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Ardell shook his head. "You guys go and have fun, you deserve it. But I have a bunch of paperwork I still need to get done here."
With a final nod, the Haden and Barrett both said their goodbyes before walking out of the office.
Once his office was empty, Ardell let out a sigh as he sat back in his chair. "I don't know KLAUS, do you think we did the right thing?"
<<Right thing with what?>>
"The whole reforming of the Clas Totus and all," Ardell replied. "The dynamics of the time look like they are going to end up being considerably different from the past. So the big question is, did we make the right choice to try to reform it?"
Several seconds went by before KLAUS replied. <<I don't know.>>
Lyhte watched patiently as Brook shimmied his way around one of the more difficult corners in the pitch black air ducts. "Not bad, not bad at all, especially for a human." he squeaked.
"Thanks," Brook groaned as he tiredly shifted his weight around. "I guess being so skinny might have it's advantages after all. This would probably be a lot more fun if it weren't so late."
Lyhte sized up the ten-year-old cy-clone boy with admiration. When they had first met two days ago, he was one of the quieter clone kids. But over the last twenty-four hours he had taken a strong interest in the ferrets, more so than any of the other kids. Truth be told, Lyhte as well as others in his flock were starting to like Brook especially when he was willing to wake up for the late night training sessions that the ferrets usually take part in.
"I'm just glad I decided to accept these special glasses from Daileass after all," Brook commented as he propped himself up a few inches away from Lyhte. "I think it's really cool how well you guys can see in the dark."
"It has it's good points," Lyhte agreed, "But it also has it's bad points as well."
"Like what?" Brook asked.
Before Lyhte could answer, he made an odd clicking sound and held his finger to his mouth. After a few more seconds, he clicked a few more times before he looked toward Brook. "Okay, training is over for tonight, Lyhte must go back to bed now."
"Why? What's wrong?" Brook asked with concern. Just a few seconds ago, he would have gladly taken the opportunity to go back to bed, but something in the ferret's squeaky voice suggested that bed would be the last place he would want to go.
"Lyhte must go help Sparky and the others in my group to do what ferrets do best." Lyhte replied.
"Can I help? You said I was an honorary Ferret now. I even woke up so I could do training with you." Brook pleaded.
"That you did," Lythe shook his head, and make a few clicking sounds with his mouth. "But... no, no, no. This is nothing for..." his voice trailed off as he seemed to be listening to someone else. "Actually, maybe you can. Maybe this will be a good training exercise for you. Maybe you can get a better idea of what ferrets do best."
"Really?" Brook asked with surprise. "Cool!"
"We will need to go ask Eric first. He's your peer, right?" Lyhte asked.
"My peer? You mean the one in charge of the rest of the cyclones?" Brook asked and waited until he saw Lyhte nodded, "I guess."
"Absolutely not!" Eric exclaimed loudly as he looked at Brook with a mixture of shock and surprise.
"But why not?" Brook pleaded. "You said we should try to learn everything we can about the ferrets, right?
Eric looked toward Lance, who was standing only a few feet away, for some degree of support. Lance, for his part, still looked like he was mostly asleep. With no support being offered, he continued. "Learning about ferrets is one thing. Going out and being put in harms way while they are doing a mission is something completely different. Especially at 3 o'clock in the morning."
"Buy why? I'm already awake, and we would still be learning about them, right?" Brook challenged.
"Let's talk about this more tomorrow, okay?" Eric asked hopefully. Seeing that Brook would have nothing of it, he continued, "Learning about someone is kinda useless if you get killed in the process, don't you think?"
"Oh, he won't be harmed at all, Mr. Eric," Lyhte stated as he took a step forward. "Nope, nope, nope. Not a paw will be laid on him."
Eric's focus shifted from Brook to the short ferret as he struggled to figure out the best way to reply. Fortunately, Lance decided to help out a bit.
"Lyhte? Overlooking the fact that it is really late, and most humans sleep at night, you understand that Brook and the rest of his brothers do not have the same training as you and your brothers, right?" Lance asked seriously.
"Oh yes," Lyhte replied enthusiastically. "We are very much aware of this. That's exactly why he would be an essential part to our plan."
Eric sighed as Lance frowned. "Okay, this I have to hear," Lance continued. "How exactly can Brook be such an important part to your plan knowing he has no training?"
Lyhte looked back and forth in the otherwise empty room. "I will tell you," Lyhte replied in a hushed voice. "However, you must come closer to ensure that the agents of the dull lovers will not hear us."
Lance looked around the room as well. "There is no one else here, so I don't think you have to worry about dull lover agents overhearing you."
"Shiny Daileass is here yet we can not see him, is this not true?" Lyhte asked.
"Well yeah, but that's different," Lance began to say. He then decided that trying to fight this was not worth it and instead moved closer to the small ferret. "Okay fine, now tell us what you had in mind."
Once Eric was close enough to hear as well, Lyhte began to whisper his plan. The entire time he spoke, he was using lots of exaggerated hand motions.
Thirty-seven-year-old Melvin Blair sat between two much younger looking, scantly clad blond haired women as his limo made it's way down Las Vegas Boulevard. All three adults giggled at a comment that Melvin made as he took a sip of wine from a glass that one of the women handed to him. They had just finished a long night of clubbing at the Stratosphere. And now, he was looking forward to chilling out for a little bit at Planet Hollywood before turning in for the night.
Moments after the limo came to a stop in front of the VIP entrance of the hotel, the door was opened allowing for Melvin and his escorts to step out. Given how late it was, one might expect the streets to rather empty. However, in the heart of sin city, this was hardly ever the case as even now, there was a large rustle of people lounging and walking around the outside of one of the higher-end casinos that Las Vegas had to offer.
"Sorry," a deep, scruffy voice from a shadowy figure dressed in a long fancy-looking trench coat called out as he bumped into Melvin. The drink that the man was still holding on nearly ended up all over his shirt.
"Watch it, bud!" Melvin angrily called out once his mind finally registered what had just happened. When he turned around to face the person that had caused him to almost wear his drink, however, there was no one to be seen.
Shaking his head a little, the man shook the whole situation out of his head, and walked through the VIP entrance into the lobby of the hotel.
The long check-in counter, which normally would have at least twenty clerks checking guests in and out during the day, now had a lone middle aged man standing at the closest station. "Yes sir? May I be of service?" he asked as the three adults waddled to the desk.
"Melvin Blair," the man spoke with a slight slur, a clear indication that he had already consumed a good amount of alcohol. "You should have a room reserved for me, under Zorro-Communications?"
The man gave a slight nod and began typing on the computer keyboard that was in front of him. After a few moments, the man's expression turned to one of recognition. "Ah yes, Mr. Blair. Your usual presidential suite has been reserved for you. I'll just need your credit card to put on file."
Melvin scowled before he grudgingly reached into his pocket and presented his corporate credit card. "You would think you guys would keep this on file so you didn't have to ask for it ever time I was here."
The clerk gave a single nod as he began to type once again. "I'm sorry sir. It's the hotel's policy."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Melvin replied as he made no attempt to cover up his annoyance.
After a few more minutes of typing, the Clerk handed back the card. "I'm sorry sir, but there seems to be a problem."
"Huh?" the man replied. "What kind of problem?"
Swinging the monitor around so the man could see it, the clerk pointed to a specific section. "It would appear that the credit card rejected our attempt to place the normal room retainer for your suite."
"Idiots," Melvin replied under his breath. "Look, I'm on the board of directors for Zorro-Communications, I've been here dozens of times before. I have an unrestricted credit limit, so clearly your computers are messing up."
The clerk turned the monitor back around. "I am truly sorry sir, but I ran the numbers three times just to make absolutely sure. Perhaps you have another card?"
"Okay look, I don't need this," Melvin grumbled as he snatched the card from the clerk and pulled out a large wad of $100 bills. He then counted out 5 and placed them on the counter. "That should be enough to cover the retainer." He then counted out 5 more bills and placed them on the pile. "And there is a little extra to stop giving me a hard time."
The clerk smiled and nodded with understanding. "Very good sir. I'm sure this is just a glitch in our system that will be fixed first thing in the morning. I'll arrange to have your belongings taken to your room right away." A few moments later, the clerk handed over a small electronic key card.
Snatching the card, Melvin snorted. "Come on ladies, let's relax for a bit before we go up to the room."
Quickly following the executive, the three walked out of the lobby area and into the main casino area.
Although he planned on relaxing, Melvin also know that it was late enough in the evening that all of the games he had placed bets on earlier would be over, which meant that he was free to go collect his winnings. As such, with his escorts in tow, he made his way to the sports room and walked up to the betting desk.
Taking out his receipt from when he placed his bets, he handed it to the attendant that was standing behind the counter. "I would like to cash these in. You can give me my winnings in $100 and $500 chips."
The attendant ran the receipt through the computer. "I'm sorry sir, but none of the bets you placed were winners."
"What do you mean?" Melvin asked as he felt his blood pressure beginning to rise once again. I know at least three of the races I placed bets on were winners."
The attendant re-ran the piece of paper and shook his head. "I'm sorry sir, but all 8 races were busts. I know it's not my place sir, but when you make long shot bets at 100:1 and 200:1 odds, you should expect to loose a lot."
"What?" Melvin asked in confusion.
"Don't worry, sir. Your players club card has been credited with 10,000 points for the $10,000 in bets that were placed. I'm sure you will do better next time," The attendant replied cheerfully as he handed back the receipt.
"Let me see that," Melvin snatched the paper from the younger attendant. "I didn't place any 200:1 bets, and I sure as hell didn't bet..." The man's voice trailed off as he looked at the sheet in horror. Sure enough, the paper showed that not only had he made the worst possible bets, but in total, he had bet close to $10,000 on them. All of which was charged to his personal account on his credit card."
"What kind of crap is this?" Melvin called out. "I would never have made these crappy bets. Especially not at this amount of money. I demand a refund."
"I'm sorry sir, but once you step away from the table after making your original bets, all bets are locked in and final. There is nothing I can do," the attendant replied as calmly as possible.
"I don't give a fuck what you can or can't do," Melvin began to make a scene. "I want my damn money back, or I will have your damn job."
A few moments later, two men in nice looking business suites walked over. Each of them had small casino security emblems on them. "Is there a problem here?" one of them asked as he looked toward Melvin.
Melvin looked at the men for a few moments as if considering if he felt like taking on the entire security team of the hotel. As he apparently decided against that action, he shook his head. "No problem, I was just leaving."
The two security men nodded, and stood patiently next to the counter as they watched Melvin hastily walk out of the sports room, with his escorts following close behind.
"They just don't understand you," one of the woman stated as she gave Melvin a kiss on the cheek and began to rub her hand down his back.
"They are a bunch of idiots," Melvin shook off the woman's advances. "Honestly, I don't know why I spend so much god damned money here for this kind of treatment."
Deciding that it would be best to cool off by playing a few of the table games, Melvin walked over to the cage, and took 10 of the $100 bills from his large stack of bills to get an equal amount of chips. He then headed over to the roulette table, which he always seemed to have good luck at.
