Prey Universe (Ezra, Seven)
Notes: This is the continuation of Prey: Evolution. After some great emails and wonderful encouragement from readers I decided to get with the program and continue this AU. Unfortunately, I lost all of my feedback from Prey due to a virus I had on my computer a while ago (despite having Norton's 2003), and as I result I can't properly thank all of you that gave me some suggestions...so please accept this story as an effort on your part and I thank everyone of you that took the time to write!!!
This story is full of angst...more than any other story I've ever written, so that's my warning. I'm not comfortable with the amount in here, but my muse wouldn't let me fray from the path...oh well. And after holding onto this for a while I decided to finally post it...sorry about the delay, but my muse and I were arguing
This Universe is open for anyone willing to write in it. I'd love to read someone else's take! PLEASE!!!
Special Thanks: To Yolande, and Antoinette for taking the time, asking the questions, and pressing me to write more.
Please send comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan entered the autopsy room and looked disconnectedly at the lone body laying covered with a blue sheet on the steel table. He'd been in here many times before, he'd preformed many autopsies, but they were never easy. To look at a body that had at one time been able to laugh, cry, love, and smile...
Cut it open and then find and verify the cause of death.
At times Nathan felt like a butcher, weighing hearts, lungs, kidneys...as though they were next to be purchased at the meat market. He knew deep inside that the things he did was for science, and in the long run he saved lives...but that didn't make it any easier.
Nathan slipped on the plastic apron and then pulled back the sheet exposing the man beneath.
He stood frozen for what seemed like hours, looking at the soft features, dark umber hair, full lips, and deep-set eyes. When he regained his senses he looked at the hospital report. Nathan took a deep breath and went to his office; he needed to call Chris and the others.
He'd found Ezra.
They knew the risks...they all did, and after having witnessed the capabilities of the dominant - the new species, they knew then they weren't human. JD, still developing into a dominant, wouldn't know the strength, speed, intelligence, or power he could yield with nothing more than a thought, or dream.
It had been the death of a friend, and the introduction of Standish that had caused the six men to delve deeper into their own lives and research themselves in order to better understand who and what they were. Mutants, sub-humans, 1.6ers...dominants...the words were different, the language the same.
Now it made sense why Vin could see so well, why Chris' gut feelings were more than a simple hunch, Josiah's ability to draw answers out of nowhere, Buck's animal magnetism wasn't just a smooth talking term...it was real, and Nathan's intelligence, devotion, and stamina for his job...it was all linked to what they were.
Ezra helped, in his own way, bring the others to their realization... He helped link them to himself. Then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone...pulled from them by someone who wanted him more...
But not for long...
Chris, Vin, and Buck arrived at Nathan's office less than an hour after he'd called to inform them of what he'd discovered. Nobody knew what to say or do.
They needed to see the body.
Nathan nodded and motioned toward the autopsy room. He could hear their boots tapping heavily on the linoleum floor, the reverberation echoed off the walls softly.
"What killed him?" Chris asked, wanting more than anything to get to the point.
"I, ah...haven't preformed the autopsy yet," Nathan reluctantly admitted.
"You gonna be okay to do it?" Buck asked, having a small sense of how difficult the task would be.
"Yeah," Nathan answered softly. He pulled the sheet back and exposed the well-known face.
Vin stepped forward after having hidden himself in the shadows. His critical eyes surveyed the body, and his mind raced with questions. The face was Ezra's...down to the short burnt umber hair that tended to curl when wet, his normally soft delicate features seemed harsh under the crass lighting, but there was no mistaking him.
"The report states that he died at four this afternoon for no known cause. He did receive a blood transfusion after his anterior jugular vein was severed from a motorcycle accident early this morning," Nathan said, restating what he'd read from the brief report.
"Have a hard time seein' Ezra as the biker type," Vin said, furrowing his brow.
"You think the transfusion killed him?" Chris asked bluntly.
Nathan nodded: "Don't think it could have been anything else... Paramedics were on scene just shortly after the accident and their reports stated he was coherent. Granted the severity of cut was critical - It was survivable...even for a human."
Vin cleared his throat and took a deep breath. He wasn't comfortable here. It was too cold, too distant, and too painful. "Did you check his tattoo?"
Nathan shook his head: "I called you as soon as I saw him." He stepped closer to the body and gently lifted his head and shoulder off the table.
"No tattoo," Vin said aloud. He took a deep breath out of relief. The dead man looked like Ezra, and Vin, like the rest of them, thought they finally found a chance to discover who they really were...through him. It really wasn't as selfish as it sounded, but Vin needed to know about himself...and his friends.
"Could he have had them removed?" Buck asked, looking hard at the lifeless form.
Nathan shook his head, replacing the body. "Probably, if they'd been placed there by modernized equipment...but they weren't." He took a long sigh before continuing, "In my opinion...we'd see some kind of scarring, despite his ability to heal."
"So it's not him?" Buck surmised with a question.
"Nope," Vin answered confidently. "It ain't him...I can feel it."
Chris nodded, thankful for the results. "So let's keep lookin' for him," he said, heading toward the exit doors. "I want a copy of the autopsy report, Nathan," he called, before leaving.
Nathan nodded and looked hard at the body. Just because it wasn't Ezra...didn't mean cutting into the body would be any easier.
Papers, pencils, books, and drinks were scattered across the floor as Chris quickly and efficiently cleared his desk in one full sweep of his arm. The others stood back, fearful of what else he might try to clear. Notes, files, and papers slowly absorbed coke, coffee, and water, and despite Josiah's efforts, the sticky fluids continued to seep past the floorboards.
"Through scientific evidence..." Nathan sighed, knowing his news wasn't good, "...the body I autopsied today was the dominant we knew as Ezra."
JD ran his fingers through his hair and cast his eyes downward. It wasn't supposed to happen like this...they were supposed to have found him...then he was supposed to help them find out who they really were.
"What about the tattoos?" Vin asked, keeping his arms crossed over his chest.
"It's possible that he had them removed - "
"But not probable," Josiah interrupted. He patted down the floor with the paper towels before tossing them into the garbage pail. "What's the probability of a dominant female giving birth to identicals?"
