Castle Roland

Geek Squad

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 10

Posted: N/A

Geek Squad

Copyright © 2012 - 2014 by Kyle Aarons and the Revolutions Universe Partnership.

All Rights Reserved

Geek Squad LogoRicky glanced over in the direction of the house which stood up on a hill less than a half mile from where Scott was stoking the camp fire. He then looked over as two of the chaperones continued to unload all sorts of stuff from the back of one of the vans with Steven's, Justin's, and Craig's help. Many of the items were in bags marked with 'Academy Sports and Outdoors', and several of the items looked extremely heavy.

Once again he looked up toward the house with a degree of longing, but tonight was Craig's per Mr. Triumph's orders and Craig had wanted to camp out, not stay in the house… Even to Ricky it was clear the older boy was not totally himself. Part of it had to have been what had happened in the Burger King, but once Craig got out of the shower, and got into clothing without blood on them from trying to help the guy in the Whataburger, he seemed a bit better. Craig was also annoyed at the chaperone, Levi, about not being given more time to convince the family from the Whataburger to join them. This made getting a good read off of him next to impossible, although Justin was working on finding out more in a way only Justin seemed to be able to do.

The good thing, at least in Ricky's view, was Craig clearly didn't blame him for what had happened. In fact quite the opposite had actually occurred. Craig had congratulated Ricky; made it a point to point out how the plan had worked to perfection and gave him full credit for what Craig was calling a victory. No one argued either. Mr. Triumph was a bit more cautious, but totally agreed with Craig about the importance of Ricky's invention and skills. All of them also agreed Ricky's ghost in the machine and having a fake identity ready was brilliant. This even impressed all eight chaperones once they found out Ricky had, on the fly, changed the age and appearance of 'Chris K. Kane' from Ricky to Craig.

All of the sudden he went from being a nobody in the small group of science contest winners to where all the kids around him were being friendly. They all admitted wanting to know more about him while actually interacting with him on a fun level. It was a bit overwhelming. However, it really felt good to be seen as one of the guys for the first time in his life. He was no longer an outcast, at least not here. While he was in the spotlight, though, it was Craig's bravery that had them sitting only a hundred yards up from the edge of a huge lake. This was not, even slightly, what Ricky wanted to be doing.

The problem was Mr. Triumph had rewarded Craig for his role, and Ricky fully admitted the boy deserved the credit. Craig had taken the biggest risk and had taken on way more than anyone else would have or could have. Unfortunately, this also meant Craig was given full reign over what they did as a group. Still, the choice of camping was not something Ricky wanted to hear, not in the slightest. To think someone he liked actually wanted to sleep in a tent, cook over a fire, and stuff plus found it fun. It was crazy, especially when there was a huge house just up the hill that had power, heat, real beds, and above all else, computers. It was a really nice house too! They had all used it to get cleaned up before heading down here, right at the water's edge, which only made it colder. Sure, this was Texas, but it was November! Winter was just around the corner.

Ricky edged closer to the fire and frowned as he heard Craig and Steven talking to Justin about doing some night fishing with Scott's fish attractor. Why would anyone want to do any of this let alone do this when the temperatures were rapidly dropping and had to be in the forties? This whole thing was insane, even more so with a massive multi bedroom house just up the hill… Ricky took a deep breath and started to say something, but stopped himself as he saw Glenn excitedly and eagerly helping Scott put up one of the brand new tents.

Just hearing Glenn telling Scott this would be the first time camping since his accident made speaking up impossible. Ricky gazed out over the water where the slightly larger than half moon illuminated the waves as wind pushed them on shore. Had this whole thing not reminded him of something else, he was sure he would find it quite enchanting, but this was not the case. In fact, this was coming way too close to reliving a repeating nightmare.

He closed his eyes as a pre-paid phone was handed over to him from Keith so he could call his mom. This whole camping thing had one other major problem. It reminded him of the so called camping trips he had been tricked and or forced into going on with Davy. He shivered, only partially because to the chilly breeze as he dialed his mom's number by touch, still not opening his eyes. It was answered after three weird clicks and on the fourth ring. Even before his mom's voice came over, Ricky realized Keith had been right. All calls in this area were being monitored heavily.


Ricky forced his voice to sound chipper, "Hi mom!"

"Honey, why aren't you calling from your phone?"

Ricky stuck to the storyline they had all come up with. This had a dual purpose. First it allowed them to keep their phone batteries disconnected and second, if someone was listening, it would explain why their phones were off the grid. After hearing another trio of clicks, Ricky was convinced the government was indeed listening. He took another long breath. "After the blackout, Mr. Triumph took us camping and we are in a dead spot for my phone, but not this one."

"Blackout?" His mother questioned with a great deal of concern, "What blackout?"

"Gee, mom, it has to be on the news or something. All of Austin went dark and it spread from there. We were in EEL vans almost two hours before we came across the first lit town."

"Really?" Mrs. Thayer challenged with clear confusion. "I have the news on right now and have heard nothing about it. All the talk is on the election and some hacking into several government websites. I guess the National Weather Service site still has Angry Birds pooping on pictures of President Ashwood and a few others are saying truly vile things about our wonderful President and his people! I guess most of it was from some kind of hacking thing and most of the lies were stopped, but it's still just awful."

Ricky cringed and cocked his head to the side in bewilderment at there not being more coverage of what they had done, "Actually sounds funny to me, mom. Um, when we stopped for dinner, the news here was saying lots of bad things about President Ashwood was hitting websites all over the country, though…"

"Oh, non-sense, President Ashwood is an angel! Just look at him wanting to keep kids like you safe by getting guns out of homes and preventing THOSE people from being around kids. I'm sure any information out there is just being put out there by that imbecile Jackson Bryce, and to think I voted for him twice. How stupid could I get?"

Ricky smacked his forehead and clenched his teeth. He so badly wanted to tell her everything, but he already knew it would do no good. Just like it did no good when he wanted to learn how to shoot, or wanted to try some Judo lessons. Anything with violence perceived or real, was not ever going to be allowed by her and her love of Ashwood was total. Taking guns out of homes had put the man up to saint level in his mom's eyes. Of course, having been threatened by a gun on more than a couple of occasions by his dad had a great deal to do with her views. He decided to let it go. "Mom, you ought to jump on line and see just how big the blackout down here is. We aren't even sure since most of the news here normally comes out of Austin and it is dark."

"Give me a minute honey. I'll pull it up on my notepad." There were some rustling sounds, "So where are you now?"

"Like I said, we're camping, but since my phone has no signal I can't tell you exactly where. It's by some lake. We are all going to try Scott's fish attractor in the morning and go out on a boat or something. Mr. Triumph figured this would be a safe and fun thing for everyone, since all of us were okayed for camping on the approved list."

Mrs. Thayer caught the tone and adjusted her own, "Young man, do not even start on me. I picked plenty of safe and fun things for you to do. I don't care what other parents did or did not allow their own kids to do. I will not allow you to be anything like your father and there is so much research out there that says boys who grow up in and around abuse become abusers. I will not stand for it and you know it.

"Yeah, mom, but…"

"Enough!" She commanded, then switched tones, "Oh, why here you go. There is a note on the local NBC website that Austin has experienced a power grid failure because of solar flare activity. Other areas of Texas are also being affected. Nothing to worry about, though. It says here power should be fully restored in time for the polls to open on time. Their homepage is kind of strange, though. There is the red alert message that keeps flashing saying breaking news, but it's flickering on and off and the words seem to change some, but it is going so fast I can't make it all out. I bet it is that terrorist Bryce trying to hack in or something."

"Sounds like a hacking battle to me, mom. One side is trying to force information through and the other is trying to stop it. It would be nice if we could find out who is being truthful and who is hiding the truth, don't you think?"

"Well, I am quite sure President Ashwood is in the right and I am certain he has people to deal with this and set the record straight! So do you have warm enough clothing to be camping this time of year?"

Ricky rolled his eyes knowing the conversation was over as far as Ashwood went. "Mr. Triumph bought us all some warmer jackets." Ricky paused, "So no comment on the job offer of me working for EEL?"

"Not really. I already knew you were super smart and your project will make you money so it isn't like you didn't have some kind of job with EEL already. But when you get back here we are going to have to have a very long talk about if you really want to take such an offer at such a young age. You finally have a friend up here and his dad is so nice to you. Now we are talking about you staying down there and you going to that boarding school… Well, I already told Mr. Triumph I would find a lab down there and relocate so you wouldn't have to stay in such a place if your heart is really set on it, however."

"Um… Well, I was kind of hoping to stay there with my new friends…"

"Oh, honey…" She paused and her tone changed yet again, this time it was full of surprise, "New friends? You really see them as friends already?"

"Oh yeah!" Ricky stated with a very loud voice, "I'm finally around a bunch of others who get it and they like me!"

"OK, honey, we'll have a long chat when you get home about all of this and I am so happy to hear you are having so much fun! Now stay safe and wear a life vest if you go out on any kind of boat."

"I sure will mom, love ya."

"Same here sweetie."

Ricky made sure to hang up the phone and held it well away from him while he leaned over and whispered to Alexander. "Keith was right, there are all sorts of clicks and stuff. They are listening and according to my mom, what she is hearing seems a lot like Scott's dad. There is almost nothing about the blackout or all the stuff out there on Ashwood. She did say the local NBC webpage was under attack, but it is being countered. Looks like the government is still blocking lots of junk, at least where we live."

"I'll see what my folks say, but thanks for the head's up. I'll keep myself as vague as you did." Alexander then paused, "Your mom really didn't bring up the job offer first?"

"No." Ricky forced a smile. "She never expected I'd be interested and was certain any talk of a boarding school would cut me right out. But now I am going to have to go home and endure," he held up his fingers and made quotation marks in the air, 'the talk'."

"I'm betting I am going to hear pretty much the same things; my parents, particularly mom, are going to say I am betraying their company or something. So you got off easy."

"I could always interrupt and say we all need your help to set up a tent or something if you give me a signal."

Alexander snickered, "I'm beginning to like you more by the second Ricky. As soon as I hold up a fist come over and say you need help. It'll let me cut the conversation off and allow them to argue about it before I call them again."

Ricky smiled widely, "Sounds like a plan. I'll be ready."

It took less than thirty seconds to raise his fist while his eyes went all wide.

Ricky quickly moved over and spoke loudly, "Hey, Mr. Triumph says if you don't help put up our tent we'll end up sleeping outside and it's already getting cold!"

Alexander snickered as someone on the other end said something. "Yeah, well tent camping is going to be weird, but I'll live. Still, I got to go."

He sighed as both his parents spoke at the same time. "Yeah, I know. I have an obligation to both of you and the company has been very nice. I haven't said anything more than I am interested, but all the others have said yes. Besides, I bet I could get EEL to help on a few of the projects you guys are having problems with. If they can't help, my new friends probably can."

Alexander put the phone on speaker so both Ricky and Keith could hear. His dad was in the middle of speaking, "… and you best be very careful; your security clearance could be in jeopardy by even thinking about this!"

"I know about security. I am not going to say anything. I am not even going to talk about it over the phone…"

"Good," Alexander's mom responded, "Because the whole US is going to hell!"

"Whadda ya mean, mom?"

"Oh, that's right the blackout down there is probably cutting off much of what is going on, and don't bother listening to the news. There was no solar activity over the last few days of any magnitude. Ashwood and company pulled the plug because all his secrets are coming out. You should see the stuff streaming the web up here. Someone finally pulled the carpet out from under the government and Bryce is going to reap the rewards he deserves…"

Mr. Zummer interrupted, "He'll probably win now, but this moronic state will still vote for the fool in office no matter what is found out. It's just the way Minnesota is."

"Dad's right, Bot-boy, and others up here agree. So, your dad and I are going to head into the office, since they want all key personnel behind security fencing with armed guards. When you get a chance, tell Mr. Triumph to call us directly again, and if you can't reach us tell him we think keeping you all at some lake well away for everything is a great idea. Now go learn how to put up a tent. We have to go, and we will be talking to the board of directors. Do not express anything more than an interest in the job offer until you hear back from us. Understood?"

"Absolutely, Mom!"

Before more could be said the screen said 'call ended'. Alexander glanced over at Ricky, "Thank you, but did you…"

"No problem." Ricky grinned, while motioning for Alexander to hold the phone well away from himself and speaking in a soft voice before more could be said.

Alexander gulped and nodded. He glanced over to Mr. Triumph, "We all called; I was the last, sir."

Fredric glanced over as he saw the phone held up. "Turn up the ring volume and put it on the front seat of the van with the door open so we can hear it if it rings, Alexander." He then motioned for Steven to close the door once the cell phone was on the seat.

Alexander grinned as he tossed the phone onto the seat and watched as a minute later Steven walked by and slammed the door saying the dome light would drain the battery of the van.

With the phone now behind closed doors and unable to pick up anything, Steven moved toward the others as Alexander grabbed his tent and started trying to put it up.

Fredric moved and joined the boys, "So what did you all find out?"

Scott was the first to speak. "My dad says there is some stuff hitting the web, but most of it is being squished. Hard to tell though, since he and mom are die-hard Ashwoodians."

This got a giggle out of Keith who spoke next, "Ashwoodians… I like that. My mom says there are all sorts of stuff coming out about Ashwood, but much of it keeps disappearing only to reappear. The big thing is the FCC restrictions are now public where she lives so the news people are talking, admitting that they were under serious restrictions. Mom thinks Ashwood is going to lose Indiana now, and there is no way he would have before. She says her good friend in Ohio is saying pretty much the same thing. I hope that makes a difference."

"Those are two important states, for sure." Fredric smiled with a great deal of satisfaction.

"She also said to tell you we could stay camping for an extra day or two and if it means we stay here longer she's fine with it."

"My dad said the same thing." Scott stated. "He says travel could be dangerous with the levels of hacking going on."

"Valid point," Fredric nodded. "I'll see about extending all your stays for a few extra days so we can wait out the storm we started. At least here, we are well away from trouble. This will also allow us to get your contracts up and signed. Anyone else find out anything?"

"Uh huh," Ricky gulped, "The hacking in New Jersey is not going well. Ashwood has put up strong counter measures and even as Keith's Russian friends try to change wording to get past key word interrupts, Ashwood's people are cutting them out. The web page my mom was looking at was going back and forth so fast all she could do was make out the breaking news banner."

"Almost the exact same thing in Connecticut," Glenn sighed with some disappointment. My dad says entire web pages on news sites were going out and coming right back down again. Each new page was either pro or anti Ashwood and some national news sites are totally down. He tried to check on BBC's websites, but they all are down or at least coming up as unavailable. He did find an English version of a Luxemburg news site that was streaming all sorts of stuff showing some of the horrible things Ashwood is doing over here, so Ashwood hasn't found everything yet."

Steven made a soft shrugging motion, "Unless they totally kill the web, there is no way they will find everything, but my mom is like totally spooked about what is going on in Nevada, because everything we found is out is up for people to see where we live. Nevada was probably already a Bryce state, but now there is no doubt. Same thing with most states bordering Nevada."

Craig let out a long breath, "According to the man-thing, New Mexico and Arizona are being plastered with brand new commercials showing footage of the U.S. Mexico War, along with sound bites from Bryce about blasting them into submission. This is targeting the Mexican Americans so there is a good chance we didn't turn those two states around even though they are seeing much of what Ashwood has done and is doing. He's really pissed, by the way, because he likes Ashwood. He was ranting about how voting for Ashwood would make him look dumb. The other thing is, the moron was hoping another term of Ashwood in power would mean I would lose all the guns dad has bought me. So if nothing else, I helped make him look stupid again, so I am somewhat happier. If Ashwood really loses, then I will be really happy 'cause I can then point out how Neanderthalish his intelligence really is."

