Copyright © 2012 - 2016 by Kyle Aarons and the Revolutions Universe Partnership.
All Rights Reserved
Scott rubbed his eyes as he ran down the points his brother had spelled out with pictures of classmates. So much of what Grant had left him was personal, it bothered him to have Ranger Guthry, the Lieutenant Governor and Governor know the full thing. However, there was nothing he could do about it. He could, however, censor much of the personal information out while still putting together the overall document for those who could use it. This included President Elect Bryce.
The one thing he didn't want out there for the world to see was just how deeply Grant knew Scott. All the little things like Grant telling him not to be afraid and how Grant knew how alone he would feel if something happened to Grant. As part of this, there was multiple suggestions of people to talk to, people to attempt to get help from, and the pros and cons of many of them. The information provided by Grant was also full of places both Scott and Grant knew and some of the things they had shared. Much of this held hidden meanings for Scott. One part in particular really stood out since it was something only he and Grant knew anything about. The mention of Osnabrück combined with talking about Rafael Latz, the Attorney General, was clearly a warning from Grant, but one only Scott would pick up on.
The mention of Osnabrück, actually sent shivers up Scott's spine. It also took him on a trip back to the spring of 2010. The two nine-year-old boys got interested in ghosts for some reason over the months prior. Then, right about the same time, their mother had taken them to Germany on a 'fact finding' trip. Their job was to get with the German Prime Minister's boys and find out what, if anything had been said around the slightly older boys about a weapons deal being worked on between the Germans and the State Department. It had been like taking candy from a baby, the two kids told Grant and Scott how their mom was against the deal because their mother had complained on several occasions about the Germans not wanting to rely on American technology and parts. The boys went on to tell Grant how they had heard their mom talking to the Italians about also refusing the deal.
With this information in hand, Holly Race had been able to undercut the deal by offering a technical sharing deal. At the same time, Holly had used the information to further her wealth, because she knew as soon as the deal went public, the stocks would go through the roof. She bought shares a couple of weeks prior and sold them off a month after, scoring several million.
Grant and Scott used this to their advantage as well. They manipulated the German Prime Minister, talking about their interest in haunted places and hearing about how Germany had all sorts of cool haunted spots that they wanted to see. Between the two, they managed to get the German Prime Minister to send them on a tour of real haunted places throughout the country. While Holly Race didn't care for it, she 'rewarded' the twins for getting the needed information by giving her blessings for them to take a week and explore so-called haunted spots. While both had secretly wanted to see or hear something, neither expected what they got. The only place where they encountered anything strange was at an odd stone structure, and they found far more than either bargained for. The spot was just outside of Osnabrück. Actually it was some kind of super old grouping of old stones. They had been placed in such a way, it reminded both boys of a massive dog. Up to this point the whole 'haunted' tour had been a big bust, and this spot was to be the last. Partially because of this, and partially to stay away from the German PM's kids, they managed to convince the tour guide, who turned out to be extremely easy to manipulate, to stay until well after the night sky took over. The man radioed in a flat tire and the need to get the boys a meal, so they stayed until well after dark on the night of the spring solstice.
As darkness crept over the woods, the guide tried repeatedly to get the boys to at least get in the car, but the man's clear nervousness only enhanced the desire of the two to get closer and stay longer hoping for at least some sign of a real haunting. As the moonless sky plunged the forest into an inky blackness, Grant shook his head with disappointment and jerked his head in the direction of the awaiting car. Reluctantly, Scott sighed and turned away from the stone structure. It was then it happened. A wave of mist rolled in, not fog, but mist, and it was thick. Within seconds Scott and Grant were soaked. At the same time, the two lost sight of the car.
It was an instinctive reaction on the part of both Scott and Grant to reach out for each other. Even as the mist became thicker, they grabbed each other's hands and turned back toward the dog looking rocks. It was then they saw the mist was actually coming out from the 'head' of the dog and within the mist, a man with a sword was plunging the blade down on a fallen child. While everything else was nothing but mist and basically see-through, the hilt of the sword was not. In the back of the hilt was a large circular disk, in the center of the disk was a cross. As the blade impaled the child, the misty figure turned to stare at the Grant and Scott. It then looked down, looked back up with a malicious grin, and twisted the blade back and forth. As this happened the cross on the disk flared bright white, then turned black. Before the boys could turn and run, a figure on the cross became clear for just a moment. While this was going on, the figure on the cross seemed to scream while drips of red fell from the eyes. There was no doubt in either boy, it was blood.
A few minutes later they found the car, because of its headlights, and begged to leave as quickly as possible. The driver, who had only spoken in German to the two boys did as requested, but as he turned off the dirt road, he spoke in perfect English, "So did you see Charlemagne or one of the Pagan priests in a ritual sacrifice?"
Scott and Grant turned to look at each other, but it was Grant who responded, " A man with a sword... It had a cross on the end..."
"Charlemagne." The driver whispered. "Did he take note of you?"
Both boys nodded.
"Then you have been marked. For better or worse, you will have a lasting impact on this world." The man then resumed speaking in German, "Did you know the Pagans were rumored to have sacrificed the children of those they captured in battle at this site? Paganism was seen as an affront to Christians who were moving into Europe at the time."
"Then... maybe it wasn't Charlemagne we saw," Grant whispered.
"No, if the figure had a sword with a cross on the hilt, it was Charlemagne. While revered by many as a great figure of Christianity, he was responsible for the slaughter of untold thousands of Pagans and he either took part in, or ordered the deaths of over 4500 Saxons in the Year of Our Lord, 782 at the Massacre of Verden. Despite this, or partially because of this, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor of the Romans on December 25, 800, at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
"While I have never seen Charlemagne, nor do I want to, rumors persists about his ghost here. Many say those who see him, are noticed by him, and should they make a trip to St. Peter's Basilica, the seer of Charlemagne will be granted a powerful vision. Regardless of if you wish to take this quest, you are now marked and have a destiny. Some who have seen what you have, have gone mad, others have taken different paths, but all are known in history as a force either for or against the followers of Charlemagne and the knight order he helped to build, which is whispered to still exist, I might add."
The whole thing stuck with Scott as if it had happened minutes ago instead of over two years prior. Still, the whole thing caused Scott to crack a slight smile. The memories of the back and forth conversation with Grant brought back many fond memories. Both boys tried to tell their parents but were summarily dismissed as a child's imagination. They also teamed up and attempted really hard to go to Rome so they could see St. Peter's Basilica. Their father was about to spring for it, but at the last second, their mom killed the idea. It was one of the few times Scott could remember an argument between his mom and dad where the two seemed so diametrically opposed. It was also the most heated either of them had been in front of him.
Eventually, Grant relented, saying it wasn't a big deal, but the topic of going to Rome was often talked about when the two were alone. With a shake of his head, Scott took out the whole thing surrounding Osnabrück and Grant's speculation that what they had seen and heard about Charlemagne might have something to do with the 'knight order' they had both heard mentioned. Was his mom a member of this strange knight order, or army? If so, did she know of the rumors of Charlemagne? Was there something she had been secretly afraid of, which made her so against them going to St. Peter's Basilica? It seemed farfetched, but... Not implausible enough for him to totally dismiss it.
A couple of hours more of hard work followed. There were places in the overall document where he wanted to take things out, but also wanted Bryce to have the proper information. The problem was, with so many private comments, it made it hard to let any of it out. Yet Scott already knew the whole picture spelled text was in the hands of Fredric Triumph and the people at EEL, plus Ranger Guthry and several within the State of Texas government were helping him inside the bunker. How he wished he would have noticed this in private so he could have kept some of the more uncomfortable things away from others.
There were little things, like Grant pointing out how they joked about how horny Secretary of Homeland Security, Floyd Horney was and how Grant was pretty sure the man had the hots for their mom. Seeing that get out was flatly upsetting, and in Scott's opinion, it had nothing to do with the whole of Operation Starshine. While Grant insinuated, Horney's horniness probably had something to do with why the man was one of the leads on the unknown 'Operation Funland', Scott could tell it was more in jest, than being serious. Still, if Floyd Horney was one of the driving forces behind part of Starshine, then Bryce needed to know... Or did it really matter at this point? It was just so hard to pull out actual facts from speculation buried within his brother's twisted sense of humor.
It also hurt to read some humorous tidbits put in by Grant. Scott missed his brother so much, seeing this only made the empty spot in his heart hurt more. The more Scott worked through the document, the more he missed Grant. At the same time, there were little things that started to annoy Scott, one of the main ones was how Grant had consistently spelled Bryce's name as Brice. After about the thirtieth time of seeing it misspelled, Scott muttered, "I guess we needed more kids with first names starting in 'Y' at our school."
Hearing Scott speak for the first time in hours, Steven glanced up from his computer, "What?"
