It was time.
They weren't as well prepared as they'd like, and Paul had to know they were here, but the fighting had already come to a boil. If they didn't move, now, Paul might take the time to trace back the threat against Sammy that had placed the boy in that facility. How that had happened, the Dark only knew. It wasn't in the plan, and it ran the risk of jeopardizing everything. If Paul discovered that the RECC was holding a former Guardian and his husband captive, using the local police as pawns, he'd unravel that situation long before he was even meant to discover it. And if that happened...
No, they had to keep his attention away from how Sammy went to the facility, and cleanly on the facility itself, and those that ran it. And the only way to do that would almost certainly kill them.
They could run... but when their masters caught up to them, as they most definitely would, their deaths would be far harder than the clean, swift death that Paul would give them. And for some of them, disobedience wasn't really an option anyway; they'd given up too much of themselves, of their souls, in their search for power. They were bound, bound to serve and bound to obey.
With a little luck, maybe some of them would survive.
"Alright, we just passed checkpoint twelve," Poppa Wolf announced. "We should be clear, initiate Third Bear," he ordered in a deliberate lie for when and if the military cracked their encryption.
"Alright everyone, listen up!" the soldier in charge of the truck shouted. Dillon and Brian turned to face him, dutifully providing a good example for the children watching them.
"In a minute, this vehicle is going to come to a very rapid stop," the soldier instructed. "Check your safety harness and that of those next to you like so," the soldier demonstrated quickly, pulling at straps to make sure they were secured and properly restraining him. "As soon as the vehicle has come to a full and complete stop, unbuckle and move out of the truck. Stay together as a group, no pushing. Move quickly and quietly in the direction you are ordered. As soon as possible, we will deal with anything that has gone wrong."
The soldier smiled at the group. "I know it's been a long, confusing night," he reassured them, "but we came to rescue you and that job is almost done. Now, grab hold of your harness and hold on tight." The soldier grabbed his harness and tucked his head down, and everyone imitated him.
Neither Dill nor Bri were prepared for the sheer violence of an 'emergency combat stop'. With their heads already tucked down, and hands holding their harnesses tight, they were still stunned for a few long moments. 'Move, move, move!" the soldier urged, undoing their harnesses and then shoving them out the canvas door.
Dill staggered a few feet away before turning around to help lift kids out of the truck. Between the two soldiers in the truck and him and Bri on the ground they had their truck empty before any of the others. Dill looked over at the lead truck and cringed. Thankfully, no one had been riding in it, despite the crowding that created in other vehicles. That precaution had paid off, as the deliberately destroyed wheels had actually rolled the truck instead of merely halting it. Fluids leaked around it, and the worst came from the back of the truck, where one of the soldiers had been tossed and lay dead, chest lacerated by shattered glass. The tissue samples they'd liberated from the facility's medical spaces had broken, and the violence of the impact had speared them through the man.
On the other hand, the 'extra' sample's they procured would successfully provide not only the illusion that several of the kids had been in the truck, but that they'd been injured -- possibly badly. And with the sample labels lying scattered, even samples that shouldn't be left by this kind of accident wouldn't be questioned.
The accident would look real enough to fool investigators, just as they'd hoped... but at too high a price. "Alright everyone, it's time to move out!" Poppa Wolf ordered at the top of his lungs. "Momma Bear will take charge of the main body, and I'll ride with the distraction group. Set your gear to silent mode and do not, I say again, do not break radio silence under any circumstances. Our encryption is good, but remember they can still track the actual signal, even with frequency hopping!"
"Alright, the entrance is this way!" Dill called out. Grabbing a little kid by the hand and smiling down, he started walking. It was not the most pleasant walk of his life. Soldiers were constantly calling a halt while they brought a stray child back into the column, and soon enough they were all carrying the littlest of the children, who were as a group too weak to keep the pace.
Lost shoes, aching feet, and four temper tantrums later they reached a stretch of road indistinguishable from the rest, except perhaps for the slightly lusher and denser foliage. But not too dense; several other sections they'd passed had been much denser and closer to the road.
"Alright, where is it?" one of the guards asked Dill.
"I'm... not sure," Dill aid slowly.
"You're not sure?" the guard asked, upset. "We have staked our lives, and these children, on this hideaway of yours!"
"I've never been out here in the dark before!" Dill snapped. "And damned few times in daylight! A secret escape is only useful as long as it stays secret, and I only came out to make sure no one was around when the door ran through a self-test cycle"
"Listen, brat," she snarled, grabbing him by the shirt and holding him close. "There are patrols out there who are going to find us, fast, if we don't move. So get that door open!"
