Castle Roland

Geek Squad

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 19 part d

Published: 28 Apr 16

Geek Squad

Copyright © 2012 - 2016 by Kyle Aarons and the Revolutions Universe Partnership.

All Rights Reserved

Geek Squad LogoLachlan's hand tightened on his M4 as those in front moved into what had been a more heavily populated of the Austin area. Now however, it looked more like a cross between a war zone and a ghost town. The first hour had been easy enough, they emerged from the tunnel, had a short argument with the governor on the internal communication system about taking Lane and Saul, then turned east. The end of the tunnel turned out to be right under the hydroelectric power lines of the Mansfield Dam, and a couple of cruise missiles had done some damage to the bridge and the top of the dam, but had failed to do major structural damage to the dam itself, and had totally failed to take out the power station. Still, this left only one good option for getting clear of the area.

They moved out alongside the road until they came to the turnoff with a sign for Vandegrift High School and Four Points Middle School. Under the sign was a hastily constructed sign saying 'Austin Northeast Refugee and Medical Center.' Military trucks were coming up the highway from the Austin area full of people. Those with injuries were being taken to the middle school while the others were shunted off to the high school.

Off to the side of the turnoff were hundreds of cars. Only military vehicles with known drivers were allowed to pass beyond the turnoff, preventing anyone with a loyalty to Ashwood from getting a car bomb or other mass-casualty weapon too close to the area of relative sanity and safety beyond.

Lachlan made them stay well outside of the refugee area. Instead they cut to the south. The only way they could see for Scott to call out for help was to get out of heavily fortified safe areas around Austin first. Scott was sure, the best chance they had of meeting up with the UAE ambassador was to get closer to the coast. The man was almost certainly on his yacht, and would want to get Scott out to it. This meant being in a place where a plane or maybe even a boat could take them well away from Texas.

This really didn't sit well with Lachlan, but he was also a military man used to taking orders and those in command felt the risk to the boy was worth the possible payoff in intel. Totally secondary, was the very real possibility Scott, along with some of the other kids would have tried to take off without adult support, had this half-baked plan not been hatched and subsequently approved. At least this way, there was some control over who went out and someone with real combat experience to lead. To this end, he did what he could, all the while hoping Scott would be unable to make contact with this mysterious Imir and praying the armor the kids were wearing was everything they claimed. He highly doubted it, but he could still hold onto the hope it really could stop anything up to a .50 caliber round.

The following two hours had gotten progressively more difficult. First they found themselves in an area of multiple crashed cars, and signs of widespread looting. This gave way to a long stretch of burned, and in some case still smoldering buildings, the leftover remnants of the airdropped firebombs, meant to destroy the sarin. They ran across several burned and dead bodies of humans and animals as well.

Of course, between the military ordnance meant to burn everything, and the fact no one had moved in to fight the fires, the wind had pushed the torrent of flames into neighboring buildings and with so much fire, flames had jumped streets and started other fires. It had been a well over a week, and some homes still burned. Even as the group moved into this area of true scorched earth, they found themselves looking back. Most of them found themselves picturing the madness of those running away from the sarin followed by the walls of flames. The masses of smashed vehicles, broken windows and all the bodies suddenly made sense. Fleeing certain death, the vast majority panicked and ended up contributing to the death toll and overall destruction.

This also told them, some of what the governor had been told was not really true. Many areas had not even been touched by cleanup crews yet. In fact, there were dead still in the streets, houses and cars in large pockets of the surrounding city. The stench of death filled the air and caused everyone in the group to forget taking a break for food and rest, let alone finding a place to bed down. They continued to push on well past the point they had originally planned.

Up in front, Craig knelt and scanned the deserted street, back lit by a few still working streetlights. It was nowhere near well lit, however, and the shadows and dark recesses were all over, leading to an even creepier feeling than the area already had. Glancing back over toward Alexander and Justin, Craig pointed to a pair of crashed cars, while motioning for the other two to cover him. Justin was on the left while Alexander was on the right, both nodded. The three had been moving in a wedge formation, while Steven and Scott stayed about thirty feet back with Saul and Lane between them. Lachlan stayed in the back and covered the rear while also being in a spot to help if someone came under fire. Lachlan's thought was, this put the five with the strange armor out in front to be first targets, while the two younger boys stayed as well protected as the older five could make them given the circumstances. Lachlan carried an M4 with a 203 grenade launcher, plus had infantry body armor on, so should anyone take serious fire, he could provide heavy fire support.

Seeing Craig take a knee, everyone stopped and looked around, but nothing moved. After a few seconds Craig spoke into his radio, "About halfway down the next block up, I saw quick flash of light. Anyone got anything?"

"Nothing," Alexander responded. "All these cars on the street... sure it's not a flashing alarm system, flickering streetlight, or something?"

"No, it's not repeating and I know I saw something..."

Lachlan moved up to the back four, speaking into his throat mic, "Boys keep your eyes open. I got some dead in these cars, so we are in a prime looting area. Also keep in mind, a looter may be desperate, but not a direct threat until you challenge him."

Steven moved to pull Saul down, even as the younger boy stood to get a better look. At almost the same instant Steven pulled the boy down, a shot rang out from a second story bay window at the corner of the block, pinging off the metal of the car Steven had just yanked Saul behind. "Sniper!" Steven shouted even as he moved around and put himself between where the shot had come from and Saul.

"Where?" Craig shouted back, even as he scanned the general area he heard the shot come from.

Scott moved to stand between Lane and the bay window. "Next block up, corner house on the right! Bay window, Craig! It came from the bay window!"

Alexander stayed in a crouch and moved to put a car between himself and the building when he caught sight of a maggot infested dead body behind the wheel of the car, the hands up around its neck. Alexander yanked off his helmet and puked.

His actions were noticed. The shooter fired at the car, blowing out the left rear tire.

Since Scott had told him where to look, Craig was focused in on the area and saw the muzzle flash. He lined up a shot and fired. The 7.62 millimeter round's trajectory was true. A split second later a rifle fell out of the window and a sharp cry of pain echoed off the nearly deserted streets.

Justin sprinted over to Alexander, realizing even as he did so the past couple of weeks of working out with Craig were paying serious dividends. He wasn't even winded even though they had been walking for nearly three hours and he was carrying about thirty pounds of gear and weapons. He slid next to Alexander and grabbed the boy's helmet. "You OK?"

Alexander took a swig out of his canteen and spit the water out. "Yeah... just do yourself a big favor and don't look in this car... I still don't know where the shooter is..."

"Building across the intersection. Craig shot him, but we need to make sure since Lane and Saul don't have armor..." He handed Alexander the helmet, "You good?"

"I'll be fine," Alexander growled, clearly angry at himself. "Cover me. I'll go."

"You sure?"

"You got a rifle, I got a silenced MP5. I'm better in there and you have the range!"

Lachlan saw Alexander jump up and pull his helmet back on. He started to shout out for Alexander to get back behind cover, but decided, shouting wasn't a good idea at all. He didn't want to bring extra attention to those he was with or Alexander. Instead he spoke into his radio, "Craig, you can't let him go in there alone! Justin, cover him!"

"On it!" Craig responded as he moved at a low zigzagging run toward the home.

A shot came out of the window from the far end of the house, opposite of the bay window as someone spotted Craig. The round hit the concrete over a foot from Craig, showing the unpredictable movement was very difficult to get a bead on. However, Justin didn't hesitate to fire a three round burst into the window just as a second shot was fired down. Whoever was shooting didn't fire again.

"Well done!" Lachlan praised, "But stay low. You just opened yourself up to potential crossfire from the opposite side of the street!"

Justin slid back so there were cars both in front and behind him, "Sorry..."

"Nothing to be sorry for as long as you learn from it. Real combat isn't book taught; it is earned in drill and real life situations. You all have a great feel for small squad tactics. From here on out, I am going to make you all into a well-oiled machine as long as no one goes charging in half-cocked."

"My bad..." Alexander responded, "I just had to get away from that car..."

"Why?" Lachlan asked.

"Never mind... Um, just... whatever you do... don't look inside..." Alexander stopped speaking as he fired a three round burst at a man with a bloody shoulder and pointing a shotgun down at him. The three rounds made no more than hissing noises as they exited the barrel. More sound was generated from the gasp of pain followed by the guy tumbling down the steps. Alexander jumped over the man and continued up. "One down, he was already shot, but had a sawed-off 12 gauge. Helmet is picking up multiple heat sources through the wall to the right and two to the left."

Lane looked over at Steven who was double-checking Saul to make sure the near miss hadn't ricocheted into him, "Give me a gun!"

Craig heard Lane's voice as he switched over to his pistol and moved into the door. He spotted the crumpled body at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the second level and kicked at it to make sure it was not a threat even as he spoke, "Lane, you need to stay down until you have some armor and I know you can shoot. Now isn't the time, but we'll work with you as soon as we can, OK?"

Scott spoke up as he saw Lane sign and nod, "He heard you over my radio since I am holding him. He nodded, but isn't happy about it Craig. I've got Lane for you. Focus on keeping you and Alexander safe!"