Scott shook his head, "Nothing..." seeing Steven cock his head to the side and raise an eyebrow, Scott forced a grin, "I was just grumbling about how Grant misspelled Bryce's name by using an 'I' instead of a 'Y'. We really didn't have many kids or instructors in our school with first names starting with Y. I guess he figured, even though we only had a thirty-nine with a 'I' starting first name, he decided it was less obvious to use them all over the place than the four with a 'Y' first name. Still it makes me wonder how the government missed this and I am getting more and more angry with myself. I should have looked this over and noticed the hundreds of photos with Ingrid, Irma, Ivan, Ike, Ilesha, Immanuel, Igor, Idyll and the others. Neither one of us even liked Igor or Idyll, so I should have noticed a couple hundred pictures of each... But I never even really looked. I only scanned the first few and tossed the camera back into my desk. I'm such an idiot!"
Steven stood and moved behind Scott. He put his hands on the boy's shoulders, "Scott, without you, we wouldn't have access to what your brother worked untold hours to put together for you... for us... I don't think there is anyone in this bunker who could have memorized the name of every kid and teacher in your entire school, in any school, let alone a massive K through 8 elite private institution! It isn't your fault."
Scott hung his head, "It sure feels like it is. If I would have figured this out when Grant first disappeared, maybe I could have..."
"What?" Steven demanded to know. "Go after him on your own?"
A few tears trickled down Scott's cheeks, "Yes! He wasn't just my brother he was my best friend..." More tears fell as Scott's voice dropped to a whisper, "My only friend."
"Maybe then, but not now, Scott. You are one of us, and we aren't going to let you take this on alone."
"Yeah, like Mr. Triumph or Governor Hendrickson would ever allow me to leave this... this... pris... bunker... to go try to find Grant..."
Justin moved over to stand next to Scott, "You think there is something in all of this that gives you a starting point?"
"Yeah... One..." Scott used his shoulders to wipe away the tears and used his finger to scroll up on the touch screen. "Right here."
Both Justin and Steven leaned in to look at the orange highlighted section. Steven read it aloud, "Fifty-seven, Bring them in prearranged shipping containers so there is no chance of detection. Those they are shipping will have to spend weeks in them. As mentioned above they already know some will not survive and they don't care. Note Scott I also heard talk of large tour groups for national parks and amusement parks coming in from the Middle East from Horney. Major focus of Mid East force seems to be in Florida. Argentina and Venezuela are two other primary sources. Maybe you could be good to Imir, he must know."
Scott turned his head to look at Justin, "Imir Assadir, one of the few people I ever met who could somehow tell me apart from Grant. If he has information on this than he may also know what happened to Grant..." Scott paused and closed his eyes, "Imir knows how close Grant and I are, and he also has... um.. an interest in me. If he thought there was any chance of getting on my good side, he would have done what he could to keep track of Grant. It would be the one thing he knows I would trade for."
"Trade for?" Steven asked.
"Yeah..." Scott sighed, "What he wants for what I want. I could have gotten Grant's location out of him and with a little... persuasion... I might have even gotten him to get Grant for me. Now... It's probably too late. It's been way too long. Grant is either dead or put where only Ashwood can get to him."
Craig, who had just caught the tail end of the conversation, came over. He sent a bit of a glare at Scott, "Maybe, but you can't give up on him. We sure haven't."
Scott looked up with some confusion while trying hard not to outright cry, "You... you... don't even know him."
"No, but I know you and I saw what he pulled off with that camera. If he isn't one of us, no one is! Now pull yourself together and let's go!"
Scott shook his head as if trying to clear it, "Go? Go where?"
Lachlan came into the dining room dressed as a firefighter, but had the addition of a backpack, a pistol on his hip and a rifle over his shoulder, "Topside. Fredric Triumph just approved you going after your brother and trying to get confirmation on some of the things left on the camera."
Justin looked over at Craig, noticing a couple of the other firefighters carrying the chests. "How did you ever convince him?"
"I didn't." Craig's face lit up with a smirking grin. "He said the chaperones warned him we would probably sneak out to help Scott if he didn't approve."
Scott let out a long breath and stood, "Actually... I was kind of thinking about it..."
"Kind of figured you were," Alexander snickered as he pulled out a key and opened up one of the chests. "Come on, armor up!" He glanced over at Steven, "You too!"
Steven glanced over at the computer, "I still need to work on Boulder..."
Guthry pushed the laptop closed and stared at Steven, "You gave all the figures to Bryce's people, right?"
"But nothing. I just got off with Fredric Triumph and he is really reluctant, but Levi, Kermit, and Zenon, along with Colonel Zolotov pushed him into agreeing. He made two stipulations. One, an adult to go with. To this end Lachlan has agreed. Two was you being part of it. He says you are the elected leader and if anyone can keep this... group... focused on staying safe and not doing anything too stupid it would be you."
Steven couldn't help it; he snickered and glanced at the others, "So he says about the kid who blew up the family grill with fireworks!"
Hearing this several others bust out into snickers; Lachlan, on the other hand, dropped his head, "There is a story you probably shouldn't relate around a firefighter..."
Steven shot Lachlan a mischievous grin, "I got better ones!"
"Oh... boy..." Lachlan rolled his eyes then glanced over at Governor Hendrickson, "This is going to be... interesting..."
"Yeah, well, I want all five of these boys coming back in one piece. I also want to hear what your cover story is going to be. Actually, I was hoping the kids would be more reluctant, but…"
"Are you joking?" Alexander shouted, "I could be told we were going topside to fight a five headed dragon and would still be jumping up and down for joy! This place is BORING!"
"Hate to say this, Governor Hendrickson," Justin jumped in, "but I'm totally with Alexander on this one!"
"I'm right there as well, but more worried about getting caught and being forced to tell where you all are..." Steven stated seriously. Seeing some of the adults eye him, Steven let out a long breath, "You didn't see that... temple... torture place... If they get us to someplace like that they will make us talk."
Hendrickson cocked his head to the side. "Is this the temple I heard Ricky talking about when we took the elevator down?"
"Probably," Craig grumbled. "Not a place I ever wanted to think about again. But Steven is right. If we screw up and they take us someplace like even close to the temple place, they will make us talk."
"Don't worry about us." Hendrickson ordered, "You worry about not getting caught. If you do, give them where we are. We'll be happy to have a bullet to bullet discussion with whoever shows up."
Guthry let out a long breath, "The most important thing is to come up with a cover story of how come you were not with us, how you ended up with Lachlan, and how you all survived. If you don't have those things, this will not work."
Craig rubbed his chin and glanced around, "Yeah, how did we survive the sarin if we weren't with the governor?"
Steven let out a long sigh and hit his forehead with his right fist a few times before speaking, "One of the reasons I have been trying so hard to help Boulder is I screwed up when telling people where to go. I could have saved hundreds, maybe thousands, of others if I had thought about it."
Guthry put a hand on Steven's shoulders, "Kiddo, thousands survived the attack unscathed and many, many hundreds of others managed to make it through and only needed limited medical help thanks to you. What you did on the fly, in a matter of seconds, was phenomenal! You can't blame yourself if you thought of something after the fact!"
"Yes, yes I can. It was so obvious and I screwed up..."
Craig's eyes narrowed, "No, Steven, Ashwood screwed up and you did what you could think of in the limited time you had. Hell, I would have never thought of the garbage bag trick. It was brilliant and we know from reports it saved countless people who listened. You also calculated the rates of descent of the gas and when to blow the sirens. Now knock off the sulking! We need you up there with us!"
Steven glared back at Craig, but was cut off as Justin moved between them, "Steven, you did great. None of the rest of us jumped up and spoke into the cameras. You did, and because you stepped up and did something you saved people. Your ideas and formulas will be used in Boulder too. Staying down here isn't going to help the rest of the US. You being up top with us might!"
Alexander also spoke up, "They're right, Steven. I wish it was me who did what you did, but I didn't know what to do at all. You did and you said it in a way everyone could understand, and for more than we can count, it worked. Besides, and I know this is going to sound cold, but if you got another idea, then great. It will give us a cover story on how we made it out of the kill zone, because we know the state capitol was dead center in the middle of it. The only ones who lived within blocks of there were the kids Craig helped get into those buses."
"Yeah, and I could have saved bus loads more..."
"Stop beating yourself up, Steven." Governor Hendrickson finally spoke with a commanding voice. "You don't think all the rest of us haven't been thinking what we could have done or said to save a single extra person? We didn't do a damned thing. You did and you did an outstanding job of it."
"You put me on camera and I missed it... Don't you get it? I screwed up!"
"First off, none of us have a clue what you think you messed up, so you are holding guilt inside when none of the rest of us see anything better you could have done. Secondly, figuring things out after the fact isn't messing up. We can make it part of a contingency plan should something like this ever happen again. Part of what I have been working on with my people is just such an emergency action plan, so we have one for a chemical attack. So stop beating yourself up, literally and figuratively, and let's hear this. It may save lives going forward. We are still at war!"
Steven covered his face with his hands, "Walk-in freezers... Coolers... there are hundreds of restaurants with them..."
Scott dropped his head as he realized just how obvious it should have been to all of them, "Aw, crap! We should have all thought of that! They are airtight and could have kept people safe during the initial dispersion times! Steven, this is not your fault it is all of ours! We should have suggested it to you!"
Justin looked down and kicked at the floor. "Scott's right. How did we miss it? We could have saved hundreds of others..."
"The real question is why, several days later, none of us saw it." Alexander shook his head as he took a knee next to the locker with the special armor given to them. "All nine of us should have seen it, but we didn't. Damn, for a smart kid I can be really stupid!"