Although he might have had good luck in the past, after ten minutes had gone by, it was clear that he would not have any such luck this evening. Each of the twenty-seven bets he placed lost. At one point he had bet on black six times in a row and the ball landed on red all six times. Out of spite, he bet red six times, and each of those times the ball landed on black. Finally, he bet on both black and red at the same time, and the ball landed on 0, one of only two possible positions that could cause a black/red bet to loose.
With half of his chips gone, Melvin next decided to play a little black-jack. Just like roulette, however, all 8 hands he placed were all losses.
"To hell with this crap," Melvin muttered as he took the few chips he had left and walked over to the poker table. At least this was a game that he had a lot more control over.
Even with his card counting skill working at it's full force, the three hands he played of poker all went against him as well.
With all his chips gone, and determined to at least win something, Melvin growled at the card dealer. "Give me another thousand in chips," he demanded as he reached his hand into his jacket to pull out his large wad of money. To his shock and horror, however, he couldn't feel the expected bills. Instead, the only thing he could find in his pocket was a small shiny button which he quickly threw on the floor.
"Where the fuck is my money?" Melvin demanded as he quickly began to search all his other pockets for the missing cash, "Someone fucking robbed me."
Seeing that it was clear that they were not going to be getting paid tonight, the two woman which had, up to this point, faithfully stood or at at Melvin's side, slowly began to step away from the man.
"Where do you two think you're going?" the man barked, "I'll make sure you get your damned money."
"You can keep your money, hon," one of them replied before they each disappeared into the crowd.
"Damn it," Melvin cried out as he slammed his hand on the table, causing the other players and the dealer to jump. Seeing more security making their way toward the table, he stood up and grudgingly decided it was time to leave for a bit.
As he walked away from the table, Melvin took out his cell phone and pressed a few numbers. "Henry, bring the car around, I'm heading back out."
By the time Melvin made it back to the VIP entrance and walked outside, his white stretched limo was already pulled up to the entrance waiting for him. Although the door to the back was already open, inviting him in; his driver, Henry, was not standing next to it as he normally would. Right now, however, this was one of the least concerns on his mind.
Sitting down in the limo and closing the door himself, Melvin let out a sigh of relief. He had never felt so humiliated by such low-lives in his life. So now, he needed somewhere to go hang out and relax, of which he knew the perfect spot. "Take me to Fremont Street," In a place like that, he was sure there would be plenty of respectable bars and clubs he could hang out at, and possibly find some better escorts.
Within moments, the limo pulled out of the parking lot and began to travel down the strip. Being as late at night as it was, there was very little traffic still on the street, so they made fairly good time.
As they went, Melvin looked out the window at the brightness that was the Las Vegas strip, and the few people that were still out on the streets. "Damn low-lifes," he said to himself. "The world would be such a better place without them mucking things up all the time."
Sitting back in his seat he opened the wet bar, and poured himself another glass of wine. After which, he closed his eyes and slowly began to sip. Because of this, he never noticed that the limo made a few turns that it shouldn't have, and that the lights of the strip were quickly getting left far behind them.
About five minutes later, Melvin opened his eyes back up and looked out the window. Seeing no sign of the strip, or the city itself for that matter, he leaned forward and banged his fist on the glass that separated him from his driver. "Where the hell are you going Henry? I said to take me to Fremont street."
As Melvin did this, initially he could only see the hat and the suit that his driver normally wore. At about that moment, however, two things happened which immediately caused him to freak out more than he had ever freaked out before. First, the realization that his driver was a lot shorter than he should have been. In fact, it almost looked like his driver was having problems seeing over the steering wheel. Second, the driver turned his head toward Melvin. Instead of seeing the face that he expected, a fur filled face of some type of half-human, half-animal creature shot him back a toothy grin.
"Fuck!" Melvin screamed as he fell back onto his seat. With his heart pounding, he immediately grabbed for the door handle, opening the door and literally throwing himself out of the limo while it was still going.
After he stopped rolling, Melvin managed to stand himself up and began to dust himself off. Looking ahead of him, he could see the lights of the limo driving off in the distance, with his door still open.
"What is going on tonight?" he thought to himself as he continued to brush off the dirt and noticed that his clothes were not only filthy, but cut in several places. He also noticed that his right arm and knee were scraped up pretty bad, but between the adrenalin and alcohol, he didn't feel any of the pain.
Whipping out his cell phone, he decided enough was enough, and it was now time to call his old man to see if he knew what was going on. Typing in the numbers and hitting send, he patiently waited for someone to pick up. Instead, he was greeted with an automated message "We're sorry, but your account has been suspended due to lack of payment. To be connected to our automated payment system, please press 1 now."
"This isn't happening," Melvin screamed as he threw the cellphone to the ground and watched in satisfaction as it exploded into a dozen pieces. The satisfaction was short lived, however, as he was now faced with figuring out what to do on his own.
Looking around, he could see that he was in what seemed to be a large abandoned lot a good ways away from the city. Probably on the south side of town. There was nothing at all out here except for a few run down buildings, shrubs, a good amount of trash, and a boy in boxers.
Melvin immediately did a double take. With the moon as bright as it was, he could very clearly see a dark haired boy, no older than nine or ten, standing a few feet away from him, wearing nothing other than a pair of blue and white boxer shorts.
"Melvin Blair?" the boy asked softly.
"Who are you? How do you know my name?" the man demanded as he began to stare down the boy.
"You are on the board of directors for Zorro-Communications, aren't you?" the boy asked.
"Yeah, what of it?" the man challenged. "Who the hell are you?"
"My name is Brook, but that's not important," Brook replied. "I could be anyone. Any child that does not have a mother or father to care for them. Anyone that needs to live in a place such as the orphanages that your company has setup and manages."
"Oh, you're one of those little shits, are you?" an angry look came across the man's face as he lunged for the boy. Just as he did, the boy seemed to vanish in thin-air, causing Melvin to fall flat on his face, empty handed.
"You spend thousands of dollars that you have taken from a company who has been entrusted with the well being of kids," Brook continued from a location behind where the man landed. "And yet, many of those kids are sick or dying from poor living conditions and starvation."
"It's their own damn fault," Melvin growled as he got back to his feet. "Besides, they would die one way or the other. So what's wrong with making a little profit as a result? Isn't that the purpose of every company?"
Brook sighed and slowly shook his head. "How could a man like you be filled with so much anger and rage toward kids?" he asked. "Don't you feel anything at all for what your corporation has done to them?"
A ferrel grin came across the man's face. "Why don't you come here kid, and I'll show you how I feel about little shits like you." The man then lunged for the kid a second time. Just like the first time, however, the kid once again vanished and appeared several feet behind the man.
"In that case, I have a message for you," Brook stated and continued before the man could say anything. "As of tonight, neither you nor anyone else at Zorro-Communications will ever be involved in hurting or exploiting any child ever again."
This time Melvin laughed out loud. "Is that right, kid? And who is going to stop us? You?"
Brook shook his head. "No, I don't have any training yet. But my friends will."
"Oh really?" Melvin replied in amusement. "And who are your friends? More little squirts like yourself?"
Instead of replying, the boy vanished once again. This time, however, he did not reappear anywhere else that the man could see.
"Come back, you little shit," the man called out into the night. "We're not done yet!"
"Oh, you're done with him," a higher pitched voice spoke from somewhere to the left of Melvin. "Now you get to deal with us."
"How does it feel to be as helpless as those that you take advantage of?" another high pitched voice from the man's right spoke out.
"A bunch of girls, huh?" Melvin call out, still feeling slight amused. "Come on out, unless your too scared."
"Your dullness shall never put out the shine of another youngling again," a third high pitched voice called out, just as Melvin could make out a few shadows moving toward him. Slowing turning himself around, he could see at least ten small figures moving toward him in all directions.
"I don't care how many of you little shits there are, I'll take you all on," Melvin cried out, feeling confident that a few little girls would not be able to take him down.
"You got it, buddy," one of the voices called out just as the figures were close enough for Melvin to get a better look at them. In an instant, the man's face turned as white as a ghost as the confident, amused look on his face was replaced with one of sheer terror. Surrounding him were not the 7 or 8 year old girls that he had expected, but instead very strange looking short furry creatures that if he had to guess, almost resembled ferrets.
"This is the part where you're suppose to scream," One of the ferrets grinned as the group of ferrets were less than a foot away from the man.
Less than a mile away, on the outskirts of the city, a small muffled scream could be heard of in the distance echoing through the desert. With the sounds of the city easily drowning out the sound, no one in Las Vegas would ever here that voice again.
By the time everyone started to wake up in the nest the following morning, several of the kids noticed that Brook was already awake, fully dressed, and sitting on one of the couches, surrounded by several of the teddy bears that had been keeping watch over all the boys as they were sleeping.
"Brook?" Lance asked as he walked over to the boy. "What are you doing up so early? You didn't get back until really late."
"Couldn't sleep," Brook replied softly as he looked up toward Lance. "Why are adults so bad sometimes?"
Lance blinked as a few other boys began to gather around them. "What do you mean?"
"Those men did some bad things to their kids, really bad," Brook replied.
"Oh, Brook," Lance sighed as he wrapped the boy in a hug.
"I knew last night would not be a good idea," Eric replied softly as he knelt down next to Lance and Brook. "Not everyone is like the bad men you learned about last night."
"A lot of them were," Brook challenged. "We only dealt with one of the ones that were here, but Lyhte and the others were telling me about a whole bunch more that the other ferrets were going after."
"But still, that was only a small group of them," Lance answered softly while nearly all the clone kids and several of the other kids were now awake and listening to the conversation.
"No it wasn't," Brook replied. "It was over thirty of them."
"There are millions of adults in the world," Lance continued. "Thirty might seem like a lot, but it's still small in comparison. You know Neal, and Rick, right? They aren't bad. Aunt Debby isn't bad, And Lee's dad, Doctor Flatt? He's been good to you guys, right?"
"Yeah, I guess," Brook admitted. "But still, there are some really bad men out there."
"I can't disagree with you there," Lance nodded in agreement as he gave Brook another hug. "But that's why Clan Short exists, to stop the bad men when we find them."
Although this seemed to calm Brook down, and address his immediate concerns, all the kids that had been listening and watching began to ask questions. Many of them became interested in what exactly had gone on yesterday, specifically with the ZCC and all the kids in the orphanages. Lance did his best to try to field questions, but it quickly became clear that this was not something that they were going to get around.
As the questions continued, Brent called Lance and Eric over to the side. "Lance, I know you had reservations about getting into the specifics of the ZCC stuff with everyone, but I don't think we are going to be able to get around giving them all the details."
Lance nodded in agreement. "Yeah. It's not that I don't think they have a right to know what was happening, it's just I was hoping there would be a better time."
"There is almost never a better time to share stuff like this," Hania offered as he walked up to the small group.
"Yeah," Brent agreed. "And at this point, we will only make things worse by not letting them know. The only question I have is will your guys be able to handle it?" Brent finished by looking toward Eric.
Eric thought for a few moments. "We've come a long way over the last two weeks. I think some of the guys will struggle with it, and we may have to explain things in simpler terms, but yeah, I think they will be able to handle it."
"The only thing I would suggest is that we consider waiting until after breakfast," Hania added. "It's already past eight. Who knows how long this will take."