"Thanks Scott," Craig responded. "Keep him out of the line of fire, but let him know I'll see if I can find something in here to see how he shoots. Maybe we can get him a .22 or something if he does OK. But no matter what, he keeps his head down. I will not be happy if anything bad happens to him, and whoever does so will be even less happy by the time I get done!"

Scott couldn't help but snicker, despite the situation, as he saw Lane's eyes go wide, "Don't think I will need to, Craig, but I'll remind him."

"Good!" Craig's voice changed some, "Alexander, I have two heat sources downstairs. I'm thinking there is a storage area under the split level steps and they are hiding in there, since it looks like they are balled up."

Alexander glanced down the hall, and ducked back as he saw a figure on the floor. "Damn, I missed them. Thanks Craig. Keep an eye on them if you can, but I have a warm body way down the hall to my left, at least three in the room just to the left of the stairs and there is a living room to my right. There is a knocked over table with two heat sources behind it. I had a couple more further back into what looks like the dining area, but I don't at the moment."

Lachlan spoke up, "Boys, there is a chance some of them are hostages or at least non-hostile. We need to secure the building before we go past, but we don't want to be shooting innocent people if we can at all avoid it."

"Understood," Craig and Alexander responded within moments of each other.

"Alexander," Craig spoke as he moved up slowly behind him, "I got no heat in the room straight across the hall. Looks like the kitchen since I can see a stove and part of a kitchen table. Slide out of the way and let me tumble past. If someone shoots, shoot back; otherwise cover the living room. Once in the kitchen, I'll call out for them to drop weapons."

Alexander gave a single nod and slid as tight as he could to the right wall, but to where he could pop up and shoot under the railing protecting the stairwell drop-off from the living room.

Steven radioed over to Justin, "You are the next best shooter out of the three of us and have been working with Craig. Go help. We'll cover. The faster we get this over the safer Saul and Lane will be."

"If you're coming in, switch to a pistol," Craig ordered. "It's too tight in here for a rifle."

Justin slung the assault rifle, pulled his pistol, and duplicated what he had seen Craig do, but no one fired at him. He made it to the door just as Craig jumped up and tumbled through the doorway right across from the stairs. A figure popped up from behind the table and fired, putting a small load of buckshot into the wall, but not even coming close to Craig. Still, the person instantly regretted making the attempt. Justin put a round into the arm and Alexander put two of his three rounds into the figure's face. None were killing shots, but the second bullet of Alexander's shattered teeth on the left side of the mouth, while the third went in the open mouth and out through the right cheek. Justin's bullet also went clean through the arm, but did cause the 20 gauge to fly off to the side, hit the ground, and discharge into the ceiling.

The second figure behind the table rolled out with a .44 Desert Eagle. The hand cannon roared, putting a round into and through the wall right above Alexander's head and a second shattered the floor between Justin and Alexander and continued on through the outside wall.

Craig moved around to the side door of the kitchen, which opened out into the living and dining room area, pulled his pistol, and rapid fired four shots into the man who was fully exposed to him. All four hit the chest and abdomen. The man staggered back two steps before collapsing in a heap. At the same time two others jumped up from behind a nice hutch and ran. One took the fast way out, through the window. The second headed for the door. "Stop and drop the sidearm!"

The figure grabbed at the door handle, yanked the door open and got behind it to get some cover, and fired a single wild shot, striking the wall on Craig's right. A split second later three silenced slugs ripped into the door, sending bits of wood into the figure. This was followed up by a shotgun blast from Justin as he unslung his assault rifle shotgun combo and snap-fired with one hand. A section of the back door shredded and the doorknob was blown clean off. The shout told the three boys two things. First, at least one of the shot spread had found flesh and second, the shooter was a woman. She fired once more, this time grazing Justin's armor. She then dove out the open door and sprinted toward the back fence.

Justin knew he had been grazed, but other than getting a light push to the side, he felt nothing. However, getting shot caused a flare of anger. He moved to the open door, dropped to a knee just like Craig had showed him in the bunker's range, put down his pistol, and lined up a good steady shot with the M4. He then fired just as the woman jumped up to the top of the wood fence. She screeched in pain, dropped her satchel and pistol, and grabbed at the back of her right calf. She managed to use momentum to pull herself the rest of the way over, but all three boys heard another yelp of pain as she fell on the opposite side.

Craig glanced back at Justin with a smirk, "Not quite in the ass, but really close! But if you want to shoot Paulson for me, you need to hit the left cheek, not low."

Justin reslung the rifle and picked up his sidearm. "Practice makes perfect. She was practice; with Paulson, I'll be perfect."

This got a snort of humor out of Alexander while Craig snickered, even as he moved to focus his attention on the hall while motioning for Alexander and Justin to get behind him. He spun to the right so he was looking down the hall, and panned his pistol down it, looking for movement. Behind him, the figure with the shot arm and face writhed on the ground in total agony. The hand on the shot arm was grasping at the face the other at the wounded arm. After a couple of seconds Craig spoke into his radio, "Someone knock that poor jerk out or something please. It's hard to focus and hear with all the blubbering behind me."

Alexander gave Craig a nod, then moved up to the wounded gunman. He put his MP5 on safe then slammed the butt of the weapon into the face of what was probably a woman, but it was hard to tell with all the facial damage, blood, and very dim light streaming in through a broken window lightly blowing curtains and a single streetlight a quarter of a block away. It only took one shot, which added a broken nose to the mess, to render the person unconscious.

Justin moved to the corner of the hall up from the steps as soon as Alexander was in a position to keep the living room and stairs covered. He couldn't help but wince at the sound of the nose crunching under Alexander's vicious blow, however.

Craig pointed over at Justin, "Shoot high if anyone with a weapon pops out. I'll stay low and fire low. Alexander, check under and behind all the furniture, just to make sure we are secure up here, then focus on the steps. There are still at least two heat sources below us."

"I got it." Alexander responded.

Craig moved down the hall at a crouch. He paused at the first door on the right, checked the handle and found it locked. He didn't pick up any heat through the door, so he moved on. The next door down was on the left. This one was open and the door hanging off a shattered door frame. He slid in and noted one adult and two children. They were hogtied, and even in the dim light they all looked over at him with terror in their eyes. "Three tied up. I'll cut them loose..."

"No Craig," Lachlan ordered. "Leave them until the whole place is secure. If they run they will not only endanger themselves, but you!"

"Oh, yeah..." Craig slid the armor's built in knife back into its thigh sheath before fully pulling it. "You all stay still; we'll get you out as soon as we know it's safe!"

He then moved to the next door down. It was also on the left side of the hall. It was a little kids' room with bunk beds, a ton of toys, and was pretty much intact. He picked up no heat and after checking the closet and bed, backed out. "Justin, move up, but keep your eyes on the locked door. If it's locked someone is probably in there!"

"I'm not getting any heat..."

"Locked door means it's probably a bathroom, Justin," Alexander spoke up. "If someone is in the tub, you may not be able to see them."

"Good thinking, Alexander," Lachlan responded with a great deal of praise in his voice.

Justin nodded understanding and moved to where he was half in the room with the three tied-up figures, could see the locked door, and could also look down the hall. He watched as Craig moved up to the body at the end of the hall and kicked at it. When there was no movement, Craig slid into the room.

This time Craig found an older kid's room, and whoever it was played soccer... worshiped soccer, Craig corrected his thoughts as he noticed professional soccer stuff all over the walls, trophies on the shelves, and half a dozen soccer balls, two of them signed and on stands. He also took note of a very new looking M1 carbine lying right under the shattered window.

Craig moved up with the weapon, noting three full 25-round boxes of .30 caliber ammunition on the bed along with an almost empty fourth box. Knowing firearms, he knelt and picked it up noting fresh blood on the butt of the rifle and the window frame. He ejected the magazine and found it only had a few rounds left in it. He took a moment to grab the almost empty box, fill the magazine and put it back in place. With a shrug, he slung the weapon over his shoulder, grabbed the extra ammo on the bed, and gave the room one final look. It was at this point he noticed two small backpacks, a pair of rolled up sleeping bags, and three sets of running shoes, all kid sized, but all different sizes. "If what I am seeing is correct, there were two little kids and probably three kids about our age in the house but I've only seen two kids our age and one adult tied up. Be real careful guys. We don't want to kill any kids."

He moved up to the window and noticed blood spray on the wall and a trail leading out to the body. He double-checked the closet, before taking a moment to wipe the blood off the stock of the rifle with a tee-shirt lying on the floor. He moved back out into the hall and looked down at the body. He kicked it over with his foot and discovered two bullet holes in the chest and a third in the upper left arm. The pool of stickiness under where the arm had been told Craig it had almost certainly been an artery hit, which also explained the blood on the rifle, wall and window sill. He also noticed the man had a small satchel on his side. He knelt and found three more full magazines for the rifle, a combat knife, and a couple of pieces of paper he couldn't read in the gloomy house. He draped the satchel over his shoulder while giving a thumbs up down the hall. "Nice shooting Justin."

"You think he was the window shooter?"

"Oh yeah, and you got him with all three rounds of your burst fire."

"Not the first time I have shot someone in the past couple of weeks, but I really can't get used to the idea I killed someone... again..."

"Killing isn't supposed to be easy, Justin," Lachlan spoke with a great deal of force behind his voice. "Just focus on the fact whoever you shot this time was trying to kill Craig."

