First story in the ALPHAS series.
No one really knew what went on at Omnichron Laboratories. It was purportedly a "think tank" that employed scientists to solve problems for... well, Orin Travis didn't know what.
He was having a hell of a time putting together his story for the Press-Herald. The place had burned to the ground two days before, and "authorities" had been quick to assure the public that there were no biohazards involved. Indeed, the entire alphabet soup of federal agencies had gone over the place and determined it was just an ordinary fire, probably started by accident, although Travis wasn't at all convinced that the place didn't employ people who could make anything look like an accident.
He pushed himself away from his keyboard. He had nothing. Nada. Zip. It was a non-story. There was no human interest aspect on the people who were now out of jobs, because he hadn't actually been able to find anyone who would admit to working at Omnichron. It was as if the place ran itself. The building had no historical significance - just a big concrete box built back in the 60s, to replace a non-descript brick building erected in the late 20s.
He was apparently the only one who found it odd that there were no personal effects among the bull-dozed ashes. No picture frames, no coffee mugs, none of the knick-knacks people displayed in their cubicles. Briefly, he wondered if there might be a story there - in the mystery of the place. Conspiracy theories were always good for boosting readership. But he couldn't even come up with one to explain a 5 story building that covered 2 acres that no one seemed to know anything about.
His phone rang - his real phone, the one on his desk that still had a rotary dial. He hadn't known the thing actually worked. Curious, he picked it up. "Travis."
There was a brief silence and he almost hung up. Then he heard one word. "Omnichron." The voice was female, hesitant.
"Go on..." he said.
"The Alphas. They are still in there. There's a sub-basement."
Travis frowned. "Alphas?"
"Kids. Seven kids."
Then there was a click and the phone went dead.
Travis looked at the receiver as if that would somehow make it come back to life. His first thought was to punch in the code to retrieve the number of the last incoming call, but he was thwarted by the rotary dial. "Damn it."
The ancient instrument did have a voice-activated recording device connected to it. It was an old cassette recorder. Luckily, he was old enough to remember how they worked. He rewound the tape a few seconds and hit play.
The message was exactly as he'd remembered it, so it was really no help. Who or what were the "Alphas?" And kids? At a think tank? In the basement? It made no sense, but was certainly enough to pique his curiosity. He ejected the cassette and slipped it into his pocket. He'd have to hunt down someone who could digitize the recording later.
It was 6:00 pm. His first thought was to pack it in for the night, and then drive out to Omnichron first thing in the morning. But that weird phone call nagged at him.
Kids. Seven kids...
He knew as soon as he started his Ford Taurus that Omnichron was where he was going.
+ + + + + + +
He pulled up to the burned out building. It was cordoned off with tape, but oddly, there was no one there. No guard, no cop, no one. It was as if anyone who'd had anything to do with the place had been beamed off into space .... now there was a conspiracy theory...
There were no lights, except for the ones in the parking lot which were solar powered. Their intensity faded substantially after sundown, and even now they cast the ruins in an eerie blue glow that Travis had to admit was spooky. The scene looked like something from the Zombie Apocalypse and his imagination conjured walking corpses, vampires, ghosts... and those aliens who had beamed everyone into space. He shuddered, and then felt ridiculous.
He dug around in the car until he found a flash-light, or more precisely, a high-intensity LED lantern. He should have been comforted by the light source, but it only served to make the surroundings even more eerie. Swallowing hard to keep his heart from jumping out of his throat, he headed for what used to be the building's main entrance.
He realized that he would have welcomed eerie silence when he discovered that a distinct, rhythmic knocking was coming from somewhere below him. It was so faint that it might have been mistaken for dripping water, except that it paused occasionally, and the rhythm would change, or would skip a beat or two. He inhaled sharply. No, something was making that noise.
Against all of his instincts - most notably the ones that told him to get his sorry ass out of there, as quickly as possible - he headed for the source of the sound, turning as needed through the maze of corridors. Luckily, he was leaving a trail in the ash-covered floor, so he didn't have to worry about finding his way back out. He briefly considered that should something happen to him, the trail would also lead to his body.
He found himself at a set of double metal doors with a security lock, but with the power off, the door opened with just a shove. Behind it was a stairwell leading down into utter blackness that seemed to swallow up the beam of his lantern.
He almost turned back, but the noise was much louder now. In fact, he thought it might be coming from somewhere at the bottom of the stairs... wherever that was. He concentrated on illuminating the steps as he walked down them, because thinking about anything else would probably have him fleeing in abject terror.
At the bottom of the stairwell was another door, to another stairwell that went even deeper. He could still hear the sound, louder now, but not more insistent or determined. Whatever was making it still didn't know he was there. Aliens or zombies would know, right?
Down into the darkness. Another door. This one wouldn't budge. He shook it and the rattle of metal echoed loudly. And suddenly, the other noise stopped. Shit.
Travis was so terrified by this time that it took him several seconds to realize that the door was bolted from his side. That gave him a moment of relief, realizing that whatever was in there couldn't get out. Maybe.
With trembling hands, he pulled back the mechanism that slid the heavy metal bolt back. He tugged on the door and it creaked open. There was a small ping that sounded like something had been dropped, followed by the very faint sound of hushed voices. Human voices.
There was yet another staircase. This one seemed to go on forever - Travis counted 39 steps in all.
At the bottom was another metal door, but somehow, someone had actually succeeded in making a small hole in it. Cautiously, he held the lantern up and caught a brief glimpse of a hazel eye. It was looking up at him from about 3 feet off the ground. A child.
He ripped back the bolt holding the door closed.
He didn't know what he was expecting, but it wasn't to be confronted by a pint-sized soldier in full body armor pointing a scaled down version of a state of the art assault weapon at him.
He raised his hands in surrender. The "soldier" was not more than six or seven years old, but the weapon looked real, and the kid's expression told him it wasn't a game. His eyes were blue, so he was not the one who had peeked through the whole.
"I'm Orin Travis," he said calmly, taking in the six faces before him. Children's faces.
One boy was as tall as he was, but he was clearly no more than 14 or 15. The one holding a gun on him stood in front of the others, even though he was the smallest.
No, wait.... second smallest. A mop of black hair peered around from the back of one of the bigger boys. So there were seven of them.
"We're... Alphas," one of the boys said uncertainly. Then he ordered the child with the gun to, "Stand down, Six."
The little soldier lowered his weapon and stepped to one side.
Travis found himself staring down at a blond youngster with a very un-childlike-like glare. He was just a tad over five feet tall, and not the largest or oldest boy in the group, but the others stood quietly behind him.
"You're from outside," he said calmly.
Travis didn't know what that meant. "What are you kids doing here?"
The little one with the dark hair emerged from behind the taller boy. "We live here. I'm Alpha Seven. Who are you?"
"Seven, be quiet," the older boy said gently, and picked the little guy up.