Brent nodded in agreement. "Yeah, good point. Okay, let's get everyone dressed and down to the event center for breakfast. Then after breakfast, we'll go over all the orphanage stuff that happened yesterday, and try to help everyone understand as best as we can."
Lance, Eric, and Hania all nodded in agreement. With that, the decision was made. Although many in the room didn't like the idea of not being told everything yet, the thing that made the slight delay acceptable was the fact that food would be involved. With that, the nest was picked up and put away as everyone got dressed and headed out toward the event center.
Breakfast that morning went more or less as good as could be expected. There was an overall somber mood which Neal and several of the other adults were able to pick up on pretty quickly. Once Brent explained the reason behind it, both Neal and Rick were completely understanding. Although they offered to be there if anyone thought it would help, both adults decided that it would probably help if they let Brent run things as he had planned.
Over the course of Breakfast, there was a lot of hushed whispering between many of the kids, no doubt discussing the bits and pieces of speculation that they had heard. Fortunately, the allure of food helped to prevent any major issues from breaking out. Once breakfast was over, everyone made their way back to the common room on the first floor of quad building 2, which had become the official meeting and nesting spot.
Over the next two hours, Brent and Lance along with help from Eric, Hania, and a few others started to go through all the information that they had learned about the California orphanages that ZCC had under management. It wasn't the explanation of what happened that took the longest, however. It was when the discussion came to 'why' which took the longest. The street kids that had been rescued on monday, along with the new arrivals that had trickled in over Tuesday and Wednesday didn't have all that much problems with understanding. The main issues were with the 30+ cyclones. After all, how do you explain to a group of kids most of whom were less than 6 months old, and all of whom, at least up to two weeks ago, had for the most part been kept medically sedated?
The big surprise of the morning was Kenny Meyers, the younger brother of Steve Meyers who had been a key witness in the Farthing trial earlier that week. After Brent and the others had spent nearly an hour going in circles trying their best to help the clone kids try to understand why things happened the way they did, and how that doesn't mean that all kids are treated like that, it was Kenny along with his quickly developing empathic skills who was able to step in and help bridge the gap between how the older boys were trying to explain things, and how many of the clone kids were feeling, and some of the pieces they were missing.
In the end, the entire experience seemed to work out for the best. Not only did all of the clone kids get to learn things that very few text books or computer tutoring programs could ever teach, but many of the street kids got a chance to talk about how they had each had both good and bad adults in their lives, and the impact that made on them. Later in the morning, both Neal and Rick stopped by to check on everyone. They were rather surprised to just how much the clone and street kids seemed to have managed to bond together just over the last few hours.
The rest of the day was surprisingly uneventful, at least in terms of Clan standards. After a brief cookie snack, courtesy of some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from Aunt Debby, they finally managed to get into what was originally planned for yesterday, which was the school placement tests.
As had been expected, many of the street kids were not that enthusiastic at first. However, once Lance took a few minutes to explain how schooling in the clan was different from the type of public schooling most of them were use to, and how the tests were mainly designed to get an idea of where their strengths and weaknesses were at in terms of core curriculum, as well as to help determine the type of environment that would work best for each individual, the level of apprehension quickly diminished. The part that excited them the most, however, was the fact that regardless of how they scored in the tests, depending on the subjects they were interested in learning about, they would end up going to various other Clan facilities around the world to learn about them. For example, those who were interested in learning music would probably be taking some classes over at the Pacific Rimm Division over in the Hawaiian Islands, while those interested in electronics or advanced computing would most likely take some classes at the Clan's A.I. Division in South Carolina.
It took about three hours before the first group of kids finished their tests. This consisted of an hour before lunch, and another two hours after. Since everyone was working at different speeds, it was decided that after the tests, they would have free time until dinner.
To everyone's surprise, Forth and Stan were not only among the first clone kids to finish their tests, but were among the first overall. After being assured by Icarus that both boys not only put in a good amount of effort on the questions, but also scored rather well in most of the tested areas, they were allowed to run of and do whatever they wanted to until dinner. Of course, one of the first things they decided to research further was the various activities of the ferrets, since they were both intrigued by the involvement the ferrets had in the ZCC events they had learned about earlier that morning.
Over the course of the next hour, all the rest of the kids managed to finish up their placement tests, and were off to do whatever they wanted until dinner. Groups quickly formed for all kinds of different activities from playing soccer outside, to playing video game inside. Most, however, took this opportunity to check out the large indoor pool and water play areas.
"Haden, wake up," Barrett whispered as he gently shook Haden's shoulder.
"Go away Evan, I'm tired," Haden mumbled.
"I'm not Evan," Barrett smiled, "I'm Barrett, and you need to wake up."
"Huh, what?" Haden asked sleepily as he cracked open an eye. "Barrett? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Barrett answered. "It's time to start training, remember?"
"Already? What time is it?" Haden asked as he became more awake.
Barrett shrugged. "It's 22 hundred hours Central time, surface timezones always mess me up, so I don't know what time it is suppose to be here."
"1:00am?" Haden asked with a sigh as he glanced at the clock. "Alright, give me a moment to get dressed."
As he carefully crawled out of bed, he glanced over to the bed on the other side of the room where his older brother Evan was peacefully sleeping. Haden had hoped to be able to spend a bit more time with Evan, but it seemed that their sleep schedules were getting further and further apart.
"What's wrong?" Barrett whispered, seeing Haden staring at the other bed.
Haden shook his head. "Nothing, I was just thinking about how I was hoping the two of us would get to spend some more time with Evan."
Wanting to get to know his new bigger brother as well, Barrett nodded in agreement. "Maybe after we get done with training we can?"
"That would be cool," Haden agreed as he slipped on his GEAR wristband. "Alright, I'm ready."
Barrett nodded. "KLAUS? Go ahead and grab us as soon as your ready."
<<I'm always ready, you should know that by now.>> Klaus's voice spoke though Barrett's sub-vocal.
Moments later, Haden and Barrett were whisked away to begin their first full day of training with the new task force that had been assembled, leaving behind behind a single eleven-year-old that was peacefully snoozing away the night in the Russian dorm room that Haden and Evan had called home over the last few days that they had been staying there.
Stan was sitting on his bed with his bear Rocky while Forth was pacing back and forth between the two beds, with his own bear, Fifth, following close behind him.
"Hey Icarus? How long until dinner?" Forth asked impatiently.
Icarus's voice giggled through the speakers. "About 45 seconds since the last time you asked."
Forth sighed. "Anything new on the ferrets?"
"Hold on, let me check my back buffers for the last 60 seconds.... oh, now this is a surprise," Icarus replied.
Forth froze in his tracks and looked toward the terminal. "What? You found something?"
"Nope," Icarus answered, "Believe it or not, there is no new information at all on any ferret operations since you asked a minute ago."
"Oh," Forth deflated.
"That was mean, Icarus," Stan scolded, "Don't worry Forth, I'm sure we will hear something soon."
"Hey guys," Daileass's voice came over the terminal speakers, "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
"Daileass!" Stan called out. "Will you tell Icarus to stop being mean and teasing Forth?"
"What? I was just having a little fun. Forth has asked me the same two questions six times in a row with only 60 to 90 seconds delay between them." Icarus challenged.
Daileass sighed. "I'll talk to him about it, but you guys need to remember Icarus is still less than two days old."
"Hey!" Icarus protested.
"Anyway," Daileass continued. "Since I'm pretty sure Icarus wasn't going to mention it, I figured I would let you guys know that there are more operations going on with the clan besides the ferrets."
"There are?" Both Forth and Stan perked up.
"Absolutely," Daileass replied. "The UNIT alone almost always has several operations going on."
"No they don't," Forth replied. "If they were going on an operation, we would hear those red alert sounds."
"That's just for the UNIT guys you have here in Nevada. There are thousands of people in the UNIT all across the world right now. Not only that, but several of the clan divisions have people that go out on rescues on their own as well," Daileass replied.
"Really, like what?" Forth asked as Stan jumped down from his bed to walk toward the terminal and Forth.
"Well, just as an example, there is a big rescue operation that the Dutchmen are getting ready to go on in Michigan," Daileass answered.
"Can we watch?" both boys asked in unison.
There was a brief delay before Daileass replied. "If you guys are really interested, I can let you watch some of the feeds. However, given some of the... unique... talents of some of the Dutchmen, there may be some feeds that may not be that appropriate for you guys to watch, and will be blocked."
"Cool!" Stan called out as he began to pull a second chair over to the terminal.
Forth got a panicked look on his face. "Hold on, I need to go get something." With that, Forth ran like lightning out of the room with Fifth doing his best to follow behind him.
Stan shrugged and turned back to the terminal. "Okay, so where are the feeds?"
"Hold on, Stan, the operation hasn't technically started yet, so I don't have many feeds for you yet," Daileass replied.
About three minutes later, Forth ran back into the room with a freshly popped bag of popcorn. "Okay, I'm ready!"
Stan grinned as he looked back at Forth.
Shortly after Forth had sat down at the computer terminal with his bag of popcorn, the terminal came to live showing the overhead view of a few houses that were facing toward an ocean or some other large body of water.
"Is this Ewa beach where we heard that cool concert Tuesday night?" Forth asked.
"Not exactly," Daileass replied. "This is actually in a city called St. Joseph in Michigan. It's in the Northeast part of the United States. The large body of water is one of the great lakes. Keep an eye those small specks in the distance, they will be important."
"Those look like boats off in the distance, and things above them... are they birds?" Stan observed.
"They are not birds," Daileass replied. "Sorry for the bad camera shot. Once things get moving in a few moments, I should have some better views."
"Some people call them birds," Icarus piped in as the small specs started to move toward the coastline.
"Helicopters!" Forth and Stan called out at the same time.
Just as one of the lead helicopters was about to reach the beach, a large group of kids appeared on the beach. Within moments, the group began to run toward the closest house.
"Those look like our helicopters," Forth observed as he ate some more popcorn.
"They are very similar to the ones stationed at your base," Daileass admitted.
Shortly after the group began to run, the camera angle changed to a better view of the group as they were easily jumping over the wall in front of the house. At that point, the group seemed to split into three smaller groups. One group remained close to the wall they jumped over while another group ran toward the front door of the house, and the third disappeared behind the back.
"Look, they have ferrets with them," Stan squealed as he pointed at two of the kids from the group that stayed behind."
"Those aren't ferrets," Forth corrected. "They are way too big to be ferrets. They look more like.. I don't know... maybe squirrel?"
"I don't think Ricky and Rocky would appreciate being called squirrels," Daileass giggled as the helicopters could be seen taking positions to encircle the house. "They are actually raccoon hybrids."
"Oh," Forth and Stan both replied as the screen split in two to give a better view of the front and the back of the house. The split occurred just in time to see both groups break down the doors at almost the same time and start rushing into the house."
"Okay, now this should be interesting," Daileass commented while both boys were still busy watching the action on the two halves of the screen. While the camera that was showing the back of the house followed that group inside, the camera that was in the front of the house backed out to show the group that was still outside. As soon as the outside group was in view, a majority of the group split off running in two different directions toward the houses on each side of the house that they were in front of.
"Why are they leaving?" Forth asked. "Is it over already?"