"I don't know enough about their - our physiology," Nathan answered, the question running possible answers through his mind.
"If all the women had four uteruses...would they be able to?" JD questioned.
"With human physiology, I would say no, but dominants are different. If it's true that the females only have a short amount of time for reproduction...then maybe..." Nathan sighed, taking a deep breath, "...maybe they do utilize all their uteruses at once... At this rate, anything is possible."
"But that wouldn't identify identicals," JD said, running his fingers through his hair.
"It would if it came to human elimination," Chris surmised. "Think about it. If there were four identical assassins hanging around, how would we know if we'd found the right one?"
"The tattoo," Vin answered.
"But why was only one child marked...? Why not the rest?" Chris continued to challenge.
"Maybe it was only a chosen few who were marked...like Ezra. Perhaps, he excelled at an early age, more so than any of his siblings. We already know from overhearing the conversations Ezra had with his mother and Jones that he was special...I'm still not sure as to why." Josiah sighed, leaning back in his seat.
"What about him bein' pure? Like what Ezra's mother said when they had him?" Vin asked.
"Could be in reference to his bloodlines, his training, or even his culture." Josiah shrugged, unsure of his own answer. "There is still so much to learn that everything is a possibility."
"First we need to find him," Buck said, leaning against the front of his desk.
Chris turned his attention to the large map hanging on the wall. The diagram showed, in detail, underground opium dens that had been built before the turn of the 20th century. Unknown to most of Four Corners' citizens, the small tunnels had been burrowed throughout the city, having been built by the Chinese railroad workers that had stayed behind.
"These," Vin pointed to the northern most tunnels, "we've searched...that's five miles total...and hopefully we didn't miss any dens." He ran his fingers through his hair. "This is where Ezra was found the first time," he pointed to he bright red X, "it would be my guess to travel east from there...His place seems to be the hub of it."
"What about Jones' place?" Nathan asked, leaning back in his chair.
"Empty," JD answered. "There hasn't been any activity there in over a week, ever since Ezra disappeared."
"The house has been searched and nothing was discovered," Chris said, running his fingers through his hair.
The door to the detective's room opened and an elderly woman walked in. She was by no means fragile as she entered the office. Her graying hair had been cut short and her clothing was simple but comfortable. "The sergeant at the desk said I should come here?" She looked questionably around he room.
"In regards to what, Ma'am?" Buck stood up and moved out of Chris' way.
"My missing niece," she answered softly. She looked at the men, knowing who and what they were.
"Did you fill out a report at the front desk?" JD asked.
"Yes, but they sent me here anyway," she answered. She looked at the map hanging on the wall, recognizing the tunnels and their use. Slowly she stepped forward and looked at the image and a smile crept on her face. "You're looking for Jones," she surmised, taking the chance to ask.
"Ma'am?" Vin questioned, unsure he wanted this conversation to continue.
"I knew who you were before I walked in, but I wasn't sure you did." She smiled and crossed her arms over her chest.
"How do you know Jones?" Chris questioned, furrowing his brow.
"I knew him before he became what he is." Her answer was incomplete if anything, but that's what she intended.
"What is he?" Vin asked, hoping and praying for something useful.
The woman grabbed a chair and took a seat. She had something they wanted, and she needed something only they could give her. "First," her voice took on more authority, "I need you to help me."
"In return...?" Chris asked. He knew the ropes, and he knew she could help them.
"I'll help you."
Vin looked at the woman with a critical eye. He had a good feeling about her, as though she might be more than they could hope for. She was strong, and that strength wouldn't be bound.
"My name's Nettie Wells. I've lived in this town all my life and the way I figure it, I'll die here as well, but until then...I need to find my niece - bring her home."
"What happened?" Josiah asked, looking at the situation through older wiser eyes than the others.
"Casey just turned 18 and I fear Jones's had his eye on her for sometime."
"Reproduction?" Vin guessed.
Nettie nodded, having momentarily lost her voice. "I've been rather...protective, of Casey since she came to live with me several years ago. When she asked to go to a movie with some friends, I reluctantly agreed. She never came home."
"Would she have run away?" JD asked, he was a detective, and he knew the norms to ask.
Nettie smiled: "No, son, she wouldn't have run away. Her home is here."
"I take it you're not familiar with Jones or his 'clan'?" Buck asked.
Nettie laughed and shook her head: "You boys have a lot to learn... We don't call them clans. They're referred to as colonies. As many as three reside here in Four Corners, and most of them are undetectable...except for Jones' group." She leaned back in her seat, trying to decide how to give a brief history lesson. "We started out as one colony, but like most societies, some of the leaders had a dispute. Several were later murdered which caused an uproar and the threat of exposure was held over most of us... Jones stood up and announced his authority." She looked longingly at the map, remembering that time. "At first it seemed like a grand idea, and he taught the most advanced of us how to use our senses ...how to incorporate ourselves into regular society without being detected. It was good for a while, until his plans fell against the grain of our beliefs."
"His plans for the extinction of man," Nathan surmised, having autopsied some of the bodies.
Nettie nodded: "The groups separated, and only those devoted to Jones remained." She took a deep breath and slowly continued, "Some of our children were taken from us, made to live with Jones - "
"Against their wills?" Buck asked.
"For some, yes...others, those that had parents who remained with him - were taken by force. I'm not aware of what happened to them - and I have no desire to know, but we're not murderers. Most of us just want to live our lives our own way."
"How long ago did your niece disappear?" Chris questioned, trying to get a visual timeline. He wanted to find Ezra.
"You called her friends, places she might go, the movie theatre?" the detective continued to push.
"I know my niece...she's gone."
Chris nodded and looked at the map. "We've recently searched his property - looking for another missing person - "
"May I ask who you're lookin' for?" Nettie looked at the worried faces.
"A man - dominant by the name of Ezra Standish," JD said, hoping the name would mean something to her.
Nettie shook her head...she didn't know him.
"He's apparently one of Jones' students..."
Nettie's face grew taut with concern.
"He was trying to escape," Chris continued, watching the woman relax. "Jones had recaptured him, but as luck turned on our side, we found him in the nick of time. However, while he was at my home recovering he was taken by force from my place...we believe Jones has him."