"I know," Justin sighed, "but I wish I didn't have to."

"Me too, kiddo, me to. Now screw your head back on straight and finish securing the house. There are tied-up people who you are rescuing, but I am sure really want to be freed."

"I'm OK," Justin announced, "just mad at the guy I killed for making me do it!"

"Good attitude to have. Now finish the sweep. It's going to be daylight soon and we want to find a place to hunker down."

Craig moved over to the last door in the hall and pushed it open. He cringed as he saw the body of man lying on the floor. The very fact it was cold to the IR mode in the helmet, told Craig the man had been dead for a while. He didn't do more than glance down. The guy had died holding his stomach, but didn't appear to have been dead for too long. There was no smell of decay. He checked out the rest of the master bedroom, finding it had been thoroughly ransacked. "Upstairs is clear."

Alexander moved back down the stairs, "I still have two huddled together under the stairs, nothing else."

Craig took one last look around the master bedroom, spotting an open gun safe and empty jewelry box on the floor. "Hold until we are in a spot to cover. This place had a nice gun safe, so there could be lots more firepower floating around in here."

"I'm holding right at the bottom of the steps," Alexander responded, "I have a closed door to my left and a rec room with a bar to my right. There is also a closed door direct to my right which is where the stairs go up, so I bet your right. It is a closet area or something. The two are inside it."

Justin moved down and closed his eyes as he got next to Alexander. "I feel one scared in there, not two... I think the other is a dog!"

"If it is," Alexander glanced over at Justin with a cock of his head, "I'm going to start believing in this mental ability they say you have."

"If it's a dog it'll be real protective of whoever is in there with it, Justin," Lachlan warned. "Guys, secure the rest of the house first, then cut one of the kids loose and see if he or she can give you more info. If it's someone who knows the dog and who is with it, then we can get out of this without killing some kid's pet."

"Only other door up here is the locked one," Craig answered, "give me a second." He moved up to the door and knocked, "Whoever is in there, your safe! Come on out!"

The voice of a very scared sounding boy came from the other side, "I got a gun!"

"Kid, come on out. I'll let you keep the weapon."

"How do I know it's not a trick?"

Craig let out a long breath, "Kid don't be dense. I don't have time for it. I know you had to have heard all the shooting. If I wanted in there I would shoot the stupid door open, now come on out."

"Geesh, Craig," Justin spoke up, "the kid is scared. Don't be so mean!"

Craig let out a disgusted breath, "And this is why I can't make friends! Get up here and deal with this. I'll go help Alexander!"

Scott's voice came over the radio, "Craig, Lane says he thinks you make a great friend and I agree."

"Thanks and thank him for me, Scott. Justin get up here!"

Next to Scott, Lachlan looked over, "Can't make friends? He has all of you, doesn't he?"

"Oh, yeah," Steven answered once he made sure his radio was off, "but he does have some social skill problems. We're all working on him, but it's Glenn and Justin who really are really helping him see some of the things he does or doesn't do quite right. I really think he thinks everyone should see what he sees and when they don't he has a hard time lowering his expectations. Kind of like the poor kid in the bathroom up there... For Craig he thinks the kid should go with the obvious, like Craig is asking him to come out after a whole bunch of shooting when he could have just as easily shot the door open. He can't see beyond the logic to the feelings side sometimes..."

Saul looked up at Steven, "Yeah, he's mean. He knocked me down in the judo class he was holding like fifty times really hard then told me stop doing the same thing, only I still don't know what I was doing wrong!"

"Did you ask?" Lane countered.

"No, he just kept telling me to try it again..."

"It's not his fault you weren't doing it right. If you couldn't figure it out, you should have asked!" Lane stated strongly, fully sticking up for Craig. "He's super smart and really nice! He wouldn't let any of the others pick on me and started to show me how to fight and get stronger. It took me like thirty times to get a punch right and all I had to do was tell him I didn't understand and he never got mad at me!"

Lachlan reached out and put a hand on both boys' shoulders, "Which is exactly what Steven is saying, guys. Craig didn't really look for why you kept doing wrong whatever he was trying to get you to do, Saul. At the same time, Lane you asked and he totally understood you were having problems and didn't let you give up. It also explains why the vast majority of the kids stopped showing up to the class he offered you all, while the few who stuck with it saw very fast and remarkable improvement."

"The only reason I didn't quit is because Lane didn't..."

"Did you get better?"

"Oh yeah, but my mom would have pulled me out the first day the way I looked and felt! And I never did get the counter to his stupid leg sweep right," Saul grumbled.

Lachlan chuckled and lightly ruffled Saul's hair, "If it kept taking you down, it must not be too stupid."

Saul frowned deeply, but begrudgingly gave Lachlan a disgusted nod.

Up at the house, Justin switched places with Craig. He knocked on the door, "Hey, I sent my friend to make sure the rest of the house is safe for you. I'm Justin. What's your name?"

"Um... Devin... but I'm not supposed to talk to strangers and junk..."

"Yeah, I get that from my parents too, but does talking to strangers include kids? If so, how do you ever make friends?"

"No, um... I can talk to other kids..."

"Good, I'm twelve. How old are you?"

"You're really twelve?"

"Yeah, can't you tell I am young by my voice?"

"Um, yeah... I guess... But you have guns and stuff, right?"

"Pretty much have to, so yes. I'm armed. But hey, you were telling my buddy you are armed too, right?"

"Yeah, I got a gun in here with me."

"So if you look at it, we are really in the same boat. We are both armed and scared. It's kind of a crazy world we are in at the moment, huh?"

"It's nuts!"

"It sure is, so how old are you, Devin?"

"Turn thirteen in less than a month... You really twelve?"

"Turned twelve on July 25th, so you are older than me."

Justin suddenly saw some heat as a figure stood up. He also noted he could make out the outline down to just below the knees so Alexander had almost certainly been right. the kid had hid in the tub and it cloaked his heat signature. "So is this your house?"

"No, it's my friend Freeman's... we're on the same team..."

Craig's voice came over the radio, "Has to be soccer, the room at the end of the hall is one step in the wrong direction from being a shrine to the sport."

Justin had to fight off a desire to snicker at Craig's obvious dislike of the sport, "So, while making sure everything was safe up here we noticed lots of soccer stuff in one of the rooms, is that what you play?"

"Uh huh..."

"So you are here with Freeman and his family?"

"Yeah... me and JC... Mr. Vellor... um Freeman's dad... he has an airtight car and came to get Freeman from school. He saw JC and me and told us to get in... We got stuck in traffic, so he shut the car down and we watched as people died... We stayed in the car for a long time but Mr. Vellor made us get out when we started getting sleepy. He tried to take me and JC home, but there was no one at our houses, so he had us leave notes, grab clothes and brought us to his house. We've been living here but those bad guys kept coming around. We had to hide from them a couple of times... They must have seen light and broke in after dark."

"So it is you, JC, Freeman and Mr. Vellor. Can you tell me who else is here? I know there are three tied up across the hall, one of them is a woman. I'd like to let them loose, but need to know if they are good or bad."

"I don't know for sure... Um, Mrs. Vellor had the same kind of car and had Gina and Kara with her... they were here... but Kara got real sick and died the day after the poison fell... Mr. Vellor thinks she ate some brownies that were left out... Mrs. Vellor said it was her fault for not throwing out everything left out. They buried her in the back yard..."

Justin cringed. "It was sarin and it would have gotten on brownies, so if they weren't covered up, there is a good chance she got poisoned..."

"Freeman's dad pushed me and Freeman in here and told us to lock the door when they broke open the front door. Then we heard some screaming and some gunshots... Freeman ran out when he heard his mom scream..." the boy bit back a couple of sobs, "I heard Freeman yell at someone to leave his mom alone and a gunshot... I think they killed him!"

"We haven't found any dead kids, Devin. How about you come out and help me. I don't want to leave your friend tied up, but I need to make sure."

"You aren't going to shoot me?"

"No way. I'm here to help."

It took a few seconds before the door unlocked and started to open. Justin pulled off his helmet and waited. As soon as the kid inside the bathroom saw him, he all but fell into Justin's arms. "I want my mom and dad!"

Justin put his arms around the slightly taller boy and gave him a long hug, "I know the feelings, Devin... I know... Come on..." He led the boy across the hall. "You know these three?"

Devin let go of Justin and rushed over to the three trussed-up figures. He started to pull on the rope around one of the boys, "Freeman!"

Justin moved up and handed the boy a knife, "Here."

It took only minutes to cut JC, Freeman, and Mrs. Vellor free. Justin then got JC's help to get Gina and the family's golden retriever out from under the steps, while Freeman and Mrs. Vellor sobbed over Mr. Vellor's body.

It took two more hours, and it was well past daylight when Justin, Craig and Steven, helped by Lachlan, dug a grave in the back for Mr. Vellor while Scott, Alexander, Lane and Saul helped the others gather valuables and directed them toward the refugee center at the high school. Craig recovered a jewelry filled satchel with more paperwork, an M1911 .45 pistol, three magazines and a hundred rounds of ammo, along with paperwork stamped with the Presidential Seal out of the back yard. The paper was an executive pardon for all crimes of one Ingrid Hammerstein. He handed the jewelry over to Mrs. Vellor and kept the rest. He also recovered three other satchels, with pardon paperwork. Two had M1911 pistols and .45 ammo while the last one had more .30 caliber ammo and M1 magazines. The rifle that was dropped out of the bay window also turned out to be an M1.

