Castle Roland

Geek Squad

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 18

Posted: 7 May 15

Geek Squad

Copyright © 2012 - 2015 by Kyle Aarons and the Revolutions Universe Partnership.

All Rights Reserved

Geek Squad LogoCraig hopped out of the APC and moved up to a massive metal door covering the end of the tunnel as Lachlan shut off the engine to prevent a buildup of carbon monoxide. On the right hand wall, a pair of red lights lit up a square panel with an alpha-numeric keypad off to the side. A digital screen above the keypad stated what the boy already knew; 'Exit Security Lockout - access restricted to outside controls only'. He glanced over his shoulder to Justin who was waiting with the APC's radio in his hand. At the same time, Lachlan moved up to the turret position on the APC to make sure, should there be hostiles on the other side, they would get a very unwelcome reception.

Glenn looked out from the open side door, "You know, it would have sure been bad had some poor dude been forgotten down here! There would have been no way out!"

Craig nodded in full agreement, "Yeah, well, as bad as the elevator sounds, if Justin's friend isn't on the other side, you might well be talking about us."

Justin keyed the radio and got only static. His eyes went wide with panic as he tried again only to get the same result. "I think we are too far down the tunnel for radio transmission!"

Glenn pointed out from inside the APC, "Craig, look for an intercom. They had to have built a way for someone at the door to talk to the base command."

Craig looked over the panel and even tried to push a few of the keys. All it got him was a buzzing noise and the screen flashing a message: 'access to terminal unavailable'. Craig eyed the terminal with a nasty glare as he considered punching it. "OK, this is stupid, there has to be a way to talk down the whole length of this tunnel."

Justin played his flashlight over the door and the control panel before his beam of light stopped on a small box built into the wall on the opposite side of the door. "Craig, got something on the other side."

Craig moved over to the box and fiddle with it for a moment before he realized he had to unscrew the latch instead of just pull on it. Once open, he pulled out a hand set and put it up to his ear. "No dial tone." He looked inside the box and all around it. "No buttons to push. I think it's dead."

Justin jumped out and moved over to the box, pulled on the door for a few seconds, and picked up the large handset. Finding a knob sticking up off the back, he poked at it a couple of times. After careful inspection he noted a circular ring with the knob at the bottom of the circle. "Must be a battery compartment." He tried to push it then attempted to pull on it with no success. "It's stuck. Craig, you're way stronger than I am."

Craig tried the same thing; after a few seconds he realized it twisted so he tried to use the protrusion to unscrew the battery compartment. After fifteen turns it still did nothing. With growing frustration he moved over to the APC, lifted up Glenn and carried him over, "Take a look at this stupid thing!"

After nearly a minute of turning it slowly, he gave up and looked over the handset. "Looks like a regular old phone, and it's wired to the wall. But this spinner doesn't seem to be doing anything!" Glenn couldn't help it, he snickered, "I guess you should've brought Keith and not me."

Justin's frown deepened, "Come on, Glenn, the three of us must be smart enough to figure this out."

After nearly five minutes, Justin tossed the headset back into the box with a frustrated shake of his head.

"Unless they were super dumb, and didn't put a way for people here to talk to the far end and this must be it, so it's broken," Craig grumbled. "It took us over thirty minutes to get here by vehicle. How far did we drive, anyway?"

Justin moved back to the vehicle and looked down at the odometer, "Almost twenty miles! This really is one heck of a tunnel! I still can't understand how they kept all this secret." He let out a long breath as he played his flashlight back down the tunnel in the direction they had come from. "What a bummer. I guess we'll have to go all the way back to the base and figure out another way to talk to them..." He glanced up at Lachlan, only to see the man fighting really hard not to bust up laughing. He moved back over and tapped Craig on the shoulder and jerked his head in the direction of the man who had driven them down the tunnel. At this point, Glenn who was still in Craig's arms, glimpsed up, saw the look and, with annoyed glare in his eyes, spoke up, "OK, fine! What are we missing?"

At this point Lachlan couldn't hold back, he started howling with laughter. After nearly thirty seconds he finally spoke, "Boys, it's a hand crank ringer! Stop playing with it and spin it really fast!"

The three boys looked up with mirrored perplexed looks. Glenn was the first to find his voice, "A what?"

With tears of hilarity trickling down his cheeks, the man had to force himself to speak rather than continue to laugh. "The crank is the power source for the ringer!" Seeing nothing but blank looks, he started laughing again. "Forget batteries, boys, instead think of it as a hand generator!"

Once again the three science contest winners looks were identical as the light bulbs in their brains went off at almost the same time. This time it was Justin who spoke up, "Hey, that's kind of cool!" Without further hesitation he spun the hand crank several times really fast.

After a couple of seconds Ranger Taggert's voice came over the handset. "Hello?"

Justin let out a giant sigh of relief, "Hi, it's Justin. Um, were here and ready to help let them in or whatever."

"Oh, wasn't sure who was going to be on the other end of this thing. It just started ringing out of the blue, nearly scared the piss out of me. Hold on a few. I'll go get Keith."

As the phone was obviously set down on the far end, Justin looked over at Craig who was putting Glenn back into his chair in the back of the APC, "Any ideas what we could do with a hand cranked generator?"

Glenn was quick to respond, "One comes to mind."

"What?" Craig and Justin both asked at the same time.

"Hook the two outbound wires to Ashwood's tongue, tie the crank to a hamster wheel, put ten hamsters on it, and watch the show."

Craig couldn't help but fire one more glare up at Lachlan before he looked over to Glenn, "Nice idea, but I could think of a more painful place to put those wires." He then looked back up at the Aussie, "And you! You could have spoken up at any time!"

"Yeah, but why should I? It was a good show!"

"Grrrrrr," Craig snarled as his ears turned red in some embarrassment. "I'm going to figure out a way to get you back!"

"For what?" the man snickered as he grinned from ear to ear, "I thought you three were smart!"

"Oh, ho, ho!" Glenn chimed in, "I think he is challenging us, guys."

Lachlan couldn't help it, he smiled even wider and waved his hand dismissively, "Whatever. I mean, geesh, I got nothing to worry about, mates; you all couldn't even figure out a hand crank!"

Justin rolled his eyes, "I'm so glad there were no cameras going..."

Lachlan held up his cell phone, "You want to place bets on that?"

All three boys looked horrified at the gleam in Lachlan's eyes. Fortunately, the three didn't have a great deal of time to dwell on the fact they had been caught totally confused over something so simple since Keith's tired sounding voice came over the handset, "Mr. Taggert says you guys are at the exit?"

"Yeah." Justin muttered while turning his head away from the teasing grin he was getting from the man on top of the APC. It really didn't help, however, since with the echo in the tunnel, he could still hear the man's soft snickers. "Did Mr. Brandt make it?"

"I was sleeping, so not sure where he's at. Just sent him a text. I'll let you know as soon as we get an answer. Remember, he promised he would be at the exit between four minutes ago and before sun-up, so it could be up to a couple more hours."

"I guess we wait then. Let us know when he is ready to open it up."

LCDR Bickford leaned over the rail outside of the bridge and closed his eyes. The last several hours had been what amounted to one endless nightmare. Fortunately, events had become so intensely chaotic, so quickly, there had been no time to dwell on what it all meant. Everything had been a reaction. The initial missile launch, the talking to his son, the opening up on the Buchanan, the boarding of the Buchanan, the triage on the deck, which was still packed with casualties... Even with his eyes closed he could hear the sounds of sea water being pulled through hoses and sprayed on the deck to wash the charred uniform bits, blood and burned flesh, into the waters of the Gulf.

While this sent shivers down his spine, at least he had been able to help some of them. What really bothered him was the fact they had only taken on one hundred sixty-two sailors, of the normal three hundred three crew complement. Of those one hundred sixty-two, the foredeck of the Read held twenty-four body bags of those the medical teams couldn't save, or simply couldn't get to in time. Of those twenty-four bodies, was one of two officers to remain aboard the Buchanan. Of the thirty-eight officers, one was clinging to life, fifteen were confirmed dead; eight, including the ship's commanding officer and XO, had fled, and the others were unaccounted for. From what the officers of the Read had been able to piece together with interviews of Buchanan sailors, a major staff meeting had been ordered on the bridge. Most bridge enlisted had been ordered to leave, and then the order to launch on Austin was issued. Then, before most of the crew on board really knew what was going on, the bridge took a direct hit. Unfortunately, this meant chances were beyond good the vast majority of the officers had been literally blown to bits or quickly succumbed to the intense flames.

However, the most senior officers had not been on the bridge. Instead, they were in Weapon's Control, with a small contingent of Marines who had been flown in only a few days before. It had been those who had taken the two helicopters and fled once the ship had been crippled. While this was horrendous and flatly criminal, there was something else weighing on the Read's XO. The worst part, at least in LCDR Bickford's mind, was the fact they had to abandon the rescue attempt early and back off before the ship could be totally searched. Instead, because of the poison missiles and uncontrolled fires aboard the Buchanan, Commander Kopland gave the order to back off and move a full kilometer up wind. This left those still aboard the Buchanan no choice but to jump into the waves. The problem was, many were either trapped or too injured to do so. Then, a few who did, didn't live long as the salt water of the Gulf hit badly burned flesh overwhelming them with pain. In simple terms, several drowned because they had lost consciousness before they could grab on to life vests or floating debris.

Fifteen minutes after the Read pulled back, the fire within the hull of the Buchanan reached the forward magazines and tore the ship asunder. Those who were still aboard, along with those close to the ship, never stood a chance. It took only ten more minutes before the mortally wounded ship rolled nose up and slipped beneath the waves. Even then, the crew of the Read could do nothing but wait and watch. Thirty agonizing minutes passed before Commander Kopland ordered the launch of the assault rafts to go after anyone still left in the water. The pair of rafts returned with only a handful more, three of which died before they could be given atropine for nerve gas exposure. The Read's two helicopters circled the area looking for signs of life, but returned with only a single survivor after another hour long search.

Forcing his eyes open, LCDR Bickford couldn't look at the injured and dead littering the deck. Instead, he scanned the waters. The sky was crystal clear and the moon, even though under a half, gave off enough light for LCDR Bickford to make out a quartet of other ships within eyesight. The first was their sister ship, the USS John Worden. A firefight between the XO and his supporters and the Captain and the majority of the crew had done serious damage to several systems and, even worse, two warheads full of sarin had ruptured causing heavy casualties. Of the three hundred three normal members of the crew, only one hundred seventy-seven were fit for duty. To complicate matters, of the thirty-eight officers, only nine were left who were loyal to the commanding officer. Four other officers were alive, but had been part of the attempted mutiny which happened as soon as the Worden's CO refused to launch on Fort Bliss, Texas. Instead, the man fired interceptors taking out part of the strike package meant for Austin disobeying orders which came directly from the Pentagon.

Of the other three ships sailing with the makeshift fleet, two were Coast Guard cutters. The first was the 170' Riptide, a Coastal Patrol Craft. The ship had originally been built for the US Navy but had been transferred to the Coast Guard to beef up security in the Gulf following the crushing of the Mexican army. Renegade units fleeing the fighting had taken to piracy so the Coast Guard needed a few ships with heavier guns to combat the problem. The second Coast Guard ship was the 270' Cherokee, a large anti-drug ship with three helicopters. The commanders of the two ships combined to take out an attempted assault landing at Port Arthur, Texas.

As it turned out, the attack on Austin was only part of the attack on the State of Texas. Shortly after the missiles hit Austin, the USS Rottweiler, an amphibious assault ship, and a pair of escorts moved on Port Arthur with a unit of Marines. The initial assault was successful, but quickly ran into a major supply problem. Since the Governor of Texas had gotten the word out in advance, the Port Arthur Coast Guard Station had already gone on alert and had recalled ships. The Riptide and the Cherokee, with the help of two other Coast Guard ships, fought a forty minute pitched battle with the Rottweiler and her two escorts. In the end, one of the Coast Guard ships was sunk and the other too badly damaged to sail. However, the Rottweiler's escorts had both been destroyed and the assault ship finally surrendered with multiple hull breaches. This left the quick strike Marine task force's supply ship unprotected and full of supplies further off the coast. It was this ship which was now the fifth one of the small fleet.

Unable to run, and with only a contingent of fifty men on board, the supply ship was quickly and easily taken. In turn, this left the Marines without supplies, so while they managed to gain a beachhead in Texas, they were not able to push east and link up with the expeditionary force assaulting Louisiana. Making things harder on the Marines, the Coast Guard started shelling their positions in and around the Coast Guard Station forcing them to flee further inland. This allowed Texas loyal forces, with the help of surviving Coast Guard ground based assets, to retake the station. However, there was heavy fighting being reported in and around Beaumont, Texas. How much of this was released inmates and how much was related to the remnants of the Marine task force was not known.

However, the task force had been given updates on the situation in the Gulf which fell into the hands of the Commander of the Port Arthur Coast Guard Station. The commander used the order to destroy the USS John Worden in the opposite way those giving the orders in Washington wanted. He sent the captured navel supplies, with two escort ships, to find and help the Worden. The radar of the Cherokee picked up the signature of the burning and listing USS John Winslow and in turn found the Worden and the Read. It was a tense few minutes, but with the prospect of supplies and additional friendly ships, Commander Kopland took a chance. A radio message was sent to the Coast Guard Station and the commander there turned over fleet command of the two cutters to Commander Kopland to "help defend against illegal orders issued by President Ashwood and to protect the Texas coast".

The makeshift fleet was now sailing back toward the Texas coastline, but was staying well clear of New Orleans, since a massive Ashwood loyal expeditionary force had moved into the port and had quickly taken well more than half the state of Louisiana since landing ground forces. This meant the oil pipelines and refineries in Louisiana were well behind Ashwood lines.

Because of this, and the fact that Florida also seemed to be strongly Ashwood, the supplies captured by the Coast Guard were extremely important. It was these supplies on the fifth ship of the fleet, the USNS Provider, where LCDR Bickford really focused his attention. She was the major prize. In fact, she was the lifeline to survival. This fleet resupply ship was nearly full, carrying almost 18,000 barrels of fuel and 6,000 tons of supplies including food, repair equipment, and ammunition. Even better, the Provider had clearly been meant to resupply destroyers in the Gulf as well, since part of the armaments were replacement missiles and main gun ammo. Furthermore, since two Coast Guard ships had to be abandoned, the surviving crews, who were clearly not loyal to President Ashwood, were filling in spots on the Worden and had totally taken over the operations of the Provider.

The real problem now, though, was what to do. All attempts to establish any kind of satellite communications had failed. Making matters worse, what radio chatter they could get was fragmented or gave wildly inconsistent reports. This included crazy reports about a good chunk of California being in flames following a massive earthquake. Three things were crystal clear. One, the US was now at a state of civil war. Two, Louisiana was being hit hard by a powerful Marine Expeditionary force and was going to fall to Ashwood forces within a day or two. Three, Texas was holding its own, barely, but other states were jumping on board to support it.

What was needed now was a mission. They could protect a small portion of the Texas coast for a short while, but four smaller warships and one supply ship would not be able to do much should Ashwood direct serious forces against them and the command staff of all the ships knew it. Still, they had to do what they could. Unfortunately, wars were not won by being on the defensive. But what could this ragtag group of ships do to help turn the tide of battle? LCDR Bickford looked up at the vastness of the stars overhead and spoke to no one, or to the universe, "Ashwood you either tried to kill, or did kill, my son, and by the name of whatever entity may be out there, I am going to kick the crap out of you for it! Just give us a target and let us help flip this whole damned situation around so I can put a bullet in Ashwood's brain!"

President Ashwood stared at his face in the mirror in the executive bathroom attached to his private room in the bunker. What he saw didn't make him happy. There were dark bags under his eyes and there was more grey than there had been only a few days ago. He knew his body needed sleep, but his brain simply would not allow it. There was too much to do, too many orders to give, too much at stake, too many to punish for their ineptitude.