Nettie shook her head: "If he had...y'all would be dead."
"Thought you said you didn't know him?" Vin asked.
"If Jones wanted this man bad enough to pull him from your home and not kill the rest of you...his plans are beyond my comprehension. Jones doesn't work like that, he has someone else do his dirty work, and it's never on the large scale. He avoids the spotlight - I'd be willing to bet that your friend..." she looked hard at the men around her, "...was taken from your home from someone on the inside - not Jones."
"Shit," Buck sighed, having a clear understanding of the way the government worked.
Vin tossed his pencil onto the desk and ran his fingers through his hair...this changed things. "So what do we do?" he asked, looking around the room. "It ain't as though we can go searchin' military, or federal buildings..."
"Help me find my niece, and I'll help you with your friend." Nettie met the eyes of the men sitting and standing around her.
He felt disconnected from himself. He could feel the tube down his throat and the oxygen being forced into his lungs. He'd been caged like an animal and cut open like a lab rat. Drained of blood to keep him weak, beaten into submission when he failed to react correctly, and used like a pincushion for research.
He felt the needle pierce his arm that had been tied down, tape soon followed, holding the item in place. He knew without a doubt he'd be dead within the week...if not days. But he was too weak to escape on his own. His body jerked when he felt a sharp stab of pain low on his left side. His eyes squeezed shut and he clenched his fists, wishing he had the strength to move. His muscles quivered and shook uncontrollably as his body was again terrorized.
He could hear voices around him, but nobody directed anything to him: not a touch, a whisper, or even his name. He was no longer a man in need... He was a project for scientific research, suffering the inhumanity of man.
Orin looked at Chris and nodded. "FBI Agent Kirk has been unavailable for comment. It's my understanding that the Bureau has decided to close the investigation regarding the 'rumors' of a new species - "
"What about the evidence?"
"What evidence?" Orin challenged. "You're on your own here."
Chris clenched his jaw and nodded. "How much leeway do I have?"
Orin met Chris' eyes: "I don't want to hear about. Keep your name out of the papers, keep the department out of them...you do that, you can search the governor's underwear drawer for all I care... Just don't get it back to me."
Chris stood up and collected his jacket. "Thank you," he said curtly, before leaving the office. That had been all he needed to hear. Nettie Wells wanted her niece back, and Chris wanted to find Ezra, and not because the man had answerers they all needed, but because he deserved the same as any one of them. If Standish had tried to escape before, surely he would again, and Chris wanted to be there for him.
Buck looked up from the kitchen table at Chris' place. The home had been thoroughly cleaned since the attack, and it once again looked like a real place to live. Nettie sat in the end chair, helping Buck with the map layout, trying to find places that Jones might hide, or had hid. JD and Vin rummaged through the kitchen cabinets searching for food, anything that might be of substance. Josiah and Nathan tried to learn all they could about the body of the dominant women and men. How were their bodies different than mans'? Why was blood loss so detrimental? And why would it make them so susceptible to brainwashing?
"How'd it go?" Buck asked, standing up straight, trying to stretch the kink out of his back.
"As long as we're quiet about it," Chris answered, tossing his jacket onto the chair as he entered his home. "The FBI's 'officially' closed the case into the discovery of a new species."
"How can they ignore it?" Vin asked. He stood in the doorway to the kitchen and looked hard at Chris.
"They can and they will, more than likely they've got an agenda all their own. They're blaming the 'new evidence' on faulty scientists looking for recognition."
"They can't do that!" Nathan snapped, getting to his feet.
"They already did," Chris responded. He moved toward the table and looked hard at the locations that might be suspicious. "I think we can assume that Ezra's being held in some type of a government facility...probably medical."
"You're assuming he's still alive," Nettie spoke up. She got to her feet and looked at the map.
"If we search the underground dens to the east..." Chris pointed toward the far point of Four Corners, "...we could keep an eye out for the underground tunnels to the old military warehouse that was used as a shelter in the 50s... It's a long shot, but one I think we should take."
"You think Jones might have my niece there?" Nettie asked, placing her hands on her hips.
"The best place to hide is in plain sight - if the government is researching dominants...I'd be willing to bet Jones is close by - keeping an eye on things, knowing what they know to stay one step ahead of them."
Vin stepped into the room, knowing they were running out of places to look, but now they had 'permission' to search a small section of tunnel that had been unavailable to them until now. He knew it had been Orin that had unofficially given Chris the go ahead. Vin was ready; he wanted to find Ezra as bad as anyone.
"When do we leave?" JD asked, stepping out of the kitchen with a sandwich in his hand.
"As soon as we can." Chris watched as everyone stood up, ready to move on command. "You can stay here, Nettie - "
"I may look like an old woman to you, Chris Larabee, but I'm as strong and agile as I ever was. I'll go with you. If my niece is hurt and need of care, I aim to be there. I've nursed a lot of our kind...way I see it, you need me. No offense, Doctor Nathan, but sometimes science doesn't work."
"No offense taken, Ma'am."
"You do as I tell you, Nettie." Chris looked hard at the woman.
"You won't have any problems... may I search your kitchen for some supplies?"
"Help yourself." He looked up and met his men's eyes and nodded. "Let's go find them."
He could feel his life slipping away with each passing moment. The pain was constant now, never leaving, never letting up...like an unwelcome acquaintance. His heart raced, beating fast and hard...trying to survive. The harder it worked, the weaker it became.
The events outside his body seemed distant, as though they were happening in another dimension. The voices and noises were there, but far away. Despite that, the cold in his bones was unbearable.
His body yearned for warmth, anything that could take the deep-seated chill from his bones. Even his lungs seemed as though they'd been soaked in ice and replaced by the oxygen being forced into his body. He wanted to breath on his own.
He wanted to live, but not on these conditions.
The desire to curl in on himself and roll into a ball was so strong his stomach muscles clenched and quivered in long agonizing seizures. He'd been strapped down into the same position for days. His blood had been stolen from him; needles had punctured his spine...he was being kept alive for only one reason.
Why was he different than humans?
What made him so different?
What had caused the new species? Where had they originated? Who were they? And why did they want to eliminate the human race?