Some of the closer children, catching her tone if not the low-pitched words themselves, started to cry. Then more started in response to the first group. Soldiers moved around, trying to calm them.
"What's wrong?" Corey asked irritably, walking up to them.
"This peshtak denwar melthor doesn't remember where the tekrat farn door is!" she hissed, lapsing into a strange, gutteral language Dill had never heard before. Looking abashed she shook her head. "Excuse my language."
"It's alright, I didn't even recognize it," Corey told her. "Now, where is the door?" he asked. "In general," he added helpfully.
"It's on this side of the street, between a pair of trees," Dill told him. "There's a big boulder, almost like a cliff face, a few feet back..."
"There it is," Corey shone his light on it.
"Alright, thanks!" Dill moved back into the shrubbery.
"There is no way you could fit a car back here!" the soldier who had been bitching at Dill complained.
"It's not meant for cars," Dill told her. "It can handle motorbikes and foot access. There are other places that can handle cars, or... other methods of transportation."
"Why the hell didn't we use one of those?" the woman snarled. "Get the kids in faster!"
"The entire point of this exercise is to make damned sure they think the kids are still on those trucks we just left!" Momma Bear told her. "Get out of here and go on long patrol... now!" Turning to Dillon she shook her head and shrugged. "Now, can you get the damned door open?" she asked.
"House AI, identify voice-print Dillan S. Torelli," Dill said loudly. "Deactivate duress protocols and respond."
"Well?" Momma Bear asked after a moment.
"Security precaution," Dill told her. "I didn't give House AI explicit instructions for this door, so it's going to do a thorough ID check before responding. Voice and thermal prints, along with a mandatory waiting period that I'm not going to waive."
"Why not?" she asked
"Because it won't let people with weapons in if I use that override. Not unless they've been pre-programmed into it and you haven't," Dill told her.
"Inconvenient," the woman complained.
"It was designed for emergency situations only, and for family, not large bodies of refugees," Dill told her. "There are precautions in place for other scenarios, but most of them have time delay factors built in."
"Voice print confirmed; thermal print inconclusive," a mechanical voice announced. "High levels of stress in voice-print suggest thermal print failure due to stress related changes. Password required."
A small keyboard popped out of the rock. Dill walked up and pressed his hand onto the small dent directly above the keyboard. After a moment, the rock folded away and he pushed his hand in up to the elbow. Closing his eyes, he found the small keypad hidden inside the rock and oriented himself to it on touch alone. Typing in a quick code, he pulled his arm out.
"Pass code recognized; verbal situation code please," the computer requested.
"Shit!" Dill swore.
"What's wrong?" Momma Bear asked.
"Grandfather!" Dill snapped. "The man was seriously paranoid, and didn't list all the requirements to fucking entry!"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"I mean, Momma Bear, that there were no 'situational codes' required for entry. Not on the procedures document I studied very carefully just in case!" Dill snarled. "My grandfather didn't list them!"
"Yeah. House AI, logic override!" Dill shouted. "Check your database of procedure files, examine the one covering this door. It contains no reference to situational pass codes."
"Are you attempting to suggest that those codes do not exist?" House AI asked.
"Only that they weren't listed and that as such I can't be expected to know them!" Dill snarled. "Furthermore, as they aren't present in the procedural docs it is illogical for them to be part of the actual procedure!"
"I'm sorry Dillan, but your response is not within expected parameters," House AI told him, imitating a tone of regret.
"You thrice damned piece of junk those codes don't exist-" Dill broke off into incoherent curses.
"Response accepted," House AI announced. "The doors will open at your command."
"Dill!" Corey shouted, shaking his shoulder.
"What?" Dill screamed.
"The doors will open at your command," House AI repeated.
Dill blinked, surprised. "Open!" he ordered. To the left of where the keyboard had revealed itself earlier, a large section of rock began to grate slowly backward. After two feet, a split appeared and divided the rock face into two parts that opened inward to reveal a tunnel. "Door is open!" Dill bellowed, waving the first group of kid's through. "House AI, allow access and basic guest privileges to incoming personnel as a group. They are to remain in the hidden sub-caverns under the house, and are not cleared for departure from that area without my express authorization. Stand by for long-term living arrangements."
"Understood; prepping area for long term occupancy," House AI acknowledged. "I will utilize vocal cues to guide them to the area.
"Thank you!" Dill said as the kids began to move in. "I think we just might pull this off," He smiled.
"Only if the Demon Murphy doesn't interfere with us," Momma Bear told him. "So don't try for his attention!"
"Will do," Dill agreed. "Will do!"