"Not quite," Daileass replied. The operation has just been expanded. The houses on each side of this house are going to need to be investigated as well. Once Daileass finished speaking, the camera view split into 4 views. One view was showing what was going on inside the original house. Another zoomed out to show the outside of the first house along with a bunch of police cars pulling up. The other two showed the two groups that split off to go to each of the houses on the side of the main house.
"Oh," Forth commented as his eyes bounced from one camera view to the other. "Whoa, are those two floating?" He pointed to the first view where two adults seemed to be floating up and out of a trap door that had been found in the floor.
Daileass giggled. "Yeah, it really helps when you bring telekinetics along, doesn't it?"
"Huh?" Forth asked absently as he continued to try to keep track of all the action. As both he and Stan continued to try to keep up with the action, one of the feeds went black, and the screen adjusted to just show three views.
"What happened to that feed that had that lady and the three kids around her?" Stan asked with a slight pout.
"Something must have messed up with the feed," Daileass offered. I doubt anything of interest was going to be going on from that house anyway. The lady and the three kids you saw should be heading over to the main house."
"Oh, okay," Stan replied just as Forth nearly jumped out of his chair.
"Holy crap," Forth pointed to the screen of the main house where a bunch of kids were coming down the stairs. "Daileass, what is Richie doing there?"
Daileass was quiet for several moments before answering. "Um, that's not Richie."
Stan leaned closer to the screen. "That sure looks like the same Richie that was playing with us earlier."
There was another brief delay in Daileass's reply as the camera briefly zoomed in on the boy that very clearly appeared to Richie. "That's because he is actually Richie's twin."
"Twin?" Both Forth and Stan stated at the same time. "Oh wow, we need to let Richie know."
"That sounds like a good idea," Daileass agreed.
Richie and Carrol were standing outside near the smaller soccer field talking and comparing notes with Leroy and Herbert as each couple watched their respective sons play soccer with several of the other younger kids. Hania was doing his best to play referee between the two make-shift teams.
Even though they had come from completely different backgrounds, and had been brought up in totally different environments, the four older boys were surprised at just how much they had in common. From Leroy and Herbert's perspective, they were surprised at how, although they had only technically adopted Dwight a day before Richie and Carrol adopted Terrence, they already had acquired a good amount of advice to offer to the other boys.
Although they appreciated the advice, Richie and Carrol, on the other hand, were more reassured by the fact that two other boys who were about their same age were in the same situation that they were in. Although Brent, Lance, and the other kids that seemed to be in charge around here did a good job at reassuring them that it was fine for them to become Terrence's parents, until they had a chance to meet and get to know Leroy and Herbert a bit better, they were still feeling mildly uncomfortable about it.
Seeing movement from the corner of his eye, Richie managed to turn just in time to catch a leaping Terrence. "Richie," the boy squealed, "I almost made a goal!"
"I saw that, you were doing pretty good out there," Richie agreed. "So how come you are not out there playing?"
"I'm taking a break," Terrence replied. "My legs were getting tired, and Hania said that since I wasn't use to sports, that I needed to take breaks more."
"That sounds like good advice," Leroy added which caused Terrence to beam. "In fact, I should probably go grab Dwight and see if he's ready for a break as well. We'll catch up later, man," Leroy stated toward Richie and Carrol as he and Herbert walked away.
"So where are your legs hurting, big guy?" Richie asked as he turned his focus back toward Terrence.
Terrence leaned over and pointed toward his calves. "Down there,"
Carrol nodded as both he and Richie could see where the boy was pointing. "Sounds like we will need to make sure you get a nice warm bath tonight."
Terrence smiled as he wrapped his arms around Richie, making it very obvious that he was not use to getting so much attention.
"Forth to Richie," Richie's comm badge went off surprising both Richie and Terrence.
It took Richie a moment to remember who Forth was. With so many kids here, it was hard for him to keep track of them all. "This is Richie, what's up Forth?"
"Um, hi... I hope I wasn't interrupting anything really important or anything but umm... Stan and I were just here watching this clan operation happening on the video feed that Daileass is showing us and... well... I think you really need to come to our quad and see this for yourself." Forth babbled.
"What's wrong?" Richie asked.
"It's nothing really bad, at least I don't think it's bad, actually I think it's kinda cool, or maybe it's not cool depending on what happens or maybe... well... I don't know... I just think you should see this," Forth continued.
Richie looked toward Carrol who didn't seem to have an explanation either. "Okay, I'll be right there. Which dorm are you in?"
"125," Forth replied before comm link went dead.
"I guess should go check this out," Richie stated as he handed Terrence off to Carrol.
"You want us to come too?" Carrol asked.
"Nah, he probably just wants to show me his pet mouse or something," Richie replied as he ruffled Terrence's hair and began to jog toward the quads.
When Richie reached the correct room, he found that the door was already cracked open. Knocking on it as he opened it further, he looked inside. "Forth?"
"In here," Forth hurriedly waved Richie in toward the terminal that he and Stan were sitting in front of.
"Okay, so what did you need me to see? It sounded like it was real important?" Richie asked as he looked at the terminal and saw what appeared to be a bunch of kids gathered in the living room area of a house. One of the kids appeared to be reciting a long list of crimes.
"Over there on the other side of the room," Forth tried to point. "Daileass, can you get a better angle of Ronnie?"
Without a word from Daileass, the angle shifted. As it did, Richie gasped as he saw another boy that was a virtual mirror image of himself. "Whoa, that guy looks like me."
"Yeah," Forth agreed. "Daileass thinks he might be your twin,"
Richie shook his head, "Can't be. I don't have any other brothers, let alone twins."
"Richie is right," Daileass agreed. "Ronnie is not his twin."
Forth glared toward the terminal. "But Daileass, you told me he was! Why did you lie to me like that?"
"After checking into things a little further, I have determined that they are not twins but triplets. Here is a picture of Ralphie who is currently staying at one of the clan Pacific Rim bases on Ewa Beach," Daileass stated as part of the screen displayed an image of a third boy who looked similar to both Richie and Ronnie.
"Triplets?" Forth and Stan replied together.
"That's not possible either," Richie called out with a gasp. "Daileass, there has to be some mistake here. I lived with Pat my whole life, and until Carrol moved in with us when I was six, I never had any other brothers."
"I know it sounds hard to believe, Richie, but so far everything that we are looking at seems to confirm it," Daileass replied. "The operation that Forth and Stan were watching involved, among other things, a baby-snatching ring. We believe that you and your brothers may have been separated at birth and sold off to different buyers."
"No," Richie replied as he shook his head and slowly backed up to the door.
"What's wrong?" Forth asked as he saw the concerned look on Richie's face. "Aren't you glad that you have more brothers?"
"You don't understand," Richie mumbled, "I can't have other brothers." With a final glance toward the terminal, Richie ran out of the room and down the hall.
"Richie?" Forth asked as he put the empty popcorn bowl down and stood up as if to chase after the older boy.
"It's okay, Forth," Daileass jumped in. "Let him go. I think this caught Richie by surprise, and he's going to need a little bit to work things out."
"Oh," Forth replied as he sat down on the chair and looked back toward the terminal.
Carrol stepped into the large auditorium in the event center and saw Richie right where Daileass told him that he would be, in the center of the far back row.
Richie briefly glanced at Carrol as he sat down in the seat next to him. Neither boy said anything for several minutes.
"Daileass told me what happened," Carrol stated breaking the silence. "You wanna talk about it?"
Richie glanced at his best friend. "What's there to talk about?"
Carrol shrugged, "Donno, I figured you would be happy."
Richie shot Carrol another glare. "You out of all people should know why this can't be."
Carrol thought to himself for a few moments before a look of realization came across his face. "This isn't because of that imaginary friend thing, is it? Richie, that was four years ago."
"You weren't the one that Pat forced into counseling for six months," Richie sighed. "Do you know what that can do to an eight-year-old? And now four years later to learn that maybe I wasn't as messed up as everyone thought I was?"
Carrol starred into space for a few moments. "I think I remember that. You were convinced that you had another brother or something, kind of like..."
"a twin?" both boys said at the same time.
Richie nodded. "Yeah, I was sure with my whole heart that I had a twin out there somewhere, and that sometimes we would talk with each other. I'm pretty sure I even had dreams about him sometimes, but they never really made sense since he was always in different places."
"But if you were actually triplets, and you were dreaming of two different brothers?" Carrol asked.
"I don't really know anymore," Richie replied with a sigh, "It was back when I was a little kid. And since I had to go through all those sessions with the shrink, I stopped having those dreams."
"Well, now that you know it might have been real, shouldn't you be excited?" Carrol asked.
Richie shrugged his shoulders. "I still don't think you understand."
"How can I if you don't tell me?" Carrol replied seriously.
Richie replied silent for several moments before he replied. "It's kinda silly," he began, "But you see, something that I never really told anyone is that the brothers that I dreamed about accepted me for who I was, and actually liked me..."
"You think they might not like you?" Carrol asked as he started to understand what Richie's real fear was.
Richie shrugged again. "Other than you and maybe one or two others, I've never really had much luck with other kids my age. Why would this be any different?"
"Isn't that the same question we asked ourselves when the clan accepted us for who we were?" Carrol replied.
"Yeah, but that's different," Richie stated.
"How?" Carrol challenged.
"It just is," Richie replied forcefully.
"But how will you know for sure until you try?" Carrol made sure he was making eye contact with his best friend. "Daileass said it's your choice if we make contact with them. But if you want my opinion, I think you will never be able to forgive yourself if you don't."
Richie sat there for several minutes without replying.
"Come on," Carrol said finally as he stood up. "I'll be right there with you."
Richie knew Carrol was right. If he didn't find out for sure, he would never be able to forgive himself. It was time to bring things to a close once and for all, to see if he really did have brothers out there who were not only his brother, but who would also accept him for who he was. "Okay, let's do it."
Together, Richie and Carrol made their way out of the auditorium and toward the administration building.
By the time Richie and Carrol stopped out of the event center, the sun had already gone down and the small lights that illuminated the sides of the walkways have turned on. "Man, I had no clue how late it was," Richie commented.
"That's cool, you had a lot to work though," Carrol commented as he pulled open the admin building door for Richie.
"I guess," Richie replied before a sudden realization hit him, "Whoa, have you seen Terrence? I hope he didn't miss dinner."
As if to answer his question, as soon as the two boys stepped into the lobby area, a running ball of terror began to make a bee-line toward them. "Richie!" he squealed as he leaped through the air only to be caught in Richie's arms.
"Hey buddy, what are you doing here?" Richie asked with surprise.
Terrence pointed toward the other side of the room where a group of younger kids were standing. "Dwight and I came with Forth and Stan. They were sharing some of their popcorn with us."
"Popcorn, eh? Did you have dinner yet?" Carrol asked, fearing the worst.
Terrence bobbed, "Uh-huh. I had hot dogs and fries with Dwight."
Both Richie and Carrol let out small sighs of relief. "That's good," Carrol smiled.
"How ya doing?" Lance asked as he walked up to the group.
Richie looked down. "Sorry about acting like a baby earlier."
"Hey, don't worry about it. You had a lot on your mind that you needed some time to work though," Lance replied causing Richie to hesitantly nod. "Just to let you know, both of your brothers are in Ewa Beach right now. They are both interested in meeting you, but the final decision needs to be yours. We can easily push this off for another day or two if you need more time."