Justin looked over the weapons and the paperwork, "This is the same kind of thing my dad had in the back of his truck. Ashwood pardoned and armed these people... I just don't get why!"

"To create confusion while he took over." Lachlan explained. "Texas saw part of his game in time and didn't bring the freed prisoners to the cities, but looks like some still made it here."

Craig looked over the rifles, "These weapons look like they came out of some old mothballed stock of post World War II weapons stockpile. Someone lacquered the wood, oiled them up, checked to make sure they were in working condition, and shipped them to prisons and jails. To be honest, they are in great condition and are antiques. Millions of M1's and M1911's were made. It looks like we know where untold thousands ended up."

Lachlan agreed as he looked over one of the rifles. "Craig, let's give people a reason to stay away from the area. There is a field with a ditch one block over. Why don't we take Saul and Lane over and give them a shooting lesson? If they do OK, we'll let them hold onto what they can use until we find them weapons better suited to their size."

Craig looked over, "You want to arm them?"

"No, but I also don't want them ending up like the people in this house. We'll carry the extra ammo, but having them with a rifle or pistol with a full clip isn't the worst idea, given what we are seeing here."

"Fine, but if we see more idiots hurting people with these rifles and pistols I'm taking them out. I want a couple for my own gun collection."

"If I get one of each, too, we have a deal."

It took a while before Mrs. Vellor finally got enough of her wits back to start asking questions. When she did, Lane came up with a quick cover story while learning how to care for the rifle he had just been allowed to carry after shooting thirty rounds, saying they were all military school cadets and had volunteered to check out neighborhoods and inform those left in them of the nearby refugee center. The fact he had just got done practicing with a rifle and had been shooting with Alexander and Craig, allowed the story to be fully accepted by everyone they had rescued.

Lachlan then moved his group down a few blocks to a house that had a 'For Sale' sign out front and decided to lay low for the rest of the day. While the kids got some rest, Lachlan decided he was done trying to walk out of this level of carnage. He went to find gas for one of the many vehicles out on the streets.

Dmitry looked over at Levi, "Marc reports the kids are out and the tunnel has been secured from the inside. It's pretty much out of our hands now."

"It's not the safest play we could have made, but we are behind the eight ball. We have stabilized the lines for now, but reports indicate Ashwood is bringing in weapons and supplies from the outside. While Mother Russia can blow out anything Ashwood can bring over on quality, our shipping lanes are long and most of your western ports are in shambles. We need some kind of advantage.

Everet still didn't look happy about the decision to let the kids out of the bunker and it showed as he leaned against a desk with his arms folded. "This is all dependent on a twelve year old who has had a very easy life up until the last few weeks, couple of months if you call the start of him seeing what reality truly is. We are holding our breaths on Scott and his ability to pull off what would amount to a coup d'├ętat over on what amounts to half the country. I know you purposely put him out there in hope we can start pulling at the threads holding this whole Starshine plan together. I just hope we didn't just send a lamb to a lion."

Ethan joined in the conversation, "For his part, he seemed really sure, but you're right. We just risked his life and with it the lives of four other boys. While it may be the most logical play, it isn't the best or anything close to the most moral. Still, I get it. I'd just feel better if I had a better idea what he was planning."

Levi shook his head, "He was keeping it vague for a reason. He has a plan, and he is sure it will work, but didn't or couldn't tell us what it is. My guess is whatever he has in mind is something he knew we wouldn't allow."

"So why did you push for him to go out?" Dennis demanded to know.

Levi gave a sad little snort, "Because playing it safe keeps us on the defensive, and we can't win a war without going on the attack. Every minute we sit here is another minute a kid Scott's age dies or loses a parent or goes another day without food because they are somewhere along the front lines. Scott is manipulative and is sure he can knock one out the park, and like it or not we are running out of innings. A single home run won't win us the ballgame, but it gets us on the board and if he changes momentum even a little, we send a message. Ashwood has taken some hard hits, militarily however, his commanders are on top of the world. We need to plant some seeds of doubt in Ashwood's commanders, and if Scott can get us one key military weakness, one or two military operations we can screw up, or a single supply line we can cripple, even for a little while, we will put pressure on the military command structure. We absolutely need to force their hand so we can see what they have."

Before more could be said, Mitch came in, "I hate to interrupt, but I may have some hard facts we have been lacking."

Seeing all those in the room turn to look at him with undivided attention, He took a deep breath, "Our small biofuel research lab in Paris, Kentucky was just rescued by what they first thought was reinforcements for those attacking them. The local members of CAGE under the banner of our new EDF were barely holding on as it was, however, it turns out the new arrivals were a group that captured equipment and ambushed those attacking our facility. The trap was being led by a police officer out of Lexington!"

"We sure of his identity?" Dmitry wondered aloud.

"Yeah, one of our guys knows him personally. It's the whole reason he led his group to Paris. He was hoping to use our facilities to give those he pulled out a safe place to hole up. As it turns out, he got out of Lexington with civilians and a group of ex-youth offenders who happened to have joined forces with the officer."

Dennis shook his head, "As interesting as all this is, not sure what good it does us."

"I'm not done. I don't know how this Officer Rail pulled this off, but he turned a couple of the outside fighters and they turned others. We have confirmation that Ashwood had foreign troops moved in before the election and others in transport weeks before election day. Many of them are kids, same age or slightly older than our kids and have been treated extremely badly.

"This Officer Rail also managed to capture some of the foreign equipment. Between what the kids he managed to turn and the equipment, we now have solid facts. Two of the biggest supporting countries are Argentina and Venezuela. Ashwood forces, including these foreign fighters are also getting in new shipments of weapons, ammunition, food, and military vehicles. They came in within the last couple of days and the kids were told more is coming. They have ships moving them in somewhere!"

"Do we know how they are getting it here?" Dmitry asked.

"The kids all give the same basic account. They were in a shipping container for about three weeks. It was so bad, some died in transport. But as horrible as all of that is, it's what they are able to tell us when they got out that has me excited. Since they were in such bad shape, they were given two days to eat, clean up and recover a little before being taken to Lexington where they were forced to go up against armed released prisoners. All of them say they spent the first two nights in a school. Every one of them was sure it was a Gulfport Middle School and the mascot was a commodore. They also said the transport was only ten to fifteen minutes from the time they got out of the shipping container, got up in the back of a semi and were dropped off at the school. I checked, the school they described is there and it has the right mascot. Even better, it was shut down two days before the elections for unspecified safety issues, and is only blocks from the port. They were in Gulfport Mississippi.

"They also said there were more ships unloading and others out in the water heading in. It has to be one of their main ports."

Dmitry cracked his knuckles, "And now we have our first hard military target behind Ashwood lines!"

Levi shot Dmitry a smirk, "Now all we need to find a way to hit it."

Lachlan came back to the 'For Sale' home frustrated. He knew they had to get to the center of the city, but after getting hit and having to rescue one group, he didn't have the desire to do so again, yet knew if he took the kids through the city more encounters would follow. The best he could come up with was taking an SUV out of a garage and getting them as close to the capitol as possible.

The vehicle he found got them to the core, but then they had to abandon it. Gunshots were heard and in one case a group got close, but a single exchange with Craig, Justin and Alexander left two former inmates dead and the rest scattered into the nearly silent streets. They were able to recover two more satchels, one with a M1911 pistol, and the other with a M1 carbine. This made it all too clear, the Ashwood administration had indeed freed and armed the inmates and there were untold thousands if not millions of former felons on the streets armed.

However, word either spread or the sounds of auto-fire weapons told others to stay clear. They didn't have another incident even as they got into the downtown area. Lachlan had the boys work back toward the capitol building, deciding the easiest thing would be to set up a freezer to look like they had stayed there, grab some extra gear for the two newcomers, then take another vehicle so they could get well clear of the area before Scott would make his first attempt at contacting Imir.

However, the plan fell apart well before they worked back to center of the city. The roads in and around the Austin area were clogged with cars, many of them crashed by those who had tried to flee the sarin attack. The vast majority had been searched by emergency workers, but many side roads had yet to be cleared. They had all stumbled across a few cars, much like the one Alexander had puked next to, with rotting dead bodies still in them.

One, in particular, had given all of them nightmares. There had been human claw marks on the back of the leather seats of the high end minivan from a boy and the family pet had mangled the boy as it tried to get out, while the front passenger had died with his face pressed up against the glass. The sight of the remnants of the black lab and the passenger just wouldn't leave their minds. Even Lachlan had to admit it had gotten under his skin when he woke up in the middle of the night with a sheen of sweat coating him. Justin had been on watch and simply nodded, saying everyone else had woken up the same way during his watch and Craig had said both Alexander and Scott had woken up right before Justin did, during Craig's watch.