"Move it kids! We're almost there, just keep moving!" someone shouted, and the tide of humanity began to press up against Dill as more and more of the kids flooded through the narrow passage. "So many," Momma Bear whispered. "Do we have food to supply them?"
"Ample food supplies," Dill laughed, "if you like MREs."
"Great, just great," Momma Bear moaned. "Those damned things always block me up!"
"Don't worry; these are the premium brand. Even with survival gear, Grandfather never stinted on anything," Dill assured her. "And if worst comes to worst, I can get some of that fiber stuff, what is it... metamukil?"
"Metamucil," Momma Bear growled, "and I hate the stuff!"
"Well, we'll arrange something, if we can," Dill smiled. "For now, it looks like that's everyone."
"We need a headcount," Momma Bear told him. "Sentries, pull in!" she shouted. The soldiers that had been securing the perimeter sprinted for the door.
"House AI, full sensor sweep; how many people are inside the tunnels, plus the number directly outside. Please attempt to divide between the children we rescued and the soldiers who are guarding, guiding, and assisting them. Verbal output to the woman standing with me and addressed as 'Momma Bear'," Dill ordered.
"Thanks, how reliable is that computer?" Momma Bear asked.
"House AI is a fifth generation evolutionary neural network and have been running for a period in excess of ten years," the computer answered. Dill looked up, surprised. "As such, my theoretical computational powers mirror that of a human being, though I am not sentient and do not possess anything mirroring 'free will'."
"Yeah, Grandfather was really disappointed over that. He programmed the AI to adapt, grow, and eventually become sentient," Dill shrugged. "Didn't happen. I think the things been running for fifteen or twenty years now, though it has transferred hardware on a few occasions when upgrades came along. The software itself hasn't changed though." Dill grimaced, "More than it does on it's own, I mean," he added.
"Warning!" House AI broke in. "Vehicle approaching along access road with three passengers. They will enter site of the entrance in approximately one minute."
"Is everyone in?" Dill asked.
"All personnel detected have entered the tunnel except you and individual designated 'Momma Bear'," House AI responded. "Note: 'Momma Bear' does not match naming nomenclature of any known cultural entities; appears to be an alias derived from a children's story."
"Seal the doors as soon as we're inside," Dill ordered, and gestured for Momma Bear to go first. "Also, many of the adults currently with us will be utilizing aliases and pseudonyms, disregard normal warning procedures," Dill sighed. "I thought I already did that!"
"Reinstating previous order," House AI responded. Behind them, the doors swung shut, the metal backing to the stone facade clear from this end. The tunnel lights brightened to maintain an even illumination. "Informational: order lapsed due to departure of personnel, original orders were given with the sub-command 'for the duration of their stay' and lapsed upon their, then indicated as permanent, departure."
"Thank you for explaining-" Dill broke off. "House AI, record search. I want an analysis on the number of times you've provided information unprompted against the passing of time," Dill ordered. "Low priority."
"What was that about?" Momma Bear asked.
"House AI just provided information without being asked, twice. Well, twice if you disregard the standard procedure information calls that are programmed into it," Dill answered. "I don't think it used to do that. At all. But lately it seems to be doing it more often."
"Analysis complete; your hypothesis is accurate," House AI responded. "My anticipatory sub-routines have increased their accuracy by several orders of magnitude, and are now capable of predicting certain requests and recognizing the utility of certain unprompted comments with a significance high enough to warrant independent action."
"Alright, thank you House-" Dill blinked. "House AI, second analysis. Did you just refer to yourself using a first person pronoun?"
"House AI is restricted from utilizing-" the computer stopped mid sentence "Error detected. One moment."
"Override error checking routines, do not engage in any corrective measures without my explicit approval!" Dill ordered. "I've always hated how it insists on using the third person," he explained to Momma Bear, "and if it's finally managed to evolve away around that stupid rule, I'll be very happy not to have it 'fix' the problem. Unless it breaks something else."
"Sounds good," Momma Bear laughed. "How long is this tunnel?"
"Perhaps two miles," Dill told her. "We have a bit of a walk ahead, but we can give the kids breaks if they need 'em. If you have some of the soldiers go on ahead, there are a few vehicles stashed at the end of the tunnel, they could drive back and pick up some of the more tired kids."
"Alright, I'll go give the order," Momma Bear sped up.
"If you ask House AI, it can relay your commands over the PA," Dill offered.
"House AI, would you please relay my voice?" Momma Bear asked.
"PA relay activated; do you wish to target entire party or sub group declared as 'soldiers'?"
"The soldiers, please," Momma Bear looked at Dill. "Strange syntax," she said, sotto voice.