"We didn't think about it because we were all freaking out," Craig stated. "We had a hundred things including a gunfight land on our lap and we were doing what we could as fast as we could. Steven, this isn't on you, it's on the rest of us."
Governor Hendrickson shook his head, "Boys, it's not on any of you. Hell, hearing this is like getting smacked in the face. As much as you may be astonished to hear, I even knew most freezers are airtight, but using them to save lives never even crossed my mind! In fact, I have had a dozen meetings with the best people we have left in this state including Fredric Triumph, and it hasn't come up. It is too obvious... right in front of the noses of the best minds, adults and youth, yet none of us thought of it.
"Steven, you can't blame yourself for overlooking it. However, know you just added a whole new dynamic to any future chemical attack emergency plan."
"I still should have thought of it. I had the camera on me, I even talked about dust free rooms. There are hundreds of freezers out there to every dust free room and all I thought about was labs." Steven lowered his head and shook it. "It was stupid and I killed lots of people."
"Ashwood killed them, Steven," Justin countered. "With your help back up top, maybe we can make him pay for those orders. Plus, your idea also gives us a perfect cover story of how we survived. You didn't mention it, so when we use it, it will make total sense. Hopefully, they'll think that is how the whole government survived. We can tell them we took them to freezers once we found the capitol bunker sabotaged. It's totally believable."
Scott nodded slowly, "It sure is. They don't know where we went or how we survived, since they burned the main bunker. My survival was something I was trying to figure out, which is the only reason I haven't tried to figure out a way to get out of here. Now I have an easy survival story, one Imir will totally buy... and I have to try to find Grant..."
"We know you do," Justin assured Scott. "We will help, but you have to let us and be careful. If you jump at this, you could end up getting both you and him killed."
"Not to mention the rest of us," Steven grunted. "Because like it or not, want it or not, we're coming with you."
Scott nodded, "OK, but if we can find Imir, you can't get in my way. I have an in... but when I use it, there can't be any pushback from any of you. It will be between Imir and me, OK?"
Steven frowned, "I'm not going to let him do anything..."
"Steven," Scott hardened, "if we find him, when we find him, you have to promise to stay out of my way. I'll be fine, but you can't get in my way! I'll only get one shot at this... one... If I..." Scott shook his head, "Guys, you have to promise, or you can't come with me."
Lachlan rubbed his hand down his face, "Scott I am going out there to help keep you safe."
Scott's face turned into a smirk, "Mr. Walker, I'll be fine. Mom made sure I could handle myself and get information out of just about anyone, but I need to be given leeway to do this my way. You all just have to stay out of my way once we find him."
"I don't like the sound of this at all, son," Ranger Guthry growled. "Unless I miss what you are hinting at..."
Scott stared right into the man's eyes, "You don't have to like it, sir. I'm not doing this for you; I am doing it for my brother and hopefully getting information to save this country, maybe even the whole world. This isn't about what you like, so you need to keep what you are thinking to yourself and let me unleash the full training Mom paid a fortune to make sure I could pull information out of just about anyone. Don't get into my way on this, just don't."
Ranger Guthry clenched his fists and stared right back, but even as he did, he saw the boy was not about to flinch. If anything the harder the look he tried to give, the more resolute Scott became. While still keeping his eyes fixated on Scott's he lightly nodded, "OK, son, but I don't think this is going to be like anything you can imagine."
"You may be surprised what Mom has expected out of me, Grant, and Peter, and even Denny. I can handle this. I just need to find him."
Guthry made a growling sound as he turned away from the whole group, "Fine, but once this is over, don't expect me to ignore any of this."
Scott snorted as his eyes narrowed to mere slits, "If I can find what happened to Grant, I'll pass on every name, so you can hunt down each and every person who so much as put a finger on him. I'll warn you right now, though, if anything really bad happened to Grant, you will have to beat me to them. 'CAUSE AS LONG AS I'M ALIVE, I'M GOING TO KILL AS MANY AS I CAN!"
Alexander pulled on the armor and adjusted the straps, "Not alone you won't."
Craig also started getting into the armor, "Yeah, Ranger Guthry will have to work real fast to beat us to them. Now you need to take a few deep breaths and calm down. As I was taught in Junior Marines, anger is great for pushing back fear when the shit hits the fan, but anger is reckless. We need you with a level head. You are the only one who knows this Imir and as you keep saying this may be our last chance to get to Grant."
Craig paused as he pulled out the automatic shotgun, "Justin, this is yours."
Justin slid over and grabbed his armor while shaking his head, "You got the rifle you wanted, so can I have the assault rifle shotgun combo instead? I'd like the range of a rifle and the power of the shotgun both."
Craig nodded, "Sure! Alexander, toss Justin the M4/M26."
Alexander pulled out the assault rifle and a quartet of magazine pouches. He handed it over along with a satchel full of 12 gauge shells. "All yours!"
Justin checked it over and nodded, "We'll have to say we came up on a military convoy or something."
Governor Hendrickson blinked as the boys all started getting ready. As Craig pulled out the case with his assault rifle he glanced over at Guthry, "I think this explains how they took down the infiltrators and why they didn't need much practice on the range..."
Guthry and Taggert both nodded and Lachlan was about to say something when Hendrickson let out a gasp and felt his blood run cold as Alexander, Justin, Craig, Steven, and finally Scott stood, all wearing the strange armor. When he spoke his voice shook, "You... all of you... you were the unknowns at Breckenridge!"
Alexander turned, while securing a pistol into the shoulder rigging built into the armor, "No, but some friends of ours were."
Craig gave Alexander a grin as he saw the jaws of several in the room drop. He slammed a magazine into the bottom of the SR-25 assault rifle even as he turned back to the look at the governor, "He's not giving himself enough credit. We were outside Breckenridge taking out the trash while the real fighting was done by... yeah... I'll leave it at friends. And while Alexander is right about not being in Breckenridge, we were real close."
Justin nodded, "Craig's also right, we did take out the trash, albeit with some help..."
"I just wish we could have nailed them before they crashed the buses," Steven sighed.
Ranger Taggert felt his heart speed up, "But you were there and know who those others were? The ones we saw on the camera feed before it was cut off… you all know who went into the school, right?"
"Yeah," Steven nodded, "kind of."
"Kind of?" Lieutenant Governor Conway gasped out, "But we saw it... that armor... Who started the fight?"
"Sorry," Alexander responded, "we don't know. We weren't in Breck. We had some feds to deal with along with some badly injured kids from a pair of buses."
"The two missing buses?" Hendrickson barked out, "You know what happened to them after they left the west edge of town? You said they crashed? What about the kids in them? How about the drivers?"
Alexander dug through the remainder of the weapons in the crate and picked up one of the AR15's. "Um, yes, yes, yes, we got those who survived, and, no; they didn't make it." He glanced over with a roll of his eyes, "You mind letting us answer one at a time from now on?"
Taggert made a growling sound at Alexander, even as Steven reached over and smacked Alexander on the back of the head.
At the same time Guthry shook his head as he saw confusion ripple across the governor's face, "Sir, he is being a smartass. Yes, the two missing buses. Yes, they know what happened to them. Yes, they crashed. They got most of the kids out but some didn't make it. And, the drivers didn't make it."
As Hendrickson processed this, he pointed a finger at Alexander, "Boy..."
Alexander gave the man a smirk, "Governor..."
At this Taggert lowered his head into his hand while shaking it, "Let them get out of here, so we can ask Keith or Ricky. At least they are polite enough to give us answers without attitudes."
"And before you get tempted to smack the crud out of him," Guthry added with a shake of his head and the slightest hint of a grin. "Besides, I'd hate to have to arrest you for child abuse, Governor."
Steven snorted, "Don't worry, we'd testify for you, sir."
Alexander flipped off Steven, checked his movement, and looked over at Hendrickson, "Seriously, we were getting shot at and taking down five vehicles worth of Ashwoodians. We don't know what happened inside the town, only the aftermath."
Justin quickly agreed even as he stepped forward to put all the focus on himself, "He's right. We had lots Ashwoodian jerks shooting at us. We can only tell you what we heard, and from what we heard, the shooting was already going on when our friends got there. There was a survivor, but he hadn't spoken yet when we came to get a tour and meet with you, and he's just a little kid. You want more, your best bet is to ask President Bryce. He is the one who sent them to us in the first place."
"So..." Guthry managed to gasp out, "that special ops team is working for him?"
The boys exchanged glances even as Glenn piloted his chair into the room. Glenn couldn't help but smile at the looks the others were getting. "It's a bit more complicated than who is working for or with whom. Let's just say it is an outside force with strange ties to Bryce and some of the President's people from… elsewhere."
Glenn then looked over at Craig, "Don't you go getting hurt. I still want to take you to meet my parents and you promised me I could get a tour of your dad's ship!"
"I'll come back," Craig forced a grin. "Can't guarantee I won't get shot again, though."
Keith entered the hall with Joey and Ricky, "Just make sure the armor is on and it's not a fifty cal, we saw what happened to Juan when he got hit." He looked at the others as he moved up to one of the lockers, "Well, since you all are breaking out the armor, no need to keep mine hidden any longer." Keith pulled out one of the nine millimeter pistols and modified MP5's. "Glenn you want yours?"
