Alphas: Gunslingers by Nancy W

Seventh story in the ALPHAS series.

"You have to position your center of gravity over the center point of the wheels, then compensate for forward momentum," Buck explained.

The comment would have garnered a blank stare from most of the normal kids Orin Travis knew. Well, maybe 'normal' was the wrong word. The Alphas were normal kids - but they were not ordinary kids, that was for sure.

The other six listened to Buck's explanation attentively and processed the information accordingly. They were all remarkable listeners - another way in which Travis had found them to be 'different' - even from his own son and grandson. They paid attention, to everything. It was something Omnichron had instilled in them since birth.

All of them appeared to know exactly what Buck was talking about, and Travis was pleased that they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The skateboards had been Steven's idea. He'd skated well into his twenties, and was still pretty good at it. He thought the boys might enjoy the challenge, so he'd taken Orin to a skate shop earlier that morning and they'd come back with seven boards appropriate for each boy's size and age.

The boys examined them carefully. Having seen other kids at school riding them, they were curious but not the least bit daunted. Buck had been the first to try his. As the 'engineer' of the group, the others had patiently awaited his assessment of the situation.

Remarkably, he'd managed to ride it several feet on his first attempt before he lost his balance and had to jump off. Orin wondered if any of them would actually fall - they all had astonishingly quick reflexes. Steven had insisted on protective gear, anyway, and unlike many boys, the Alphas didn't hesitate to put it on. They were used to wearing armor, and Nathan had emphasized that scraped knees and elbows were painful, and therefore decreased efficiency.

Steven, though, once had to get five stitches in his chin after falling, so, Evie had band aids ready, just in case.

It took them less than an hour to master the boards. Even little Vin and JD were able to stay on them - something six-year-old Billy hadn't been able to accomplish as yet. Ezra was not too keen on the contraptions, especially after he fell face-first onto the lawn and ended up with a green chin. Evie cleaned him up immediately, because the boy hated to be dirty, but he clearly didn't want to endure that humiliation again.

Steven showed them how to turn and do a kick-flip, which they all accomplished in short order, albeit with varying degrees of success. JD had an uncanny sense of balance for his age and was determined to keep up with the older boys. Vin fell a couple of times because he was more interested in speed than skill, but he just laughed it off.

It was good to see them doing something ordinary boys did, even if they did do it better than most ordinary boys would.

They all appeared slightly disappointed when Theta showed up in the green Omnichron van. They were happy as always to see him, but Chris asked what they all wanted to know. "Do we have to go now?"

Theta nodded, touching Chris's head affectionately. "I'm afraid so, but it will be interesting."

Orin and Evie knew they'd get no answers about where the boys were being taken, so Orin settled for asking how long they would be gone. Their last adventure in Mexico had only cost them one day of school. Today was Saturday, so maybe they'd be back in time for classes on Monday.

But Theta only shrugged. "It's a reconnaissance mission. They'll have supplies for a week, but they could be back sooner."

The boys had already headed into the house to gather their gear.

"What do they do on these 'reconnaissance missions'?" Steven wanted to know.

Orin cringed, expecting a rebuke from Theta. Instead the man answered without hesitation.

"They blend into the local population - if there is one - and observe the differences in the culture and timeline."

"But don't they look out of place? I mean, not every timeline is like this one . . ." The boys had told him great detail about their trip to a Mexico where the Aztec empire had never fallen. They had endeared themselves to the emperor and JD had been named the heir to the Aztec throne. Steven wished he could write about it, but no one would ever believe any of it was true.

"You'd be surprised at how quickly people dismiss things like that. We've been dismissing them in this timeline for the last ten thousand years," he laughed, "as myths and legends."

Steven wanted to hear more about that, but JD had already come running out of the house ready to go. Or, almost ready. His boot laces were hanging loose and his BDU shirt was buttoned crooked. Theta knelt down and tied the laces and rebuttoned the shirt. "I have something for you," he said when he was done.

JD looked up at the big man, delight evident in his eyes. "A present?" he said hopefully.

Theta reached into a pocket and pulled out a flashlight with a skull for a lens. When turned on, two bright beams shone through the eyes. "The skull flashlights!" JD said excitedly. Obviously, he'd seen it before.

"They work with regular batteries and LEDs now." When the boys had confiscated the lights from an errant Alpha team from another timeline, they'd been discovered to have a power source that Omnichron was still reverse engineering - but they didn't need the flashlights themselves to do that.

The other boys quickly appeared and climbed into the van, where they found skull flashlights waiting for them. Even Josiah was still enough of a child to be thrilled with the gift.

"Wish I could go with them, just once," Steven sighed.

Oddly, the comment gave Orin pause. He wasn't sure why . . . it was as if it had evoked some distant memory, hidden so long he couldn't hope to ever retrieve it. He shook the feeling off.

"I hope they're safe," Evie said. "They're just children."

"Children," Orin repeated, "but not just . . ."

+ + + + + + +

The boys were attentive as Theta outlined the scenario for the timeline they would be investigating. The MATSAP on the other side was deep within the earth, as theirs was, but oddly, it was abandoned. It showed no signs of having been manned for several years - centuries, if the dating procedure was correct.

"We suspect from the inscriptions that certain Native American tribes might have known about it," Theta explained. "But when they were lost, the knowledge of the port was lost with them. The site seems undisturbed. You probably won't be able to initiate the protocols from that side, but we will periodically activate it at 12-hour intervals."

He called up an aerial image that had been taken by a drone, no bigger than a common insect. "This . . ." he pointed to a wooden structure, "appears to be an orphanage. You will go there. It will be your base of operations."

"What's an orphanich?" Seven asked.

"It's a place for children who have no parents," Five explained.

"Oh, like us . . . ," Six observed.

"They aren't always nice places," Theta warned. "But you know how to take care of yourselves, right?"

The seven boys nodded.

"Let's get to it, then!" Theta clapped his hands together. He was always excited about missions to other timelines.

The boys were, too. They always learned new things. Sometimes, it was scary, but Theta was right, they could take care of themselves.

The trip through the port was uneventful, other than Five being disgusted by the accretion of dust and cobwebs that had accumulated at the unused MATSAP. There was a clearly visible pathway leading away from the port, even though it ended in a barricade of rocks, sand and vegetation that they had to dig through. It did not look as if no one had ever found the site, however. The barricade had been intentionally created to hide it.

Once in the open, they discovered it was hot - the sun in this timeline was slightly closer to earth than in their own.

The orphanage was due west. They started walking, with Vin walking point with his rifle ready. This was rugged country, and there were possibly wild predators still around.

At one point, an aircraft flew over them. It was painted to look like a thunder bird. A few minutes later, it circled back and flew over them again. This was curious, because it looked like a passenger plane, not a military aircraft.

"They've spotted us," Two said.

"Is that a good or bad thing?" One grinned.

Two shrugged. "I suppose we'll find out soon enough."

They walked for another 30 minutes before they saw dust trails off in the distance. Someone was headed their way.

Two decided it was best if they took cover until they got a good look at who it was. Their uniforms provided good camouflage, but their varied hair and skin color was going to give them away.

"Cover your hair and faces with dust," Two ordered.

Five looked stricken. He hated being dirty. "Come on, now," One told him gently. "You can always wash it off later."

The fastidious little boy sighed heavily and then scooped up a handful of dust. Six and Seven were not at all squeamish and were soon happily covered in it from head to toe.

The terrain was rocky and there were plenty of boulders that were large enough to conceal them. They stored their gear in a shallow pit where wind had eroded the rock beneath a large pillar of harder rock. They kept their weapons - standard rifles for One and two, knives for Four, a pistol for Five, crossbows for Three and Seven and a sniper rifle for Six. Five, Six and Seven squeezed into a small crevice between two massive boulders, while One and Four hid behind a large rock a few feet away. Two and Three took cover behind a thick bush - one of the few in the area.

It appeared at first as if whoever was approaching was on horseback, but as they came closer, the distinct sound of several engines could be heard. As the riders came into plain view, the boys were amazed to see that they were riding large motorcycles - with heads and tails. They looked like horses, except they had wheels instead of legs, and were even painted to resemble the markings a horse might have.

"Whoa, cool . . . " Six whispered. Five put up a finger to silence him, but it wasn't really necessary. The motorcycles were extremely loud. Any real horses would have been frightened off.

The riders dismounted and began walking around. All of them wore seven-pointed stars that said 'Deputy' except for one, whose badge said 'Sheriff.' They all wore western hats and dusters, and when the sheriff pulled his coat back, it revealed a .44.Remington revolver on his hip.

He pulled out a device that separated into two parts. One recognized it as a very small replica of a very old type of telephone. One part was the speaker and the other part was the earpiece. The sheriff put the earpiece to his hear and spoke into the other part.

"Hey, Jake . . . yeah, I'm out here with the posse, but we don't see no sign of them . . . yeah, I'm sure they're hidin' around here somewhere . . . prob'ly more damn Texans trying to sneak across the border . . . Hell if I know . . . Yeah . . . we'll stay out here until we find them . . . or until it gets dark . . ." He laughed. "Won't matter then if we find them or not, saber tooths will have 'em for chuck. . . Texan burgers . . . " He laughed some more, then reattached the two pieces of the phone and tucked it back into his pocket.

"Y'all best show yourselves," he called out to the surrounding area. "Longer it takes for us to find you, the more irate my posse here is gonna be . . . ." He then repeated the message in Spanish.

The Alphas remained silent.

"Alright then," the sheriff called out. "Have it your way . . . but my men here are going to start pepperin' these rocks in two minutes. If ya don't come out, someone will like as not get hurt."

The members of the posse returned to their motorcycles and lifted the horses' 'rumps' which revealed compartments from which they pulled out weapons that looked like AK-47s, except they had wooden stocks.

Six stealthily readied his sniper rifle. He'd loaded it with real ammunition, which was required for the weapon to be effective at this range. There were only five of them. He could take them all out before they could get to where he was hiding with Five and Seven. He'd wait until Two told him to shoot, though.

Two was sizing up the situation. If the Alphas opened fire, they could easily disarm all of the posse, but that would more than likely be breaking some kind of law. So far, they hadn't really done anything that would get them in serious trouble. If the posse sprayed the area with automatic weapon fire, though, one or more of the Alphas was bound to get hit. He wondered if the sheriff was bluffing. He decided to wait until the two minutes were up.

"Daws!" one of the posse called out. "Someone's comin, yonder!" He used his weapon to point out the direction. There were more dust trails approaching.

"You think that's them?" another posse member asked.

"No, the aviator who saw them said they were on foot," the sheriff replied. The Alphas gathered that he was the one named 'Daws.'

The intention to randomly open fire was forgotten for the moment, and the sheriff and his deputies watched the other riders approach. "Aw, hell," Daws spat. "It's James and Royal and their gang."

The deputies looked nervous. One of them said, "We didn't sign up to take them on, Daws."

"I know . . . let me handle this," the sheriff replied.

He stepped forward to meet the arriving motorcycles, but no greeting was exchanged. The gang outnumbered the posse 2 to 1 and as soon as they rolled to a stop, they dismounted and headed straight for the deputies. In seconds, they had disarmed them. The sheriff stood his ground, directly facing the leader of the gang. One could tell he was nervous, but he did a good job of covering it up.

"Interfering with a duly deputized posse is against the law, James. You know better."

"The law can kiss my ass," came the reply. "There's a bounty on Texans and we heard there were a bunch of them spotted sneaking across the border. We aim to collect.

"Be my guest, if you can find them," the sheriff said.

James stepped in close, but the sheriff did not back up, so they almost ended up nose-to-nose. "Don't expect me to believe you don't know exactly where they are."

"I don't," Daws replied.

Two swift, powerful blows from James' meaty fist sent the sheriff to the ground. His deputies stood frozen in place. It was clear to Two that they were not actual lawmen, and were unprepared for a confrontation with what looked to be a bad element. They were all easily restrained while James proceeded to kick the fallen lawman repeatedly.

Two gave Six the signal to fire. He knew Six would know what to do.

The seven-year-old quickly took aim, fixed his laser site on James' booted foot, and fired.

James howled with pain and fell on his butt. The other men quickly scattered. "Where did that shot come from?!" James screeched in rage. "Find them!"

"The fuel tanks are probably in the horses' necks," Three deduced. He aimed for the closest one with his crossbow. The bolt went clean through and soon an arching stream of gasoline was spewing from holes on either side.

Seeing One was right, Two signaled the other Alphas to open fire. Only Four stayed back - he'd need his knives if they ended up in close combat.

"FIND THOSE BASTARDS!" James shrieked as fuel poured from ten bikes.

In the ensuing confusion, Daws staggered to his feet, and he and his posse mounted their bikes and made their escape.

The men who remained began firing randomly in the Alphas' direction. Some of the bullets were narrowly missing them. Six didn't have to wait for a signal from Two - he began to shoot the weapons out of the enemy's hands. He never missed. Five managed to disarm one man with his pistol and a bolt from Seven's crossbow neatly pierced the stock of a rifle, causing its owner to drop it in surprise.

James' men were forced to reconsider their action when they realized that whoever was hiding from them had the advantage. Despite James' cursing, derogatory protests, eight of the men took up their damaged bikes and rode away on whatever fuel was left in them.

The two that remained had no choice but to follow, since they were now not only outgunned, but outnumbered.

"Well, that was fun," Three said when they were gone.

"It would seem the town has a somewhat precarious social dynamic," One observed.

"Those guys were mean. I don't like them," Seven added.

"Is anyone hurt?" Four asked.

No one answered, so he looked his team mates over for himself. Two had a cut on his head where he'd been hit by a flying chip of something. It wasn't bad, but he dressed the wound anyway, ignoring Two's protests.

