The Alphabet Challenge: “S” Story No. 2 of 3 — Soldier

This is the 19th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “S“.

Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.

In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “S” as submitted by its author.


Copyright 2020 — E. J. D’Alise

(8,063 words – approx. reading time: about 30 minutes based on 265 WPM)

On his way home, Jake had stopped at a hotel for the night and now stood in front of the bathroom’s full-length mirror. Mirrors had been singularly absent from his life for a long while now. Other than the occasional accidental glimpse on some reflective surface, his environment had been purposefully absent of anything conducive to a visual self-examination.

Looking at his cybernetic body, his thought drifted to the word ‘home’ . . . the word had connotations that didn’t match how he felt about his destination. Still, he needed some time to adjust to civilian life, and the farm he’d recently inherited when his father died seemed as good a place as any to rejoin the human world.

Jake raised his hand to what was now his face. By design, the smooth shell made of opaque glass allowed for no hint of humanity. Its only function was to shield the array of sensors behind the glass. It gave Mech Corp soldiers a psychological advantage over their enemies; no expression, no hint of humanity. Without realizing it, Jake switched to infrared.

A faint heat signature differentiated his body from the ambient temperature of the room. Upon his discharge from Mech Corp, they removed the camouflage module — and his weapons modules — otherwise, he could have regulated his composite skin’s surface temperature to match that of the room. Without the module, the skin radiated the SMR’s excess heat, much like actual skin did for a body made of flesh.

Switching back to the visible spectrum, Jake focused on his hand. He no longer remembered what ‘touching’ something with a hand made of flesh felt like, and yet he longed for what he knew he once had.

He turned abruptly from the mirror and called up the room’s wireless as he laid down on the bed.

Accessing his Cloud ID, he checked his status, his bank account, and his father’s obituary. The obit was short and didn’t mention Jake or his mother, who had died when Jake was fourteen. The online in memoriam wall had many comments from people he did not recognize, mostly women.

He and his father were estranged even before Jake had opted to join The Mech Corp, and it surprised Jake to learn his father had left him the farm along with a substantial amount of money. Added to the money he had saved while in the service — and what he could get for his cybernetic components — Jake wondered if he had enough to change his body back to mostly human.  He contemplated his desire for such a change.

It had never crossed his mind while deployed with his unit, but then, they’d all been like him. Now, back into civilian life, he felt a need to . . . not look so different; to regain some of his humanity. The face would be the most expensive and challenging reconstruction and would still be a covering over a metal understructure. Even if he could get nothing else done, it would be a significant step to looking the part.

~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

The self-driving taxi dropped Jake off at the gate guarding the road that would take him to the farm. The will had included access codes for the grounds, and Jake had assumed the place would be locked, but the big gate was open. He looked around at the familiar surroundings and then began walking the three miles to the farm buildings by passing under the sign proclaiming this the Triple J Ranch’s private property.

He cleared the woods where he used to hunt as a kid and saw two patrol cars and people down by the main house, and, as he walked toward them, one of the four officers moved to intercept him.

“Code in and suspend,” the young officer said, mistaking Jake for a utility bot, despite Jake not wearing any logos.

Mech Corp soldiers were just beginning to filter back into society as their tours ended, and most people had never seen one in person. Faceless utility bots, however, were a common sight in a variety of functions.

“My name is Jake Lewis,” Jake answered. “My father left me this farm.” As he answered, Jake beamed over his ID and the deed for the place.

That surprised the young cop, but he recovered quickly, and walked with Jake toward the group of people.

“They say they live here, but the silent intruder alarm triggered, and they’re not listed as allowed visitors nor have the codes.”

Jake saw three cops, a woman in her thirties, and three kids Jake estimated ranged from five years to middle teens. The eldest, a boy, stood in a protective stance slightly in front and to the side of his mother.

“They’re likely squatters, although we’ve not seen them around these parts before,” the cop continued. “The woman maintains Old Man Jim had invited them to live here before he died and that they’d just made it here hitching on a crewed transport. She says she didn’t know he’d died.”

“Please, we’ve done nothing wrong, and we’ve not damaged anything,” the woman was saying to one cop. “There’s no need to arrest us.”

“You have no money, no permanent residence, and you’re on private property,” the cop replied. “We won’t arrest you, but you also can’t stay. This is a closed county, and it requires sponsorship to remain. Without it, the best we can do is put you on a bus and pay for a one-way ticket back where you came from.”

Jake took a closer look at the cops and recognized the badge. They were private. Like many communities who could afford it, the county had hired SecTac, one of the Big Three private security outfits. He’d worked with them before, both in the Asian Theater and the ever-troubled Balkans. As private security forces went, they were better trained and better equipped than most. Still, these outfits attracted a particular type; individuals who, lacking any real power, believed the badge conferred them a mantle of authority.