Fredric frowned at Craig's obvious vitriolic hatred of his step dad, but let it go. The boy had been through more than enough and if venting like this helped, then so be it. Instead he turned to Justin, "We'll make sure your dad is safe, but what is the word from Nebraska?"

Justin was absolutely ecstatic as he spoke. "All the news is now showing Ashwood for what he really is, and those files you all pulled about Owen Ashwood getting massive government contracts for transport of orphaned children across state lines are on all the news stations! Since Ricky found those files, even more has come out too! Not only were kids transported to states that would not let gays adopt but they also put them into horrible state run homes that were badly understaffed. This was made much worse because of the influx of kids; they got way over crowded. Some evidence is pointing to the methods of transport, too; it seems many of the kids were transported in the backs of locked semi rigs with no food or bathroom stops. Some of the kids have disappeared, too. It has forced Owen Ashwood into hiding. Local police managed to snag Owen Junior after the clips of him tying the goose to the back of one of his dad's trucks and filming it as it was dragged down the road went viral."

Justin continued to grin from ear to ear as he spoke super fast. "The police have his cell phone and the news is reporting there were literally hundreds of animal cruelty clips on it. Some are being leaked with his name attached to them. He's done! All of this is going up into the Dakotas, Colorado, Kansas and Iowa too. News reporters are also starting to speak out against what Ashwood and the FCC forced on them. One station out of Omaha is even saying two of its reporters were taken by Homeland Security and have not been heard from since. Ashwood… all Ashwoods… they are done in the mid-west!"

Alexander glanced over and started to tell the others what his parents had told him, but this distraction caused the improperly assembled tent to collapse for the second time on him. He started kicking at it while trying for the third time to bend the poles over the top only to have one snap back and catch him in the neck. He roared and picked the whole thing up only to have one of the other poles come out of the sewn in holder and catch him in the shin. Before anyone could react, the entire tent caved in on him, and did so in a way he ended up on the inside of it. It took only another few seconds for fabric to rip and a pole to snap in half.

While the chaperones moved to extricate the absolutely furious child, the eight boys quickly lost all interest in the coming election and burst out into laugher.

Fredric held up his hand and stopped the other adults from moving to help as the string of curse words coming from inside the tent rose to a crescendo capable of shocking more than a few gang members. "Let's give him some room guys."

Cussing continued to pour out from the rapidly shredding tent. Two minutes later Alexander's head finally ripped though the top and he looked over at the other eight boys with rage in his eyes. The moment he saw Justin with a camera up, getting video of the whole thing, Alexander hung his head and shouted, "Oh, screw you!"

This didn't help in the slightest. In fact, Justin who had done his best to hold it together so he could keep his camera and light pointed the right direction, lost it as well. He put down his camera and fell to the ground next to Craig. The two boys ended up holding each other trying to fight the urge to continue to laugh while desperately trying to get their breaths back.

Alexander put his hands through the opening his head had created and pulled, ripping the brand new fabric wide enough for him to step out. At this point the last, still intact, pole broke loose and smacked Alexander on the back of the head. He shook with fury, grabbed the offending pole, and delivered a very hard martial arts strike, snapping it in half. He stood breathing hard and glaring at the others for a few moments before he bent down, picked up one of the other poles, and snapped it with another single hard blow.

Fredric made a coughing sound, trying his best to hide the fact he was snickering, "Alexander, I think it's dead!"

Steven, holding his side and trying not to laugh more because it was hurting badly, couldn't help himself, "Alexander one, tent… Um, well… two or three good shots and a smoothing attempt."

While this caused the others to fall into each other and Glenn to laugh so hard he lost control of his hover chair and put a big dent in one of the vans, Alexander stomped on the remnants a few times then turned bright red as he realized how childish he was acting.

The lead chaperone, Paul, glanced over at Fredric, not knowing if he should laugh, cry, or beat the kid's butt, "Um, boss, we seem to be a tent down."

"Oh, it's down all right!" Fredric finally busted out in laughter, which in turn put the other kids into another round of uncontrollable laughter.

George Westley, snickering heavily, glanced down at his watch. "Sporting goods store is closed by now…"

Fredric waited a few more seconds to make sure Alexander was done before he moved up and played his flashlight over the scene. "Go into town and find one of the managers, pay him to let you all back in and get our young Destructicon a new tent… and a couple of ice packs, those welts on his neck and his head look a bit nasty."

A devious grin spread over Fredric's face as he glanced over at Justin, "And when you find a way to stop laughing, get some pictures of this aftermath. I want a couple of good photos of this in my office! Also, who picked code names?"

Ricky held up his hand.

Fredric smiled warmly, with a gleeful twinkle in his eyes at the wide eyed boy, "Nice choice on picking Alexander's: I think he did more damage to the tent than the transformers did to Chicago in Transformers Three."

Everet shook his head, "I just want to know how a kid can build a killer robot from scratch, but can't put up a tent!"

"I was following directions…" Alexander started only to get cut off by one of the chaperones.

Zenon Yarrow rolled his eyes, "Sure you were, but clearly not the directions for setting up the tent! Are you sure you weren't looking at blueprints for building a small explosive device?" The man moved closer and played his flashlight over the remnants, noting some chunks of fabric were up to fifteen feet away from what Alexander was standing on. "Um, make that a large explosive device!"

At this point a brand new round of giggle fits rolled across the other boys while Alexander covered his face with his hands.

Fredric shook his head, knowing if he was going to keep these kids around he would have to find a way to work on Alexander's temper. At the same time, it was semi-comforting to know the youngster's fit with his mom was not isolated to his parents nor was it all about getting his way. Quite simply the boy had a short fuse. He glanced over at the tent and Alexander doing his best to pick up what was left of it.

Fredric had witnessed this kind of thing before in some of the foster kids his mom and dad had taken in over the years. Having seen what his mom and dad did to calm things down, he decided to employ a similar tactic. "Alexander, leave it and take a walk up to the house with one of my guys so he can look you over and make sure there is no real damage. Besides, you are still fuming and you need to walk it out. By the time you get back, we'll have burgers going over the fire."

Alexander took a few more deep breaths and dropped the pair of snapped poles he was holding. With a nod he moved over to the man Fredric had pointed to. He then glanced over at Fredric. "Am I going to get spanked?"

Fredric shook his head, "I think the tent took care of that, but I am going to deduct the cost of this carnage out of your first paycheck at double the replacement costs just so you can see there are consequences to such anger outbursts."

"Mom and dad haven't agreed…"

"I know, but once they see the benefits and the working relationship between my company and theirs, I think they will change their attitudes. But, at the rate you are going, you are going to end up owing me money instead of me paying you."

This caused a flash of red to appear on Alexander's cheeks. "I'm sorry."

Mr. Yarrow put his hand on Alexander's back and started to guide him up toward the distant house, "Sorry won't cut it if you do this in a lab and someone else gets hurt or killed, kid. You are too damned smart to act this way!"

Seeing Alexander nod and his cheeks flush even more, Fredric decided to stay out of the conversation, even though he didn't want his people using curse words around the boys. In this case, however, he figured the man he had tasked with taking care of the boy was a father of two and was probably better suited to chastise Alexander than Fredric would ever be able to.

He glanced around at the others and noted the large dent on the side of the panel van with a roll of his eyes. "Boys, you best put your heads together and make EEL some really cool new gadgets, cause you guys are getting expensive."

Glenn realized Fredric was looking at the dent and shrugged, "This is the chair you had your guys make me. Mine was aluminum, not carbon composite, so this is partially your fault."

Steven quickly agreed, "I saw the other chair at the hotel this morning. Glenn's design had a wider skirting at the bottom because it was heavier so all you would have ended up with is some scratched paint and maybe a dent that we could have simply taken off the inside panel and popped out, not major body work."

Fredric let out a long sigh to sound aggravated, but his smile told the boys the truth, he was enjoying himself and the banter back and forth. "OK, fine, this is all my fault then!" A smirk crossed his face as he eyed the boys, "But I am still your boss, so go put up my tent and get your inflatable beds set up!"

This got some giggles out of the boys who quickly pulled themselves together to finish setting up the campsite. By the time Ethan and George got back with a new tent, along with a pair of back-ups of just about everything, the majority of the kids were out on Fredric's private dock fishing.

Even as the men unloaded, and set up Alexander's tent, they could hear the boys as those who knew what they were doing helped the others. While several of the men wanted to go out and help, they collectively agreed to let the boys who knew how show the others how to tie on hooks, weight the lines, and how to cast. This allowed the security men to spread out and fully secure the area.

By the time this was done, it was also clear the fish attractor was working as the sounds of splashes and excited voices filled the air within just a few minutes. This was followed by a couple of 'Eww' sounds as a couple of the boys touched their first live fish. It didn't take any of the men long to figure out Craig, Justin, Steven and Scott had fishing experience while the others had little to none. Several of the chaperones found their interest peeked by the shear amount of fish being caught and quickly joined the boys while Levi and Everet secured their heavier rifles and took up spots as camp guards.

At the same time, Fredric was thrilled to hear Joey being included. The youngster had a tough life and few friends up till now. Hopefully this would change and he would find himself included in something for the first time in his young life. Even the fact he had managed to get the boy a real home had not been enough to really break the boy out of his shell. This, however, might, and in his heart, Fredric knew the boy had so much more potential than he had shown up till now. All he had to do was unlock it. Hearing Joey talking about having a fish on his line while the others congratulated him, was worth every penny Fredric had spent on all the gear lying around the campsite.

It was well after midnight, and over thirty fish later, before the boys retired for the night. Even though Fredric had bought new, large, four man tents for each boy, so they could each have plenty of room, most decided to sleep with others. Only Ricky and Joey ended up alone, but this was clearly by choice as they were invited by others to join them. Ricky by several and Joey by Justin and interestingly enough, Alexander.

While Joey's decision didn't thrill Fredric, he was not surprised. He still didn't have the whole story, but Joey had spent time on the streets and had not done well until he had been given his own private bedroom with a door he could lock from the inside. Of course there was a key so his adopted parents could get in at a moment's notice, and Joey knew this. However, when he retired for the night the first thing he did was click the lock.

Fredric watched as the light in Joey's tent showed his silhouette moving a few things over to be in front of the zippered door before the light went out. Before he could form a thought over this behavior Levi moved closer and pointed over to Ricky's tent. The outline of the youngster showed he was doing almost the exact same thing, and just like Joey had positioned his bed as far away from the opening as possible. He glanced over at the man, "Not showing a great deal of trust, is he?"

"Not at all, boss." The Levi frowned, "He wouldn't let anyone else help him with his tent or getting anything of his inside it either. I don't think I have to go out on a limb very far to say he is not happy about camping."

"Agreed," Paul stated, "But what is really odd is he had no problem with his tent and he knew the basics of fishing, but had never taken the hook out of one, and I don't think he had even touched one before. Even stranger, he had no problem cooking over the campfire and was all about the smores, so he has done this sort of thing before. I don't get it at all."

Fredric eyed Ricky's tent as the boy even moved the box his inflatable bed had been in over to the door and stacked it on top of the other stuff. "I don't get it either, but let's see if we can find a way to get Joey and Ricky together some tomorrow where one of us can keep an ear open. Maybe we can find out the old fashioned way, spying."

This got a chuckle out of George, "Shouldn't be a problem, boss. Ricky is the only one who can't shoot anything and we bought six .22s, three twenty gauges and three 12 gauges, along with plenty of ammo, targets and hearing protection. We also grabbed a couple of cases of clay pigeons and launchers. We had to use EEL's security permits for four nine millimeters though, and an ATF agent showed up as we were finalizing our purchase."

"What'd you tell him?" Paul demanded to know.

"The truth," Everet snickered. "The lights went out on us so we took our boss and his charges out of the affected area, but we wanted some firepower to protect them. I also picked up a pair of .308's with scopes once I heard him asking George what we were doing buying so many weapons, since I knew he would look at the .22's as an odd choice if I didn't get something a bit bigger. We can always take them back…"

Fredric shook his head, "Never hurts to have some firepower stored up at the house in case we ever need a place to fall back to. So, do any of you mind missing out of the shooting so we can stick Joey and Ricky together?"

"Not a problem," George responded. "As long as I get to play with Scott's fish attractor!"

"I'd be up for that as well," Zenon responded

This got a snicker out of Paul, "So my two ATF guys want to spend the day out on the boat playing with one of the boys' toys and fishing while the rest of us have to work at teaching kids how to shoot?"

"Oh, don't go getting all huffy on us," Zenon fired back. "I know you are itching to check out just how well Craig shoots. Besides, we worked Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, being around guns is too much like work for us."

"You are at work," Paul reminded the two men with a smile.

"Yup, and getting paid to fish has always been a dream of mine," George countered.

This got some laughter out of the others as Paul finally nodded, "OK, you two can take Joey and Ricky out on the lake for some fishing while I go with Everet, Ethan and Dennis to do some shooting with the rest of the kids and the boss. Levi and Kermit, you two take whoever doesn't want to shoot, or stick with us."

Fredric eyed Paul, "You know I can't hit the broad side of a barn if I was standing inside it, right?"

"Sounds like a good time to learn, boss," George snickered. "You can't let your young geeks out shoot you."

"From the way it sounds, three of them already can," Fredric grumbled, "Plus, Justin and Craig really want to have a clay shooting contest. The last time I tried shooting those stupid things I killed a whole lot of air and nothing else. I'll look like an idiot."

"Not a chance, boss," Paul spoke again. "I have seen my kids in hero worship mode and all eight of these boys have it whenever they look at you. Besides, if you go out on the boat with Ricky and Joey, they will talk to you instead of each other. If George and Zenon take them out, then they will lose them about ten minutes into any technical discussion which will force them to talk to each other."

Seeing both George and Zenon nod in agreement, Fredric sighed and nodded, "OK, but let's stick to me shooting at non-moving targets. At least this way, I will get lucky and put one somewhere on the piece of paper."

Paul shrugged but looked over at those under him, "I want you to keep a real close eye on Alexander when he is armed. Also limit his ammo. I don't want that hot head popping off with a rifle and a pocket full of ammo."

"Already planned on it," the youngest chaperone, Everet, stated. "He gets the seven shots in the .22 and nothing more. He then reloads with me handing him the ammo, and shoots again. Same goes for shotguns, although he is kind of small, even for a twenty gauge."

"See what he is capable of and how much he knows," Paul stated firmly, "but remember, his mom didn't sign off on any pistol use."

"Good," Levi stated, "Because with his temper issues, I really don't want him having anything but a long arm."

Fredric quickly agreed, "Levi's right and whoever is with him when we shoot needs to have a taser handy just in case. I will not have him endangering himself or any of the others, and his parents signed a full waver of parental rights to me for disciplinary actions."

"Yeah, but a taser?" Everet asked with a cringe, as he saw all eyes turn to him.

Fredric shot the youngest chaperone a smirk. "I think he would prefer a shot from that than getting his pants pulled down and his bare butt swatted with a belt in front of all the others. Besides, I'm sure you are going to show him what is in store if he messes up, which will keep him in line… Hopefully…"

Reluctantly Everet nodded and sighed, "OK, but if I am keeping an eye on the hot head, I want a chance to shoot some skeet!"

"Why?" Levi teased, "I've seen you bird hunting. They are perfectly safe once they take to the air."

This got a roar of laughter out of several of the men while Everet slugged Levi in the shoulder hard.

The adults continued to joke around and discuss what they had seen out of each of the boys over the course of the day and exchanged some notes before they broke up their little meeting. Each chaperone drew lots to determine which two hour stint they would severe at guard duty so there was a pair of armed and alert adults up to deal with any unforeseen problems. The night, however, passed quietly.