"What the hell is going on here?" Travis said, taking a step through the door.
The boy with the gun raised his weapon again. Travis tried to calmly ignore him as he took in the surroundings. Above, he saw the night sky and all of the familiar constellations and a glowing moon. There was a light breeze blowing and the smell of fresh cut grass and honeysuckle permeated the air.
But it was all fake - they were at least fifty feet underground.
There was a flicker and all of the "sky" went black and the air stopped moving for several seconds. The stars and breeze soon reappeared but Travis realized that whatever power source was creating them was likely failing.
"Why does that keep happening?" the tallest boy asked no one in particular.
It clearly unnerved them all.
Travis had no idea what he should do. Who were these kids and what were they doing here? More importantly, what was he supposed to do now that he'd found them? He couldn't just close the door again and leave them there.
"You say you live here," he said. "Do you mean you live at Omnichron?"
"What's Omnichron?" asked a tall dark-skinned boy who looked maybe ten or eleven.
Travis walked past him and held his lantern up before him as he walked. The sub-basement was huge - there were actual streets and buildings down here. What the hell was this place?
"Don't you boys know where you are?" he asked, and got seven blank stares.
Travis felt like he was in the Twilight Zone, but he made a decision. He took out his phone to call his wife, Evie, but there was no signal this far underground.
"Let's go," he said to the boys, and motioned towards the door.
They didn't move, which was ironic since he was pretty sure they had been trying to break the door down when he'd arrived.
He waited for some reaction. Finally, the blond boy spoke. "What's on the other side?"
Travis didn't understand. "What do you mean?"
"We've never been through the door," the blond boy said.
Travis raised an eyebrow. "Ever?"
The seven of them shook their heads.
"But how did you get here? Where did you come from?"
Again, blank stares. Travis looked at the oldest boy. "You... what's your name?"
"I am Alpha One," the boy said.
He was tall and broad-shouldered, almost a young man.
"You must remember when these little ones came here," he motioned towards the three youngest, which included the little soldier, Six, Alpha Seven and a little boy with brilliant green eyes.
The big boy nodded. "I remember when they came I was little like Seven when Five came, but I remember."
This was getting weirder by the moment. "Where did they come from?" Travis prodded.
The boy shrugged. "I don't know. They just came."
"Have you ever lived anywhere else?" Travis asked. He intended his question for the big boy, but all seven of them shook their heads.
"And you've never been outside?"
They looked at each other briefly, then the blond boy asked, "What is outside?"
Travis didn't know if he was asking what there was outside, or what the word 'outside' meant.
"You can't stay here. There's no one here."
This seemed to shock and frighten all of them, even though the blond boy did a good job of not showing it. "Where are Theta and Nu?"
"I'm sorry," Travis replied. "I don't know what... or who... that is."
"They take care of us," little Seven replied.
"But they've been gone for. . . " the dark boy counted on his fingers, ". . . six nights and five days."
"There's no more food," said the boy holding Seven.
That was when Travis came to a grim realization - these kids had been left here, by someone who either thought they were dead, or who had expected them to die without being found.
"Listen to me," he implored. "We have to leave here. Give me that gun," he told Six.
He didn't really expect to be obeyed without question, but he also didn't expect the youngster to back off and cock the weapon. "No," the child said, and Travis knew he meant it.
Looking at the rifle, Travis doubted his larger fingers would have fit into the trigger guard, anyway. He also had no doubt that the child knew how to use it. He backed off. "You... all of you... have to come with me. Go get whatever you want to take with you. I'm going up the stairs, but I'll be back." He would have to go to the surface and make a phone call.
If he'd had the heebie jeebies going down, it was nothing compared to what his mind conjured going up. He was sure someone must be watching the place, making sure those kids never saw the light of day - if, indeed, they ever had seen it.
Someone could be waiting for him.
When he was one level below the entrance, he looked around for something to use as a club in case had to defend himself. As he did, his lantern shed a glow around a large room. His eyes were more accustomed to the dark than they had been on the way down. The room looked like a break room, or a cafeteria. Melted, scorched vending machines lined one wall and charred tables and chairs were scattered about. On one wall, he spotted a partially burned poster. It said:
INSIDE EVERY CHILD IS A GENIUS.
Someone had used a black marker to cross through the word "genius" and had replaced it with 'weapon."
+ + + + + + +
Evie, bless her heart, was never one to ask questions. When he'd asked her to borrow her brother Evan's big-ass SUV and meet him at Omnichron, she agreed hesitantly, but didn't ask him what was going on, which was a good thing because he wouldn't have been able to tell her, not over the phone. Who knew who might be listening?
While he'd waited for her to arrive, he'd gone back down into the depths of the burned out ruins. He wished there was more light down there so he could see better. The boys didn't seem to have a problem. They were thoroughly familiar with every nook and cranny of the place and navigated effortlessly in the dim light.
None of them had a suit case or a travel bag so they had improvised using the pillow cases from their beds.
Travis didn't know if they understood they were probably never coming back. The pillow cases seemed to contain very little, except for the one that Six was carrying - or, more appropriately, dragging. Whatever it contained was too heavy for him to carry easily.
"Want some help with that?" he asked the boy.
The youngster tightened his grip. "No."
Travis didn't push the issue. "What about the rest of you? Is that all you're bringing?"
They looked at each other briefly, before the blond boy said, "It's all we have."
Travis gently took little Seven's bag and peered inside. There was a black binder, a box of pens, a book, and a plastic box of what he recognized from his son Steven's pre-school days as Cuisenaire rods. There was also what looked like a slide rule, although he couldn't be sure since he'd only seen pictures of those.
The boys were wearing simple tee-shirts and loose-fitting trousers. All of them were barefoot.
"Don't you have any clothes, shoes?" he asked.
"The clothes are over there," the dark boy pointed to a row of cubbies which contained stacks of identical clothing in numbered rows. It was the same stuff they had on - except for a row of what looked like miniature BDUs, complete with tactical boots.
"Well, best take that along, too," he suggested. It wasn't as if they didn't have room for it, except for Six. Travis offered to carry his share of the clothes since there didn't seem to be any more room in his pillow case.
He had them put on the boots. There was broken glass and debris everywhere, and there was no way they'd get through it barefoot without someone getting cut. The boots looked exactly like military issue, even though the ones that belonged to the three younger boys seemed impossibly small.
Evie was waiting when they emerged.
"Orin... what on earth...." she looked at the boys, who were transfixed by their surroundings. Omnichron was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a heavily wooded area. But the lights of the city glowed in the distance and real trees moved with the evening breeze.
Little Seven covered his eyes and buried his head against the leg of the boy who had picked him up earlier, who Travis had learned was 'Three.' The blond boy was 'Two,' the dark boy was 'Four' and the one with the green eyes was 'Five.'