The cop reached for the woman’s arm, but the kid slapped it away and stepped between them. The cop must have been waiting for the kid to act because his baton was already in his hand. He activated it and struck the boy’s arm, both the blow and the electric discharge triggering Jake’s old memories.

Before the cop could strike the boy again, Jake had moved. The cop found himself on the ground, Jake standing over him.

“You’re in big tro . . . ,” the cop words caught in his throat when Jake snapped the baton in half with little effort and tossed the pieces aside.

By then, the other two cops, but not the young one Jake had spoken to, had drawn their weapons.

“Code in and shut down,” one yelled. “NOW!”

The other activated his vest radio. “Rogue unit on site. Requesting Tech backup.”

“Uh, guys…” the young cop said, but the others cut him short.

“Not now, rookie!” the older one said before continuing. “CODE IN AND SHUT DOWN!”

“My name is Jake Lewis. You are on my property, and they have committed no crime,” Jake replied as he beamed his ID.

He turned to point at the woman and kids and continued as the cops, surprised, lowered their guns.

“They are with me,” he said. “Leave now before I file a formal complaint.”

The cop he’d knocked down had gotten up by then, but he either didn’t hear or didn’t care what Jake said and drew his gun. Jake reacted out of reflex to the sound of the draw, and the cop fired in response to Jake moving toward him.

Jake’s defense protocols were fully functional. The instant before the cop fired, Jake moved, avoiding both of the bullets the cop shot before Jake took the gun from him, spraining the man’s wrist in the process.

He turned, prepared to face the others, but they were looking behind him, their guns still lowered.

Turning, Jake saw what preoccupied them. The two bullets that had missed Jake had struck the woman, one in the shoulder and one just above her left hip.

Everyone stood frozen, except Jake, who dropped the gun and rushed to her as she slowly sank to the ground. Her kids were seconds behind Jake, but one of the other cops moved and kept them from getting too close.

9-1-1 Wireless Communication Priority. Medical assistance is required. Gunshot wound, Triple J ranch. One female, mid-thirties, shoulder, and abdominal wounds. Locate on my position.”

Jake tapped the Public WiFi to send the 911 call and didn’t wait for an answer since one of the cops was making a similar call on his vest radio.

The woman was in shock and recoiled slightly when Jake’s faceless visage came into her field of view. He gently moved her hand to assess the abdominal wound, the more serious of the two. He reached into his emergency storage and pulled a wound patch. He tore it open, snapped the embedded coagulating serum vial, and pressed it on the wound.

“Hold this,” he told the young cop that had come to his side.

He then looked at the shoulder. It didn’t look like the bullet had hit any arteries, and it had gone clean through.

Someone reached around him and handed him another wound patch. He looked up to see the cop who had fired the shots. His face was pale and only registered concern. A redeeming moment that Jake filed away for later, when it might help him keep from beating the guy to a pulp.

The other two cops kept the kids from getting closer. It was enough the kids could see blood; they didn’t need more details than that for their eventual memories.

The emergency response was quick, both for the Medvac and additional officers to arrive, and, a few minutes after that, the woman was airlifted away just as a local news crew arrived and set up beyond the police barricades.

The investigative team was on site for another hour before they packed up and left after giving the SecTac regional commander their preliminary report.

The man looked Jake’s way, had a conversation with his men, and then walked over to Jake was standing, two officers discretely standing nearby.

“We got us a mess,” he said.

“And you are?”

“My name is Frank,” the man answered.

“Well, Frank, ‘we’ don’t have a mess here. You have a mess,” Jake said.

“The shooting is a mess, for sure, but so is assaulting an officer.”

“Want to watch a recording of the incident?” Jake asked.

“My men don’t wear body cameras. All I know right now is that you interfered with an arrest.”

“Not their recordings, mine,” Jake answered as he pointed to his head. “I interfered with the use of unreasonable force against a minor. Want me to quote SecTac regulations regarding minors?”

The man’s face soured. “Fucking mechs,” he said in a barely audible voice. He probably didn’t mean to say it aloud, but it was more than loud enough for Jake’s monitoring software to pick it up.

“I got that recorded too, Frank,” he offered, “and it’s ‘soldier,’ not mech.”

Frank looked at Jake, spit to the side, turned, and left without a word.

As he got to his car, he pointed toward the officers around the kids and then pointed at the prisoner transport wagon.

“NO.” Everyone present heard Jake’s augmented voice.

“Excuse me?” Frank said, one leg already inside his car.

“They are my guests, here by invitation. You can’t take them,” Jake said as he walked toward the now uncertain officers.

The youngest girl ran from the group and reached Jake before the officers could react. She stopped at his side and reached up to grab the little finger of his hand. Jake registered the warmth of her hand, the first voluntary human contact in many years.