Richie shook his head. "Nah, this is something I need to do. Trying to put it off is just going to make things worse."
Lance nodded. "Okay, then when you are ready, Icarus can teleport you over."
"Would you like Terrence and I to tag along?" Carrol asked seriously.
Richie seemed to seriously consider the question for a few moments before he again shook his head. "Actually, I think this is something I really need to do on my own."
Carrol nodded in agreement as he took Terrence into his arms. "That's cool. I'm sure things will go great, you'll see."
Richie absently nodded.
"Ewa beach has quads setup almost exactly the same as we do here. That's where Icarus will be teleporting you to," Lance continued, "You will find Ronnie and Ralphie in room 2126,"
"And if you have any problems finding it, you can just ask me," A new voice stated over the room's speakers.
Richie as well as several other of the kids in the room looked toward the ceiling in surprise at hearing the new voice. "Okay, that doesn't sound like Icarus or Daileass," Carrol commented.
"Of course not, that's because I'm Alden," the new voice replied. "I'm the A.I. for the Pacific Rim division. Don't worry, I'm sure we will get to be great friends while you are over here."
"Alden may not be as cool as me, but I'm sure you will like him just the same," Icarus commented.
"Keep on dream'n Icky boy," Alden replied.
Richie shook his head not really sure how to take this. "Okay, I think I'm ready to go before this get's any crazier."
"Good luck!" Carrol called out just as Richie vanished. "I hope things go well for him."
"Don't worry, Carrol, I think things are going to go a lot better for Richie than he thinks," Daileass replied.
"Cool," Carrol sighed as he gave Terrence another hug.
Haden stood under the hot shower, with the misters to full, for nearly ten minutes. Now that he was getting a better idea of how the KLAUS showers worked, he was amazed at just how configurable they were. After spending a few more minutes experimenting with the controls, he found what he felt was the perfect setting that made both his body and mind feel surprisingly relaxed. And, after working with his new strike team all day, or task force as they called it in KLAUS society, he was more than ready to relax. It wasn't as much as the physical elements of the training, since his time on the UNIT's training planet had helped him get his body built up enough to handle a lot of physical stress, at least as much as his small frame and stature could handle. Instead, it was more the mental aspects.
If Haden didn't know any better, he would have swore that the special self-contained operation centers that they had here were specially designed for him, personally. The real-time multi-theater Command and Control support that it provided was unlike anything he had ever seen before. What he had at one point tried and failed to accomplish with his eight terminal screen rig-up in the final portions of his command training on the training planet, he was not only easily able to accomplish here, but far surpass it. Almost any conceivable piece of information, visual feed, trigger point, or other conditional monitoring or swapping he could possibly want, he was able to setup in the spherical environment that the operation center provided. Of course, this meant that his mental processing and tracking was also being stressed in ways he had never experienced before.
Normally, this alone would not have been as much of an issue. But after spending several hours running through simulation after simulation, especially with some of the scenarios that KLAUS was coming up with, his head felt like mush. Thus the reason he had just been standing under the shower for the last ten minutes.
Figuring that if he didn't finish up soon, Barrett was liable to come in looking for him, Haden reluctantly grabbed the soap and began lathering up his entire body. After spending another five minutes rinsing off, he grudgingly reached up and flipped the shower controls to stop the mists of water.
A few minuets later, with his towel wrapped around him, Haden stepped out of the bathroom and into Barrett's bedroom, only to find Barrett sitting at the computer terminal, checking his mail.
"You survived?" Barrett asked with a grin as he glanced back at his twin. "I was just about to ask KLAUS to scan the bathroom to make sure you were alright."
Half expecting a comment like that, Haden smirked. "Yeah. Now that I figured it out a bit more, that shower has to be one of the awesomest showers I've ever used. We really need to get those at the UNIT bases sometime.
Barrett shrugged. "I don't really think there is anything that special about them. We've had them for like, forever."
<<Barrett is correct. There is nothing classified about the technology of the basic design. To be honest, I'm surprised something similar has not been developed yet, as main stream society had something very similar pre-fall.>>
"Cool," Haden replied as he looked around the room. "Erm... Barrett? Would you mind if I barrowed some of your clothes again?"
"Sure," Barrett answered as he read through another of his mail messages.
<<Actually, I took the liberty of re-arranging Barrett's clothes a little. You will now find that the top drawer of the dresser to your right has some of your own clothes, Haden.>>
Haden walked over to check. "Wow, thanks KLAUS.
As Haden got dressed, Barrett signed off his terminal, and turned around in his chair to face him. "Haden?"
"Yeah?" Haden replied as he pulled his shirt over his head.
"Do you think that we will get to spend some more time with Evan at some point?" Barrett asked hesitantly.
Haden thought for a moment and nodded as he strapped his GEAR onto his wrist. "Yeah, I've been wanting to do that as well, but with as busy as we have been and all."
"Well, we don't have anything going on," Barrett offered. "I mean, we don't have to, I just thought it would be cool to get to know my bigger brother a bit more."
"Yeah, that's a good idea, " Haden agreed. "KLAUS, could you check with Daileass to see where Evan is at?"
<<According to Daileass, he is at the Tsar's Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.>>
"Thanks," Haden replied as he looked toward his twin. "Will you get in trouble if we go to the Russian UNIT base?"
Barrett shook his head. "I don't think so. KLAUS will know where I'm at, right KLAUS?"
<<Correct. To be honest, I was getting close to suggesting myself that both of you should try to spend time with Evan. Barrett, you should already know how much importance I place on family.>>
Barrett nodded. "Okay, teleport us to the palace, please."
<<That sounds like a good idea. Just try not to stay up too late.>>
Jimmy Casey walked across the snow-covered palace grounds toward the quads. If it had been any other time, he might have done something along the lines of allowing his feet to ignite in flames as he walked across the freshly fallen snow so that his tracks looked bigger and deeper than anyone else. As it turned out, however, right now he was emotionally torn inside as he tried to figure out what he wanted to do.
After eating breakfast with Evan Rothwood, one of the few kids who, besides his brothers, really seemed to not only understand him but also accept him for who and what he was, ended up going their separate ways with the intent of meeting each other later to spend some more time together. Evan had offered to help a group of the rescued slave kids get started on their school placement tests, while Jimmy had agreed to help Will with a few things. In the process of helping Will, he was asked if he could spend a few hours helping to get things setup at one of the training ranges that the UNIT guys were going to use along with some of the Russian military troops.
Jimmy was really looking forward to spending more time with Evan, but at the same time, being Adam Casey's younger brother, everyone tended to look toward him as well as far as setting an example for the others. And what kind of example would he be setting if he refused to help get the training range setup just so he could go spend time with a friend. Besides, it wasn't like anything would ever really be able to happen between them. Sure, Evan was cool and all, but he had also devoted his entire life to watching after and protecting his younger brother. He seriously doubted that Evan was anywhere close to thinking about a serious relationship with someone.
Either way, he was not looking forward to having to tell Evan that they wouldn't be able to hang out together as they had planned. But yet, it was something that had to be done. With a sigh, Jimmy pulled open the outer door of the quad that would lead to the hallway which would lead to the dorm that Evan was staying in.
Evan laid on his bed, as he used his laptop to scroll through various world news sites so that he could keep current with all the world events that were going on. It wasn't the most exciting thing in the world to do, but it helped to pass the time as he waited for his newest friend, Jimmy Casey to arrive.
From the very first time he had met Adam Casey's younger brother two days ago, Evan had taken a liking to him. It wasn't a boyfriend or sexual liking or anything like that, but more of the fact that they just really seemed to 'click' well together. Jimmy seemed to be one of the few people that could really understand the situation that Evan was in. In fact, Jimmy was probably one of the only people he had really felt comfortable opening up to, and talking about how he felt in regards to his little brother being ripped away from him.
Over the last day, things had even progressed to the point that they were eating their meals together. Then this morning, Evan had finally worked up the courage to ask Jimmy if he wanted to hang out together. Not because their work assignments came together, but just as two friends, two eleven-year-old kids hanging out. And now, although they each had a few things to do after breakfast, at any moment Jimmy would be knocking on his door so they could do just that.
"Hey Evan!" Haden cheerfully called out, as he and Barrett appeared in the center of the room.
"Haden?" Evan replied as he jumped slightly, having been interrupted from his thoughts. "What are you two doing here?" From the way that Barrett reacted to his question, Evan could tell that something was up.
"No particular reason," Haden replied bashfully. "You see... Barrett was wanting to spend a bit more time getting to know his bigger brother... and well.. I just figured that... maybe..."
Evan smiled and sighed. "Haden, you should already know that I will never have a problem with spending time with you."
Haden nodded. "And Barrett too?"
"He's my brother as well now, so yeah," Evan replied.
Although Haden missed it entirely, Barrett was easily able to notice the hesitation in Evan's answer. "That's okay, I understand if you don't really want to be around me much."
"It's not that, Barrett," Evan quickly shook his head. "Yeah, I don't really know you yet, and it may still seem a bit creepy that you look so much like... well... like Haden, and I didn't even know you existed before two days ago. I want to get to know you more, it's just..."
"Just what?" Haden asked, as he wasn't sure what Evan was trying to get at.
"Well, it's just that I had already kinda made plans to spend some time with someone else this morning," Evan replied. As he said this, he began to feel guilty and that he was somehow letting Haden down.
"Really?" Haden asked, happy to see his older brother making more friends. "Who?"
Before Evan could answer, there was a knock on the door. Haden and Barrett watched as Evan jumped off the bed, nearly sprinted to the door, and opened. "Hey Jimmy!" Evan spoke excitedly.
"Hi Evan," Jimmy replied in a not so excited tone as he looked past Evan into the room. "Looks like we have a full house today."
"Uh, yeah. About that," Evan began as he motioned for Jimmy to come inside. "There might be a few complications between us being able to hang out together."
"Hi Haden, Hi Barrett," Jimmy stated as he looked toward Evan. "Complications?"
"That's okay," Barrett jumped in. "You can do whatever you had planned with your friend. I'm sure there will be lots of time for us to hang out in the future."
Evan looked like a deer caught between headlights as he had no clue how to respond Barrett's direct statement. Fortunately, Jimmy replied first. "Actually, that's probably not going to be a problem, cause I had some of my own complications come up."
"What do you mean?" Evan asked with concern.
Jimmy sighed. "That's kinda what I was coming over to tell you. That I don't think we are going to be able to hang out much this morning, because I have to go help get some things setup at one of the training ranges."
"Oh," Evan deflated.
"Sorry," Jimmy stated as he could clearly see the disappointment in Evan's eyes. "It's just, with being Adam's younger brother and all, and with everyone looking toward me to set an example and stuff..."
"It's okay," Evan cut him off. "I understand."
"You know, this is stupid," Haden jumped in. "Everyone here is so gloomy and sad. That's not going to help anyone."
"I don't think there is much we can do about that," Barrett offered. "Evan is sad because he's torn between spending time with us and with Jimmy. Jimmy is sad because he's torn between spending time with Evan and getting work done. You and I are going to be sad because we are going to feel we are pulling Evan away from a friend... So unless you happen to have a plan to fix all that, I don't think there is much we can do about it."