Six looked on, concerned. He didn't want anything to happen to Two.

"Good shooting, Six," Two told him, which made the smaller boy smile, even though nothing less was expected of him.

"Can I wash this abominable filth from my face now?" Five complained.

Four tossed him a cleaning wipe, which was far from satisfactory, but they were not really sure how far the town was, so they couldn't afford to waste water.

They gathered their gear and set out to follow the motorcycle tracks, watching for more dust trails and also for any more planes. Two hours later, they reached the outskirts of the town - although it wasn't a town but an actual city, spread out in a valley along a river, very much like the city where they lived with the Travises. This was lucky, because they would be less likely to be noticed in a large population center.

Two studied the map made by the drone. "The orphanage is that way," he said. "But let's take a look around, first."

"Who are you kids?" a voice from behind startled them.

They turned around. It was the Sheriff, Daws. He was bruised and limping, and seemed a bit uncertain about confronting them, but Two had to admit that the man had taken them by surprise, so he clearly had some kind of surveillance training. None of the Alphas replied, leaving that up to Two, who was considering what to tell the man.

"Are you Texans?" he asked sternly. "Sneaking across the border?"

Two shook his head. "No, we aren't Texans," he said truthfully.

"Well, you look too young to be running opium, so what are you doing out here all alone?"

"We're looking for our uncle," Two replied. He was being deliberately vague. Theta should have given them a cover story.

"Where are your horses? Why are you walking out in the desert? And who is your uncle?"

Two didn't answer. It was best to keep silent when speaking would only get you into more difficulty.

"Want to know what I think?" Daws said. "I think you're runaways. You better come with me."

The Alphas looked to One, who would likely be able to sense if Daws harbored any malice towards them. The older boy nodded that it was okay.

Oddly, Daws didn't disarm them. He didn't even appear to notice their weapons, even though Six's rifle was in plain view. He pulled out his strange little phone.

"Jake? I need a stage out here at Dead Man's Road and East Central. Seven juveniles to transport."

+ + + + + +

The 'stage' arrived a few minutes later. It looked just like a stage coach, except it was painted to look like a police vehicle and had flashing red and blue lights on the corners, the driver's seat on top was enclosed, and there were no horses pulling it - it had its own power source.

"Awesome!" Six exclaimed when he saw it. He had learned that word at school. Five had told him it wasn't used correctly, but he didn't care.

"Can I ride on the top?" Seven asked.

Sheriff Daws opened the door. "Nope. Safety rules. In you go."

The eight of them climbed into the vehicle and it made a sharp turn in the middle of the street, scattering a few horse-cycles that were in the way and causing their riders to curse and make obscene gestures. Sheriff Daws didn't seem to notice.

They were taken to the Sheriff's Office, a large, sturdy, one-story log structure on a cobblestone street. Daws sat them down on a long wooden bench. Almost everything in the building was made of wood - floor, ceiling, walls, furniture, and doors. What wasn't made of wood was either iron, steel or some kind of ceramic. There was no plastic or other man-made materials anywhere they could see. There were all kinds of wanted posters on the walls and down a long hallway, they could see a row of jail cells. They also spotted a political campaign poster on the wall that said "Dawson Potter for Mayor" and had a picture of the Sheriff. So, 'Daws' was his first name.

The Sheriff poured himself some coffee into a tin cup. "You boys want some sarsaparilla? Lemonade? Milk? Beer?"

"I'll have beer!" One said. He'd seen Steven and Mr. Travis drinking it but they would never give the Alphas any.

"No you won't," Four interjected. "Beer is inebriating."

One settled for lemonade. So did the others, except for Seven, who loved milk. They didn't know what sarsaparilla was. The Sheriff called someone on his phone to bring the refreshments. "Toss in some cookies," he added.

The Sheriff tapped the top of his wooden desk and a compartment opened up and a wooden box emerged. He took what looked like a key from a desk drawer and tapped it, and it began to hum softly and the side facing him lit up. Seven couldn't contain his curiosity. He got up to look. "It's a computer!" he announced.

"Of course it's a computer," the Sheriff said, "and I don't recall anyone telling you to move from that bench, short-stuff, now go sit down."

Seven did as he was told.

The sheriff tapped the screen a few more times and then pulled a handful of cotton swabs from another desk drawer. He went to each boy and made him open his mouth so he could rub the swab on the inside of his cheek.

He then placed the swabs in a porcelain tray that had a spiral design on it that Four recognized as an artistic rendering of a DNA molecule. He opened a small wooden door in the wall and placed the tray inside, then tapped his key against something next to the tray. He closed the little door and returned to his computer.

"What are you doing?" Four wanted to know.

"I'm running your helixes through a national database to see where you belong."

A man with a badge came in carrying a tray with six mugs of lemonade, a glass of milk and a fairly large pile of cookies. "Dig in, boys," he said amiably, grabbing a couple of cookies for himself as he passed the tray around.

The computer made a sound like a little bell. The Sheriff frowned. "Something up, boss?" the Deputy asked.

Daws pointed at the computer screen. "These sprouts aren't in the helix database. None of them."

The Deputy raised an eyebrow. "How is that possible?"

Sheriff Daws shrugged. "Beats the hell out me. Dang machine must be having a conniption."

The deputy asked if there was anything he could do, but Daws shook his head and dismissed him.

He then got up and stood in front of the boys, who were enjoying the cookies and lemonade.

"It's like this," the Sheriff began. "You cherubs either tell me the truth, or . . ." he pointed down the long hallway full of cells, ". . . you go to jail."

The Alphas stopped eating and looked at each other. Two looked the sheriff in the eye and asked, "What do you want to know?"

"You came through that whatsit out there in the mountains, didn't you?"

Another round of looks preceded Two's reply. "Whatsit?"

Daws leaned in close. "Don't think about lying. That bench you're sitting on has sensors. It will know if you're fibbing me. . . You came through that shimmery thing that goes to . . . someplace else . . . someplace not here. You're what some folks call Alphas. Am I right?"

There was no advantage to be had in lying. "Yes," Two replied honestly.

"It was you who took out James and Royal and their gang," he stated. It wasn't a question.

"You looked like you needed some help," Two shrugged.

"Well, that was a fact, to be sure. But I'm not the only one smart enough to figure out who you are, so I suggest you steer a wide path around the Dragon Skulls."

The Alphas looked at each other. There was a gang at school called the Dragon Skulls. Two of them were named James and Royal. Apparently, they existed in this timeline, only they were older.

Daws continued. "They know about that whatsit. A lot of folks do. They'd do whatever was necessary to find out how to work that thing, including hurting you."

Five snickered.

"What's so amusing, boy?" Daws asked.

"They gave every appearance of being overconfident, egotistical bullies whose trivial attempt to intimidate us was insignificant," Five replied.

Daws stared at him for a moment. "You sure got a mouth on you, don't you, short-stuff? How old are you? Six, seven?"

"I'm eight," Five replied indignantly.

One thought he'd better redirect the conversation. "How do you know about Alphas?" he asked.

"We get 'em coming through that whatsit ever so often. They ain't always so young as you, though."

"What are you going to do with us?" Three asked what they were all wondering.

Daws shrugged. "Can't let you wander the streets with no roof over your head, so I'm sending you to Miss Virginia's. That's a foundling home and orphanage. You're going to have to get some new clothes so you don't stick out like a sore thumb. . . Oh, and I want any techo you have."

"Techo?" Two asked.

"Them doohickeys and thingamabobs you Alphas carry around. Last set came through here had pin lights that started fires. We don't need dangerous gadgets like that endangering the populace."

"Pin light?" Three whispered to Five.

Five was usually able to figure out strange words. "He probably means lasers," Five replied.

Daws was on his phone again. "Virginia? Got some lost lambs here for you, seven of them. Yeah… they're gonna need some clothes. . . yup, all sizes. Oldest one is near full-growed. The little one is about 3 feet tall."

"I'm not little," Seven huffed.

"Right . . . I'll see you in a few minutes then . . ." Daws ended the call, then looked at the boys. "All right then, hand it all over, then go in there . . .," he pointed to a door marked 'Gentlemen,' ". . . and get out of them fancy outfits and wash all that dirt off of you."

The Alphas began removing their packs. It would be easy enough to get them back later. There wasn't even a lock on the building's door.

The Gentlemen's room looked like a locker room, except the showers and toilets had pull cords. There was no way to regulate the water temperature, but the showers were pleasantly warm. The soap was shaped into balls with small ropes embedded that hung on hooks. There was no shampoo, so the soap had to do to wash their dirt-covered hair. The towels were coarse, but they were clean.

As they were drying off, Daws came in with a large cardboard box. Inside were neatly folded shirts and trousers in various sizes. Four took charge and passed the clothing out, as he was the best judge of what would fit who. The shirts had no collars, and large, roomy sleeves. The trousers were basic and functional. Five hated all of it, but for the others, the clothes weren't so bad.

To their surprise, the sheriff let them keep all of the guns and the crossbows. As they left with Miss Virginia, who was portly woman who did not smile or speak to them, they saw the reason for that.

Almost everyone they passed on the street was armed, and their weapons were worn in plain view. Even Miss Virginia wore a small pistol at the waistband of her long skirt.

+ + + + + + +

The orphanage was a brick building, three stories tall. The drone images had indicated that only one building in the town - the bank - was more than seven stories tall. Most were made of brick, adobe or wood. The sidewalks were either cobblestones or boardwalks. There wasn't any asphalt or poured concrete to be seen anywhere.

Miss Virginia led them in through a side entrance and had them line up against a wall. The boys were curious about the place, and they were not intimidated by Miss Virginia's dour countenance. They could leave whenever they wanted, and she couldn't do anything to stop them.

She opened a drawer on a wooden desk and took out a wooden clipboard and a pencil. When she touched the pencil to the clipboard, the screen lit up. It was a tablet, even though it didn't look like one. "What are your names? Starting with you." She pointed her pencil at One.

They decided to use their school names. "Josiah Sanchez," One replied.

"How old are you?"


She looked him up and down. "You're big for your age . . . "

One didn't know what to say to that. He really was only fourteen, but Miss Virginia didn't seem to believe him.

She went down the line, and didn't believe Seven when he said he was five, because he looked too small.

They could tell she wasn't going to be an easy woman to please.

Oddly, she still didn't take their weapons.

She showed them to the dormitory, which had fifteen beds on either side. There were no other children there, although they could see that some of the bunks belonged to someone. She walked down the row and pointed to empty bunks, assigning one to each boy. She had almost finished when the door burst open.

It wasn't shoved open, it was kicked. The Alphas instantly turned and had their weapons ready.

It was the Dragon Skull leader named Guy Royal.

Miss Virginia put her hands up. "I don't want any trouble," she pleaded.

"I don't care what you want," Royal sneered. "I've come for those little brats." He pointed to the Alphas and then started walking towards them.

Miss Virginia blocked his path. "You're not taking them, you no-good waste of God's time . . . "

But Royal just shoved her roughly onto one of the beds. She slipped off and landed on the floor.

Two moved to the front of the Alphas, his pistol in his hand. "Leave us alone."

"Or what?" Royal smirked.

"I will shoot you," Two replied. "And if I miss - which I won't - the rest of us will take you down."

"You think I'm afraid of your little pea-shooter?" He lunged at Two, who sidestepped him easily. He tried again, with the same result. Both times Two detected the strong odor of liquor on his breath.

In his besotted state, Royal probably thought that the bullet that grazed Stewart James foot earlier in the day wasn't effective, or that they couldn't shoot. He had no way of knowing that Six had put that shot exactly where he intended. They had loaded the weapons with gel that contained a powerful sedative. If it got under the skin, the target was rendered senseless almost immediately, and they did hurt. Plus they had knives and crossbows and those were real, so Royal was taking a bigger risk than he thought.

"I'm telling you one last time. Get out of here and leave us alone," Two warned, glancing sideways at Three.

Royal looked at the boys with drunken contempt. Two knew this wasn't going to end well, but he wasn't expecting it when Royal lunged at Seven and grabbed him by the arm so tight that the little boy cried out. He lifted him off the floor, but Seven's reactions were lightning fast and he swung his short legs upward and kicked Royal in the face. Surprised, Royal let go and Seven crashed to the floor with a painful thud.

Three released the bolt from his crossbow and it went right through Royal's left leg.

"I won't have this hooliganism!" Miss Virginia shouted. She didn't really seem to care about Guy Royal, who was sitting on the floor stunned, clutching his bleeding leg. She pulled a little phone out of the pocket of her skirt and called for help.

The Alphas couldn't tell if she was mad at them, or at Guy Royal, but they didn't give it a second thought. Four and Three went to Seven who was still lying on the floor.

Four checked the little boy's arm, frowning with concern. "He probably should have an x-ray," he said finally. "I don't think it's broken, but his bones are still soft. They can break without separating."

Three picked the little boy up and held him close.

"Ow, ow…" Seven sniffed.

"That little brat broke my nose," Royal complained.

Miss Virginia kicked him. "I'm tempted to break your sorry skull," she snapped. "You have the nerve coming in here and roughing up children, you sack of dirt."

Royal looked at her with hate in his eyes, suddenly sober. "Woman, don't you fuck with me. I'll burn this place down with you and all of your little bastards inside."

Miss Virginia backed away, looking honestly scared. The boys could tell she believed Royal would carry out a threat like that.

"Come along, boys," she said nervously. "We'll wait in the dining room."

Royal had pulled out his own phone and was calling someone as they filed out behind Miss Virginia, leaving Royal alone. He was bleeding profusely, and Four could have rendered aid, but he didn't. He, too, believed Royal's threat to burn the orphanage.