As the first bit of sunlight crested to the east Craig rolled out of bed. He glanced over at Glenn, who was sound asleep on the inflatable bed and shrugged. The long day had taken a serious toll on his new friend and the pre-bed exercises had been particularly hard on Glenn. Craig made sure the hover chair had plenty of fuel and was within easy reach of the sleeping boy before he slid out of the tent as quietly as he could.

The humid forty-two degree air coupled with the light breeze off the lake caused him to shiver slightly as he moved over behind a hill and relived himself. He then turned and glanced at the sunrise with a light smile. He briefly thought about waking up Justin so the boy could get a picture. This thought caused a momentary debate within himself. Up till now, the idea of wondering if someone might want to see or do something he was seeing had never occurred to him. Once again, the short time he had spent with Justin had opened his eyes to yet another reason he had no friends. Until now, he pretty much expected others to say something. It really wasn't his job to point out something like a perfect picture, or was it?

Friendships… well they didn't just happen. They were just like any science project, they had to be worked at and tweaked. They could never be left sitting on the table or they would collect dust. Craig let out a long breath noting it was just cold enough for him to be able to see it. Finally he made up his mind as he walked back over the hill and moved up to the tent Justin was sharing with Steven. He knelt next to the door and spoke just loud enough to hopefully wake his new friend… even the thought of him seeing someone as a friend seemed odd to Craig. "Hey, Justin, you want a perfect photo, you need to see this sunrise."

Inside the tent Justin blinked a couple of times, "Craig?"

"Yeah, hey sorry to wake you, but I figured you might want a picture or two of this sunrise."

Hearing the word picture motivated Justin a bit more. He pulled himself out of the sleeping bag and pulled on his jeans. He then shoved his bare feet into his shoes and grabbed one of his cameras. He stepped out and shuddered as the breeze hit is bare chest. "Holy crap, that's cold!"

Craig pulled off his jacket and handed it to Justin before pointing to the east. "With those clouds, this is just about the perfect picture, don't you think?"

Justin snapped a couple of shots even before he accepted the jacket and put it on. "Nice call. It is gorgeous!" He then snapped another ten shots adjusting camera settings so he could get the best shot possible. "Thanks for waking me up!"

"I wasn't sure…" Craig mumbled.

Justin put his arm over Craig's shoulder, "Hey, what's wrong?"

"I'm just nervous, I guess. I was sure you'd be all pissed off at me for waking you up."

"I can always take a nap later." Justin smiled warmly. "Besides, didn't you say something about a morning workout?"

This caused a big grin to spread over Craig's face as he walked down toward the lake with Justin's arm still draped over him, "You bet…" He then paused and took a deep breath, "But if I push too hard tell me."

"Not a problem." Justin then eyed Craig, "You really seem like you want to say something… I kind of saw the same thing last night just before you went in the tent to help Glenn stretch…"

Craig's right hand rubbed over his entire face and he scratched his right ear for a few seconds, "Can I ask you something… um… personal, like?"

"Sure," Justin nodded.

Craig let out a long breath and watched to see how far out he could see it before he took a knee. "When you… when Owen and the others…" Craig slammed his hand down into the dirt hard, "What in the hell is wrong with me, this is stupid…" He glanced up at the sunrise and turned back to Justin, "Yesterday, when that son of a bitch shoved his fingers into me I was mad, but I got it. He had a job to do. But when he escorted me out of the secured area he said I have a nice ass. It made the whole thing worse, but I don't even know why. This is so dumb… just forget…"

"No, Craig, you have a right to be angry," Justin stated firmly. "Personally I think you are wrong. He had no right to do that to you to begin with, but I guess I can kind of see your point. He had a job to do and was supposed to be looking for terrorists or whatever they told him. But to tease you about it afterwards, it's wrong and it makes it into something much worse…"

"Why, though? Why does it make it worse? I mean you're right it does, but why? How do you… did you… deal with what Owen did to you?"

"I did my best to stay away," Justin admitted. "When they caught me, I tried to get away, but when I couldn't, I stopped fighting, 'cause it only made it worse. Besides, Owen Senior runs one of the biggest trucking outfits in the area. If Owen wanted to, he could have told his dad to blacklist mine and we would have been screwed. Dad makes three times what mom does. Without him, we wouldn't have a house and I wouldn't have my dog… life would really suck and I would still be the walking wedgie boy."

Craig let out a deep growling sound, "But I don't want to just take this. I want… I need… revenge."

"What you went through with that prick helped me get my strike back on Owen, so I am here, any time, to help you get yours on Agent…" Justin's word droned on as he tried to remember the name.

"Paulson, Agent Paulson," Craig snarled. "The worst part is, there are times when I can still feel it… it's like he's still there…"

"I had the same thing happen when they shoved my head into the dirty toilet. I thought I was going to taste that forever." Justin shuddered, "I still do sometimes. The other stuff… well it comes and goes once in a while too; mostly I remember the other things they did to me when I see one of them or hear the whispering behind my back."

"Great, just great, well let me tell you, every clay pigeon I shoot today will have Agent Paulson's face on it and every time I pull the trigger I will be shooting at him, at least in my mind."

Justin patted Craig on the back, "Same thing I did after the toilet flushing. Owen's face was on most, and the others were Bobby, Mike, Toby, Norm, and Kelly."

Craig took a long breath as he stood, "Well, let's get you in better shape so I can fly to Nebraska and meet a few of these other kids now that Owen is out of the way. I'll feel better putting a fist in their faces and who knows, I may be able to convince myself a couple of them are Paulson."

"I prefer to find other ways to make them pay, just like we did with Owen, but I'd also like to know I could kick their teeth in if needed." Justin managed a smile, "But seeing your fist upside Norm's head would be pretty satisfying, multiples would be even better."

This caused Craig's face to break out into a smirk, "You are going to have to tell me more about this Norm and exactly what you want done to him then." He gazed out over the water feeling a bit better about admitting what Paulson had said. He then glanced back over to Justin, "In the mean time let's start with a slow jog along the sandy edge of the lake. Until you have run in sand, you haven't really run at all."

Up the hill from the two boys, Levi and Paul kept a close eye on them. Yet Levi was still alert enough to notice Fredric coming up behind him almost thirty minutes into the boys' workout. "Sleep well, boss?"

"Not as badly as I thought I would. Those air beds are actually pretty comfortable." Fredric admitted, "But I would still prefer my RV with heat, flushing toilet, Direct TV, X-Box and PS3."

Levi snickered, "You are going though technology withdrawal after only twelve hours?"

Fredric shrugged, "Something along those lines. So who do we have up so early?"

"Craig and Justin, but they have been up for a while." Paul jerked his head in the direction of the house, "But Steven is awake as well. He headed up to the house. Ethan is keeping an eye on him. The rest are pretty much still down for the count, but there has been some stirring out of Joey's tent."

"He's been an early riser since I've known him." Fredric sighed as he watched the two boys doing some pull-ups on tree branches. It didn't take long to figure out which boy was which even though he couldn't see anything but their legs. While one body struggled to do a third pull-up, the other was cranking them out like an engine piston. "I was actually hoping Joey was one of those two. He needs to find some friends."

"Give it a bit of time, boss," Levi countered. "Joey isn't quick to open up to anyone from what I've seen. Hell, I have been around him for over a year now and he still doesn't say anything to me unless I talk to him first, and even then, I'm lucky to get ten words out of him."

Fredric cringed as he saw Justin drop from the branch and end up on his butt. He started to moved down toward the boys only to have Paul hold up his hand and stop him. "Boss, you want them to make friends, so let them figure it out."

Fredric paused and took a couple of deep breaths, but calmed as he saw Craig drop down and pat Justin on the back while pointing back up at the tree. He cringed as he saw Justin's shoulders sag some, but the boy nodded and started climbing the tree with Craig following him up the trunk. "Can you really keep them safe from this distance?"

"Should one of them fall and hurt themselves, I can be there in less than a minute," Levi responded with certainty. "Besides, from here we have a good view of the private road, the lake, the camp, and the house. This is about the best spot to prevent any unwanted guests from sneaking up on us."

Fredric nodded, but found himself gritting his teeth as Justin once again dropped out of the tree, this time after doing only two pull-ups. The boy rubbed his arms and seemed to stare up at the tree before slinking back over to it and climbing up again. "That sure looks dangerous…"

"With his legs hanging down it is only a two to two and a half meter fall onto sand," Paul stated. "Before you got here, Craig actually took the time to show Justin how to fall properly too, which tells me the boy has to have done some parachuting."

"He said he has," Fredric confirmed, "so has Alexander."

"He's the one I am most worried about." Levi stated without hesitation. "He is a hot head, and thinks way too highly of himself. He has a habit of bragging too, which tells me he is not nearly as secure as he likes to pretend."

"He's eleven and can design and build battling robots," Fredric countered. "Plus he knows some decent fighting moves and even his mom admitted to me he is a very good shot. All things considered he has a right to brag."

"Maybe, but I saw this in the Israeli Army. Many kids learn how to shoot early, many are smart. Those with real confidence did not brag, those without, did. He is lacking somewhere, and I don't really want to know what he will act like when it comes out."

"I'm sure he will grow out of it, though." Paul stated, while not sounding as sure as he wanted to.

"One can hope," Levi agreed while not sounding so sure. "Remember, I was a field interrogator and intel specialist before EEL offered me a job and transferred me to EEL headquarters to help sniff out the mole Dynamics placed in your cyber R&D. I know how to read others. I also have a degree in adult psychology and one in child psychology because I had to know how to deal with both."

"So you think there is a mental issue with Alexander?" Fredric asked with a great deal of concern.

"Come on, boss, think about it. The kid won't even let anyone call him Alex. He is pushing every envelope we have seen so far." Levi shook his head in disgust, "I don't think he is mentally imbalanced, no. He is too quick to realize how bad his temper made him look, but he has a core need to be tough for some reason. He feels he has to put on a strong exterior, to be demanding and when things do not go well he uses anger. Something is eating at him, and I don't want anyone to let down their guard with him around. Can you imagine what another kid would look like, if Alex exploded, after what he did to the tent?"

"Not really," Fredric admitted, "but it would probably be bad. Any suggestions?"

"He seems to have a rapport with Scott, who is probably the best chance we have to keep Alex level headed." Levi paused and gave it some thought. "Let me look through their approved lists and take them to do something away from the others for a while today. I'll take Kermit with me; we can go over gun safety first then take them on a surprise event. This will keep Alex off guard and may open him up for either me or Scott to get some information out of him."

After a few moments of thought, Fredric nodded, "Fine, give it a shot."

Levi nodded then pointed to the east, "Looks like the hacking and finding the hub up here has got the attention of someone."

Fredric gazed over into the early morning sun. At first he saw nothing, but then he spotted a distant dot, then another, and finally three more, "Helicopters?"

"Yeah," Paul sighed. "Five over, or at least close to, Breckenridge and four others to the south east. Those other four are actively looking for something or someone, though. They have been doing a grid search since just after Justin and Craig started their workout. I think whatever we do, we should confine everything to your property and not go beyond the private road entrance today. Also, all shooting should be done on the west side of the property overlooking the lake so we keep the sounds and sights away from their eyes and ears. It may be better to cross the lake and do everything over there. You have a huge block of land and we'd be even more isolated than we already are."

"Maybe we should just forgo shooting?"

Levi shook his head, "The kids know they did some very illegal stuff yesterday. They need to unwind and blow off some steam, put it behind them. Nothing, at least in my experience, does so like shooting at things. Besides, we already said they could and they are looking forward to it. To change it up would tell them we are spooked. Even if we are, we don't need them realizing it. But I'm with Paul; let's take them across the lake and set up an even more remote campsite where we can shoot, fish, and let the kids screw around to their heart's content. It will also be easier to keep an eye out for trespassers, since there is nothing over there other than your lake-side cabin and private lab."

Fredric let out a long breath, "OK, but let's have a couple of you on over watch and use EEL security hand-helds so we can stay in contact with each other. We'll break camp and move it on my two boats. If those helicopters get too close, though, I want us to pull the kids in for lunch or something.

"Consider it done, boss." Paul stood and glanced down at the camp, "Looks like a couple of the others have started to move around; the tents are wiggling. We should get breakfast started."

Fredric shrugged, "Good idea, but let the others sleep until they wake up on their own. They were up late talking and stuff Sunday night and yesterday was really intense. Plus, it was after midnight before they were all in bed. I agree with Levi, we need to make this day as calm and relaxed as possible."

Levi grinned, "They may be between eleven and thirteen, but a nap sometime this afternoon would do them all some good."

Paul grinned and rolled his shoulders, "Me too, and I'm forty-two!"

They all snickered at the comment as they broke up their impromptu meeting, convinced they were going to let the boys have a fun and relaxing day at the lake.

Fate, however, had other plans for the nine boys and nine men.

Several miles to the south east or Fredric's property, four boys dropped down in a culvert and scrambled into a corrugated metal sewer pipe meant to allow water to run under the dirt ATV trail they had been following. The oldest boy yanked the youngest one deep into the tube by the back of his robe, ripping it some as the sounds of a helicopter closed in on them.

Huddled together and scared for their lives, they stared at each other with wide eyes as an aircraft passed over them so low it kicked up a large wall of dust which caused all four to cough some, but soon the sounds of the rotors faded to distant whooping sounds. The oldest boy rubbed his cracked lips as he inched back toward the opening and scanned the sky. With a sigh of relief he pushed himself back into the pipe and sighed. "They must have gone right over us!"

One of the other boys moved a bit closer to the opening so he could get more light. He then checked his bare right foot before finding the thorn: pulling it out was a simple matter and even though it was almost an inch in length the twelve year old managed to do so with seemingly little to no pain. He held the thorn up to show the others before moving to the edge of the sewer pipe. The boy then shook the bloody thorn off his fingers before he finally looked up to the oldest one of the bunch, "I sure wish we could have found some shoes."

The oldest one spoke again, "Yeah. I'm just glad the door to the robe room was open or we would be out here with what we could have grabbed from where we were at, which wasn't much when you consider what we are normally given to wear."

The next two in age nodded in agreement while the youngest one simply whimpered.

Continuing, the older boy eyed the youngest kid without any pity, "Besides, after being in that hell hole for however long I was there, a few cuts on the bottom of my feet are nothing. They don't even hurt. We've got to find some water, though. I'm parched."

The youngest boy, holding his head low, trying desperately to hold in check a need to cry, looked up. His voice broke up badly as he whined to nobody in particular, "Why did they bring me here?"

"I don't know," the oldest one spoke harshly. "Right now I need a few minutes to think over what the hell we are going to do now!"

The younger boy shrank at the sound of the older boy's admonishment. The second oldest youngster saw the change, but didn't say anything, deciding a few seconds of silence to think over the situation was not a bad idea. On the other hand he eyed the youngest one with some compassion; he pulled out a bottle of water and handed it to him.

"Me?" the youngest one squeaked out.

"Yes, take a drink. We've got to keep ourselves hydrated. But share it with one of the others of us."

The boy, clearly astonished someone would actually be nice to him, quickly took a couple of deep gulps then handed the bottle over to the boy closest to his own age. The slightly older boy didn't hesitate to all but finish it off, but left one swallow in the bottom for the younger one. He handed it back to the small boy with the tiniest hint of a smile, who, in turn, gratefully tilted his head back and finished off the last of it.

The second to the oldest then pulled out a second sixteen ounce bottle and passed it over to the oldest kid. "Same thing, share it; I only have two left after this."

