Avalanche – Snippet 38
He and Sera just reacted, automatically, going down to the ground and taking as many of the kids as they could with them.Â A Thulian Death Sphere, half on fire and anted sideways, flew overhead.Â It was clearly going down, and a minute or two later, the island shook and a fireball rose over the swamp to John’s left. Somethin’ nasty is fighting back against the Thulians. Guess the Program has some more tricks up its sleeve.
“Any interference on the way out?” John asked, still prone.
“Not at the moment.Â Wait too long and there will be.Â My advice is let the bad guys mow each other down and get the hell out of Dodge.Â Safe trail ends just outside of a little town called ‘Bentis Bayou.'”Â There was a pause.Â “Hey, hotshot, I think I can just barely port a lunchbox with enough cash in it for bus fare to Tallahassee for all those kids.Â You can’t fly ’em all out of there, y’know.”
“Yeah,” he said, a number of feelings, all of them bad, warring within him.Â “I know.” There was a sudden, powerful need inside of him to get all of the kids out, get them all to safety…to make up for when he had escaped. He knew what they would go through; alone, frightened. Not even necessarily of dying…afraid of being taken back. He had been a man when the Program had dug its claws into him, and he had had a man’s knowledge, a man’s constitution. These…were children. If his own history were any yardstick, they would have more horror in their future. And there was damned little that John could do about it.
Vickie was as good as her word.Â John unfolded a little bit of cloth with a diagram on it on the ground as they all huddled in the bushes just outside of town.Â A few minutes later, a lunchbox appeared in the middle of it, stuffed with cash, with a map from the bus station to the ECHO building on it.Â “I’ve got an Overwatch 1 rep in there.Â He’s going to try and have someone meet the bus, and I’ve already put through the authorization of a pack of underagers to travel on the bus to Tallahassee.Â They’re orphans being evacuated from an attack on a school.Â Hence the uniforms.Â There’s enough in the box for fare and burgers and fries.”
Sera carefully explained this to the children.Â The three oldest were given the cash, the right code word to give the ticket agent to clear them buying all those tickets, and the map, just in case no one met them.Â “If you choose not to go to ECHO…I do not think that would be wise,” she said, finally.Â “But if that is the case, run far, and long, and hard.”
“Stay away from cities if you can help it, stay with other kids when you can’t. Don’t go home, don’t go anywhere you’ve ever known. These bastards go after you through your memories, the love y’have for others. It’s how their minds work. You’ll have to cut ties. Maybe forever.” The words tasted like acid in John’s mouth, and he felt like a hypocrite. He knew what they had to do; Zach was their mission. But he still felt sick to his stomach, futures be damned.
“Aren’t you coming with us?” asked one of the younger girls in dismay, although the older children tried to put a brave face on things.
Sera shook her head.Â “We cannot,” she admitted.Â “What we did to get you out was not…authorized.”
Zach pushed to the front of the group; it was plain that the others treated him like a leader. They weren’t scared of him, and he didn’t seem to need to bark orders or bully them to get them to do what needed to be done. “What’s that even mean?”
Sera looked at John, helplessly.
“We had to kick over a hornet’s nest to get you out. As y’can probably tell, otherâ€¦ ‘people’ wanted the Facility, too. This is goin’ to attract attention, an’ not the good kind. We came for you an’ you alone, Zach. You were our mission, an’ we need to get you out of here safely. No matter what. Even if it means we bite it in the process.” The other kids were staring at Zach now, waiting to see what he would do.
“To hell with that! I’m not leaving everyone here! We’re getting out of here together. There’s a frigging war going on out there–”
“You don’t even know the half of it, kid. We’ve been fighting a war for the last few years. We’ve lost friends, and family. We’ve had our asses kicked more times than I can count. But we’re still fightin’ back. The world is ready to get turned into a cinder. If we fail…we’ve only got one plan to keep that from happenin’. An’ you’re a part of it.”
Zach opened his mouth–just as Sera placed her hand on his forehead, her face a mask.Â “Be still,” she said–and the young meta slumped bonelessly to the ground.Â “I have not harmed him,” she told the others, before they could react in alarm, and a wave of reassurance came from her.Â “But we must go, and we must take him with us.
“You’ve got money for food an’ bus tickets.Â It’ll be OK, the guy sellin’ the tickets knows yer comin’, an’ it all comes with ECHO credentials an’ stuff to get ya to Tallahassee.Â Get some lunch, an’ get on that bus.Â Stay low, move fast, an’ once you’re clear, keep your heads on a swivel. With any luck, we’ll see some of y’all soon enough. We’ve gotta get Zach out of here, now. OK?”
The kids all looked at each other, then all eyes went to the oldest girl, who took a deep, long breath, closed her eyes for a moment, and firmed her chin.Â She opened her eyes again.Â “Can you promise we’ll be all right with ECHO?Â We’ll believe you.”
“No more hurtin!” one of the younger ones cried, then clapped both hands over his mouth.
“If they go with the ECHO guy, he’s gonna get them all to a big safehouse for meta kids.”Â Vickie said that with conviction.Â “They won’t be separated.”
“You will be safe, and together, and no one will hurt you,” Sera promised.
“There’s one last thing, kids. You’ve gotta keep quiet ’bout Zach, here. ‘Bout the Facility. A lot is ridin’ on it.”
“You gonna keep our Gremlin safe?” It was the same young child that had spoken up before.
“We will.” John paused before picking up Zach and putting him over his shoulder. “Why do you call him ‘Gremlin’?”
The oldest girl spoke up. “It was a young Russian guy. A friend of Zach’s…they had been in the Program the longest. It was his nickname, and he gave it to Zach.”
“John, we must go.”Â Sera had started flipping her wings, a sure sign of nerves.Â “We are running out of time.”
John knew that his wife was right. That didn’t make it any easier, for either of them. “Be safe. Be smart. Y’all are tough; you wouldn’t have made it this long if you weren’t. See the sign with the dog on it?”Â He pointed through the brush down the street, to a storefront with a Greyhound sign–and also one for “Kitty’s Cafe”Â “Run there, a couple at a time, until yer all inside.Â Get yer tickets, an’ get some lunch.Â Don’ leave until the bus shows up, and get straight on there.Â Sit together.Â Get off at Tallahassee.Â Look for a guy in a black uniform with a white triangle on the front.Â That’s the ECHO guy.Â Safe journeys, kids.”
John didn’t wait to say anything more.Â He readjusted Zach on his shoulder, took a running start, and fired off his flying “rockets.”Â Sera was right behind him. He spared a single glance back; the kids were already moving. He hoped they would be all right. And he hoped that Zach would forgive them.