"Actually," Haden stated after stopping to think for a few moments. "Maybe I do." After seeing Barrett's puzzled expression, Haden because to pace around the room, occasionally stopping to look under the bed, behind a dresser, or in the closet."
"What are you looking for, bro?" Evan asked the question that the other two boys were wondering as well.
"A Mykivis," Haden replied as he began to look around the room. "Bryce? Dylan? Peter? I know you guys are out there somewhere."
"A what?" Barrett asked.
Evan put his hand on his forehead as he slowly shook his head. "I don't think it works that way, Hade."
"Why not?" Haden asked as he briefly glanced back toward Evan. "Come on guys, I know one of you has to be around, you always seem to be around."
"Geez, doesn't anyone ever look up anymore?" A voice asked from above them.
"Ezra!" Haden called out cheerfully as he looked up and saw a boy with a stripe of multi-colored hair in a V-shaped mohawk sitting indian-style, upside down on the ceiling, munching on a large chocolate-chip cookie.
"What's up Uncle Haden?" Ezra asked as he floated down and flipped around so he was sitting right-side-up. "I was just in the middle of a cookie-snack."
"Hey, I've seen you before!" Barrett called out in surprise as he looked toward Ezra. "You're one of the kids that KLAUS has been having a hell of a time tracking whenever Daileass or one of the other AI's teleport you."
"You're funny Uncle Barrett," Ezra giggled. "Neither Daileass nor any of the other A.I.'s teleports us anywhere because we teleport ourselves."
"We?" Barrett asked.
"Yeah, me and the other Mykivis," Ezra nodded. "I guess it's one of the benefits of being anti-energy."
"Huh?" Barrett replied, clearly confused.
"Ezra," Haden interrupted. "I'm really sorry for interrupting your snack and all. But, you see, I need to ask you a question, but I'm not really sure if it's allowed or not. Actually, I'm not really sure if I should even be asking you or not, but it's just that..."
Ezra took out a cookie from somewhere behind his back, and placed it into Haden's mouth. "It's alright, Uncle Haden. I think I have a good idea about what you are wanting to ask." He then handed a cookie to each of the other three boys.
"Do I want to know where he got this from?" Jimmy asked as he carefully observed the cookie.
"Probably not," Evan answered seriously.
"Anyway, to answer your question," Ezra continued. "Generally, we try not to make a habit of this, but given how busy all of you are probably going to be over the days to come. I think your idea might work out better than you think, Uncle Haden."
"What's the idea?" Barrett asked, not really seeing how Ezra already could know what Haden was going to ask before Haden asked it.
Hearing the frustration in his voice, Haden turned toward Barrett. "You remember when we were training earlier, and you were telling me how there were little gaps when KLAUS was trying to keep track of different clan members?"
Barrett nodded. "Yeah, and how we think it has something to do with somewhere called Archnania or something, but you wouldn't tell us anything more about it?"
"Yeah," Haden answered. "You want to see it first hand?"
"Wait, you mean I can go there?" Barrett asked excitedly. "But wait, how does that solve the current problem. Jimmy has to go do his stuff and all."
"That's easy," Ezra grinned. "Archnania is out of time. So I can take all four of you there, and you can spend as much time as you want, and when I bring you back, no time will have passed at all."
"That's not possible," Barrett challenged. "You can't not have time."
"No!" Haden cried out before Ezra could say anything. "Trust me, Barrett, you don't want to go there. They tried to explain it to us once, and it gave ME a headache!"
"What's wrong, Uncle Haden?" Ezra asked seriously. "You didn't like our quick explanation of multi-dimension temporal mechanics?"
"Not really," Haden sighed.
"Oh well, your loss," Ezra smiled as he pulled out another cookie. "If all of you are interested and ready, we can be on our way."
Seeing Jimmy taking a step backward, Evan turned toward him and held out his hand. "What do you say Jimmy? Feel like tagging along for a little trip to Archnania?"
"I guess someone has to keep an eye on the little guys," Jimmy tried to reply confidently. "But, well, I've never actually been there, and I'm not really sure how... my stuff would react there."
"Don't worry, Uncle Jimmy," Ezra answered. "All of your abilities will work exactly the same there as they do here."
Knowing exactly who Ezra was, Jimmy nodded in understanding as he returned Evan's gaze. "In that case, why not?"
"Hold on, I almost forgot something," Haden stated as he unstrapped his GEAR, and placed it on top of his dresser.
"You're not bringing your GEAR?" Barrett asked in confusion.
Haden shook his head. "No. Let's just say that there are some harmless looking balls of slime there, and apparently their favorite food is GEAR's, and I don't really feel like spending another eight hours cleaning slime out of it again."
"Oh," Barrett replied.
"Alright, is everyone ready?" Ezra asked as he looking around and began handing out small sugar cookies to all four boys. "Then I guess you are ready to go. Oh, you don't want to eat that yet!" Ezra stopped Barrett just as he was about to take a bite.
"Why not?" Barrett asked.
"These are your tickets home," Ezra grinned. "When you guys are ready to come back, you each need to take a bite out of these cookies at the same time."
"What if someone looses their cookie?" Jimmy asked curiously.
"Don't worry, that won't be a problem," Ezra smiled as he looked toward Jimmy. "In fact, I dare you to try to loose your cookies."
Not really sure how to respond to that, Jimmy simply shrugged. "Alright."
Ezra looked over the group of boys one last time. "Okay, does everyone have their magic cookie? Yes? Good, then I think we are ready to go." Ezra then took out a sugar cookie of his own, and with a large exaggerated byte, causing himself along with all four boys to disappear, leaving behind an empty room... At least for a few microseconds.
Ezra, along with the four boys appeared on a well-followed dirt path in the middle of a forrest of tall proud trees that were sporting branches filled with lush leaves. It wasn't a dark and foreboding woods, but a bright, cheerful woods where light cheerfully shined down through the trees onto the small shrubs and grasses below.
"Here we are," Ezra announced cheerfully, "The wonderful world of Archnania."
"This doesn't look that different from Earth," Jimmy commented as he looked around.
"You know what they say, looks can be deceiving," Ezra grinned. "We'll see how long it takes for you to change your opinion."
"Does that look like Earth?" Evan asked as he pointed up toward a small patch of purple sky that was visible through the trees.
Jimmy tilted his head, "Oh nice, purple sky!"
"You okay, Haden?" Barrett asked with concern as he felt his twin's discomfort through their link.
"Yeah," Haden slowly nodded. "It happens every time I go somewhere that is cut off from the link I'm in with Daileass and his brothers. It takes a few seconds for my head to get use to having a lot less information to process."
"Ah," Barrett nodded.
"Okay guys, you have a choice to make," Ezra stated, drawing everyone's attention back. "As you can see, we are standing on a path. And, as is the case with most paths, there are two possible directions we can go. If we go that way, it will lead us toward the city where you guys could take your break in the City. Or, if you go that way, it will lead deeper into the forest, so you can have your break camping."
"It doesn't matter to me either way, they will both be new to me," Barrett replied.
"The city is a very nice place," Evan offered. "I think that might be the best place for our trip. Don't you think, Haden?"
"Actually, I was kinda thinking it might be cool to do some camping," Hadan stated.
"Really?" Evan asked with surprise as he was almost certain his little brother would have preferred the city.
Haden thought for a few moments before nodding his head. "Yeah. We've spent years in the city, and once you get past all the cool looking buildings and stuff, there is not a lot to it. Plus, there would be lots of people around. But if we go camping, not only would we get to be out in the fresh air, but it would just be the five of us, being able to spend time with each other."
Evan sighed as he began to realize just how much his little brother had changed over the last few days. He wanted to hope that it was a change for the better, but at this point he just wasn't sure.
"I could certainly go for some camping," Jimmy offered.
Evan nodded in agreement, "Works for me."
"Then camping it is," Ezra stated cheerfully. "Just so you guys know, I'm just hanging around for a bit to make sure the new guys get settled in, and then I'll be back to take you home. But this is your trip, so for the most part, it will just be the four of you."
"Why's that, Ezra?" Barrett asked with concern. "I think it would be cool if you stuck around."
"Well, you know what they say... It's a huge multi-universe out there. I still have a ton of stuff to do," Ezra smiled. "Besides, I get the feeling that you guys might get a lot more out of the trip if I'm not around."
Although each boy had different reasons, they all nodded uneasily.
"Okay, our first stop is right over this first hill," Ezra stated in a more cheerful tone as he began walking down the path with the other boys quickly following behind him.
The hill that Ezra was referring to was not that far away. As such, it didn't take the boys that long to the top of it. The entire time they were walking, however, Jimmy would occasionally glance behind them, as if expecting someone to be following them.
From the top of the hill, not far down the path, a small doomed shelter could be seen. "There it is," Ezra called out. "That's our first stop."
"What is it?" Barrett asked as they continued walking.
"It looks like a little picnic area, maybe?" Evan offered.
"That's more or less right," Ezra agreed. "Every few miles on the main paths of the glades, you will usually find small shelters like this. They provide a nice area to sleep at night, especially if the weather is poor."
"I don't think I remember the weather being that bad during any of the time we were here working on the hardware stuff," Haden commented.
"There could be a hurricane outside, and you wouldn't notice it when you are into your geeking," Evan grinned.
"Hey!" Haden protested with a slight blush as he knew what Evan said was true.
"Haden's right though," Ezra agreed. "Other than a light afternoon shower from time to time, the weather doesn't really get that bad here anymore. The majority of the shelters were built back before the planet was moved into the Great White, during a time in which weather conditions were far worse."
"Whoa, look there," Jimmy called out as he pointed toward 4 fully geared hiking backpacks that were leaning against the side of the shelter. Two of which were slightly taller than the others.
"There must be some hikers around here," Barrett observed.
"Nope," Ezra shook his head with a grin. "Actually, this is your camping gear."
Evan gasped. "Ours? Seriously?"
"Uh huh. How else do you expect to go camping without gear," Ezra giggled. "Go on, go check it out."
Without another word needing to be said, all four boys began running toward the backpacks. To their surprise, the frames of the backpacks had each of their names engraved in them.
"Here's mine," Barrett called out almost as if it were christmas morning, as he took one of the smaller backpacks. "Wow, these are really sweet."
Haden grabbed the other smaller backpack and easily slid it onto his back. "These are really light, and they seem to fit a lot better than the UNIT backpacks we use. I guess you used some of your Mikyvis magic on them?"
"No Mikyvis magic needed," Ezra smiled. "First off, the backpacks, and the gear in them are designed for recreational hiking, which is a little different from the gear that would be in a backpack used for military hiking. Second, the Archnanians have been at this for a pretty long time. So a lot of the material that is used is lighter than the equivalent gear you would find on earth."
"Ah," Haden nodded in understanding as he glanced toward his older brother, who was in the process of taking all of the gear in his backpack out to inspect it.
"This is really remarkable, Ezra," Evan commented as he looking through the equipment. "I've had a lot of stuff similar to this stuff back before... well... before Haden and I met the Clan. Most of this seems pretty similar to Earth stuff. Looks like this is your standard mess kit, a small sewing kit, an accordion-like pot? Looks pretty cool, but not sure how well it will work for actual cooking."
"And what's that suppose to be?" Jimmy asked as he pointed to something that looked like a rolled up newspaper."