While the other two boys quickly teamed up on the bottle of water, the youngest child moved at a crouch over to the opening and started to jump down. He was quickly stopped by the boy who had pulled the thorn out of his foot. "Where are you going?"

"I need to go…" the youngster replied while his left hand went down to cover his crotch.

The boy with the water snorted, "Piss off the edge, but stay under cover…" At almost the same time, a distant roar of an incoming chopper caused all of the boys to jump from surprise. Thankfully it passed by about a hundred yards to the west. "OK, that pretty much took care of the rest of what I was going to say."

The boy with the thorn in his foot joined the younger one at the edge and released a small stream. They quickly returned to the two older boys. The two younger ones exchanged looks but said nothing since it was clear the older two were debating within themselves as to what to do.

Finally, the one with the water spoke. "I have two bottles left. We can probably make it through the day. We've got a problem though. We've been wandering around in the dark all night. We may even be circling around and, with my luck, could end up right back where we started."

The oldest one managed a snicker despite the situation while staring out the far side of the drain pipe, "Yeah, we don't have a clue where we are at, and this sure looks nothing like anywhere I have ever been. All this time I was hoping it was just where the compound was located that made it look so desolate, but no such luck."

"We'll figure it out." The boy with the water bottles stated confidently, then added, "However, we're going to need food, too. For now, let's not throw the bottles away. We can reuse them if we come across a water source and… shit… if we're being followed… damn… we should have kept the other two bottles."

The larger boy shrugged it off, "We got the hell out of there. Nothing else matters at this point." The others didn't hesitate to nod their heads in agreement.

The sound of incoming choppers sent the boys deep into the refuge of the corrugated steel pipe a second time. Once again, the searchers flew directly overhead and kicked up another dust storm, a blast stronger than the first one.

The oldest boy muttered, "They're probably doing patterns, crisscrossing the terrain to find us. We're sitting ducks here but we'll stick out even worse out there. They're probably on the ground, too; maybe even with the Temple's guard dogs."

The youngster with the water nodded in agreement. He went silent and stared straight ahead, deep in thought for a few moments. "Yeah, they got dogs after us, just like they said would happen if we tried to escape. I've heard them at night and think they got one of the Prospects several months ago. I don't know for sure, but I think they have a dog fight ring or something too. I've read about them in the newspapers and stuff."

"Great, so we're screwed one way or the other." The oldest one shook his head in resignation. "At least this way I'll die rather than have to go back."

"They haven't caught us yet!" the boy who had pulled the thorn out of his foot fired back.

"Enough!" the water carrying boy hissed, cutting off all argument. "Okay, here's what we need to do… first take stock of what we do have, then we'll figure out how to make do without anything else… By the way, my name is Aaron."

When he didn't get any names in reply, he tuned them out, giving no further attention to their mumblings. Instead, he focused on what they needed immediately, which, after seeing the size of the thorn the one kid had removed from his foot, was some kind of foot wear.

Aaron glanced around for a few seconds before a thought came to him. The idea was actually from a video game he played several times in the past, but it was still worth a shot. He took off his robe, walked to the edge of the culvert, looked first right, then left, and then up. Without any real internal debate, Aaron found what he was looking for at the lower edge of the sewer pipe. He began running the material across a sharp jagged spike like edge sticking off the side of the corrugated metal, cutting the bottom one third of his robe into approximately eight inch wide strips. Satisfied, he sat down and fashioned the cloth over his bare feet, crisscrossing the strips several times before tying tight knots up and around his ankles.

He then glanced at the others who were talking to themselves far more than communicating to each other. "Guys, get over here so I can make foot wraps for the rest of you. Otherwise one of us is going to eventually step on something really bad and slow all of us down."

With a degree of reluctance, showing how little any of the kids trusted the others, the boy who had removed the thorn finally took a deep breath and slid over to Aaron. Once he got his feet wrapped and tested them, he nodded to the last two. Seeing the benefits, they too came over and allowed Aaron to provide the makeshift foot coverings.

Satisfied he had given everyone some kind of makeshift footwear; Aaron moved to the edge of the sewer and looked both directions. Off in the distance the helicopter banked further to the south. "Okay, we can't stay here any longer. At least our feet won't take a total beating, so we can go off the trail without too much trouble. The sun's up so we can figure out which way is what. Last night we saw light from a town. I think it was off to the east, but I'm not sure."

"Let's go there. Maybe they can help us…" The boy who removed the thorn in his foot mumbled then stopped himself.

"Yeah, let's go there!" the youngest boy demanded.

The boy who removed the thorn out of his foot pushed on the spot where the thorn had been. Satisfied that none of the thorn remained, he glanced over and shook his head. "We can't."

"Why not?" The youngest one pouted, "you just said…"

"I know, but after a second thought I can pretty much guarantee you it was a horrible idea. They have to know we saw the lights last night. They must expect us to go there."

Aaron nodded his total agreement, "We need to head over land, away from the closest town. We have to treat everybody as an unfriendly until we are well away from here… Unless they happen to shoot at those assholes trying to take us back for re-training. Then I might be persuaded to give them a chance."

The older boy and the kid with the thorn in his foot both gave humor filled snorts while nodding in total agreement. At the same time the youngest boy sat on the ground, wrapped his arms around his knees and cried. "I just wanna go home!"

The other three all looked at the youngest one, but said nothing. Given the fact the boy was fully clothed in the cheap temple clothing under the robe told them he was brand new to the facility and had no clue what was going on. For the other three, they knew better.

Even the boy who had pulled the thorn out of his foot, who had only been in the facility for three weeks, knew something none of them wanted to admit. Home was a dream, nothing more. The compound and those in it had beaten, shocked, frozen, sweated, and worse the idea of ever going home out of them. Any thoughts remaining were then crushed through personal attention given to each of the boys by the 'Re-trainers' and 'Brethren' who were responsible for every minute of their lives inside the compound.

In the case of the youngster who managed to put enough forethought into grabbing six bottles of water out of the storage areas with the robes, the thought of going home brought out even worse thoughts and memories. He knew his parents were dead. For him, there was no home for him to go back to.

The momentary gloom was quickly wiped away with a swipe of his hand across his eyes, but then, as the silence persisted, it returned with a vengeance. Flashbacks of what actually happened took hold of his core as his mind replayed the events leading up to him finding himself in a compound room with an IV in his arm. He leaned up against the wall of the culvert, and gave into the memories. He'd not ever been allowed, nor had the chance, to process what had happened fully, and now his mind demanded he do so.

The other two boys, seeing the drastic change in Aaron's demeanor, quickly gave the boy plenty of space. Neither knew what was going on, but both were pretty sure they were glad it was not happening to them.

As Aaron began mumbling his troubles, the youngest boy pulled even tighter into a ball by putting this head way down on his chest, and began gently rocking back and forth. Faint little whimpering sounds escaped his tightly pressed together lips. Most of what he said was not intelligible, but "Mom" and "home" were two words said often enough to be unmistakable.

When tears began freely flowing from Aaron's closed eyes, the other two boys moved a little closer. Part of this was they had to stick together and part of it was curiosity. There was even a hint of compassion, but much of that had been ripped out of them since they had become 'guests' at the re-training compound. Still, being closer, allowed both of them to hear the boy with the water bottles mutter out what he had seen in the time before waking up in a re-training room. While many details were impossible to make out, what the other two did hear was more than enough for them to piece together a good picture as to what had happened while forcing them to wonder what had happened to their own parents.

Aaron had seen pretty much everything. His Mother and Father had been hit hard with an oar by a gigantic man he referred to as an 'agent'. His Dad was then lifted into the Captains chair, tied securely to it and the steering wheel was tied off so the boat couldn't turn. Another man, again an 'agent', then grabbed Aaron and another boy by their hair. The other boy, someone by the name of 'Lore' or some name very close to 'Lore' seemed to occupy much of the mumblings; what they could clearly make out was the other boy was clearly Aaron's boyfriend.

The pair of boys close to Aaron cringed and looked at each other with horror in their eyes. They both knew all too well what this kind of disclosure meant to their captors. It would bring a Cleansing Ritual, first in the room then at Temple. They shuddered at the very thought. Any 'gay thoughts or actions' outside of what was done to them were among the highest of sins in the compound.

Aaron, however, didn't notice the expressions. Instead, he continued his mumblings as he relived the past. While this brought back horrible memories, this was also what allowed him to cling to a part of himself and not allow those holding him to fully break him.

The two boys continued to listen. They quickly found out the man, the 'agent' with his hands still tightly grasping Aaron's and 'Lore's' hair, suddenly took all of them overboard. They hit the water hard, 'Lore' was choking, but it was short lived as the agent shoved 'Lore's' head under water a couple more times until the boy went limp.

At the same time, the boat with Aaron's parents continued to pick up speed. It tore through the water, full throttle, toward another boat… and then it happened… they collided in a huge fiery explosion; the blast sent shards of metal, wood, plastic, foam and fiberglass in a circle well over twenty five yards in all directions, while flames quickly consumed what was left of both boats.

Another boat approached from their rear, after tearing out of a nearby hidden cove. It came to a stop immediately next to them; in fact the bow of the boat bumped Aaron's head hard enough for Aaron to see stars. But the blow was not hard enough to prevent him from seeing the rest of what happened. His boyfriend, the love of his life, the one who he was not supposed to see ever again after this trip, was dragged up by his wrists into the boat and mouth to mouth was started. Aaron was then manhandled into the cargo hold area… Suddenly everything went fuzzy and then blank just seconds after he felt a sting in the middle of his back.

When he 'came to', he was bound, gagged and tethered to a flat table. An IV ran into his arm and the lights in the room seemed very bright and hurt his eyes. A man, a huge man, moved to stand over him. The guy was smiling, but nothing about the smile was friendly… The next thing he felt was a massive, gut wrenching pain, which caused him to scream into the gag. The rest the other boys knew from firsthand experience: months of captivity and re-training had begun…

The other two boys, now kneeling close to Aaron, began piecing together a bit more information, which was as stunning as it was terrorizing. They realized the very same people who murdered his parents and did God only knows what to his brother and sister had been assigned to protect them.

In simple terms, Aaron knew exactly who had hired the security detail to watch over his family… since his Dad was none other than President Ashwood's Secretary of Veteran's Affairs. The men and women who had ended up eliminating his mom and dad were members of the U.S. Secret Service.

From what the two boys could piece together, the team assigned to protect them had been changed up by Richard Ashwood himself, since his son was going to accompany the family on the pre-Christmas boating trip. Ashwood had granted this trip under the condition Aaron never saw his son again… Against both Aaron's and the President's son's wishes, the deal had been struck and Aaron's dad had even agreed to resign, albeit with a hefty paycheck.

Aaron always had nagging feelings about his Dad's boss, the Commander in Chief, or as Aaron liked to refer to as, President Dickhead Ashwood. It was a name he'd coined, a name which had gotten him in trouble more than one time with his father. But the problem was, Aaron had seen what the Ashwood's, particularly Mrs. Ashwood, the first lady, was like. Making matters even worse, he'd overheard his Mom and Dad sometimes argue about his father's job. His Mom wanted his dad to get out, get away from all the abuses of power, but his dad would just say that he's making a shit load of money for his family so that they could send the kids to the best schools and give all of them a real future.

Besides, Aaron's father had said on a multitude of occasions, he wasn't part of the whole power structure. He was taking care of American Veterans, nothing more. The fact was, his Dad wasn't really a politician at heart, not when it came right down to it… so why? Why did they see the need to kill his father, and just as strange, why didn't they kill himself?

Aaron looked up; unaware his thoughts had passed to the others through his voice. The oldest boy, however, proved Aaron had spoken aloud by answering the last question, "Because you needed to be saved first. To kill you would have meant condemning you to hell for being gay."

This comment brought Aaron to the present. He shuddered, coughed and sputtered, as he valiantly attempted to get his emotions in check. He quickly scrambled past the other boys before going to the edge of the sewer pipe. He took a couple of deep breaths while his eyes darted around as if looking for an escape. When this failed to calm his nerves, and after reliving the death of his parents, he scrambled back passed the three boys to the other side of the culvert, took a knee and wretched. His spasms lasted nearly a minute, but they finally passed; he would have certainly puked his guts out, except for the fact he had not eaten anything of substance since noon the day before. He straightened up, rubbed the muddy tears from under eyes, turned, and returned to the other boys.

With his mental control slowly returning and knowing what had happened in the past meant nothing going forward, he snarled, "What a load of crap. All the stuff they did to me… Saving my soul is a piss poor excuse!" He tightly clenched his fists closed and took a couple of deep breaths, knowing he had to retain his composure, his very sanity, in order to expose the truth, no matter the consequences. His parents and Lawrence, the love of his life, were dead. For Aaron, there was nothing left to do but to get the truth out, no matter what, even if he died doing so.

With his voice growing stronger and more even, Aaron clearly took command, "We need to go, now."

While the other two exchanged glances and shrugged, Aaron moved over to the youngest boy, leaned down, and tugged the robe to get him to stand. Unfortunately, it did little to no good. Instead he found the boy sat close to catatonic, rocking back and forth and sobbing. Aaron sent a sharp glance over to the oldest boy, "Give me a hand."

Aaron lifted the youngest boy by pushing his hands under the boy's armpits while nodding to the oldest boy, "Get his legs straight. If we can just get him moving, we're good." Aaron then held the small boy up while the oldest kid moved up and straightened the boy's legs. Aaron lightly tapped the forehead of the youngster in his arms then lowered the boy down so he could stand. Before he let go, he lowered his face and whispered, "We've got to go and we need you with us. We're all each of us have."

Aaron paused as he saw the words had not quite made it though. "Come on, we'll make it, just you wait and see, but you've got to help us." A sudden thought occurred to him, he kept the boy standing by wrapping an arm around the boy then he reached into his rob pocket. He pulled out one of the last two bottles of water and put it in the kid's hands. "Here, you need to guard this. We'll need it, okay? Can you protect it for us?"

The youngster looked into Aaron's eyes, and very slowly, very cautiously, nodded his understanding and agreement. As soon as he had the bottle clutched tightly in his hand he stared at it for a moment then, with a hint of pride in his tear filled eyes, he put the small water bottle deep into his pocket.

Aaron glanced over at the oldest boy and let out a long sigh, before quickly returning his attention to the youngster who was keeping his hand in the robe pocket to make sure the bottle of water didn't fall out. Aaron forced a smile, then reached around and closed the younger boy's robe since the air still had a bit of a bite to it. Seeing a look determination in the small face, he patted the boy's back.

Aaron focused his attention over to the others, "Are we ready?"

Both boys nodded, but the one who had to remove the long thorn out of his foot winced as he stood while his hands went down to his knees. He let out a slight yelp as his hands came into contact with them. Aaron glanced over noting, for the first time, the area just below the kneecaps had straight lines of deep bruises with a mixture of dark black and purple. He shook his head and turned, knowing there was nothing he could do to help. Only time would remove the extreme discomfort.

The oldest boy, however, showed a bit more compassion. He knelt down, gently touched the bruises while shaking his head, "Had to pray on the Holy Wood recently, huh?"