As he splash some water on his face and dripped some eye drops in his eyes to hide how red they were, he spoke to his reflection as if expecting an answer, "Why couldn't Texas just stop existing, just like my plan had been from the start? Why hadn't Bryce been smashed like an ant under the boot of a loyal soldier? How had top notch Army of God infiltrators been bested by a group of boys? How come my people didn't snatch Scott Race when they grabbed the little shit's brother? What the hell happened to my satellites? How in the hell could such a perfect set of plans, years in the making, fall apart so damned easily?"

He looked back into the mirror as if willing the face looking back at him to suddenly start talking and giving him answers. "Damn, I look like shit and I need some sleep! I need to find someone to trust... Someone to run the show while I take a few hours..." He pounded his fist on the marble sink counter a couple of times allowing the pain to wake him up a bit more, while also savoring the feeling of his fists striking something. This got a slight grin out of him as his hand slammed down again, just so he could feel the strike and relish in the pain. "If only I could be punching the shit out of Scott Race like this! He has to be the one to blame, which means Grant managed to lie to the interrogators!"

Suddenly his eyes narrowed as he figured out who was really at fault for this whole debacle; it had been the failure of the two NSA interrogators and the follow-up AoG scouts! They are the ones who didn't crack Grant before sending him to the island! The next question followed almost instantly. Did they want him to fail? Was this some sort of AoG set up? If not, then the other possibility was just as bad, if not worse. Were they so incompetent as to just totally screw-up an interrogation with a twelve-year-old boy? No matter what the answer was, he knew the guilty parties. One he would have to work to eliminate. The other two, however, were very much available to punish! He splashed water on his face and dried it, as he forced himself to first picture the faces of the two agents. With the faces in his mind, it didn't take long for him to come up with more details about them. Remembering faces, names and places was a prerequisite of being a good politician, so within a few seconds he had all the details he needed to punish those he saw as ultimately responsible for the failures of Starshine.

With a new determination, he moved back out into the command center of the bunker and made his way over to one of the few he fully trusted at this point. Those who saw him moved out of his way. The few who did not were pulled out of the way by those who did. This brought a bit of self satisfaction to President Ashwood, knowing the people around him still very much feared and respected him.

When he spoke, his voice held none of the exhaustion he felt. Instead it came out in a tone of a man in command and from someone with new and high expectations. "Trevor, I don't care how you do it, but I want NSA agents Damon Wingert from Hickory Corner, New Jersey and Mara Jansen of Cardinal Forest, Maryland found and attached to front line units trying to move into Texas. Tell them they need to locate and get us hard Intel from whomever they can find. At the same time, tell whatever commanders are in charge of those units to make sure they are assigned to hardest and nastiest fighting on the front. At the same time, find their families and have them transferred to our secure holding facilities in Richmond."

The young computer genius looked up from his station and nodded even as his fingers moved over the keyboard. "Shouldn't be a problem, sir."

"It better not be a problem, Trev." Ashwood hardened.

The young man forced himself to not roll his eyes while keeping a very neutral face. "I'm the best you got and you know I'm not going to let you down. Just give me a few minutes and I will focus on making it happen. In the meantime, I have something you may want to hear."

President Ashwood's eyebrows went up with curiosity, "Good news I hope?"

"Yeah, I'm thinking you'll find it pretty good," Logan paused and grinned before continuing. "I was able to bypass Langley and hack into a few media servers. Through those, I was able to get details on the EEL science contest and with it, all the names of the contest winners and even managed to snag some family info. I've took the news reports and PR releases of EEL to follow the breadcrumbs from there. It took some doing, but I was able to fully trace several of those brats we saw with Governor Hendrickson. Quite a few of them live out west, but I managed to locate most of them who are east, and with it, I got locations on their families. One is in Connecticut, one in New Jersey, and the other in Indiana. Another one is in Minnesota, but I need some help from Langley's computers on finding them since the media didn't have nearly as much about Alexander Zummer as I was able to pull on the others. On the plus side, the three families to the east are all in our controlled territory."

A sinister grin spread across President Ashwood's face. "Send everything you got to Attorney General Latz. Let him know I expect only the most special of attention given to them. Make sure he understands they have some value as leverage, however, or chances are good of very unfortunate accidents happening to some, if not all of them."

Logan cocked his head to the side, "Hey, boss, the kid in the fancy wheelchair has a fourteen-year-old sister..." Seeing Ashwood smirk and remain silent, he added, "You did say if I helped you I would be able to get a nice piece of meat or two and she's a JV cheerleader..."

Ashwood snickered, "Trev, you get me those two NSA agents directly in harm's way and I'll OK Latz gift wrapping the little slut before he sends her to you."

Noah jerked awake and looked around. It was almost pitch black under the dense cover of trees, but there was just enough light to see everyone else close to him were also wide awake and looking around with a combination of panic and confusion. Before he could find his voice, a loud and powerful explosion came from the east, less than a second later the ground shook from the powerful blast.

Hazel was the first of the young paintballers to find her voice. "What was that?"

Off to Noah's right side, Doug flipped on a flashlight. "Something blew up!"

Todd instantly spoke up, "Dude, you're causing us to stick out like a beacon, kill that stupid thing!"


Debbie slid next to Doug and dropped a shirt out of the backpack she had taken over the end of the light. She then spoke to both Todd and Doug, "Come on, guys. Getting into an argument isn't going to..."

Her words were cut off as the sounds of four distant 'thumps' came to their attention. Confused, they all looked at one another in the dim glow of the light through the brown tee-shirt. Nearly two seconds later they heard an eerie sound of what could only be described as a whistling scream from overhead. The sound faded but only another couple of seconds passed before four more explosions roared to the northwest. This was again followed by movement of the ground under them.

Todd found himself holding his breath, even as the sounds of a pair of thumps came from the north. Again there was the screaming whistling sounds overhead, then a pair of powerful explosions to the south, only these were closer. In fact, the kids could see the glow of fireballs as they erupted into the dark early morning skies. As the ground shook more violently under him, his brain suddenly found a terrifyingly horrible possibility for what was going on. "Holy crud! It exactly like the war movies! It's artillery!"

As more thumps and whistling overhead pierced all the kids' ears, Noah jumped up as it dawned on him what the sounds meant. "It's going right over the top of us! We have to get out of here!" He reached over and grabbed Kent, helping the younger boy to his feet and then assisted getting the backpack straps over the kid's slender shoulders. "Come on, we have to move before they drop one on us!"

"Which way?" Doug asked with a trembling voice as he pulled the backpack he procured over his shoulders, the adrenaline making the heavy pack a whole lot easier to handle than it had been the prior afternoon.

Todd cringed as more the sounds of additional shells screamed overhead in protest over being so violently fired out of the barrels of cannons over two miles away. He waited with a cringe for the explosions which were thankfully too far off to see, but not too far to hear and feel the effects of their slamming into the earth and exploding. He dug out a compass he had found in the pack he had taken and moved close to Doug. Getting his bearings allowed a few more shells to warn the kids of them being between two sides who were not happy with each other. He waited for the explosions and checked directions again. "Sounds like the shots are coming from the north and south and going off northwest and southeast. My vote is to move northeast since I can't hear anything from over there!"

"Sounds good to me!" Debbie agreed without hesitation. "Come on, let's get out of here!"

The others quickly stood, but Harlan wobbled as he stood and fell back to the ground.

Hazel bolted over to her fallen paintball teammate, "Harlan!!"

Todd also moved to help. "What's wrong?"

Harlan made it back up to one knee with Hazel's help. "I feel like crap. If I had any food in me, I think I'd get sick..." A moment later, he gave a few dry heaves before puking up a little stomach acid. Doug moved over with the light even as more artillery arched overhead. The fireball to the south was closer and much more powerful, making things even more urgent.

Noah patted Kent on the shoulder and motioned for him to stay put, as he moved over to Harlan and the other two trying to help him to stand. The light from Doug's flashlight caused him to cringe. Harlan's face was badly swollen and at some point a trio of ticks, attracted to the blood around the boy's broken nose, had taken up residence on Harlan's face. Unfortunately, there was no time to do anything about it, as a trio of even closer explosions and more sounds from overhead announced time was running out. "Can you walk if I grab your pack?"

Harlan took a few deep breaths and followed it with a swig of water from one of the captured canteens offered to him by Hazel. After a precious few seconds he nodded and stood, albeit on wobbly legs. "The guy hurt me worse than I thought or something… My head is pounding and my side hurts real bad."

Kent gulped as another detonation let up the sky to the northwest. "This stream kind-a heads northeast. I think we should follow it so we have water close!"

Noah nodded toward Kent, "I know you hate this, but you being with us might well save our lives. I didn't even think about water."

"Neither did I," Todd admitted. "I just want to get away from here. Good thinking and Noah is right. We are really lucky to have you with us."

Noah hefted up Harlan's pack with Doug's help, "Debbie, Hazel, help him. Doug, keep the light covered, but keep it on and take point with Kent so the two of you have some light. We'll follow your lead. Let's get out of here!"

Going was slow though the dense underbrush, but after nearly two hours and a hint of light on the eastern sky, the group of kids found a rock and earthen dam over the small river they had been following. On the other side, they could just barely make out a gravel road which ran east and west, but to the west it looped up toward the north around a large pond.

Doug pulled the assault rifle off his shoulder and scanned the area while taking a knee. He pointed to the ground next to him and nodded for Kent to take a minute or two of rest while he looked over the area and gave the rest time to catch up. There was a glow coming from the northeast, and distant popping sounds which he could only guess were gunfire, but the direction was difficult to pinpoint, other than it coming from somewhere to the north.

Todd dropped both packs at the edge of the woods, while also pulling his captured rifle. He moved up to Doug and Kent. He couldn't help but pat Kent on the back, "Man, I'm impressed, you haven't slowed us down at all and you haven't complained once even when slogging through some of the deep mud back there."

Kent managed a slight smile at the kind words, "Hiking up the fourteener was way worse than this, and there is no way I'm going to complain, no matter how heavy and big this backpack is." Seeing both the older boys cock their head and stare questioningly at him, he quickly added, "I mean, how could I? I'd look like a baby since you and Noah are carrying two!"

"Yeah, well, you are doing great. Problem is, Harlan isn't. His side is hurting real bad. Heavy breathing is even starting to cause him pain. We need to find a place to let him rest, all of us to clean up and eat, and go through these packs. We still don't know what we have and I, for one, am starving."

Doug nodded in full agreement. "I've got at least a few ticks on me I'd love to get off and the way my underwear band is itching, I'd bet money I got chigger bites really bad around my waistline."

"You and everyone else." Todd grumbled.

Kent glanced over to the two older boys, "I don't think I do..."

"Probably because you were the only smart one," Doug grumbled. "You fell asleep sitting on a fallen log with your back up against a tree. The rest of us bedded down in the underbrush."

"My uncle taught me not to sleep in or around grass and junk cause that's where ticks live. Plus mice can run around you and in the Colorado mountains both can carry sickness and junk."

Todd had to bite back yelling at the boy in front of him for not telling the rest of them this before they picked spots to sleep. To do so was not right, and he knew it, so used all his willpower to keep his voice even and not angry sounding. He did, however, look away and he took a deep breath, "Do us all a big favor and the next time you see us doing something your uncle taught you not to do, warn us."

Kent gulped, "Um, I didn't want you getting mad at me..."

Doug reached over and squeezed Kent's shoulder. "Dude, you are a real trooper and you know stuff we don't. For us, camping is taking out the RV's with the shower and the satellite TV. Actually, I'm beginning to think Noah getting you away from the creepy guy at the Austin airport was God's way of putting you where you can do the most good for all of us."

Todd nodded in full agreement, "Look, Kent, I know you don't know us none, and I may not like you telling me what to do since you are so much younger, but Dad and Mr. Hatchett are always pointing out how I may be a good paintball team leader, but it is only because I know how to use the skills of those on the team. You are on our team, and you have know-how in areas we don't. You say something and I'll make sure we all listen. But you need to speak up if you spot something we are not doing right, understand?"

"OK... Sorry..."

Todd forced a smile, "Forget about it. If anything you not being bit to crap and the rest of us being large bug bites may turn out to be a good thing. It shows us all you really do know more than we do about really roughing it. Hearing you say it and seeing it are two different things. Besides, little dude, after everything you have been through, and not knowing us, you are doing great. I'll promise you this much, though. Once all this is over and we figure out a way to get Noah's dad and Mr. Calderwood back, we are going to figure out a way for you to come out and train with us. I want you part of the Griffins."

"Right now, though, we need to get Harlan someplace safe. I think he is in worse shape than he is letting on and even without a pack has been getting worse. What direction do you think we should go?"

Kent's eyes went wide with astonishment at being asked the question, but took a deep breath and looked around. "The lake looks pretty nasty and there is fires and shooting from that way." Kent pulled out a compass he had found in a side pouch on the pack he was lugging around. "North still seems bad. All the shooting and bad stuff is up there somewhere. But it sounds like we need to find a place to get inside, so I say we cross the stream here and go east. This way Harlan doesn't have to walk over branches, trees, and junk. The other good thing is we still have flowing water next to us since it follows the road and it's a road, so it has to lead somewhere, right?"

Todd looked over at Doug who shrugged, "I sure don't have anything better and he is pretty much right. The gravel road looks kept up, so I don't think it dead ends at nothing and it will get us out of the mud. Hopefully it will let Harlan walk a little easier."

"The only problem is, we will be in the open and it'll be easy to see us and the sun will be up in the next thirty minutes or so," Doug countered. "I sure don't want those military guys finding us. After all, we kind of stole their friends' stuff."

"Then we see how far we can get before then." Todd commanded. "Stay on point with Kent and keep your eyes open. If you spot trouble, we'll lay low next to the river."

"OK." Doug nodded as he stood.

Behind the three boys, Hazel moved up and grabbed the extra pack Todd had been carrying. She spoke up as Todd started to say something. "If we are going to be on the road I can take it for a little while and you are wiped. So is Noah. Debbie is taking the extra one he has been carrying. We might have to give them back pretty fast, but you both need a break. You two can help Harlan for a while. He's being a pain in the ass with not wanting help when we all know he needs it. He won't argue about either of you helping him, so we all win for a while."

Reluctantly Todd nodded as he moved back into the wood line to help Harlan.

Slightly less than an hour later, and with the sun coming up, the seven kids entered the outskirts of a small town. Directly in front of them was a busted down fence with a half knocked down metal building. The smoke coming out of the ruined structure told all the kids the damage had been done recently. Inside the formally fenced in area seven school buses were either smoldering, full of bullet holes, or in one case, totally shredded from an explosion. The bodies of three people could be seen. One was hanging out of the door of one of the shot up buses. The other two were out in front of the half collapsed metal building. There was also the corpse of a bullet riddled German Shepherd in the middle of the street.

Up at the corner, a truck, much like the one they had been tossed into at the airfield, was charred and still smoking, and just around the corner, almost obscured by smoke and trees was a burning armored vehicle.

Deep tractor ruts in the soil next to the road, where the gavel turned into pavement, showed where something big, with treads instead of tires, swiveled sharply. Dozens of spent bullet casings littered the ground around the turn marks. All was quiet save for some crackling and pops of fire from the north and some very distant explosions from farther to the northwest. Several plumes of smoke told the small group there were multiple fires in the area and one was just around the tree line.

Kent felt a shiver roll down his spine and he found himself staring at the bodies even as he took a step toward them. His mind went where any eleven-year-old boy would go upon seeing this degree of carnage in real life for the first time. "Is this the making of a zombie movie or something?"

Doug grabbed Kent's collar and yanked him back, preventing him from showing himself to anyone on the street. "Dude, this is real, not a movie. Now get a hold of yourself and stay down and behind the rest of us. You know backpacking and long distance hiking; we know paintball and squad tactics. Stay back. There is nothing remotely safe or fake about any of this!"