Royal's men arrived first. There were four of them, and they had dragon skulls emblazoned on their dusters. They confronted the Alphas in the dining room.

"Your man's in there," Two pointed to the dormitory. "Take him and leave."

One of the Dragon Skulls walked up to Two, who was just over five feet tall, and at a hundred pounds was only half his size. He swung a meaty fist at Two's head, but the boy was ready for him. The Dragon Skulls knew how to hit, but they didn't have martial arts skills. Two took him down in seconds. The others men drew their weapons.

The Alphas had no choice. An instant later, the four Dragon Skulls lay on the floor in a drugged stupor.

"We need to go," Two told Miss Virginia, who seemed to agree on that point but said, "You should leave the little ones here . . ."

"They aren't safe here," One said, and the woman couldn't argue with that.

"Where will you go?" she asked.

"We can take care of ourselves, don't worry about us," Two replied.

She went to the dining room cupboards and pulled out a cloth bag. "Take some food," she told them, and then quickly filled the bag from her wooden 'icebox' that was actually a state of the art refrigeration unit.

"Thank you," One said, taking the bag. Outside, the stage with the police logo and the blinking lights had just pulled up. They headed out the back way where they wouldn't be seen.

Using drainpipes, gutters and recesses in the brickwork they could have made their way to the roof of a nearby building and had a vantage point of the activity below, but Seven was injured. The little boy tried to climb, but the pain in his arm was too great.

Instead, they stayed hidden in the shrubbery behind a wooden fence, where they could only partly see what was going on.

Stewart James arrived at the same time Sheriff Daws did.

"What are you going to do about his, Potter?" he said, indicating his men who were being hauled out on stretchers. Guy Royal was very pale - he'd lost a lot of blood.

The sheriff looked at him. "Your men had no business here. You were after those kids, and it looks like they got the best of you. End of story." He tried to sound confident, but One could tell that James made the sheriff nervous.

"That a fact?" James stepped closer. "You seem to need a reminder as to who runs this city," he said.

"What is it you're after, James? You've closed the paper, you've shut down most of the schools, you've got the shopkeepers paying you 'protection' - what more do you want?"

"I want you to back the hell out of the mayor's race," James said bluntly.

"If I do that, you'll run unopposed. How is that fair?"

"I don't care about fair," James said. "And you're going to learn that the hard way if you win this election . . . so will anyone who votes for you."

"I'm not backing down," Sheriff Daws said, trying to keep his voice calm.

"Then I'm just going to have to kill you," James replied. "Tomorrow . . . Hangman's Square . . . at noon."

"You're calling me out?" Daws said uncertainly.

James laughed. "You bet your ass I am." Then he laughed a fake laugh. "May the best man win. . . . In the meantime, my men will be out looking for those Texans you and the old bat who runs this place are hiding."

"They aren't Texans," the sheriff replied. "They're just children. Leave them alone."

"I'll leave them alone, all right," James smirked. "Somewhere out on the desert where you won't find them until their bones are picked clean."

The Alphas heard the roar of James' horse-bike as he rode off.

"We have to find someplace to hide," Two stated the obvious. They no longer had the drone maps, but all of them had taken a good look at them at some point. They knew there was a school nearby. If it was really closed like the Sheriff had said, they'd have no trouble breaking into the place. If there were other children there, they'd try to make themselves inconspicuous.

They kept to the shadows and alleys as they made their way to the school. It was a large two-story building made of adobe, with thick wooden doors. It appeared to be empty.

Most of their gear had been taken from them, but they still had the small tools that were imbedded in their shoes. Five quickly produced a tool with which he picked the lock.

The building was reasonably clean. It hadn't been closed down long. They found a notice tacked to a bulletin board at the front entrance. It read:

Due to the current lack of available teachers, this facility is closed until further notice.

On the wall across from it, someone had spray painted, "Property of the Dragon Skulls."

"What the fuck?" Three exclaimed. Miss Evie had told him not to use that f-word, but it was a good word for this situation.

"It doesn't look like anyone is here, but spread out and check to make sure. Four, see if you can find what you need to take care of Seven."

The ten-year-old nodded.

Seven sat down on the floor. He didn't want to go checking around. His arm hurt and he hated those bad men. Two patted him gently on the shoulder and left one of Five's small pistols with him. "You hide if anyone comes in, okay?"

Seven nodded. He'd hide, but he'd shoot them, first.

+ + + + + + +

Seven heard them before he saw them. They were trying to whisper, but they were not very good at it. The Alphas didn't have to whisper - they knew how to communicate with sign language - so it wasn't them.

He stood up and readied the pistol Two had given him. There was an open locker nearby, so he stepped into it. A few seconds later, the people making all the noise showed up. There were three of them, and they were all about the same age he was. One of them had a heavy wooden stick. All three of them were wearing guns.

The Alphas had left the bag of food Ms. Virginia had given them on the floor. They spotted it and began to take things out. There were apples and cheeses and sausages and bread rolls and they began to toss the food around and play with it. The one with the stick was hitting and poking the apples, which Seven knew would make them all brown and disgusting.

He stepped out of the locker.

"Stop that!" he ordered.

The three children turned around. There was a boy and two girls. One of the girls had Dragon Skull patch on her shirt.

"Who are you?" she demanded.

"None of your business. Leave our food alone."

The little girl squared off with him. She looked mean, and Seven didn't like her. Her hand moved towards her gun.

"Don't do that, or you'll be sorry," Seven told her.

Theta had told them that how fast you could draw your weapon was not as important as how well you could shoot. Seven didn't know how well this girl could shoot, but she didn't seem to realize that he had the advantage of his pistol already being in his hand.

"We aren't afraid of you," she smirked.

Seven thought of what Two would say, and replied, "You should be."

Her small, pink hand dropped to the butt of her tiny gun, so Seven shot her. Then, he shot the other girl and the boy, too.

All three of them staggered as the gel pellets released their sedative, and then dropped to the floor.

Seven tucked his pistol under his sore arm and then used his good arm to gather up the food. "Stupid butts," he cursed the three young Dragon Skulls as he dragged the bag with the food past them and headed down the hall.

Most of the classrooms were locked, but he finally found a door that said "Custodian" that was open.

He should have peeked inside, first, but he didn't realize someone was in there until it was too late. He was spotted.

Then, he blinked at the familiar face. It was Steven Travis. Not the Steven Travis he knew, but the one from this timeline.

Steven was sitting at a small desk, with a little lantern providing light in the dark closet. "Well, hello," he greeted the little boy. "What's your name?"

"Seven . . . is your name Steven?"

Steven looked surprised. "Yes, it is. How did you know? Are you here for lessons?"

Seven shook his head. This was very confusing. He wasn't supposed to let strangers talk to him, not in his own time line or any other. But Steven wasn't a stranger, except this Steven was. He didn't enter the room. He had to be ready to run if he had to, and he quickly scoped the hallway for some place he could escape. There wasn't one, though.

"It's okay," Steven said. "I won't tell anyone . . . Can you read?"

Seven nodded.


Seven nodded, more vigorously this time. "I can do multi-variable calculus."

Steven laughed. Seven didn't think the man believed him. He didn't protest, because that was boasting and Theta said they should not do that.

The conversation ended abruptly, anyway, when Three appeared behind him, his cross-bow drawn. "Don't touch him," he warned Steven, and then he, too, blinked in confusion when he saw who it was.

The other Alphas, who had heard the distinctive report of Seven's pistol, all arrived in short order. They stood grouped in the doorway, staring.

Steven stood and put his hands in the air as if surrendering. "I don't want any trouble," he said. "I got a wife and a kid. . . "

"Billy," Seven provided helpfully.

Steven frowned. "Yes . . . How did you know? Who are you? I know you aren't Dragon Skull spawn."

Seven looked up at Three. "I shot three of those Dragon Skull kids. They were taking our food."

Steven eyed the bag Seven had dragged along behind him. "What's going on here?" He frowned.

Two hardened his gaze. "We'll ask the questions."

Steven shrugged. "You've got the weapons, so I guess that's how it is. What would you like to know?"

"What happened to this school?" One began. "Why is it closed?"

"No teachers," Steven shrugged. "Dragon Skulls ran most of them off."

"Why?" Four asked, honestly puzzled as to why anyone would be threatened by teachers.

"Because they control the city, and closing the schools was one more way to keep people from meeting in groups. You must not be from around here."

"We're not," One said. "Tell us more."

"They took over the communication streams and burned down the newspaper offices. My wife was the editor. She still tries to get news out by circulating flyers, but it's dangerous. I worry about her."

"You're still here," Five observed.

"Yes . . . some children do still come to school, if they can sneak in without being seen. There is usually a gang of spawn watching the place, though."

"Why don't you do something about them?" Six wanted to know. He didn't like people who were bossy, except for the older Alphas.

Steven sighed and sat down again, realizing they were not going to shoot him. "People don't want to get hurt. They don't want their families to get hurt. So, they do what the Dragon Skulls say."

"Not Sheriff Daws," Six said. He liked the sheriff.

"Dawson Potter is one of a kind . . . he's afraid of them, too, but he's got the courage to stand up to them. Too bad it will probably get him killed."

"Stewart James 'called him out' tomorrow at noon," Two stated. "What does that mean?"

Steven shook his head wearily. "It probably means he's a dead man. If he's been called out, he's going to have to face James one-on-one tomorrow. Except it won't be one-on-one. James will bring company, but I doubt anyone will be there to back Dawson's play. He'll stand alone against the entire Dragon Skull gang.

"What will happen then?" One asked.

Steven shrugged. "The election will likely be called off. And if anyone does decide to run against the Dragon Skull candidate, they'll either get called out, too."

One was the Alpha who understood these things. He also remembered from his Civics class at Holy Cross how democratic elections were supposed to work. "What if Sheriff Potter were to win?" he asked.

"Then he'd have the authority to call in Federal troops to get rid of the Skulls. My father-in-law is a district judge. He's just waiting for the order - but he can't legally send in troops when no one has asked for help."

One pondered this a moment. In his timeline, calling in the National Guard was the prerogative of a much higher ranking official than a mayor, and it wouldn't be done to rid a town of its criminal element. This timeline had clearly diverged along a different path in many other ways, though, so it didn't surprise him.

Steven looked at Seven, who was holding his injured arm to his chest. "Are you okay, little guy?" he asked.

Seven shook his head. "I hurt my arm. And I'm not little."

Four had found a first aid kit. "I can take care of him," he said, in a tone that let Steven know he wasn't going to argue.

"Did you really shoot three of the spawn?" Steven frowned.

Seven nodded.

Two knew what Steven was thinking. "They aren't dead. They will just sleep for a while." If they were children, it would likely be 8 or 9 hours before they woke up. By then, someone would be missing them.

"Show me where they are," Steven said. "I have to make sure they are okay."

The Alphas realized that could get Steven into trouble, especially if the Skulls thought he was the one who had hurt their children.

"They're fine," Two told him. "But we need a place to hide. Is this building safe?"

Steven shrugged. "Stay out of the gymnasium and the library . . . the science lab and computer rooms aren't safe, either. The spawn all like to play in those . . ." He thought for a moment. "The detention hall might work. The door can be locked from both sides."

He pointed them in the right direction. The Alphas all knew that what they should do was make their way back to the port and go home. They also knew that what they would do was make a plan. Unlike the rest of the town, they weren't afraid of the Dragon Skulls.

+ + + + + + +

The Alphas barricaded themselves in the detention room. It was a small cubicle about 4 meters square with 12 desks, a blackboard, and nothing else.

Four sat Seven on one of the desks and carefully examined his arm while the other stood by watching. The tiny arm was badly bruised - they could plainly see where Royal's hand had wrapped all the way around it, gripping so tight that it left prints from his fingers. It was sore, but the little boy did not seem to be badly injured.

"I don't think it's broken," Four announced, finally.

Seven jumped off the desk. "Good, then I can fight!"

One looked thoughtful. "I don't know if we should fight the Dragon Skulls outright. For one thing, they probably outnumber us."

"Do you think we should go home?" Five asked hopefully. He didn't mind fighting, but the Dragon Skulls in this timeline were adults who were bigger than they were and who had access to more sophisticated weaponry than the schoolyard bullies they had already dealt with. He didn't think the odds were in their favor, either.

One thought about asking for a vote, but it didn't matter. They would do what Two decided.

"We have to get our gear back," Two announced. "We'll wait until it's dark, when Sheriff Daws might not be there."

"Then what?" Three wanted to know.

"Then we find this Hangman's Square, and we stake out our vantage points. When they call the Sheriff out tomorrow, we'll be ready for them," Two said.

The older boys caught on immediately to what two had planned, but Six and Seven were confused. Two knelt down beside them both. "We're going to find a place for you to hide. Six, you'll have your rifle. As soon as Stewart James draws his gun, shoot it out of his hand. But let everyone think the Sheriff did it."

Realization dawned on their two youngest. "It's a trick!" Seven grinned. "They'll think the Sheriff is better than the Dragon Skulls."

"And they will make him the Mayor," Six concluded.

Two smiled. "And then he can ask for help to get rid of the Dragon Skulls so they don't bother or hurt anyone, ever again," he finished.

The Alphas all agreed to that plan.

"We should eat while we're waiting for it to get dark," Four said.

He opened the bag of food and began to parcel it out, being especially careful not to give Seven a bruised apple. They were fine even if they were bruised, but the little boy wouldn't eat them that way.

Miss Virginia had put plenty of food in the bag, and all of it was surprisingly good. The cheeses were covered in wax, which the boys realized after Seven bit into one and got a mouthful of the stuff. They carefully peeled it off and Five, Six and Seven began to play with it. It was soft and malleable, like modeling clay, or Semtex.