"Yeah, may as well." Glenn nodded, "But if Justin isn't using the street sweeper, I really want to give it a try..."
Guthry glanced over and gave a long sigh as he saw nothing but eagerness in a boy he had grown to like a great deal, "I think we can get you able to shoot it properly in the lower range, Glenn, but that bastard has a wicked kick."
"Yeah, I figured, but... Before this all happened I would have never thought I could do it, but now... I just know I can... Besides, it's not like we can hide what we have done at this point. Which means I never know when I'll have to shoot back again."
Governor Hendrickson, Ranger Taggert, and Ranger Guthry all exchanged stunned looks. It was Taggert who finally found his voice, "Um, Glenn, did you just say again?"
Glenn stuck the MP5 and CZ 75 from Keith into his chair's book storage area, before hefting the automatic shotgun. Even while Craig helped him get the shoulder rigging on for the pistol, Glenn looked over, "Yeah, we had a shootout right before most of the others hit the torture house they called a temple. They didn't give us much of a choice… I managed to get one of them with a shot from a 20 gauge and probably shot a couple of others, but I saw the difference between and 20 and a 12 gauge, and I'll take the 12 from now on... Glad I was in this at least, since EEL made this out of carbon composite. My chair would have never survived what they shot back at us."
Craig patted Glenn on the shoulder, "Hard core down to the bone. We got to hide behind rocks, he moved his chair out to help protect kids we didn't know and took incoming fire like a champ... and it was before we got the armor!"
Steven shot Guthry a nod and a smirk even as he tossed Glenn a few boxes of 12 gauge shells, "When we get back we are going skeet shooting again, and you are going to be blowing them out of the sky as good, or better, than Justin and Craig."
Glenn forced a smile, "I really do want to go shooting with all you all again, so stay in one piece!"
"I'll keep 'em safe, Glenn," Lachlan stated even as he looked over the kids and the armor.
"And they will have backup," Nick Brandt reminded everyone. "If things get real bad, hold where you are and we will move up, but we will need to make sure they aren't setting something up to draw out a backup, so you will have to hunker down. If we note you are really in danger we will move up fast, but if it is a small group or single ambush point, we will hold back. Two bursts of static followed by a long one will tell you we think you can handle it. One long and two short will tell you we are going to move in. Once you get to where you are sure you are going to meet this UAE ambassador, drop any equipment you don't want to take or get seen with. We will collect it and get it back to EEL so you can get it later."
Alexander looked over at Nick's group, "Just so you know, we won't be very happy if you move in too fast. I think pretty much all of us wouldn't mind taking out another Ashwoodian or two after what we saw in the temple."
Craig nodded, "Yeah, and if we happen to run across one Agent Paulson, I'm going to put another round or two into him unless it prevents Scott from getting to his brother!"
Justin shot Craig a smirk, "What, you want to shoot him in the butt again?"
"If I get the chance, yeah, then I go for kneecaps and elbows. I don't want him to be able to wipe his own butt or stand to get to the toilet." Seeing the adults all looking at him with wide eyes while his fellow science contest winners all nodded with grim determination, he hefted up his new assault rifle, "Let's do this."
Liam put his back against a tree and slid down it until he was sitting. The last few days had been one long nightmare. After getting some rest in Milam, Texas, he moved to down the highway toward the bridge going over the Toledo Bend Reservoir, only to find a heavy contingent of Texas National Guard firing artillery over the body of water at opposing forces. He climbed a tree and found, from the higher vantage point, the bridge had been taken out.
Disappointed, he backtracked and went south. This took him through two small Texas towns. Hemphill had been badly hit, and had a strong contingent of Army Reserve forces loyal to Texas hunkered down outside of it. Liam managed to avoid them during an air raid, and moved further south. The second town, Mayflower, was in even worse shape. There were skeletons of armored vehicles all over, along with a great deal of parachutes littering the area.
Since all the vehicles had been American, there was no way to tell who won or lost, but the fighting had been beyond heavy. Because the community had been so small, it had all but been wiped out. Liam spent an hour digging through the destroyed military hardware and buildings, but found nothing. The dead had been quickly buried by whomever won and any usable supplies taken. Liam once again moved along the side of the highway. There were a couple of dozen civilian vehicles and one LAV, but they were too badly mangled to even bother to check for anything usable. It was clear they had been taken out by airstrikes. Getting to the dam, Liam was once again disappointed. It had been bombed. There was no way over the river.
Liam backed off to the west yet again, this time to avoid flood waters from the breached dam. Well before he got to the outskirts of Burkeville, he knew better than to try. There was constant artillery fire and aircraft skimmed over the area dropping ordinance, creating huge blasts and walls of flame. Liam studied the battle for almost an hour, before he was certain Ashwood forces were being pounded to paste. Using binoculars, he could also see the bridge over the river was totally missing and the Ashwood forces were trapped and would soon be dead or would have to surrender. Still there was some Ashwood allied artillery and rockets going up from the Louisiana side of the river, but it was not in a good location to support the badly beleaguered forces on the Texas side.
This made it even more difficult to keep hidden. There were too many forces and battle lines had been drawn to contain the breach into Texas soil. Low on food, Liam yet again made his way west, then south. He entered the town of Newton, Texas filthy, hungry, and almost out of water. This allowed his guard to drop. He was spotted by a pair of men, and before he could attempt an escape, the two radioed for others. Before he could come up with an alternate getaway plan, he was surrounded.
Realizing it was stupid to try to fight, Liam turned back to being a 'lost boy' who found an assault rifle and was just trying to make it home.
He was disarmed and taken to the Newton elementary school. He was questioned briefly by a man with three stripes on his collar, before being handed off to a woman who took him to get a shower. He was warned the water was not warm, and was not safe to drink, but at least it would allow him to wash of the layers of grime. Liam took full advantage. AoG training taught him cleanliness was important, and a cold shower was the norm for the AoG trainees.
He was then given some ill-fitting sweats to wear, and served a warm meal of spaghetti with a meat sauce along with a couple of dozen other kids. Most were orphaned, others separated from family. None of them really talked. They ate in silence with heads down. Many picked at the meal, and some fought back tears. Most cringed at the distant explosions, most of which came from the east.
The woman Liam had been handed off to, along with two others, did her best to comfort the kids, but there were too few adults and too many kids. Since Liam was nowhere near as distraught as many of the others, he was largely left alone.
Because of this, Liam managed to slide out a side door just after two in the morning. He had nothing other than sweats, socks, and shoes along with his small pack with the CD player and the CD he needed to get to Paulson. Once clear of Newton, he ran at a steady pace as he had been taught. This allowed him to get a few miles away well before anyone noticed he was gone. The problem was, as he hit the Highway 190 bridge over the Sabine River, it was also shattered, and the water from upstream running out of the ruined dam made swimming impossible.
By this time Liam was getting totally dejected. He even briefly thought of going back to Newton. At least there he would have access to food and safe liquid to drink. The more he thought about this, however, the greater his annoyance with himself became. He was a trained AoG infiltrator, not a weak-willed peasant. Still, there was a seed of doubt within. So far each and every person he had dealt with on the Texas supporting side had been kind and caring. He was starting to wonder why Ashwood and the Army wanted to subjugate such people. It certainly didn't seem to follow the teachings of the God's word.
With grim determination, he took a breath and moved further to the south, even as he decided he would need to talk this over with Clergyman Paulson. Certainly, he was not seeing something he should, and as he had been told over and over, the clergy of God's Army were the ones who were there to clarify the scriptures for those lower within the ranks. Liam mulled this over as he pushed himself to the edge of exhaustion yet again. At first he tried to go overland to the south, but there were too many streams and the river was well above flood stage making the ground soggy and treacherous. For the fourth time in three days he backtracked to the west and moved down the edge of the highway.
He attempted to check out a few buildings, but after getting shot at a trio of times, he decided that was not the right way to go about things. With a rumbling stomach and mud-coated sweats, he let go of a great deal of pride. He saw smoke curling out from behind a trailer off to the side of highway. He was exhausted, the smell of cooking meat overpowered his internal self-determination. He came out of the edge of the wood line and made his way over to the building. Before he even made it across the highway a girl inside the trailer spotted him, "Mom! Dad!"
Within seconds a scruffy looking man came out from around the south side of the trailer armed with a .338 rifle with a hunting scope and a .357 revolver at his hip. He had the look of a man who was not to be trifled with. As soon as he saw Liam, he dropped to a knee, and panned the firearm over the woods, but didn't point it at Liam. "Boy, you alone out here?"
Liam let out a long breath and nodded, "Uh huh," while holding up both his hands.
The man motioned him closer with a wave of his hand even as he kept the far side of the woods covered, "Come on over here, boy." As Liam got closer, the man looked over, "Any guns or knives on you?"
Liam shook his head, "No, sir. CD player is all I got left."
The man reached out and gave the small pack Liam had on his side a squeeze. At the same time he shouted out, "Bobbie Jo, get Rebel and your Ma. Donnie, keep you eyes out for any others. I don't think this is a trick none, but we can't be too safe."