As dawn broke, the skies over Lexington, Kentucky were heavy with the smell of smoke and cordite. Outside the building, Officer Cole Rail found himself in a world that seemed to have went insane. Truth be told, the makeup of those he was sharing the building with only added to this feeling. First and foremost, he currently found himself with several juvenile delinquents. The rest, a smattering of civilians, ran the gambit. They ranged from a welder to a soccer mom, from a pair of high school lovers to a nine-year-old skateboarder with a broken leg, and a great deal in-between. Looking out the window, Officer Rail noted the smoke was thick enough to block direct sunlight. The city had gone nuts. He made his way over to the upper west window to stand next to Ken. He found it hard to believe this was the same kid he had arrested less than a year ago, on Christmas Eve. Either the youngster had totally changed, or was one hell of an actor. Getting a nod and a slight grin from the boy, he moved up and ruffled the boy's mop of blond hair as they stared out into the gloomy light of the smoke filled street below. He could just see part of his squad car, or at least what was left of it. While he couldn't make it all out, the red paint on the side said something about 'killing cops' and he could tell the trunk was open.

Seeing no immediate threats, he pointed to the door, "Go grab some water and a bite to eat, Ken. You have been on look out for almost six hours and you could use some sleep."

Ken gave a thumb's up sign and left without saying a word.

This gave Cole a chance to be alone for a few minutes. He used this to collect his thoughts before scanning the alley below. What he saw made him physically ill. In the alley between the building he was in and another small warehouse, were no less than thirteen bodies. Eleven had been there from the prior afternoon's firefights. The first had been ex-cons freed by Executive Order and pardoned by the Ashwood Administration. The others were unknowns, but wore olive drab fatigues. At least they all had been wearing them. Three of the bodies no longer had clothing on other than boxers. At this Cole chewed on his inner lip, wondering why anyone would take the clothing off dead people, especially clothing which had to have been bloody. He shook off the thought. It really didn't matter. What did matter was the fact all of the men wearing olive colored uniforms had been heavily armed and four of them had been in a machinegun armed Humvee. It was as if a foreign military had appeared in the middle of Lexington without warning and didn't seem to care who or what they shot at.

The final two bodies in the alley had fallen sometime during the night. This bothered him some, since either Ken or Jamaal had to have been on watch when the two fell. However, they were not easy to see in the daylight, let alone in the middle of the night, so he reluctantly shrugged it off. They had done what was asked. They made sure the building stayed secure and everyone inside had made it through the night, when from the sights and sounds of things, many had not.

Cole pulled up binoculars found in the Humvee and took a closer look at the two new dead figures below. One looked to have been knifed while the other shot repeatedly. One was a man, the other a woman and both of the new victims had the look of civilians to them, but it was impossible to know for sure. The worst part was, he was a cop and it had occurred less than a hundred yards from where he now looked down on at the corpses. They had died on his streets and he had not known they had been murdered right under his own nose until hours later. Of course the gunfire, which was still very prevalent from basically all around them, had allowed these two to become part of the background noise, but it sure didn't make looking at them and knowing it was his duty to protect and serve any easier to swallow.

With a shake of his head, he scanned the alley and the nearby buildings with the binoculars until he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat from behind him. He spun, saw Tyrone, and sighed in relief. The irony of Cole being relieved was not lost on either the police officer or the former, felony-convicted black teen. With a slight grin at the look he was getting from the sixteen-year-old, he motioned for Tyrone to switch places so he could take a break and get some water. As much as he hated to admit it, the young man had kind of grown on him over the past nineteen plus hours. For a kid with multiple drug possession busts, an assault conviction, and a felony possession of a firearm, all by the age of fourteen, he had a great deal of potential. The old adages of having been born on the wrong side of the tracks, and the street being a teacher of harsh lessons were all wrapped up into Tyrone. While all the teens had been bluntly, sometimes too much so, honest, Officer Rail found it hard to believe Tyrone's steadfast and proud statements over having only sold and transported drugs. The young man totally denied ever doing any illegal substance.

As Tyrone moved up to the window, Officer Rail hoped it was true, but figured what was done was done. The other thing was, it was pointless to argue over something he had no proof of. Besides, the kid was polite and seemed to look up to him. The strange thing was all of the former youth detention 'guests' of "Grandma Baker's Bible Group" showed a great deal of respect toward him.

Before he could say anything, Tyrone gave him a nod, "I gots this. Take some real down time, Cop. Night's over and we'll wake you if we need you. You takin' fuckin' cat naps ain't doin' none a us no good. We need your ass at full if the shit come down on us."

Cole cringed at the language, but not for the first time he refused to let it get under his skin. The words were stark and grated him in all the wrong ways, but like it or not, they held a great deal of truth and wisdom. However, he figured he needed to try to work at changing the foul verbiage coming out on the boy's mouth. "Tell you what, Tyrone, you cut back on the cussing some and I'll take a shot at getting some real sleep."

The black kid's face took on a totally puzzled look as he spoke, "What the hell does cussin' and you gettin' some sleep have ta do with each other, man?"

Cole turned to look right into Tyrone's eyes. "Do you know what I see when I look at you, Tyrone?"

"A nigger who should be in jail?"

Cole hand impacted his own forehead hard enough to be heard in the next room, which in turn brought Jamaal and Doyle in from the next room.

Jamaal sharply eyed Tyrone and was first to say something, "You OK, Cop?"

While Tyrone held up his hand and took a step back from both Cole and Jamaal, Officer Rail spoke up, "It was me, Jamaal, relax."

"Sounded like you got bitch-slapped, man," Doyle interjected as he brushed some of his amber hair away from his brown eyes so he could give Tyrone a questioning stare.

"I was smacking my own forehead, and Tyrone was trying to get me to get some real sleep, guys, honest. I was just trying to get him to back off on the language you all use too much."

Seeing Tyrone nod, Doyle cocked his head hard to the left and stared questioningly at Cole, "Um, if you say so, I'll try, but what the hell difference does cussing make?"

Seeing he had the undivided attention of all three teens, he stepped away from the window so he could safely look at all three. "Guys, let me just toss this out there and I want you all to think it over, OK?"

"Fire away, Cop." Jamaal stated without any hesitation.

Tyrone and Doyle quickly nodded and moved so they could see Cole.

"First, Jamaal, I know you don't believe this, but I don't see skin color first. I have had four area patrol partners since I joined the force. While not in the same car, we covered the same zones and each other's backs. Of those four, one was Hispanic, two black and the other a female, a white woman. Out of those four, one is now my best friend and was my best man. His name is Deon, and his skin is the same color as yours, if not a bit darker.

"What I see when I look at you is not a black kid. I see a young man with a pretty promising future."

Hearing and seeing the three boys all but blow off the comment he held up his hands, "No, I'm serious. Just do me a favor; stop and listen for a second." Seeing all three at least return to looking at him, he spoke quickly, "I'm being straight with you here. Two days ago you were in juvie. Now, you are not only free, but pardoned. You are not criminals, you have no black marks on your records. Ashwood may have done this to screw up this country after he lost, but you didn't take the bait. None of you did. Instead you hit the streets armed and came to not only my aid, but the aid of everyone else in this building. All you have to do is walk down those steps and look to your right. There is a little boy down there with a broken leg who looks at all of you as heroes! Think about that, guys! A little WHITE boy who smiles at you, even with all the pain he is in, each and every time any of you walk by him. Is that not one of the biggest and best things any of you could have hoped for less than forty-eight hours ago?"

Seeing he now had their undivided attention, he pushed on, "Now I am asking you to take this new status a step further. You are outstanding young men. You have no criminal history any longer and can do what you want, but cussing, calling each other 'nigger', 'cracker', and 'spic' isn't going to enhance your reputations. It isn't going to get you further in your educations. Instead it will drag you down to where you just were days ago. Do you think that nine-year-old boy's mom is going to want you around with the way you talk? Does she want her boy to be exposed to the F.U. words and all the other garbage constantly coming out of all of you? On the other hand, clean up the gutter talk and I will bet money that woman will openly invite any and all of you into her home once this is over and will want her boy to be around you all.

"You took the right path once you were released. You could have been out on the street robbing, mugging, looting, stealing, and murdering. But, no, you did what was right. The little good book you each have in your pockets, and I have seen you all read from, is your guide. Now take it to the next level. Show others not just a change in behavior but attitude as well..."

Tyrone interrupted, "Grandma Baker didn't give a shit how we talked, man. What diff does it make?"

Jamaal gave Tyrone a light shove, "Let the cop finish, man. None a us would dare talk over Grandma Baker!"

At this, Cole smiled. "This Grandma Baker must be a heck of a woman!"

"You have no clue, Cop." Tyrone sighed as he looked at the ground, "Jamaal's right, though. She'd be all over our asses if we cut her off, so I'm sorry."

"Now there is a great example of what I am talking about guys. You want to really get somewhere in life, then drop the nasty speech. Any boss you could ever get will never hire someone he hears someone say 'she'd be all over our asses.' On the other hand, if you said, 'she'd be all over our cases', the same potential boss would see a whole lot more personal skills."

"What diff does it make?" Doyle demanded to know.

Cole scratched his chin, then nodded as an idea came to him. "How would you feel if you went to buy a burger and the people behind the counter were talking the way you all do?"

Jamaal gave a little snort, "OK, yeah, I'd be wondering if they spit in my shit or somethin'."

Doyle snickered, "Yeah, true that!"

Cole eyed the three boys, "So..."

Tyrone nodded, but didn't look very happy about it. "I guess, but Grandma Baker didn't care none."

"I bet she did, but she saw something special in all of you. I bet she overlooked much of the language and may have even laughed at it. If she did, it was to show you she accepted you for who you are. None of you would have listened to a word out of her had she not let some of your rougher side come through. She started the change, took you from where you were to where you are. Now I am asking you to take the next step." He paused to give his words a few seconds to sink in. "I'd be lying to you if I said one of the reasons I haven't slept much is because I still don't want to trust you. However, I have managed to doze off and each time I wake up one or more of you all are keeping watch. You have changed my thinking about you all, but only because I am seeing first hand who you really are. Most people you only get one shot to make an impression. How you talk is a huge part of the first impression and it is a lasting one. All I am saying is think it over. I don't expect you to change overnight, but I do hold out high hopes and even expectations with each and every one of you. I'd bet money on this Grandma Baker having the same thoughts.

"There is one thing I will ask you to try, though."

"What?" Jamaal asked with a skeptical look plastered over his entire face.

"The next time a few of you are together around some of those we are all protecting, talk without the cuss words and without the racial slurs. Get a couple of your buddies to do the opposite and then see how those folks treat you compared to your counterparts. It's up to you, but I'd place money of you being a bit surprised."

Tyrone chewed on the inside of his lip for a few seconds before being the first of the three teens to speak, "OK, I'm game." He then grinned widely as his voice took on a hint of a teasing tone. "But I still say all them crackers are gunna see is a street nigger."

Cole couldn't help but snicker and give Tyrone a firm squeeze on the boy's shoulder. "We'll see. Now where are all the others?"

Jamaal winced, but decided to tell the truth, "Eldon and 'lonzo managed to snag some eats from basement of a corner store a few blocks down. Them two fools almost get snagged by them green wearin' clowns with the guns, but they hid under the stairs with what they snagged while them green wearin' pricks pretty much emptied the place. Turns out them dudes all talk in Spanish, man, and 'lonzo and Eldon do too!"

"So?" Cole demanded to know.

"Eldon's a joker, man, but he's a sneak too. Him and 'lonzo hear 'nuff to know them green wearin' bastards be snagging all the eats so they decide who gets it and who don't. 'lonzo say one a them fools say it worked to control people back where they all come from and shit. Ah, um... from some Agentiner or somethin'."


"Yeah, man." Tyrone nodded, "You gots it."

"OK, interesting, and disturbing, but what does this have to do with where the others are at?"

Doyle rolled his eyes. "Come on, Cop, you saw Eldon jack the Hummer! Tommy be just as wacked in the head, man. Them three all think they can jack one a them food trucks since Alonzo knows how to drive a stick. They took the least bloody of the green army dudes' duds and gunna get us a truck a eats, man!"

Cole smacked his head as he turned pale, "Oh, shit!"

Jamaal grinned from ear to ear, "Just like a cop, for ya! Him tell us not to cuss only ta turn around and cuss in our faces!"

Levi's prepaid burner cell phone lit up as a text message appeared on it. He read it and tossed it over to Kermit with a giant sigh of relief.

Kermit looked at the text message and nodded, "This is good; they used your backup phone, not mine, so they have a safe way out and the airline guy and his three buddies came through. We should go get them."

Levi shook his head in a rare disagreement with his friend. "By now everyone, who is anyone, knows Governor Hendrickson's life was saved by those kids and connections will be made to us. Bringing them here only puts them in harm's way all over again."

"So we do what?"

"We wait until we have confirmation the yacht is safe and fully stocked and we get them to it, or we find another one. From what we have been able to piece together with Hendrickson, the loyalty of the Coast Guard seems to be as split as the rest of the country. Freeport Coast Guard Station seems to be for Ashwood, while there is no question the Port Arthur Coast Guard Station is totally loyal to Texas. The Ashwood Marine landings were crushed because of the Coast Guard there. If the yacht was in Port Arthur and not Freeport, I'd be all about getting the kids and heading out. Unfortunately, it isn't and if we want a lot of these other rug rats we have secured and safe, then we need a second ship as well."

Kermit frowned, "We still will have to get the hell out of the Gulf..."

"Yeah, but once we hit open water we can use EEL technology to stay away from possible threats. Remember, something took out satellites, so Ashwood is blind unless he has a ship spot us. Then they would have to know who or what we are. A yacht is not a target unless Ashwood knows who it belongs to and he would still have to find it or them. I'm betting there are a whole lot of yachts hitting the water to escape the fighting. We'd just be one of many."

Zenon chimed in from across the room, "Shouldn't we at least wake up the boss and let him know the kids can get out?"

"NO!" Both Kermit and Levi spoke as one.

Levi quickly went on to explain his thinking, "We need Mr. Triumph's brain working, not on this, but on tech problems. He won't do the kids or us any good if he is too tired to think. This is the first time I have seen him really sleep since the fight outside of Breckenridge, so we need to leave him alone. Besides, all he is going to do is drive us insane. He knows nothing about fighting, tactics, or security. This means we will have to spend more time trying to teach him and assure him we are doing the right things, than actually doing them. Or do I need to remind you how he shoots a gun?"

"OK, for the love of... Yeah, let's not go down said road." Zenon agreed with a roll of his eyes as the thought of having to run security concerns past Fredrick made him cringe inwardly. "So, let's say we get them to the island, what's to stop Ashwood from sending someone to take or even kill them?"

At this point Mitch jumped into the conversation. "Once we get those kids to Rum Cay, they will be hidden and out of reach of Ashwood unless he wants to go up against the Bahamas and its allies. EEL holds a great deal of sway out there. Besides, let's face it, Ashwood is not stupid. Power-hungry and a bit unbalanced, yes, but not stupid. He has to know the Island Consortium will back the Bahamas and EEL has a strong influence with both the Consortium and the Bahamas. At this point, Ashwood controls about half the country, but he can't afford to pull resources away to chase after kids in another country. This is doubly true since we are talking about an alliance which has the potential to help shut shipping off to the southeast U.S. We know the whole Navy isn't loyal to him, since Craig's dad contacted Craig about the missiles and we know the whole city was not hit. This means there is a war going on out on the waves as well. We can only hope it is going poorly for Ashwood.

"But no matter what is happening out on the open water, at this point we start moving into my area of expertise. Supply and financial power is my playing field and where Ashwood's real understanding comes out of as well. Like me, he is a money and supply guy. I am sure he has some supply line plans. It'd be nice to figure out part of those plans, so we could really hurt him. However, he has to know if he starts splitting what he controls the whole thing will fall apart. He will never be able to hold what he has taken, let alone hold on to supply lines. Whatever he set up is not dependent on the power of the Dollar, so he has forged outside alliances where the Dollar doesn't matter. One of the reasons I am working so hard to prop up the Dollar is it goes directly against whatever Ashwood is trying to accomplish, but I am getting off track. What really matters is supply lines.