"Evie, meet One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven." He pointed to each boy in turn.
Evie was speechless, until Seven began to sob quietly. Her maternal instincts kicked in then, and she knelt down beside the little boy. "What's wrong, honey?" she asked him.
"He's scared," Three answered.
Five clutched his bag close to him, as if it provided comfort. "Are those... trees?" he asked, looking at the towering pines that lined the parking lot.
Evie looked at Orin, who could only shrug.
"'Course they're trees," Two said. He tried to make the statement sound casual, but Travis detected a note of apprehension in his voice. "What else would they be?"
"Monsters!" Seven wailed.
"Orin, I need to talk to you... " Evie said sternly.
While she argued the wisdom of piling seven strange kids into a car and driving off with them, the boys carefully examined both the SUV and the Taurus.
"They look like they've never seen a car before," Evie said.
"That's just it, Evie," Travis replied. "I don't think they have. I think they've spent their entire lives in that hole in the ground... What do you think we should do? Leave them here?"
"We need to call social services," Evie reasoned.
"Evie, you know how that works better than anyone." Evie had been placed in foster care herself at age 2, along with her twin brother, Evan. Although they had been lucky enough to be adopted by a decent family who gave them a good home, they had four older siblings that they'd never seen again. Evie didn't even know their names.
He could see in her eyes that she had come around.
"Get in, boys," he pointed to the SUV.
"This is an automobile, correct?" One asked.
"Yes, it is, son."
The boys eyed the vehicle uncertainly, so Travis pulled open the side door. Two looked inside, and then, without hesitation, started pointing to seats, telling each of the others where to sit. He took the "shotgun" seat for himself. None of the boys - including One, who was obviously older, argued. It was clear that Two was the leader of the group.
They figured out the seatbelts without any help, even the three little ones.
"Is it going to move?" asked Seven excitedly. "I want it to move!"
"Quiet, Seven," Two said, which immediately settled the smaller boy.
"Where are you taking us?" Two asked. "And don't think about harming us. Six won't let you."
Travis held back a smile. He doubted "Six" was even four feet tall, and he couldn't have weighed more than 50 pounds, if that much. Still, he remembered the look in the child's eyes when he'd asked for his gun.
"No one is going to harm you," Travis said. "But you can't stay here without power and without food and without anyone to look after you."
He turned the key in the ignition and there was a collective gasp as the vehicle began to move.
"FUN!" Seven exclaimed. No one else said anything, but checking in his rear view mirror, Travis could tell the others agreed.
He remembered what Three had said about there not being any more food. "Are you boys hungry?" he asked.
"YES!" Seven answered. The little guy seemed the one most willing to talk. Travis wondered if that was just his personality or if the others had been more intensely programmed to not voice an opinion. He was afraid it was the latter.
He called Evie, who was behind them in the Taurus, and told her they were stopping for food.
"Do you think that's wise, Orin?" she asked.
"What do you mean?"
"They are... odd children. A restaurant might be a tad overwhelming."
Evie was ever the voice of reason, and Travis had to concede she had a point.
"Do we have food at home?" he asked. And of course, they did, but with their busy schedules, it was mostly stuff they could toss in a microwave, and probably not enough of it to feed seven kids.
Their dilemma was solved when Five pointed at a brightly lit sign for a Golden Corral and calmly stated, "That sign says 'Restaurant.' It means they have food."
Travis got the idea that the boy would not have said anything if he had not been truly hungry.
He pulled into the parking lot.
They collected a few stares when they entered with seven boys of different sizes and ages who were all dressed identically. The boys, for their part, stared back, or in Two's case, glared back. That kid was downright unnerving. Travis could see that even though he was confused and maybe even a little frightened, he wouldn't take any shit from anyone.
Travis had peeked inside Six's pillow case and had discovered, to his horror, that it was full of weapons - a pistol, a rifle, an assault rifle, a crossbow and God only knew what else. The little guy clearly had some serious issues, but his hunger overpowered his attachment to his arsenal and he had agreed to leave it in the car.
The hostess found a table big enough for the nine of them, and then told them to help themselves to the buffet. The boys followed his lead, watching closely to see what he did. After picking up trays and plates and silverware, he assured them they could take whatever they wanted from the trays of food set out.
He expected them to attack the pizza or fried chicken they way normal kids would, but after inspecting the selections carefully, they filled their plates with an odd assortment of vegetables and fruit, including emptying the small tray of garbanzos at the salad bar. Six filled his entire plate with pineapple chunks.
"Son, that's a little too much fiber, there," Travis said gently, and slid some of the pineapple onto his own plate. "Why don't you try some chicken?"
"A chicken is a bird," the boy said.
"Well, yes... it is." And Travis wasn't sure what else to say on the subject. He took a breast and put it on Six's plate. The child stared at it.
"What happened to it?" he asked finally.
"It got killed and put in a fire," One informed him.
"Oh." Six shrugged, but left the meat on his plate. Seven decided to try some, too.
The boys stood at the table patiently and did not sit down until all seven of them were there. When they did, though, they dug into the food like earth movers.
They didn't use the silverware. Evie was appalled, Travis could tell, but said nothing.
Six took an experimental bite out of the chicken and Travis heard bones crunch.
Evie was on it. "Don't eat the bones, honey," she told him and then showed him how to pull off the meat.
Four watched, fascinated. "Those are the pectoralis and the supracoracoideus muscles," he observed. Six offered him a bite, which he took tentatively. "Surprisingly tasty," he informed the others.
There seemed to be an unspoken agreement reached among the seven boys, and they returned to the buffet and took samples of everything. Green beans, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli were quickly shoved aside in favor of banana pudding, mac & cheese and pepperoni pizza.
The gooey stuff presented a challenge, and Five pulled a spoon out of the wrapped silverware. The older ones did likewise, although Six and Seven were happy to just lick pudding and macaroni off of their fingers.
"Maybe we shouldn't let them eat that stuff," Evie whispered.
"Probably not," he agreed, as Six used both hands to stuff an entire serving of chocolate cake into his mouth. "You want to stop them?"
She smiled and shook her head.
Travis used his phone to take photos of the boys while they ate, which he then tucked away on his private cloud, along with a brief summary of when and where he'd found them. His daughter-in-law, who was a local news anchor, had access to whatever was there in the event something suspicious happened to him. Barring that, no one would be likely to access the information.
While the boys cleaned up in the men's room after the meal, Travis and Evie discussed exactly where they were going to take them. Travis half expected black helicopters to start hovering any minute. Omnichron had all of the earmarks of a secret laboratory, and the fact those kids were captives there was distinctly unsettling. He feared not only for their safety, but for Evie's and his own.