The room suddenly erupted in gunfire. Voices screamed out and steel instruments and tables were dropped to the floor, ringing with every fall. As suddenly as it started, it ended. Someone moved across the floor kicking items out of their way.
He felt his ankles released from their restraints first and then the warm feeling of soft clothing being carefully maneuvered over his legs and hips. He shook even more and then like magic heavy socks were forced onto his bare feet. He choked when the tube was carefully pulled from his throat and then the needles from his arms. His wrists were released last, but he was too weak to move. It was hard to breath, but as each moment passed it eased some.
He heard his name, but he couldn't think of who was asking him about it. Everything was too distant. A heavy blanket was thrown over him...the warmth felt good. Suddenly strong arms were forced beneath his legs and shoulders and he was picked up from the table. Unable to protest, he let his head fall back and darkness claim him.
It felt so good to be warm.
Josiah secured the pack to his back and looked ahead. JD, Buck, and Chris rechecked their weapons before securing them to their belts. Vin had changed his shoes and looked more ready than all of them...this was his territory. He knew the land, and he knew what to expect out here. He could get them in and out without getting lost. Nathan helped Nettie check her medical supplies. Bandages, gauze, honey, whiskey, and dried herbs had been perfectly packed in Nathan's medical bag. He wasn't sure about some of the items, being more familiar with modern medicine, but he was looking forward to learning from Nettie. He didn't want to have to treat anyone on this mission, but he suspected someone would need aid...too much was at risk.
The ground was still in the process of thawing. Mud, ice, and decaying shrubbery lined the path into the woods. The gray skies held no welcome for its visitors, and the brittle cold wind would be relentless this night. Coat collars were pulled up around necks and gloves donned.
"You sure you're up for this, Nettie?' Chris asked, wanting to make sure they wouldn't have a delay.
"Don't ask me that again, Chris," she warned, taking the gumption and heading off first.
"Tough old bird ain't she," Buck joked, before following the older woman.
"Let's just find her niece," Chris replied, more to himself than anyone. Let's find Ezra.
The young woman huddled in the corner of the room when she heard the door squeak open. She wrapped her arms around her knees and tried to hide within herself. The man entered, carrying a bundle. Carefully, he deposited his charge on the single cot in the room, and then he stopped and looked at her.
"Take care of him," he ordered, and then hastily left.
The young woman hesitantly stood up. She brushed her bangs out of her face, forcing her hair behind her ears and took a deep swallow. She hated it here...she hated him...the man that brought her here. He'd forced her into the room and left her...for the past two days she'd been taken twice a day to a bathroom, and then left alone. She was dirty, tired, and scared. She looked at her fingernails, wishing she had a file, wishing she was helping her Aunt Nettie with dinner, maybe discussing their favorite TV show.
She wished she were anyplace else, but here.
Slowly, she moved closer to the bundle that had been wrapped in blankets. She knew it was a person by the shape, but she didn't know if they were sick, wounded...or both. Wiping her sweaty palms on her pants, she took a deep breath and pulled the blanket back. She didn't recognize the face, but she knew he was ailing. His skin was deathly pale and cold to the touch. The young woman pulled the blanket down further and had to look away, getting sick to her stomach. Long gashes, bruises, and severe lacerations covered his torso. Some were covered with bandages that were in desperate need of changing.
Suddenly, he sucked in a deep breath, parting his lips just slightly. His brow furrowed and his eyes struggled to open.
"Hey there," she said softly, gently stroking his cheek.
Ezra parted his eyelids and rolled his head toward the voice. His throat was on fire, but his bones yearned for warmth.
"I'm Casey," she said with a gentle smile. When his teeth started to chatter she reached out and grabbed the single blanket that had been left for her and wrapped it around him as tight as she could get it. Carefully, she lifted his head onto an old pillow. She didn't know what to do for him, so she sat beside the cot gently stroking his cheek and running her fingers through his hair, praying her aunt would find her soon.
For three days Chris and the others walked, finding the dens were dry and free of anyone, the cold had found a place to hide in them. They used flashlights to guide their way. Small caverns were off to the side of the long tunnel. Many were just large enough for one or two people. Roots had started to appear through some of the wood paneling on the sides, and dirt had trickled through. Garbage had fallen along the sides of the walkway, and the deeper into the caverns they went the more drug paraphernalia they discovered.
JD slipped suddenly and fell onto his backside. "This is gross," he said, getting to his feet, wiping his hands on his pants.
They'd been searching for hours on the third day and found nothing. Tempers were short, and nobody wanted to talk about turning around. Nettie continued to walk at a steady pace down the tunnel, she had one person on her mind and she wouldn't stop until Casey was found.
"Nettie," Chris called, halting the woman in her tracks. "Let's stop a minute, update the map and eat something... I don't want to get too far ahead without thinking about where we're going."
Nettie stopped, but kept her eyes on the blackness ahead. "She's here...I can feel it."
"We'll find her," Chris reassured.
"I'll walk with her a ways..." Vin offered, it was the least he could do.
Reluctantly, Chris nodded. "Be careful," he ordered.
"I will," Vin agreed and slowly started walking with Nettie.
Chris watched them go for a brief moment before turning his attention back to his men. "Let's find a den that's large enough for all of us...I don't want anyone separated - it's too easy to get lost."
Vin walked side by side with Nettie, just checking a few more small dens. Nettie's short stature was misleading when it came to her gumption, she had more than most for good reason. Her niece was here...somewhere, possibly hurt or worse.
"How do you know she's here?" Vin asked, flashing his light into a small nook.
"I can feel it..." she paused, thinking how it would be best to describe the feelings. "When you were young, did you sense your mother before you saw her?"
Vin sighed and watched the older woman move around. "I don't know," he sighed, "she died when I was young."
Nettie stopped her actions and looked at the young man. He looked much younger than his real age, but that was a given for dominants...they all looked younger than they really were. "Think about it..." she ordered, "...you probably knew where she was in the house you lived in, maybe you even knew what she was feeling." She reached out and gently clasped his arm when she saw his recognition.
"I just never put it together before," he admitted.
"You didn't know before," Nettie responded. She paused and looked up. "We should get back to the others." There was worry in her voice, and Vin knew without asking that they weren't alone.