"I am betting one of the reasons he took out San Fran was to screw with our ability to get supplies from the west side of the country through the whole state of California. He was probably counting on doing the same thing in Texas, but failed. Why else would he target both Port Arthur and Freeport?"

Mitch paused as he let the others in the room mull over what he had just said before he started speaking again, "I still don't know what is happening in Brownsville, but I'd bet money on Ashwood attacking there as well. He is clearly in league with what is left of Mexico since they came over the border and are actively attacking us, so part of his game plan was to cut a huge swath through the southern part of the U.S., control all the ports except the West Coast, and wipe out outside supplies through California. With the devaluation of the dollar, the upper West Coast ports would not be able to buy anything, so he would win in a matter of days. Keep in mind we have heard nothing from Washington state yet. So he may well have hit the Seattle port as well.

"Plain and simple, we screwed him by holding onto Texas." Mitch couldn't help but snicker, "Actually a group of eleven to thirteen-year-olds did most of it. But hey, we are holding on by the skin of our teeth and getting better organized by the minute, thanks to the entire government of Texas surviving the attempted alpha strike. Now the game has changed and Ashwood is smart enough to change with it. He needs to consolidate what he has, which is why he dropped the bridges, effectively cutting the country in half. He needs to establish whatever economy he had planned there before it all falls apart on him. As part of it, he needs to bring in outside financial assets and supplies to continue to fight this war.

"Without those two things, he will never be able to hold what he has, let alone try to push into the western states. Chasing kids and risking others helping to cut tenuous supply lines is something he would never do because he thinks like I do. The world revolves around money and the economy!"

Zenon waited to make sure Mitch was finished before making sure he understood, "So you are saying if we get the kids to Rum Cay, they will be out of Ashwood's hair and he will forget about them?"

"Forget, no. Given the chance he will strike at them. He may have already gone after family members where he could. From everything I know about the man, he is a vicious bastard who holds a grudge. But he didn't make the fortunes he made by not understanding the market forces and the way local and global economies work. Keep in mind, he managed to do almost all of this in secret, which means he has massive backing from people who can hold a secret for a really long time. The whole thing didn't start to unravel until he tried to take out Bryce. But even with that he almost pulled it off, probably would have without the kids hacking... Which I am still trying to figure out how to cover up or blame on others somehow..."

Levi snickered, "I bet I can have some contacts in the Mossad put something together that will be a global cover, but the rumor mill and conspiracy nuts will have a field day with it."

"You think you have sources to pull off such a stunt be my flipping guest! In the meantime, I say we leave them in the bunker where they are safe, out of the way, and somewhat contained. At the same time, we need to find a way to get a couple of large ships someplace safe. Somewhere we can load our young rebels into them and get their butts to an island where they can't get themselves or anyone else into any trouble."

Kermit busted up laughing, "Those boys ARE trouble!"

Just outside of Breckenridge, Texas three men approached the shattered remains of two school buses and five black SUV's. The shorter of the three moved up with a MAC-10 sub-machinegun toward the remnants of the first SUV. He quickly stepped back, shaking his head, while motioning for the taller of his two companions to close in on the school buses while he angled up to high ground to cover the area.

The tall man didn't look happy, but did as instructed. He made it to the back of the trailing bus, looked in and quickly moved around to the bullet pock-marked SUV off to the north. He stopped to pick up an M-16 off the ground, checked it out and slung it over his shoulder before making a beeline back to the short man. He spoke in a whisper, using his native Spanish, even though they had not seen a thing since putting eyes on the outskirts of Breckenridge. "Man, Burto, this is crazy. There's bodies all over the place. Even a few kids still in the bus. No one has even been by to collect guns." He patted the M-16 for emphasis.

Humberto responded after scanning back in the direction of Breckenridge with binoculars, "Not much left of the town, from what we saw. Still only seeing a couple of Hummers and a single military truck. Maybe they don't even know about this."

The third man responded as he came over from the second bus, "Someone was here. There is marks a couple of helos came in, grabbed injured and bugged out. There is also a trail leading to the lake, but with the wind and the rotor wash, I can't tell how many. There is bloody bandages and a saline wash bottle right by where the helo with skids took off, though."

Humberto frowned deeply as he looked at the man who just spoke. "So Texas grabbed the living and left the dead or some shit, Luis?"

"Kind of seems like it," Luis shrugged, "Who knows, maybe they came in with a med team or some crap, grabbed the wounded and just haven't gotten back here yet to clean up the mess. I mean, they probably haven't even cleaned up the two yet. Plus, it sure looks like a couple of the feds were alive for a while after the firefight and no one checked on them. One even wrote, 'Mass-Battle armor' in his own blood on small notepad." He handed the breast-pocket-sized notebook over to Humberto.

Humberto looked at it with puzzlement written on his face, "What in the hell does 'Mass-Battle armor' mean?"

The third man spoke up, "It's a vid game. My kids play it all the time. You get a suit of armor and upgrade it as you gain victories and unlock new systems and crap. Pretty fun actually..."

Luis gave the man a light, playful, shove as he spoke, "From the way Jayson says it, you are on the game consoles more than he is. He was saying you make them do their homework while you play on the stupid things."

Humberto snickered, "Yeah, Ernesto, I hear the same thing from your daughter!"

Ernesto couldn't help but grin, "No way in hell I'm lettin' them kick their old man's ass in no game, 'specially a shooting one!"

This got some chuckles out of the other two men. After a few seconds of silence Humberto stood, "Let's see what we can salvage and check to see if anyone else left us any other clues." He paused and looked down at the blood scrawled message, wondering what the dying person had been trying to tell whoever found the notebook. "One thing is for sure, the SUV's are fed issued and at least two of the bodies were ATF, or their ID's say they were."

Luis gazed across the area before standing, "Still an ass-load of weapons lying around, and the way things are going, we better grab everything we can scrounge. Also, maybe we should take some blood samples, see if we can get Raf some DNA to play with. With any luck some of the blood will be from whoever hit the feds and Raf will be able to get a match in a computer somewhere."

Half an hour later the men were finishing up their sweep when Ernesto noticed something odd hanging off the edge of the flipped over bus. He almost ignored it, but the way the black plastic-looking piece hung down from the frayed metal of the bus just looked off. "Hey, 'Berto! Give me a boost. I want to take a look at something!"

Humberto come over and looked up at the black chunk, "What the hell is that?"

"No clue man, but it sure ain't part of the bus and it looks like there's a part of a buckle hanging off it."

Humberto cupped his hand so his partner could use it as a step up. He then stood, so Ernesto could get up to the odd looking hunk.

Ernesto pulled on it, but quickly let go, "What the fuck? it's like metal, not plastic!"

Luis moved over and looked up, "Part of an SUV bumper or something?"

"No, man." Ernesto shook his head as he put on a glove and pulled on it with everything he had. While Humberto couldn't see what was happening, Luis could, "Holy, shit! It's cuttin' into the metal of the bus and it's stronger than the bus metal!"

"Yeah, weird shit, man!" Ernesto snarled as he gritted his teeth and pulled with everything he had. Suddenly the sharp edge cut through the metal on the bottom of the bus, which allowed the man to pull it free. He fell backwards with a yelp, but as he hit the ground he triumphantly held up the hunk of black materiel.

Luis moved and took it from Ernesto's hand even as Ernesto spoke, "There is blood up there. Someone was hit bad!"

Humberto watched and listened as Luis smacked the small black piece against the bus. It made an odd clunk sound, not plastic, not metal.

Luis carefully grabbed it and used the edge to slash at the bus' muffler. The eyes of all three men went wide as the small black hunk with a buckle hanging off of it slashed through the muffler as if it was made of aluminum foil.

Humberto pulled his ten millimeter side arm. "Drop that bitch, let's see what a bullet does to it!"

Luis tossed it down and took a step back, helping Ernesto to stand.

A moment later there was a single shot and a yelp of pain as the point blank shot ricocheted off the black hunk and grazed Humberto's side. "Son-of-a-bitch!" Humberto roared as he took a step back and put a hand to his side.

At the same time Ernesto scrambled over to the shot object and stared at it with wide eyes, "Not even a dent!"

"No freakin' way!" Luis gasped as he moved up to it and looked down. Sure enough the whole piece had been pushed into the soil, but remained in the same shape.

Humberto checked his side and let out a breath of both pain and relief at seeing the bullet had just grazed him and it would not even need medical attention. "Oh, screw this! This is like alien tech or some shit! One of you get a blood sample from up there and the bag whatever in the hell that is. I'm calling Raf for an extraction! He's the Attorney General and he needs to see this!"

Liam hit the throttle hard and spun the dirt bike off the two lane road and into the thick undergrowth. He then laid the bike down on a skid as best as he could, rolling as he did so to avoid getting seriously hurt.

Out on the road, the small convoy of three military trucks being escorted by a machinegun armed Humvee rounded the bend only seconds later, but it was clear the gunner in the turret of the Humvee saw something, as a burst of fire shredded the trees on the side of the road. While none of them found Liam, one did find his dirt bike. Liam cringed as the bullet pierced the gas tank. Moments later the highly flammable liquid hit the exhaust and ignited.

Liam didn't wait to see what would happen next. Instead he grabbed his pack, yanked the GPS unit off the handlebars and ran deeper into the woods. Behind him, he heard the small convoy stop and people get out. After fifteen minutes of moving at a brisk pace he stopped, took a knee and listened. For nearly five minutes he didn't move or make a sound until he was certain nothing or no one was after him.

He let out a sigh of relief, and took a bite out of a sandwich he had made himself earlier in the day. The place he had hunkered down for the night had been a rural home, but no one was there. The refrigerator, however, was well stocked as was the pantry. This allowed Liam to make himself up a half dozen hoagie style sandwiches of various lunchmeats and Swiss cheese.

Once again he could not help but thank God, for the trip to catch up with Infiltrator Paulson had not gone well. Taking the easy path had almost proven disastrous on a couple of occasions, including narrowly escaping some armed thugs outside of Dallas. He had to kill two and left another with a pair of bullets in the former convict before the last few decided not to pursue him. Looking back, he knew trying to go through a major city was foolish, but he had to save time.

After Dallas, however, he headed south into a more remote area of Texas and stuck to strictly back roads, moving toward Louisiana and hopefully eventually Alabama where Paulson was supposed to stage himself out of. However, as he got closer to the border between the states he started to run into combat troops and air strikes. At first he thought this meant Texas was going to lose and lose fast, but after watching a few dog fights and vapor trails in the sky, he realized there were as many aircraft heading east as were coming west. To Liam, this meant Ashwood was also getting pounded. The other thing he found out quickly was hostile aircraft didn't care who was on the road. If they saw something, they targeted it. The first strafing run had come within an eyelash of killing him. Had he not heard the cars behind him blowing up, he would have been nothing but shredded flesh in the middle of the country road. Instead he had managed to get off just in time.

Ground combat was also something he had managed to avoid a pair of times, and both times, the pro-Texas troops were crushing airdropped Ashwood troops. The first time was just outside of Athens, Texas. A paratrooper unit had dropped in and tried to take a power station. Liam ended up caught between the two sides and had managed to make it out only by sheer luck. A trio of paratroopers covered their own retreat with smoke grenades, but one was hit and dropped only meters from where Liam had taken cover in an irrigation ditch. Knowing the man had smoke, Liam crawled over, took the man's pack, grabbed the last two smoke grenades and tossed them before jumping on his bike and gunning it. He heard fire, which he was sure was going to find him, but thankfully, the smoke prevented anyone from drawing a bead on him.

The second time he ran into ground combat, he ended up right in the middle of things and thought for sure he was dead. The Texas forces, backed by US Army and Reserve forces quickly gained the upper hand, however. They pushed the Ashwood loyal forces back from the outskirts of Frankston, Texas after a pitched forty minute fight.

A squad of Texas National Guardsmen found him before he could flee, so Liam decided to play it as he had been trained by the Army of God. Using his innocent thirteen-year-old looks and letting loose with some fake tears, he convinced the Texas sergeant he was just trying to get home from a friend's house. He added he found the rifle on a dead guy with a parachute and had taken it to defend himself and to possibly hunt with, since he was afraid the stores wouldn't have much after all this.

The man had actually surprised him. The sergeant had a couple of privates give Liam a brief rifle class on how to shoot and care for it, had a medic patch up a nasty scrape on his shoulder from the earlier firefight, and even gave him a trio of MRE's and a quartet of full twenty round mags which were loaded with .223, not the military 5.62, but still usable. In exchange they took the 5.56 rounds. They even let him keep the nine millimeter pistol, but he had to promise to give it to his dad when he got home. Finally, they tried to offer him an escort, but he pointed to the south and said it wasn't far and he would get there.

It annoyed him to have to thank the men, let alone offer to help them get fresh water out of a hand pump well, but he did so. His politeness was rewarded as one of the two privates who 'taught him' how to clean the M16A3, pulled a combat knife and survival kit off a captured Ashwood soldier and gave it to Liam with a wink and a smile while saying, "This will give you something to catch and clean fish with."

To Liam, who was only too happy to get away with his dirt bike, the experience left a sour taste in his mouth. It was hard to accept help of this sort from the godless enemy. First off, the compassion shown him did not seem godless. Second, taking and giving assistance from those opposing the AoG sponsored man in the White House seemed totally wrong. Once again, though, the training on the island of San Andres, by top AoG infiltrators, told him deception was an art given to man by God. For those who could use it, it was a gift, so using what he was taught really did fall in line with the teachings of God's Army.

The result of the close call was to totally change Liam's thinking, however. Getting to Paulson was now a secondary priority. Staying alive and in one piece so he could get there was now first and foremost in his mind. To this end, he decided on a more serendipitous route, which pushed him even further south away from as much population as possible.

Two hours after losing his dirt bike, he took a knee and scanned the tiny hamlet of Milam, Texas from just off of the side of highway with a wide river in front of him. His practiced eye caught many details all within seconds. First, the intersection of the two main roads had been bombed or shelled. There were deep holes in the ground and the roads simply disappeared into them. The next thing was the damage was not real new, nor was it old. Smoke and embers of the store close to the crossing of Highways 87 and 21 still glowed as wind blew over them, but most of the fires were out. Since there was no signs anyone had put the fires out, this meant they had burned out on their own.

Of the dozen or so buildings he could see, only one had not sustained catastrophic damage. It looked more like a large shed and was made out of corrugated steel. Since nothing in the area moved, and he needed to find shelter, he had little choice. He was done with trying to move during daylight hours. From here on out, he would move at night and sleep during the day.

The real problem would be finding transportation. He didn't even want to think about how long it would take to walk to near the middle of Alabama from about ten kilometers from the Texas - Louisiana border.

Officer Rail woke with a start as Kenny came bursting into the side room he had picked to be his private sleeping area. Before Cole could even wipe his eyes and blink, Jamaal came in right behind Kenny and all but shouted as he spoke, "Cop, we gots big problems, man!"

Cole grabbed his rifle and jumped up, checking his pistol as he did so. He moved to the door only to see Tommy holding a bloody shirt on his lower arm. Cole rushed over to the fourteen-year-old who was doing his best not to cry. He pulled the boy's hand back only to see a through and through small caliber bullet wound. It went in the underside of the forearm and out the top. If there was anything lucky about being shot, the blond haired boy had found a way, for the bullet had gone between the two bones and had hit only soft tissue. Also, by some miracle, the bullet had not hit an artery. So, while the bleeding was bad, it was not extreme. Better yet, it could be controlled with some effort.

"Jamaal!" Cole roared, "Get the first aid kit we found in the Hummer!" Even as he did so, he grabbed the shirt and wrapped it as tightly as he could around Tommy's arm. "Kenny, get over here, hold this tight and keep pressure on it. Also keep it elevated above his head."

Cole started to give more instructions when he suddenly felt a moment of panic. He paused and his eyes went wide, "Wait, where the hell are the others?"