"I think this contains animal fat," Four frowned as he took a bite of one of the bread rolls. He had to admit, it was good.

The cheese was sharp and Six made a face when he bit into it, but it had a rich, creamy aftertaste, so they all liked it.

The one thing they didn't have was water. They had passed a couple of spigots in the hallways that said 'Fill Canteens Here,' but they didn't have their canteens. Those were with their stuff. They would just have to drink from the spigots and hope the water was okay, since the purification tablets were also with their gear.

There were four lanterns in the room and they began to glow as the daylight faded. The darker it got, the more light they emitted. The four younger boys had fallen asleep once their bellies were full, and Two let them stay that way until Steven came to check on them.

"I'm going home now," he said. "You should be safe on the street now that it's dark and no one can really see you. I'd take you home with me, but . . ."

"It's okay," Two said. "We can take care of ourselves."

"I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow . . . but if Sheriff Daws is killed, it would probably be best if you went back to the whatsit you came through."

Three frowned. "Does everyone in this time line know about the port?"

"Pretty much," Steven shrugged. "It seems to be an easy one to get through, since we don't have it guarded."

"Other Alpha teams have been here before?" One asked.

"Lots of them. Most of them end up high-tailing it back there with the Dragon Skulls nipping at their heels."

"Most?" One asked cautiously.

Steven shook his head sadly. "A few of them have been taken prisoner."

"They're at the jail?" Two asked. The cells had seemed pretty empty when they were there.

"No, Guy Royal has them at his ranch somewhere."

Well, that was an interesting piece of information. Two prodded Steven for more information, and it turned out the 'ranch' was not a ranch in the sense they knew it to be, but rather some sort of quasi-military compound right there in the city. Steven refused to tell them how to get there, insisting the Dragon Skulls were dangerous.

"Those other Alphas thought they could best him, too, and no one has seen them since," he cautioned. "I suggest you boys stay here tonight and then get yourself home come daybreak."

Two's response was a casual smile.

"I'm taking the spawn home," Steven added. "Hopefully, they won't shoot me."

That thought did get a reaction out of Two. "Just call someone and tell them they're here," he suggested. "We'll see to it that they don't find us."

Steven looked uncertain, but he really didn't want to face Guy Royal, who was likely to be in a foul mood. His wife Mary had called to tell him the Alphas had shot him through the leg with some kind of medieval weapon.

"Okay," he replied. "But you boys stay out of this. It's not your fight."

Two made no promises.

+ + + + + + +

The spawn had left their horse-bikes in front of the school. They were too small for the bigger boys, but Five, Six and Seven could ride them easily, once they figured out how they worked. Three studied them for several minutes, and discovered that putting pressure on the left stirrup of the bike's saddle started the engine. The 'reins' were a metal bar that stopped the bikes when pulled, and also turned them left and right.

The three smallest Alphas couldn't wait to try them. It was almost nightfall, and the bikes didn't appear to have headlamps, but Five quickly discovered that turning the saddle horn caused the eyes to light up and shine twin beams on the road ahead. The horses' manes and tails were fiber optic filaments and they, too, lit up.

"These are the best!" Six exclaimed as he stepped on a stirrup and his bike roared to life.

The others had to agree.

Each horse had a different color mane and tail. Five's was purple, Six's was blue and Seven's was pink, which in some timelines was a 'girl' color, but he didn't know that and was perfectly fine with it.

There was a good chance they'd be able to get past Guy Royal's guards if someone recognized the horses. First, they would have to go collect their gear from the jail house, though, and find out where the 'ranch' was so they could make a plan.

As they had hoped, Sheriff Daws had gone home for the night. The deputy who had brought them cookies earlier wasn't there either. Another deputy was. She likely wouldn't recognize them.

The four younger boys were left to create a distraction while the older ones waited for the chance to enter the building.

Four looked around for something to throw. Despite the roads being cobblestones and the sidewalk being made of wood, the area in front of the building was neatly groomed. There were no loose rocks or sticks lying around.

He had his knives, though. He peeked into the window where the deputy was sitting at a desk playing a card game on the computer. He pressed his fingers to the glass and tried to test the tensile strength of the window.

Then, he stepped back and flung the knife side-handed as hard as he could. The window shattered and the deputy looked up startled at the knife that was now embedded in the wall inches from her head.

She got up and walked to the door. As she opened it, Five shoved Six roughly and pushed him down. Seven jumped on Five's back and pretended to pummel him.

"Stop it!" Four yelled, trying to pull the two apart.

"What in the blue heavenly blazes is going on out here?!" the deputy shouted. "Who threw that knife?!"

The four boys stopped fighting and stood facing her, but did not speak.

"Who threw it," she repeated.

"HE DID!" Five pointed at Six.

"I DID NOT!!" Six protested.

"It was him," Seven pointed to the real culprit.

"I was just trying to break up the fight!" Four huffed indignantly.

The deputy walked down the steps towards the four of them. As she did, One, Two and Three ducked into the open door.

"He hurt my arm!" Seven whined, although he only pointed in the general direction of the other three so the deputy couldn't be sure who he was referring to. He pulled up his shirt sleeve to reveal the nasty bruise left by Guy Royal's grip.

The deputy knelt down beside the little boy, who began to cry piteously.

The other three managed to look contrite.

"Okay," the deputy said patiently, "tell me what happened."

The four boys began to speak at once, making up their own version of the story as they went along.

The deputy put her hand up for silence. "One at a time, starting with you," she pointed at Four.

"He was beating on him," Four pointed to Five and Six respectively. "An' I threw the knife to scare 'em and get 'em to stop but it went through the window. . . "

One by one the four boys recounted their fabricated version of how the knife had ended up in the deputy's office. They dragged it out until they saw their older counterparts leave the building.

"Well, you should be home, all of you," the deputy admonished. "Where do you live?"

"At the orphanage."

"I won't tell Miss Virginia about this, but you aren't getting the knife back. Now git, all of you!"

They ran off into the shadows to join the older boys. One tossed Four his knife as the deputy re-entered her office and was perplexed to discover it was no longer stuck in the wall.

+ + + + + + +

Finding the ranch was easy. Everyone, it seemed, knew where it was, and all they had to do was ask.

Getting inside was going to be a different story. The compound was surrounded by a thick stockade fence three meters high. Four roads lead into it, all of them guarded by an iron gate. It wasn't impenetrable, by any means, but it was a challenge. Anyone who got in was likely to be easily and quickly detected.

Their best bet was the smaller boys on the confiscated bikes. If the sentry didn't think to question them too closely, once they were inside, they could get the four bigger boys over the fence.

It turned out to be easier than they had even dared hope. The horse-bikes apparently has some type of electronic identification. As they approached a gate, it swung open automatically. The guard barely gave them a second look.

The three small boys hid the bikes in the shadows and then took ropes, carabiners, and pitons out of their field bags. It was mountain climbing gear, but it would make scaling the wall practically effortless. They picked a secluded, dark area and Five tied a laser pen to a piece of cord and threw it over the fence.

It was the signal the four older boys were waiting for. When Two tugged on the cord, Six tossed the rope and other equipment over the fence. They had practiced this many times, and knew what to do. The three small boys would steady the rope while Four, the lightest of the older boys scaled the wall. Once Four was over, he helped the other three hold the rope as Two, then Three and finally One scaled the fence.

Two then sat them down so they could hear his plan.

"We'll spread out and look at each building. The one where the other Alphas are will probably be locked and not have any windows . . . or the windows will be too small or too high to climb out. Look for anyone who looks like he might be guarding the place, or for any kind of security fence. Don't do anything if you find it, just come back here. Sync your watches for 30."

Their watches were not really watches. They didn't tell time, but rather how much time had elapsed. They would vibrate when 30 minutes had passed.

"Seven, you stay here and watch our stuff."

Seven looked crestfallen at that request.

Two put an arm around his shoulder. "I don't want you to get hurt again," he said. "You need to rest your arm because we'll probably need you to shoot tomorrow, okay?"

Seven still wasn't happy about being left behind, but he nodded.

"If anyone finds our stuff, let them take it, but follow them and see where they go."

Seven was a bit happier about that idea. "Okay," he nodded vigorously.

Two assigned each of the remaining five a direction and they fanned out to look for the other Alphas.

+ + + + + + +

Five spotted the building hidden in a corner formed by two taller buildings. It was three stories tall bounded on the other two sides by a high brick fence. From the street, it wasn't even visible. It looked like a large concrete block, but closer examination revealed it was made of stone. It had windows that went from floor to ceiling, but they were only about 10 centimeters wide - not wide enough for even a child to squeeze through.

There was a narrow sidewalk that went completely around the structure, but oddly, there was no door. Or, if there was, it was well-camouflaged. Five had almost walked the entire perimeter when he met Six going in the opposite direction.

"Do you think this is it?" Six asked.

Five nodded. "It must be . . . But I don't see any way to get inside."

The walls of the structure itself were smooth, but the surrounding building had corners formed by decorative brickwork that offered numerous holds for small hands and feet. Six handed Five his gear and began the ascent, his small, strong arms and legs quickly pulling him up to a height were he could look down on the stone structure.

He realized that from where he perched, he could easily jump onto the roof, but he'd save that for later, when the others had joined them.

He quickly climbed back down.

"What did you see?" Five asked him.

"There are skylights, and a door."

"But no way down . . .," Five considered. If there were, the other Alphas would have figured it out by now.

+ + + + + + +

Seven sat quietly in the shadows, his eyes and ears open. He'd tucked all of the stuff Two had left him to guard under some shrubbery, and had used branches to hide the horse-bikes. He was wondering if they could take those bikes back through the port. He liked the pink one, even though it had the name "Kayna" painted on the neck. That could be fixed.

He took an apple from what was left of their food, and touched it all over feeling for gooshy spots. Satisfied it didn't have any, he took a small bite. He would count how many small bites it took to finish it, if he chewed each one 30 times. Maybe by then, the others would be back.

He was on his ninth bite when something dropped down out of the tree above him and landed right in front of him. It surprised him and he dropped his apple. "Damn," he whispered. He wasn't supposed to say that word, even though Steven and Mister Travis and One and Two and Three said it all the time. Sister Josephine made him sit in a chair facing the wall for 10 minutes when he said it at school once.

But he said it anyway, because what had fallen out of the tree was another boy, maybe eight or nine years old.

"Who are you, and where is Kayna?" he said, and he didn't sound very friendly.

"I'm Alpha Seven," he replied. "Also, JD Dunne."

The other boy's face suddenly changed from stern to hopeful. "You're an Alpha?"

Seven nodded.

The other boy grabbed his arm - luckily not his sore one - and pulled him back into the bushes. Seven was prepared to fight him off, but he didn't think that's what the boy wanted.

"I'm Fourth Indigo," he whispered. "They call me Rickert here. Kayna is Fourth Violet. Where is she? Did something happen to her?"

He was truly worried, so Seven wasn't sure he should tell him the truth, but he did. "I shot her."


"She'll be okay," Seven said calmly. "But right now, she's asleep."

"Where did you leave her body?" Seven didn't think Indigo had heard him.

"She's not dead. My gun only had sleep gels," he assured.

"Take me to her," the boy said sternly. "NOW!"

Seven pulled away. "No. I'm supposed to stay here. Go away."

"How many more of you are there?"

"Six. And they're all bigger than you and will kick your butt." That wasn't exactly true - Rickert was probably bigger than Five and Six. The part about kicking his butt was for real, though.

"Just tell me where Kayna is."

"At the school," Seven replied.

"What school? There are lots of schools," Indigo said impatiently.

"The one the Dragon Skulls closed."

"That's almost all of them," Indigo said sadly, and sat down in the dirt.

Seven joined him and offered him an apple with mooshy spots that he wasn't going to eat.

Indigo took a big bite, so he must not have minded mooshy spots.

Seven thought he should probably interrogate Indigo, but he was only five and he didn't know very much about how to do that, so they just sat and ate their apples and waited for the others to return, which they did about 10 minutes later. Five and Six had already told the others about what they had discovered.

Two was surprised to see another boy there. "This is Fourth Indigo, also Rickert," Seven introduced the stranger. "He's an Alpha, and so is one of the spawn we left at the school."

"Fourth Violet is not spawn," Indigo objected, then reconsidered. "Well, she is, but it's not her fault. She's forgotten her Alpha training."

"How long have you been here?" One wanted to know.

"We were captured three years ago. Violet was only 4, and some woman named Maude took her, and is raising her to be spawn." He looked down sadly. "She was our port controller. I don't know if we can get back without her, even if we could get out.

"Why are you out," Two wanted to know.

"I was little, like him . . . " He pointed to Seven. "They didn't think I was a threat. They were right. Without the olders and without Violet, I couldn't do anything."

"How many Alphas are being held prisoner?" Two asked.

"Twelve. Five from my team, and an entire team from another timeline."

Three was already making plans. "Can we get them out through the roof?"

Indigo nodded. "You'll need ropes . . . and some way to get on the roof."

"We already know a way," Six said.

Indigo nodded again. "Climbing the building next to it . . ."

"Why didn't you do that," Four asked.

Indigo held up his wrist. There was a metallic band around it that was not skin tight, but it was too tight to take off. "If I go near the compound, an alarm is triggered."

"But you've been inside, right?"

He nodded. "A long time ago."

"Tell us what you can remember."

They were in luck in that the dormitory was on the top level, according to Indigo. He didn't know what went on in the other two levels, but he suspected that the Alpha's unique talents were somehow being used to the benefit of the Dragon Skulls. He was his team's psi-positive member, and, like One, he was able to sense thoughts and ideas. He confessed that it was getting harder to do as he got older. One understood that - if he had not had the intensive training to maintain his skills, they would have left him long ago. As a child he had been able to move objects easily using only his mind, but now it took great effort. He could still do it, though. Indigo had lost that ability.