The boy nodded and cringed, as he cringed with even the slightest pressure on the deep bruises, "I begged for the sins of the flesh to leave me. I pleaded for the urges to disobey to stop. I promised to obey my new masters, whoever they would end up being. I prayed and prayed and prayed, promising I wouldn't give into temptation. Every word they flashed on the wall I read aloud, word for word. I don't even remember everything I promised, but a few I do, since I had to say them so often. 'I will not think or do sin, and sins are what the Brethren say sins are.' I also remember the words, 'I give myself to the Re-trainers and those above them so they can save my soul,' I had to recite them and say I'm sorry over and over again for a whole host of things I was thinking. I don't know how they did it, but they knew… they knew my thoughts… They knew I didn't like the name they gave me, they knew I just wanted to go home, they knew I wanted my dog, they knew I wanted go to my team's winter soccer camp… they knew all sorts of things I was thinking…"

Tears rolled down the boy's cheeks as he shook his head, "If I messed up, they'd stop and rewind, then the word of the Re-trainer was spoken and the Acolyte watching me fell a cane on my back. They kept me there for hours! I had to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner while my knees stayed firmly on the Holy Wood block. I had to pee into a bucket in front of the Holy Wood… and every time I tried to move… more weight was added onto the vest like thing they made me wear. I thought my knee caps were going to pop off!"

The oldest boy glanced over, totally ignoring the youngest crying terror filled whimpers over hearing this, "As best as I can tell it is a bi-weekly punishment, at least for me it was until I made Acolyte, then they moved it to my knuckles and put weight on top since I had to dance… but I am not sure, if it was really bi-weekly since I tried to keep track of time by how many dinners I ate, but sometimes I was given the same food for several meals in a row, so it got hard to keep track of."

Aaron shook his head. "They changed feeding times. Sometimes they wouldn't feed me for a day or two. The water was often rusty and foul smelling, especially if I didn't follow the words of the Brethren exactly. My Re-trainer, Kenneth, wore a digital watch, though. I could sometimes see the dates and times… I've been here almost eleven months now."

"So, do you know what day it is?"

"Not totally. I think it should be around November third, but I'm not sure. Inside, time means nothing; they control everything within the Temple Compound. Since they do control light, food, water, and punishments and re-training our minds cannot figure the proper passage of the days. They also know quite a bit about us before we even get there, then find out more while we are still 'Prospects'. This let them tailor the punishments and how they knew what you were thinking. It took me months to figure it out, but once I did, there was no way they were going to break me."

"Even when we are given sunlight to keep us from getting sick, they did so in a way to screw up our minds. One day it might be morning, another day it might be afternoon, yet another the sun was on the way down. Most days though, we were taken out in the afternoon when the sun was up high in the sky. Just when you thought you had things figured out, they'd change it up. The time I was given with others was rare, but they had all been held long enough to where they could only guess at the day, and until yesterday, when the doors all popped open, I had never seen any of you."

"I saw the young one through an open door," The oldest boy remarked. "But neither of you other two." He nodded in the direction of the youngest boy, "He was getting his first taste of Bother Kenneth's version of a dressing down."

Aaron cringed, but his eyes still rolled because of how often he had endured the 'dressing down'. "Well that explains the cheap clothing he has on. What he came in with was cut off of him." He kicked at a rock in the bottom of the corrugated steel pipe before jumping down. He then reached up and lifted the youngest one so the still shaking child could get safely down. "Just be happy you didn't make it past Prospect, kid. Brother Kenneth's advances get a whole lot worse than a 'Dressing Down'."

Aaron scanned the sky and pointed to a tuft of scrub trees in the distance. "Let's get over there and scout from a hill top."

The boys were forced to pause in their hastily prepared fleeing plan as another helicopter closed on their location. All scrambled and dove into a low depression with some scrub brush. This one came in low, so like before, dirt, small gravel, and a blast of wind lanced into them. This caused the oldest boy to blink hard as sand and dust blew into his face. As the noise of the helicopter faded he wiped grit from under his eyes and at the same time listened intently. He visibly shuddered, and then spoke with a breaking voice. "I am hearing one of those damned dogs; we really need to get further away from here."

Aaron pulled off what was left of his white robe and wiped his own face then took a second to do the same for the trembling youngest boy, revealing Aaron had a second robe, a brown one, underneath the longer white one. "I bet the choppers are staying around here because the dogs are leading someone this way. These flying around aren't even looking, really, they just want to pin us down, which is why they are flying so low. The dogs probably picked up our scent."

The older boy gulped as he saw the much nicer brown robe, "Those are only for the re-educators!"

"Like I really give a shit!" Aaron fired back. "It has big pockets which allowed me to grab the water, and besides, they are warmer. Aaron adjusted his foot covers, then did the same for the youngest of the four, knowing they needed to get moving fast.

The oldest kid looked at the boy with the thorn pierced foot, knelt down and made some minor adjustments to the ties, taking an extra moment to snug them up, but not so much that circulation was cut off. He then opened his robe. All saw that he'd also snagged two robes, one was beneath the other, but both were the white ones used by kids when they attended temple services. Those robes were the only things he was wearing. And it was then, when he stood to move over to the edge of the culvert and peed, the others saw he had welts, abrasions and deep scratches on his belly and below. The two younger ones also gasped at seeing a very red and scabbed over circle around the end of his penis.

Aaron, on the other hand, visibly shook as the horror filled memory swirled though his head of when his own ultra close circumcision took place. It had happened shortly after he'd been 'promoted' to Initiate in the hell-hole he only knew as the Temple Compound, and had taken weeks to fully heal. Of course this was partially because the Re-trainers wouldn't leave any injury alone, not even that one.

Pushing that memory aside, after vowing yet again to get the truth out, he added, "Good to see you have an extra robe, 'cause we may need to make more foot wraps. These robes are all we have until we figure out what we are going to do."

The boy who had removed the thorn from his foot suddenly held up a warning finger and pointed to his ears. It didn't take long for the others to hear the same thing. The sounds of a barking dog were growing closer. Knowing their captors were approaching, the other three grabbed the youngest boy and headed out with their backs to the sun, which took them northwest.

An hour later, with the sound of the dog's barking clearly getting louder and more frantic, they stopped for a moment to catch their breaths. At the same time, Aaron spotted a section of an old rusty metal fence post in the shallow wash they were in. He quickly jerked the fence post loose from the sandy soil it was loosely anchored into before turning to the others, "Time for me to stop running. Some of us need to find a way to escape and let people know what is going on." He tossed one of the empty bottles over to the older boy as he knelt, tested the weight of the post, and nodded some satisfaction.

Aaron glanced over at the oldest boy and spoke forcefully. "Keep going. I'll buy you some time."

The kid who had pulled the thorn out of his foot shook his head, "We got to stick together!"

Aaron countered by shaking his own head as he pointed to the west, "Get moving before they catch all of us!"

Seeing the older boy looking at him, he swung the post, slamming it into the ground hard, "Damn-it get out of here!"

The oldest boy hesitated, but jumped when Aaron swung the post a second time like it was a baseball bat, he pulled the other two away from Aaron.

A third swing finally convinced the older boy there would be no further negotiations, so he backed off. "OK, fine, we'll continue with our back to the sun…"

"NO!" Aaron barked while pointing to the southwest, "Go head over there for a while. Once you are sure no one can see you cut back and go another direction, then do the same thing again and turn in a different direction, just keep going and make it in the general direction away from here without backtracking. If they catch me, they won't be able to make me tell them where you guys are if I don't know." He then tossed his last bottle of water over to the oldest boy, "Now get moving."

The others took off, but before they got too far away, Aaron shouted, "And tell whoever you find, Aaron Zumwalt is still out here and is very much alive!"

Once the other three kids disappeared over the next small hill, Aaron turned back and went toward the sound of the dog. It only took another five minutes to hear one man yelling to someone else who was clearly a ways behind. "Toby has a strong scent. They can't be too far now!"

The reply was lost but what happened next was not. Aaron clearly heard the man's voice and the chain rattle as it was disconnected from the collar, "Go get 'em Toby!"

Aaron, with his adrenalin pumping full bore, crouched in a shallow depression next to some small stubby sage brush like vegetation and waited with a racing heart. Less than a minute later, the large Rottweiler bounded over the small hill. Aaron gritted his teeth, tensed his muscles, and became totally focused. The moment he saw the dog leap through the air, Aaron shoved the end of the rusted post up, and met the dog head on. The dog squealed loudly as the post sunk into its gut and tore through skin and muscles, just behind its right front leg.

The dog twitched a couple of times as it made pitiful crying sounds. It then gave one last violent twitch; the beast took a final breath, which wheezed out. Its eyes then glazed over and stared into the great void while its tongue dropped out the side of its open mouth. Clearly, it was dead.

With considerable effort, Aaron wrestled the post out of the canine, looked at the bloody piece of sturdy metal, smiled victoriously, and snarled, "Last time you get to nip at me, you god-damned hound from hell!"

He spat on the animal before ducking in a very shallow ravine only a few yards away. He moved slightly to his left to make sure he could remain largely hidden with the extra aid of a large patch of brush. He forced himself to remain still even as every muscle in him seemed to want to either fight or flee.

A lone man crested the small hill and ran toward the fallen dog, "Toby! What have those bastards done to my Toby!"

The man scanned the area as he made his way over to the carcass of his beloved dog. Nothing moved. He quickly rushed up and knelt, tears pooling in his eyes as he saw the tongue lifelessly hanging out of the mouth and a massive pool of blood underneath. A scream of pure rage escaped his lips, "I will kill all you godless bastards! But I will make you pay in ways you have never even thought of! Do you hear me?"

While the clearly distraught man was taking the deceased dog into his arms, Aaron used every bit of stealth he could muster up and moved up behind the man. His best was almost not enough, however. For as he raised the post to slam it against the man's head, the man's head turned to face him.

The post came down at the same time as the man's hand reached for something under his jacket. The hand never made it.

Even as the post smashed into man's skull and the guy fell backwards, mortally injured, a second, third, fourth, and finally a fifth blow landed squarely on the man's twitching body. Unable to stop, venomous rage took over; Aaron saw nothing but red as he started flailing away.

Aaron continued to pummel the man who had been his lead Re-trainer. Memories of what the man had done flooded Aaron's mind. All measure of wicked, unimaginably horrible, things the man had done, or ordered others to do only caused more fury to gush out of Aaron. The rain of blows continued long after the man had stopped moving. Aaron didn't even have to check to see if the man had died, quite simply there wasn't enough left of the head and upper torso for it to be a possibility.

Heaving from the ending of the adrenalin rush and expended rage, Aaron tossed aside the post, removed his already half shredded white robe and wiped away the blood spatter from his face and exposed arms.

Aaron grinned widely at the realization the man was no longer a threat, neither to him nor to anyone else. Feeling an urgent need to relieve himself, he chuckled, then proceeded to fill the remnants of the man's bashed in skull with human waste. It seemed a fitting end to a truly horrible man.

Feeling much better, and ignoring the massive amount of blood, Aaron started rifling through the blood coated clothing covering the carcass. The first thing his eyes fell upon was a Taurus .357 magnum revolver neatly tucked in a shoulder rigging. It was fully loaded. Aaron didn't hesitate as he stuffed the weapon deep into one of the inner brown robe's pockets.

Next he found a wallet with thirty seven dollars in it. He pocketed the cash and an ATM card and discarded the rest of its contents. The search also revealed a pair of speed loaders and a pocket knife. Under the man's jacket, Aaron discovered military-like web gear which held a large survival knife with a hollow handle containing fishing line and hooks. He removed the apparatus and put it around his own frame. Once securely fashioned and the straps pulled to better fit him, he reached around the other side of the carcass, grabbed a half filled canteen, and secured it to the upper right side of the web gear by the hooks meant to hold it. His eyes then fell onto a two-way radio which he picked up and placed it in another pocket. Finally, he saw a wad of long zip ties.

While Aaron was reaching down to grab them, his movements were interrupted by a sudden and totally unexpected, yet extremely familiar, voice. It came from behind him and spoke with total authority, "Initiate Zeus, your unholy acts will be dealt with most severely. Now place your hands behind your back and turn to face me while staying down on your knees!" The words were followed by a muffled and pained screech from someone. A moment later, there was a second muffled yelp as a body thudded onto the ground just the other side of the slight rise.

Aaron thought quickly. He realized his hands could not possibly be seen from the direction the voice had come from. Hoping against all hope his movement would not be seen, the boy reached into the robe pocket closest to his left hand, firmly gripped the weapon, then slowly turned his upper body so he could see his tormenter, "Brother Kenneth, my name is Aaron, Aaron Zumwalt. As much as you have tried, you have failed; for I have not forgotten it."

Fury blazed into the man's eyes, "Then you have signaled your last sin!" The man started to raise his pistol, but it didn't even make it to his hip.

Aaron, sensing that his life was about to end if he didn't act, went for broke. He rolled onto his back, spotted the man raising his weapon, and fired a single shot. The .357 round blasted and burned a hole through his robe's pocket and into the man's upper chest, knocking Aaron's arm back and twisting his wrist. What it did to Aaron, however, was minor compared to the damage it wrought on Brother Kenneth. The impact of the bullet tossed the man onto his back while shattering his sternum. The man's gun went flying, landing just over a yard away from the gravely wounded 'Brother'.

Nevertheless, the man was still not dead. Desperately, Brother Kenneth kicked his feet against the loose earth to get within reach of his weapon even as blood started leaking out of the corners of his mouth.

At the same time, Aaron jumped to his feet and saw a boy lying on the ground with his wrists and ankles tied with zip ties. Seeing the boy lying helplessly in a heap only re-enraged Aaron.

Aaron fingered the pistol in the robe pocket while furiously eyeing Brother Kenneth. He moved up to the man withering around in obvious pain, still trying to reach for the .45 lying fairly close to him. Aaron stomped on the man's hand as he looked down, "It looks like your God isn't with you nearly as much as you claimed, now is He?"

Even with his mildly sprained wrist, Aaron reached into his robe without hesitation. He extracted the .357, used his right hand to position his fingers on the trigger, and placed the injured left hand beneath for support. He lifted the weapon taking time to point straight at the man's face, "You know, before I was given to you bastards, I would have never been capable of handling the pain this thing is going to cause me. Now, though, it will be nothing more than some extra discomfort."

Taking full advantage of the point blank shot, Aaron aimed for that space between the man's eyes; he pulled the trigger, sending a bullet ripping through the man's skull. The small hole in the front was nothing compared to what exited. The magnum round blasted though the back of the skull like a stopped up geyser. The back of the man's head exploded outward in an eruption of bone fragments and brain matter, leaving a gruesome splatter mark.

For several seconds, Aaron stood motionless as he looked down at Brother Kenneth's body. Some of the things the man had done to him, allowed or even forced others to do to him, came back in a flood of truly revolting memories. He kicked the man's corpse a couple of times as a few memories of what Brother Kenneth had forced him to do to others were added into the mix of past deeds the man had been responsible for. At least those crimes he had been forced to visit on others were now paid back in blood. Satisfied the evil jerk was gone for good; Aaron took a deep breath, slid the weapon back into his pocket, and moved over to the boy Brother Kenneth had tossed onto the hard ground.

The boy was wearing clothing, albeit poor clothing. The once nice sweat pants were threadbare and ripped along the upper thighs to make them into shorts. The short sleeved shirt was a slightly torn button up. He was also wearing a pair of old worn tennis shoes covering the boy's otherwise bare feet. Finally, the lad had a brown leader's robe on over his shoulders.

Aaron removed the gag and took a step back. "Why do you have shoes?" Aaron demanded to know.

The very frightened boy eyed Aaron with terror, but managed to squeak out, "I was on trash duty and then taken for ritual cleaning before Temple Time. Brother Lewis told me to wait because he wanted to do a Dressing Down on me before my cleaning…"

The boy's declaration told Aaron exactly what had happened. He knew the routine like the back of his hand. Anytime a kid was outside the re-training building, he was permitted basic clothing. This normally meant hard work followed by a ritualized cleansing performed by one of the Brethren, followed by a stint in Temple to confess your sins of not wanting to return to the confines of the compound and the glorious re-trainers within. This was followed by… removal of any trace of innocence… over and over…

Aaron forced his mind not to replay all the times he had been forced to deal with the torments of the confessional 'teachings'. With his mind turning back to the present, he retrieved the pocket knife and cut the zip ties holding the boy's arms, hands and feet. As he did so, he realized the marks around the skin were deep and circulation had to be poor at this point. He also figured the kid had to have been carried by Brother Kenneth since his capture. Having firsthand experience of being tightly bound numerous times, Aaron knew it would take a minute or two for the boy to be able to move properly, let alone walk.