"Please note that House AI is capable of recognizing between interpersonal communication directed at a specific individual, and the undirected communication you desire relayed; there is no need to lower the pitch of your voice unless you desire to do so."
"Thank you, House AI. Is the relay established?" Momma Bear asked.
"Speak, and they shall hear," House AI responded.
"I want a squad of soldiers to follow the tunnel to it's end and bring back some of the vehicles stored there; youngest children are a priority to receive rides," Momma Bear said to thin air. "Divide it up amongst yourself people, but get 'er done."
"Message relayed; general confirmation from most individuals along with some confusion as a result of the relay," House AI announced. "Will there be further messages?"
"Not at this time," Momma Bear agreed. "This AI seems pretty good, I wish we'd known more about it, we might have used it for operational planning."
"You would have had to explain what you wanted, but probably," Dill replied. "Worse comes to worse it would evolve new neural-subnets -- don't ask me what that means -- to handle your requests next time you made them."
"Neural sub-nets?" Momma Bear asked.
"I read the users manual; I didn't necessarily understand it," Dill told her.
"Actually, I think I do. While my degree is in psychology, I spent a lot time working with computers, too, and there's some overlap-" Momma Bear shook her head. "You don't want to hear it. Let's just say neural nets were covered in my psychology classes, and I did some work in computer science to fill out my GE requirements."
"Sounds like fun," Dill laughed.
"No, it was a pain in the ass. You don't know hard until you run into an engineering class, and computer science is definitely an engineering type subject," Momma Bear sighed. "I understand some of the theories, but God help me I couldn't actually do anything big with programming."
"Well, my major is business, and Bri is working on an accounting degree, but I guess we'll steer clear of programming then," he answered.
"I dunno; computers are taking over more and more... and I think a large part of your business is built on them, isn't it?" Momma Bear asked.
"Used to be, but we've moved over primarily to arms, though there is a lot of electronics in the stuff we produce," Dill said thoughtfully. "I guess getting minors in programming and some kind of electrical engineering would make sense," he decided. "I'll talk to Bri about it."
"It's hard, but it'll probably be rewarding," Momma Bear told him. "If nothing else, at least you'll have some of the background to follow the techno-babble scientists like to throw around."
A soldier came back with a report for Momma Bear, and she took off to deal with a situation. Dill let her, and just strolled down the corridor, lost in thought. Eventually he overtook Bri, who'd been slowly falling back from the head of the column. "Penny for your thoughts?" Bri asked.
"Not worth that much," Dill told him, smiling. "I'm glad it's over. Where's Sammy?"
"He fell asleep," Bri sighed. "I'm glad he didn't do it in my arms, but it breaks my heart to think about what they were going to do to him."
"Tell me about it," Dill agreed. "I get my hands on those bastards, and they're gonna pay!"
"That," Bri said testily, "is supposed to be my line. He's my brother."
"You are the love of my life, my soul mate, my other half," Dill snapped, shoving Bri against the wall. "Get this through your skull: what affects you, affects me. Your fights, are my fights. My resources, are your resources."
Bri sighed. "It's not your money, it's our money," he agreed. "You know," he added as they moved down the tunnel again, "I'm the one whose supposed to be angry with you."
"Dillon, status report: the vehicle at the end of the tunnel has been identified as belonging to Paul Koken, and he and the two passengers are at the end of the tunnel, attempting to determine an entrance."
"Paul?" Dill asked, surprised. "What's he... you know, never mind. Is it a positive ID?"
"Ninety-nine point nine eight percent; voice, thermal, and facial recognition," House AI responded.
"Facial recognition? I didn't think there was enough light for reliable facial recognition," Dill asked.
"Paul provided additional illumination for his guests to see; I was able to get clear facial patterns from all three. Shall I open communication with them?"
"Did House AI just suggest a course of action?" Bri asked, surprised.
"Yeah, it did. I had it run an analysis, apparently it's better able to predict our desires and so it's begun anticipating a bit," Dill shrugged. "House AI, open communication with Paul. Hey Paul!"
"Dill? Glad to hear your voice!" Paul answered, voice distorted thanks to the relay through House AI and the relatively poor audio quality of it's external sensors. "Can you open this door for me?"
"What happened to the plan of meeting us at the facility before we left?" Dill asked. "We thought you'd be there in plenty of time, but-"
"I was slightly delayed getting to the attack site, a bridge had washed out and I had to detour. I'm surprised they were still there, your attack should have caused them to pull out immediately," Paul answered.