As he was answering their questions, Indigo suddenly got a fearful expression on his face, and urged the Alphas into the cover of the shrubbery. As they watched from their hidden vantage point, a parade of children walked by carrying tools and covered in grime. They all looked exhausted and underfed, and any childish curiosity they may have once had was completely gone, replaced by vacant expressions and silence.

"Who are they?" Four whispered.

"Orphanage kids," Indigo answered. "Stewart James and Guy Royal use them for laborers, and then charge them for their room and board at the orphanage. They're really just slaves."

Now they knew why there were no children at the orphanage when they were there. There must have been 40 of them, all ages from 16 or 17 down to a couple who were younger than Seven. Some dragged tools that looked almost as heavy as they were.

Indigo twisted the bracelet on his wrist. "James and Royal were afraid if I got out of the compound, I'd make a run for the port. Otherwise, I might have been one of those kids."

"Could you?" Three asked. "Make a run for the port?"

Indigo shook his head. "Wouldn't do any good. I don't know the protocols. Fourth Orange knew them. Violet was the primary controller, though, and I don't think she remembers any of it now."

"Well, we're going to get the Alphas out, tonight," Two said. "All of them. And with their help, we will take care of Stewart James and Guy Royal tomorrow."

+ + + + + + +

Since they were safe where they were, they let the four youngest sleep while the older ones planned the operation. Indigo was an indentured servant who worked for a blacksmith during the day, sweeping and cleaning up and doing whatever else the owner had for him to do. Unlike the orphanage children, he was allowed some freedom in the evenings, so long as he stayed away from the Alpha's prison. He had a curfew, though, so after he gave One, Two and Three all the information he had, and they had shared their plans with him, he was forced to return.

Indigo had told him that the compound guards did not make rounds between 3:00 and 5:00. He didn't know the reason for that, but they knew that would be their window of opportunity. One sensed that Two and Three didn't fully trust the boy, but he could detect no duplicity in him, only a deep longing. Indigo wanted this plan to work. He wanted to be reunited with his team.

Their watch alarms went off at 2:30. One awakened the younger boys while Two and Three gathered up the gear they would need. There were no groggy protests - all of them had been conditioned since infancy to be instantly alert upon waking up, something which had astonished the Travises.

Five and Six would make the climb up the adjacent building. Seven was normally a good climber, but his arm was very sore, and also, he likely wasn't tall enough to safely jump the gap between the two buildings. His job would be to stand guard and give a signal if he saw anyone coming.

Five began the ascent. Despite his dislike of getting dirty, he was a natural athlete and the climb was effortless for him. Six had no problem, either, despite the fact that he climbed with the end of a ball of twine held in his teeth. The twine's other end would be tied to a rope so they could pull it up when they reached the roof.

The plan was to have Five and Six anchor the ropes, but they were dismayed to discover that there was nowhere to do that. The roof of the prison compound was completely bare, save for the skylights, but there was no way to use them as anchors. They'd have to drive pitons into the roof and hope no one heard - and that they didn't give way while the other heavier boys were climbing. It would need to hold while the other Alphas climbed down, too.

Five selected the spot to wedge the piton. The skylights did have small frames around them, so there was a 'lip.' It was where the lip formed an angle with the roof that they decided to place it. Six had a small mallet and gave the piton three quick blows, as hard as he could. He was small though, and wasn't sure he had driven it in far enough. The only way to find out was to have the others try the rope.

It was decided that One would go first. He was tall enough that he was able to wedge himself between the walls of the two buildings as he used the rope to pull himself steadily upward, which minimized the danger if the piton wasn't secure. Once he was on the roof, he used his larger mallet and superior strength to anchor the piton more securely. The pitons were high-tensile ceramics and the mallets were coated with rubber, so there was barely any sound beyond a soft 'thud,' but still, anyone who was listening carefully could have heard it.

In five minutes, all six boys were on the roof. Five examined the skylight. It was the type that opened, but he couldn't see how. There was no crank or other mechanism on either the inside or the outside, so he suspected it was automated. As he examined the edges with his small penlight, he noticed dim flashes of light coming from inside. He pointed it out and the others stood back to watch.

The flashes formed a pattern and they repeated themselves. The flashing could mean that an alarm had been set, or that they had set one off. Or maybe, that someone was trying to signal them.

Five quickly shut off the light and then stood back and waited.

The flashing light continued, but there was no sign they had been detected by the security guards who were nowhere to be seen.

The eight-year-old looked to the older boys to make a decision as to what to do next.

"Let's go in," Two decided finally.

Five sat on the roof and removed his left shoe and released a tab that allowed him to pull the sole back. Inside was a small device that would cut through glass and Plexiglas. His small fingers easily held the tool as he cut around the skylight while Three secured the removed portion with duct tape to keep it from falling inward.

The three oldest boys readied their weapons and then dropped down into the darkness. It was a good 7 meters to the floor, which was likely at least part of the reason the incarcerated Alphas hadn't used the skylights as an escape route.

There were no lights in the room below, but they felt themselves immediately surrounded.

"Who are you?" a young male voice demanded. He sounded older than Josiah - a young adult, not a teenager.

"We're Alphas," Two assured them as he raised his hands to show he was not a threat. "We're here to get you out."

"How?" said another, younger voice. This one female.

Three was baffled by the question. "The way we came in - climb out."

There was a collective snicker in the darkness. The small light that had been used to signal them came on again. It provided little illumination, but the boys quickly saw the problem. The captive Alphas were chained together, with small but unbreakable chains that also wove in between the bunks that were securely welded to the floor.

The chains, however, were secured by what looked like simple padlocks. Five could have them open in no time.

One softly whistled five notes, which was Five's signal to join them. A few seconds later, the small boy was standing surrounded by fifteen people who were all older than he was.

"You've got to be kidding," someone said in the darkness. "He's a baby!"

Two ignored them. "Get the locks, Five."

The little boy went to work. The locks were more complex than they looked, though, with internal mechanisms that moved on three axis. It took him 24 minutes to open the first lock, and by the time he'd opened them all, they had used up a good chunk of their 2-hour window.

Two had another concern - he didn't know if the trapped Alphas were in good enough physical shape to climb a rope. Indigo's team had been imprisoned for 3 years, and the other team even longer.

He needn't have worried, though. It was an effort for some of them, but one by one, all twelve of them managed to make it to the roof. The next hurdle would be getting down. They only had twenty-five minutes left before 5 am, at which time, the new Alphas had informed them, a guard would be sent to awaken them. When he found them missing, an alarm would no doubt go out immediately. They were almost out of time.

One of the prisoners stepped forward and addressed Two. "Get your team out. They don't know about you and if we're caught, you can come back for us."

Two nodded. He couldn't fault that logic.

It was decided that he'd get his team well away from the building before the others followed. It was going to be cutting it very close to get everyone out of the compound in time.

They regrouped at the rendezvous point where they had left the equipment and the stolen horse-bikes. One of the imprisoned Alphas was a skilled tracker and he was able to follow the barely perceptible trail that Six left behind them - broken twigs, loose pebbles, things that were out of the ordinary but would not be noticed by anyone who wasn't looking for them.

They were a large group once they were all assembled. They wouldn't be able to hide for long. They'd have to get as many over the compound fence as quickly as they could. They'd need a diversion once again.

"Five, Six, Seven - get on the bikes. Try to ride them back through the fence the way you came in. If they stop you, let them take you, but keep your mind open so that One can locate you."

The small boys nodded that they understood.

+ + + + + + +

As he had done every morning for seven years, Yosemite Jennings arrived at the prison dormitory to awaken his "kids." Some of them weren't kids any more. They had grown into young men and women while never seeing the sun or the stars or feeling the wind on their faces. He never spoke to any of them - that was not allowed. But he did sneak in an occasional gift of cookies or cupcakes or something he knew they wanted or needed. It wasn't right what James and Royal had done to them, and he'd thought about quitting his job several times. But if he did, who would look after them? Maybe one of James' or Royal's lackeys who didn't care if they lived or died. No, he had to stay, for them.

He unlocked the door to the dormitory and felt something was amiss before he turned on the light. The room felt . . . strange . . . and was that a breeze he detected?

He flipped on the light. The beds were rumpled. The chains were all there, but the locks had been opened somehow. He had nothing to do with that. He had never, ever brought them anything that would enable them to escape. It was too dangerous for them and for him both. But somehow, they had escaped. They'd gone through the skylight that they could not possibly have reached or opened.

His hand reached for the alarm but only tentatively. At the last instant, he pulled his arm back and then closed the dormitory door. He had no reason to stay any longer, especially since James or Royal would likely kill Sheriff Daws Potter that afternoon. He couldn't stop that from happening, but he had no intention of being a part of it, either.

He gathered his belongings from his locker and headed for the compound gate, never looking back.

When he got to the gate, he wasn't challenged. The guard, Eddie Meeks, knew him well. "Headin' out a might early, aren't you Yosemite?"

He nodded casually. "Mr. Royal wanted the Kids to get an early start, what with their bein' the showdown today an' all."

"You turnin' out for that?" Meeks asked.

"Wouldn't miss it," Yosemite lied.

They were discussing their opinions on who would shoot who and how long the confrontation would last when three spawn pulled up on their horse-bikes. The gate began to open in response to the signals from the bikes, but Eddie frowned. "What the hell are them young'uns doin' out this early?" He started to walk towards them.

Yosemite knew that Eddie's shift ended at 6:30, so he was home in bed before most of the spawn were out and about, and he didn't know many of them by sight or by name. Neither did Yosemite, but Eddie didn't know that. Yosemite did not consider himself an especially bright man, but he was good at putting two and two together and coming up with four. His Kids were missing - and here were strange youngsters attempting to leave the compound. He knew they weren't his Kids - they were too young - but he'd put money on the chance these little ones might have had something to do with the escape. "I'll go check 'em out," he volunteered.

Eddie was more than happy to stay at his desk with his cup of coffee.

Yosemite stood in front of the bikes. He recognized the pink one - it belonged to Kayna Standish, Maude Standish's little girl. Maude had been searching for the youngster frantically the day before, only to have her dropped off by Steven Travis, the school teacher. Kayna was half asleep, and Yosemite could see she'd been drugged, but Steven had claimed no knowledge of that. They girl wasn't hurt - no one would dare to hurt any of the spawn, if they valued their lives.

Kayna's bike was being ridden by a boy, maybe 4 or so, with jet black hair, just like seven of his Kids had, except this boy wasn't one of them. He didn't recognize the other two kids, either.

"Who are you?" he asked.

The three looked at each other.

"It's a simple question," Yosemite said patiently. "Are you from here?"

Still no answer, but Yosemite detected subtle changes in their posture. All three of them were ready to bolt, with or without the bikes. He'd never catch them all. He didn't even want to catch them, for fear that James and Royal would lock them away, too.

"Well, you best hurry up if you want to get a good spot," he laughed. "You all are too short to see otherwise." He waved them through the gate and returned to the guard shack.

He shook his head, laughing. "Damn spawn can't wait for that showdown. They don't know they got near seven hours to wait." He didn't give Eddie any time to ponder any of this. He picked up his gear and bid Eddie good-day, then got the hell out of there as quickly as he could.

+ + + + + + +

They regrouped back at the school, and the boys got their first good look at the other Alphas. They were not emaciated, so they had been fed, but they didn't look healthy. The older Alpha team had been imprisoned for 7 years. The oldest was 22, the youngest 12 - which meant they were about the boys' ages when they were incarcerated. There were 4 boys and 3 girls, and they all looked similar, with straight, black hair, and dark eyes. They were pale from lack of sunlight, but still had darker complexions than the other team. They looked Native American. One asked them about their timeline, and discovered that the entire world they came from was divided into tribes. No one had ever conquered anybody.

"You don't have wars?" One asked. This type of global culture was new to him.

The leader, whose name was Blue Eagle, snorted. "Everyone has wars. Some people fight over land. We fight over other things . . . ." His face turned grim. "Give me a weapon and I will gladly kill Guy Royal and Stewart James."

The other six quickly agreed to that. Two filled them in on the details about the showdown in Hangman's Square and what he had planned.

The other Alpha team was not so quick to agree. Their leader, Fourth Red, pointed out, "Two of my team are still in there. The little ones, Indigo and Violet."

Two explained what had happened to them - that Indigo/Rickert would probably come willingly, but Violet had lost her Alpha skills and was now one of the Dragon Skull spawn.

Fourth Red shook his head. "The woman who has her . . . she got her by blackmailing Guy Royal."

This got everyone's attention, so Fourth Red continued. "Royal took Violet and made her activate the port," he explained. "Then, he went through it. He was lucky he didn't die, because not everyone can go through, especially adults, but he didn't know that. He found gold, wherever it was he went. He returned to this timeline and then took Stewart James' nephew, Lucas out there. The idea was to make Violet open the port again, so that he and Maude and Lucas could go through and bring back the gold. Maude knew the port was dangerous - she'd learned that from the Raptor Alphas . . ." He acknowledged the other team. "But Guy wouldn't listen. He sent Lucas James through and he never came back."

The other Alphas understood that Lucas James was either dead, or trapped somewhere, and was likely lost forever.

"He was Stewart James only kin, and Royal was afraid of what he might do if he found out. He tried to kill Maude to silence her, but she shot him first. Later, she warned Royal that she had left evidence in the event of her untimely death that would reveal to Stewart James the truth about what happened to his nephew. Then, she made him agree to let her take Violet."