Lane had taken it really hard and sought comfort from Craig. The two were all but cuddled up together. At the same time, Saul had found comfort with Steven, and was sleeping with his head resting against Steven's shoulder. During the night, Nick's team showed up with a case of MREs and youth packs for both Lane and Saul including the exact make and model of weapons they had mentioned. When asked, Wendy simply smiled and said, "We are Rangers, it's what we do." They then left as quickly and quietly as they had entered the building they were staying in.

The other problem they ran into was finding a usable vehicle, those who had tried to flee and had been caught in cars had died with engines running, so almost every car had an empty tank or dead battery in the case of electric cars. So not only were the roads clogged, moving them would require fuel trucks or fleets of tow trucks. A couple of the main roads had been cleared with bulldozers, but it wasn't yet enough to get out of the city by vehicle; so the second day was also spent on foot until late in the day when Lachlan finally had enough. He broke into some sheds, found gas cans meant for lawn mowers and got enough gas to fill the tank of a small SUV. It was getting toward sunset when the skyline of Austin finally disappeared in the rear window.

Noah jerked awake as the mail truck Todd was driving jerked really hard and even tipped a little. Next to him Harlan let out a gasp of pain and Debbie, Hazel, and Kent yelped in fear.

Before any of them could complain, a trio of bullets punctured the right side and continued through the left leaving little round holes. Up front in the passenger seat Doug put the window down and fired.

Todd shouted, "They found us! Keep down!" The mail truck then careened wildly as another vehicle sideswiped the mail van on purpose. Todd almost lost control, but the tires caught traction on the edge of a turnoff road and allowed him to get it fully back on the concrete. This also caused the mail truck to smack into the attacking vehicle forcing it to continue down the main road. A screeching of tires and a plume of rubber smoke came off the road as the driver slammed on the brakes then backed up to continue the pursuit. A second Jeep took the turnoff and quickly move behind the bigger mail van.

Another bump jarred all the kids and caused everything they had stacked in the back to shift. At the same time Harlan grabbed at his side, while his whole face contorted into a mask of pain.

Noah noticed the look on his best friend and saw nothing but red. He ignored the fact half a dozen rounds were cutting through the back doors. While everyone else was going as flat to the bed as they could, Noah slid back to the door. As Todd once again fought to stay in control after getting a hard bump, Noah yanked on the back door handle kicked open the left side and fired his rifle at the first thing he saw, which happened to be a weird looking military Jeep with a roll bar and a mounted machinegun.

The first couple of rounds hit the gunner who fell out of the back. The man's head hit the crushed rock making up the unpaved road with crunching sound. A gruesome red splatter mark marked the point of impact.

Next to Noah, Kent saw the passenger of the Jeep pull a pistol. Not knowing how to shoot, but having seen it enough on TV he pulled up his rifle and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened, but it did cause the passenger to duck down.

This gave Noah a chance to continue his rage driven assault on the vehicle and those in it. With the passenger ducking down, Noah focused on the driver, who had slouched down, but was still very much visible. He put four rounds into the windshield. The driver jerked back on the third shot. At the same time his foot stamped down on the gas.

The Jeep made hard contact with the back of the mail truck again, but this time Noah saw it coming. As it got right up on the back bumper he fired down into the passenger side. At the same time he shouted, "Kent, the safety is on!"

Kent was knocked back into Debbie as the Jeep slammed into the back of the truck. He pulled the rifle back to look at it, only to have Debbie reach around him and flip the selection lever of the assault rifle. Debbie pushed him back toward the back of the truck, "Now shoot!"

Kent pulled the weapon back up, pointed at the Jeep and pulled the trigger. While he knew there would be some kick, he wasn't even close to ready for what happened. This was because Debbie had changed the selection lever from safe, bypassed semi, and moved it all the way to burst. Three rounds erupted out of the end of the barrel. The first one hit the hood of the Jeep, the second the window, and the third spun the unmanned machinegun to the side. It also sent Kent back on his butt hard.

However, once again, the passenger was forced to duck further down even as he tried to grab the steering wheel from his wounded buddy.

This gave Noah a clean shot at the man's arm and he took it. His next round hit the wrist of the man's left hand. The man's instinctive reaction was to pull back, but in doing so he yanked the steering wheel hard to the left. The Jeep veered off the road, jumped the small ditch on the side, and smashed into a tree at over seventy miles an hour. The tree snapped but the sudden stop instantly killed the two injured men in the front seats.

Kent shook his head to clear it while his left hand moved down to rub his rear end. It was then he saw the dust behind them. "There is another one!"

Noah nodded, sent a bullet in the direction of the dust cloud, then looked back. "Go prone, Kent!"


Hazel, who was grabbing at her injured arm slid over to Kent. "Lay on your stomach and point the rifle out the back door, just make sure you are not pointing it at Noah. This will let you brace the rifle. Wait until you can see the car or whatever, then look through the backsight and line up the center of the car with the front sight in the middle of the backsight. Once you have it, pull the trigger!"

Noah made sure he was out of the way of Kent, even as he looked back at Debbie. The girl was frantically searching through the mess in the back for her own rifle, since she had laid it next to her when she had dozed off. The first sideswipe had sent her away from her rifle and the second hit had knocked stuff all over. It was buried under much of the food and gear they had collected. "Deb! Use Har's pistol!"

Debbie saw Noah pointing at the holster on Har's hip and rolled over to the boy who was wheezing in serious pain. She unbuttoned the holster, secured the pistol, and made sure the safety was off before sliding up to the back.

Just before she got there, Kent saw a flash of metal in the front sight and pulled the trigger. This time he was more or less ready for the three round burst, but it still jarred him pretty hard. On the other hand, he was well braced and the mail truck was on a relatively straight and non-bumpy part of the gravel road.

Much to the amazement of everyone looking out the back of the truck, the vehicle chasing them lost control and rolled before being struck by a third vehicle behind it. There was an explosion of metal and other vehicle parts, including a tire that bounced up high enough for even Todd to see in the side mirror. Both vehicles careened off into the trees.

"Right on Kent!" Doug shouted as he looked back through the open back door.

Noah reached over and patted Kent on the back, even as Kent put down the rifle and rubbed his shoulder.

Debbie moved up, grabbed the rifle and pointed at the section lever. "Totally wicked shooting, but never put down a gun until it is on safe!"

Noah saw what Debbie was talking about and patted Kent on the back again, "She's right, Kent. Not your fault, but safety a gun as soon as you are done shooting it, no matter what." He then gave Kent a hug with his right arm, "We need to work with you on guns, shooting and safety, but I say you're a natural!"

Kent rubbed his shoulder and gave a nervous nod, "Yeah, but I think I just killed people!"

"You did." Doug stated, "But in doing so you saved us. Besides, they started it."

"But I killed someone..."

Noah let out a long breath as he looked back. There were no more dust trails, so there was no chance anyone was following on such a dusty road, "We both did Kent... we both did..."

Todd spoke up, "Guys, you did what you had to do. We'll find a minister or something once we are all safe, but I have no idea what road I am on and I'm not real keen on going back to try to get to the highway. Besides, if they got out any kind of radio call they will know what we are in."

"If they even knew it was us." Hazel countered.

"Noah and Kent just took out three of their Jeeps. It really doesn't matter who they think we are, if the word got out, they will be after us."

Two hours later, with dusk rapidly falling and the gas needle nearly on empty, Todd pulled to a stop on a dirt road. In the distance, he could make out a real cluster of building. He let out a sigh, "Finally, a town."

Doug pulled up binoculars, "There is some battle damage, and a burned out big eight-wheeled military tank-like thing in the middle of the main road, but there are people out and they don't look like Army or nothing."

Todd cringed as he looked down at the gas gauge. He sighed and killed the engine, trying to conserve every drop of gas. At the same time Noah spoke from in the back, "We need to find out where we are and where there is a vet or a doctor. Har is really doing bad!"

Doug hopped out, "I'll go ask."

"Debbie, go with him," Todd commanded. "Both of you take a gun, too. We have no idea what is going on."

Doug nodded. He patted the shoulder holstered pistol and made sure to cover it with a jacket.

Thirty minutes later, the pair returned with a sixteen-year-old kid carrying a five gallon plastic gas container in his left hand and a 12 gauge over his right shoulder. Seeing everyone grabbing for weapons Doug shouted out, "It's OK! This is Simon. They have some gas for us in exchange for taking five others who are hurt up to the vet clinic in Bossier City, just outside of Shreveport. It is about twenty miles west. They want him to drive us, since we stick out and the only thing allowed to move is military stuff. Simon knows all the back roads, and they have some black paint so we don't stand out... It's good thing we stopped when we did. They were getting an ambush ready since there are some freed prisoners doing raiding, since being driven out of Shreveport!"

Simon looked up at Todd, "How you made it this far is a miracle. The military took all the cars that worked after beating back the National Guard. We are under martial law, and their aircraft have shot at non-military cars. When my dad heard you needed a doctor or a vet, he decided to give up the last of our gas to get the worst up to the clinic. I know the doc too, since she's been the vet for my black lab since I was nine! Not sure what Shreveport is like though, and we know there are lots of raiders, so make sure you keep your guns handy."