The bounty hunter nodded in agreement and slowly guided the older woman back down the alley. Without warning something strong and forceful hit him from behind, knocking him forward and off his feet. He hit the dirt and wood siding of the tunnel with such force he seemed dazed. His jacket collar was grabbed and it forced him up. Vin fought back, pushing his assailant away from him. The stranger never let go of him. They fell together onto the hard ground with a heavy thump, never letting up in their fight. Nettie had disappeared, in search of Chris and the others.
Vin yelled out when he felt his shoulder separate with a violent jolt. He kicked out, hitting his opponent in the chest, shoving him backwards. The man was up and fighting again in seconds, he didn't seem fazed by anything. Vin screamed when his injured arm connected hard with the ground. Blood trickled down his chin from his nose and mouth.
Chris and Buck charged from the small den they'd made camp in after Nettie had informed them of the fight. Hearing the bounty hunter's cry only sped them up, fearing the worst. As they approached the two fighting men, the stranger jumped to his feet and sped away before Chris or Buck could chase after him. Without warning he disappeared into the shadows.
Buck jogged a few feet past Vin, flashing his light, looking for any sign of the attacker. When he didn't see anything he turned back toward his comrades. Chris was helping the wounded Tanner to his feet, Nettie was there as well, assessing the damage. Nathan had rushed back to the den for his medical supplies while Josiah and JD tried to finish putting beds together.
Vin groaned, leaning heavily onto Chris for support. His arm was on fire and his jaw felt as though it were bruised. His vision blurred and he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep from passing out. He felt another strong arm around his waist...Buck, he was there as another support.
"Keep that arm of his as still as you can," Nettie said, following the threesome.
"Shit," Vin gasped, trying to keep his composure. "Sonofabitch was fast... Never saw him comin'."
"Think you cracked any ribs?" Chris asked, moving to the side as Nathan moved in and helped the bounty hunter sit down.
"A rogue or runaway - I've heard that they live down here...hiding from any kind of normal life," Nettie said, digging through the medical bag. She grabbed a couple small bags of herbs, the water jug, and a spoon and quickly went to work.
"You mean Jones' kind?" JD asked, standing back out of the way, but watching closely.
Nettie shook her head and carefully began mixing the herbs. "That was probably someone not unlike yourselves...only he was never able to blend in with humans." She looked at Vin and noted the clenched jaw and stern features. "Where's the pain?" she asked softly.
"Shoulder mostly," Vin relied, moving just slightly as Nathan checked his ribs.
"It's dislocated...you've probably got a couple bruised ribs...and you're going to have a hellatious black eye... You're pretty lucky."
"Don't feel lucky."
"You're going to feel worse before this is over," Nathan sighed, carefully pealing Vin's shirt and jacket away from his body.
Vin hissed and swore under his breath.
Nathan squatted down in front of the bounty hunter and carefully touched his right arm. "I'm going to count to three and slip the joint back into place," he said calmly, as though he'd done it a hundred times. He waited until Vin nodded before proceeding. "One - " In one quick pull the joint slipped back into place, but not before Vin yelled out in pain.
"I thought you were going to count to three?!" he snapped, grasping his arm.
Nathan chuckled and got to his feet, watching Nettie finish mixing her herbs. She looked up at him and smiled. "Don't be surprised, Doctor Jackson... Our kind relies on the medicines of old." She stood up and slowly knelt down beside Vin, then with all the grace and dignity of a nurse, she applied the liniment to the injured shoulder.
Vin could feel the heat immediately; almost as though it were a heating pad...it felt good. He blushed when the older woman helped him slip his shirt back on, and then carefully, with Nathan's help, they strapped a makeshift bandage to the arm, insuring its immobility.
"We'll stay here tonight," Chris said, wishing he were someone else...someplace else. "Let Vin rest up and the rest of us can work over the map. If Jones is close...we'll find him, but I want to be ready."
Nettie looked up and read those worried green eyes. Her concern lay with her niece, and making sure she was going to be okay...she didn't care about anything else at the moment. She looked longingly at the door, wishing she were younger, faster, and stronger.
She used to be...so long ago.
"We'll find her Nettie..." Chris reassured, "...and we'll get her home."
Vin reached out and took the older woman's hand, knowing she needed reassurance. She smiled tightly, and quickly busied herself with his injuries.
She'd never forgiver herself if something happened to Casey.
Casey jumped back when the door to the room opened. Two men entered, one was the same man who'd dropped the stranger on the cot three days before. The stranger had only woke once.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked, looking at the young woman. He was attracted to her, but she was there for someone else.
"No," Casey responded confidently.
"I'm Jones," he said with such a force that Casey stepped further back against the wall. He turned his attention from her, and concentrated on the lifeless form on the cot. He motioned toward the individual who'd entered with him, and together they lifted Ezra into a sitting position.
His head rolled back and was quickly supported by a strong hand. Three sharp slaps to his face caused him to try and pry his eyes apart. He gasped for breath, irritating his raw throat.
"Drink this, Ezra," Jones said harshly, pressing the neck of the bottle against the Southerner's lips. Fluid dribbled down his chin, and he choked when it went down the wrong pipe.
"He's hurt," Casey spoke up, not wanting them to harm him any more.
Jones turned cold eyes toward her, and then he grabbed Ezra's chin, forcing his mouth open.
"You'll kill him!" Casey snapped, taking a step forward.
Ezra struggled within someone's grasp, but he swallowed the fluid that was being forced down his throat. What he couldn't swallow, flowed down his chin and neck, soaking his chest and the blankets surrounding him. He pushed the container away from himself and tried to gather his wits. He looked at Jones and furrowed his brow, confused by his whereabouts; he looked tiredly around the room. His body still shaking from the chill in his bones.
"What do you want with us?" Casey asked, getting braver with each passing moment.
Jones laughed and motioned for his henchmen to take his charge away. "You should be asking what I want with you."
Casey stood back, watching helplessly as Ezra was pulled violently from the room. Blankets fell to the floor and trailed to the door before it was slammed shut. Casey wiped the impending tears from her eyes. She missed Nettie, and more than anything...she wished she'd never gone out with her friends to the movies.
She should have stayed home.