"And you allowed that?" Three said accusingly. He would never let anyone take Seven.

"She was a baby. That prison was no life for her. We let them take Indigo, too." He seemed ashamed of that decision, but One and Two couldn't fault him. They might have done the same thing.

The Native American team members were all named for birds of prey preceded by the designator "Blue." The other team were named "Fourth" with a color added that followed the spectrum from Red to Violet. They were designated the Color Team while the others became the Raptor Team.

"How did you get captured, anyway?" Four asked no one in particular. One of the very first things the boys had been taught was how to avoid being physically apprehended.

The older of the Raptor Alphas looked at each other, and seemed embarrassed. They didn't answer the question. Fourth Red did, though.

"We were lured here. We didn't know it was a trap."

The boys remembered how quickly James and Royal had managed to show up after they had first arrived in this timeline. Who knows what might have happened if Sheriff Daws hadn't been there.

"They welcomed us, at first," said the Color Alpha's second in command, Fourth Orange. "They fed us food that was drugged. By the time we realized it, our weapons and tools had been confiscated."

"But why?" Three asked.

"For the technology," Orange answered. "Our guns are far superior to anything people carry around here."

Blue Eagle nodded. "Our arrows are heat-seeking. They can be 'tuned' to target a specific heat map."

"Heat map?" Three asked. He didn't know what that was.

"The distribution of heat throughout a body," Blue Owl explained. "A human is hottest in their core, but a lizard is the temperature of the air around it. A dog is hottest around the head . . . we map these things."

"So your arrows know what they are supposed to shoot?" Six asked. He liked all kinds of weapons, and one that knew what its target was would be awesome.

"Yes," Blue Owl answered.

Six wished he could see one, but the Raptor Alphas had nothing except the clothes they were wearing.

"They made us build weapons for them," Fourth Yellow said bitterly. "The Dragon Skulls are well-armed. Your sheriff hasn't got a chance."

"Not alone, he doesn't," Two agreed. "But we aren't going to let him face them by himself."

"You'll need help," Fourth Red pointed out.

"Do I have it?" Two said, staring the other two team leaders in the eye.

Fourth Red nodded. "You do."

Blue Eagle was less certain, but he finally said, "He will not take any of us alive. We will not go back to his prison. We are with you."

+ + + + + + +

Just after dawn, Rickert/Indigo showed up on a horse bike that was almost too large for him, pulling a wagon laden with three canvas bags that he quickly brought into the school through an entrance for which he apparently had a key.

Even though it had been three years, the Color Alphas recognized him immediately. Fourth Blue, a girl who was just slightly older, ran to him and almost knocked him over while enveloping him in a crushing embrace. Fourth Red picked him up off the floor and swung him around briefly.

"You've grown!" the team leader said. His remark was not a casual one. Even though it was obvious from his features that Indigo was younger than Green and Blue, he was taller and heavier. Captivity had stunted the growth of the Alphas who were children when they were captured.

"How did you know we were here?" Two asked. He was just curious - One could locate any of his fellow Alphas if he had to using his psi abilities.

That wasn't the case with Indigo, though. "Violet told me a strange little boy she met here shot her and took her horse-bike. Seven told me the same story, but he didn't know which school."

Red looked at Five, Six and Seven, his expression dark. "One of you shot her?"

"It was me," Seven admitted. He wasn't afraid of Red. His Alphas wouldn't let Red hurt him.

"She was not harmed," Four assured him. "Only sedated."

"Violet is well?" Orange asked.

Indigo nodded, but then added sadly. "But she isn't one of us anymore."

One of the bags was heavy with food - boiled eggs, biscuits baked around slabs of bacon, and a strange purple fruit the boys had never seen before.

"What is this?" Seven asked suspiciously, examining the fruit from all sides, which didn't yield much information since it was round.

"It's a purple," Indigo replied, as if that should be obvious.

"Well, I know it's purple," Seven huffed. He knew his colors when he was three months old.

"No, that's what it's called," Indigo explained.

Four examined the fruit, and laughed. "It's an orange . . . ," he said. "Only it's purple, so it's a 'purple.'"

Indigo and the other Alphas just looked confused. Only One seemed to think the idea of a purple 'orange' being called a 'purple' was funny.

Four shrugged and cut the fruit in half with one of his knives. He was right, it was a citrus and the flesh, like the peel was deep purple. He bit into it. "It still tastes 'orange'," he announced.

Everyone was hungry, so the food was quickly passed around. There was enough for everyone. Somehow, Indigo had learned that the captive Alphas had escaped. Fourth Red asked him how he found out.

"Yosemite told Mr. Hintershott . . . he's the man I work for. They're cousins."

The freed Alphas seemed to know who 'Yosemite' was, but One had to ask.

"He was our guard for part of the day," Blue Eagle replied. "He would have been the one who discovered us missing."

Indigo nodded. "He did, but he didn't sound the alarm. James and Royal probably still don't know you're gone."

Everyone was happy to hear this as it gave them an advantage, but they wondered why Yosemite had done it. Blue Falcon asked the question out loud.

Indigo was very young, but he seemed to be One's counterpart, the member of his team who observed human behavior. He had observed and comprehended a situation that would have gone ignored by most children. "This whole town is sick of those two, even some of the people who work for them. When they throw down on the sheriff today, a lot of the people James and Royal think are loyal aren't going to back their play like they think."

To emphasize his statement, he reached for one of the other bags and emptied its contents onto the floor. It was full of weapons.

+ + + + + + +

The three Alpha leaders studied the drone images while the others checked and prepared weapons. The Raptor and Color Alphas were happy to have their guns and bows back, but discovered that they had outgrown some of them. Three and Seven used crossbows, but Six was the only one who could use a true bow with accuracy. He happily accepted one of the smaller ones, and all of them studied the heat-seeking arrows. Some of them were damaged where the Dragon Skulls had attempted to access the technology, an endeavor that proved futile since the 'programming' was part of the molecular structure of the arrows themselves. Without an electron microscope, the shafts looked like a solid piece of composite ceramic. The only way to program one for a specific target was to know where to pinch the shaft. They had colored lines around them indicating the 'pinch points' but to anyone who didn't know what they were for, the lines just looked like decoration.

There were enough weapons to arm all of the smaller Alphas, but some of the older captives were going to need weapons because they had outgrown theirs.

"There are confiscated weapons at the Sheriff's office. They are locked up, though," Indigo offered.

Five saw no problem with that and said so.

"That's bragging," Four reminded him, but then told the others, "It's true, he can open almost any lock."

The Raptor and Color Alphas didn't question it. They decided Indigo would take his wagon and go with Five, Six and Seven to raid the Sheriff's armory.

In the meantime, the team leaders selected the spots where they would hide their teams. They made a guess as to which directions Royal and the Sheriff would come from. The showdown would be at high noon, so that no one would have the sun in their eyes, but Hangman's Square wasn't a square - it was a circle where six streets met. It was likely both men would approach from the direction of their starting point - the Sheriff's Office for Sheriff Daws, and the Dragon Skull compound for Guy Royal. Camouflage was essential, since the Skulls were likely to have lookouts posted.

"They'll be watching the Sheriff's side, though," Two said, then grinned slyly. "They won't expect us to be hiding right alongside them."

He could tell the other Alphas didn't like that idea. He couldn't blame them - they didn't want to be captured again.

But they could see that taking the Dragon Skulls by surprise was the best way to defeat them, and what better way to do that than by hiding in plain sight?

+ + + + + +

The town was bustling with activity, with people trying to get their morning business conducted before the showdown, some because they didn't want to miss it, and others because they didn't want to be anywhere nearby when the bullets started flying.

No one took notice of the four small boys. Five and Seven were sitting in the wagon while Six pushed it and Indigo pulled it, so it looked like they were only playing.

The Sheriff's Office was locked up, and all of the vehicles were gone.

Indigo innocently asked a deputy standing across the street where everyone was.

"Out patrollin' the streets," the deputy stated. "In case anyone gets the idea to get rowdy before the throwdown at noon."

"The Sheriff, too?" Indigo asked.

The deputy shook his head. "Nope. I reckon he's either home makin' his peace with the Lord, or, if he's smart, he's on his way out of town." He tousled Indigo's hair. "You run along now. I have to keep this street clear."

Five, Six and Seven realized what Indigo had done. He'd cast suspicion away from them by making sure the deputy saw them. The lawman would never suspect that after being seen, they would go around to the back of the building and break in, which was what they did.

It wasn't hard - Indigo had a key for that building, too.

The confiscated weapons included conventional firearms, but there were also two pulse rifles and some strange sort of pistols, which Six had never seen before. He examined one of them carefully, but was unable to get any of them to work. He liked the way they looked and felt, though. They were heavy in his small hands but they were sleek and looked like they were made of glass. He tossed them all into the bag. He did know how to use the pulse rifles, so he took both of those as well as eight conventional rifles. Surprisingly, all of them were loaded, and there was also confiscated ammo, so he took that, as well. The bags were heavy and it took all four boys to get them into the wagon. No one rode in it to make it easier to pull.

They were almost back to the school when Indigo muttered a curse word under his breath.

"What is it?" Five asked.

Before Indigo could answer, a child's voice indignantly announced, "Mama, that's the boy who took my horsey!"

In an instant, a tall blond woman and a little girl had blocked their path.

Seven recognized the little girl immediately as the one he'd shot the day before. She went for her gun when she saw him.

"Not now, dear," the woman said, then looked sternly at the boys. "Rickert . . . what are you doing with this . . . riff-raff?" she asked.

Indigo ignored her question. "Hello, Violet," he said to the little girl.

"My name is Kayna!" she huffed.

"No, it's not," Indigo said softly.

"Answer my question, Rickert," the woman interrupted. "Who are these boys?"

"I'm Ezra," Five spoke up. "And this is Vin and JD. We are in town with our father. He is here on business, but we want to see the shoot-out this afternoon."

Five sounded very calm and convincing, but the woman looked uncertain.

Violet definitely wasn't fooled. "They're Alphas," she said. "All of them."

"So are you," Indigo reminded.

The woman glanced briefly at Six and Seven, but she stared long and hard at Five. Her gaze seemed to soften for a moment but then she was stern again. "Let me see what's in the bags," she insisted.

Five, Six and Seven knew it wasn't an honorable thing to engage a non-combatant, but they knew they could easily take the woman down if they had to, so, they didn't stop her when she opened one of the bags and saw the firearms.

"What are you doing with these?" she asked.

Indigo was staring at Violet. They seemed to be communicating with each other somehow, which impressed Five, Six and Seven. One was the only member of their team with enough psi ability to do that.

Violet's voice was soft when she spoke again. "Mama, they're going to back up the Sheriff in the showdown."

The boys didn't bother to deny it, but what the woman did next surprised them. She covered the weapons back up, and then turned to Violet. "Do you want to go with them?" she asked gently.

Violet nodded.

"Go then. You know where I'll be." She touched the little girl's blond hair lightly. "Be careful."

Violet jumped in the wagon on top of the weapons, and didn't seem to care that now the boys would have to pull it with her extra weight.

As they got moving, she looked crossly at Seven. "I want my horsey back when we're done."

+ + + + + + +

The Color Alphas were surprised to see Violet when she returned with the boys. Their greeting was more subdued than it had been for Indigo, as they feared they were strangers to her. She'd been an extremely young Alpha - only three. The boys had been four before they were allowed to go through the port. Violet certainly must have had some unique abilities at one time.

"What made you decide to join us?" Red asked her affectionately. He was clearly glad to see the little girl, even though she regarded him with suspicion.

"Guy Royal is a bad man," she said. "So is Stewart James."

"But you're spawn . . ." Indigo pointed out. In order to be spawn, your parents had to be Dragon Skulls.

"Some of the Dragon Skulls have had their fill of those two meanies," she said. "They don't want the Sheriff killed. If the sheriff is killed then nothing will stop them from doing whatever they want to anybody. . . And my mama has a score to settle with Guy Royal."

"Score?" Two asked, curious. It seemed the intell they had received from Indigo was correct - some of the Dragon Skulls might be ready to turn on their leaders.

"A long time ago . . . even before they came . . ." She pointed to the Raptor Alphas. ". . . another Alpha team came through the port. Mama had a little boy then, and he was smart, like we are. He could do things, like remember everything he read and saw. He used to play cards with the men in the saloon and win. Those Alphas wanted him, but Mama said 'no.' Guy Royal took him, anyway, though, and traded him to the Alphas for a dragon skull. Everyone said he'd be fine, but he never came back. Neither did those Alphas."

"Wait a minute," One spoke. "He traded a child for a skull?"

"Not a real skull, silly," Violet said. "A dragon skull."

All of the Alphas looked at each other. None of them understood what Violet was talking about. "Dragon skulls aren't skulls," she tried to explain. "They're diamonds . . . big ones." She indicated with her hands a gem the size of a basketball. "Those Alphas said their timeline had lots of them."

"But what would you even use a diamond that big for?" Three wanted to know.

Violet shrugged. "Don't know."

It didn't really matter - what did matter was that at least one member of the Dragon Skull gang was on their side. Possibly two if you counted Yosemite, who apparently still hadn't alerted anyone that the imprisoned Alphas were missing.

It was time to get everyone into position. Royal and James had had an unpleasant surprise waiting for them.

+ + + + + + +

By 11 am, there was a large crowd gathered in Hangman's Square, even though deputies were informing people that they would have to clear out by 11:30. The Dragon Skull compound was adjacent to the square, so the combined Alpha teams were able to observe what was going on in both places. James and Royal were preening and strutting about, practicing their fast draw for their seemingly appreciative lackeys.

Four noticed that despite the fact that both men had been shot the day before, they seemed to be moving without any hint that they had been injured.

