to scream as Pebbleman sat him against the tire but there wasn’t enough breath left in him.
“Your viscera has been badly damaged,” Pebbleman said flatly. “You will perish.”
Jacob nodded slightly. That felt pretty obvious. “Go and run them down,” he whispered.
Pebbleman looked after the disappearing tail-lights and back down at Jacob. Slowly, he sat in the dirt beside him.
“Bah, that road ends in the dessert. They will become stuck in the icing.”
“Don’t you try to make me laugh, you dirty sonofabitch,” Jacob coughed.
“Listen to me. You must go and terrify your god. Storm the gates of paradise, tear the walls to the ground. It’s likely the only way you’ll get in.”
“I’ll save you a spot.” Jacob’s voice was getting weaker and weaker. “You really a space alien?”
“Yes. An outlaw.”
“Good,” Jacob breathed. “Some dogs…they jes’ gotta….”
His head slumped to his chest.
“Correct, Brother Jacob the Rock,” Pebbleman said, putting his hand gently on Jacob’s head. “I will feel your absence.”
After a few seconds, Pebbleman opened the door and got the machete and pistol from under the driver’s seat.
“There are dogs that require…no,” he growled. “Only as Jacob the Rock said; some dogs just gotta run. And woe to those who would dare to chain them. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away and I am the LORD THY GOD!”
The spec-ops sniper tried to hear what the second target was yelling but couldn’t make it out. She knew better than to leave one of them alive and settled in to wait for the second one to show his face. A long hour passed. Both her and her spotter kept scanning the area with their night vision scopes but there wasn’t a hint of movement.
“What was he yelling?” her spotter finally whispered.
“I said ‘The Lord giveth,'” someone said from behind them.
Both tried to turn as crunching footsteps were suddenly running toward them but they were too slow. A boot connected to the side of the sniper’s helmet, knocking it off her head. At the same time, the spotter felt a bright spike of pain in the back of his neck and then there was nothing.
Semi-stunned, the sniper clumsily rolled away, fumbling for her pistol. She could make out the outline of a thin gangly figure, standing still and watching her.
“I also said; ‘the Lord, He do taketh away,'” Pebbleman mused, as though he was discovering a new concept.
Her hand finally found her holster and she scrabbled at it. The figure was faster, striding forward to kick the gun out of her hand.
“Go on and say hallelujah, won’t you now!” the low hissing voice suddenly screamed.
Half an hour ago, the officer in charge of the spec-ops platoon had heard a couple of shots from over the hill. That meant the job was done but for some reason, his people hadn’t made it back to the rendezvous yet. It was against protocol, but he got on a dirt bike to go and find them. That road wouldn’t stay empty forever.
As he crested the top of the hill, something heavy slammed into his chest, knocking him, and the bike, to the side. The man bit his tongue against a scream of agony as the bike fell on his knee, crushing it against the stony ground. He looked around for what had hit him but there was nothing. The helmet his night-vision had been attached to had been knocked off. Then something else hit him in the chest again.
“The Lord giveth,” a voice said calmly. “As you can see, my child.”
He panicked, trying to crawl away as he saw that he’d been hit with a severed head. A shape came out of the darkness, looming over him.
“The Lord already had the taking away moment.”
He pushed himself away with his elbows. The Pebbleman stepped closer, machete held casually in one hand. He picked up the head and held it up by the hair, giving the man a better look. The captain bit his tongue again, recognizing the long blonde hair.
“Ah! She was more to you. Wife? Sister? Lover?”
“Fuck off,” the captain ground from behind clenched teeth.
Pebbleman stood over him, examining him like a bird with an insect. Then he stepped on the man’s destroyed knee.
“Girlfriend!” the captain screamed, back arching.
The blinding agony from his knee was gone and the man sobbed against the pain. Pebbleman was still staring down at him.
“She murdered my associate. Who sent you?”
“You know who,” the man on the ground grated.
Pebbleman nodded. “The Chairman, yes?”
“You’re next,” the man on the ground spat.
“I think not. But the Lord, thy God is not without mercy. I shall reunite you two lovebirds, can you say amen?”
The machete was raised over the captain and flashed down. There was the sound of a wet impact and the captain’s yell became a panicked gargling.
“Ah, pardon me,” Pebbleman said, raising the machete again. “Just a few moments more.”
The next after noon, a motorcycle pulled into an isolated rest area. It was a Russian copy of an old German design, complete with a powered sidecar. The engine died and the rider, wearing a leather coat and helmet, got off and walked, a little bow-legged, to the bathrooms. When he came out, he was surprised to see that someone was closely inspecting his ride. He smiled to himself, he was proud of that machine. He’d painted it with the Wehrmacht desert camouflage, even adding the leaning palm emblem on the sidecar. He’d substituted a beer meg for the swastika, there was such a thing as too accurate.