Tommy shook like a leaf as Kenny clamped his hands down over the bullet wound. As pressure on his arm built, the pain got too intense and he started to see spots. After only a few seconds the wooziness forced him to wobble and slide down a wall. He shook his head to clear the fuzziness in his vision and managed to speak though the tears and sobs, "Alonzo and... Eldon... they are with the truck... we took it... it's ours... but Alonzo can't figure out how... how to drive it... it's not a normal... normal stick or some shit... They... they sent me... back... need to… get driver... got caught by two cons... shot one... Tyrone saw me running, came out... took the other down... knifed his ass... not till he shot me though... Nolan... pulled me in... gave me his shirt..."

Cole knelt and put a hand on Tommy's shoulder, "Where is the truck?"

"I... I can take you there..."

"Bullshit. You aren't going anywhere! Where is it. What are the street crossings?"

"I... I... don't know..."

"Tommy, think. You were there. You stopped the truck somehow. Where is it?"

Tommy used his non-injured had to wipe some of the snot and tears from his face and gripped his forehead, "I'm... not sure..."

Tyrone entered the room, his shirt covered in blood and the combat knife in his hand dripping with more. He tossed down a pair of packs just like they had been given when they were released. He then put a .25 semi-auto pistol on the small desk in the corner along with a pair of women's purses which were full of stuff, mostly valuables. "Them dudes must-a took down a couple a broads and been usin' the purses for holdin' what else them took. Bet them mother fu..." He stopped himself, held up a hand and sent Cole a smirk, "Bet them gang bangers must-a busted some serious head to grab all this! They also had the same shit we got, right down to the cash, man. How many a these things ya think they gave out?"

"Way too many," Cole sighed, "but in your guy's case it's a good thing they did."

Cole quickly returned his attention to Tommy, "You have to give me something to go on here. Come on, where are the other two?"

"With the truck, man!" Tommy snapped back, but was clearly losing his ability to stay cognizant."

Tyrone hardened and stepped between Cole and Tommy. He grabbed Tommy's chin and squeezed, "Dammit, you stupid ass cracker, we know they are with the truck! Now tell me where's you leave the damned thing before I bust a cap in your ass!"

Tommy's eyes went wide, "Ahhh..."

Cole started to speak up, but Kenny waved him off, "I'd sure hate to have Ty go off on your ass like he did that spic in the shower! Now what was around the truck when you took it?"

Tommy gulped and looked up at Tyrone who slammed his left fist into his right hand. Fear seemed to push back the pain and lightheadedness for a few seconds. "A drugstore... We saw it pull up in behind it and force some people to fill it up..." Tommy blinked and shook his head, "I don't know where... Ah, we was joking about the titty we could find in a dance school a couple buildings down... um... and... Eldon wanted to check on the bar-b-que place across the street..." Tommy managed a smile, "His dumb ass ain't never going to stop wantin' bar-b-que..."

This got some chuckles and nods out of the others teens even as Cole backed up and started pacing, speaking aloud as he did so, "Drugstore, dance school, bar-b-que..." Suddenly he snapped his fingers, "Tommy, were you on High Street?"

Tommy wobbled back and forth, almost passing out, but the question jerked him back out of it, "Damn, man, yeah... High Street... Hell yeah, we joked about a drugstore on High Street even as them..." He didn't get a chance to say more. Instead his eyes rolled up and he slumped forward.

"Tommy!" Kenny and Tyrone both shouted at the same time, showing they really did care about him.

Cole moved over to one of the small packs Tyrone had brought in and pulled a couple of extra clips for the .45 pistol. He then moved over to the corner and pulled on his bulletproof vest. Seeing the others look at him, he pointed down at Tommy, "Keep pressure on it, give him some water when he comes around and don't let him move it. I also want you to wash it out with whatever is in the first aid kit as best as you can. We can't afford infections."

"Where are you going?" Kenny demanded to know.

"To go get Alonzo and Eldon!"

Tyrone dug into the second pack he took off the two who attacked Tommy, grabbed the extra ammo, and tucked the extra .45 into the small of his back, "Not alone you ain't, Cop. You know where the place is, which is kick ass, but you need someone to watch your ass!"

"Tyrone, I don't want any of you boys getting hurt and you don't know the..."

Jamaal entered the room with the large first aid kit, a woman and a man, both of which had been rescued from the street by Cole and the kids with him. "Come on, Cop, we know them streets better than your ass and know how to 'em read too. The chick say she can drive whatever we gots and the guy say he's pre-med. Go get us our truck of grub and bring them two fools back with you!"

Cole's hands clenched into fists and he had to fight off screaming in rage. This was the last thing he wanted, but at the same time he knew having someone to watch his back was the right thing. The idea of dragging another out into the street was horrible. Unfortunately, once again, it was a necessary evil. They had only found enough food for three days and there were a whole lot of mouths to feed. Like it or not, they needed what was in the truck.

Not trusting his voice, Cole forced himself to nod, then jerked his head toward the stairs leading down to the side door of the building they were in. Before he even got to the stairs, however, the guy who claimed to be pre-med spoke up. "If it is really a drugstore, grab all the medications you can behind the counter. I'll be able to see what ones are antibiotics and the like. Also see if you can grab bandages and other med supplies. Ace bandages and splints would also be helpful since we already have a broken leg and a gunshot wound."

Tyrone gave the guy a thumb's up as he bolted down the steps to catch up to a super pissed off cop who he would have run from only few months before this.

Todd glanced back over his shoulder to make sure Noah was behind cover and keeping an eye on the cross streets before he dashed across the road and slid behind what was left of a still smoldering pickup truck. It was so blackened there was no way to tell what color it was. He stayed low and looked over at Noah since he had no intention of looking into the cab. The last time he had glanced into a burned up car he ended up staring at three crispy-burned bodies, two in front, and a small one in back. He had puked up his entire MRE and had dry-heaves for almost five minutes following the gruesome discovery.

Noah scanned the area again. "See anything?"

"Nothing moving," Todd responded, "just lots burning and smoking." He let out a long breath, "And tons of bullet casings. How many shots do you think were fired around here?"

Noah reached down and picked up a trio of spent brass from a small caliber weapon lying on the street right next to him, "Thousands?"

Todd shook as a shiver went down his spine. "I still have nothing, you?"

"No movement at all. The fighting must have chased off everyone." Noah took a few seconds to move from behind the front bumper to the back looking for any sign of danger before making a hand motion.

A few seconds later, Hazel rushed across the street and ducked down with the other two. She looked pale even though her face was very dirty, "Did whoever did this shot up the entire place or what?"

"Not with normal guns," Todd responded. "Almost every house on this street and the one behind it are burning, or blew up." To add credibility to his words he scooted out to the center of the street and returned with a doorknob of a front door. "Make me wonder what house this came off of."

Hazel cringed and shook her head, "No way of telling, and I sure hope no one was home. But this whole scouting thing isn't going well."

"Not much left, even on side streets," Noah agreed. "The strip of stores was a bust other than the soda machine. Good thing whatever exploded inside tossed the machine halfway across the parking lot."

"We can't live on soda..."

Noah and Todd turned to look at each other, then both turned to Hazel and spoke at the same time, "We can try!"

Despite the situation, Hazel grinned and rolled her eyes, "Noah, do you know what your mom will say when we get back to Little Rock?"

"No one's telling her nothing!" Noah stated in near horror. "Knowing her, she'll try to calculate my one soda a day limit out until I turn thirty!"

Todd nudged Noah, "I'm thinking you are about to be blackmailed, dude."

Seeing Hazel wink, Noah looked up and shook his head, "How about I let you fire the red paint balls next comp?"

Hazel rubbed her forefinger and thumb over her chin, "Only if you shoot the purple ones. You agree and I'll make sure no one tells your mom about the fact you drank four while we were breaking open and emptying the machine!"

Noah cringed. The purple paintballs were flatly ugly and almost never did a boy shoot them, let alone shoot them in a competition. However, if it meant his mom never hearing about a sudden increase in sugar... "OK, but if we find a box of candy bars or something, I'm downing at least three of them and no one says nothing about what other sugar stuff we eat until we get home!"

"Deal!" Hazel nodded looking totally satisfied at the agreement.

Todd couldn't help but snicker at the opposite expressions on his two close friends. However, the situation was still dire and sitting here was not helping anyone, especially Harlan. "Let's hope we can find more of anything to eat. We are each down to three MRE's, plus the extra five we got out of the extra pack. We also need to find someone to look at Har."

"Not sure if that's going to happen. The only medical place we have found in this tiny town was in the business strip and it's gone," Noah responded with a degree of worry. "Look, if we each eat two MRE's a day, we have almost two days of food. Couple those with the couple hundred cans of soda, we are OK. We are just lucky the post office across from where all the buses were only had a couple of holes in the front wall..."

"And through the next two before whatever was shot into it exploded in the back," Hazel reminded Noah. "It's standing and seems solid, but it's not exactly safe shelter. Who knows how much it will take for the whole place to fall down."

Todd shrugged "Better than anything else we have seen. Besides, Harlan was not going to make it much further. I just..." His words were cut off as single shot was followed up by a burst of automatic fire from not very far away. The three teens pulled in close to each other, getting comfort from the contact and waited. After a few more exchanges of fire, there was a thump sound, then an explosion. Seconds later, smoke could be seen rising up only a couple of streets over from where they were crouching down.

Whatever Todd was about to say was forgotten. Instead he gripped his captured rifle so tightly his knuckles turned white. When he spoke his voice sounded higher pitched than normal, "Way too close. Forget going north!"

Hazel frowned deeply, "OK, if not north, then where? We checked the train area. It's all blown up. We looked over what is left on the main road. Most of the buildings are burned down, still burning, or exploded. Most of the houses on both sides of the highway are in the same shape as what we are seeing right here. The only thing left is the big glob of buildings north."

"I still think we should move into one of the two buses in the knocked down bus repair garage. They don't have holes in them..."

Todd made a downward slashing motion with his hand, cutting off a conversation they all had been over a few times. "Not until we find someone to help Harlan! If it gets cold, he'll need a fire since there is no power. We can't build a fire in a bus. We can in the post office since it has tile floors and the side room, behind where all the locked post office boxes are, is big enough to where the fire could stay in the middle of the room and be away from the walls."

"Too bad the bank was so trashed," Hazel sighed.

"Along with the fire department building, the church, the contractor..." Noah let his voice trail off as tears threatened to fall at the corners of his eyes. The small town of Hodge had been fought over. The winner and the loser of the battle had not mattered, since the town and those who had been living here prior had lost. As he blinked his eyes, he couldn't help but wonder if Little Rock was anything like this.

He had seen news of fighting and the reports showing battle damage. While sad, the pictures and videos of bombed out and shelled buildings, coupled with those wandering the streets or ducking sniper fire didn't really tell the whole story. Sure it showed the damage, talked about the death, the lack of running water, the lack of food and the filthy people trying to survive. However, it didn't, couldn't, portray the things Noah and his friends were dealing with. The smells of burning buildings, tires, and even flesh hung in the air. The hopelessness, the fear, the burning of the eyes, the need to stay as hidden as possible while still trying to move and survive; it was part of the whole and was palatable. Nothing short of being in the middle of such violence and carnage could do it justice.

Noah couldn't help but think back to a picture he saw in a news magazine. It was of a kid close to his own age. It came from someplace overseas, probably Africa, but the boy was not black. He looked a great deal like he did, except the boy held a pistol in his hand and had four real grenades hung off a vest which was too big for him. The boy's left foot had been on the chest of a body with a pool of blood under the head which was turned away so the camera didn't catch the face of the dead man.

While the images alone were disturbing, Noah's first thought was the whole thing had been staged, but then he really looked at it, trying to find a hint of this being nothing but a photo op. It was then he saw it. It was not the fact the boy was dirty and wasn't smiling or frowning. It wasn't the position of the body or the fact the photographer had to have purposefully taken the shot to avoid the dead man's face. No, what really caught Noah's attention was the look in the boy's eyes. They were devoid of emotion, empty of any sign he cared about the fact he was stepping on a dead man. The eyes told him what the rest could not. The boy was standing on a dead guy and didn't care in the slightest what anyone else thought of it. Even though the day was warm, with temperatures reaching just above seventy degrees, a coldness came from within strong enough to send goose bumps busting to the surface of his arms. Would the look in the eyes of an unknown kid from a photo half a world away soon match his?

A not so distant exchange of gunfire snapped him out of thoughts and brought him back to reality. "I think those were even closer!"

"They were," Hazel agreed. "We need to find some food and get back to the post office!"

Todd looked up at clouds overhead and ran his hand down his face, "OK, I know all three of us have thought about this, but we only have a couple hours of daylight left, so I think I need to just say it. We should check out a couple of the houses we have been going by and see if there is any food or other stuff in them."

Hazel turned sharply, "We can't steal..."

Noah put a hand on Hazel's shoulder, "Do you think my mom and dad, or your mom and dad, would want others to starve if our houses were all messed up and we had run away? I know both my mom and dad would expect others to search, especially if it would do them any good. These people may come back someday, but right now there may be some food in some of the house that are not all burned or blown-up."

"And if we don't steal from them, someone else will, right?" Hazel shook her head.

"Hazel," Todd spoke softly, "you didn't have any problems busting up the soda machine to take what was inside. It belonged to someone, or one of the stores. This is no different."

"But the pop was out on the parking lot..."

Todd shrugged, "Yeah, it was. It didn't belong to us and we stole it."

Noah nodded, "Hazel, we aren't doing this to be mean, to take stuff we want... Look around. There are no stores left, the bank was shot up and robbed. If we find someone inside, then... well, we will not take anything, but what we are talking about doing here may be the only chance Harlan has..."

"Can't we at least get a little close to the factory or whatever it is?" Hazel argued. "At least if we take stuff from there we aren't taking from people, just some company or something!"

Todd closed his eyes and bit back a sharp reply. "Look, Hazel, there is still shooting going on up there and we don't have a clue who is who. Just look at the guys who freed us. They were even dressed the same as those they killed. We need food and to see what the rest have found in all the packs. It would be nice if I could find something to put on my chigger bites too. Let's just search a couple of houses, and get back to the others. We'll take notes of what we take and addresses and keep track so we can try to pay them back later or something."

Hazel thought it over for a few seconds before nodding. "OK, the pack I grabbed had a pocket pad and a pen, so I will write down what we take and where we take it from. If we find a big paper notebook and more pens, then we need to grab those too so we can keep a good log. At least this way we can try to make it right."

The trio moved out from behind the pickup, never once taking a look inside the cab and bolted over to a house with the garage and most of the north side missing and debris all over what was once a very nice yard. All three noticed the body of an adult female with a large chunk of plaster sticking out of her lying in the driveway, so they moved to avoid having to look closely at it.

Noah was first to move up to what was left of the house. He moved in by stepping over what was left of a dining room table. He stopped once he was inside and looked up and through the hole which appeared to show a child's bedroom on the second floor. He knew there was no way this was safe, but he steadied himself and moved in. After only a few seconds and with some plaster falling on him from above, he decided sticking close to the back wall was the best option. While it didn't look great, the back wall appeared to be in the best condition and thus, had the greatest chance of supporting structure. "Guys stick close to the walls; the whole place can't be too far from falling down!"

Todd waited for Hazel to go in before he backed in, making sure no one was following. The whole thing didn't make much sense. There had to be people around somewhere. He moved in until he could no longer see the street and called out, "Hey, anyone here? Anyone need help?"

Up front Noah cringed, went to knee and panned his rifle in the direction he was heading, which included a pair of doors and the hallway. Behind him, Hazel did pretty much the same thing focusing her attention on the front of the house.

After nearly a minute and no response, Todd repeated the call even louder.

Another minute passed before Hazel shouted out, "We are a group of kids from Little Rock trying to get home. Is anyone here? We just want to help. Call out if you are trapped and please don't shoot!"