Ezra was dropped unceremoniously to the floor. He lay where he fell, in too much pain to move. At least now he was aware of what was happening around him. Jones moved across the room and with a quick motion of his hand, ordered his aid out. He poured himself a shot of whiskey and took a seat behind his desk.
"Do you have any idea of the sacrifices I've made for you?" Jones asked, looking at the still form lying on his side in the center of the room.
Ezra clenched his eyes shut. He knew this routine. He knew what Jones wanted.
"I saved your life." Jones downed his glass of whiskey in one shot. "I've saved your life on many occasions, and you never have repaid me."
Ezra heard him, but he yearned for a blanket...just something to wrap up in.
"You were my best student. At an early age you showed so much promise, so much potential...but now..." he sighed, leaning back in his seat, "...but now you're nothing more than a weak subhuman."
Ezra sighed; trying to ignore the pain he was in, trying to put aside the cold that bit relentlessly at his skin. For so long he thought he was going to die.... he knew he was going to die, it was just a matter of time...
Now he was at the mercy of his teacher, and for the first time in a long time...he was thankful.
"How did you get along....?" Vin asked. "Being who - what, you are?"
Nettie sighed and looked at the sleeping forms on the ground. "I was lucky. My folks were independent people...my father was a dirt farmer and my mother raised all of us kids. The community we were with at the time was self-sufficient - we didn't have any need for the outside world - that came later. I don't know how we started, or where we came from, but I know there are a lot of us out there, and most of us are peaceful - we just wanted to live our lives as normally as possible."
"Why did Jones become so...hateful?"
"Each community elected a leader for representation in the 60s. Most of us came together to learn more about ourselves, but some of the committee saw the power we had...power is a very influential instigator. Jones started with the idea of training children to infiltrate the 'real world'. He taught them how to avoid their emotions - bury them deep, how to kill without regret, how to use their senses to detect others like themselves and humans..."
"Ezra talked a little about it...what he went through," Vin said softly, looking at the doorway.
"I don't know why Jones has the power and influence he does, but for reasons I don't understand, he's able to manipulate people into doing things they'd never do...particularly children - that's why so many of us tried to leave, escape with our sons and daughters before he could get his hands on them."
"Did you have any...kids?"
Nettie smiled: "I had four sons." She thought hard for a moment, thinking about her children. "Jones took my oldest, David - I still don't know what happened to him. My other boys..." she shrugged and smiled tightly, "...I sent them away."
Vin nodded, he didn't want to ask any more questions...too afraid he hurt her more.
"It's not as unusual as you think, in regards to you and the others," she looked at the sleeping men, watching their movements as they began to wake. "Most of you probably came from the community that stayed with Jones. Your parents probably had to give you up to save you."
Vin looked hard at her. "Because we weren't perfect?"
Reluctantly, Nettie nodded. "Jones didn't want any child who didn't show extreme signs of acceleration. Perhaps you and the others developed later than many...maybe you weren't given the same opportunities as the others." She smiled, trying to offer comfort. "Be thankful you weren't there...be thankful you grew up in the home you did."
Vin nodded, but didn't say anything. He wasn't sure if he could be thankful for that...foster care wasn't his idea of a grand time. He watched as Buck sat up and stretched his arms upward. Chris soon followed, unwilling to lollygag; he stood and started to gather his belongings. He reached out and slapped JD on the shoulder and ordered him up. They didn't have any time to waste.
"How're you feeling, Vin?" Chris asked.
"Better," the bounty hunter replied. Being a dominant did have its perks.
Chris nodded and yelled loud enough to wake Josiah and Nathan. "We've got to find Casey and Ezra."
Vin stood, still feeling the stiffness in his shoulder. He ignored it as much as possible and packed his bags, grabbing a high-energy bar from his snack pack. Without warning, he reached out and grasped a small bag of honey candies that Nettie had thrown him. "I've got my own - "
"Eat those," Nettie ordered with a smile. "They'll do you right."
"How far do you think we'll get today?" JD asked, slipping his backpack on.
"We'll go as far as we can," Chris replied confidently. He needed - wanted, answers.
"Accordin' to the maps..." Buck spoke up, flashing his light on the images, "the underground warehouse should only be a few hundred feet ahead. I s'spect," he raised his eyebrows, "the entrance ain't goin' to be easy to find."
"Any idea of what we should look for?" Nathan asked, carefully rewrapping Vin's shoulder.
"They'd want easy access to it - not something that's going to be difficult to enter. So," Chris sighed, "look for something painted, probably dark brown - hell, they might have hired someone to paint it like dirt. Vin," he looked at the hunter, "we're going to need your eyes."
Weakly, Ezra stood up on his own legs. He wasn't there for long as his legs gave way and he fell back against the office wall, causing pictures to crash to the floor. He heard a familiar chuckle from across the room, but he really didn't mind...at least now, he was warm.
"You never were particularly fond of mornings," Jones supplied. "That's why you made such a spectacular night owl."
Ezra laid his head back against the wall and swallowed hard. Sweat had accumulated on his brow, neck, and back. He closed his eyes, not really paying attention to his teacher's words, more importantly, not understanding what was happening to his body.
"You'll die you know."
Ezra didn't care.
"Too much damage done to that body of yours. Do you see now, why humans must be destroyed?" Jones stood up and moved to squat beside his protege. "Do you understand how they'll destroy us...because of what we have." He grabbed Ezra's chin and forced him to look at him. "We outlive them by a hundred years, we're smarter, faster, stronger...better."
"What do you want from me?" Ezra asked, forcing his chin from Jones' grasp.
"Casey Wells is the first of our species with the ability to reproduce for the next forty years." His eyes sparkled as he spoke and his face grew taut with determination. "I want you to sire the next generation of 'dominants'."
Ezra's eyes grew wide and without warning he laughed.
Aggravated, Jones whipped out and struck the Southern born across the face, causing his head to spin and his right cheek to hit the wall. Blood appeared like magic in unorganized splatters. Ezra's eyes squeezed shut and he reached up to stop the red flow from his mouth.
"Do you understand what I'm asking?"
"Yes," Ezra replied, still holding a portion of his shirt to his mouth, "but I won't do it."