The man's eyes seemed to narrow and he suddenly and without warning pulled Liam closer and lifted up his hair, "Got a tick under you ear and another on the back a you neck. You need to be careful going through the brush, young-an."
Before Liam could say anything, a woman and boy considerably taller and skinnier than Liam came from around back. The woman had a double-barreled shotgun in her hands while the boy sported a .243 rifle with a scope hung over his left shoulder. The boy's right eyebrow went up even as he frowned. Meanwhile the woman moved up and grabbed Liam by the shoulders, "Oh my, what a scruffy looking sight you be! Where's your folks, boy?"
Liam let out a long breath as he fought hard not to pull away from the woman and man. Fortunately, Army training took over. He forced himself to become subservient in both body language and tone of voice, "We were fishing and a plane attacked our boat. I..." he blinked hard to force a tear, "I need to get home!"
"Where's home?" The taller boy demanded to know.
Liam curled his toes and kept his head down to prevent any anger from showing. He was certain, even as hungry and tired as he was, he could take the kid out with little to no problem. Now was not the time, however. He needed help if he was going to make it to Alabama. He couldn't do it on his own with what he now had, and he knew it. He also realized he had to set things up so he could at least keep heading in the right direction. To this end he picked a city he knew was along the route he plotted out. "Natchitoches..."
The boy shook his head, "Wrong side of the river, Pa. We don't want his kind here!"
The woman shot a dirty look back over her shoulder, "Rebel, if youse was stuck over there, you'd sure be hopin' someone would take some pity on your hide and help you out!"
The man looked back and spoke with an even harsher tone, "Boy, you want your backside tanned keep it up! There be no reason to look down on this boy!"
Rebel's eyes went wide and he gulped, "Sorry, Pa."
"You best be!" The woman stated with a wrathful glare before turning her attention back to Liam, "So you all alone?"
Liam took a deep breath and nodded even as he tried to figure out what would be the right thing to say. Saying nothing, however, turned out to be the right play. The man stood and slung the rifle over his right shoulder while lifting up Liam's hair and showing her the tick. Seeing her nod, he then shouted out, "Donnie! Get some a you used stuff we was gunna give to the church and get your tail out here!"
The man then turned and smacked the back of Rebel's head hard enough to knock the boy to the ground, then towered over him while snarling, "This boy be in trouble! Us be church goin' folk, not heathens! Don't ferget about the Lord's demand for charity, boy!"
Rebel stayed down and rubbed the back of his head, "I'm real sorry, Pa."
The woman's tone hardened, "It be the Lord and our guest you need to be askin' for forgiveness from, son. Now get your butt up and take him over to the hand pump so he can get the mud off. Then bring him in so he can get warm, dry, and find something he can wear."
She turned to Liam, "You OK, with venison stew?"
Liam's mouth instantly started to water, "Yes, ma'am!"
"Good! We eat in twenty, Rebel will help you get washed up, but before you sit at the table, I wanna get them ticks out. Come see me once yer washed up." She then turned to the trailer, " Bobbie Jo, find us some towels and a blanket, this boy's gunna be cold after washin' up outside!"
A girl came out even as Liam was led to the outside hand pumped well. She put a heavy blanket on a log and a pair of towels. She was very close to Liam's age, maybe slightly younger, and carried a very old 410 single shot shotgun. Her apron had some blood stains on it, and there were extra shells in the pocket. She smiled at Liam. "Ma says what you got on is too muddy to bring in. Leave it on the stump and I'll wash it tonight. Rebel, Pa says to carry him so his feet don't get muddy when he's done and to take your darned boots off this time!"
An hour later, and with a full stomach, badly worn but still serviceable clothing on, and tick free, Liam slid back from the table far more confused than he could ever remember being. This was not the God rejecting non-believers he had been told inhabited the world outside the Army of God influences. These were good God-fearing people who cared about a total stranger, said prayers before a meal, and read scriptures after dinner.
Doctrine, however, told him these people were far less, not even peasants since they didn't fall under the leadership of the Army. By the doctrine Liam had drilled into him, this whole family was classified as barbarians and serfs. It didn't make any sense. How could he possibly look down on people who had little but who freely shared, offering him seconds when there was not enough for everyone to get an extra plate? Even when he tried to refuse the man, Mr. Butcher, scooped some extra stew into his dish while saying he had heard and felt Liam's stomach rumbling outside.
Liam tried a couple of times, as darkness started to fall, to say he had to try to get home, but the Butcher's were having none of it. Even when he played the 'but my mom's crippled and alone' card, the Butchers weren't going to let him go in his condition.
Donnie, the second youngest Butcher, was only a few months older than Liam and had set up a cot in his room. He then took Liam to his room and found him more things he had started to outgrow and even offered him a badly weathered backpack. He then spent the evening getting to know Liam, talking and convincing his mom and dad to let the two of them go out hunting with a pair of old 20 gauge shotguns. Mr. Butcher took half an hour to make sure Liam knew what he was doing before giving a nod of approval.
The two returned after less than an hour, each having bagged a couple of rabbits. Liam also managed to take down a pair of quail.
As night fell, Mr. Butcher handed Liam the .243 Rebel had been carrying and took out all the boys for another hunting excursion. An hour later Liam got his sights on a wild boar and took it down with a single shot at well over a hundred yards out. Both boys and Mr. Butcher congratulated him, then taught him how to gut it. Mr. Butcher and Rebel then parted it out so they could take it back to the trailer. Liam once again used the well to get cleaned up and spent an hour chatting with Donnie. Even as he yawed, he realized for the first time he had accidently made a real friend outside of the AoG. As stunned as he was by this bizarre turn of events, he also wondered if he was breaking an AoG covenant about holding himself above the barbarian serfs. If so, he wondered how this doctrine could be correct.
When bedtime was call by Mrs. Butcher, Donnie further astonished Liam by taking the cot while offering Liam the bed. At this point any thought of sneaking out vanished. Liam flatly didn't want to hurt the boy's feelings. He woke late the next morning, fully rested for the first time in days and was promptly fed a plate of eggs and deer steak by Rebel. Outside, he could see the two females working on smoking his boar kill from the night before while Rebel sat and talked about how it would feed them for a good couple of weeks.
Liam was going to leave at this point, under the protests of Mrs. Butcher, but seeing Donnie out chopping wood, he dropped the old backpack and pitched in. For this he was given a lunch and a huge pouch of venison jerky. As he finally bid the family goodbye, Donnie came out with an old .22 rifle and a small box of ammo. He handed it over, "My old rabbit gun."
Liam looked at the gun longingly for a few seconds before shaking his head, "I can't, Donnie, it's yours."
Donnie smiled and pushed the battered but serviceable rifle into Liam's hands, then dropped the fifty round box into the side pouch of the backpack, "A present for my new friend!"
At the same time, Rebel handed over a small hunting knife with a sheath. "Sorry for being so mean to you when you showed up. With Texas fighting Louisiana..."
Liam reached up and patted the older boy's shoulder, "I understand. I will try to find a way to get this all back to you..."
Mr. Butcher shook his head, "No need, little Liam. You are a brave boy with a big heart. If you need to look at it as not taking nothin', take it as pay fer bringing down the boar. As Rebel was sayin' there be enough meat on him to keep us eatin' all the way through Thanksgivin'!
"Also, just so ya know... You are welcome here anytime. Now, me and me buddy Earl patched up his old rowboat while you was choppin' with Donnie. You go down south," the man pointed, "to Nicholas Creek road. Sign still up, but leanin's some. Take it to the end. The dock has the boat, it has one good oar and one messed up, but we made it good enough to last ya. We tarred the bottom so it'll still be sticky and may leak a smidge. We put a bucket if you need to toss out some water, but I'm bettin' it won't be needed none.
"Now, it be low clouds today, so you should be able to get across with no planes or nothin' spotting ya. But don't dawdle. Gets your hide across real fast, like. Plus, as me say to ya, it'll make it for a bit, but don't go thinking it'll last you too long 'er nothin'. Once you gets your hide across the river, go north and east. Radio at Earl's say fighting be real bad along Highway 171, so be real careful when you gets close to there.
"Now I gots me a real good buddy in Mansfield. I ain't the best at writin' so Donnie wrote his name and address down for ya." He pushed the piece of paper into the front pocket of the jeans Donnie had given him. "Don't be afraid to go to him if there be problems and you can't go home none. Drop my name and he'll give ya a bed and meal. If things be bad and ya find you ain't gots no home. Go back to his place, him'll gets you back here." Mr. Butcher winked, "He owes me."
Mr. Butcher then put his arms around Liam and gave him a hard bear hug. "If'n things don't work, you comes back here. We ain't got lots a money, but we got a roof for ya."
Liam thanked the others and even accepted a kiss on the cheek from Mrs. Butcher before heading down the road. Even as the trailer disappeared from view, Liam had a hard time not throwing the disk into the woods and turning back to live with the family. Only his steadfast allegiance to the AoG prevented him from running back to the Butchers.