Scott took a long breath as he hopped out of the back of the SUV they had found and helped the others set up a camp around an abandoned farm. It was the second full night out of Austin and everyone had loosened up some. Having the sights, and smells, of the city well behind them plus being out in the open where it was easier to spot threats, had given everyone a chance to take stock of the situation without the constant reminders of death surrounding them. It also helped to be outside, away from the oppressiveness and boredom of the bunker.

While Lachlan stood guard and had the others toss a football around with the last vestiges of daylight, Scott, pulled out a cheap flip phone and walked around the half fallen down barn. There was nothing inside, but there was a really old rusting tractor around back. Scott moved over to it and sat on the frame while glancing down at the phone again. He was having second thoughts. He knew Grant would understand if he couldn't do it…

Scott shook his head, couldn't was not the right word. He could, of this there was no question. Doing what he guessed he would be required to do wasn't even the worst part. The unnerving part was, he would have to act like he was a willing participant. Even Grant's messages, buried in innuendo within the photo document, told him Grant really didn't expect Scott to go all the way. At the same time, however, his brother made it clear, it may be the only way to get the information to flesh out details behind the objectives of Starshine.

Scott clenched his fists and glanced back down at the older style flip phone. Grant had risked everything to let Scott know what he had stumbled into. Grant, if he was still alive, was certainly still suffering for finding out what he had. Chances were good Ashwood, or maybe even his own mother had had Grant killed… No he couldn't let that go. He couldn't look in a mirror and see the face of a Race staring back at him if he didn't do whatever was needed. His family had hurt too many and were continuing to do so. Renewed determination both for his brother and all those the Race line had hurt started to push the doubts and even the dread back. After several minutes of debate he decided he would move forward with his plan. He had to. His family was responsible for a great deal of what was going on and needed to be stopped. If he backed out and did nothing he would be just as guilty as they were.

He rejoined the group with a new sense of purpose.

Nick's team showed up a couple of hours after dark, this time with extra ammo and another case of MRE's. They took Lane and Saul shooting for almost two hours.

While this was happening, Lachlan looked over at Scott, "OK, you look whole lot better over the last couple of hours than you have the prior three days. I'm gathering you came to grips with any second thoughts?"

"Yeah… I was being a spoiled brat, sorry."

"Scott, I don't know you real well, but spoiled is not a word I would use to describe your behavior." Seeing the boy give him a weak smile, Lachlan continued, "I think now is a good of time as any to hear what you have up your sleeve."

Lachlan gestured to the area with wide sweep of his hands, "We are now out here pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with no one else listening. If anyone was, the gunshots, even muffled from being inside the old barn, would have caused someone to investigate or run further away. So you mind telling us how you plan on getting a hold of and finding this UAE guy?"

Scott shrugged and held up a phone. "Ricky and Keith collected phones just like mine and cloned the card in my phone. They then mirrored the internal memory of mine and put it on the duplicates. They also took out tracers to telling manufacturer's electronic serial numbers and replaced them with mine. This means when they are used it will appear to be my phone. There is no way to tell the difference. The thing is, Joey, Ricky and Keith also built a new android app and put it on all the phones. The new app will let me Bluetooth over to the cloned phone from a phone that is not mine and send texts. They then went one better thanks to Glenn. The laptop can hook into the micro USB slot on the master phone and I can be twenty meters away from, with only a cord connecting it. This gives me a safe place to text from. The text will go out over the cloned phone, which will come up as mine, and I will use it to contact Imir."

Scott held up his original phone. "I'm going to turn this on as soon as we find a good spot with signal strength and a place to hide should Ashwood or my mom decide to send a cruise missile or an air strike at my phone."

Scott held up a cheaper phone, "I got this one off one of the kids in the bunker with us. It has the same carrier as I do and not as good of an antenna, so it will let me check for signal strength without activating mine..." He looked down pretending he didn't already know what he would find, "And by some miracle, we do have decent signal strength right here, so there is an operational cell tower within range." He then held up one of the cloned phones. "As soon as I power this up, any traces Ashwood has left to work with will go active. According to Grant's message to me he was certain they were tracing him by his phone, so I am sure Ashwood is trying to do the same with mine, even if his network is crippled, he has equipment we don't, so we will have to be ready.

"As far as my plan... I will send Imir a fax through the text feature to the offices of a UAE fast food chain that opened up in the U.S. just under a year ago. Imir isn't listed as the owner, but he controls it... The main office was in San Francisco, but that one is out, so I'll have to try a few of the others. I managed to get a list when we were in the bunker, so I can try several until I get one. Once I send it, they will certainly send this to their corporate headquarters in Dhabi. It will get to him... a message he will know is from me... We will then wait to see if we get a response on an email Joey set up for me well outside the country, so it will be very hard to locate and even harder to trace back to me by Ashwood. If we don't get a response, we will move and I will try again. Since we know satellites are out, we may have to move several times before one of the messages gets to him and he sends me an email."

Lachlan raised an eyebrow, "So you know him well enough to have some sort of emergency code with him?"

Scott shook his head. "No, nothing so clandestine... Well in a way it probably is more so, since what I am going to send will seem totally stupid to anyone but Imir..."

Lachlan scratched at his hairline as he thought this over, "How can the net be working when we are at war and communications links are being targeted?"

Alexander responded, "You can't kill the web unless you totally kill power to everything. The net isn't just like a spider web, it's a three dimensional monster with thousands of threads capable of changing the flows of data so a request gets to its destination."

Seeing the man was still confused, Alexander changed what he was trying to point out, and switched to something he hoped would be more familiar. "Think of it as if every server, and there are millions of them, having a pair of water pipes that connect to a larger line, the larger line connects to the flow of information, or water. When water goes in, it is us putting in a request, looking for something or typing in an IP address. This opens a water valve. What comes back does so through an inflow pipe. The mass of water comes from the entire web, each computer, in particular servers all have a pool and they all talk by taking in and sending out water. This means there isn't one giant reservoir of water, there are millions of small ones, and they are always looking to send water back and forth. If a server gets taken off line, that pool is dry, but it doesn't stop the other reservoirs from trying to take up the water and spit out whatever the incoming water is looking for, nor does it stop any communication. Take enough pumping stations down, it will slow, but it ain't dead."

Lachlan mulled this over for a few seconds before speaking. "So as long as there is some way to connect, the water keeps flowing, the key is having an access point to send out the request and have some other pumping station process it and be able to send the right water back?"

"Pretty much." Scott nodded. "It's this crazy, all but unlimited, interconnectedness that makes the web all but impossible to kill. Since all computers that connect to the active web cross network with untold numbers of others, it would take something we haven't even dreamed of to kill the multi-million headed hydra. Servers that hold data can be taken down, and the website may be unavailable, but if there is a way to connect with the web, you can still look. Alexander is right, it might be slowed, but we can't even say that. The U.S. uses up the most bandwidth... pumping pressure, if you will, and millions of users either have no power, no access, or were killed. Also keep in mind, we smashed U.S. firewalls and punched semi-truck sized holes in most... Well, we made a couple of holes, one pretty big, and dozens of cracks. The Russians then moved in and blasted them wide open. This means information is easier to push around the web, since the NSA, CIA, FBI, Homeland, DoJ, and dozens of others aren't fishing for information like they had been. Our government snooping was a big drain on bandwidth... water pressure, so I am betting it is even faster, but we don't have satellites, or at least not very many, so it will take some time for this to bounce around until if finally gets to its destination. The speed of light is fast, but this message may have to crisscross the globe a few times before finding its home. I show the closest tower can connect to the web, so I am going to use it to send Imir the message."

"And what's to stop him from handing you right over to Ashwood?" Alexander demanded to know.

Seeing both Steven and Craig nod, Scott let out a long sigh, "Guys, you really have to trust me. Imir... well... he isn't like most Arabs, Muslims, or politicians. He is... more... adventurous... best word I can come up with. And I have a known in on getting through to him... Anyway, you got to let me do my thing, OK?"

Justin held up a hand to stop both Steven and Craig from saying anything, "Scott, we all trust you, but Ashwood probably wants to skin us alive by now, and you are telling us Ashwood will get your location... It makes us all a little jumpy."

"A little, my ass," Alexander snarled. "He killed over half a city trying to kill just a few and all but wiped out areas of other cities and probably most of the West Coast!"

"Yeah, and like it or not, he has to be going after our families by now, especially those of us on the floor with the governor," Steven added grimly.

"I'm sure he has all our families marked. Everyone behind the governor was a winner of the EEL science contest." Alexander shook his head with disgust, "He may be crazy, but he's not stupid."

"Stupid happens to be the last thing he is," Scott confirmed. "He knows money better than anyone... well maybe not as good as Mr. Ryle, but I bet he is real close. He also managed to keep all of this secret until it was almost too late. It was a few screw-ups' outside his control, like those Slider kids, and us thinking we could try to sneak around and stab him in the back that prevented him from winning this election and totally taking over."

Steven couldn't help but smile and snort, "Not to mention Ricky's mass-hack, Keith just happening to know a Russian military guy who saved Bryce's life. The Russians jumping in on the hack, Justin being picked on by a member of Ashwood's family, Craig's dad calling to warn us about the sarin while we were with the governor... oh, and those kids running from the temple and letting us hit it and get the hard drive... Did I miss anything?"