Evan lifted it up and studied it closely. "I would almost say it's a sleeping bag, but it looks way to flimsy for that."
"Don't let the light weight fool you," Ezra offered. "That sleeping bag is made with floraweave. Once you get inside, it will feel feathery soft regardless of how hard of terrain you are on. And, it will keep you surprisingly warm even on the coldest of nights."
Evan shrugged as he set the sleeping bag to the side. Although he couldn't see how that could be possible, he didn't feel like getting in a fight with Ezra over it. Instead, another strange device caught his eye that he was not familiar with. Carefully, he disconnected a small 4-inch thick cylinder-like object that ran the length of the backpack. "What's this?"
"That's your emergency kit," Ezra replied. "The top part can come off and it can be used as a crude medical scanner as well as a distress beacon. The larger part of it contains a primitive version of a matter replicator which can be used to create enough food and water for two people to live off of."
As Ezra was explaining about the emergency kit, Haden's attention was immediately drawn toward it. "That sounds pretty cool. How long does it's power source last?"
"Sorry Haden, but you can't take these apart. The components would not function correctly if the vacuum seal was broken," Ezra stated, already knowing what was going through Haden's mind. "As far as the power source, as long as you keep it charged, it can work almost indefinitely. These black squares on the side of it are photon collectors, which are similar to solar cells, only a lot more efficient. If you keep it connected to the top of the backpack like this, it will always be able to keep it's charge up whenever you are in daylight."
"So if we have these, why do we need to worry about all these other food packets?" Jimmy asked.
"Let's find out," Ezra replied as he took Evan's Emergency kit, and showed everyone how to open it, and briefly went over how to work it. Other than the medical scanner, it was surprisingly simple. "Okay Jimmy, hold your hand out."
Jimmy hesitated for a moment before doing as Ezra asked. When he did, Ezra pressed the 'food' button, and out of a small hole, a lumpy, creamy whitish substance came out creating a small mound on his his hand. Sniffing it first, he then took a small bite. "Humm, tastes a little like oatmeal."
"Lemme try," Barrett asked as he and his twin both took a small finger's worth of goo to taste. "It's really bland."
Ezra nodded. "It's a protein fortified very basic nutritional substance that has all the base components needed to survive. But as you can see, it's not really that tasty."
"But when it's that or starving..." Evan began.
"Exactly," Ezra agreed. "That's why it's an emergency kit."
"Still, these look really sweet. It would be cool to have them back on earth," Jimmy commented.
"It probably wouldn't be that hard," Haden thought out loud. "If it's only making one or two hard-coded things, we could probably strip down a matter replicator and then..."
"Haden, save the electronics stuff for when we get back," Evan suggested.
"Oh," Haden deflated. "Sorry."
"Haden, I wasn't trying to yell or complain or anything," Evan stated as he saw the dejected look on his younger brother's face. "It's just, I know how wrapped up you can get in your electronics planning when you want to. And well, now that you got us all out here, I was kinda hoping to get to spend some time with my little brothers."
Barrett's ears perked up at the mention of 'brothers'.
Haden nodded in understanding. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
Deciding that he wasn't really interested in eating the rest of the goo that was in his hand, Jimmy smeared the rest of it on a small tree behind him.
"Hey!" A voice called out, causing Jimmy and the other boys to jump. "How would you like it if someone came up to you and started smearing stuff all over your leg?"
"What the..." Jimmy cried out as he spun around to see who was talking, only to find the large tree that was behind him, now leaning in toward him, looking at him with two beady little knots in the wood, which were actually eyes, starring at him.
"What part of 'the trees are alive' didn't you get?" Evan grinned as he looked at the shocked expression on Jimmy's face.
"Well, I thought you meant, just alive or something," Jimmy stuttered. "I didn't think you meant really alive alive!" This of course, caused the other boys to giggle.
"Sorry great one," Ezra replied. "My friends are new here. Where they come from, the trees are a lot more inanimate."
"Oh, how sad," the tree replied.
"Yeah, sorry about that," Jimmy finally managed to squeak out as he pulled a small rag out of his backpack and began to wipe the goo off the tree. "I didn't mean to disrespect you or anything. Like Ezra said, where I came, unless the wind blows them, the trees are as silent and still as rocks."
"What?" the tree leaned down again. "I will have you know that some of my best friends are rocks."
"Oh," Jimmy gulped as he looked toward Evan. "Is there anything on this planet that is NOT alive?"
Evan giggled, "That's a good question. I'm pretty sure the dirt on the ground isn't."
"Actually, That's still up for debate," Ezra replied with a grin that made it impossible for the others to tell if he was joking or not.
"So, does every tree around here talk?" Barrett asked curiously.
"Although most of them can, a lot of the taller and older ones that you will see usually don't. They are usually content to sleep away the days basking in the sunlight," Ezra answered. "Now the saplings. They can be really fun, as you can usually find them running around all over the place."
"Running? As in, moving around?" Jimmy asked with concern.
"Gee, it's a good thing I came along," Ezra grinned. "You guys didn't tell him about the mobile vegetation here?"
"I tried," Evan admitted.
"I told Barrett," Haden added as Barrett nodded his head in agreement.
"Mmm, that felt good. Thanks," the tree stated as Jimmy finished rubbing off the last of the goo.
"Um, your welcome." Jimmy replied as he quickly made his way over to Evan's side, glancing back suspiciously every now and then to see if the tree decided to follow him.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Ezra stated as he handed Evan a neatly folded set of papers.
"What's this?" Evan asked as he began to unfold the paper and look inside.
"That would be the map of the area," Ezra announced. "As long as you keep in mind that the suns rise in the West and set in the East, I don't think you will have that much of a problem navigating."
"I thought you were coming with us?" Barrett asked.
Ezra shook his head. "Nope, this is your trip. As I said, I'm just tagging along long enough to make sure you guys are situated and have a little better idea as to what expect, like the mobile vegetation you forgot to mention to the new guys."
"I told him about it," Evan protested.
"Uh huh, sure you did," Ezra replied, and then smiled to make sure Evan knew he was just having fun. "Anyway, just remember those cookies. When you are ready to leave, all of you should eat them together."
All four boys nodded in understanding.
"Between Evan's outdoors experience, and the military training both he and Haden had, I think you guys will do fine," Ezra continued. "As far as where you go, that's up to you. Although, if you want my opinion, there are some really nice springs in the foothills of the mountain that would be to the Northeast of here which I think you would enjoy. It should be less than a day's hike,"
"Cool, thanks Ezra," Evan replied. "I mean thanks for doing all of this." To that, the other three boys nodded in agreement.
"Your welcome, guys," Ezra stated as he silently thought to himself, 'I just hope it's enough.'
After a final round of 'good-byes', and a final check to make sure no one had any other questions, Ezra waved, and in a blink of an eye, vanished.
The group of four boys stood in silence for several moments as they continued to watch the spot that Ezra had been standing in. Finally, Barrett broke the silence. "Mikyvis sure seem.... um... interesting." This of course, caused the other boys to giggle.
"They certainly are," Jimmy agreed.
"So where to?" Haden asked.
Evan looked at the map he had been given. "Well, since Ezra was nice enough to put a 'you are here' marker on the map, If we want to head for those springs, we'll want to follow this trail for... a ways... and then when we come to a fork, we will want to go left."
With their path decided, everyone put their backpacks on, and began to walk down the trail with Jimmy and Evan in the lead, while Haden and Barrett followed close behind them.
Birds, or what everyone assumed would have to be birds, could be heard chirping and tweeting in the distance as the group walked through the woods. Evan had handed the map to Jimmy to look at, while he took in the rest of his surroundings. Several patches of sunlight occasionally gleamed down through the trees. Surprisingly, or rather, not so surprisingly, in every spot this occurred, the smaller vegetation was considerably more dense.
From his past experience on Archnania, Evan already knew that the days here would be about a fifth longer than what they were use to on Earth, clocking in at around 30 hours. Also, he knew that with the twin suns, the nights, would be much shorter, and no where close to being as dark. Given that, and the current position of the suns, he had to guess that it was probably around mid-day, which would give them plenty of hiking time.
A few minutes later, Evan was pulled out of his thoughts by the sounds of Jimmy giggling. "What's so funny?"
Jimmy smiled as he looked up toward Evan and then back down toward the map. "I think Ezra forgot a very minor detail when he gave us this map."
"What's that?" Evan asked with concern. "It looked pretty normal to me."
Instead of answering him, Jimmy handed Evan the map. "Take a look for yourself."
Evan looked carefully at the map. From what he could tell, nothing was missing. Other than the compass directions being flipped, but that was probably to account for the fact that the suns rose in the West and not the East. Even the little pointer was.... "Oh, that's funny!" Evan called out as he realized what Jimmy had found. "Only a Mykivis!"
"What is it?" Barrett asked curiously, as Jimmy and Evan's antics had attracted the attention of the two smaller boys.
"Take a look," Evan stated as he offered the map for both Barrett and Haden to look at as they continued to walk down the trail. "See that 'you are here' marker? Well... it's moving along with wherever the map is at."
"Wicked!" Haden cried out as both he and Barrett looked at the marker ever so closely. Sure enough, a few moments later, it moved ever slow slightly down the path they were following. "It really is!"
"I guess that means it will be a little harder for us to get lost now," Barrett grinned as he handed the map back to Evan.
"Something like that," Evan smiled back.
"Guys," Haden called out in a hushed voice as he instinctively held up one of his hands in a closed fist, A signal he had repeatedly used throughout his UNIT training.
Evan, having also attended the same training, immediately picked up on what Haden meant, and came to a Halt with Jimmy and Barrett quickly catching on as well. As all four boys stood silently and listened, they could hear the chattering of voices walking through the woods toward them.
"There they are!" one of the voices called out, causing the entire group to start running faster through the woods.
"What do we do?" Barrett asked nervously.
"We didn't do anything wrong, so we should be fine," Evan stated as he stood between the smaller boys, and the figures in the woods that were running toward them.
As Jimmy stood next to Evan, small whisks of steam began swirling off him as he readied himself to protect his friends, if it came to that.
Within moments, a small boy dressed in a dirty looking brown shirt and shorts stepped out into the path a few feet away from Evan and the other boys. The boy wore a reddish scarf around his neck and had a large dark brown hat attached to a thin rope around his neck. The hat was resting on top of the backpack that was on the boy's back.
"Haden?" the boy asked as he tilted his head, causing his long bright yellow hair to flop to the side.
"Demren!" Haden replied as he immediately recognized the Scout Leader of the Sretsmah Team that he had met when he was hear not long ago with Paterson and Clyde.
"You know him?" Barrett asked with surprise as he looked at the boy who could not have been much taller than a six-year-old.
"Yeah," Haden replied as more small boys Demren's size and smaller began to step out onto the path.
"It's not them, guys. It's just Haden with a few new friends," Demren called back to the rest of his group before turning back and walking toward Haden. "I didn't expect to see you again so soon."
"Me either," Haden smiled as he bent down slightly so that he and Demren could touch foreheads, which was the traditional Scout greeting of friends.
Demren nodded approvingly at Haden's respect for their traditions. "So, who are your new friends? And how did you manage to get ahead of us? We haven't seen any signs of you since the ancient whisked you away a week ago, and that was back at the dancing meadows, a good five days hike from here."