Everyone stood where they were, unsure of what to do.

Frank’s eyes narrowed; he spat once more, made a circling motion with his hand, got in the car, and left, the other following suit.

A few minutes later, Jake, the kids, and the news crew were the only ones left to witness the dust kicked up by the cars settle on the now quiet scene.

The woman operating the camera put it down and walked over, asking the kids if they were alright as the man approached Jake.

“You’ve made a powerful enemy,” the man said as he offered his hand. “My name’s Nate.”

“I’ve faced worst,” Jake replied. “Nice to meet you, Nate. My name is Jake.”

“You know these kids?” Nate asked.

Jake looked down at the girl, still holding onto his little finger, and the two others who were looking at him with a mix of fascination and worry. Kids registered emotions and body language of adults better than most and adapted their behavior accordingly, but Jake’s featureless face might confound them. Although, the little girl didn’t seem to have an issue with it as she looked up and smiled at Jake.

A momentary emotional pain registered at the reminder he’d been robbed of the simple pleasure of being able to smile back. Or cry.

“No. I just got here when the cops were about to arrest them for trespassing. The woman said my father had invited them up here,” Jake explained. “Things evolved quickly when the cop hit the boy.”

“Hmm, yes . . . Jake, how much do you know about your father?”

“Not much. We’re estranged, and I’m surprised he left me the farm.”

“Well, through the years, Jim Lewis ‘invited’ many families up here from various places,” Nate said.

“I don’t understand,” Jake said.

“He connected with people who wanted out of certain situations and put them up for helping around the place.”

“Indentured servitude?”

“Not quite. Some only stay a little while. Those who are here longer earn a living wage which goes into savings that helps them get back on their feet down the line.”

“And everyone knows about it?”

The woman stood and answered Jake.

“Nate knows because it’s how I came to live in the county,” she said. “I stayed here for five years before I earned my degree and moved out. Few people know the details of how some residents come to live in the county, and we keep it out of the news. I’m Andi, by the way.”

“I don’t remember him as a caring individual,” Jake said as he reformulated what he thought he knew about his father. “Nice to meet you.”

“He wasn’t,” Andi said. “A caring individual, I mean. Unpleasant, actually, but fair. He cheated no one, never took advantage. I can’t say I enjoyed being here, but I wasn’t mistreated or ever felt afraid.”

“I’m hungry,” the little girl said.

Jake looked at the house.

“Let’s go see what’s inside,” he said.

~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

Nate and Andi stayed a while, and Andi, being familiar with the place, helped the older boy and girl prepare a meal for everyone as Nate caught Jake up with the state of affairs.

As a closed county, the place was not welcoming of strangers, especially not strangers from a low economic and social status. Per the county board’s instructions, SecTac were to ‘redirect’ as many transients as possible.

It took a year for anyone that came up to stay with Jake’s father to establish residency, and until then, if caught unescorted outside the property, they risked being put on a bus and relocated. Twice, Jake’s father had paid to bring the persons back, once driving out of state to get them.

Later that evening, after Andi had situated the kids in their rooms, the three adults stood outside before parting company.

“What are you planning on doing?” Andi asked.

“I’m hoping their mother makes it. Speaking of which, can you check on where she is and how she’s doing? The kids will want to know,” Jake said.

“Will do,” Nate answered. “And then?”

“Then . . . I don’t know.”

“What about the children?” Andi asked.

“They can stay here until their mother recovers,” Jake answered.

“I could send social services over.”

“No. I’ve been in the system. They’re better off here.”

“The system is better than it was,” Nate chimed in, “and you can bet SecTac will cover their asses and call them in.”

“I doubt they have improved that much,” Jake said, “but I’ll keep it in mind. As for SecTac, they’ll not want to shed too much light on this incident. Let’s wait a few days to see how things shake out.”

With that, they shook hands, and the two left.

~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

The night was chilly, but it didn’t bother Jake as he sat on the bench under the back patio’s overhang. The moonless night was perfect for stargazing, even without his wide-spectrum vision. He tweaked his hearing to take in sounds of the night creatures moving around and contemplated the events of the day.

The last thing he wanted was more conflict. But perhaps that’s what soldiers did. Step in when needed. He might have left the service, but once a soldier, always a soldier.

Still, eight years overseas had given him his fill. Eight years.

He had “joined” on his 18th birthday. His father had been against it, but Jake felt he didn’t have much of a choice.

Friends of Jake had pulled some nasty stuff, and while not directly involved, the prosecutor charged Jake as an accessory. He faced a ten years’ jail sentence, but they offered the opportunity to serve as a member of the Mech Corp and have his record expunged at the end of the tour. He hadn’t precisely known or been told what it would entail, and Jake now wondered if that had been a setup.

The augmentation surgeries and training spanned four years, and for eight years after that, he’d been deployed in combat theaters. During that time, not a single word from his father.