He started to get a very bad feeling as he walked back toward his treasure. There weren’t any other cars in the parking lot and the closer he got, the worse looking the stranger got. The tall, gaunt looking man straightened up as he approached.
“This,” he said, gesturing at the beer mug emblem. “It is an inaccuracy.”
“Yeah, it’s supposed to be funny,” the rider said slowly.
The man nodded after a second. “Because of the aridity of the desert, yes. It is an excellent joke. I want to take this vehicle.”
With numb fingers, the rider pulled off his helmet and carefully put it on the ground. The coat followed, laid beside it with the same deliberate movements.
“The key is in the pocket there,” he said, unable to look away from Pebbleman’s belt. “Spare tank of gas and supplies in the sidecar. There are maps in that pocket there, sir.”
Pebbleman looked at the man curiously. “You are being oddly accommodating.”
“No sir, not with those…things on your belt. I just want you to have a easy trip somewhere far away from me.”
“Ah, goggles!” Pebbleman said, picking up the leather helmet. “I am going west. I will give you a ride if you like.”
“No, no thank you,” he said quickly. “I’ll be fine right here.”
“There will likely be law enforcement in the area soon. Perhaps they will stop for you.”
“Oh, I’m sure they will,” the rider agreed.
Pebbleman felt the familiar pull of emotion, of fellowship.
“These three were not good people,” he said, keeping the heads from getting in the way as he swung his leg over the bike. “Is there a chance that you are familiar with the practice of scalping? There will be more heads, this will become a clumsy method.”
The rider turned and ran for the safety of the bathrooms at that point. Pebbleman watched him go and sighed.
“You will be a hard man to replace, Brother Jacob.”
He found the gearshift and clutch and the bike sputtered into life. He howled toward the bathrooms, hoping that his benefactor understood that some dogs just had to run. He eased out the clutch and headed away from the road, toward the southwest.
Emma and Theo Cosineau knelt on the booth seat, looking out the large window. As the RV crested a ridge, a dusty looking town was revealed on the valley floor. Emma put her arm around Theo’s waist and his arm went around her shoulders.
“Almost home, Little Sparrow.”
He looked at her. “Seriously?”
She smiled, obviously not telling him something. “Yep. What’s wrong?”
Theo looked down at the town as Jonesy carefully followed a dirt track down into the valley. He didn’t see any signs of life, there weren’t even any cars. He looked back at Emma.
“Nothing. If this is home, I’m happy to finally come back.”
“You’ve never been here before,” Emma said. “After Jenkins’ attack, the place we lived together was abandoned. Aunt Amanda brought everyone here. That’s Echo City down there.”
Theo looked down at the town again. Not only was nothing moving down there, the buildings looked dilapidated, at best. Several were leaning over at alarming angles, two had already collapsed. He glanced at Kawehi, she was holding back a smile. Rachel was doing the same and Emma’s mouth twitched. As the RV negotiated a sharp bend, a collection of mobile homes came into view. Most had ramshackle additions and outbuildings. Finally, he saw several people moving around.
“That’s where you live?” he asked, seeing the joke.
Emma shook her head. “That’s the village I told you about, most of the Ta’avi refugees live there. We live in town.”
Theo didn’t say anything else, he was trying to figure out what the joke was. They continued down and ended up on a ledge, not much wider than the RV. There were only a few feet between the wheels and a long fall to the valley floor.
“Finally,” Jonesy said after several more hair-raising maneuvers . “This boat was never made to deal with this.”
The RV turned toward the cliff face, putting Theo’s heart in his throat for several moments. Then he saw the wide black opening. They drove into it and a door began to close again. After the actinic sunlight, the dim interior of the cave was a welcome escape. Jonesy slowly crept forward and someone waved the RV toward the end of a row of other beat up cars and trucks.
“And welcome home, officially,” Emma said.
Theo flushed when she leaned over and kissed him. It was a very sisterly kiss on the cheek but Theo’s face looked sunburned. Kawehi looked over at him and quickly put a hand over her mouth.
“I kin still see you laughin'” Theo grumped at her.
Emma laughed and hugged him tighter. “You’d better get used to it. You’re going to be the only guy in a house with three women. There’s going to be all kinds of hugging and kissing.”
“Theo, you’re always welcome to trade places with me,” Jonesy said. “A few days of getting hugs and kisses would do me a world of good.”
“Eww,” Emma laughed.
“Really, man of mine?” Marisol looked fascinated. “Did you consider who is doing this proposed hugging and kissing?”