Slowly, with some help from the older boy, the younger one stood, but quickly reverted to temple behavior. He put his head down as was proper when facing anyone wearing a brown robe. Just because the kid was nice at the moment didn't mean much. The re-trainers were good at trickery. The youngster couldn't help but wonder if this was yet another one of those times. He started to wonder what this person standing in front of him would do, would demand… but his thoughts were interrupted as the boy who had just cut him loose spoke.

"Can you walk?"

The boy gulped and nodded, "Yeah, but not real fast and I can't see much out of my left eye. After the dog tackled me, Brother Kenneth hit me with the butt of his gun."

"Don't worry about him anymore. Unless guns are allowed in Hell and Satan gives him one, he's no longer a problem."

"You killed them both?"

"Them and their damned dog, too." Aaron growled while shoving the kid up the hill so he could see both the bodies "But we need to get moving. Those gunshots had to have attracted attention."

The boy pointed over to Brother Kenneth. "He has a canteen and some food in his small pack, but I don't think it is very much."

"Whatever there is, it's still more than we have now. Understand?"

The youngster nodded. His expression changed when he saw the dead man with his head splattered in all different directions.

Seeing what he was about to do, Aaron firmly urged the boy to lean over the remnants, at which time the boy violently wretched. Aaron smiled, as it was clear the boy was not a plant. He was indeed just another 'Initiate' while he was holding the boy from falling into the mess. It didn't take long for the queasiness to abate, yet another testament to the horrors both the boys had endured at the hands of Brother Kenneth and his ilk.

The young boy, with some semblance of composure returning, looked at Aaron while grabbing at the front of his shorts.

Aaron grinned, remembering what he had done to his Re-trainer. "Give his face a final cleansing, it will make you feel better, at least it did for me."

While the boy was busily 'cleansing' Brother Kenneth's skull, Aaron rifled through the dead man's pockets. He found the Ruger 1911 the man had dropped, two extra eight round .45 caliber magazines, and another small pocket knife.

Aaron heard movement. Immediately, he grasped the weapon and turned in the direction of the sound. However, what he saw and heard was the younger boy pulling up his shorts while walking toward him. "Feel free to use what is left of their clothing to wipe."

"I already did."

Aaron grinned while raising his eyebrows up and down a few times, "Nice… Very nice."

The boy beamed proudly at hearing Aaron's praise. Cautiously, with a great deal of nervousness, the youngster raised up his right hand, pointed his palm toward Aaron, and waited. The older boy, realizing what the younger one wanted to do, raised his hand. They shared a resounding and heartfelt 'high five'.

Both boys then turned their attentions to what was left of the man. Despite blood and brain spatter they went through his pockets, though the boy was, at first, very hesitant to disrespect his Master. This changed when Aaron glanced over and spoke with a great deal of authority, "We need everything we can get… it could be a long time until we reach civilization far enough away from here not to be immediately picked up again. So, go ahead. He's dead. He'll never hurt you again, I promise."

They didn't find much on what was left of the man, but the hunting vest he was wearing had many pockets. One of the inside pockets had two small ham sandwiches in it, one of them half eaten. The younger boy hesitatingly reached for it when Aaron offered it to him, "Go ahead: eat. I'll have the other one, okay?"

Aaron quickly looked all around and listened carefully for any sign of human life. Satisfied they were, at least for the time being, safe, he sat on the ground and urged the boy to sit with him. Within seconds both ham sandwiches were consumed. The youngster burped. He looked to Aaron, totally terrorized that he had done something horribly wrong. Aaron took in a deep breath, swallowed it, and let loose, making the younger boy laugh.

Aaron, more relaxed with this kid, asked, "What's your name? Mine is Aaron. Aaron Zumwalt. But the assholes there called me Zeus."

The boy looked to the ground, between his legs. Aaron dared not touch the boy for fear that it would freak him out. Aaron spoke as softly as possible, but still loud enough to be heard, "It's okay. I'm not one of those. I'm an Initiate, nothing more and am here for the same reason you are. We've got to tell someone the truth of what happened to us and to the others. Be strong. They may have beaten us down, but so long as we keep getting up, then everything will work out. Now, what's your name?"

"Habab. I'm Habab… The Girl-Boy." The boy eked out before breaking down into racking sobs as he recalled how he got that name…

Less than half a mile away, the other three boys heard the yelp of the dog followed a couple of minutes later by the pair of gunshots. The oldest of the three glanced back and shook his head. "They killed him."

"Maybe, maybe not." The boy who had pulled the thorn out of his foot stated. "Maybe those were to stop him. We have to change directions like he told us to, though. If they caught him, he will talk. No one can hold out for long with what they will do to him."

The oldest one nodded as he gripped the shoulders of the youngest one and turned almost straight west. The three continued for almost three hours, only having to hide twice more from nearby helicopters, but unlike the other close in passes these were a quite a ways off. It became apparent those tracking them had lost the trail.

Finally, they came across a small ravine with a shallow running creek at the bottom. By this time they were out of water and the very sight of it raised their hopes. They quickly moved down to the edge and splashed water onto their faces. The youngest one was about to take a drink, but was stopped by the middle aged boy. "Kid, we have to filter it…"

The youngest one looked up with big blue eyes, "But I'm thirsty!"

"We all are," the oldest one stated, "but he's right. We need to filter it or it might make us sick. The question is, what should we use?"

The middle boy took the wraps off his feet, noticing some blood had leaked from where he had pulled the thorn out. He took a few seconds to wash his feet in the water and splash some up on his legs to remove the dust and grime of the last twenty plus hours. Suddenly his eyes lit up, "You have two robes on! We could scoop up some of the water, let it run though the robe and catch the drips with the empty bottles. It may not be perfect, but we need the water."

The older boy nodded in agreement while taking off his outer robe. "You're right. Hold the bottle so we can try this."

The older boy then dragged his outer robe through the water and pulled it into a ball keeping as much water inside as he could. As the water poured though the fabric, the middle boy caught what he could. It took two more tries to fill one bottle, which was quickly passed to the youngest boy to drink while they started filing the second bottle. As the older one watched the clear liquid seep into the bottle with anticipation, he glanced down at the middle aged boy, "You know we have been on the run for almost a full day and we haven't even asked each other's names."

"They kept saying my name was Initiate Omar, but my name is Troy Banner. What about you?"

"Acolyte Malik…" the older boy paused and chewed on his lower lip for a second, "My real name… I can remember trying so hard to remember it… but it's… I know it is still there…" The boy pounded on his head for a few seconds, "Ah, crap, just call me Malik…"

Troy shook his head and shivered. "Hold up, let's see if we can get you to remember. How long did they keep you there?"

"If it's really November third like Aaron said, then… then… um… I don't know. I was taken from my dads on… OH, man, my memory is all messed up! It was after school let out, and before July fourth… we were planning the Fourth of July trip…"

Troy used his fingers, "So July, August, September, October… four months…"

"Yeah, something close to there… But no… It was early June, school had just let out…"

"OK, five months then." Troy cringed at the thought. So your dad was trying to make trip plans when they took you?"

'Malik' rubbed his hands over his face and through his hair in total frustration. "One of my dads was… He was trying to book a flight for us, but something was wrong and he couldn't do it."

"So you have two dads?"

"Yeah… at least had… They got married in California then adopted me when I was six…"

"OK, what is their names?"

'Malik' frowned for a second then nodded. "Jake and Hollister… but they each kept their own last names…"

"What last name did you take?"

'Malik chewed on his lip as he struggled to put the pre-compound days back into memory. "Um… the last name… the on line reservation system kept screwing up… it wasn't taking our last name…"

Troy help up a finger as an idea came to him. "OK, the last name, what was it?"

'Malik' pushed his hands against his temples as he fought to remember. "My dad… Hollister kept telling Jake it was taking them fine, but not me… "Damn-it, those bastards spent so much time making me say and write my name as 'Malik', it's all that will come…"

"Fight it!" Troy encouraged, "I spent every minute alone telling myself my name was Troy… I am sure you did the same thing for a while. Just go back to when your dads were trying to get the flight for you. What was the last name?"

"It took their names, but wouldn't take mine. It was my name the reservation system wouldn't accept. None of them would, and he tried like ten different ones, so my other dad filed a complaint with the State of North Dakota while we looked at driving somewhere… But I can kind of remember… It kept saying Prantis was not a valid last name for me…" Suddenly is eyes lit up, "My last name is Prantis… Hugh is my first name! I'm Hugh Prantis!"

Troy patted the older boy on the back and handed over the bottle. "Drink this; you look like you need it worse than me."

Hugh took the water and downed the whole thing before scooping up more water to start refilling the bottle. Seeing the liquid dripping into the bottle he used his shoulder to rub his cracked lips.

"Why are your lips so dry?" Troy asked even as he wondered if he wanted to know.

"I was in the dance room taking a break when the doors opened…"

"The dance room?"

Hugh nodded, "It's only something you go to once they take you off of being an Initiate. They give you the title Acolyte and they change up your re-training. Part of it is to learn to dance. Once you get the basics down, you then move up to wearing girl-like clothing. Brother Simon would come in and teach me moves and words to sing, nasty things about what I wanted others to do to me, only in some other languages, mostly Arabic, which I was forced to learn after I lost the title of Prospect and given Initiate."

Troy nodded at this, "Same thing for me. I was told I was an Initiate a few days or so ago, and then was taken for my first Arabic session. Like it or not those Rosette Stone programs really work, especially with a riding crop armed Acolyte waiting to drop it on the back of your shoulders every time you mess up."

"I think it happens to all Initiates," Hugh sighed, then cringed. "Anyway, I then had to perfect the dance routine as it played out on the wall. Some would last until I collapsed. Others, like the one I did before all the doors opened, were only a few hours long, but I had to dance real hard and remove small parts of clothing during the dance. I think I was in there for at least three hours and had just been given a break and a snack when the doors popped open."

Troy shuddered, "Why are they doing all this stuff to us? What'd we do?"

Hugh shrugged, "All I know is what I have heard from the Re-trainers and the so called Brothers." Hugh looked skyward and shook his head. "They told me I had been surrounded by sin, sin of the flesh, and need to atone. Everything they did to me and made me do was to gather enough retribution to balance the scales so I could live outside of the sin. I don't get it, since many of the sins of the flesh they talked so much about as being bad were visited on my body tenfold by the Re-trainers, Brothers, and Arch-brothers.

"I also talked to a couple of the other kids, but it was very rare, and didn't happen at all until I was given the title Acolyte. All but one of the boys were gay, had gay leanings, or came from gay households like me. All the girls did as well. Until then, I assumed there were many crimes, but since I only spoke to maybe nine others outside of Temple or Re-training it's hard to tell. I know there were twenty four individual rooms and ten training rooms. Most were in the basement except one of the training rooms and temple.

"Before I made Acolyte, I worked with some of the other kids but speaking outside of pastoral services or Re-training was strictly prohibited and punishments in the Temple were given with a one hour block per word spoken. I do know of three others who got the Acolyte title and a couple of months later their rooms were emptied and cleaned to get ready for new prospects."

"How do you know this?"

"Because I had to clean the rooms with Initiate Yahir as he became my initiate the second I became an Acolyte." Hugh shuddered, "Initiate Yahir asked what had happened to one of the kids once. He was told they Acolyte had become a Chosen and been granted a true master and was no longer to be spoken about."

Troy cringed, "It almost sounds like the higher you move up in ranks the worse it gets!"

"It sure seemed to," Hugh agreed as he nodded to the bottle.

Troy didn't hesitate to gulp down the whole bottle. He then held it out to get it refilled. As he did so, he glanced back at the younger boy. "So, do you have a name?"

The boy nodded and looked over as new tears welled up in his eyes, "My name's Marshall, but they took my clothes and kept hurting me, saying my name is Prospect Aden!"

Hugh eyed the younger boy, "If they catch us, just agree with them, Marshall. Sooner or later you will anyway."

Marshall shook his head causing his long black hair to cover his whole face, "I don't want to have a new name or a master! I want my mom!"

Troy sighed sadly as he put the plastic lid on the bottle and screwed it tightly shut. "Marshall, we don't even know where we are at, and if you are like me, your parents were taken at the same time you were."

Marshall's lips quivered as he spoke in a squeaky soft voice, "They took me from school. The school nurse… she called the police after… the police said I couldn't go home… I tried to tell them mom didn't know about it… Brother Simon picked me up out of the shelter and gave me a shot… I woke up in the room… they cut off my clothes and made…"

"We both know what they did." Hugh spoke up cutting Marshall off, "They do it to all the Prospects. We can hear them screaming, begging to go home, and crying day and night. It used to be us. The clothing you have on now would be cut off you the next time, and the next until you finally stopped getting dressed all the way. It is then you become an Initiate. Until you give up getting fully dressed, your screams would continue to fill the halls as they ripped and cut you out of them over and over. Each time would be meaner and their advances would get rougher too… making you scream louder. Such is the life of a Prospect."

"Still was me even after I became an Initiate." Troy admitted, "The removing of the clothing and what followed was nothing compared to the first time on the metal bed. Those shock pads made me scream my lungs out!"

Hugh's eyes narrowed slightly, "Did you get to the part where the bottoms of your feet are caned?"

Troy shook his head, "Is it bad?"

"Until you have, you haven't screamed." Hugh spat into the stream as his voice took on a venomous tone, "Before it was over, I actually begged to be given to Arch-Brother Kent for as long as he wanted me. I don't even know how long he kept me, but it had to be more than a couple of days before I didn't have to crawl to go anywhere, even then walking was agony. Even worse, whenever I hesitated to do what Arch-Brother Kent wanted, all he had to do is grab my one of my feet and squeeze. The pain it caused was enough to make me instantly want to do anything to get his hands off my battered feet."

Troy cringed, "Sorry, but I am glad I didn't get that far into my re-training."

"Yeah, you're lucky, but I'll die before I go back there. We need to get cleaned up a bit more and get moving. Maybe we should follow the stream. It has water and there are trees and taller plants to hide in if the helicopters come back."

Troy nodded as he started trying to re-wrap his feet. "Damn, I shouldn't have taken these off! I have no idea how he did that!"

Hugh moved over and knelt, "Let's take a look at mine, and use it as a pattern."

After six attempts the two boys finally figured it out, but it became abundantly clear, it was far easier to have someone else do it, so Hugh ended up putting on the second wrap for Troy before standing. Hugh then looked over at Marshall who was curled into a ball with his eyes closed, "Come on, this is no time to sleep!"

"But I'm so tired and…"

"Marshall," Troy spoke with some urgency, "We can't stay here. I'm tired and hungry too, my knees are killing me, and my foot hurts bad, but they are still looking for us!"

"Yeah," Hugh nodded. "You don't want to go back there do you?"

Marshall's lips again quivered and tears rolled down his cheeks, "I just want to go home."

"Then you need to get up and come with us, 'cause we're leaving with or without you." Hugh stated firmly and with no compassion. "Now get up or get left!"

Marshall burst into sobs at the threat of being left alone. His whole body shook as he stood, "Please don't leave me here!"