And yet, everything he’d learned today painted a different picture of the man he thought he knew. His father had changed once Jake’s mother had died, but he’d never been a great guy, at least that Jake could remember. Not that he ever mistreated his wife or Jake, but Jake had never gotten the sense that he was attentive to her needs . . . but neither had she nor Jake ever wanted for anything, and now, as an adult, he couldn’t remember a day when his parents had been apart.

He registered a motion overhead. A small meteor shower was painting streaks across the sky every half minute or so. As he watched, he also heard the creaking of the stairs and soft barefoot steps hesitantly making their way downstairs — the little one.

Absentmindedly, he followed her progress through the living room and into the kitchen. He thought she’d head back upstairs, but heard her coming out to the patio.

He turned as she stepped out, the low light from inside framing her small stature. She wore a long nightgown and carried a blanket as big as she was.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Me neither,” he replied.

“Do you sleep?” she asked.

“Sometimes,” he replied.

The girl hesitated before asking another question.

“Could you hold me?”

Jake hesitated for just a moment before nodding. She came closer, and he lifted her to sit beside him, but then picked her up when she shivered in the night air. Holding her in the crook of one arm, he arranged the small blanket around her and bumped the heat output to his chest and arms.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Madeline, but everyone calls me Maddie,” she answered. “What’s yours?”

“Jake,” he answered.

“Thank you for helping my brother,” she said, to which Jake had no response since the action resulted in her mother getting shot.

“Will my mom be alright?” she asked.

“I don’t know. They got help to her fast, and her wounds weren’t fatal, so her chances are excellent.”

Even as he answered, he realized it wasn’t the answer to give a kid, but Maddie took it in stride and sighed as she leaned her head against his chest.

“Thank you for the honest answer.”

Jake turned toward the speaker and saw the son and middle sister standing at the door. Distracted, he’d not registered their movements.

“Can we sit with you?” the girl asked.

“Sure,” Jake answered, “but grab the blanket from the sofa. It’s chilly out here.”

A few seconds later, with the boy to his left, the other girl to his right, Maddie in his arm, and the blanket around them and as the hanging sofa slowly rocked back and forth, Jake briefly contemplated this new turn of events as he cranked up his heat output a bit more.

“So, I’m Jake, and I’ve met Maddie,” he said. “Who and how old are you guys?”

“I’m Peter, and that’s Elizabeth, but we call her Liz,” the boy answered. “I’m fourteen, Liz is eleven, and Maddie is six,” he added.

“Nice to meet you,” Jake said, and then fell silent as he didn’t know what else to talk about.

Liz fidgeted a bit before speaking up.

“Are you a robot?” she asked.

“Liz! You shouldn’t . . .”  Peter admonished her.

“It’s OK,” Jake interrupted.

“I’m a man who’s had extensive work done to become a soldier,” he replied. “We’re made like this so we don’t get hurt in a battle.”

Not strictly true, but they didn’t need to know about the friends he’d lost.

“I want to be a soldier and protect people,” Peter said.

Jake didn’t answer, and they sat there, in silence, watching the Milky Way slowly turn above them. Eventually, by their breathing, Jake knew they were sleeping, and he sat in silent vigil, feeling more human than he had in many years. When the clouds moved in, he carried Maddie and then Liz up to their beds. Peter woke up when Jake moved Liz, and he made his way up to his bed ahead of Jake.

After he tucked them in, Jake went to his old bedroom and was surprised to see it close to how he had left it. He got in bed and listened to the kids sleeping for a while before setting his sensors on standby and switching to sleep mode.

 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

Nate called before the kids were up, and Jake used his internal com so as not to disturb them.

Hey, Jake. How are the kids?

Sleeping. You have any news on the mother?

Bad news, I’m afraid.

She died?” Jake asked, incredulous the wounds he’d seen were fatal.

What? No, sorry,” Nate corrected. “She was stabilized and doing OK, but she’s under arrest, with guards outside her room until she recovers enough to be moved. There’s a bench warrant out of Utah for her arrest. They plan to hold her until someone comes up to get her.

Do we know the reason for the warrant?

Yes, her husband claimed she left with their daughter, Madeline, against his wishes. He’s some local bigwig in Provo and wants them both back, but especially Maddie,” Nate said. “Which means you should get some visitors soon.

Only Maddie?” Jake asked.

The other kids are from a previous marriage and of no interest to the husband.

I see,” Jake said as he looked out the window. “Political or religious bigwig?

Political, but given the area, probably has religious ties,” Nate replied. “I know little more, but I assume you can ask the kids.

OK, Nate. Thanks.”

“Jake, what are you going to do?”

“Not sure what I can do.”

“OK. Keep in touch. If we can help with anything, let me know.”

“I will. Signing off.”