Noah edged forward more nervous than ever. There was no indication of anyone moving, but having been in dozens of paintball ambushes, many of them set up by his dad and parents of his friends, he was pretty seasoned to not letting the looks and feel of a situation dictate a lowering of awareness. After nearly five minutes, he moved up to the first door and used the barrel of his rifle to push it open. It was the kitchen and there was a dresser lying on top of a totally smashed center cooking area. Pots, pans and cooking utensils were scattered all over the floor as was some clothing out of the heavy oak dresser. Looking up he could see all the way out the top of the house.

Noah started to move forward, then stopped as he saw something sticking out of the side of the wooden dresser. "Guys, does that look like a small bomb or something?"

Hazel moved up and played her flashlight over it while taking a step back. The small aerodynamic fins sticking off the back made it pretty obvious to her it was some kind of shot or dropped military device. "Yeah, but it didn't explode."

"Stay away from it Noah."

"But if it is a dud..."

"No, Noah!" Todd barked. "Ever see movies when the unexploded bomb goes off after someone messes with it? Leave it alone and stay away!"

"Those are just movies."

"Movies or not," Hazel interjected, "I bet it still has stuff to make it explode in it and I don't want to play with it. I like having both my arms and legs!"

This seemed to get through to Noah, who backed off and moved around the far side, making sure to keep well away from the projectile. He got up to the refrigerator and pulled it open. It wasn't full but it was decently stocked. Even better, what was in it was still cool to the touch, telling all of them it probably had not been opened since the power went out. "Let's see; three things of lunch meat, pickles, half gallon of milk, just over a dozen eggs, mustard, ketchup, ten bottles of water, a twelve pack of soda, tub of butter, syrup... who puts syrup in the fridge?"

Todd shrugged as he moved up and held up his pack, which he had emptied back at the post office. "Hazel you want to write down everything or just something like about forty bucks of food?"

"It'd go bad soon, so I'll just write down food." She started scribbling while adding, "Besides, I don't have much room to write stuff down."

The freezer also held a decent amount of stuff, much of it still frozen or firm to the touch. Noah called out stuff as he put it in Todd's pack, "Two big packs of hamburger, three packs of hot dogs, five Cornish game hens, a ten pack of corn on the cob, a pack of... oh yuck, frozen peas! Ah, six frozen pizzas and a dozen, just starting to get soft ice cream bars!" He eyed the pizza and held them up, "I wonder how we cook those over a fire though?"

Todd looked at them and licked his lips, "No idea, but we'll figure out something."

Hazel picked up a couple of metal cookie sheets off the floor. "We'll use these." She then pushed them into her own empty pack and noted them down.

The kids rummaged through the cabinets for a few minutes coming up with some bread, canned soup, a three pack of honey, crackers and quite a few other things including six cans of canned meat and a ten pound bag of potatoes.

After some discussion they moved through the rest of the house taking some towels, soap and aspirin out of a lower bathroom. Todd then went back in and found five rolls of toilet paper. "Sorry, but when I find this, I'm taking it!"

After getting some giggles, the kids talked about checking upstairs, but the steps were not in good shape. The danger combined with the fact it had taken nearly an hour and the sun was rapidly going down.

By the time they were done, all three had decently full packs and Hazel's list was onto the fourth page of items. After some debate she tore off a sheet on the back, wrote down her name and home address along with a sorry and thank you. Once satisfied, she stuck it on the refrigerator with one of the magnets on the side of it. She managed a silly grin, "It makes me feel better, OK?"

Todd nodded in full understanding, "No argument from me. I just hope after all this is over we can find a way to repay the owners. Now let's get back to the others before they come looking for us."

Noah quickly agreed, "I really think we should check out one or two more places tonight before the food goes bad. We'll save the canned stuff for when we run out of this kind of stuff."

Even as Hazel started to shake her head, Todd spoke up in full agreement. "He right, Hazel. We can't go too far until we figure out what happened to Noah's dad and Mr. Calderwood. Besides, the quicker we grab stuff from close by, the more we can cook things that'll go bad anyway. You keep writing what we take and leaving notes. We're staying in a post office, so I bet we can find some paper somewhere in it!"

"Unless it was all in the back where all that got all burned up," Noah jumped in.

"We'll find some someplace. Over the next couple of days we'll find some paper and junk somewhere. For now let's get back and at least get Harlan some aspirin and get off the streets and stay hidden till the shooting stops!"

Officer Rail kept close to the buildings as he moved down High Street. The occasional pops of gunfire kept his head on a swivel, but his small group was by no means the only ones on the streets close to downtown Lexington. Only half a block down, a group of four bolted from the taller buildings on the edge of the built up area to the close by residential homes.

Cole cringed as he saw two more come out of the same back alley and fire at the four fleeing figures.

The biggest of those running turned and fired back, causing the two pursuers to duck back behind the cover of the buildings. Cole took a knee and watched for several seconds until the group of four disappeared from view behind a formerly nice house. Unfortunately for the owners, the front was now bullet riddled and the Camaro in the driveway was nothing more than a burnt out hulk.

Cole motioned for Tyrone and the female county road crew worker to move up while he continued to keep his rifle aimed in the direction where the two had ducked for cover.

The woman, Erica Steele, moved up with grim determination in her eyes, "This whole city has gone nuts, we need to get out of here. Maybe we can take everyone in the truck they procured and leave the city."

Cole gave a single nod, but didn't look thrilled with the idea. "Let's get to it, make sure the boys are OK, and get it back to the warehouse first."

Three times Cole had the others take cover and twice Tyrone did the same as he saw something or someone moving up from behind. While the whole trip was just over a mile and a half, it took well over an hour to work their way past fighting, burning buildings, and in one case a supermarket with a parking lot full of men in the olive green fatigues. The men were holding close to fifty people at gunpoint, while forcing others to pull things out of the store in carts and load them onto a trio of waiting semis.

"Why is they doin' this, Cop?" Tyrone asked, even as he ducked behind the building so he could not be seen from the parking lot of the supermarket.

"Hard to tell for sure," Cole spoke as he watched the line of people with full shopping carts move from the store to the semis and back toward the store with empty carts. Those who moved too slowly were prodded with rifles. "They seem to want to control the available food, but what their endgame is, remains to be seen. The most likely two possibilities are they will sell the food for inflated prices. This will quickly drain the cash and valuables of those inside the city and leave them with nothing. It's a good way to get wealth from people without going door to door while people hide the most precious valuables.

"The second possibility I can think of is they will give out limited food to those who do what they are told. If it goes this way, they will give out rewards of food for things like turning in those who try to fight them, or they will use control over the food to starve out resistance. Either way, it's not going to be easy to live in Lexington while they are here."

Tyrone's mouth scrunched up in confusion for a few seconds, "Why don't them dudes fight back, none? I only see ten a them punks with guns plus them three drivers. There must be a hundred people lettin' em take everything! A few could rush em and..."

The woman spoke up "No one is willing to get killed trying, kid."

Tyrone glanced around the side of the building again, "But them fools gots to know without food they'll starve and shit!"

"Tyrone," Cole's voice took on a light scolding tone, "they aren't fools. They are normal everyday people who have probably never had a gun pointed at them in their lives. They are terrified and used to things going the right way if they follow what they are told by the law, and right now those guys in green are the law. I haven't heard a single siren or seen a police car since I abandoned mine. There is a police station only three blocks from where we holed up, yet we have seen nothing from them. Last word I got was what was left of the force was pulling back, but I don't even know where they were pulling back to.

"Between the release of the inmates and these guys, there is way too much firepower for our police force to handle. Normally this would be considered a riot situation and other law enforcement would be pulled in and maybe even the National Guard. But right now, it looks and sounds like President Ashwood set this all up. Even if this is not the case, somehow it seems like those guys in green have taken over. They are the law until they leave or they are driven out."

"But its gots to be ten ta one over there..."

Erica shook her head, "Men who are trained soldiers sometimes don't even fight back even as someone is gunning down fellow captives from their own units. It is not anyone's fault. The normal human brain has a hard time accepting people can be this evil. The whole reason history is full of masses of people being slaughtered is the vast majority of people simply can't accept the truth, even when looking at it right in the face. By the time it dawns on them, it is too late."

Tyrone looked over to Officer Rail, "So we're are gunna just let this shit happen?"

"I'm not sure there is much we can do, Tyrone," Cole responded sadly while looking at the ground. "If we open up from here, we may get two, maybe even four, but the rest of them will start shooting. This will cause panic and those they are holding will start to run. Some of those wearing green will then probably start shooting those in the parking lot. Do you really want the blood of those people on your hands?"

"This sucks, man," Tyrone complained even as he shook his head. "I just wanna help 'em!"

Erica gave Tyrone a genuine smile for the first time as she reached out and gripped the boy's right arm, "You got a big heart, but if you end up getting killed out here, what good does it do all those back at the other building. You might save some over in the parking lot, but you could end up condemning those in the building we are in. It is a hard choice, and with any luck, all those people will be let go once those trucks are full, and there is no way three semis will get everything edible out of such a large store.

Tyrone punched the wall, "Yer right, but I still think it sucks!"

Cole and Erica could only nod in agreement as the three bypassed the supermarket and those being held and forced to load trucks. They decided on a detour through the close by residential streets. What they saw only made the situation more dire. For there were burned out and shot up cars everywhere and even on the side streets they had to dash from structure to car to structure since the air was thick with the smell of cordite and sounds of gunshots. However, by going a couple of blocks out of their way, they didn't have to look up three or four stories for snipers. This meant the going was easier and to a degree, safer. Unfortunately, it took quite a bit of time. The sun was starting to go down before they closed in on the parking lot of the drugstore. At first they saw nothing, but then a very large tow truck pulled up and moved to the back side of the building, followed by an old pickup truck with two guys in the cab and two men in green riding in the back with rifles. A few seconds later a series of over a dozen gunshots came from where the vehicles had disappeared from view.

Cole had seen and heard enough. He took off at a dead run for the back of the drugstore followed closely by Tyrone and Erica. By the time the trio rounded the corner, a pair of men in olive green fatigues were on the ground and another was lying in the bed of an old pickup. A fourth was behind the door of the old Ford and firing at a pair of figures crouched down behind a large truck. Just off to the side, the large tow truck was jerking wildly and backing up.

Cole dropped to a knee and lined up a carefully aimed shot at the man using the old steel door of the pickup for cover from those firing at him. The single rifle shot didn't even register with the guy before his life ended. The bullet entered the left side of his head just below the ear and blew out a much larger hole on the right side of the guy's jaw. Blood sprayed both the windshield and the side door, while the bullet lodged in the glove compartment.

Cole then jumped back up to his feet, slung the rifle over his shoulder, pulled out his sidearm and moved up toward the pickup. Seeing the man in the back of the pickup was wearing green and making a sudden move for something in the back he could not see, Cole didn't take any chances. He put two rounds into the guy's side. As he got closer, one careful look was all it took to assure himself there were no more threats from those who came in the old Ford. He started to turn toward the tow truck, but by the time he realized what was going on over at it, it was too late to do anything but watch and hope.

Tyrone took a much more direct approach than Officer Rail did. He ran straight over to the tow truck, even as it backed away from the fighting. Without so much as a moment's hesitation, he jumped up on the running board of the driver's side, used his left hand to hold onto the side mirror to steady himself, and smashed out the side window with the butt of his pistol in his right hand.

Tyrone ducked down as the driver tried to first punch him, then pulled a pistol and pointed it out through the shattered window. As the first shot went over his head and caused his ears to badly ring, he shouted, "Ah, screw dat!" He released his hold on the mirror, grabbed the man's forearm and hopped off the running board. Predictably, the arm snapped and the pistol clattered to the ground. At the same time, the driver let out a blood curdling scream followed by a string of Spanish curse words.

Tyrone shook his head trying to clear the loud ringing in his ears after having a pistol discharged so close to his head. His face was a mask of anger as he tossed his pistol, grabbed the broken arm with both hands and yanked down as hard as he could a second time. This time bones broke through the skin and the man let out a near inhuman scream.

"puta Me haslo de nuevo no de esa gran puta!" Tyrone shouted as he wiggled the grotesquely broken arm around causing significantly more damage.

The guy behind the wheel howled again as the tow truck ground gears and came to a stop.

Without hesitation or remorse, Tyrone pulled open the door before letting go of the mangled arm, grabbed the man by the front of his fatigues, and tossed him out onto the ground.

The man tumbled out and let out another frightful screech as his arm impacted the ground. He didn't do anything other than cradle his bloody limb with his good arm and bawl.

Tyrone looked into the cab cautiously before turning back and shouting, "Now there's a carjacking from the real hood, Eldon!"

From behind the big truck parked at the back loading entrance of the drugstore, Alonzo peeked out cautiously with a .45 pistol in his hand, "Ty?"

Tyrone scanned the inside of the cab before moving up to, then kicking the man he had just tossed out in the head as if he was doing a kick off at a football game. The man didn't notice it coming since he was so preoccupied with holding what was left of his bloody forearm, so the kick flipped him off to the side and knocked him cold.

Tyrone then moved over and secured the two discarded pistols, "Yeah! Where's Eldon?"

Eldon moved out from under the truck, pulling an assault rifle as he did so, "What about the guys in the pickup?"

Tyrone glanced back with a smirk, "The cop's moppin' 'em up!" He then rolled his shoulders and looked back at Eldon, "I think I just out jacked ya!"

Eldon took a deep breath, "Mine had more style, man, but I'll give ya street cred points for yours!"

Alonzo put a fresh clip into his pistol as he spoke, "Coolness goes to Eldon, but yeah, you get the street creds, Ty. That was some awesome shit!"

Eldon decided to put in a fresh clip into his pistol as well, "No doubt, Ty, but when did your black ass learn Spanish, man?"

"Shit..." Tyrone let out a long sigh, "I spent six months in a cell between them two Puerto Rican bastards who wanted to talk half the damned night..."

While this just caused Eldon and Alonzo to bust up in snickers, Erica moved up toward the blind spot on the large truck at the loading door, noting the cab was not secured so there was access to the engine. "Is there a problem with it?"

Alonzo glanced over at Tyrone, got a nod, and spoke up showing a great degree of skepticism, "Not really."

"So why the tow truck?" Cole demanded to know as he handed Tyrone one of the pistols from those in the pickup and took the other two Tyrone had tossed while dealing with the driver of the tow truck.

Tyrone frowned but accepted the exchange while Alonzo spoke. "We hit them just as they finished loading this bastard. We dropped four of the six inside who were talking about shooting those they made load this bitch. While the bullets were flying, two others took off out the back for the truck. I took out the driver; Eldon popped the rider. We just tossed their dead asses into the store's milk and egg cooler with them others when a couple of guys showed up saying they was there to escort us and asking about the others. I told them we got hit and we was the only ones left."

Eldon noted the skeptical looks so he took over, "We told them the truck must a got shot or some shit when we were hit and didn't start. I was trying to draw them out so we could take their asses out, but they didn't bite. So I told 'em we needed to find someone to fix it. We could see they were eyeing how young we are and some of the blood on our duds, so 'lonzo jumped up and clicked the key, getting the power to come on, but not turning over the engine. After three times of him doing it, they left a small squad to help us guard and took off, saying they would get us a mechanic."

Alonzo nodded, as he took over, "While they was gone, we capped the group they left us with while they was messin' with the people who the first group forced to load the truck. It was real easy like. Shot most of 'em in the back while they was talkin' about having their way with a cute chick and who should get first dibs. Them morons never even saw it coming none.

"From there it was pretty simple, man. I pulled off the battery cable, stuffed some plastic around the connector, and tightened it back down so it didn't make a connection none. Eldon gave those who them jackasses forced to load this bad boy shopping carts of whatever they wanted that was left and they all took off fast like. The father of the good looking chick even gave us his Rolex, man!" The teen held up the watch for emphasis before continuing. "By the time the dude came back with a mechanic, and two more men, we had it lookin' like we was part of them and gots hit again. So they gave the place a once over, checked all the dead bodies and shit, while this old bastard shoved me out of the way. He told me I was too young to know how to do shit and told the others the area was too hot to waste more troops or some shit like that. Then he tried the key and I just looked up at him."