"Let's see, I'll answer the second part first," Haden began. "The lightfoot version is that the Ancient was able to send us back to our home, then two days later, another friend of mine brought us back so we could take a little break and do some camping and stuff."
Demren pulled at Haden's backpack, causing Haden to twist himself around. "Well, at least you've brought proper equipment with you this time. And some pretty nice equipment at that."
"Our friend got us these backpacks as well," Haden admitted. "Oh, and to answer the first part of your question. This here is my older brother, Evan."
"It's nice to meet you," Evan stated as he began to hold out his hand before he instead knelt down to touch foreheads with the smaller boy.
"Likewise," Demren agreed as more of his team circled around them. "Haden spoke very highly of you during the time we shared together. Any Scout would be honored to have you as a big brother."
"Thanks," Evan beamed as he stood back up.
"And the boy next to Evan is Jimmy, Evan's boyfriend," Haden continued.
"We're not," Jimmy began to say before he locked eyes with Evan and began to blush. "Are we?"
Evan, who was also blushing, shrugged. "I don't mind if you don't."
Jimmy shrugged as well before he turned back to Demren. "Yeah, I guess I am... Evan's boyfriend."
Demren smiled knowingly as he and Jimmy touched foreheads.
"And this," Haden stated as he pulled Barrett closer to him, "This is my twin brother, Barrett."
"Twin?" Demren asked curiously as he tilted his head. "Haden, you didn't mention anything at all about a twin when you were here."
"Oh yeah," Haden agreed. "I think that's because I didn't know I had a twin last time I was here."
"You must have very weird child raising practices where you come from," Demren shook his head. "Either way, it's an honor to meet you Barrett."
Barrett nodded and then bent down to touch foreheads with Demren. "Don't worry, we're still not really sure how that happened either."
"Right," Demren agreed. "Well, Haden already knows them, but this is my Scout Team." Demren then went through and introduced each of the thirteen other kids that were with him.
"You guys were out here camping on your own for over a week?" Jimmy asked with surprise.
Demren and several of the others nodded. "Actually, we've been out for two weeks. We are just on our way back to the city."
Knowing the direction that Jimmy was thinking, Evan decided to jump in and save him before he said something he would later regret. "They may look like six or seven year olds, but that's just because Archnanians are smaller than humans. Everyone here in the group would be considered early teens by our standards."
"Almost all of us," Demren corrected as he glanced toward one of his boys who was a good half-foot shorter than any of the others.
"Oh wow, that's pretty cool," Jimmy stated.
"Yeah, and the adults are not much taller than Haden or Barrett," Evan added.
"Hey Demren," Haden asked. "Didn't you have sixteen in your group? You only named thirteen plus yourself, which would be fourteen."
Demren sighed and nodded. "Yeah. Gathlen and Rizeelic went off ahead scouting. At first, we thought that you guys might have been them. But more than likely, they are almost back to the City by now, if they are not there already."
"Gathlen was cool, I liked him," Haden mused as he remembered the boy who had first found him, Paterson, and Clyde after the big slimy thing ate his GEAR, and took them back to where the rest of his team had setup camp.
"Are you guys heading back to town?" Demren asked. "You would be more than welcome to walk with us."
Haden shook his head, but it was Evan who answered. "Actually, I think we are going in the opposite direction. We're going to try to get some camping in before we have to go back home."
"I understand," Demren replied. "In that case, about a half day's journey from here to the North, there is a very cool rope course setup in the trees that you guys might like. We take our juniors there from time to time. Just remember to use the safety harnesses on the high courses, that way no one gets hurt."
"Cool," Evan nodded. "We were actually thinking about heading to some springs to the Northeast of here."
"Springs? Oh, you mean the reflection pools that are about a day's hike from here. Yeah, that's a really nice place as well. The trail to the rope course should be right on your way," Demren offered as he looked around at the rest of his guys. "Anyway, we should probably be off. It was great seeing you again Haden."
Haden nodded and waved. "See ya, guys!"
Haden, Barrett, Evan, and Jimmy stood and watched as Demren and the rest of his Scout Team headed off down the path. Once the Scouts were out of sight, the boys turned around and began to walk down the path in the opposite direction.
"Do all Archnanians have bright yellow hair like that?" Jimmy asked as they walked.
"I think most of them do," Evan replied.
"Nice," Jimmy smiled. "I think I could get to like it here."
"Me too," Evan agreed as Haden and Barrett followed close behind.
Evan, Jimmy, Barrett, and Haden continued to make their way down the path through the woods, enjoying the occasional patches of sunlight that managed to sneak through leaves of the tall trees above them. Although Barrett didn't seem that interested in it, the other three boys took turns passing the map around so that they could each watch the small marker on it as they walked.
Barrett, for his part, was more interested in taking in the sights and sounds around him as he walked along side his twin. As they walked, he would occasionally spot a small animal of some sort, curiously watching them from a safe distance in the woods. More than once, he was sure that some type of deer-like creature was not only watching them, but at times, following them. He may have been around to see the fall and rise of earth twice, but he had never before been in an environment that seemed so full of life.
Although they had passed a few more of the small domed shelters, they saw very few Archnanians. Besides Demren and the other scouts, the only others that they passed were two older individuals that were coming out of one of the shelters. They were courteous in that they offered a friendly greeting, but nothing else was said beyond that.
After they had been walking for about an hour and a half, they came to a fork in the path. They could either continue to follow the path Northward, or they could take a new path that trailed to the West. A small archway constructed of a series of poles lashed together with rope. Hanging down from the archway was a wooden sign ancient Archnanian runes carved into it.
"It says 'Trust Fields'," Haden stated. Although he and Evan could read it since they had both spent several years on Archnania, he also know that Barrett and Jimmy would not.
"Is that the direction we are going?" Barrett asked.
Jimmy, who was holding the map at the time, nodded. "It looks like it. This is where that Demren kid pointed out."
As the boys followed the path West, they noticed that the forrest quickly became more and more dense, until all the sudden they stepped out of the forest, and into a large open field. Since they were getting closer to the mountains, the field looked like two large smoothed mounds with a small dip cutting across the middle of it. Over the extent of the field, mostly centered around the dip, all kinds of different wooden and rope structures had been built.
The first thing that both Haden and Evan thought of when he saw the field was one of the outdoor obstacle courses that they had used during his UNIT training, only this one was a lot larger. In addition to the normal smaller obstacles, where were large rope bridges, tire swings, and other structures he had no clue what they were for.
To everyone's surprise, at the far end of the field were not one but two different groups of Archnanian teens. Each group had around sixteen kids, and were dressed in the standard Scout uniforms.
"Looks like we're not alone," Barrett commented.
"With a place like this?" Jimmy replied. "I'm surprised there are not a lot more here. This place is huge."
"Do you think they will get mad?" Haden asked with concern. "I mean, we are not actually in any of the Scout Teams."
Evan shook his head as he walked further down into the field. "Nah, I doubt it. Otherwise, Demren wouldn't have suggested coming here."
"Hi hi hi, guys!" I chippy sounding voice called out from behind them. As the boys spun around to see who it was, the only thing they found was a small four-foot tall sapling dancing and bobbing around from side to side. "I'm Gretchiabawitzingererlum. But you can call me Gretchit, everyone else does."
Evan was the first to recover from the site of a small dancing sapling talking to them. "Hi Gretchit. I hope we are not intruding or anything."
"Nope nope nope!" Gretchit replied cheerfully. "The elders whispered that you would be heading in this direction. The Zahckies have already said that they will show you around. Come on, I'll take you over to them."
"Zachckies?" Haden questioned. "Aren't those small little animals that like eating some other kind of small animal? Are they able to communicate with us like the Darmi can?"
The long thin twigs that made up Gretchit's upper half ruffled as if the sapling was chuckling. "Well, real Zahckies are intelligent, and have their own way of communicating if you know how to listen. But I'm talking about the Scoutlings over there... so come on!"
Evan shrugged as the four boys took off running so they could keep up with the hyper little sapling.
A few minutes later, Evan and the others found themselves quickly approaching a group of Archnanian Scouts that were standing at one end of a long rope bridge.
"Here they are, Sander Leader!" Gretchit cheerfully announced as he got closer to the group. "I fetched them good, I did, I did! The visitors that the elders whispered about."
One of the taller boys, who was barely an inch above Haden, turned toward them. "Oh, hi guys, welcome to the trust fields."
"Thanks," Evan replied. "We passed Demren and his group earlier today, and they pointed us in this direction. I hope it's not a problem."
"A problem?" Sander asked curiously. "Why would it be a problem? Although we don't get them often, we always love meeting new visitors here. As long as you don't mind getting your hands a little dirty, you guys can stick around all you want."
"Cool," Evan and the others all replied.
"Hey, Gretchit?" one of the smaller boys in Sander's group called out. "I'm having some problems with my knots again. Do you think you could help?"
"Knots? Um, no... no no no! No knots for Gretchit.... Have to go.... be back later.... c-ya!" Gretchit called out as he hopped around in a circle, and then took off toward the tree line causing several of the boys in the group to giggle.
"What was that all about?" Jimmy asked with concern.
"Ah, don't worry about that, it's an inside joke. Carver didn't mean anything by it," Sander smiled. "About two months ago when we were on our previous camping trip, we were trying to teach some of the juniors how to lash and tie ropes. One of them inadvertently tried to tie up Gretchit, thinking that he was a fallen branch from a tree."
Haden gasped. "Oh man, was he hurt?"
Sander shook his head. "Nah, he was fine. But he ended up following us around ever since. It's become like a running joke. He even tracked us down when he heard we were going out on another camping trip."
Haden nodded in understanding.
"Hey Sander?" Barrett spoke up. "If you don't mind me asking, why do they call this the Trust Fields?"
"Oh, that's an easy one," Sander smiled. "What you see here in this field is the low course. But there are actually three fields in this area. The one over there beyond those trees has the mid course, and the other has the high course. All the stations and activities that you see in each of the fields are in one way or the other designed to help the juniors, or actually everyone really, to improve trust. Whether it be trust in yourself, or trust in your friends."
"Really?" Barrett replied. "That sounds kinda cool."
Sander nodded in agreement. "Yeah. For example, the rope bridge here helps build trust in yourself as you cross the bridge without falling. The area over there is called the faith drop. Basically, you are standing on a platform, and you have to trust that your friends will catch you, as you allow yourself to fall backward. It's really kinda fun, you should try it."
"Um, I think I'll stick with the rope bridge for now," Barrett stated as Haden was quick to agree with him.
"That's cool," Sander grinned. "But before you do that, let me introduce you to the rest of my guys." With that, Sander gathered the rest of his team around him and spent a few minutes introducing each of them. When it was over, Evan, Jimmy, Haden and Barrett took a moment to introduce themselves.
Haden was surprised to see just how friendly Sander and his team were. Back when he had first met Demren and his Scout Team, Haden thought that Demren must have had one of the special groups that were really nice to outsiders. But now, he was starting to wonder if this was more the norm for Archnanian kids, rather than the exception. If it were true, Earth kids could probably learn a lot from the Archnanian kids.
Only time would tell...