Troy moved over and lifted the smaller boy's chin so he could look into his eyes. "You know what they will do to you if they catch us. I know it's hard and you just want to stop, but we can't; not if we don't want to spend another night with a Re-trainer or a Brother. Besides, Hugh is right, at least we have water as long as we follow the stream."

Marshall wrapped his arms around Troy, "I'll be good, just don't leave me."

"Shit!" Hugh sighed as he moved up to the other two boys, "Marshall, let me carry you for a while."

Seeing the small boy hesitate, Troy nodded, "It's a good idea. It'll give you some extra rest and keep us moving."

Hugh knelt and allowed Marshall to wrap his arms around his neck then grabbed the boy's legs. He stood with very little effort and glanced over at Troy, "Up or down stream?"

Troy shrugged as he glanced in both directions, "Down, if we go up from here it may take us nowhere. At least going down stream will take us to more water, not less."

"Then down it is." Hugh set a decent pace as he moved along the side of the stream. "I guess it's a good thing I have had to do all those dances, 'cause I am in pretty good shape. Before this, I'd never be able to carry Marshall and walk this fast."

"The faster the better, but we need to find something to eat. I am starting to feel sick." Troy responded.

"This has to go somewhere." Hugh noted as he maneuvered around a fallen tree. "Once we find someplace, we'll have to break into it and steal some food or something."

"I just don't want to get caught doing it," Troy countered. "The social worker is the one who handed me over to these creeps to begin with."

"I don't trust no one anymore…" Hugh paused, "Unless they are one of us or they shoot one of those who had us."

"I'd sure like to see that!" Marshall stated groggily.

"Me too… me too," Troy whispered as he scrambled over a long ago fallen branch, taking some skin off of his right thigh as he did so. He ignored the discomfort and glanced up at the sun noting it was already on its way down. He did not relish the idea of another cold night with no food, but it was better than being in the compound and he drew inner strength from this.

Almost five miles straight east of the three escapees, Justin called "Pull!" and tracked the clay with one of the new Akkar 300CY twenty gauge youth shotguns. He fired two seconds later and scored a grazing hit. The edge of the clay shredded and the whole thing changed enough direction to prove he had indeed hit. Still, he shook his head.

Dennis patted him on the shoulder, "Still a hit, makes you nineteen of twenty four. Not bad at all.

Justin took several steps back and reloaded, putting five rounds in the slide before putting another in the chamber. At the same time he was reloading, Craig moved up to the firing line. Craig's first three shots where hits, but his next two both missed. Justin took a deep breath as the next clay took to the air. He cringed as it exploded from a direct hit.

Craig moved back muttering about back to back misses, but Ethan moved up behind him and gripped his shoulders, "Nineteen of twenty-four. Looks like we have a tie going into the last six shots from each of you."

Justin nodded, as Fredric moved up to the line with one of the Akkar 300 twelve gauge shotguns. Both boys paused and watched as Paul moved up behind the man and talked him though it yet again. It did no good.

Six shots later and still not a single hit, Fredric slinked away from the firing line and sat on a rock not far from Craig and Justin. He glanced over at the two boys as Glenn piloted himself up to the line, "I'm still perfect, twenty four perfectly safe clay targets."

This got some giggles out of the two boys. At the same time Paul walked up behind his boss while winking at the boys, "Would one of you kindly point out there is no PETA awards currently out there for protecting clay pigeons."

This got some hard laughter out of both boys while Fredric shook his head, "I detect a pay cut in someone's future…"

Paul snorted, "You try it, and I'll let the world know the CEO of EEL can't shoot. The Texas press will be all over you!"

Frederic glanced over at Justin and Craig, "See what I deal with? I get black mailed by my own security people, can you believe I put up with this kind of abuse and pay them for it?"

Steven moved up to the group with Keith next to him, "It has got to be better than paying us. At least you know what you get with them. With us, who knows what we will come up with!"

Fredric grinned, "Which is exactly what I am hoping for, the totally unexpected."

"Ricky's Mass-hack wasn't unexpected enough?" Keith asked with a degree of surprise.

"Oh, I am getting one of those!" Fredric snickered, "But to be honest, I bet you can all do even better if you combine your skills and interests. The medical possibilities you guys came up with using the foundation of Steven's metal detector is the type of thing I really want to see more of."

"I'm pretty sure you'll end up with several." Keith shrugged. "Steven and I were just talking about EMPs and how they can disrupt radio signals. Since they can, we were wondering if they could be used for communications somehow."

Fredric's eyebrows shot up, "Interesting thought…"

Steven nodded vigorously, "Yeah, what if we could come up with a magnetic way of sending a signal, using the earth's magnetic field? If we could, the north pole could talk directly with the south pole with no need for satellites or retransmission stations?"

Everet glanced over at the other adults, "They have been talking about this for the last hour and a half while becoming pretty decent with the pistols. To be honest, they totally lost me once they went into the technical aspects of the electromagnetic field generated by the earth's spinning iron core, or something along those lines… That was well over an hour and fifteen minutes ago, by the way."

Fredric rubbed his chin in thought, "OK, yeah, I could see putting some money aside for magnet communication research. You two come up with a few ideas on how this could work and I'll fund it."

This got a huge grin out of Keith, "Man, if we could make this work… we could tap right into the earth for a power source too. We may even be able to make the magnetic signal generators be powered right off the earth's EM field. They would never need to be charged and would be very light weight since they wouldn't need batteries!"

"Now we're talking!" Fredric smiled widely while glancing over at the chaperones, "Unlimited energy all around us, and we finally have a couple of people thinking about how to tap into it."

"Eleven and twelve years old…" Paul noticeably shuddered, "Even if they can't figure it out, you certainly found eight winners, boss."

Craig shook his head, "Seven… I'm still pretty much a loser…"

Before anyone could respond a shout of delight came from Glenn. It took a moment to figure out what had happened, but seeing Dennis excitedly patting Glenn on the back, Craig realized the boy had finally hit his first moving target and shouted, "Way to go!"

The smile on Glenn's face was massive as he gave a thumbs up before turning his attention back to shooting.

Paul shot Craig a stern look, "Son, that beaming smile was just as much about you praising him as it was him shooting his first clay. If getting a smile like that is being a loser, then I'd love to be one."

Seeing the others all nod, Craig decided not to argue. Besides, he found it actually felt good to be getting universal praise from kids and adults for something, even though he couldn't quite figure out what he had done so right. Instead, he took a few seconds to watch as Glenn called out "pull". The hover chair bound boy smoothly tracked the target for almost four seconds before pulling the trigger. A moment later the bright orange circle exploded as the buckshot blasted it out of the air just before it hit the ground.

This time Craig jumped to his feet, "Two in a row! Right on!"

Glenn handed the empty twenty gauge over to Dennis and piloted his chair over to Craig, grinning ear to ear, "You were right! I can do it!"

Seeing the youngster holding out both arms Craig leaned down and accepted the hug without giving it any thought. "I knew you could! I just knew it!"

As he pulled back Paul first moved over to Glenn and gave the boy a hearty shoulder rub while congratulating him. He then eyed Craig, "Sure looks like a win to me."

Craig gave Paul a tight smile as he cheeks took on a red tinge, realizing he had actually hugged Glenn in front of the others. It then took a few moments to grasp the fact the others found it awesome and even touching. Finally, he realized something else which was truly stunning, the hug had been wanted. Someone actually wanted a hug from him. This is what finally caused the first real smile, other than a laughter filled one, any of the others had seen from him. For those few precious seconds, Craig felt good about himself for the first time in his memory, and it radiated outward. The problem was it passed too quickly. Craig quickly took a step back to allow Glenn to be the center of attention while he blinked out a couple of tears he could not explain.

Justin, however, noticed the look and moved closer to Craig so he could whisper. Since all the attention was on Glenn and they were a few steps back, it was not hard to keep it between the two of them, "You tell me how to get that look on your face again and I'll do it, no matter what it is."

Craig wiped another tear out of his eye as he turned to Justin, "For a moment I was… I think I was… um, happy? I don't even know… I have never felt anything like it before… But I was crying. See how stupid I am?"

"Dude, are you really telling me you have never had a tear of joy, not one?"

"Don't think so…" Craig frowned in bewilderment, "I thought those were just made up…"

"Nope," Justin shook his head. "They are as real as the pain filled ones. My Grandma says they are infinitely more powerful too." Seeing his friend's brow crease, Justin cocked his head to the side and put his hand on Craig's shoulder, "You OK?"

"Just confused," Craig admitted after several seconds of silence. "I don't even know how to react, but it would be nice to feel whatever I felt when Glenn hugged me, again. I just don't know how."

"I think Glenn and I can help unlock it." Justin stated sincerely.

Craig put on his normal forced smile, "I hope you're right. In the mean time we have another six rounds to see who wins."

Justin stopped himself from sighing, since he really wanted to continue the conversation, but it just was not meant to be, at least not yet. Instead he gave a nod, "You want to shoot first or second?"

"Go for it. I want to see how many I have to hit."

Justin moved over to the shotgun he had been using, gave it an inspection and walked up to the line before taking the safety off.

Dennis grinned at the boy, "Tied with five misses apiece. You ready?"

Justin didn't verbally answer. Instead he brought the fire arm up to his shoulder, "Pull!" The first clay disintegrated a couple of seconds later.

Craig watched as Justin went five for six, missing on his third shot. Once Justin had cleared his weapon he moved up to the line and flipped off the safety of the shotgun he had been using. The first one was a miss, but he came back with a vengeance scoring four consecutive hits. He paused to roll his neck and made a rather strange decision. Even as he called "pull" he had already decided he was going to miss. The truth was, he really wanted to know what Justin had in mind while he actually had no clue what he wanted should he win the bet. Still he made it look good, tracking the clay and firing, but instead of a smooth pull with good breathing he jerked the trigger back causing the shot to go high.

He shrugged as he cleared the weapon and handed it over to Dennis, "Missed by a smidge."

"You really jerked back on your last shot," Dennis stated with conciliatory pat on the back. "Not like you at all, Craig."

Craig forced another grin, "I guess some of Mr. Triumph rubbed off on me for a moment."

While Dennis busted up laughing, Fredric heard the comment and rolled his eyes, "Don't go blaming this on me! I already told you I was going to kill a whole lot of air." He then glanced back at Justin, "So do we get to hear what this bet was over?"

Justin turned a bit red as he thought about what he really wanted to do with his unexpected win, "Ahh… no… It's between me and Craig."

Fredric glanced over to Craig, but the boy was back to his normal all but unreadable self. "OK, but if this was some kind of Truth or Dare thing, no dare that will get either of you hurt, OK?"

"Nothing along those lines," Craig quickly assured Fredric as he went up and shook Justin's hand, "Congrats. We'll talk later."

Justin's cheeks once again flared with a bit of crimson, but he was relieved at seeing Craig was not angry about losing. If anything it was the opposite. The thought of Craig having lost on purpose, however, never so much as crossed his mind.

The small group took a break from shooting. They were given a class on proper cleaning of the used weapons, which was just as much about safety as it was cleaning, then broke for a snack. As they were eating, Scott and Alexander came into view with Levi and Kermit right behind them. At almost the same time the distant roar of ATV's could be heard. The speed at which the four moved, along with the fact both Kermit and Levi had their rifles out and were backing up the hill to protect Alexander and Scott, told even the least observant something was seriously amiss.

Paul didn't hesitate; he jumped to his feet and secured his M-4/M-26 combo while moving to intercept. At the same time Dennis tossed one of the freshly cleaned twenty gauges over to Craig along with a box of ammo; he then did the same thing with Justin.

Seeing this and the looks on both Levi's and Kermit's faces as they turned and motioned for everyone to find cover, Everet frowned and handed Steven and Keith the pistols he had been working on them with. Likewise, he dropped a pair of already loaded clips on each of their laps followed by a full box of ammo. Before either boy could say anything, Everet secured his FN FAL rifle and spoke softly. "Just in case, boys, just in case. They stay on safe unless something truly awful happens, got me?"

Both boys nodded their understanding while slapping in magazines and pulling back the slides so they were loaded.

Paul scanned the scene for less than five seconds and exchanged words with Levi and Kermit before he returned at a dead run. "Boss, get down!" he ordered while pushing Fredric behind one of the larger rocks they had been sitting on moments before.

Suddenly they all heard a gunshot. Kermit pushed both boys further up the hill while Levi went prone, his M-89SR in front of him, ready to fire. Levi spoke loud enough for the others to hear, "Get both Alexander and Scott .22s. And Alex…"

The boy looked pale but nodded, "I know. No hotheaded crap and shoot only if I have to… But…"

"But nothing!" Kermit snarled as he snagged one of the extremely high end .308 rifles they had bought as a cover story and pulled a box of rounds out of the metal chest they had purchased to be able to lock up the several thousand rounds of various ammunitions they had had with them and the extra rounds they had procured for the new weapons.

Kermit fired a harsh glanced over at Alexander, "You let us take care of this. No shoot, unless there is no other choice!" He stayed crouched down and moved higher up on the hill away from the rest of the group before he dropped prone with the AW .308 while putting his CZ-805 BREN at his right side. He then let out a hard whistle.

Levi hopped up from his position and backed up the hill at a low crouch before he, too, dropped prone next to Kermit, ready to fire.

Ethan scrambled over to where the .22 rifles were leaning against a nearby rock and sprinted over to Alexander and Scott, the looks in both boys' eyes told him this was not just bad, it was something much worse. He handed them each a rifle and a box of ammo, "Go ahead and load them, but they stay on safe, got me?"

Both boys nodded and quickly started to load the tubes, but Scott's shaking hands made this difficult. As soon as Alexander finished loading the rifle he had been handed he exchanged it with Scott and loaded the other rifle as well. Alexander than smirked as he looked at Scott, "Relax, with all this firepower they would be nuts to come after us." His voice, however, told all the others he was not nearly as sure as he would have liked to have been.

Fredric glanced around for an instant and realized he was the only one unarmed. With no idea what was happening, but refusing to let the kids he had brought down to Austin protect him, he slid over to the twelve gauge and shoved five rounds in it then chambered one. As he did so another gunshot echoed from somewhere down and around the hill. "Someone tell me what in the hell is going on!"

Scott spoke with a quivering voice, "Sir… there are three kids running up along the edge of the lake along the ditch… they are being followed…"

Another gunshot, this one closer caused Alexander to cringe, but he took over, "And now shot at."

"Who is following them and why?"

"I don't know for sure, but Levi says the two SUV's coming up along the water's edge are both Government Issue." Alexander stated as his hands gripped the rifle tightly while moving to get better cover from the direction the shots were coming from.

"Government Issue?" Ethan asked, "What the hell are they doing chasing and shooting at kids?"

"Don't know if they are." Scott took over as he moved to position himself close to Alexander. "The SUVs are sill way out. There are four others closing in on the kids, two with ATVs and two on foot with dogs." Scott shook as he peaked over the rocks only to duck back down as another gunshot echoed over the area. "But one of the kids was the one we saw screaming and jerking on the metal table…"

"No way!" Justin gasped with wide eyes.

"Way." Scott stopped and took a deep shaky breath, "All four of us looked at them through binoculars. It's him and he has two others with him, one older, one younger. They don't look good either, their feet are wrapped in cloth and they are wearing weird looking robes; even worse, whoever is chasing them have dogs and they don't look like nice ones."

"We have to protect them!" Craig snarled as he moved over and secured the second AW .308 and shoved a ten round magazine into the bottom of the weapon before looking over at Everet, "What range did you guys zero the scope at?"

Everet started to protest, but was cut off by Paul, "Two hundred and fifty meters… have you ever fired something with the kind of kick a .308 has?"

"Dad has let me shoot his .44 magnum rifle," Craig stated. "Plus, I have shot several different 7.62 rifles and they are pretty much the same as a .308."