“He found us, didn’t he?” Peter said from the landing on the stairs. Liz and Maddie were sitting on the stairs a little above the landing.

“Yes,” Jake replied.

“We’re going back?”

“Not all of you. Just Maddie.”

“I don’t want to go back.” Maddie’s voice didn’t register much emotion. It was just a statement of fact.

“I know, but I don’t know what to do about it. They’ll be coming for you soon, and we don’t have many options.” As he spoke, Jake called up strategic planning programs, going over tactical scenarios that were, unfortunately, not applicable to civilian situations.

He could implement an avoid-and-evade plan, but it was impractical to contemplate with kids. Besides, that assumed there would be friendlies that would eventually render aid or mount a rescue. Again, not practical in the present situation.

The sound of a car had him realize they were out of time. He looked out the window, but it wasn’t a SecTac car he saw. It was a news van.

A few minutes later, Andi came in.

“You heard?” she asked as she walked past him and to the kids.

“Yes,” he replied.

“They will be here shortly,” Andi said.

She turned to the kids and gave them instructions. “Get your clothes and whatever you have up there and come back down as fast as you can.”

As the kids ran upstairs, Andi squared off in front of Jake.

“You look like you want to help. You act like you want to help,” she said. “How far are you willing to take it?”

“As far as it’s reasonable and a bit more,” Jake said. “But I don’t know what that is yet.”

“Fair enough. Let me show you something very few people know about.” With that, Andi led the way to the walkout lower level.

Downstairs, she went to the Jack-n-Jill bathroom and stepped into the shower, Jake baffled but following. She grabbed the metal soap holder attached to the wall and turned it ninety degrees, pulled it, turned it back to level, and pushed it back in.

Jake’s augmented hearing heard a faint click. Andi smiled, winked, and they watched a section of the wall slide back and to the side. As it did, lights turned on in what was a sizable room with cots, food, and two chemical toilets. And books and various toys, and games consoles.

“I’ll explain later, she said, but, if you’re willing and if they are willing, we can hide the kids in here until we can work out other courses of action.”

There was no hesitation on Jake’s part or by the kids. In fact, they seemed excited at the prospect of hiding in a secret room, and by the time the SecTac cars arrived, Jake and Andi were standing by the news van, the kids safely stored.

Words were exchanged, threats were made, but eventually, after searching every corner of the house and outbuilding, the cops accepted the explanation that the kids had run away during the night. Jake even offered to help with the search party, but the officer in charge rudely declined his help.

“We’re requesting sniffers out of Casper and bringing in drones. We’ll be back in a few hours,” he said. “We’ll track them down.”

He turned to leave, but then stopped and came back to face Jake and Andi.

“And if we find out you two are helping them,” he said while pointing at them both, “your asses are mine!”

“I don’t swing that way,” Jake said, “but you’re welcome to kiss it.” It was an automatic response, and even as he said it, Jake realized there was no gain in antagonizing the man.

The cop reddened and walked right up to Jake. As tall as he was, he still had to look up at Jake’s featureless face.

“If you had a smile,” he said in a low voice, “I would take pleasure in wiping it from your face.”

“Go ahead . . . Bill,” Jake said after making a show of looking at the man’s badge. “You get one free hit, and then I will enjoy beating the crap out of you until all there’s left is an empty uniform.”

For a moment, it looked as if the man was seriously contemplating it. Then he relaxed and smiled.

“Just like your old man,” he said and walked away without waiting for a response.

The comment bothered Jake, but there were more pressing matters to attend to. He waited until the cops left and turned to Andi.

“So, tell me about this room.”

“Your dad occasionally housed people like Maddie. People who needed a place to hide.”


“In a manner of speaking,” Andi replied. “That room was for wives who didn’t want to be found. Daughters who didn’t want to be found. Anyone who might be in a situation where it was best to disappear until the situation improved.”

“And if it didn’t improve?”

“New identities, relocation, sometimes to another country. Or, as in my case, waiting until I turned 18 and deemed an adult.”

“You’re talking about a modern-day underground railroad of sorts for battered wives and children,” Jake said.

“Yes. Your father contacted a certain group and eventually set up the ranch as an interim stop to elsewhere and, sometimes, as in my case, as the end destination. He did it shortly after you joined The Mech Corp.”

Jake took all that in, trying to get a focus on the person who had been his father . . . and failing.

“Will the sniffers find the safe room?” he asked.

“They never have before, but there’s always a possibility they’ve improved since the last time they were here was over four years ago,” Andi replied. “The thing is, because they are kids, the cops know they couldn’t have gone far, and when they don’t find them, they may focus more than usual on the house.”