Jonesy’s grin faded. “No ma’am, I did not.”
“Didn’t think so,” Marisol said, winking at Theo.
Someone opened the door from outside and people began shuffling out. When it was Theo’s turn, Emma was right behind him, holding his hand. They stepped out into a surprisingly cool cavern with a concrete floor. Several electric carts were arriving, carrying people in what looked like military uniforms. They got out and Theo’s stomach clenched as he saw the guns they were carrying.
“Ok, folks, who’s checking in?” one of them with short blonde hair asked. He didn’t look much older than Theo or Emma.
“Fast Reaction Troop 12-8,” Marisol said and listed their names.
He nodded, checking something on his tablet. Then he looked at Kawehi and Nate.
“You’re not part of this team, where do you belong?” he snapped.
“Section Tango. You don’t have the clearance to know where we belong, infant.” Nate snapped back.
Theo saw Kawehi roll her eyes as she pulled out a small folder and showed it to the guard. “Contact your watch officer, Cadet. They’ll give you instructions.”
All the guards were standing straighter now and Theo wondered what Section Tango was. Another guard, this one with black hair, had been staring at them and waiting. He pointed at his sister.
“Cosineau, you’re under arrest. You want to put the restraints on? Or we can do it for you.”
Theo was already stepping in front of Emma and the guard’s eyebrows went up.
“We got more than one set, chummy,” he said, stepping forward.
“Cadet,” Marisol’s voice was like a whip crack. “Before you touch either of them, you need to confirm that order with your watch commander.”
“Ma’am, she went Unauthorized Absence two days ago. Under standing orders, she’s under arrest. I don’t need to check in with…”
“You really do,” Kawehi interrupted. “Humor me.”
He shrugged and pushed some buttons on the tablet. He explained what he was doing but the person on the other end kept interrupting him. Finally, he put the tablet away.
“My mistake,” he muttered. “We’re to transport you to the Director’s suite, when you’re ready.”
“Hey,” Marisol said, coming over. “Welcome home, Theo.”
“I think I should say the same to you,” he said, shaking her hand. “Thank you for everything, I owe you my life. If you ever need anything….”
She grinned. “Don’t get all weepy, lots of people owe me their lives.”
“She’s impossible,” Deidre said, laughing. She hugged Theo, and then Emma. “We’ll probably be around here for a while waiting for Shepherd to heal. Come see me.”
Theo found himself promising everyone that he’d visit before they deployed again. After much hugging and handshaking, Kawehi and Nate walked them to one of the carts.
“We’ll come along to make sure you find the right door,” Kawehi said with a wink.
Theo’s head was already spinning but as Nate drove the buggy deeper into the garage, things got stranger. The collection of beat up cars was left behind them and the passage narrowed. He caught sight of strange looking tracked vehicles with weapons. Another bay was lined with racks of weapons. Another was full of people and gym equipment.
“We’re going through the spaces that the teams like Marisol use,” Kawehi said over her shoulder.
The strangeness didn’t stop there. The tunnel got narrower and began to slope downward. The arched ceilings were at least twenty feet overhead but the tunnel was wide enough to make them seem low by comparison. Several other electric carts passed them going the other way and at a junction Nate had to stop at a flashing red light. Some kind of train looking thing crossed in front of them, the driver leaning back in his seat. He waved at them and then disappeared into the cross tunnel.
“How big is this place?” Theo asked Emma.
“I don’t know exactly but it’s huge.”
Her voice was strange and Theo could see a lot of nervous tension in her shoulders. He took her hand and began tapping a message.
Are you okay?
She smiled at him. I was already in trouble when I snuck out to come meet you, she tapped back. Probably in a lot more trouble now.
Together, he answered and she nodded and squeezed his hand.
Doors began to appear, carved into the limestone walls. There were more electric cars down here and Nate had to slow down. Pedestrians also appeared, walking behind rails that seperated them from the traffic. Mirrors on the ceilings reflected light everywhere, giving the tunnel the appearance of a street on a sunny day.
Finally, Nate pulled in and parked the cart. In front of them were doors that looked like they’d been taken out of a bank vault. They were fully open and the four of them walked through and into a small gallery. Emma pointed at one of the large wooden doors that opened out of the wall.
As they went in, Theo had another surreal moment. The space looked like some executive’s office with a thick carpet and a large wooden desk. A woman stood up from behind the desk, smiling widely. She indicated yet another door.
“Welcome home, Theophile. Go on in, they’re waiting.”
“You two go ahead,” Kawehi said. “We’ll catch up.”
It was Theo’s turn for a case of nerves. Emma took his hand and they went into the next office to meet the rest of his family.