Without warning, Jones grabbed the front of the Southerner's shirt and hauled him violently to his feet. The door to the office was flung open and the large aid reentered the room, standing like Goliath in the doorway. Jones grabbed a handful of Ezra's hair and forced his head back. Jones blew softly into his student's ear and spoke softly, "Don't forget who I am..." he chuckled softly, "...the one unfortunate weakness you Southern-borns have...? You hate the cold."
"Hold up," Vin called out, looking carefully at the tunnel walls.
Chris stopped and moved to stand beside the bounty hunter. "What is it?"
Vin reached out and touched the walls. Dirt slipped past his fingers, crumbling to the ground. Suddenly, the dirt stopped, and Vin gently tapped the heavy steel structure. "Here's your door."
"So how do we get in?" Buck asked, searching for the frame.
"There's probably a computerized code box," JD said, thinking about the structure.
"What about this?" Nettie asked, wiping some dirt away from a small item that had been built within the cave wall.
"That's it," JD replied, flashing his light on the small numbers. Hardly large enough to see, it would be almost impossible to press a code onto the keypad. Carefully, the kid pulled his laptop computer out of his backpack and started plugging in attachments to the code box. Buck and Josiah flashed their lights so he could see, all the while hoping and praying it worked.
The sudden sound of earth moving caused them all to jump and look wildly around. Dirt and dust trickled to the ground as the heavy door suddenly began to move. It disappeared within itself, exposing offices behind it. The old Military base had been renovated over the years.
JD looked up and smiled. "Everyone's out," he said, "I also tricked the computer into thinking the door is still closed - nobody will ever know we were here...unless we leave muddy footprints." He folded up his computer and carefully put his equipment away.
"By any chance get some floor plans while you were in there playin' around?" Buck asked with a grin.
"We're on our own for that one." JD chuckled and picked his flashlight.
"Be careful," Chris said, entering the rooms, surprised by what they contained. "Watch your backs...all of you." It was an order that would be followed.
Computers, telephones, and files littered the offices like litter at a garbage dump. They seemed to be everywhere. Nothing personal decorated the desks...only pens, paper, and typical office equipment. Windows lined the halls, giving anyone with 'a need to know' attitude to see what employees were doing...or weren't doing. It seemed more sterile than a hospital: white walls, sparkling glass, and absolutely no garbage cans in sight.
The seven individuals crept down the corridors, ready for anything. Nettie stopped on occasion, tuning her feelings for her niece...finding nothing. She stopped at a door that led to a room without any windows.
"What is it, Nettie?" Vin asked, stopping to look at her.
"Jones was here," she said softly, laying her hand flat on the door. "He hurt people in this room." She couldn't see the images, but she could feel their pain - their fear.
Chris stepped forward and opened the door. Using his strength, he pushed until the frame gave way, splintering, and tearing at the wood. Inside was a single steel table, surrounded by instruments and equipment. "Nathan?" he asked, looking at the doctor. "What is this?"
The doctor entered the room and noted all its belongings. "Looks to be some kind of an exam room - these are surgical instruments," he pointed to the small table covered in gauze, scalpels, and clamps, "these," he sighed, "are tissue sample containers - "
"Nate?" Vin asked, after opening one of the refrigerator doors.
The doctor moved across the floor and took a look inside. He pulled out a petri dish and read the coding aloud, "Subject number 832, test number 25?" He wasn't sure what he had just read, and trying to identify what was in the dish was impossible.
"JD - "
"Already on it," the kid interrupted Chris, and moved to the computer in the room with the intention of finding what they were looking at.
It wasn't long before JD brought up a list of subject and test numbers. He clicked one of the digits and waited for the screen to pull up the information. "New Species, spinal tap sample..." He looked to Nathan who was looking over his shoulder at the results.
"These were taken just a few days ago," Nathan said. "They're tissue samples..." He looked up and met Chris' eyes.
"Ezra?" Buck asked, his voice sounded fearful.
"There's no way of telling," Nathan replied. "All their information is coded in numbers - "
"So where is he now?" Chris snapped, looking around.
"He's gone," both Vin and Nettie answered at the same time.
"You mean dead?" Chris wanted to challenge, wanting to make it impossible for them to answer yes.
Vin shook his head: "He's gone...not here."
"Jones find him first?" Nettie asked with a knowing sigh.
"So let's find him," Josiah said, the only calming voice of reason. "We know neither Casey, Ezra, or Jones are here...so let's go find them."
"You think they're all together?" Chris asked, wishing he'd allow himself the ability to think with his feelings. Vin was starting to learn, and it would only be a short amount of time before the bounty hunter would start to learn how to fine-tune his senses.
"Yeah," Vin replied. "I think they're all together."
"Nettie?" Chris looked hard at the older woman. "If Jones 'reprograms' Ezra - "
She sighed shook her head: "You'll have two choices...and neither one of them is good."
"Let's find them, brothers, and bring them home." Josiah spoke firmly and proudly, he would not, under any circumstance, lose this game.
Ezra lay on his side with his arms and legs tucked up close to his chest. The relentless cold bit at his skin and he shivered relentlessly. Oddly though, his hair was soaked with sweat and his skin was hot to the touch. He watched the crease under the door blindly, wishing for someone to ask him again if he'd submit.
This time...he'd say yes.
This time, he'd do anything to get warm, to sleep, so feel something again. Jones would come again and save him...he had to.
The door crept open slowly and heavy footsteps hit the floor. Ezra's eyes remained open, but he didn't see anything.
"Cold enough?" the voice asked, squatting down in front of him. "If we're not careful, our race and those like us will one day be obsolete - unable to cope with man's complicated views of life. Our way is simple - survival - and we will survive no matter what." He reached out and grasped the bare shoulder. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Ezra looked at him and slowly nodded.
"Do you understand why this girl and you must prepare for our future?" He grasped Ezra's chin and forced him to look at him. "You must understand this - do you?"
"...yes..." came the soft, almost inaudible answer.
Jones smiled and nodded. He stood up and looked back toward the door. He grabbed the blanket from his assistant and threw it over Ezra's naked form and then picked him up and carried him from the room.