“Perhaps I can give them a trail to follow. Get me a piece of clothing from each one. Preferably something they’ve worn for a while.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“I think the kids headed over the hills and toward the river. Or, at least, that’s what the sniffers will find,” Jake said. “If I know SecTac, they’ll have someone watching the gate to make sure we don’t sneak them out. You’re going to drive me out and drop me off by the old trestle, and I’ll double back through the woods, and then lay down a trail for the sniffers to follow.”

“Won’t they see you?”

“Not unless they have satellite imaging in place. It’s what I did for the last eight years,” Jake replied. If he could have, he would have smiled.

Fifteen minutes later, Andi and Jake drove out of the main gate and, as predicted, ran into a roadblock. The cops searched the car, but finding nothing, they let them go.

“Pick me up here in two hours,” he instructed Andi when she dropped him off. “If you can, find out when they are moving the mother.”

“Ginny. Her name is Ginny,” Andi replied. “I’ll try.”

“One more thing,” Jake said. “Can you find a lawyer sympathetic to this underground railroad thing? I have some money to fight them moving Ginny.”

He didn’t wait for an answer, and Andi watched as Jake seemed to just disappear into the woods.

~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

That afternoon, the sniffers safely following a trail a few miles away, Jake, Andi, and Samantha, a lawyer Andi found by contacting someone within the underground railroad network, sat in the farmhouse’s kitchen, strategizing.

“Samantha, can we try an injunction to block them from moving Ginny? After all, as of now, she has no idea where Maddie is.”

“Call me Sam,” she answered. “As far as the injunction, we’d have to prove that she is in physical danger, and that will be tough because there’s no history of physical abuse. That aside, the court will probably hold her responsible for Maddie’s disappearance and probably charge her with kidnapping unless she has sole legal custody of the child. With Maddie disappearing, Ginny could also face charges of child endangerment. All this, even if the father has no connections. If he is well-connected, it’s almost a certainty. ”

“But not for the other kids?”

“No, likely because she has sole custody of the kids from a previous marriage. Maddie’s father probably hasn’t adopted them.”

“But isn’t there any consideration for her having two other kids? What happens to them?”

“That gets a little complicated, and it would depend on the judge. Best case, they release her to take care of her family, but it could also go badly because she has no visible means of support without her husband. There’s a chance she’d go to jail, and Peter and Liz would go into foster care.”

Jake had been listening to Andi and Sam, and even with his limited understanding of the legalities, it sounded bleak.  Plus, he was responsible.

Had he not interfered when the cop had hit Peter and just spoken to the officers, they would have likely left, Ginny wouldn’t have gotten shot, and she would not have shown up on anyone’s radar.

“Sam,” Jake said, interrupting an exchange about laws in different states, “you need to leave.”

The women looked at him, confused expressions playing on their faces.

“Excuse me?” Sam said.

“You are a lawyer, and I assume you have certain responsibilities,” Jake clarified. “It might be best if this conversation continues without you present.”

Sam recovered first.

“Am I to infer the conversation might turn into discussing possibly illegal actions?” Sam asked. “Because I’m already in breach of any such responsibilities . . . which, even if clearly defined, lawyers routinely ignore.”

“Let me be clearer,” Jake answered. “If you remain, you might be complicit to things more serious than hiding three kids.”

“Jake, I provide legal counsel to an unofficial organization that routinely ignores laws. I consider such laws immoral and unjust, but whatever mitigating argument I might have, they would find me guilty and complicit in illegal activities. That includes the current situation since I’m sure you’re hiding the kids somewhere.”

“Yes, but I’m talking of doing more than that.”

“Go ahead, and I’ll offer you advice on how to best break the law to minimize consequences.”

“Are all lawyers like you?” Jake asked.

“All the good ones,” Sam replied.

Again, Jake wished he could smile. Perhaps the cheapest modification would be to add the ability to display a smile icon on his face.

“I’m talking about me getting Ginny and then her and the kids going underground,” Jake clarified. “How good are the organization’s resources as far as making people disappear?”

“Good, but it’s pricey,” Andi replied, listing the procedure and the approximate cost.

“But,” she added, “the price is to avoid a repeat of what happened to Ginny. With solid fake identities, they’re not likely to trigger any alerts even if they get in some system or other.”

“I have money at my disposal to cover the cost,” Jake said. “In that regard, I’d also like to retain you, Sam, on behalf of Ginny.”

“No worries,” Sam said. “This will be one of my pro bono cases, and I’ll make the contact for the identities, but be aware it might take a while.”

“Thank you,” Jake said as he nodded. “The question then is how to spring Ginny.”

“You wait until she’s extradited,” Andi said. “She’ll be home then.”

“Would she go back home? From what you discussed, she will probably be charged and go directly to another jail.” Jake asked.

“Can we post bail for her?” Andi asked.

“Seeing as she already ran away once, she’ll be considered a flight risk, and the bail set very high,” Sam said, “and if we plan on her doing a runner, that money is gone for good, plus you can bet you’d then have bounty hunters looking for her.”