As night fell on the Gulf of Mexico, LCDR Bickford moved up to the bridge of the Read. The last few days had been pretty nerve wracking. Twice fighters spotted the group and general quarters had been sounded, but both times the military jets had steered clear and made no attempt at radio communications. Of course, since two of the ships were missile destroyers and there was no way to tell whose side they were on, the fighters probably figured discretion was the better part of valor. The problem was, those aboard the Read didn't know whose side the fighters were on either. It made for a couple of nut squeezing encounters.
The close calls did cause Commander Kopland to take the ships deeper into the Gulf, though. He also set radar sweeps, but didn't keep the radars active all the time. Instead, each ship with radar gave a few sweeps then a different ship did the same a few minutes later. This prevented pinpointing their radar signature and sending a missile designed to home onto radar at them.
The night was breezy, and the water choppy, but being a long time naval officer, Bickford didn't even notice the extra movement under him. If anything he found a strange sense of familiarity and comfort in it. Out on the watch deck, he noticed the sailor on duty rub his hands. At the same time he realized he could just make out the man's breath.
His thoughts were interrupted as Seaman Warner entered the bridge, "Sir?"
A couple of officers turned, but Bickford spotted the kids he had entrusted to the young sailor and cleared his throat. "Seaman Warner, I gather this is the tour you asked about giving our guests?"
The young seaman snapped to attention, "Yes, sir!"
Bickford glanced down at the three then back at Warner, "Get anything out of them yet?"
"Not a word, sir, sorry."
Bickford took a step toward the kids only to see them flinch and move closer to Warner. He held up a hand and took a step back, "It's OK. You have seen several of us, and should know by now no one on this ship is going to hurt you."
The girl quickly pressed herself up against Warner, while the taller boy slid to get behind the young seaman. Only the youngster Bickford had carried off the burning ship nodded in understanding, but otherwise remained silent.
Bickford took a knee so he was on a near even eye level with the boy, "So you can at least understand what I am saying? You speak English?"
The boy's buckteeth descended over his bottom lip as he chewed on it lightly while pushing back against Seaman Warner. After a slight hesitation, he nodded.
Bickford gave a slight grin and a nod, "It's OK, I am just glad you can understand us, and it sure looks like you like Mr. Warner."
The boy glanced up and back then turned to look at Bickford. He nodded quite a bit harder and gave the slightest hint of a smile.
Bickford stood and took a step back to be the least threatening he could make himself, "Warner, I must say I am very impressed. You are really getting through to them."
Warner stroked the girl's hair as she made a whimpering sound, "I don't know what happened to them, sir, but it must have been real bad. I'm doing everything I can for them."
"I can tell..." Bickford glanced around the bridge, "All of us can. You are doing a fantastic job with them."
Warner smiled. Getting a compliment from anyone was pretty rare since he came aboard. Seeing others nod in his direction as the ship's XO spoke also gave him extra confidence. "Sir, I know I'm not really supposed to be up here other than to give them a peek in, but can I show them around and let a couple of the crew talk over what they are doing?"
Bickford chuckled, "Sure, but I'd kind of like to know is this for them or you?"
Warner's cheeks flared with a hint of red, "Kind of both, sir."
This got a few chuckles out of those on the bridge. The boy Bickford carried up also grinned briefly.
"Honesty is a great policy with me, Warner." Bickford turned to those on the bridge as he spoke up, "Crew of the Read, Warner and our young guests want a full tour. Give them one. We have nothing to hide. For the next however long they want to stay, they have temporary security clearances."
Bickford then moved back and watched as Warner showed the three kids around the bridge and listened as a couple of the crew talked over what they were doing. It was clear, just by watching the reactions, all three kids were starting to get some cracks in their shells and showed some semblance of understanding. The boy he had carried aboard the Read, however, looked fascinated by everything he was seeing and hearing. Bickford mulled this over while scanning the waters again. Without moonlight, combined with the cloudy skies, it was hard to even make out the whitecaps. Keeping someone outside with low light goggles was the only way they would spot any small dangers. Doing so was paramount after knowing someone had skipped over normal protocols, bypassed the Pentagon, and ordered the sarin attack on Austin from the backup military communications systems. Bickford was putting nothing past the Ashwood loyalists at this point. It wouldn't surprise him in the least to have a zodiac try to make an RPG run on them. Such attacks from tiny boats would only be stopped by getting eyes on them.
He shook his head as he once again wondered about Craig. Had the warning and the fact he had been with the Texas Governor been enough to save his son's life? He let out a long breath, knowing there was nothing he could do about it, and he was not alone. At least the crew knew this and were drawing some strength off of him. The problem was, this meant he had to hold back his emotions while those under him were allowed to let some out. He wanted to vent, but knew to do so would harm the crew who was looking to him as an example. With his thoughts spiraling in never ending circles yet again, he glanced back to Seaman Warner and the three kids.
He studied them all for a few seconds, but one thing was crystal clear. The small child he had carried was beyond interested at what he was looking at and there was a couple of times the boy's lips parted as if he wanted to ask a question, but just couldn't bring himself to do so. It was then an idea hit him. He turned, "Hey, Warner."
"You know, I can see the children are finding this pretty interesting. How about we go one better?"
"What do you have in mind, sir?"
"How about full access to CIC?"
Warner looked down, as the boy who was most interested looked up with a curiosity that was a hair from him speaking. Warner smiled warmly at the boy and put his hand on the boy's shoulder, "Our second highest ranking officer wants to know if you want to see the real brain of this ship, the Command In Control area. The radar, the missile launch computers, the secure satellite radios..."
The boy's eyes went even wider and he nodded, this time eagerly.
Warner ruffled the boy's hair lightly, "Yeah, me too!"
This got the slightest of giggles out of the child.
Hearing this, Bickford smiled widely, "I am heading down there. Give me a couple of minutes to make sure they know they are about to get guests and bring them down, but if they want to see more up here, fine, take your time."
Bickford gave the waters one last scan before heading down to CIC. As he entered he glanced over at his radar operator, "Munoz, after our next sweep go below and get an early replacement for Daniels and tell whoever it is to grab warmer gear. Temp's dropping and we are getting some mist off the bow. We'll switch to one hour watches tonight as well. No reason to freeze anyone on watch in this weather. We need everyone sharp."
"Understood sir, our rotation for radar is in seven minutes. If I hustle I can grab someone now."
"Daniels will be fine until then. I'll feel better after you give us a scan and an all clear."
The complement got a smile out of the ship's senior radar operator, "I'll make a real good one for you, sir."
"Makes me feel safer just hearing you say it Munoz." Bickford then spoke up so he could get everyone's attention, "Men and women, not sure when, but I gave Seaman Warner permission to come down to CIC with the kids. One of them looks like he is about to talk, and is very interested in what he saw on the bridge, so when they get here, be as non-threatening as you can make yourselves, but give them a rundown on what you do. If you can get the boy talking, I will authorize the mess to cook you whatever you want that we have on hand. Also, I know Warner isn't really accepted by many of you, but he is doing a hell of a job with those kids. He is also as interested in CIC as one of the boys, so be nice, but let's make sure we don't have anything secret or above sitting out. He is not cleared for it."
Bickford then moved over to the radio operations. It was more of the same. Lots of fragmented HAM and short wave radio receptions, but annoyingly little when it came to hard facts. There was still nothing concrete out of Austin. He fought the urge to pace as his mind once again went back to his duty to his ship and his son. The two sides within were diametrically opposed. Yet, there was nothing he could do right now, nothing. He was the ship's XO and had to handle himself in a way that would give a level of confidence to those around him, but what confidence could he exude? He knew he needed to be a rock hard pillar of the crew; this was particularly true in CIC since, the first sign of danger would come in through the room he was standing in.
He also knew the stress of the fight with fellow U.S. war ships was weighing heavily on those in the room with him. Like him, these men and women trusted the military and they had been betrayed by at least a section of it. The other problem was each and every sailor in this compartment knew his son. They had all met him at least once. In simple terms, those in CIC were closest to Bickford and spent the most time around him. Many of the men and women in this room wanted to say something, but very few had. It was hard when there was no news. A few tried to give Bickford hope while others showed support by offering their 'understanding'. The problem was, no one could really express understanding. Not one member of the crew could say they definitively had a child missing let alone one probably killed by a chemical attack ordered by a command structure they served under and carried out by fellow naval officers. Yes, many had loved ones back on the mainland in contested areas, but it simply was not the same. His son had been targeted by fellow officers, men he had served with and under. Each passing day made his heart ache more. It also became harder to lead.
It was becoming an issue of trust. How could he command anyone when he was certain there were Ashwood leaning members aboard the ship he was on? Yes, the vast number were loyal to Kopland and thus, going against Ashwood now, but somewhere aboard, there was someone or multiple someones who didn't care Ashwood had taken out Austin and had sent Marines to take sections of Texas and Louisiana. While reports were hard to come by with the disappearance of most of the world's satellites, short wave transmissions told of major air and ground battles in the U.S. Almost as troubling to many, a good chunk of California had gone all but silent since the earthquakes, but radiation monitors close to the San Andreas Fault, seemed to indicate the earthquake had a less than natural origin.
Other cities had reports coming out of them of widespread violence and looting. Some intercepted transmissions even suggested Ashwood had pardoned every criminal in the country. If this was true, Bickford couldn't help but wonder if it would be better if Craig was dead. At least he wouldn't have to contend with murderers, rapists, child predators, and countless violent thugs roaming around only too happy to cut someone's throat if it would lead to a drug fix.