Just outside the compound was a brick building with a large sign painted on the side that said "Bones Set, Wounds Healed, Sickness Cured." Four didn't think his knives were going to be much good when the time for the showdown came, anyway, so he asked Two if he could go take a look at the place. Two agreed that it might be interesting. He sent Five with him.

Like most of the buildings in town, this one looked mid-19th century, but when Four stepped inside, he discovered it was a clean, organized infirmary. No one was there. A sign on the front door said that patients would be seen after 12:15 - presumably when the shootout was over- and provided a phone number to call in case of emergencies, but there was no one at the reception desk.

The treatment area was locked, but that was no problem for Five. He sat on the floor and pulled back the inside of his left shoe where he found the tools he needed. He had the door open in seconds.

They found what they expected to find - trays of instruments, bandages, sutures, ointments, tinctures, elixirs, tablets, swabs, etc., but also a few things they didn't expect. Each cubicle had an archaic instrument that was used exclusively for removing bullets, and beside each cot was an ornate glass container of leeches. Autoclaves contained large numbers of glass syringes - they obviously had not discovered disposables.

Five looked at the leeches and shuddered. He didn't like crawly things. Four knew leeches could be beneficial in promoting circulation to injured tissues, though. He'd been taught to use them, although he'd never had to.

Each tray also had a device whose purpose Four could not determine. It looked like a flashlight, but there were dozens of buttons on it with symbols in various shapes and colors. There were no other markings on them other than each one had a number painted on it that corresponded to the number of the cubicle.

Four picked one of them up and tried pressing some of the buttons. The device hummed softly and a faint light shone from a thick lens at one end, but its purpose wasn't evident. He carefully set it back in its place.

Each cubicle contained a small desk and upon each desk was a wooden computer and a leather-bound book. Four picked up a book and began to glance through it. It contained pictures of common injuries and ailments and beside each one was a set of colored symbols. He quickly realized that the symbols matched those on the buttons on the strange instrument. As he paged through it, realization dawned on him quickly. The instrument was a tissue regenerator of some kind. Apparently, it did indeed set bones and heal wounds. It looked like it also killed bacteria and some viruses, too.

He explained this to Five, who agreed they should take one so that Tech Division could look at it.

"It might be valuable, though," Four said. He was not as quick as Five was to help himself to the spoils of their research. "Maybe I can come back later and ask for one."

Five shook his head. "We might have to get out of here quickly. You might not get a chance to come back."

Four was still uncertain, so Five grabbed the device and stuck it in his shirt. "Problem solved," he smiled. "We should probably leave now, though."

Four agreed. It was 11:25. They'd be clearing the streets soon and they'd be more conspicuous with the crowd gone.

+ + + + + + +

The Alphas had taken various positions around the square so that they had it surrounded. Those who had been prisoners were in surprisingly good physical condition. James and Royal had used them as forced labor in their vast contraband warehouse, and they'd used the towering shelves and heavy boxes to devise a makeshift fitness routine. They had no problem climbing to their various vantage points. Indigo, who had free run of the town, was able to procure paints for camouflage, and it turned out that the Color Alphas had great skill in that area. Two and Three were together on the roof of the Clarion Building, which had housed the town's newspaper before it had been shut down, and even they had difficulty spotting the other Alphas as they concealed themselves on rooftops, in trees and down dark alleys.

One, Four and Five were on the roof of the Town Hall. They'd provide cover for Six who was alone in the bell tower of the First Congregational Church. It was the spot that offered the best line of sight to all of the square, so no matter where Royal approached from, he'd have a clear shot.

Seven and Violet were wedged precariously on a ledge of the bank, which was gaudily decorated with what could only be called gargoyles. They were both tiny enough to hide among the bizarre stone creatures.

Indigo was on the ground, where he could clearly be seen. If the escape had been discovered, it had to appear he had nothing to do with it.

This time, Six had real bullets in his gun. He'd never shot a person with a real bullet, but his mentors had taught him to clear his mind and think only of hitting the target, and nothing else, so that is what he did. He could easily aim for Royal's heart or head, but he wouldn't. He'd shoot him in the shoulder of his gun hand first, then his leg to take him down. He'd save the kill shot for when and if he needed it. His rifle was ready and he lay perfectly still. He could wait that way for hours, but he wouldn't have to. The clock in Hangman's Square said 11:55.

Seven squatted on the narrow ledge pretending to be a gargoyle. His clothes and face and hair had been covered in camouflage paint so that he blended in with the grey granite structure. Two meters away, Violet copied him. The gargoyles had funny faces so he tried puffing out his cheeks and squeezing his eyes shut so he would have a funny face, too. Violet sucked in her cheeks and made "fish lips" and when Seven cracked open an eye to look at her, he almost laughed. He couldn't though - laughing might cause someone to look up and notice them. Just as he had that thought, he happened to look at Two on the Clarion building. Two made a cutting motion across his neck, and looked at him sternly, which meant to stop being silly. He remembered he had a job to do. He readied his crossbow and selected his target. It was one of the men who had punched Sheriff Daws the day before. Seven aimed for his gun. He'd try to knock it out of his hand, but even if he couldn't do that, he knew he'd still hit it, and damage it so it wouldn't fire properly.

As the hands of the clock neared noon, people began to hurry out of the square. Some people were betting that Sheriff Daws wouldn't show, that he'd be too afraid to face the Dragon Skulls alone.

They were wrong, though. Sheriff Daws emerged from the Clarion building and began his slow walk into Hangman's Square. Guy Royal did the same thing, from the other direction, only Royal wasn't alone. He had a two dozen men and women behind him, all armed.

It looked like Sheriff Daws didn't stand a chance, and that might have been true if the Alphas were not ready and waiting.

But then an amazing thing happened. A man who looked just like Mr. Travis, only older, stepped out of the bank building and began to walk alongside Sheriff Daws.

"Get out of here, you stupid old man," Royal said.

The man just smiled and looked past Royal at his entourage. "This 'stupid old man' is going to kill at least one of you."

From another store front, two more men emerged, weapons ready. The Raptor and Color Alphas recognized their former jailer, Yosemite, as one of them. The other was his cousin Tiny Hintershott, the blacksmith who employed Indigo as a servant.

Then, Maude appeared in the square. She had a pulse rifle and clearly knew how to use it. Violet looked panicked when she saw her adopted mother facing off with Royal, but she remained perfectly still. Along with the sidearm she had pulled on Seven at the school, she also had a tiny rifle - one that had been hers when she was three. It was almost too small for her, but considering where she was, it was the perfect size to be easily concealed.

"What the hell is going on?" James looked confused. "Yosemite? Maude? What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

A blond woman emerged from the Clarion. It was Mary Travis. She was quickly joined by her husband. As they walked forward to face Royal, two men who looked Native American joined them. They had bows, with the heat-seeking arrows.

"We're going to have an election," Mary said. "If you win, then that will be the end of it. If Sheriff Potter wins, it will be the end of you."

"Is that right?" Royal smirked.

"That's right," old Mr. Travis replied. "There are federal troops just on the other side of Black Ridge. All I need to do is give them the word that the mayor has requested their assistance."

Royal laughed. "Ain't no mayor, and it's going to be a might hard to have an election if your only candidate is dead."

No one had a chance to reply to that, because the clock sounded the first of the twelve chimes signaling noon had arrived.

The sheriff stood resolute as the clock chimed away. He had seemed surprised to find other townspeople at his side, so the show of solidarity wasn't planned, at least not by him.

With his psi abilities, One was able to detect the auras of strong emotion from several people in the crowd. Anger from most of the Dragon Skulls, fear from those who opposed them. The opposition was willing to lay down their lives to see that an election happened. One had studied human behavior, including the psychology of rebellion. The people of this town had had enough of James' and Royal's tyranny. If it did not end today, it would still end.

When the eighth chime sounded, both Royal and the Sheriff poised their gun hands over their holsters. Both of them trembled slightly. Royal had lost some of his confidence when he'd seen that the Sheriff had someone backing his play. In fact, One got the distinct impression from the psi waves he was giving off that he would call the whole thing off if he could do so without looking like the coward he was.

nine . . . ten . . . eleven . . .

On the twelfth chime, Royal and the Sheriff went for their guns . . . and all hell broke loose.

The twenty Alphas hidden around the square had selected their targets and in one coordinated instant, 19 of Royal's two dozen cohorts were taken out, either by being shot or by having their weapons destroyed. Indigo snatched a weapon from a fallen Dragon Skull and took out two more of them.

Six's shot had been clean and accurate, Royal looked down in stupefied horror to discover a bleeding stump where his trigger finger had been. Sheriff Daws' shot had missed him by several inches, but Royal didn't know that. He quickly put his hands up in surrender, eyes wide with fright, blood dripping down his arm from his missing digit.

Bullets and arrows flew, and the half dozen or so Dragon Skulls who didn't go down in the first volley were cut down by the second one just an instant later. Other Skulls came forward to replace them, seemingly baffled as to how the inept townspeople were taking out their trained fighting force. Most of them never got a chance to return fire, though, as a third volley from the hidden Alphas took them out, too.

The townspeople fired blindly. None of them were trained shooters, and most of their shots were wild, but as one-by-one, the Dragon Skulls fell, other people found the courage to enter the fray.

Seconds after it began, the shooting stopped. The Dragon Skulls who were still able to raised their hands and backed off. All of the townspeople were still standing, largely unscathed, save for one.

Maude lay on the ground, a pool of blood rapidly forming beneath her.

On the ledge of the bank building, Seven remained perfectly still, but Violet, upon seeing Maude had been hit, stood up and screamed, "Mama!"

As she did so, she lost her footing and slipped off the ledge. Seven reacted instantly, and grabbed her arm as she fell, but her weight and momentum pulled him off the ledge, too. He managed to cling to the foot of a gargoyle for four or five seconds, but then, everyone watched in horror as the two tiny Alphas plunged toward the ground several meters below.

What happened next occurred with blinding speed. A torrent of psi waves surged at One, so powerful and intense that he felt as if he'd been struck by a solid object. That unique configuration deep within his brain that few humans possessed perceived them before his conscious mind was aware of them. It recognized them for what they were - a psychic plea for help - and sent forth a stream of their own, so intense that One would not have been able to control it even if he'd been aware of it.

In the split second before they hit the ground a layer of air molecules suddenly found their polarities reversed by a bombardment of psi waves, the combined telekinetic forces of the little girl and the teenage boy creating a magnetic shield which Violet bounced off of like an invisible trampoline, taking Seven with her. The two children tumbled safely to the ground.

One gasped as blinding pain filled his skull, and before he understood what had happened, he collapsed, unconscious.

Hangman's Square was a panicked frenzy. First responders, who had been on alert outside the perimeter of the square, were rushing to tend the wounded. A paramedic ran to the two children who had seemingly just fallen to their death, only to find them both sitting up, bruised and crying, but very much alive.

Four and Five were with One, and had tried to catch him as he collapsed, but the teen was much larger than either of them, and he'd ended up in a crumpled heap on the roof of the bank. Four had seen Seven fall, and knew there was probably nothing he could do for their youngest Alpha. Putting his sadness aside, he immediately began to tend to the fallen team mate beside him.

One's pulse was thready and his breathing was shallow. He was in shock, but Four could find no injuries. Puzzled, he pried open his left eye, then his right. The pupils in the centers of the bright blue irises were fixed, but not dilated. One's condition obviously required more than a superficial field assessment, so he turned to Five. "Go get help!" he ordered. Five didn't argue and in seconds was scaling his way down the wall of the bank.

The scene on the ground was organized chaos, with none of the first responders having time to listen to one small boy who wasn't injured. Five finally approached the big man called 'Yosemite' by the Raptor and Color Alphas. He and his cousin, Tiny, were standing amidst the confusion, looking as though they wished to help, but unsure what assistance they could offer. They came quickly when he told them one of the Alphas was hurt. He omitted the fact that it wasn't one of the Alphas Yosemite actually knew.

The big men knelt beside One, who was still unconscious. Yosemite frowned. "I don't know this kid," he said. They were joined by a third boy, this one the Alpha called Blue Hawk.

"He is an Alpha," he said simply.

Yosemite looked up, surprised to see Blue Hawk. "You escaped," he stated.

"Yes, and we will not go back."

Yosemite shook his head. "You won't have to. James and Royal are done for in these parts."

He nodded at his cousin Tiny and the big blacksmith scooped One into his powerful arms.

A triage area had been set up at the infirmary, and people who were unconscious were getting top priority. A physician hurried to meet them when they walked in with One. He had an instrument that looked like an ordinary mirror, but it had a digital readout on the back.

He frowned as he passed it over One's skull. "He's suffered some kind of deep brain trauma . . ." but there's no hemorrhage. Curious . . . it almost looks like a burn . . . how is that possible?" he asked no one in particular.

Four wanted to know how he even knew that. What was the strange instrument he was using and how did it work? He did understand now what had happened, though. The injury the doctor had detected was a side-effect of a psi-surge. Usually, they just gave One a headache, but this time the surge had to have been extremely powerful. It wasn't a true injury, but a temporary realignment of neurons into a distinct pattern. Normally, One recovered in couple of hours. It might take him longer this time, though.

"He'll need medication to stabilize his heart rate and respiration. Any conventional stimulant should work," Four suggested.

The physician looked down at him. "And are you a doctor?" he said tolerantly.

Four looked him in the eye. "Yes, I am. He's suffered a psi-surge and his condition will ameliorate itself in a matter of hours. I'm going to stay with him."

The doctor raised an eyebrow. "Who are you?"

"I'm Alpha Four."