"We can take them to Steven's cabin," she suggested. Their son, Steven, had invested well in digital news media, and had a few million bucks stashed away. He owned a luxury cabin on a small lake in the woods about ninety miles north of town. Travis considered it, but their house was tucked away in a pocket residential area downtown, just a block off the city's main thoroughfare. He figured they'd be safer there. If anyone did come for them, it would be sure to attract immediate attention. The cabin was larger, but it would take any law enforcement agency at least 25 minutes to get there should there be trouble.
On the way to the house, he was faced with a new dilemma... someone was going to have to go get some groceries and extra blankets and pillows for their unexpected guests. Travis didn't want to leave Evie alone with the strange boys - One and Three were bigger than she was, and he didn't know what was up with little Six and the weapons.
On the other hand, he didn't want to send her out alone. He had visions of someone kidnapping her and holding her in exchange for the children.
Something about the kids - Two and Six especially - told him they could take care of themselves as well as he could protect them, so he decided to take Evie with him to the nearest K-Mart, and leave the boys alone at the house with the alarms set, and hope they didn't trash the place. He somehow doubted they would - despite eating with their hands, they had behaved better at the restaurant than Steven and his friends ever had.
The entered the house via the large family room. There were two couches, a TV and a pool table in the room, along with a shelf of DVDs and even videocassettes, most of which hadn't been watched in ages. Travis settled the boys down and then told them he and Evie would be leaving for awhile, but that they'd be right back. He stopped short of telling them to make themselves at home, having no idea how they would interpret that.
"I'm going to set an intruder alarm on the door," he explained. "Don't let anyone in."
Two looked at Six, who instantly had the miniature assault rifle in his hands.
"Whoa, son!" Travis tried to stay calm. "You don't need to shoot anyone... " Although, after some brief thought, Travis wondered if the possibility didn't exist. "Just be careful."
"Orin, you can't leave children alone with loaded weapons!"
Evie was right. What the hell had he been thinking?
"She's got a good point," he said, addressing Two specifically as their leader. "We'll need to lock those guns up for now."
Surprisingly, he got no argument. Two nodded at Six, who handed over his weapons.
Travis kept his old army footlocker in the garage, just outside the door to the family room. He dug out the key for the padlock, opened it, and removed the few mementos he had stored there. He then tucked Six's arsenal inside and locked them up. There were no other guns in the house. Evie wouldn't have it.
As soon as the car pulled out of the driveway, Two nodded at Five, who calmly went to the garage and picked the lock on the footlocker open in 17 seconds.
+ + + + + + +
The boys apparently had no problem figuring out how to hook up and operate the ancient VCR, because when Travis and Evie returned, they were sitting in front of the flat screen mesmerized by one of Steven's old rock videos. Travis vaguely recognized the band. Moldy Crud, or something like that. At least they weren't playing it at the ear-splitting volume Steven did when he was a kid.
In fact, they seemed kind of baffled by it all. They didn't protest when Evie turned it off and told them it was time for bed.
Travis passed out toothbrushes and towels and pointed out the bathrooms. The house luckily had three baths, even though he and Evie never used the one off the den and rarely used the one adjacent to Steven's old room. That room had a bunk bed with a double bed on the bottom and a single on the top. It would be perfect for the three little guys. The guest room had two twin beds and with the two couches in the den, there was a place for everyone.
There was no discussion over the sleeping arrangements. Two and Three took the den while One and Four took the guest room. Five claimed the top bunk in Stephen's room, and Travis braced for a protest, but Six and Seven crawled into the double bed without argument.
It was then that Travis noticed Six had his belongings back. Evie noticed it too.
"I thought you locked those up?" she whispered accusingly.
"I did!" he protested. He was sure he had. He checked to make sure that the key was still on his key ring. It was.
Evie put on what Travis called her 'Mom Face.'
"Honey," she told Six patiently, "these guns scare me. Can we please put them away for the night?"
"Do you have a perimeter alarm?" Five asked.
The house did have a security alarm. They didn't bother to activate it unless they were going to be gone overnight, but it was there.
"Yes," Travis assured. "You can get up and help me set it, if you like." Somehow, he sensed they would be more inclined to agree to Evie's request if he let them see that they wouldn't be taken by surprise as they slept.
The three of them followed him as he punched in the codes to set the alarm and then checked the windows and doors to make sure it was properly activated. The yard had motion detectors that turned on bright flood lights if anyone got within 10 feet of a door or window. Breaking a window or forcing a door open would set off a loud alarm and a call center would be alerted to contact the local PD.
As Travis explained this, Five inspected everything carefully. Travis got the creepy feeling that it wasn't play-acting, that the boy actually knew what he was looking at. "This is acceptable," he pronounced finally.
Evie got them all back to bed while Travis locked the guns up for the second time.
When he walked through the den, Two and Three were already asleep. He wondered exactly how long they had been awake, trying to break free from Omnichron's basement.
He checked the perimeter alarm one more time and made sure that both he and Evie had their cell phones. He plugged in the old land line phone as well, knowing it would get through to 911 even with the line deactivated.
He didn't know why no one had come after the kids, and he hoped no one would, but he would not rest easy until he knew more about who they were and what they were doing at Omnichron.
+ + + + + + +
Evie put both leaves in the dining room table and gathered the 8 chairs that went with it from their various places around the house. It was only 6:30, but all of the boys were awake and showered, even though Five and Seven did not look especially happy about it.
Travis poured out pancake batter onto the griddle and cracked eggs into a bowl and tossed bacon and sausage into the microwave all with a practiced hand. He'd been the breakfast cook ever since he and Evie were first married and he realized that her idea of 'breakfast" was a cup of yogurt.
Evie set the table, and set out bottles of grape, orange, apple and cranberry juice, as well as a quart container of Greek yogurt, which Travis thought looked a lot better than it actually tasted, so he wouldn't blame the boys if they didn't touch it.
He piled the Thanksgiving turkey platter - rescued from the deep recesses of the cupboard - with scrambled eggs and pancakes and was trying to make room for the meat when his phone rang.
It was Mercy hospital and he felt a knot form immediately in the pit of his stomach. The last time they'd had a call like that was when a two-bit politician Steven's wife was investigating had hired some goon to kill her. The hit man had missed Mary, then had run his car into a construction barrier trying to escape and ended up with the top of his skull dangling from a piece of rebar, but one of the bullets had hit Steven in the chest. He'd spent nine days in intensive care.
Ironically, Steven chose that moment to walk through the door, so Travis quickly regained his composure. Whatever the hospital was calling about, he could handle.
The call was strange indeed. A woman with no ID had been found unconscious on the side of the highway. She'd refused to tell them who she was, but had asked that they contact him. Travis had the caller describe the woman. She was approximately 70 years old, small, slender, with grey hair and blue eyes. Travis could think of no one who fit that description. His curiosity was piqued, though. He promised to come down and talk to her later in the day.
He shut off his phone and greeted his son. "What are you doing here this early?"