Ezra relished the warmth. He didn't know where he was being taken or why...he didn't care. For the first time in days his body felt the softness of cloth and the warmth it had to offer. He was taken to a small room and immediately he heard the sound of rushing water. Jones set him on the bathroom floor still wrapped in the heavy blanket. He handed him a glass and told him to drink it, and then to shower, before he left the room.
The Southern born took a sip of the warm fluid and allowed it to slip down his throat. Its sweetness and honey like texture made it easier to swallow. His stomach tightened violently and he gasped until it released its brutal hold, then welcoming the first substance in a very long time. When he finished, he slowly made his way to the shower, using the walls and towel rack for support. He let the hot water hit his body and run through his hair as he sat against the far wall.
He never heard the door open, or saw the person who left a pile of clothing on the lid of the toilet. He allowed the warmth of the water to fill his need of humanity. The simple pleasure of a shower could so easily ease his mind. When the water slowly started to cool he opened his eyes once again, and reached forward to turn it off. Weakly, he stood and dried himself and slipped into the clothing that had been set out for him. A white long sleeved tee shirt, heavy work socks, and a pair of old jeans. His torso and back still burned and cried out for attention. Scaring wounds still seeped, and his body still trembled from weakness and exhaustion.
He looked up and caught a glimpse of himself in the foggy mirror. He grabbed a single razor and contemplated for a moment, the taking of his own life. He'd rather die than see an innocent pulled into this world of hell. But for reasons he didn't understand, he couldn't do it. Sitting himself on the lid of the toilet, too weak to continue standing, he soaped up his chin and cheeks, wanting only to shave days of growth off his face. It was a slow and tedious process, but he managed. It didn't make him feel better, but at least now he didn't feel as though a rat had taken up residence on his chin. He looked up when the bathroom door opened.
Jones looked in and smiled. "Get up," he ordered, standing off to the side, "I don't feel like carrying you any further."
Ezra inwardly cringed, and slowly got to his feet and followed him out. The Southerner wrapped his arms around his chest and jumped when a light jacket was thrown at him.
"Enjoy it while it lasts," Jones replied, stepping in front of a door. He grasped the handle and waited until Ezra was ready to enter the room. "I will kill you both if you fail me." It was a warning that needed heeding, and the Southern born nodded in understanding. "You'll never escape me...so don't ever try again." He swung the door open and pushed Ezra inside, then slammed it shut and locked it.
Ezra fell and lay still for a moment, gathering his breath. He just wanted to lay there and die...it would be more suitable. He gasped harshly when he felt someone roll him onto his back...
"I thought they'd killed you," she spoke softly. She helped him sit up and lean against the wall, and then she grabbed her blanket and covered him.
Ezra reached up and placed his hand behind her neck and forced her to kiss him. She struggled, but his strength kept her from pulling back. He pushed her away from him and then pulled her forward again, this time so he could speak in her ear. His voice was soft, but harsh. "Trust me."
She looked at him in wonder, her eyes searching for his lies, but she found none. Slowly, she nodded, and leaned forward so he could continue to speak.
Jones smiled, when he peered into the room through the small window in the door. His Southern born was back under his command...and it had been so easy this time. Quickly, he shut the window and walked down the hall...anticipating the future.
Ezra looked at Casey. "How many times do they enter this room?" he asked, still breathing hard.
"Three - once in the morning, in the afternoon, and then late at night," she answered.
Ezra nodded: "How many?"
"Only one person - he's big though - a lot bigger than you."
That brought a smile to his face and he nodded for good measure. "Do you have anything with you - other than what you're wearing?"
Casey patted her pant pockets and shrugged her shoulders. "Just some pocket change and my student ID - they took my keys and my purse. Do you think we can escape?" she asked, with pleading eyes.
"It's our only way out," he answered, leaning his head back against the wall.
Casey paced back and forth across the small space while the stranger who only called himself Ezra, rested against the wall. They needed something useful to get them out of this hellhole. Her mind raced with ideas, but none of them would work.She stopped when she heard him groan and move his head slightly. His hair had become soaked with sweat, but yet he complained of being cold. She'd given him all but the shirt on her back to wrap up in.
Ezra opened his eyes and looked tiredly around the room. When his eyes landed on the cot he sighed, thinking about something. "What's that constructed of?" he asked simply.
"Wood," Casey replied, rolling her eyes.
"Is there any hardware on it?"
Casey reached for the cot and turned it over, examining anything that could be constructed as a weapon of some kind. "What about these L brackets?" she asked, turning toward Ezra.
"Can you get them off?"
Casey cocked an eyebrow and grinned: "Does a bear shit in the woods?" She laughed at her own reply, realizing for the first time in days that freedom was a possibility. She ripped two of the legs off the cot and managed to release the brackets from the narrow bed.
"Leave the brackets on the legs," Ezra said softly, realizing they now had weapons.
Casey grabbed the two legs and quickly removed the back legs from the now destroyed cot. She moved beside Ezra and tucked the weapons under the blanket. "What now?" she asked, hopefully.
"How soon before they arrive?"
Casey shrugged: "Could be anytime - all just depends."
"Help me up," Ezra asked, struggling to his feet. "Wrap all but two of the clubs in the blanket."
Casey did what she was asked and helped him next to the door. He leaned against the wall, breathing hard. "Are you goin' to make it?"
Ezra nodded, and suddenly focused his attention on the door. "He's coming - lean into me." Gently, he wrapped an arm around her tiny waist and gripped one of the legs of the cot in his other hand. Casey did the same to him. They'd get out of this together...they had to.
The door opened, and a quick movement of Casey's wrist brought her club up and struck the stranger in the face, dropping him to the floor in a boneless heap. The cot leg and L bracket protruding from his left eye. She smiled and looked up at Ezra. "Impressed?" she asked with a grin. She didn't know she'd killed him, and frankly she didn't care, she only wanted to escape.
Ezra chuckled: "Undeniably."
Casey pulled the body into the room and left him, and then slipped her arm around Ezra's waist and helped him from the room. "Where do we go?" she asked, intending to get free.
Ezra rubbed his hand over his face and thought a moment. "Left - there's a door up ahead, should lead us to the old tunnels."
"You've been here before?" Casey asked, struggling with her charge.
"A few times."