This got a smile out of Alexander, "Glenn having hydrogen tanks so I could make the cutting torch to get into the bunker. Having Wade with us to show us both ways down into the one bunker. Them lying about totally sealing the shaft to the lower bunker..."

Craig finally cracked a smile, "If anyone doesn't think life can conspire against someone, all they need to do listen to this conversation."

Lachlan shook his head, "Sooner or later lady luck is going to turn her head the other direction, so I say we do this while she seems to be on our side... So, you want to try this Scott?"

"Yeah, let me get this set up, but then we need to keep our eyes open, cause if Ashwood has anyone he can contract in the area, they will come."

Craig double-checked his rifle, "I sure hope they send Paulson."

"Let me shoot him in the butt for you this time," Justin only half joked.

"If you can get the shot, take it. Score a hit and I'll give you a second dare."

Justin's eyebrows shot up, "Still haven't done the first."

"Haven't really had a chance, but still looking forward to it. But for now, let's make sure our armor is on and we have fields of fire laid out."

Steven glanced over to Scott, "As soon as you send get your gloves and helmet back on."

Scott stuck up a thumb then moved over to the small abandoned home, he powered up the clone and set the Bluetooth linked phone just outside the window. He then carefully trailed the cord back twenty meters and put himself behind an old shed. It took only a minute to power up the computer, verify the Bluetooth was in range, then typed a quick message:

Tell your boss honey water Absinthe is not the drink to try to make on a boat when the seas are rough. He may still want my employment since I am the only one to be able to make it to his taste. However, I will sweeten the Absinthe further in a way only I can if he is still interested in expanding his palate rather than just dreaming about what has thus far been beyond his reach. I have some friends looking for employment as well, and it is not negotiable. He has an hour before this offer goes away and I would hate to be you if he doesn't get it in time. I do have other offices I will contact as time allows if I don't get a response from this one.

Trevor glanced up at one of his secondary computers as a tone went off. He had almost been asleep, but if one of his preset alerts was sounding there was a very good reason for it. He took a long drink out of a bottle of water and slid over to his secondary terminal. He ran down the alerts then felt a shot of adrenaline course through him as he saw the reason.

All vestiges of grogginess evaporated as his fingers went to work. At the same time he looked over his shoulder at one of the guards, "Get the President!"

Ashwood came in less than a minute later looking badly haggard, "You find me something Trev?"

"Yeah," Trevor responded. "Scott Race's cell just went active. I am doing a trace now!"

"That traitorous little shithead! Where the fuck is he!"

Trevor continued to type. "I can't triangulate... It is hitting a tower just to the south of Yoakum, Texas. I am searching for more active towers in the area, but communications was one of our cruise missile targets, so I am seeing what else is in the area that I can hack into. Problem is we took out the most powerful, so his signal may be isolated."

"You sure it is his phone?"

"I'm looking at the last memory image map NSA made of it. There is some new stuff, but it's his. I guess it could be a clone and an exact copy of the internal memory pushed onto the same model of phone and then someone would have had to pull any tracers showing the serial number and replace it..."

"OK, so it's his. Find me a location other than close to some shit-ville hick-hole in Texas!"

Trevor took a long breath and almost countered Ashwood. Up till now the science contest winners had proven to be pretty damned resourceful. He would not put it past them to find a way to give him an exact duplicate, especially after all this time, but he already knew better than to broach the subject. Besides, he had already tossed out the possibility and it had been dismissed. One thing he was learning about Ashwood; the man would listen if someone could prove they had made a counter point. Trevor had, so he had his fallback position.

After nearly a minute he smirked as he found another tower in the area. He killed power to the one Scott's phone was pinging off of. He then scanned for it with the second tower. When it couldn't pick it up, he turned the first tower back on. He did the same three more times over the next five minutes. While behind him Ashwood started pacing.

He finally looked back even as his fingers flew over the keyboard, "Sir, I can't tell you exactly where he is, but I can tell you where he is not and that let me really narrow down the possible locations. I am pulling up an overlay of coverage areas of towers I could find. Only one hits his phone, so this leaves three locations, the largest three square miles, the smallest one and a half."

"Is he talking on it?"

"Not at the moment. He may have before I zeroed in on the tower."

"Can we get a copy?"

"No, we would need the NSA surveillance network, satellites, and a tower to tower trace along with a log file. I can't get one. Besides, there is so much traffic through that tower, because of how few are still operational, figuring out which one, if any, was his would be like finding a particular needle in a pile of needles. His carrier won't be able to help either, since they are all crippled and hoping by keeping their customers with some phone coverage they will be able to charge them when this is over. Almost all the carriers out there are sharing towers and remaining computers just to keep something running."

"If the damned dollar would just tank like I am trying to make it, they wouldn't be worried about it. Do we have any teams in the area?"

"In Texas?" Trevor looked over at the man with near disbelief. "Everything we had has been eliminated trying to penetrate EEL, since we really want to find out where the hell Hendrickson is." Trevor stopped and held up a finger, "Hold on, I managed to help Latz send a signal to a team he had on the ground outside of Houston. They are less than a hundred miles from the area..."

"Keep monitoring! And let others who may hear from him know he is active again. I have ten full sized gold bars for whoever is willing to hand him over! Shit, I'll hand over ten bars for each one of those damned science winning shitheads should any be able to get me one!" Ashwood then spun, "Someone get me Rafael on the damned horn!"

Justin watched as the cheaper phone lost signal then got it back four times, "Scott, they are on to you. We need to pull out!"

"Can't! I gave him an hour and there is no telling when we will find another web access point! You sure they are on to us?"

Alexander nodded, "Oh, yeah. Best guess is they are flipping off the tower you are hitting then turning on others to try to get a faint ping."

"Which means your phone is only hitting one tower and they are trying to force it to hit another." Steven stated tensely, "If they can't get another hit, they will at the very least be able to exclude the overlaps. No way to know how many or big the remaining areas are. But if they do manage to ping your phone with another tower, they will be able to nail our location. Keep your eye on the clock. As soon as we hit an hour, send some sort of message letting this Imir know you will try again but need to move, then we bug out."

Rafael Latz listened to Ashwood scream at him for a few seconds, "Sir, I will dispatch my team to the general area, but they are at least two hours out... Yes, I know it will get them closer... Yes sir, I do realize we need Race alive and so will my people. However, I really think you should contact our Army contacts and see if they can do something more with the data... No, I realize they have not been able to locate any of the science contest urchins yet... Yes, your guy is one of the best I've seen and he could be a good addition to the Army, but his belief structure... I know we have recruited others... Yes, let me make some calls at least..."

Rafael cringed as the receiver went dead with a loud click. He pointed to a guard at the door. "I need a totally secure room."

As soon as the man left the light above the door turned green, Rafael picked up the secondary phone. "We have the other Race twin in the vicinity of Yoakum, Texas. Tell the bishops our greatest fear is starting to appear. Ashwood's showing cracks. He is trusting one outside the Army more than inside. We need to cut his nuclear options."

He listened for a few seconds. "Yes, Logan/Trevor is his confidant. Recruitment without expectation of belief in the true cause may be warranted. We helped to make him, we may as well use him."

Rafael cringed at what was said next but after just a few seconds nodded, "I concur, Ashwood's usefulness is in steep decline and yes, I think we can incentivize Logan to turn on him when the time comes."

"Agreed. We lost the Supreme Court and they have declared Bryce as the legitimate president. Line of succession will go down his cabinet... Yes, we are still in a militarily strong position, however, we need to prepare for Starshine to fail and to ready our replacement to emerge from the dead... Yes, I will set the stage so the serfs see a savior with a softer side. Should I expect extraction at the needed time or...?"

"Understood. I live and die for God's Army and my bishop. Once the stage is set, I will do what I must. I will survive if I can, but will not be taken. It has been an honor to serve."

Forty-three minutes after sending the message, Scott got a message in his inbox on another phone set to the email address. He opened it and pumped his fist, "He responded! We can go!"

Lachlan moved over and read the message aloud:

"A server the likes of you is as rare as a finely cut Scarlet Emerald. If you are up to unfettered sodality, I am willing to take you back into my service. You may wish to move south, however. The ocean has a cool breeze and it may well get quite warm in your current local. Golden nuggets of immense size are being put on the table, for any who served up such uniquely interesting wonders of which yours was only one, so time is diminutive to reserve your spot before others bound at the bounty and make the hiring market for you turbulent. With this in mind, please hurry. Oh, and yes, for you, I can find room for a few extra crew."

Nick, who came back from the barn with Lane and Saul, listened and cocked his head to the side, "They can both shoot and know how to care for what we got them. Now, what the hell kind of message was that?"

Scott started packing his stuff. "It means we need to move south now! Ashwood knows where we are at and has people headed this way. He also put a reward out on all of us contest winners, a big one... of gold."

"Well, that's a new twist." Justin grinned, "I wonder how much gold we are worth?"

"Nuggets of immense size, from the sounds of it." Craig snickered even as he rapidly shoved his stuff back into his pack. "It is soooo nice to be wanted!"

"I'm definitely going to have to let my parents know I am worth really large gold nuggets." Steven chuckled, "I wonder... Do you think it is more than what EEL offered to pay me?"