Yet other reports told of outside forces starting to control several cities. Some reports suggested this outside force spoke predominantly Spanish, while others said Portuguese, and even Arabic. Even crazier, there had been multiple reports of Russian forces landing in Austin and taking over security for the airport. Martial Law was in place in places like Little Rock, Birmingham, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and dozens of other places, mostly in the eastern half of the nation.
The radio people aboard the Read had to be rotated out often as the cries for help quickly became overwhelming. More than one radio operator had broken down as they found a report out of a home town or the city of a loved one. The whole situation was becoming close to untenable. They all needed some kind of a break, and Bickford knew it.
Even as these thoughts were eating at the very fabric of his sanity, a communication system came to life for the first time in days. Lt. Reeves looked over with near shock. It took almost fifteen seconds before he spoke up, "Sir! I have a flash priority message coming over our satellite array!"
Bickford's head jerked, but then so did every other sailor on the bridge.
Bickford shook his head to clear it, even as he grabbed the internal comm, "Commander Kopland to the bridge! We have incoming satellite communications!"
"Holy shit!" Lt. Reeves barked out, "Sir, it is a patch communication being piggybacked off an orbiting comm sat! We will only have comm with it for another hour and a half, but the transmission is coming from the Atlantic so they will be out of its range in minutes! But it is showing as an authenticated transmission from the Ronald Reagan! We have them on vid, too, sir!"
Bickford moved over and made sure the video was only inbound. "USS Ronald Reagan, this is the USS Charles Read. At this time we are blocking outbound video transmission and reserve the right to go to full blackout conditions at a moment's notice. Over."
There was only the briefest of pauses, "USS Read, this is Admiral Norris of the USS Reagan. From what we have been able to glean from third party friendlies, you all have done an outstanding job out there, but are in a tight spot."
Bickford looked down at Lt. Reeves. Seeing anxious look, but nothing more he took a deep breath, "Admiral, no disrespect meant, but we have already had to exchange shots with other U.S. warships, so trust is more than a bit of an issue."
"Understood, Read. Things are dicey all over the globe and not showing any signs of improvement. Maybe it would help if I put on someone you know. Which officer am I talking to?"
"Lieutenant Commander Bickford, Sir."
"Commander Bickford, I have someone here who may help smooth things out. I understand you know Major Sinclair?"
Sinclair stepped in front camera, "Damn it Bick, let me see your ugly mug, cause the voice sure doesn't sound like the one I was drinking rum and coke with back in San Diego!"
"It wasn't Rum, it was Jack, and I put you under the table with it!" Bickford retorted.
"Only cause I was paying and drinking more than you since you outshot me on the range."
Bickford moved in front of the camera and nodded for Reeves to enable the vid-link. Once he was sure his face and only his face was being seen he gave a nod, "Nice tab you had to pay off for all of us non-shooting Navy guys."
Sinclair's lips turned upward into a smile, "Last time, buddy. Next time I ain't taking on the ship's best shot without finding out more info. So you in command? Cause our records show a Commander Kopland is."
"He still is. I'm sure he'll be down shortly." Bickford motioned for one of the crewmembers in CIC to run and grab Kopland without being seen by the camera. "In the meantime, Major, you will have to forgive my caution, but my ship had to engage that of my former commanding officer, so while it is nice to see a friendly face, I still have some trust issues going on."
"As do we, my friend. Still, you know me and I am under no duress. We are on ships fighting for the same side."
"And what side is that, Major?"
Admiral Norris's face reappeared, "Commander, from what we know of your actions out there, which is very limited, I'd say your ship and this one is on the side of the People of the United States. The same cannot be said for many of our ships, however, and I need to talk to your CO."
"He's on the way, sir. Oh, and good answer. But I need some information if you have any. Was Austin hit?"
"Unfortunately it was," Norris responded with a shake of his head. "Best intel we have is sarin gas, but we know almost nothing as to how hard or how bad. We know you all tried to stop it, which is why I am on the horn with you, risking my neck in the process."
Even as Norris finished speaking Kopland ran to the communications station. His pants were unbuckled and his fly down. His shirt untucked, but it was buttoned. He stayed off camera as he tidied up. "I can tell you, Admiral, we are feeling pretty much the same way. However, my XO has a very personal need to know the situation on the ground in Austin. You want our trust, getting us some hard intel on the situation there would go a long way in earning it."
"I'll see what I can do." Norris nodded to someone off camera then turned back and his voice had a slight edge to it. "Commander Kopland?"
Kopland checked himself over then moved over and nudged Bickford so he could be in the center of the outgoing video feed. "Yes, sir."
"First off, from me to you and all of your crew, damned fine job out there. Wish there was more just like you all out here on the waves with us. Now, I have some details I need to go over with you and we don't have much time cause this is one of the few sats left we can hit you with from where we are and it will not stay in range much longer. However, there is someone I think will help to further ease your concerns. So here, say hi to Commander Wrens. Then, hopefully, we can get down to business."
Commander Wrens stepped into view. "Commander Kopland, I would say it's a pleasure to see you again but under the circumstances I think 'pleasure' is entirely the wrong word. How are you fairing?"
Kopland smiled and he gave a thumb up to those watching on, cutting down on some of the nerves of those in the CIC. "Wrens, I gotta tell you it's good to see a friendly face. I have a question for you, the night in Reykjavik, we were at a bar having a drink and I said something to you that had you laughing so hard you damn near fell off your stool. What was the bar and what did I say?"
Wrens smiled. "Vergamoit, we chose it because you heard some scuttlebutt that they had the best Scotch around. Pure horse piss by the way, which I realize is how you Americans like your scotch, but of course that didn't stop us from drinking it. You told me..." He cleared his throat and looked a little embarrassed. "You told me I was your brother from another mother."
Kopland laughed. "Thanks Wrens, forgive us, we are still not too sure as to what the hell is happening and only getting a small amount of intel. Admiral, I am open to talking."
Commander Wrens stepped back and Norris moved up to take over. "Commander, now that all the hand shaking and ass sniffing is out of the way. How are you and your people faring?"
Kopland sighed. "As best as can be expected under the circumstances; we really don't have a clue what is happening stateside."
Norris paused for a second. "There is not a lot of intel east of the Mississippi; that seems to be the battle line. Bryce controls the west and Ashwood the east. That puts us behind enemy lines. But we do have help, His Majesty the King of England, the President of France and the President of the Russian Federation have promised troops and support. I have some intel for you about conditions in the Caribbean and the Gulf. You need to be aware you're boxed in. The Eisenhower and Strike Group 8 is positioned in the Straits of Florida, between Florida and Cuba. The Roosevelt with Strike Group 12 is on patrol in the Caribbean south of Jamaica. The USS Harry Truman and Strike Group 10 is stationed in the windward passage between Haiti and Cuba. There is a small Marine Rapid Response Force attacking the Coast of Louisiana as well. You have two Royal Navy Subs screening to your south and I am dispatching the USS Olympia to you as well, she should arrive on station in a few days. Captain Grant is a top notch sailor, he will effect a link up with you and the Brit subs. Commodore Chase is assigning them to you, use them well.
"As of now I am President Bryce's Commander of the Atlantic Fleet so that means you folks fall under me. Just moments ago Congress declared Ashwood and his cronies to be in open insurrection. A few minutes after that, the Supreme Court ruled the transfer of the executive office to Jackson Bryce to be lawful and the Declaration of Insurrection constitutes a Declaration of War. The one standing order is keep your backsides dry. Be careful and don't take risks. We need every asset we can get our hands on. I understand that you have some help from the Coast Guard, under Title 14 of The United States Code Paragraph 3 Section 211 at the Declaration of War the United States Coast Guard transfers to the operational control of the United States Navy. Kopland you are the senior officer in your group, correct?"
Commander Kopland glanced over to Bickford with wide eyes before turning back to the camera. "Yes sir."
"Very well; under the Title 10 of the United States Code article 123 Paragraph 3, I am giving you a field Promotion to Captain and assigning you the position of Joint Services Task Force Gulf Coast Commander. You are entitled to the privileges and pay as long as we are in a state of hostilities. After hostilities have ended a review panel will review the promotion within ninety days."
"Thank you, I think, Admiral." Kopland cringed as he realized how awkward he sounded.
"My response exactly when President Bryce did the same to me. Captain we don't have a lot of time so there are a couple of things you need to hear. First, as I said earlier, your people and the Officers and Crew of the Worden have taken extraordinary measures to protect the lives of innocent Americans and I am recommending all members of both crews be awarded a Bronze Star. You have shown what it is to be true guardians of our Nation.
"Next, we are about to launch a major raid near Orlando with a multinational task force, the operation will take twenty-four hours to complete. After the mission, the Ronald Reagan and the HMS Illustrious will move north to create a front in the state of Maine. Colonel Shelton is the Southern Theater Commander and will oversee the operation. Lieutenant Colonel Rodriguez will be the Northern Theater Commander. Your job is to harass enemy shipping, slow movements of combat units, and most importantly protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the People of the United States." Norris paused as he was handed a piece of paper. Kopland and Bickford exchanged looks as they noticed the Admiral's eyebrows go up.