"Came to check out your house guests."
Evie must have told him about the boys.
"Damnedest thing... just finding them alone like that. They're kind of strange kids."
"I'd like to do a story on them for the WebJournal..."
Travis interrupted him. "I don't know if that's a good idea, son."
"Seven abandoned kids? It's a great story, dad."
"Steven, do you remember Ricky Herrera?"
Steven's face paled. In high school, he'd written and published his own newspaper containing what he viewed as scathing exposes on campus life and his fellow students. He'd taken it too far when he decided to "out" a group of gay students, including Ricky, who had swallowed two bottles of extra strength Tylenol a week later. He'd survived, but Steven had been sobered by almost having Ricky's blood on his hands, and had learned then and there the meaning of responsible journalism - and that not all interesting stories should be shared.
He put up his hands in surrender. "Okay, no story - yet. But I do want to meet them."
It occurred to Travis that he really hadn't had a good look at the boys the night before. When he saw them seated around the dining room table, he realized that they were all remarkably beautiful children... almost too beautiful.
"So, are you guys related?" Steven asked, pulling up the eighth chair, which left Evie and Travis standing.
They looked at each other in that disconcerting way that kind of reminded Travis of the movie "Village of the Damned."
"We're all Alphas," Two answered.
"What does that mean?" Steven asked casually.
"It means we belong together," said Seven as he examined a bottle of pancake syrup. "What is this?" he asked finally.
"Here, like this..." Steven said, opening the lid and squirting a small dab on a pancake. "Go on... taste it," he encouraged.
The little boy picked up the pancake and took a bite out of the section with the syrup on it.
"Ooooh... good!" he gasped. He was an adorable little guy, with jet black hair and big hazel eyes. Travis could see Evie's heart melting. He didn't blame her.
Six took the bottle of syrup and tried it out, too. He didn't say anything, just turned to Seven and grinned. He had dark blond curls and cobalt blue eyes and was at the age where they looked liked jack-o-lanterns when they smiled - he was missing four baby teeth and 4 permanent teeth were only half-grown. Travis could tell Evie was a goner.
"So, what did you guys do at Omnichron?"
This time, it was One who answered, even though he kept his eye on the bottle of syrup as it was making its way around the table. "We study, we train, and we learn."
"Everything," Three answered.
"What do you train for?" Steven asked.
That look again. "We don't really know," Two said softly.
"Can you show me later what your training is like?"
One and Two hesitated, but Three spoke up. "Sure. If you want," he said, as he squeezed the pancake syrup dry.
Two glared at him, but Travis wasn't sure if it was because he had answered Steven or because he had taken the last of the syrup.
Three stared at the empty bottle. "Sorry," he said, not sounding the least bit.
"There's another bottle in the kitchen," Evie assured and went to get it.
Travis looked at his son. "I have an appointment I need to get to... can you stay until I get back?"
Steven caught his unspoken meaning. The "Alphas" were cute kids, but his father didn't want to leave his mother alone with them. "Sure, Dad."
"Don't let them wander off... and if anyone shows up looking for them, call 911, then call me."
+ + + + + + +
The woman who had summoned him to Mercy Hospital looked surprisingly alert for having been found unconscious in the road. She didn't look "homeless" either - her hair was cut in a flattering style, and her teeth were free of stains and decay, and they were all there.
She spoke first. "Let me explain why I called you. I have read your articles, and also some of your decisions from when you were a family court judge..."
That surprised Travis. He'd abandoned his legal career a good ten years before, sick of laws that had him giving kids back to dirt bags who would abuse and neglect them. It was when after two kids died at the hands of one of those dirt bags that he had packed it in, and taken up the cause of children's rights. He wrote about other things, too, but whenever he could speak for an abused or abandoned child, he did.
A thought suddenly occurred to him. "You know about the Alphas."
A nod confirmed it.
"Who are they? What were they doing at that lab?"
"Things that you could not even imagine," she said evenly. When she saw his expression cloud, she was quick to add, "We didn't hurt them. We would never hurt them."
"We? You're a part of it?"
She nodded again.
"Then how can you say that?" His anger rose. "They have never been outside of that place! You may not have hurt them physically, but you've taken away their childhood..."
"Why do you say that? Because they don't behave like little barbarians? It's because they aren't. About as far from it as is possible for humans to get, in fact."
"They don't play like other kids," he said.
"No," she agreed, "Not like other kids, but they do play. They have been well nurtured."
"How do you know this?" Travis said accusingly, but he actually did want to know.
"Because I have cared for all of them almost from the time they were born. They call me Nu."
Travis remembered hearing that name. "They asked about you. And someone called Theta."
She nodded, then reached for a ratty-looking bag that seemed like something a homeless woman would carry around, except Travis noted that it was clean - no food stains, or road dirt or bad odor.
She pulled out a small cylinder and handed it to him. "This has everything," she told him.
"Why are you doing this?" he wanted to know. "Whatever was going on at that lab surely has a high level of security."
"Higher than anything since the Manhattan Project."
Travis recalled the poster he'd seen at the ruins, where "genius" had been replaced with "weapon" - Inside very child is a weapon.... "Oh my God, that's not what this is about, is it? A weapon system?" If it was, he wondered why this woman felt safe talking to him so freely about it - and what the hell it could have to do with the kids - Six and Seven were barely more than babies.
"Just look at the information there," she told him, nodding at the cylinder.
"No, I want to hear it from you - how can anyone with a conscience be involved in something like this?"
She laughed softly. "I've been involved in it since I was born. I was one of the first Alphas. So was Theta."
She had to be at least 70 years old... How the hell had they kept something like this a secret all these years?
She got up from the bed - not appearing the least bit weak - and pulled off her gown to reveal that she was fully dressed underneath. "Now, I'm going to get out of here."
"Go... and take care of my boys."
+ + + + + + +
Travis went directly home, half expecting to find the place in chaos with seven boys running around. Except they weren't running, or even making noise. Five, Six and Seven were in the kitchen with Evie baking cookies.
Evie wasn't actually doing any of the work, Travis noticed immediately.
"Orin, they're amazing," she said softly. "Even the tiny one can read and understand a recipe, even though they never saw one before. Steven couldn't do that until he was 11 or 12, and he was a smart kid."
Six was holding a measuring cup while Seven attempted to pour sugar into it. The bag was heavy for his little hands and he accidentally spilled a tablespoon or so onto the table. "Oops," he said. "We made a mess."
"I didn't make a mess, you did it," Six observed. But he scooped the spilled sugar up in his hands and then ate it.
Evie wasn't quick enough to stop him, but she rushed over and took him to put his sticky hands under the sink tap. "That was a lot of sugar to eat in one mouthful, sweetheart."
"It was good!" he grinned.
"Well, yes, I know it's good... but..." she looked at Travis for help.
Travis only shrugged.