Just then, they heard a slight commotion outside, and a moment later, the officer in charge of the Search and Rescue Squad knocked and came inside.

“We found a shoe and torn pieces of clothing at the river three miles from here,” the officer said. “The water is fairly shallow, but we’re not picking up a scent along the banks for a mile either way.”

“What are you saying?” Andi asked.

“That maybe they tried to cross and didn’t make it.”

“Wouldn’t have they found the bodies?” Jake asked.

“We’re looking, but the river turns to rapids a quarter mile from that area and then joins with summer melt from the mountain tributaries and gains in speed and turbulence.”

“So, what happens now?” Andi asked.

“We continue the search, but it’s not hopeful,” the cop replied. “As a heads up, there’s talk of Mr. Lewis being charged with negligence or child neglect for letting them run away.”

“No,” Sam said. “No prosecuting attorney would bring those charges to a grand jury.”

“That’s not for me to say, ma’am. I’m just letting you know we’re relocating closer to the river crossing. We’ll keep you informed of any progress.”

~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

Later, after the cops had left, after further discussions regarding scenarios for getting Ginny back, they agreed it was best to wait-and-see what would happen in the next few days, and Sam left.

Making sure all the blinds were closed and arming outside sensors, Jake and Andi retrieved the kids and updated them on what they knew but withheld speculation about their mother.

“So, it means we can’t see our mom?” Peter asked.

“. . . and she may think we are dead?” Liz added.

“I’m sorry, but that’s how it has to be for a little while,” Andi replied.

Jake looked at Maddie. She’d sat quietly and had been attentive during the update, an impressive thing for a six-year-old. Jake had many childhood memories, but being attentive during adult conversations was not one of them.

“Maddie, how do you feel about your dad?” Jake asked.

“He’s mean,” Maddie answered without looking up.

“Did he hurt you?”

“No, but he hurt mom.”

“He hit her?” Andi asked, but Maddie shook her head.

Peter interjected, saving his sister from having to answer.

“He never hit any of us, and he didn’t hit our mom, but he would shake her real hard. I saw him once hold her down with a pillow over her head, but he said he was just playing.”

“Why didn’t she report it?”

Liz answered. “We talked about it, but mom said he threatened to take us away from him.”

“Could you not testify in a custody hearing?” Jake asked.

“It depends on the state,” Andi replied, “and it’s rare for kids younger than 14, and even then, only a few states have rules in place. Often, it’s up to the discretion of the presiding judge.”

They talked some more, and then, after some vague reassurances about being reunited with their mother, Jake and Andi spent time ensuring both Peter and Liz could operate the mechanism of the safe room. They also tested how fast the kids could get to the shelter from various places of the house.

After dark, Jake went out and did a sweep of the area, searching for heat signatures, surveillance devices, or anything that might show they were being watched. Having found nothing unusual, they all sat outside on the swing sofa, Jake between Peter and Liz with Maddie in his arms, and Andi on the other side of Liz. The small talk gave way to silent contemplation, and once again, the kids drifted off to sleep.

“It’s too late to drive back,” Andi said after they got the kids to bed. “I’ll crash on the sofa and leave in the morning.”

“You can sleep upstairs. I don’t actually need a bed.”

“That’s OK,” she said, “I prefer the sofa.”

~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

Just before dawn, Jake stepped out on the front door to watch the sunrise. Out of habit, he ran a sweep using his visual sensor’s full range and realized not all of the Eastern glow was due to the imminent sunrise. Cars were coming from the main road, maybe two or three minutes out.

“Andi!” he yelled as he rushed back in. “Get the kids into the shelter, now!”

Andi came fully awake from a light slumber and ran for the stairs as she yelled back, “What happened?”

“I’m assuming SecTac didn’t fully buy into the kids running away and are conducting a surprise raid,” Jake said as Andi went to Liz and Maddie’s room, and he went to get Peter.

“Jake!” Andi yelled, “Maddie’s not in her room!”

They both did a quick scan of the upstairs, but she wasn’t there.

“Get them into the safe room and look for her in the basement. I’ll check downstairs,” Jake said.

He did a speed check on the first floor, but she wasn’t there.

“Did you find her?” he yelled.

“No, she’s not down here.”

“There’s no time; lock them in, I’ll keep looking,” Jake said.

There was only one other place he could think of, and he cursed himself for not checking in on the kids during the night.

He found her outside on the swing sofa, under the blanket, already awake from all the yelling.

Saying nothing, he grabbed her and the blanket and walked back inside. He could hear Andi at the front door, demanding to know what SecTac was doing here.

“Search warrant. Here, you can read it as we search.”

Jake recognized Frank’s voice. This was bad. They blocked the way to the lower level, and he could hear a few people out back heading to the outbuilding.