Eldon grinned from ear to ear, "The guy got all pissed off, man. You should a seen it. He opened the motor, played with the battery cables, moved back tried it again and again. The more he couldn't get anything, the more he bitched about American junk. I bet he poked under the hood for like half an hour. He tried the key one more time and tossed his wrench through the back window." Eldon pointed at the shattered back window for emphasis. "As he walked away, the dude slammed the side door so hard the window cracked and he even kicked the tire. Finally he moved back to the pickup telling us to keep our heads down, but to guard it and they'd have to come back for it. They showed up when you did. You know the rest."

Alonzo pulled up the hood, pulled off the battery cable and held up a piece of a plastic water bottle, and re-secured the cable. "Some wrench monkey he was."

With some help from the teens, Erica closed the cab over and hopped in. The engine fired up on its first try. "Nice trick. If I live through this I am going to do this to one of my co-worker's rigs and video it!"

This got some laughter out of all three boys and Alonzo got a high five from both Eldon and Tyrone.

While this was going on, Cole moved into the drugstore and cringed. There were six bodies on the floor, all stripped of weapons, all wearing green fatigues. Of the six, two couldn't have been out of their teens yet and a third looked really young. Two others were early to mid-twenties, while the last one was in his thirties and his neck was covered with tattoos.

He moved back to the pharmacy area, noticed it had not been raided too much, and let out a loud whistle. As soon as the three teens moved in, he gave his best smirk, "OK, boys, show me some of these street skills y'all keep bragging about and get this area as empty as you can get it. Alonzo, get all the first aid stuff out of these back aisles as you can and into the pickup. We leave in five minutes will all the guns, ammo, the truck, the pickup, the meds and first aid stuff you can grab, so impress me!"

Eldon glanced over at Tyrone, "Never thought I'd hear that shit come out of no cop's mouth!"

Tyrone shoved Eldon toward the aisles of first aid stuff with a laugh, "You got that shit right!"

Just as they were about to pull away, Alonzo looked over at Officer Rail, "Hey, Cop, you want to leave them two we took in the freezer?"

"The bodies?"

Eldon snorted, "No, man, the two green shirt punks, man. We said we only took out four of the first six, man!"

"So the driver and passenger..."

"No, them two didn't even dress like them others."

"So you captured two. Where are they?"

"We stuck them in cold storage. Them wanabe's dropped their guns and held up their hands before the shooting even started when we first took the place, so we stuck 'em in the freezer out of our way."

Cole ran back into the store, looked around and came back to the door, "Where Eldon?"

Eldon walked past Cole shaking his head and rolling his eyes and moved over to the small ice cream rack, which was now warm enough to where most of the goods inside were melting. He went to a side door pulled out the securing pin and pointed to a pair of young teens wearing the same fatigues as the others.

Cole moved up and looked down. Their faces were a mask of fear but there was no way they were going anywhere. Both had been secured; their hands tied tightly behind them with a second loop wrapped around their bodies holding their elbows tightly to their sides. Yet another loop was around their necks but this was secured to thick pipes. All of it was done with wire pulled right out of the wall. "Who are you?"

Eldon moved in behind Officer Rail, "They don't speak English. The short one is Rodrigo and the other is Santi. Rodrigo say he's thirteen and Santi fourteen, don't look it none to me though. Them two would be meat for sure in Juvie! Didn't get nothing more. No time, man."

"You want 'em?" Alonzo asked while holding up a pair of wire cutters he had grabbed form the small selection of tools on one shelf.

"Yeah, maybe we can find out that the hell is going on."

Alonzo pulled a knife threateningly, spoke in Spanish and got nods out of both kids. He then cut the wires around their necks and stood them up. He stuck them in the back of the pickup and told them to lie down so they could not be easily seen before putting a hunk of plastic over them, along with the first-aid stuff and a whole heap of pharmacy medications he had no idea what they did.

Fifteen minutes later and the sky rapidly growing dark, they pulled into the back garage with the truck. The pickup was quickly off loaded and the two captives taken up to a room with a heavy door that opened outward. The two were cut free of the remainder of their bonds, searched and makeshift brackets were screwed into both sides of the door. Finally a heavy hunk of wood was put in the brackets which prevented the door from being opened.

Cole glanced over at Tyrone, "How about one more quick scouting mission, son?"

Tyrone looked over with a great deal of surprise, as did several of the others. However, after the momentary shock faded, he secured his pistol, "Sure!"

Cole led the boy back out onto the street even as shadows from the tall buildings cast ever lengthening shadows. After getting a block away, Cole paused. "Tyrone, there is something I want you to think about before we go further."


"Back at the store you dropped your sidearm and it hit the ground hard. The same thing happened to the guy you decimated the arm of."

"Yeah, so?"

"So, Tyrone, you went and grabbed both of them like they were ready to use. One or both of them could have been damaged from such a fall. You can't expect them to work again. They probably will, but your life may depend on it, so don't guess. If possible, switch to a weapon you know is not damaged, then we can take a look at the others to check to make sure they still function properly before we count on them working for us, OK?"

Tyrone's top teeth caused his bottom lip to flip in and out of his mouth a few times as he thought it over, "So, you giving me the smaller gun and taking two bigger ones wasn't cause ya didn't want me to have bigger or extra piece?"

"No. It was to make sure what you had was in good condition."

The left side of Tyrone's mouth twisted upward, "Damn, man, never really guessed this'd happen. I'm ac'ully startin' to like me a cop." He grinned fully, "So where we going?"

"To the police station."

Tyrone's eyes about bugged out, "Ah, man, are you shittin' me?"

"No. There is one just a few blocks down and I need to know what happened to it. If it is totally burned out, we need to see what is over at the Sheriff's office."

"Ah, crap." Tyrone mumbled, "Just be lettin' your homies know this nigger is armed and yer OK with it!"

Cole snickered and patted Tyrone on the back. "You're with me and I'll take a bullet before I let you take one. But even if the place is gutted, there are a few things we need, and I bet we can find it."

"Like what?"

"We can't expect all the firearms we have to stay in good working order without basic maintenance, so we need gun oil, cleaning kits, cleaning patches and the like. If we get real lucky, maybe we can even find some body armor, restraints, a taser, who knows. We'll just have to see what is there."

The pair darted into the badly shot up police station between the public library and the County Clerk's office, narrowly avoiding being spotted by a machinegun armed jeep. While the place was badly looted and there were the bodies of four officers Cole knew lying on the floors of the station, in the darkened halls and rooms some things had been overlooked. Fortunately Cole knew where to look, so it didn't take long to find as much as the two of them could carry and get back to the building with the others. Still they had to avoid another armed military vehicle in the short trek back.

As blackness descended on Lexington, Kentucky, the only lights were glows from fires and from headlights from an occasional vehicle with a speaker mounted on top driving down the streets announcing Martial Law and anyone out after dark was subject to being arrested or even shot on sight. The message went on to say further instructions would be given over the next couple of days and people needed to stay off the streets. An hour later, another truck went by with the same message, but added times would be given per area when movement outside was going to be allowed.

Cole pulled all those, other than the two captives, into a joint meeting, "Thanks to these boys, we have plenty of food and several cases of water. As long as the water stays on, we use what is out of the tap unless it starts smelling or tasting bad. Even then we use it to wash. If it gets shut off, we will have to start rationing. Now, I know I have heard some of you say you want to make a break for it, but we need to let things settle down and see what direction things are going to go first. Trying to leave now will only get you killed. As Tyrone can attest, there are more military vehicles with machineguns out on patrol."

Seeing everyone nod, even though half a dozen or so were not happy, Cole gave a tight smile. "Also, I know many of you have figured out several of the young men with me were recently released from jail. They all have pardons and they have all risked their butts to keep all of us alive. As the only police officer here, I can tell you I am honoring the pardons and I expect everyone else in here to do the same. Understand, I know where you are all coming from when I say I know it is not easy to give them trust, but I can tell you I have, and expect the rest of you to do the same. All our lives depend on some of the... Skills..." He managed a smile over at the teens, "Skills is as good a word as any, and as I was saying, like it or not, we need all of them. Also, for the record. I have put my life in their hands several times already, so I know they are some fine young men."

"Finally, like it or not, this is our home for the foreseeable future. We know we have a soon to be doctor and heavy equipment road operator. Let's see what other skill sets we have, because for the time being we are all one huge family and each and every one of us can contribute something."

Tuesday November 13th,
0114 Austin Texas Bunker.

Steven glanced over at the others sleeping in the bunker room. None of the others stirred, so there was no one for Steven to talk to. The bunker was getting boring. They had fixed everything they could find parts for, they had each selected a military vehicle and got it running, they had communications set up for them, and had, with a great deal of help from EEL, set up a communication grid using an idea which actually came from a girl in Brownsville.

The girl, a thirteen-year-old Civil Air Patrol cadet by the name of Keira, realized there was a way to spot low incoming cruise missiles. The city had been hit by several cruise missile attacks once the port had been secured by Texas forces along with the help of members of Utah National Guardsmen who as luck had it were training at Fort Bliss. The Utah infantry took the attackers off guard and had crushed the landing attempts. Ashwood wasted no time in trying to destroy the port, which he clearly saw as a major threat.

Keira's idea was actually simple, once someone helped her figure out how to get it set up. She, with the help of her storm chaser uncle, put a Doppler radar in the air capable of looking down. This allowed Combat Air Patrols, or CAPs to destroy the incoming missiles over the Gulf before they could do any damage. Within hours of the first downward looking Doppler equipped aircraft getting airborne, only a single missile had slipped through.

This generated the idea from the boys in the bunker of an airborne communications system to take the place of satellites. It took a joint effort with the kids working directly with EEL, Mr. Triumph, and even Keira. However, after just a couple of days, EEL put together a small fleet of drones to relay radio communications from the bunker to the outside world. The bunker only sent up low powered signals to close in drones, then they used low power and directional transmissions to relay to other drones. The transmission was then bounced again, directionally to another drone which, in turn, relayed the message to a ground station well away from Austin. This made tracking where the signal was coming from impossible without air units over Austin.

Also, with Keira and her uncle's help, EEL piggybacked on the airborne Doppler. They incorporated their prototype infrared radar. The two systems were able to pinpoint encroaching aircraft, no matter how sneaky their flights were. Unknowns were warned off by flights of F-15s. Hostile aircraft didn't even get a chance to engage the F-15's, however. Instead, they were taken down by powerful EEL built lasers, which had been developed for the Navy, but the contract cancelled because of budget cuts. EEL didn't stop the project since it was clear there was still a great deal of interest in the program. The fact the government had paid a couple of billion in research for it, and it was now being used against the military who cancelled the project, was yet one more twist of irony.

While all of this kept the science contest winners busy, what they could do from a secret underground complex was limited. The kids were going a bit stir-crazy and wanted to do other things. If anything was good about being stuck in a deep hole for so long, the one positive was Lachlan was able to go back out and bring his girlfriend and a doctor to the bunker. The pair were able to properly set and cast Ricky's leg which drastically reduced the pain he was in. This allowed the boy to get some sleep and not wake up every time he moved his leg the wrong way.

The real problem was events above them were not showing signs of improvement. The world was only getting worse. Fighting had intensified as Bryce loyal forces faced off with Ashwood's, all but cutting the country in half. Several cities in the West were still under control of unknown forces, while many smaller towns had fallen victim to released inmates. Most parts of the country didn't have power and where power was working it was sporadic, since the whole grid was under tremendous strain. Making matters worse, Ashwood loyal military forces had launched cruise missile attacks against many of the power stations in the West, so over half were out of action or operating under diminished capacity.

There were a few promising things, however. EEL's, particularly Mr. Triumph's, targeted drops of flaming ordinance had stopped the sarin before it could wipe out the whole city. The flames had done exactly what had been hoped and predicted. However, as was the case for just about everywhere else, with the good there was still plenty of bad news. Close to seventy percent of Austin had been at least touched by sarin. There were still thousands of bodies on the streets, in houses, in businesses, in cars, even in public buses. Bodies were being transported out as fast as possible to prevent major disease problems, but this meant hundreds upon hundreds were being burned before they could even be identified.

Most of Oklahoma City had been evacuated and the contaminated area cordoned off. Unfortunately, fires still raged in the area and it was too dangerous for firefighters to go in and fight them, so large sections of the city were burning uncontrollably. There was massive debate on how, once the fires died out, to get the bodies out. Radiation suited workers with self-contained breathing equipment was being toyed with, but this meant a very limited time inside the contamination zone and then they would have to figured out what to do with the bodies and the trucks hauling them, since everything would be irradiated.

Boulder was yet another problem, but for a different reason. While it had also been evacuated, the whole place was still in real bad shape. The attack had been almost impossible to fully contain, since the blister agent there turned out to be a fine powder. This meant even the slightest gust of wind picked some of it up and moved it into areas first considered to be safe, causing more misery and agony. Also, like Oklahoma City, getting dead out meant being in the dust and contaminating the workers and their equipment was unavoidable.

Under Steven's recommendations, Bryce was in the process of setting up a couple of aircraft with silver iodide in hopes of using the process of heterogeneous nucleation for cloud seeding. His idea was to force it to rain over the area, thus permanently knocking down the dust since the compound formulation he had gotten suggested it was water soluble and better yet, water inactivated. According to what Steven and a few Bryce supporting scientists had uncovered, once the blister agent was taken down below a hundred parts per million, it would naturally break down. The problem was Boulder, Colorado was a place with low humidity and it could either rain or snow this time of the year. Snow might keep the powder knocked down, but they really needed it to rain and rain hard. Even then, this would not get to the dust inside buildings. It would, however, be a great start.

He pulled up the plan on the laptop he had borrowed from one of the state congressmen, and looked over all the details, seeing if he had missed anything. After an hour or so, he pushed the computer back and looked around again. He remained the only one awake. With a sigh, he grabbed the camera Scott had given him and headed over to the big dining area with it and the laptop in tow.

As he stepped into the large room, he found Ranger Guthry, Nick Brandt, and Lieutenant Governor Conway chatting over a cup of coffee at one table. The only other occupied table had one of the female state senators, Steven could not remember the name of, comforting a pair of boys who had been on a field trip at the capitol when the attack happened. This had actually become pretty common, since the kids who had been brought down ended up coming from areas where the sarin had hit. Most of the kids had little hope of going home to a full family. Many of them had no hope of going back to any family. There was also fear and homesickness in many of the kids. To this end, Governor Hendrickson had ordered teams to go to homes of all the kids in the bunker to try to get some kind of news, or at the very least be prepared to tell them something truly awful.

In addition to all this, it was all but impossible to keep current events away from the younger kids. The more the kids found out, the more kids just started crying out of the blue as it dawned on them loved ones and even pets were gone. It was sickening and Steven really wanted to figure out a way to directly hurt Ashwood. Steven glanced over and noticed one of the kids with the state senator was a fifth grader by the name of Euan. Once found out, the story had circulated quickly. The boy had lost two sisters and a brother who attended the same school he had, but had not been on the field trip. In a true war horror story, only 73 of the 671 students had survived the attack, 55 of them because they were on a school trip and ended up down in the bunker.

Making matters even worse for Euan, the boy's mom and dad both worked from home. It had been confirmed both had fallen victim to the sarin, as had the boy's parakeet and the family Rottweiler. While this would be devastating to anyone, the youngster's misery didn't end there. Euan's grandparents on the dad's side only lived half a block away from Euan and it had been established neither had survived. Finally, in a horrendous twist of fate, Euan's only other living relatives; an aunt, uncle, and three cousins lived in the middle of Oklahoma City and were presumed dead. The boy literally had lost his entire family in a matter of hours to Ashwood's mass casualty attacks.

Steven stood in the door and looked over at the crying boy. His heart said he should go over and say something. His mind, however, rebelled, telling him there were no words of comfort possible. While his heart and his brain fought a pitched battle within him, his body just stood in the door looking confused and dejected.