The man eyed the paper then glanced up at the camera with something akin to a befuddled look, "Well it seems promoting my Intel officer worked. I have some info on Austin. The governor and some of his staff are safe along with some Texas Rangers and state police protection. The State of Texas has seceded from the Union. Unlawfully I might add, but not without good reason. I think I have the information your XO wants. The governor along with a group of kids from a science contest, one Craig Bickford among them, is in an undisclosed secure location. Does that help?"
Captain Kopland turned the camera slightly so that both he and Bickford were in the frame.
Bickford choked back a sob. Hearing about the science contest and the fact his boy was reported to be with the governor told him the information was almost certainly accurate. "Thank you Admiral, I can't tell you how much of a relief that is to hear."
What was not immediately noticed in all the back and forth was the look on the face of a small boy who looked both shocked and extremely excited. The boy looked up at Seaman Warner and whispered, "Craig Bickford, the solar water extraction inventor?"
While Warner looked down at the boy with astonishment that one of the kids had finally spoken, Admiral Norris continued, "We are all concerned about our loved ones and as we get intel on them we will share it. Captain Kopland, our satellite is going to be moving out of range soon so I need to cover a couple more things. A drone is going to make a water landing off your port bow in just a couple of minutes. Fish it out and have your comm people extract your new encryption keys then destroy the drone. Is there anything I can do for you right now?"
Kopland glanced over to Bickford and got a shrug before responding, "I don't think so Admiral."
"Thank you to you and your team out there. Fair Seas and Following Winds. USS Ronald Reagan out."
Kopland took a step back then looked down, then glanced over at Lt. Reeves with wide eyes even as he rapidly pulled up on his zipper, "You couldn't have let me know my fucking fly was down, Lieutenant?"
The fact his commanding officer was both clearly embarrassed, but smiling caused Bickford to burst out laughing, "Honestly, sir, maybe it was a good thing; He promoted you for it!"
"Screw you!" Kopland snickered while shaking his head, "But don't go getting all congratulatory on me. Norris called you Commander at least twice that I heard, so I'm field promoting you, to match what Norris called you, Commander!" He paused, "and you are now Commanding Officer of the Read since I have a fleet to look over... Oh, and you can finally breathe since it sure sounds like Craig is alive!"
"Thank God!" Bickford nodded.
Kopland nodded, "I really am happy for you, but I find it odd an admiral in the Atlantic was able to get the information so quickly. Your son must have done something after we cut the comm and went silent to have his name accessible to someone a third of the globe away."
"Sir?" Seaman Warner timidly spoke up from the back of the CIC.
Both Bickford and Kopland turned only to see Seaman Warner pointing down at the small boy standing in front of him. "Sir, did your son do something with a solar water something?"
"Yeah!" Kopland answered even as Bickford's jaw dropped, "Craig designed a solar water collector. In fact, Craig Bickford's net worth is more than his father's by a wide margin because it is being mass produced and has pre-order sales well into the millions. In addition, it has been fully patented and the DoD dropped a very large check on EEL's doorstep to find a way to make a larger one. If this happens, and it was looking beyond promising, Craig will stand to get a massive payoff from the government as well. Why?"
Warner put both his hands on the boy's shoulders, "Cause, sir, I think he may know our Commander Bickford's kid!"
Bickford shook his head as if trying to clear it. "You know my son? You know Craig?"
The boy looked back at Warner and spoke very softly.
Warner gripped the boy's shoulders, "Sir, he is asking if you have a picture."
Bickford pulled out his phone, moved slowly forward, then took a knee. He pulled up one of the dozens of pictures he had of Craig, and held it out.
The boy looked back at Warner, got a nod and took the phone. His hands gripped the phone tighter as he flipped through a few more. With each one, more life seemed to come back into his eyes.
Seeing the photos were getting through, Bickford spoke softly, "No hurry, look at them all you want, but I have several non-digital ones in my quarters if you want to see them."
The youngster wiped at a tear, "You are really Craig's dad!"
"Yeah... Do you know him?"
The boy gulped and nodded, "Uh huh... He tried to warn us..."
"Warn you? About what?" Kopland barked. Seeing the other two children recoil and move behind Warner, Kopland cringed, but the little guy holding Bickford's phone didn't back off at all; instead the questions opened up a flood gate within.
"We were in Austin..." The boy started out then looked around nervously, but seeing everyone in the ship's control room stop and give him their undivided attention, he continued, getting stronger and less scared with every word. "We were coming home from a dentist appointment... The whole city was going nuts... there were police and all sorts of stuff going on. Mom couldn't get through to our nanny on her phone... The radio kept saying there was all sorts of proof coming out about Ashwood lying about Bryce... Mom finally stopped so we could get some food, but she really wanted to get to yoga... But didn't want to leave me and David at home alone with everything going on.... We were eating when Craig came in the restaurant... He looked kind of jumpy... Mom noticed it... she asked him if anything was wrong... He said no... um... he said he had been kicked out of a competition, but may have been the key to him winning. It really didn't make much sense, but he pulled up a computer and stated talking to someone and was working on some homework... he let me see it... Um.. he helped me and I got part of it right then was working with me.. Mom kept trying to get the nanny, but couldn't and she was getting mad... but whoever it was Craig was talking to told him the power was about to go out... then it did... Cars crashed right outside, and he told us to back away... he warned us things were going to get worse and was able to find out about Mom and Dad, he had someone that was getting him all sorts of stuff... of um information and junk... he was able to find out about... well me... being on a watch list... He also got us back from the windows before the crashed cars exploded! He tried to get us to go with him... My brother got all bent out of shape and tried to make fun of him... Craig warned him to back off... then this other kid came in, he called him Destructicon... The smaller kid gave my brother one warning then put David to the ground like nothing... both of them tried to warn us we needed to go with them... a man came in and told them they had to go... They said we could follow because EEL had escort out of the city... Mom said no... Craig tried again, but the man took him and they left with two police cars... Oh, and the whole time he was the only one who could use his computer or talk to others all the cell phones were out... but Craig could talk to people and knew what was going on... it was real crazy... but when Mom told us to get to the car, David ran away. We were blocked from all the lights going out and bad traffic... David came back with two men with Homeland Security badges... they took me... Mom tried to stop them so they hit her with a shock gun... They took David in another car... Craig tried to tell him not to tell... but he did and they took me to this place... and hurt me... David must have told them stuff, but my brother is dumb, so he got it all wrong... they wanted to know more about who the kid was... I played dumb like my brother, but they knew I was smart... they knew I had skipped a grade... they.... they really did bad things and hurt me... but I never told... I really didn't!"
In the CIC no one moved, no one spoke and quite a few had to force themselves to take a breath. At the same time Bickford could do nothing but pull the boy into his arms and hold him, "Take a few breaths and cry if you need to... I'm pretty sure all of us are a bit confused, so you will need to slow down and tell us more when you can."
Kopland also knelt, "Can you tell me your name?"
The boy took a few deep breaths then looked up with tears in his eyes, "Nathanial Teller... Nathan... I don't like Nate... the kids a school called me Nate the Gnat all the time... I think they shot my mom!"
"You mean with a taser?" Warner asked softly.
"Uh uh... A gun..." Nathan bit back a sob. She tried to grab for me when... when... the boss of the Homeland man showed up and told me he was going to keep me... He pulled his gun and I heard a shot as the guy David told about us put plastic things around my wrists and ankles... He tossed me in the car... then they laughed..." Nathan lowered his head into Bickford's shoulder... "His exact words were...One less f word bitch around to vote for Bryce, huh, Agent Paulson?"
Nathan took a deep breath and fought back more tears, "Agent Paulson was the boss, he is the one who pulled the gun and shot. I think they killed my mom!"
Bickford stroked the boy's hair and let him cry, but it was clear Nathan had either already dealt with it or was not quite ready to do so. It was impossible to figure out which. Sensing the boy could still answer some questions he kept a firm hold on him, "Nathan, what day was this?"
"Day before Election Day... Mom was so happy because all the bad stuff about Ashwood was coming out... Dad spent lots of money on supporting Bryce, too, so Mom was sure he would be happy, then everything went bad... When they took me to the temple place and hurt me, they wanted me to tell about Craig. One of the men, a Brother Simon... He really wanted to know more about Craig... my dumb brother told them his name was Greg... So I kept saying Greg as well, but I almost messed up when they shocked me... it hurt so bad! But they killed Mom and Craig tried to warn us and save us... I wouldn't let them get to him... I just wouldn't!"
Nathan took a deep breath. "I came so close to just telling when they started doing nasty things, but then the helicopter came and took me... all three of us... this man, um... Werner Ragland, was on the helicopter, he said they would get us to the Bishop's people and make us talk for sure... He said if this Greg kid had an active computer they were sure he had been one of the hackers... and they want him real bad!"
Nathan took a couple of sobbing breaths. "I made sure they still think his name is Greg... but if he was one of the hackers...If he really was... and I think so cause he knew and tried to tell us... and that Destructicon kid knew what was going on... Craig... your son... my friend... was one who caused Ashwood to lose..."