“Maddie,” he whispered, “I need you to be very quiet and very still. Can you do that?”

The little girl, her eyes wide, nodded a yes.

“I’m going to wrap you up and put you on the sofa in the office. OK?” Jake said, and again she nodded.

Two people had already gone upstairs, and one in the basement and two were heading his way. He ducked into the office, put the blanket-wrapped Maddie in the corner of the overstuffed sofa, and casually leaned a pillow on the blanket.

He was just turning when an officer walked in . . . it was the one who’d accidentally shot Ginny.

Jake took a purposeful step toward him, and the man backed up and to the side just as Frank came through the door.

“Planning on attacking my officer again?” he asked as he casually handled a high-voltage baton. Unlike service units, Jake’s circuits were shielded, but a hit wouldn’t be pleasant and could damage periphery circuits. Not that he would allow a hit to land, but he couldn’t afford a full-blown fight with SecTac.

“No,” Jake replied and pointed to the brace around the man’s wrist. “I just wanted to shake his hand.”

“Funny guy. We have a warrant to tear this house apart if we have to,” Frank said. “Don’t think I bought that malarkey about the kids running away.”

“Stay here while we search the house,” Frank said. “Ed will keep you company,” as he handed the baton to ED.

“Search the office. If he gives you any trouble, zap him good,” he told Ed and then left.

The two eyed each other, Jake perforce expressionless but worried about Maddie, and Ed looking very uncomfortable and holding the baton as if he didn’t want it.

“Look,” Ed said, “I’ve never wanted . . .” but he didn’t finish because the pillow moved.

Ed looked at the pillow and then back at Jake. Motioning Jake to back off, Ed cautiously approached the pillow and blanket, the baton in front of him.

“Don’t poke the blanket,” Jake said in a soft and resigned voice.

Ed stopped and looked back and forth between Jake and the blanket. He clumsily transferred the baton to his hurt hand and pulled back a corner of the blanket. Maddie looked up at the man, her eyes wide.

Ed brought his index finger to his mouth in the universal sign of silence.

“Shhh,” he said, and then replaced the blanket and rearranged the pillow.

Neither man said a word. Then Ed started knocking things off the shelves and making a mess of the place. After a few seconds, Jake helped.

An hour later, all the men, and a very unhappy Frank, left without saying much.

~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

A week later, Sam stopped by for a visit.

“The identities are ready, but I’ve not had any luck with getting a local hearing for Ginny. As it stands, they’ll extradite her next week.”

“Any luck in Provo?” Jake asked.

“No. My local contacts give little hope for the presiding judge either listening to the kids or siding with Ginny.”

“Excuse me a moment,” Jake said as he tapped the WiFi. “I need to rent a car.”

~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

A day before Ginny was to be picked up, she managed to sneak out of the hospital during a final MRI exam, the technician having to leave the room for a few minutes because of a tripped circuit breaker. The officer guarding the room did not see anyone come or go. They theorized Ginny left using the emergency fire escape exit without triggering the alarm.

Frank and a team of officers again descended on the Triple J Ranch, accusing Jake of helping Ginny escape, but Jake had a rock-solid alibi; at the same time Ginny executed her escape, Jake was 25 miles away, as corroborated by the speeding ticket issued by Officer Ed Bryant.

After a cursory search of the house, Frank once again warned Jake that he had “his eye on him,” to which Jake replied something about not being interested in Frank’s sexual advances.

~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~

Hearing the car, Jake looked up from the book he was reading. He had begun reading his father’s extensive library of honest-to-goodness books, making it a habit of actually reading instead of scanning the books. After noting the page number, Jake put aside the book, The Alphabet Tales — A Collection of Short Stories. He’d read better, but he’d also read worse offerings.

Rising, he walked off the front porch and went to meet the SecTac car that was making its way down the drive. It was the first company he’d had since Ginny and the kids had left a few weeks back.

The car entered the circular drive and stopped in front of Jake.

“I’m assuming these are guests of yours?” Ed asked as he got out and opened the rear door. A young woman stepped out, followed by two younger girls. “They say they are sisters and have an invitation to spend the summer with you. I figured I’d bring them over before someone else picks them up.”

As the girls looked around uncertainly, Ed retrieved three small travel bags from the trunk, put them on the ground next to the girls, nodded to Jake, got back in the car, and left.

Jake looked at them for a few moments before speaking.

“Grab your things,” he said. “Let me show you to your rooms.”

Later, they all sat on the swing sofa, watching the sun setting behind the hill, the girls fighting off the evening chill with mugs of hot chocolate.

Jake dismissed a thought about facial reconstruction and physically drinking hot chocolate with the girls. He just enjoyed the company, having found other uses for his money, and having realized there were ways of feeling human other than looking like one.

The End

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