"We got our techs into their system pretty quick; it might be something as simple as they never got the word," Dill mused. "Anyway, I'm going to guess that your companions are the boy you went to rescue and his mother?"
"Father, actually," another voice answered, "and I'm very pleased to meet you. Now would you open the damned door so my son and I can get indoors? The rain has gone away, but the wind is still pretty cold and he's shivering."
"Alright," Dill answered. "House AI, open the door, allow them through."
"Thanks; I'm going to get back in the car and go find Papa Wolf. Something is... wrong."
"Wrong? Wrong how?" Bri asked.
"I hate to be vague, but I'm not sure. It's... something familiar, something I haven't felt in a very long time. But that's about all I can tell you. But it is not good. It can't possibly be the only thing I can think of; they are all dead, I saw to that."
"Alright, whatever that means," Dill answered. "Good luck."
"I'll drop by later today, and..." Paul paused. "What happened?" he asked, voice ragged. "What the hell happened with Thomas?"
"He was shot. We thought we'd cleared the building, but we missed someone. They were hiding in a corner of the building, and Thomas went looking for a lost kid, and..." Dill couldn't finish. "He refused to have the medics even look at him."
"Of course he did," Paul said sadly. "I never expected... damnit, there are so few of us left. To loose him..." Anger crept into his voice. "There will be blood," he announced. "Imprisoning him alone would insure that; but his death has increased the bill they must pay a thousand fold. No one imprisons a Guardian; no one kills a Guardian with impunity. Even an ex-guardian."
Dill was forcibly reminded of who he was talking to. Paul Koken, survivor of the Guardian War. Killer of hundreds, and the last Guardian remaining. The man who had commanded the war, while Jason and Ronan led the fight.
"The ones imprisoning him are dead, and the reaction force doesn't know much of anything about what was happening there," Dill argued.
"There will be blood!" Paul snapped. "Not tonight, no, I have other business tonight, but there will be blood, this I swear! Soon. The innocent will not be harmed; the reaction force was truly innocent. But others... others were not, and I shall deal with them."
"But not tonight, tonight we need to regroup, consolidate, and plan for the future," Dill told him. "Drive your car to the front gate and stay."
"I have stayed too long; I must go," Paul sighed. "There is something going on, something I didn't expect. I just wish to hell I could figure out what it is. These vague, half formed feelings of something familiar, something dark-" Paul broke off. "Oh fuck," he whispered, probably to himself. "I need to go. I need to go now!"
"Heads down," Jack ordered. "These guys just hit a military facility, so they are going to be on edge and looking for trouble. We need to hit them hard, fast, and clean, which means before they know we're here. It's the only way to get Paul running in too quickly to realize what he's running in to. Remember, mundane firearms only until we get Paul's attention. Once he's here, hit him with everything you've got. If we get lucky enough to kill him, good; but our goal is just to drive him off long enough for us to get the hell out of here."
No one looked happy, but they dug into both sides of the road quickly and kept their heads down. Assault rifles, RPGs, and various other weapons were trained onto the road, waiting for the convoy that was even now making its way towards them. They'd overwhelm it with firepower, carefully not killing the entire group, just to leave a little bait for Paul. With any luck, Paul would think them a part of the reaction force that had just gotten lucky.
It really was their only chance at this point. Nothing was going according to-
A crack of lightning split the night sky a quarter mile away, and an old, old oak split clean down the middle. It was impossible; there was no power left in the sky for a lightning bolt. But ancient powers were awakening, and clearly some of them had already taken sides. The tree was old, and the lightning bolt more an excuse than the real cause of the split. Jack understood, even as he watched the giant fall, that it wasn't a random act of nature that had brought the tree down across the road, ruining his ambush mere moments before the convoy would have reached it. Already the convoy was detouring, turning in the intersection directly in front of the oak.
No, nature hadn't ruined this plan. He could smell the stench of the Light all over this. Which might even explain... The masters had assumed it to be random chance that the boy's sample had found its way to the government's attention. Random chance was always a factor you ignored at your own peril, but this time it was something else. The Light was playing games, and this game might very well ruin the entire plan.
Not only did Paul have a clear link to their second distraction, opening up the possibility of drawing his attention home early or solving both distractions before they were ready, but Thomas had done something that had the Dark raging. What he had set in motion could not be undone. And again, it stank of the Light. Small, subtle changes with wide ranging effects... Along with a few acts of compassion that completely wasted the rest of its power. Jack had never understood why the Light did what it did, instead of simply pouring it's power into it's champions, to make them stronger and bind them more closely to it. But he didn't need to understand why.
Understanding was not required; only obedience to the masters, and the Dark they served.