"Then keep it for now and move higher, between Levi, Kermit and us. Stay behind those rocks, but if the shit hits the fan and we go down, I want you to cover the others while they pull back to the cabin. Ethan, radio George and tell him to split off from Zenon, grab the other boat, and get ready for a hostile extraction at west side dock!"

A minute and four gunshots later the three running kids appeared as they came around the shoreline. The youngest one fell, but was quickly yanked back to his feet by the oldest boy. They made it another thirty yards before a pair of man rounded the low rocky hill with dogs, followed shortly after by two men on ATV's.

One of the men driving an ATV stood and fired a pair of rounds. The bullets kicked up sand next to the three boys. At the same time one of the men, being led by one very angry looking dog, yelled out, "Malik, stop or I will let Baker go and he will rip you to shreds!"

At this point Hugh turned while putting Marshall behind him. Breathing heavily, he eyed the man while fighting the desire to drop to a knee and submit. It took just about everything he had to remain standing.

The two men on the ATV's jumped off, AR-15s held ready. Since they were all focused on the three kids and Fredric's group all had decent cover, none of those below even noticed the whole exchange was being closely watched.

The two sides faced each other for well over thirty seconds in a battle of wills. The only sound came from the pair of dogs as they growled and pulled at their leashes, clearly wanting a chance to get at the three boys.

Finally, the man who threatened to release the dog handed the leash over to the man with him and took a couple of steps forward, "Where is he, Malik?"

Confusion rippled across Hugh's brow, "Brother Jonah?"

Jonah took another step forward and screamed, "Where is he? Where the hell is Zeus?" Even as angry as he was, the man could clearly see the confusion on the faces of all three boys. "Damn-it! The other kid, Zeus, where is he?"

Before more could be said the SUVs came into view. One pulled up right next to the three boys while the other came to a stop between the two ATV's. The passenger door of the trailing black SUV, with totally darkened windows, popped open and a voice, a familiar one to Craig, spoke up, "OK, Jonah, where is Aaron?"

Up the hill and hidden behind rocks, Craig let out a low growl, "Paulson…"

Back down the hill, the name Aaron clearly rang a bell with the three kids. This time Troy spoke as the driver of the trailing SUV stepped out with an M-14 assault rifle in his hand, "He took off hours ago."

"Bullshit!" Johan roared, "Baker and Gaia both have his scent! Now where is he?"

Hugh shook his head as if trying to clear it. Part of him wanted to fight while the other part told him to submit. It was a member of the Brethren who was speaking, after all. One thing he had accepted was to follow the words of the Brethren, for to do anything else was simply not worth the time which would have to be spent in Temple for not doing so. Then, he would have to do what the Brethren originally ordered, and usually quite a bit more. Finally, he found his voice, "Brother Jonah, Aaron forced us to leave after we heard dogs. He stayed to face them… We heard gunshots… He has to be dead."

"You lying sack of shit!" Jonah snarled as he moved up toward Hugh with a raised hand, "The dogs are tracking Zeus, not you!"

Marshall looked around wildly, tying to find some kind of escape route. With the only good one being to jump in the water and swim for it, he inched toward the water while speaking. "He made us leave him behind. Hugh isn't lying. You don't have to hit him!"

"So my dogs are lying?" The other man who was holding both animals snorted as a pair of men got out of the back doors of the lead SUV, also with assault rifles at the ready. "Give me a break, we picked up Zeus' trail right where you all went down the bank toward the stream! Now where is he, or so help me we will take turns in your disciplining. And, as you can see there are a lot of us. Now we tracked you by smell, so he is around here somewhere."

Troy glanced down at his feet as he suddenly realized what had happened, "He left, but he made us foot wraps…" Troy held up his foot and pointed to the wraps for added emphases, "Please, we didn't do anything…

Agent Paulson's fist slammed into the side of the SUV loud enough to cause an almost gunshot-like echo cutting off Troy's plea. "Oh, you have got to be shitting me! You morons have been chasing the wrong three for the last four plus hours and even had us re-position a satellite all because some thirteen year old shithead brat made shoes out of what he was wearing? He just let these three dumbass kids sucker punch you…Do you have any idea how pissed the AG is going to be?"

"It's not our fault! It was his scent!" Jonah argued while pointing at the older boy.

Agent Paulson cut the man off with a single downward slashing motion with his hand, while turning his attention to the oldest boy. "So, where did he separate from you, Malik?"

"I don't know, Brother Jonah." Hugh shook his head while the rest of his body started to quake in fear. Not being able to answer a Brother was a major offence and would mean extra Temple time, lots of it, but this guy was ordering them… pure dread caused him to spit out the best answer he could come up with. "It was back at a culvert… It had a metal pipe going under the road."

"Road?" Paulson demanded to know as he started speaking into a radio, "Stop the repositioning, we may have a new target to align Tiger Eye to. Stand by." Paulson glared at Hugh, "Damn-it, which road did he split off from you at, or am I going to hand you over to the four of them and the two mutts right now?"

Up the hill Paul's eyes narrowed, "If any of them make a move toward those boys I'm shooting."

Next to Paul, Dennis nodded and used hand signals to convey the message to the other chaperones. At the same time he noted both Craig and Alexander knew what the military-style hand signals meant and readied their rifles as well. This, in turn, caused Fredric and the other boys to do the same. Dennis shot a look over at Paul, "Are we really goings to shoot a fed?"

"If he tries to lay a hand on any of those boys, I sure as hell will."

"Then you won't be alone," Dennis whispered, "but what then?"

"Then we do what we have to do," Paul growled. "What would you want us to do if it was your daughter down there?"

Dennis took a deep breath, "Then we need to take the dogs out fast, cause if they get to those kids, they'll rip them up and we'd have to shoot into the mix which would probably hit the kids."

"Fine," Paul seethed as he adjusted his aim away from Paulson. "You take the solid back one while I take the one with the white on its chest."

Below Fredric's group, Hugh was beyond terrified; if the unknown man was allowed to order the others around then he must be an Arch-brother, or even worse, an Elder. The very last thing Hugh wanted was to get on the bad side of someone above a Brother. Hugh took a knee, no longer able to help himself, his voice shook so badly it was unintelligible.

"Speak English you little shit!" Agent Paulson barked. "Or would you prefer a bullet in your gut?"

Troy, seeing Hugh had lost it, managed to speak, "It was a dirt road, more of a trail with tire ruts…"

"Son-of-A bitch!" Paulson shouted while his hand crashed into his head, "You just narrowed it down to oh… every ATV trail and dirt path within a hundred miles of here!" He then keyed his radio again, "Command, I need someone to track where there is metal drainage underneath every four wheel drive path within fifteen miles of me and download it to my notepad."

Since he was wearing an ear bud, the reply could not be heard, but whatever it was only infuriated Agent Paulson further, "So we can't even do a simple download without spreading the virus?" He took a deep breath and shouted upwards, "When I find whoever hacked our hub, I am going to peel off their skin in layers!"

Agent Paulson quickly and loudly spoke into the radio again, "Command, get me one bird at my location and send the others to every metal drainage culvert you can locate. Have them do a ground search at each and look for pieces of a shredded white robe." He then glared at Jonah, "Get these three out of my sight!"

Jonah pointed at Hugh, "Malik, get you and the other two into the truck."

"No!" Troy shouted, "You can't… Please! Don't take me back there!"

Agent Paulson eyed Troy then glanced over to Marshall while holding up his hand, "I think we can arrange such a thing." The look in his eyes sent a shiver down Troy's spine as the man added, "The younger two are now mine. Put 'em in my car with the other four. You take the older one and show him what happens to those who flee your care or whatever else you want to entertain yourselves doing with him."

Hugh was torn between the near paralyzing fear of the man who was above Brother Jonah, and the knowledge of what was going to happen to him after escaping. He took a middle ground. He stood while moving in the direction of the truck, which in turn blocked Brother Jonah's path to Troy and Marshall.

At this point, Paulson's driver had seen enough. Getting a nod from Paulson, the man smoothly pulled his side arm and put a ten millimeter slug into Hugh's chest. The boy staggered back, knocking both Marshall and Troy over before he crumpled.

A split second later the hill to the left Paulson all but exploded as over a dozen weapons fired down on him and those with him. His driver took the brunt of the first volley and pretty much shredded in front of Paulson's eyes.

Paul sighted in on the dog and put a round into its side then followed it up with another. Everything outside of where he was aiming was booked by an inner fury he had never felt before. A third round ripped into the dog then a fourth.

Next to Paul, Dennis was slightly more disciplined. He put two rounds into the other dog before he adjusted his site to locate the man who had just ordered the other man to shoot the defenseless teen. The problem was, the man had good cover behind the lead SUV. However, the man's radio antenna was up just high enough for him to spot it, so he took the shot. He was rewarded for his efforts as he saw the radio fly upwards.

Before Dennis could do anything else, the radio exploded in mid-air. A glance over his shoulder told him, Justin had just pulled off a championship caliber skeet shooting shot.

Up the hill and to the left of Dennis, Ethan put a 7.62 round into the shoulder of the man who was still holding onto the leashes of the now deceased dogs. Before he could take another shot, a much smaller round caught the man in the neck which forced the man to clutch at his neck. From slightly behind him and to the right he heard Alexander's voice, "Let's see if I am some desk jockeys' brat after they hear about this."

Next to Justin, Craig snarled in frustration as his heavy .308 rounds caused some spider webbing to appear in the windshield of the lead SUV, but didn't break though the armored glass. Seeing the man who had stepped out of the rear driver's side of the SUV Paulson had come out of firing up at the hill wildly, Craig sighted in, "Oh, no you don't!" A moment later, he put a round into the man's left hip shattering it. He followed it up with another round into the fallen man's chest, ending the screams.

Up at the top of the hill, Levi and Kermit each took out one of the men from the lead SUV. Levi's dropped from a head shot and Kermit's from a bullet to the heart. Neither man needed to take a second shot and knew it. They started to adjust their aim to two other targets when Levi nudged Kermit and nodded to the east. A Blackhawk helicopter, with an M-60 poking out of the co-pilot's side door could be seen coming straight at them.

Levi dug into his pocket, and tossed Kermit a single round, "Use this."

Kermit eyed the 7.62 mm round and fingered the white tip, "Teflon?"

"Teflon coated titanium. I have a few more rounds down in my pack, but I always carry two and since a .308 can shoot it…"

Kermit nodded as he quickly slid around, ejected the magazine, popped out the chambered round, and slid the Teflon one in before he closed the bolt and slid the magazine back into the rife, "I got the co."

"Pilot's mine." Levi answered as he sighted in with his Israeli-made sniper rifle.

Even as a multitude of shots were exchanged below them, the two men maintained their focus. Levi called out "Range!" when the helicopter closed to within 700 meters. When it got to six hundred, Kermit nodded and spoke, "Range!"

"Fire in two!" Levi ordered.

Two seconds later both men squeezed their triggers at the same time. Levi's rifle had the edge with muzzle velocity so it pierced the front windscreen slightly before Kermit's round did, but to the men behind the controls it made no real difference. The Co-pilot was struck just below the neck, shattering his breast bone which sent bone shards into both lungs. The Pilot was slightly luckier. He didn't have to feel any pain at all. The bullet caught him in the bridge of the nose and splattered his gray matter over two of the men in the back.

Levi watched as the pilotless helicopter turned sharply as the body of one of the dead men in the front pushed the control yoke to the left and forward. Five seconds later the doomed craft slammed into the ground, sending bits of spinning rotor blades in all directions then exploded.

With a smirk, Levi glanced over at Kermit, "Blackhawk Down."

Kermit snorted and nodded, "I think Homeland needs to better armor the windows of their birds."

"Personally, I'm glad they don't." Levi stated as he spun on his belly so he could find targets below. What he saw, however, made his blood run cold. The lead SUV had driven further up the hill to where the rocks finally made going further impossible. Behind the vehicle, the surviving men were using the armored vehicle as cover while spraying the hill with a combination of auto and semi-auto fire. The driver's side window suddenly cracked open and someone tossed a grenade at those closest to it. At the same time those using the vehicle for cover ducked behind it.

Levi took the opening created and sent a round into the open window, but figured a few of his friends and those he was supposed to be protecting were done. But then it happened…

Only twenty five yards from the SUV, Keith saw the round object fly out the window of the SUV. At the same time Everet dove on Alexander and Scott while shouting "Grenade!" His heroic actions were rewarded by getting a bullet in the left thigh as one of the men behind the SUV saw what happened and took the open shot before fully ducking behind the SUV for cover.

Keith reacted out of instinct coupled with countless hours on the baseball diamond as an all-star shortstop. He jumped up, dove to the side, snagged the grenade out of mid-air with his right hand, and flipped it up to his left hand. The moment Keith hit the ground he came up to a knee then whipped it back with everything he could muster. Even though it was heavier than a baseball, Keith's accuracy couldn't have been better. It went right back where it came from.

Half a second later the doors of the SUV all opened as those inside tried to dive out, but it was too late. The grenade exploded and moments later so did the SUV. The four men who had attempted to dive out were instead launched while their bodies were shredded. At the same time, those behind the vehicle were cut down by shrapnel.

The pair of men who survived and tried to return fire didn't do so for long as gunfire from several of the adults and a trio of boys cut them down.

Down at the base of the hill, Agent Paulson watched as in a matter of moments his air support and his assault team literally blew up. With no radio to call for back up, he dove for the SUV only to find the keys were not in the ignition. With his heart racing so fast he could feel the beat all the way up into his throat, and his hand badly bleeding from having the radio shot out of it, he looked around frantically.

Suddenly his eyes fell on the still running ATV. He jumped on it and gunned the engine before spinning it sharply. Moments later he was at top speed heading… well he didn't know or even care where. All he cared about was getting clear of the carnage behind him.

While most of the others up on the hill were making sure there were no more threats, cowering behind rocks, crying uncontrollably, or in Keith's case quaking while looking at his hands, trying to come to terms with the fact he had actually caught and returned a live grenade with them, Craig heard the ATV and ran down the hill. He pulled up the .308 only to find the ten round magazine was empty. He sprinted until he came across an AR-15 lying next to the now dead driver of the lead ATV. He yanked it up, sighted in and fired. As the shot left the barrel, the bolt locked back, which told Craig it had been the last shot.

For Agent Paulson's part, he heard the last shot and a moment later he knew he was the target as the .223 round slammed into his right butt cheek. He almost lost control of the ATV as he screamed in pain while his hand went back to cover the wound. But adrenaline allowed him to regain control, speed around the hill, and out of the line of fire of those who had ambushed him.

Justin raced down the hill to Craig's side just in time to see the man grab at his butt, followed a moment later by the scream. "Nice shot!"

"Too bad it was the last round in the clip," Craig snarled while taking several deep angry breaths. He then shouted out as loud as he could, "Now you know what it feels like to have something shoved up your ass, Paulson!"

Scott, with tears pouring down his cheeks, ran down the hill toward the crumpled boy and the other two. He was followed by Alexander and Ethan while Dennis limped down to the lowest large rocks to cover them.

As the other two boys saw Ethan, with his FAL rifle at the ready, they scrambled away from Hugh with wide and tear filled eyes.

Scott knelt next to the grievously injured boy and started to put his hand over the wound, but Hugh pushed the hand away as he leaned back against Scott's knee, "Tell my dads… Jake and Hollister… Jake Prantis… tell them they could make me forget my name, but they couldn't make me forget theirs… Promise me you will tell them…" A moment later he coughed up a large amount of blood and a final breath escaped his lips before he fell forward, unmoving, while Scott held on him and cried.


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