"It will taste much better in the cookies," she finally finished.
"Two eggs," Five announced.
The carton was on the counter. Seven grabbed for one and stuck his thumb right through the shell. "Leaking!" he announced as he quickly carried the egg to the mixing bowl and threw the whole thing in.
"Oh, not like that, honey," Evie said patiently. "Let me show you..."
Five looked at Seven. "I believe you are supposed to peel it, first."
Six picked up a second egg and as Evie was busy salvaging the broken one, he whipped out a knife so fast that Travis didn't see where he'd been keeping it.
This was no ordinary little boy's pocket knife - which he was too young to have, anyway. It was a scaled down version of a military diving/survival knife.
"Whoa, buddy," Travis intervened. "What are you doing with that?"
"Going to peel the egg."
Travis hated to be stern with the little guy, who looked up at him with completely innocent big blue eyes, but the knife looked truly dangerous. "Give it to me," he held out his hand.
His tiny shoulders sagged a bit and he sighed, but then deftly grabbed the blade from its blunt side and turned it around to present it to Travis hilt-first. It was a smooth, practiced, precisely executed move - the dangerous knife was clearly nothing strange in his little hands.
Travis set the knife on top of the refrigerator and didn't make any further issue out of it. He showed the boys how to crack an egg.
The three of them stared at the yolks, fascinated. "It looks like boogers," Seven commented.
Even though they knew what an egg was, it appeared that they had never seen one cracked and uncooked.
Six poked at them. "Feels like boogers, too. Cold boogers."
"This is not efficient," Five prodded, removing Six's finger from the egg. "We now need to add. . . one stick of butter?" He said it like a question, frowning. "I don't know what that means," he looked at Evie.
Travis patted his wife gently on the shoulder. "I'll leave you to this... Where are the others?"
"In the back, playing basketball with Steven."
Travis headed to the backyard, where it appeared that Steven and the tallest boy, One, were playing against the other three boys, who were all close to the same height. Two appeared to be 12 or 13, and was average height - the other two boys were clearly younger, but they were tall for their age. All of them were remarkably good ball players. Stephen had played in middle school and high school and still played in a men's recreational league. He was good, but the three little boys were giving him a run for his money. If he hadn't had One on his side, they'd be kicking his ass.
Steven called a break after Travis had been watching for about five minutes.
"So, you guys have played before," Travis commented.
Two shook his head. "Not this game... but we play ullamaliztli - it's like this game, but this is a lot easier."
Travis had never heard of that game, and looked at Stephen, who only shrugged.
One decided to elaborate. "In that game, the ball is only this big," he indicated the approximate size of a baseball with his hands. "And the hoop is only this big." He moved his fingers apart only slightly. "It's an old game. They used to cut off the losers' heads. But when we lose, we just lose." He shrugged.
The morning sun was bright, and Travis noticed the beginning hints of sunburn on the boys. Even Four, the dark-skinned boy, had distinct patches of red on his nose and cheeks.
"You boys better get inside," he said. "Too much sun's not good for you."
"That's what Theta says," Three volunteered. "We only go outside when we go through the port."
One elbowed him roughly and Two shot him a glaring look.
"The port?" Travis asked.
Three hung his head. "Never mind," he said softly.
Travis didn't want to intimidate them, so he didn't push for more information. That would come later, after they were a bit more comfortable with the idea that they could trust him.
"We should be studying, anyway," One said.
Instead of groans of protest, the other three nodded agreement.
"Thank you for teaching us this game," Two said as he gave Steven back the ball.
"Anytime, guys," Steven said as they marched past and went back into the house.
"What do you think?" Travis asked when they were gone.
"They're kind of freaky," Steven replied. "They don't talk to each other when they play - not a word - but they seem to know exactly where they need to be and what they have to do. They are incredibly good... too good. They are better than any of the guys in the league."
"Think you can stay for awhile? I have some research I need to do..."
"Yeah, sure, okay... but I really don't think they need a babysitter. They don't seem to know how to misbehave."
"Well, we don't really know them that well yet, and, I've taken a cache of weapons off of one of the little ones."
Steven raised an eyebrow.
Travis nodded. "I just caught him with a knife. Last night, he pulled a baby-sized Uzi on me. His stuff is locked in that old Army footlocker in the garage. Don't let them near it."
+ + + + + + +
Travis's home "office" had originally been the laundry room, back when laundry was a more elaborate affair that involved washing, wringing, hanging and ironing. They'd had washer and dryer hook-ups installed in the garage several years before and had converted it to a room where both he and Evie spent time writing. His work was journalistic in nature, while Evie wrote fiction - most of which she did not want him to read - that she posted on the internet. They had a rule that one didn't bother the other when they were in the "office" even if they were in there together.
He removed the cylinder Nu had given him from his pocket. It contained paper documents that he discovered were bearer bonds - $50,000 worth, issued by Wells Fargo. What the hell? He wondered if they were counterfeit - in fact, he was sure they were. Who would give someone they barely knew that much money? Just to err on the side of caution, though, he locked them in a small safe hidden in a corner beneath the carpet.
The rest of the contents consisted of a 16 flash drives, 15 of them dated with the 15 preceding years, and one that contained no markings at all. He put that one into the computer first.
The drive contained personal files on the boys. There was no encrypted data, nothing held back as "classified." It was all there, even though Travis didn't understand it at first, and then didn't believe it when he did understand it. Each one had a "conscripted" date beside his name that pretty much corresponded to what he would have guessed their ages to be. They were all approximately 18 months apart, with One being 14-and-a-half and Seven being 5-and-a-half. Next to the "conscription" date, in parenthesis, each one had an 8 digit number, all of which began with 1-8.
There were meticulously detailed accounts of their "conscription." With one exception, they'd all been kidnapped.
One's parents were missionaries in Africa. After he was taken, a reclusive local tribe was blamed. There was an extensive manhunt, but the child was never found. Although, obviously, whoever had written the report had observed the whole thing and knew what had become of him.
Two's mother died in childbirth. His father was in the Army, and did not even know about the birth.
Three's mother was a prostitute. She'd been told she could not legally keep the child. Apparently poor and uneducated, she'd bought that line of b.s. and let strangers take her baby away.
Four... that's where Travis began to doubt that the files were real. Four's parents had willingly surrendered him. They had been promised that he would be well-cared for, educated - and free. His parents were slaves. In Alabama.
Travis looked back at the 8 digit numbers. If he just looked at the first four, they were in ascending order:
The next two digits were all between 01 and 12, and the last two between 01 and 31.
The were dates, all more than 160 years ago. What the hell?
Five's parents were gamblers and con artists. Each of them blamed the other for the baby's disappearance.
Six was 1/4 Apache, born to a white mother and "half-breed" - that was the term that was in the report - father. His white grandparents blamed the Indians for taking him. The Indians apparently didn't care one way or the other.