Alexander busted up in laughter, "Hard to tell, but it makes a good argument for a pay raise when we see Mr. Triumph again!"

Lachlan smacked his forehead, "You all are taking way too much pleasure in this! So where are we supposed to meet him, Scott?"

"He said get to the ocean, so I guess he is going to be sending a boat, maybe even his yacht. I'll send him another email and see... once we are way away from here!"

Trevor muttered as he lost the cell signal. The problem was, he didn't know if it had been turned off or if it had moved out of the tower's reception area. He put an alert on all the towers he had found in the surrounding fifty miles so he could all but instantly lock on to the signal.

He then stood and stretched before looking back at the guard, "Tell the president the phone is now off the grid. I think he shut it down, but can't be positive."

Liam crouched stayed flat on his stomach with grass and leaves pulled over him. This was the fourth time he had tried to slide through the battle lines over the prior three days. It had left him splinters in his right side from of tree shredded by a tank cannon, a grazing bullet wound to his left leg, and ears that rang so badly he couldn't hear properly. His right side was itching badly, telling him it was probably getting infected, but there was no way he could pull out the large pieces of wood. He couldn't see them and they were in a spot he could barely reach.

The latest battle had been going on for almost an hour, and it was getting dark. The problem was neither side appeared to want to back down. The darker it got, the tracer fire crisscrossing Highway 27 kept it light enough to make out the few surrounding buildings. The bulk of the fighting seemed to center on a small Baptist church on west side and a high school complex on the east.

If anything good could be said about being caught in the middle of a firefight, it was neither side had heavy weapons like artillery or tanks. This meant everything was confined to bullets and an occasional grenade. However, being stuck in a sliver of ground less than twenty meters wide between the highway to the west and railroad tracks to the east was far from ideal.

Liam knew he had to get to a safer spot, but also realized both sides were shooting at any movement, and he was in front of both sides. He guessed if he moved, snipers on both sides would think he was an infiltrator and shoot him... The fact he was going to be an AoG infiltrator filled him with a sense of irony, since technically both sides of this conflict would be correct in labeling him as such. Another hour passed before fire quieted down. It was as if both sides decided it was time to take a break, take stock of the situation, and probably grab a bite to eat before trying to kill each other again. However, it was not completely quiet, both sides were keeping a close eye out, and occasional gunshots split the otherwise deathly quiet night ever few minutes.

With nothing better to do and his ears still ringing he forced some calming prayers and did his best to stay alert. Being injured and exhausted, he fought a losing battle with sleep. Finally he succumbed, the occasional pops of gunfire, giving his brain some sort of strange comfort, since no one would dare venture into the no-man's-land he was occupying.

Two hours later he was jerked awake, as a small team of men, covered in camouflage netting with leaves, twigs, and grass shoved just about everywhere, crawled right past him and moved up to the tracks, five of the seven fired grenade launchers at the school and dove behind the raised berm of the tracks for cover.

Moments later muzzle flashes told of sharpshooters on top of buildings trying to fire back.

The last two men sighted on those muzzle flashes and fired, taking out two of the four. A split second later five explosions ripped through the second building back, followed seconds later by a big secondary explosion.

A least two dozen armed figures emerged from a burning building at the high school, only to be picked off by other men behind the small assault team. With the upper hand clearly gained, a whistle blew from the west side of the highway and over fifty men emerged from around the church, other buildings, and the wood line. They moved forward rapidly, but laid down suppression fire. At the same time those at the tracks spread out and concentrated on targeting muzzle flashes.

Liam clamped his hands deep into the dirt and made his body as rigid and still as he could as a few of the men in the school opened up on full auto-fire, sending bullets spraying into the area Liam was hiding in, but they were cut down by the team at the railroad tracks with deadly efficiency.

Liam figured his luck was going to last when, suddenly and unexpectedly, one of the men advancing on the school tripped over him. Two others, who heard the man shout out and saw him fall, figured he had been hit and moved to help. Even as Liam tried to scramble away he was grabbed, secured and pushed down.

One of the men cupped a hand over Liam's mouth even as he fell forward and put his weight on the thrashing boy, "Kid, shut up and stay still! You are making both of us a target!"

The man who had tripped over Liam sat up and clutched at his badly twisted ankle, "What the hell?"

The second man who moved to help bolted the last few feet and tackled the young man with the twisted ankle down. Damn-it, stay prone, Private Shad! Your silhouette will stick out with the fire blazing across the road!"

He then turned to look at the man lying on top of Liam, "Keep him safe, Specialist."

The guy on top of Liam nodded, "I got him Sarge, but he's a strong little bastard!"

"Kid, we don't have time for this shit. Now stop fighting Specialist Lancer before you get you or him shot!"

The sergeant dragged the young private over to the raised berm of the tracks to get both some cover, then tuned to scan the area to the east with his rifle. He nodded as he saw his men securing the buildings. "Just stay put and don't let the kid move, Lancer. Once we secure the area, we'll get him to safety."

Twenty minutes went by agonizingly slowly. The weight of the man pinning Liam to the ground was pressing into the splinters on his side and his right leg was starting to cramp. He had been through way worse as an Infiltrator in Training, though so he forced calming thoughts and dealt with it.

Finally a woman moved up, "Got wounded?"

The sergeant pointed at Shad, "Ankle." The sergeant stayed in a crouch, but moved over to Liam, and motioned for Lancer to get off the boy. It was then he noticed the .22, "Yours?"

Liam nodded even as his right hand reached around to his left side and he flexed his right leg.

The sergeant grabbed the small rifle and gave it a once over. "Pretty good shape for as old as it is. I assume, if I give this back, you won't go shooting it at me or my men?"

Liam let out a long breath, just happy to hear he would be getting his only firearm back, "No, sir." He then decided to stick with what Donnie had said, "It's my rabbit rifle."

"Any good with it?"

Liam winced as he rubbed his side, "Very good."

The sergeant nodded and grinned in satisfaction even as he turned back to the female combat medic. "Corporal Goldman, if Shad can wait, take a look at this kid's side, would you?"

The woman turned and slid over. She lifted the shirt up and winced, "Damn, how come you aren't crying with that in your side!"

"It just hurts..."

"Hurts, nothing!" She turned back to Sergeant Bonner, "I need to get him in a tent and really work on this! He's got at least a three inch chunk of wood in his side and it looks like it is getting a bit nasty."

Bonner turned to Lancer, "Carry him..."

"I can walk!"

Both Bonner and Lancer exchanged smirks while Goldman ruffled his hair, "Tough kid, I like that. Stay at a crouch, then and follow Corporal Lancer. I'll get you patched up as soon as I take care of Shad's ankle."

Twelve hours later, with a shower, two hot meals, and eight hours of sleep in him, Liam woke with a jerk. He calmed at finding he had been given a cot close to the stove in the tent and was being well taken care of by Bryce supporting troops yet again. Seeing he was awake, one of the other medics handed him a large bottle with a green sports drink, "We've only seen you pee once in twelve hours, so you need to drink that. Dehydration isn't something you need when recovering from the injuries you have."

Sergeant Bonner finished getting his own arm wrapped from a grazing bullet wound and nodded, "He's right kid, Drink up." He then moved up to Liam, "How you feeling?"

"Way better," Liam admitted while smiling to hide the aggravation and confusion he felt over getting help from people who were supposed to be the enemy of Ashwood.

"Good, so mind telling me what you were doing out in the middle of the front lines?"

"Really wasn't where I wanted to be. I am trying to get back to Natchitoches... My grandma lives there..."

"Natchitoches is in Ashwood's hands but it is being heavily fought over as of last report. It's not somewhere you should be going. Where's home?"

Knowing what had happened to California and remembering some of the heavy bomb damage he had seen in Hemphill, he quickly came up with a good cover, "San Francisco, but we were coming to see Grandma when we heard about the earthquake, then the war started. Dad decided to sit tight, so we were camping at Toledo Bend. We went into Hemphill to try to get some extra supplies, but I think it got bombed. I woke up by our burned up RV... Grandma's place is the only place I know to go!"

Bonner let out a long sigh, "So you have been on your own since then?"

"Pretty much. A family helped me a few days ago... they gave me some food and got me across the river in a row boat... They said Highway 71 was where the fighting was, so I didn't think..."

"That is the basic front line but it moves several miles either side, sometimes back and forth in a matter of hours... Look, kid, your right side is infected and you need a couple of days' rest. I'd keep you with us, but we took our objective, and are moving on another target this afternoon, and I'm not about to take a kid, especially an injured one, that close to frontline combat. We can spare a round of antibiotics for you, but you need a place to rest and recover and Natchitoches ain't it. Is there anywhere else you can go?"

Liam looked at the bandage on his side, noticing as he did so, it was oozing and looked a little pussy. After few seconds he sighed, "The family who helped me gave me an address in Mansfield they said I could go to..."

"Mansfield is real close to the front, but we've kept it the whole time and have fortified the east edge... Why don't we get you up there and see if this person will take you in?"

Liam let out a long sigh. This was not what the AoG would want or expect from him, but he was hurt, his side infected, he was out of supplies, and he needed a place to rethink and evaluate how he was going to make it all the way to Alabama through a massive war on his own. "I guess..."

To Be Continued

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