Nick Brandt was the first to notice Steven. He looked up and spoke with a great deal of concern in his voice, "Hey, problems there Steve?"

Steven rubbed his face with his left hand, "Not really. Just a bit thirsty and tired of water." Seeing all three men eyeing him closely, he figured he needed to be more honest. "I'm worried about Boulder. I rechecked my plan on heterogeneous nucleation and it still looks solid. I just wish we had weather sats up, so I could help pinpoint a good release time before the powder spreads even further. Not having a good picture of highs and lows makes this even more important since we can't do good forecasting. At any time, the wind could really pick up. As soon as it does, all the blister agent powder will go with it and will harm thousands of people now considered safe. All it would take is a low to the south and a high to the north of Boulder and the winds will start blowing toward Denver. It really sucks we don't have any sats."

Lieutenant Governor Conway tapped the seat next to him stood. "Have a seat. I'll grab you some O.J. and a sandwich."

"No, I can..."

Ranger Guthry wagged a finger at Steven, "Have a seat, son."

With a sigh, Steven sat down next to the Ranger. One thing all of the science contestants had learned, was the Rangers were acting in place of parents for all nine of them and they didn't take being told "no" well at all. Already Alexander had been grounded in his room for a full day and Glenn for a half day. Arguing with Mr. Triumph, only ended up getting Glenn stuck in his room for an extra four hours. Because of this, when one of the Rangers said something, the boys obeyed, and this was no exception.

Nick Brandt ruffled Steven's hair as the boy plopped down next to him and started looking at figures and formulations for rain making. With a shake of his head he pushed the laptop closed. "Give it a break, Steve. You're twelve years old. You need to be a kid for a while."

Before Steven could say anything, the Lieutenant Governor sat down and slid a glass of orange juice over to him. "You know, even the most important and powerful people in the world take some down time. Some, like Governor Hendrickson, plays golf. Me I like to take my sailboat out on the open water alone. I don't care who you are, you need a break, and your military friend, Mr. Brandt, is correct. You are twelve. Most of the others at least took a few turns at bat when we set up the baseball diamond in the motor pool area. Even Glenn tried and played some catch. Not you though. Mind telling me why?"

Steven took a long drink as he thought over the question. "I guess it bothers me seeing people doing stupid stuff when hundreds of thousands, millions, are suffering and dying. It's just not right."

Ranger Guthry took over, "Steve, the human brain can't do what you are trying to force yours to handle. No matter what is going on and no matter how much brain power is in your noggin, stress and too much focus is a bad thing and will lead you in the wrong direction."

Steven frowned as he came up with a counter argument he thought would make the two men see where he was coming from, "Have you ever had someone's life in your hands or felt like you did and take a break?"

Guthry surprised not only Steven, but the Lieutenant Governor as well. He took hold of the boy's chin and turned it so Steven had no choice but to look at him in the eyes, "Yes I have, not because I wanted to, but because someone in the department made me. It is the same thing I am now going to do for you."

Steven felt words stick in his throat, as he saw the seriousness of the look he was getting. After a few seconds he gulped, "Can you tell me about it?"

Guthry scratched at his chin, glanced over to Conway, "Do you think he's old enough to handle the Brooker case?"

Conway cringed slightly before turning to Steven, "How many of your dad's books have you read, son?"

Steven cocked his head to the side wondering what reading his dad's books had to do with anything, but after only a few seconds he shrugged, "All but one. Dad says I have to be at least thirteen before he will let me read 'The Nyght Pit'."

Guthry couldn't help but grin, "Yeah, I can understand where he is coming from. It gets a bit steamy in parts."

Conway snorted, "More than a bit!" Shaking his head he looked over at Steven, "So he let you read 'The Shattered Window'?"

"Not one of his scarier books and I knew right from the start the jerk was not going to be happy at the end. I hate Dad didn't figured out a gruesome way to kill the guy though. Why?"

Conway nodded to Guthry, "He can handle a book like 'The Shattered Window' then yeah, I'd say he can deal this OK."

Guthry took a deep breath and looked back at Steven, "OK, but if you get any nightmares, you come see someone, got me?"

"Yes sir."

"You better." Guthry paused as he tried to figure out a good way to relate the situation to a child. After a few seconds of internal debate, he decided to just stick to the facts and leave out the worst parts. "This all started not long before you were born. I was working in Fort Worth at the time. I had just made detective and the call came in of a kidnapping attempt and it was tossed to me. I guess the big wigs figured it was an attempt, not the actual thing, so it was a good case to get my feet wet with.

"Anyway I pulled up to a small house, blue with white trim and an El Camino parked in the drive. Looked like a standard crime scene and it basically was. Someone had tried to break into the back door, pushed the woman of the house down and tried to go after a nine-year-old girl, only the girl turned out to be a fast thinker. She climbed out her bedroom window and ran to a known neighbor's house. Local police showed up but there was no sign of the guy.

"We took fingerprints, did all the lab stuff and put out an alert, since both the mother and the girl was certain the low life had come after the girl. We got nowhere, absolutely nowhere. Crimes against kids cases are never totally abandoned, so as the weeks slipped by I had it on my open cases list, but moved on. Then three months later I got a call from Nashville PD. The prints I pulled popped up in a similar crime scene there. Only this time a little girl had been taken.

"Since I had spent time on the case, the FBI flew me out to Nashville to work on the case there. We searched frantically for the girl. We studied the two houses, looked for any similarities, tried to figure out how she was targeted, so we could figure out who did the targeting. You name it, we tried it. The FBI sent in a team to help and after five days we all flew back to Fort Worth to look over the house there. We ended up with nothing."

"You never found the girl?"

Guthry shook his head sadly, "Still haven't. But unfortunately the story doesn't end there. Four months later, you would have been less than a year old by then, I was just walking into my apartment when my beeper went off. One look at the number and I felt my heart sink. It was the lead investigator from the FBI."


Guthry looked down and scratched his eyebrow for a couple of seconds, "Yeah, only this time it was Huntsville. It was the exact same thing. Small house, back door broken in suddenly right about bedtime, the mother knocked silly, and the girl taken right out of her own home. This time the feds sent a plane for me, so I was there before midnight. The FBI was pulling out all the stops on this one. Roadblocks in concentric rings around the house had been established, only a cursory look was taken at those who had child crimes in the area was done, just to make sure none could have been in both Fort Worth and Nashville when those crimes had been committed.

"We did house by house interviews and they made me part of the taskforce. As much as I'd like to tell you we left no stone unturned, we missed something, ‘cause after three days we were right back where we started, which was nowhere."

Steven felt his eyes go wide at this, "You didn't find the second girl either?"

Conway answered for Guthry, "No, Steven, no they didn't."

Guthry took a drink of coffee and a few moments to recompose himself, "After ten days I flew back into Fort Worth and the case consumed me. I maybe slept for a couple of hours a night. My work on other cases went straight into the toilet. My marriage ended. I even had my power turned off for a couple of days because I forgot to pay the bills. Had I not been a cop, my car would have been taken for the same reason. I bet over the following four months I let a dozen criminals get away with some pretty serious crimes because I wouldn't let go."

"Oh..." Steven cringed, "I guess I can see where you are coming from then... Um, can I ask what happened?"

Guthry let out long breath with his bottom lip out over his upper lip, so his hair actually blew upwards. "Well, to be honest. I probably came damned close to losing my job in addition to everything else, but before that could happen the S.O.B. struck yet again."

"Jackson, Mississippi." Conway stated as he saw both Nick and Steven look up with shock in their eyes.

"Yeah..." Guthry let the single word stay on his lips for nearly three seconds before continuing. "By the time the plane touched down, I already knew what I would find when I got to the crime scene. The back door was off its hinges, there was signs of a struggle toward the back of the house, the mother was in the hospital, and the little girl's room was a mess. As I walked toward the house, though, the lead FBI Agent stopped me from going in. I can still remember the words. "You know what you will find in there and you look like crap. Let us do our thing, hit the sack, so you can come at this fresh with us in the morning or go home. You aren't going to help us in your condition.

"I'll tell you, I have never been so pissed off in my entire life, but the agent was not going to take "no" for an answer. It was either me get a night's sleep or be kicked off the taskforce and I knew it."

By this time Steven was totally caught up in what he was hearing, "So what did you do?"

"I busted up some things in a hotel room, which took me a few months to pay off, before exhaustion took over and I finally slept. They didn't even bother me till the following evening. By then, they were all at the same point as the last two times. The extensive dragnet had turned up nothing. Door to door searches for witnesses nothing. Roadblocks again nothing. Searches of fields for a body fruitless. It was as if the guy could literally vanish and had done so for a third time with a little girl.

"When I walked into the command center I looked around. Only this time was different. I was coming in fresh, almost twenty-four hours behind the curve and was able to look over everything a bit differently."

"So you saw something everyone else had missed?"

"I guess in a way, but it really wasn't something we had missed. Instead it was something we all had never thought about."


"Well, I scanned the room; looked at the map of the city, studied the roadblocks, and really paid attention at where the house was and then it dawned on me. The predator we were after was spending months between crimes. He was moving from city to city, and he didn't care about leaving his fingerprints and even hair fibers behind, so he was not in the system. This we all knew, but hadn't thought about what this meant."

Steven shrugged, "To me it seems the guy knew the South, since all the crimes were between Texas and Alabama. He had to have checked who he was after, because it sounds like all of them only had moms at home. They all had back doors far enough away to where he would not be seen or heard breaking them down. I guess none had dogs. He must have somehow known this... Um... he had to be real strong since he busted in quickly. Let's see, I know from reading my dad's books and other horror stories, he must not be worried about leaving the mom alive... Say, how come you didn't get a description from any of them?"

"Good observations, outstanding question, Steve. You would make a fine investigator," Guthry praised the boy. "So let me give you a bit more we already knew that I left out, seeing as I wasn't real sure you would be able to follow." Seeing the return look he smiled warmly, "Just because someone is smart, does not mean they can put these kinds of puzzles together."

"I think all eight of us can, probably nine, but Joey still is too standoffish for me to tell for sure."

"Seems like a good kid, but I'd agree. He's a strong little guy, though." Seeing Steven nod in agreement, Guthry continued. "So for more details. The kidnapper always waited until the mother was close to the back door and hit hard and fast. All of the women reported he wore a hoodie, too. We knew from hair samples the guy was brown haired and it was pretty long. Over six inches in many cases. You are also correct. He was careful to target homes at the end of a block or with big yards between them and neighbors. All the houses had closed in back yards and no motion sensor lights."

Steven's brow furrowed, "He was super careful about the places he picked. How did he get all the information?"

"We were looking into those questions but didn't have an answer at the time."

"OK, so you caught him without knowing the answer?"

"We got him. Unfortunately we didn't catch him. If we had, we might know what happened to the other girls."

Steven shivered slightly, "Oh... Sorry. At least you got him. Did you save the last girl?"

"Yes he did," Conway responded with a smile, "alive and remarkably well considering her ordeal."

"Good!" Steven waited for more information but when none was forthcoming, he chewed on the inside of his lip for a few seconds, "So he took the girls and no one heard them screaming or anything?"

"No one," Guthry confirmed.

"So he took the time to put something in their mouths... So he had to grab a girl, stop her from yelling somehow and take her out kicking and trying to scream unless he drugged them, and if he did it would have had to be something really fast... He then made it out and got away even as the mom was calling police? If so, he couldn't have gotten very far."

"You have covered just about all the things we had been looking at up to then. We had also tracked plane travel, rental cars, even bus tickets looking for a common name. You really are good at looking at the big picture."


"Any other thoughts?"

Steven started to shake his head, but stopped. "To not get noticed, he could not have driven too fast and there is no way he could have carried a girl, even if he put her into a big bag or something, without getting noticed. He also travels a long ways, so he has to have at least a car. With all those things in mind, I guess I start thinking sewers, drainage pipes, manhole covers, close by trailer parks where an RV could park, self storage units, um..." he stopped as he saw both Conway and Guthry jerk their heads at the same time. "What? Self storage?"

"I'm going to find a way to get you a badge, boy!" Guthry all but gasped. "You actually nailed both. It was a self storage with a place big enough to park an RV. He had a trailer for his car, drove the car close to the house, drove the girl only a few blocks, parked the car in a self storage spot right next to the one he had his RV in and planned on living in it until we loosened up with checkpoints, and drove to where ever he was going. We tried to sneak into the place, but he saw us on cameras he had put up and came out shooting. One of the SWAT guys took him down. We got Jasmine, but found nothing but hair and fiber samples for the RV on the others."

"At least you got him."

Guthry nodded, "Yes, but not before stepping back and taking a breather, even a forced one. Which is exactly why I am taking this computer from you until tonight. You have done enough and need to unwind." Seeing he was about to get a string of complaints, Guthry pointed to the camera Steven had put on the table, "I've seen you carrying that around on and off since we got down here, but you have yet to snap a photo best as I can tell. What's the deal with it?"

As expected, the distraction worked, Steven pulled up the camera to show Ranger Guthry. "Scott gave it to me, but I haven't really had a chance to play with it. It belonged to his brother and has pictures on it his brother took at school and school events. I looked through some. It looks like it shoots a pretty good picture, even though Scott says it's just a cheap low megapixel one.

Steven pulled out the XD card and started to put in the new one Scott had purchased for him at the hotel gift store. But before he could Ranger Guthry frowned, "If it's low megapixel how come it has a 128 gig card in it?"

"Guess his brother didn't want to run out of room. They seem to have lots of money."

"Maybe," the Lieutenant Governor stated cautiously, "but a camera like you're holding with a 128 gig card would hold over 30,000 pictures. No one would want to sort through even half as many!"

Mr. Brandt nodded in full agreement, "Hey, didn't I hear Scott say he thought Grant had stumbled onto something?"

"Uh huh, but I looked at the pictures. It's just of a bunch of kids doing stuff around the school!"

Guthry frowned and pulled the laptop back over to himself and looked. "No XD slot..."

Conway jumped up. "I've got one on mine."

"Go get it." Guthry looked over at Steven, "Grant and Scott went to the same school?"

"Yeah, why?"

"Call it a cop hunch. Go get him, now!"

Fifteen minutes later, Scott was sitting at the same table with Nick Brandt, Ranger Guthry, Lieutenant Governor Conway, and Steven, rubbing the sleepies out of his eyes, "You all know it's like two in the morning, right?'

"We do." Guthry stated firmly as he pulled up the images from the card and grabbed a pen and a notebook. "Just do me a big favor. You remember names, were trained to never forget a face... I just need you to give me the names of the kids your brother took photos of."

Scott let out a long sigh as he took a drink of an offered soda. "OK, sure, whatever." He looked at the thumbnails and groggily started reciting names, "Olivia, Peter, Eric, Rachel, Angle, Tom, Ivan, Oliver, Nero, Stan, Tina, Amber, Rudy, Shane, Hans, Ivan again, Nikki, Evelyn, Oliver again... Um, Bradley, Jackie, Eddie, Calvin, Trent, Ivan yet again, Vikki, Edward, Spence..." Before he could say more Guthry held up his hand and dropped the pen.

Off to the side Conway's jaw dropped open as he saw what was written. With a trembling voice he spoke softly, "Boys, take a look at what the first letter of each of these kids' names spells."

Scott suddenly became very much awake. At the same time Steven jumped up, accidently knocking over Scott's can of soda, while shouting, "Scott, he left this for you!"

Mr. Brandt let out a low whistle, "Going to be a long few hours as you rattle off the other 30,000 names or so..."

"Way more," Ranger Guthry stated as he looked over the information about the photos. "He didn't take them at the highest resolution. We're over 45,000 and it is still not even showing half are loaded."

Even as Scott nodded and Lieutenant Governor Conway whistled, the five couldn't help but stare down at the sheet of paper, for the letters of the first name of each kid Scott had rattled off spelled out:

Operation Starshine Objectives

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