Seven's mother was a maid. She was told the child had been sent to an orphanage. She looked for him, but he seemed to have just disappeared.
All of which was very interesting, but certainly, these files were not about the boys who were at that moment sitting in his den.
Except there were pictures. Lots of them. All taken in the same room with blank grey walls. Pictures of all seven of them as they grew from babies to the age they were now.
He continued to review files on each of the drives. What he saw both astonished and dumbfounded him. There were numerous videos and still photos of the boys, many of them taken at what looked like a playground at first, but which he realized was more of an obstacle course. Sometimes, they did appear to be just playing and having fun, but in others they were doing some clearly remarkable things. They could all climb ropes, scale fences, and climb rocks. Some of them were better at it than the others, but all of them were way better than the average kid.
There were individual videos, also. He watched the one called Five as he was shown a picture of a cat, by someone who appeared to be a teacher of some sort.
"In English," the instructor said.
And that continued until Five had named the cat in 15 different languages. He could not have been more than two years old.
He watched Four being taught to identify minute anatomical structures on what he hoped was a plastic model of a human body. The person with him spoke to him as if they were two physicians conferring with one another. Four listened attentively and asked intelligent questions, even though he was only five or six years old.
There was composite video of Seven learning arithmetic at one, algebra at two, trigonometry and geometry at 3 and calculus at 4.
Six had a tiny rifle in his hands before his first birth birthday. Even though he lacked the coordination at such an early age to aim and fire it, Travis got the idea that the exercises were more to get him accustomed to the feel of a weapon in his hands, and it ended up that he was able to hit a target dead on while he was still in diapers.
And yet, Travis got the impression that these were not super-human super-genius kids. The people instructing them in the videos were patient and tolerant, but they were also thorough and relentless. They were force-fed knowledge without the option of not paying attention. Expectations were high and failure was not an acceptable outcome. They learned because there was no alternative.
Their physical conditioning had started early, too. The boys' introduction to martial arts was accomplished with them strapped in a harness when they were too young to even sit up alone, and being put through the range of motion for kicks and thrusts. The result was that even at five and a half, Seven moved like pro. At 14, One moved like a Ninja.
There were hours worth of video on the drives and it would take him days to go through everything, but he'd seen enough to know that whatever they were doing at Omnichron was geared to using these kids for a specific purpose. He just had no idea what that purpose was.
He didn't have time to review it all right then, but he did glance through everything to get an idea of what was there. The files were clearly labeled, so that helped to a certain extent. File names such as "Six-at-shooting-range-age4" or "Seven-intro-to-3D-matrix-age3" or "Five-Mandarin-writing-exercise-age-7." Embedded deep within layers of folders was a file marked "Nu."
He opened it to discover that it was a journal of sorts, apparently kept by the woman who had given him the files. There were no personal observations, but frequent entries on each boy, beginning fourteen-and-a-half years ago. First tooth, first smile, first word, first step, toilet training, accidents, illnesses...
That latter record stood out because of its dearth of entries. These kids had almost never been sick. Travis wondered if that should worry him. Was it because their immune systems had been enhanced like their minds and bodies, or had they just been so isolated that they'd never been exposed to anything? And what if, he thought darkly, they were carriers of some pathogen that didn't make them sick but could cause an epidemic? Seven little "Patient Zeros" in someone's bizarre plot to... do whatever Omnichron was built to do.
Well, not much he could do about any of that now, the boys were out of their plastic bubble.
He'd almost finished skimming the file when he came across a simple list. It was the numbers One through Seven written out, and beside it, corresponding to the numbers, was another list:
One - Josiah Sanchez
Two - Christopher Larabee
Three - Bucklin Wilmington
Four - Nathan Jackson
Five - Ezra Standish
Six - Vinton Tanner
Seven - John Daniel Dunne
It was the boys' real names.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. Steven poked his head in. "Dad, it's almost six o'clock. Don't you think you've been working long enough?"
Travis checked his watch. Where had the time gone? Evie would be pissed. He could smell dinner cooking, and realized he'd missed lunch entirely and had left her to mind the boys all day.
He placed all of the flash drives back into their cylinder and shoved it into a drawer, thinking he probably should find some place safer to keep them. Just based on what he had seen so far, he was surprised the black helicopters hadn't shown up yet.
The boys were in the den, watching Steven's videos. Six came up to him with a cassette box and pointed to one of the "artists" - a guy with drumsticks wearing leather pants, with scary tattoos and hair that looked like he'd put his finger in an electrical socket.
"His name is Sixx, like me!" he said happily.
"The second X is redundant," Five commented.
"Well, I don't care," Six said calmly. "Maybe I will spell my name that way, too."
The music coming from the video was loud and raucous, with thundering drums and wailing guitars creating a god-awful din. The boys seemed to be enjoying it, though.
"Dad, I want you to see something," Steven said in a low voice.
On the dining room table were 7 black notebooks - just like the one he'd seen in Seven's pillow case the night before. Steven picked one up and handed it to him.
"What do you make of this?"
Travis opened it. It was full of page after page of mathematical equations that he couldn't even begin to understand. He looked at Stephen and frowned.
"They spent 45 minutes doing that this afternoon. They said it was their 'exercise.' They were completely focused the whole time, even the little ones."
"What does it mean?" Travis asked.
"I asked the older ones - they don't know. They said Seven knows, but when I asked him, his answer didn't make sense."
"What did he say?" Travis was almost afraid to hear it.
"He said it's the 'key to the port.'"
Travis frowned. "That's it?"
Steven nodded. "I asked him what that meant, and he looked at me like I should know. I don't think he could explain it.... It's weird, dad... he knows this stuff, but he doesn't seem like a genius or anything. He says he's five, and that's pretty much how he acts."
Travis examined each of the notebooks. Each child had written his name - or rather, his number - and the date at the beginning of the exercise. One wrote with tidy, mature script. Two used neat block letters. Three slanted his writing to the left. Four's writing was small and all caps. Five had exceptional penmanship for his age - and he spelled his name 'P-h-y-v-e' Travis noted with amusement. Six had a irregular scrawl and Seven's characters were oddly spaced, different sizes and somewhat misshapen - but all clearly recognizable. All seven of them had written the same thing.
"Steven, is there someone we can show this to who would know what it is?"
"I'll ask around at the university... although I'm not even sure where to start."
Evie came up behind Travis. "About time you came out of your rabbit hole," she told him.
"I'm sorry, I lost track of time. Evie, you cannot imagine the incredible things I found out about these kids."
"Oh, yes, I can," she laughed. "I've spent the day with them. They aren't normal children, even though they are very sweet."
"What do you mean, not 'normal'?"
"I have never seen that many boys together who don't fight, for one thing. There was some verbal sparring, but there was no pushing, shoving, name-calling. Nothing like that. It's as if...." she hesitated.
"Go on," Travis encouraged, because he valued her observations.
"It's almost like they are seven parts of one whole. As if they were meant to be together."
+ + + + + + +
Steven's wife Mary was going to come by and have dinner with them as soon as their son, Billy, was done with his karate class. Evie had made spaghetti and meatballs - Steven having apparently gone out at some point and bought more groceries.
Travis gathered the boys together and turned off the TV.
"I talked to Nu today," he told them, testing their reaction.
"You did!?" Seven said excitedly.
"Is she coming to get us?" Five asked.
"Is she well?" asked One.
The others said nothing, but all of them seemed relieved to hear that he'd made contact with her.
"She's fine," he assured them. "But, no, she's not coming..."
"Oh," Six said, and looked crestfallen. "How come?"
"I don't know," Travis said honestly. "But she did tell me some things about you boys..." He thought it best not to elaborate at this point. "When was the last time you saw her?" He addressed that question to the older ones.
Two answered. "Five days ago. She said she had to leave... that they all had to leave. She said if no one came back we should go to the big door and break it."
"Is that what you were doing when I found you?"
They all nodded.
"We had never been out the big door," One explained. "There was always a guard there."
"A guard who kept you locked in?"
"No," Two said. "The guard was to keep people out, but the big door didn't open on our side. There was no... handle." He seemed to have to search for the word.
"Who is 'they'?" Travis wanted to know.
Two shrugged. "The doctors, the trainers, the scientists..." He looked briefly at One and Three.
Three spoke up, as if he had somehow been given permission. "And the port people."
That was the fourth time he'd heard that word.
"Okay, what is this 'port' anyway?"
They looked at one another, either deciding what to tell him or if they even should tell him.
It was little Seven who spoke. "The port is a modulated acquisition transdimensional superpositional access point."
"MATSAP for short," Four nodded sagely.
Travis resisted the urge to shake his head to clear it. "And what, exactly, is that?"
Five looked at him as if he were dense. "It's the port."
"Yes, I got that," Travis said defensively. "But what does it do?"
Two shrugged. "Whatever the port people want it to do."
The door from the garage opened and Mary and Billy walked in, effectively ending the baffling conversation.
Billy stopped short when he saw a room full of boys, some of whom were small enough to be potential playmates. Billy was six, and had an engaging personality - he could, and would, talk to anyone.
"Hi. I'm Billy," he introduced himself.
He was still wearing his karate gi, which the boys noticed immediately.
"Do you know how to fight?" Six asked.
"I know karate," Billy said proudly.
"NO fighting," Evie said sternly.
Travis was glad she spoke up. From what he'd seen on the videos, even though little Seven was almost a head shorter, could probably mop the floor with his grandson.
"I could kick you in the head," Billy laughed.
Seven laughed, too. "No you couldn't."
Before anyone could intervene, Billy swung a high round kick that was clearly intended to miss by several inches. But in one lightning fast move, Seven caught his foot in midair and used the momentum of the kick to flip Billy onto his back, pin his chest with one knee and deliver what could have been a devastating blow to his windpipe had he not stopped millimeters short of actually connecting.
Mary stifled a scream, realizing Billy wasn't actually hurt.
In fact, Billy wasn't even angry. "Wow, cool!" he said, getting up as soon as Seven released him. "You're really GOOD."
Seven introduced himself, then the others.
Billy looked confused. "Your names are numbers."
"Not mine," Five said. "My name is P-h-y-v-e."
"That still spells Five," Four commented.
"My name is S-i-x-x," Six said.
"No it isn't," Three observed.
"Yes it is. I just changed it."
The adults were still reeling from the martial arts display. Mary muttered something to Steven about the boys being dangerous.
Travis wasn't sure he entirely disagreed with her observation.
+ + + + + + +
Dinner was an adventure. They sat the 8 boys at the table, with Billy between Six and Seven. The Alphas had never seen spaghetti before, and they weren't used to eating with knives and forks, even though Evie had worked with them on that at lunch.
They watched with rapt attention as Billy demonstrated how to twirl the spaghetti using a fork and a spoon. Six caught on right away, perhaps because he was used to manipulating objects with his hands. Five disregarded Billy's advice entirely and cut the spaghetti and the meatballs into small pieces that he ate with a spoon, and made no apologies for it. Apparently, he didn't like getting his hands or his face dirty, unlike Seven, who was happy to slurp up the spaghetti one strand at a time like a vacuum cleaner.
The older boys were challenged by it, and made a bigger mess than most kids their ages would have, but they seemed to have fun.
Billy normally wouldn't touch salad, but Travis and Evie had seen the night before that vegetables were something that was familiar to the boys, so she'd put some out for them. When Billy saw them eagerly munching cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices and baby carrots, he yielded to peer pressure. There were no leftovers.
Dessert was ice cream, which the boys had never had, either. Evie set out vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and coffee - which was Billy's favorite.
Some of them tried a little of each. Five only wanted the strawberry, and Four was mistrustful of the colored flavors and only had vanilla. Seven took some of the chocolate and some of the coffee to compare how the two brown colors were different.
When he took a spoonful of the coffee, he looked surprised. "It tastes like Theta's cup," he told the others. One and Three tried it and agreed.
"I don't think Theta is coming back, either," Six said softly.
"Who is Theta?" Billy wanted to know.
"He's..." Seven began, then shrugged and finished. "Theta."
Travis saw an opportunity to jump in and learn something. "Is he a doctor? Or a 'trainer'? What did you do when you were with him?"
Travis gazed around the table. The boys knew he was prying, but they didn't seem especially reluctant to divulge information. Travis got the idea that they were trying to figure out a way to describe their relationship with Theta, whoever he was.
Four spoke up. "He... was just 'there' when we weren't doing anything. Sometimes he read to us... even though we can all read." He was quick to add the last part.
"He taught us games," Five put in. "Checkers and chess and poker..."
"And Go Fish," Seven added. "That's my favorite one."
Three nodded. "We all liked that game when we were little," he smiled.
"I'm not little," Seven protested.
The others didn't contradict him, which Travis found interesting since Seven was little. He was only 5 and he was small for his age. But the older boys didn't seem to feel a need to point that out.
"Do you know where Theta went?" Travis asked them.
They all shook their heads. "He took the girls," One said.
"Girls?" This was something new.
"The girl Alphas," Two explained. "Seven of them, like us."
"Took them where?" Travis asked.
"Through the port."
That damned 'port' again.
"Orin, let them enjoy their ice cream," Evie broke in.
Travis need to learn more, but Evie was right - the boys were in a place that was strange and maybe a little frightening for them. They didn't need to be grilled like police suspects - well, actually they did, but now was not the time and place.
As soon as they went to bed, though, he was going to go back and read more of those files.
Continues in "Incursion"
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