"Are you now?" The doctor smiled. It was not quite condescending, but Four was prepared to argue. The doctor continued, "I happen to agree with your diagnosis. I'll have a nurse administer the correct medications in the proper dosage. He should be fine."

Four thought it was curious that the doctor knew what a psi-surge was. Most doctors were not familiar with the condition. In fact, many did not believe it was even possible to consciously use the part of the brain where psi-waves originated, because for most people, it wasn't.

Two and Three had climbed down from the Clarion building as fast as they could, weeding their way through the disorganized crowd trying to get to Seven, but by the time they made it to where the two children had fallen, they had already been taken to the nearby clinic. A bystander told them the little Alphas were both alive, something that was almost impossible to accept, even though they both dared to hope.

They pushed their way through the triage area in the clinic's lobby and began to check each examination cubicle, despite shouts of protest from the staff and patients. They did not find Seven in any of them, and, his patience wearing thin, Two cornered a member of the staff and demanded to know where he might be. Despite being just average height and slight of build, Two was an intimidating presence. People rarely ignored him. The staff member looked furtively for some way around him, but then pointed them to a set of double wooden doors that said, 'Sick Children.'

They found Seven sitting cross-legged on the middle of a small exam table. His shirt had been removed and two people were tending to him. One was washing his face, and offering words of comfort. The other was examining his arm, which now had a new, larger bruise.

The little boy looked up when he saw them. He said nothing, but put his arms out to Three, who ran to him and carefully hugged him close. He hadn't been crying when they came in, but he started again when he was safe in Three's arms.

Three held him for a few seconds, calming him down. "Hey, whatcha crying for?" he asked soothingly. "That was an amazing jump!" He pulled back and grinned at the smaller Alpha.

Seven sniffed. "I didn't jump. I fell!" he huffed.

"Good fall, though, wasn't it?" Three joked.

Seven thought about it, then smiled slightly. "Yeah."

Two gently stroked his hair. "You're okay?"

Seven nodded. "I hurt my arm again."

"We'll have that fixed in no time," said the person who had been examining him.

"One of you can stay with him, but it's a little crowded in here," said the woman who had been wielding the wash cloth. She appeared ready to go on to the next patient - Violet - but she was right, the tiny space didn't need four people in it. There was no question who would stay. All of the Alphas were bonded, but Three and Seven had a special affection for each other.

Two left to go to Six. He knew the 7-year-old sniper would stay where he was until given further instructions.

Five showed up a few minutes later. He had been unable to bluff his way into the children's infirmary, but had then run into Indigo who had a key to a rear entrance. Indigo was indentured to Tiny, the blacksmith, and, as it turned out, had made himself a copy of a key to almost every building in town. Not that Five couldn't have gotten in on his own, but it was much easier Indigo's way.

"Where's my mama?" Violet cried, looking at Five because she seemed to know that of all the people around her, it was another Alpha she could trust.

"I'll go find out," Five promised her. Now that he was in the infirmary, darting from one location to the next would be easy. Most people were too busy to challenge him.

He quickly found the cubicle where the woman, Maude, had been placed. She had regained consciousness and was holding a cold compress to her head, her eyes closed.

Five walked up beside the bed, and she opened her eyes when she sensed him nearby. "You . . . " was all she said.

"Violet is worried about you," Five explained.

"She's alive?" the woman's voice cracked ever so slightly.

"She's fine."

Maude's eyes closed in relief. "Thank heaven," she sighed. But then she opened her eyes again. "You . . . . where do you come from?"

Five wasn't sure how to answer that, so he hesitated.

She continued, "Have you . . . . always been an Alpha? . . . Or do you remember being someone . . . . somewhere . . . else?"

"I don't understand," Five said truthfully.

Maude reached into the pocket of her long skirt and pulled out a small locket with a digital image inside of a boy who looked an awful lot like him. "This is my Ethan . . ." Maude said. "The way he might look today."

Five studied the image. He did not know who his mother was, but he did know that Maude's son was not a baby when he was taken, and there were pictures of him at Omnichron with the other Alphas going back to when he was just a month or so old. He shook his head sadly. "I'm not him. I'm sorry."

Maude nodded and carefully put the picture away. "I didn't think so . . . Ethan would be 12 now. But you just look so much like him, I thought . . ."

"Mama!" Violet's voice came from the doorway. She rushed past Five to hug the woman she thought of as her mother. Indigo was with her but stood back.

Maude returned the embrace and kissed the little girl. It made Five happy and sad at the same time.

Pulling back from the embrace, Violet's face resumed the casual smirk that was apparently her customary expression.

"That boy . . . the big one . . . he helped me," she said.

"One?" Five asked.

She nodded.

"How did you do that?" Five wanted to know. "How did you stop your fall?"

The little girl shrugged.

"She's telekinetic," Indigo explained. "It's why she was chosen as an Alpha."

"But telekinetics move stuff," Five said.

Indigo shrugged. "Stopping movement is just a reverse process. Or at least, that's what our mentors figured. Violet never had to learn to fight. She can knock a weapon right out of your hand with her mind. Or at least, she could . . . before."

"I still could," Violet informed him. "I can fly, too."

"Levitate," Indigo corrected her with a smile. "It's not flying."

"Well, you can't do it!"

Indigo smiled. "No one can. Not like you."

Violet glance over at Five. "Seven tried to catch me." She seemed genuinely impressed by that.

"Yes, he did," Five assured her.

She looked up at him with big green eyes. "He gave me time," she tried to explain.


"Time to pull the psi-waves I needed from the big boy, so we didn't hit the ground."

Neither Indigo nor Five was comprehending what she was telling them, so her expression became haughty again. "On never mind! You're all so stupid!" She folded her arms indignantly, but then added, "Except Seven."

+ + + + + + +

Two found Six exactly where he expected to find him, still in the bell tower of the church. He had disassembled his sniper rifle, knowing it was no longer needed, and was waiting patiently for further instructions.

He was happy to see Two, who greeted him with a smile. "Good shooting," he said. Of course, that went without saying. Six never missed. But, he liked it when Two told him he was good.

Six knew Seven wasn't dead. He'd seen the paramedics take him away. At least, he wasn't dead when he last saw him. "Is everyone all right?" he asked Two.

"Yes, everyone. I don't think anyone got killed." He hadn't seen any corpses or body bags, nor did he want to.

Six nodded. He liked some things about this world. Sheriff Daws, the horsebikes, those cool arrows the Raptor Alphas had, and the purple oranges. But those Dragon Skulls were even meaner than the ones at Holy Cross. He had thought a lot about the Alphas who had been caught and locked away for such a long time. That could have been him and his team mates.

"What's going to happen to the Dragon Skulls?" he asked Two.

"I don't know," Two answered. "But they won't run this town anymore." Judge Travis had promised to call in Federal troops to get rid of them, but in this time and place, Two wasn't sure exactly what that meant. It didn't matter, it wasn't their problem now.

He helped Six gather up his things. "Let's go find the others. It's time to go home."

+ + + + + +

Surprisingly, no one was killed it what was quickly becoming known as The Great Uprising. Most of the people in town assumed that Sheriff Potter and the few people who had been brave enough to stand with him had defeated the Dragon Skulls. The roll played by the 21 Alphas went unacknowledged, which was fine with them. It was better in the long term if everyone thought the town had defeated the Dragon Skulls on their own.

Violet apparently didn't suffer any after effects despite the tremendous exertion of psi forces that had been required to do what basically amounted to levitating both herself and Seven in the instant before they hit the ground. One, however, was unconscious for six hours. When he awoke, though, he showed no signs of injury.

The tissue-regenerator had been used to heal Seven's arm, that he had re-injured grabbing for Violet, and the little boy was still reeling from the sheer terror of falling off of a 9-story building, but the counselors at Omnichron would deal with that when they returned.

An election was held the day after the showdown. There were no polling places. People voted using electronic devices that were given to each person over age 15 and could only be used once. Sheriff Potter won by a landslide, and true to his word, Judge Travis ordered in the Federal troops. Less than an hour after the election results were tabulated, they came riding over the ridge east of town, on magnificent black horse-bikes that had gold and silver manes and tails. Some wore war paint in Native American designs and beaded leather vests, while others wore 19th-century style cavalry uniforms made out of some kind of lightweight fabric that repelled the dust. Some were armed with bows, some with rifles, some with pulse weapons. Behind them rolled 8 lumbering tanks that looked like WWII Panzers.

Three frowned at the anachronisms. "This timeline is confusing," he stated. They'd be able to learn more of its history later. Mary and Steven Travis had given them no less than dozen books on the history, science and politics of this strange world. The mentors would have a field day with them.

The troops had run the Dragon Skulls out of town without bloodshed, even though no one seemed to take into account that they might just end up being a problem somewhere else. They took the spawn with them, and the two who owned the horsebikes Five and Six had been riding never returned for them, so, the boys decided to keep them.

It was time to say good-bye. Theta had already activated the port twice at 12-hour intervals, and they'd miss the next activation, also. They wanted to be there for the fourth one. They'd be bringing 12 of the other 14 Alphas with them, in the hopes that the tech team could find a way to get them back to their timelines. The Raptor Alphas were all leaving, but Indigo and Violet were staying behind. The boys had the feeling Indigo would have gone if Violet did, but the little girl refused. She barely remembered being an Alpha and she wanted to stay with Maude.

Sheriff Daws/Potter voiced the opinion that this timeline needed its own Alphas. Indigo and Violet, if they were willing, would be the beginning of their team. They'd need mentors, though, and Theta would need to be consulted about that. The boys had never given any thought to where the Alpha mentors came from, how they were chosen and who had trained them - they really didn't know. The Raptor Alphas claimed that their first mentors 'came from the sky' while the Color Alphas said theirs came from 'within the earth.' Three was of the opinion that both stories were just myths, but he kept that to himself.

They were escorted to the port by the Federal troops and a large entourage of townspeople. It felt strange to the boys, because in most timelines, including their own, the ports were carefully guarded secrets. Here, everyone seemed to know it was there, and what it did, although no one knew how it worked, which was why they didn't use it. The troops were there to protect the Alphas from ambush by the Dragon Skulls, whose whereabouts was now unknown, and also because it was known that Guy Royal, at least, was able to go through it when it was active. He would not be escaping that way, at least not today.

Five and Six rode their horsebikes. Seven was a little envious, but the bike he had been riding did belong to Violet, and it was wrong to just take her 'horsey' from her, even if Two would have let him, which he wouldn't. Indigo had a horsebike, now, too. It was black with a silver mane and tail and looked just like the ones the troops rode, only smaller. It was awesome.

Before they entered the cave, some of the townspeople pushed their way to the front to say farewell, including Steven Travis, Sheriff Daws, and Miss Virginia. Maude came forward, too, even though Violet hung back - she was still afraid they'd take her with them.

Maude was there to say good-bye to Five. She bent forward and kissed the top of his head. "If you ever see another Alpha who looks like you," she said softly, "ask him if he remembers this." She put something into his hand. It was a tiny horse made of gold. "It was his . . . My Ethan. Tell him . . ." Her voice trailed off. "Just ask him if he remembers and if he does, tell him about me, would you?"

Five nodded that he would and closed his hand around the little horse. It would be added to his gold feathers and gold skulls. He loved gold.

Indigo came up pushing the black horsebike. "This is yours," he said to Seven.

"Huh?" Seven's eyes widened.

"Maude bought it for you, for trying to save Violet."

"Oh! . . .," was all Seven could say. Then he looked at Two. "Can I keep it?"

"I don't see why not," Two smiled.

"We've got port activation," Three announced.

As the Alphas lined up to enter the cave, Violet ran up and kissed Seven on the cheek. "Bye," she said and then ran away again.

The physician who had treated One at the hospital hurried up to Four and gave him the strange instrument that healed bones and wounds and infections.

"Thank you," Four said sincerely. He hoped the techs could figure out how it worked.

Six, who was always keenly aware of his surroundings, spotted a lone figure on a ridge about a kilometer away. It was Guy Royal. He wondered if they'd seen the last of him.

+ + + + + + +

The boys expected Theta to be amazed when they brought the other Alphas through with them, but even though he was surprised, he actually seemed to have a contingency plan for such an event. He flicked his fingers across his tablet a few times, then began to call off names. "Blue Eagle, age now 21, Blue Hawk, age 19, Blue Falcon, age 18 . . ." He continued with Blue Owl, Blue Osprey, Blue Harrier and Blue Condor, who was 12 and had spent more than half of his life a captive. Theta also had information on the Color Alphas. "Where are Indigo and Violet?" he asked after reading off their names.

"They stayed," Fourth Red answered. "They are bonded, and Violet did not want to leave."

Theta nodded that he understood.

He finally looked 'his' boys over and made sure they were all okay. He had probably been worried when they didn't return on schedule, but he'd never say that.

He looked at the horsebikes and raised an eyebrow. "Interesting," he commented.

"This one is mine!" Seven said proudly.

"But you know you have to leave them here, right?" Theta said.

Seven looked crushed. So did Five and Six.

Three pointed out that the little bikes had relatively powerful engines that were not street legal. They wouldn't be allowed to ride them anywhere but Omnichron anyway.

Pouting wasn't tolerated with the Alphas, so Seven didn't show his displeasure. That didn't mean he had to like leaving his horsebike, though.

There was going to be a problem with where to house the other Alphas until they could get them home - assuming that was even going to be possible. The burned out Omnichron building was being rebuilt, but the lab where the Alphas had grown up had not been replaced yet, and probably would not be until it was time to start the Series V team, which would not be for another 10 years or so.

The logistics team was resourceful, though. They'd think of something. Still, the boys felt bad leaving them, knowing they had a place to go and those Alphas did not. They went through a quick debriefing and then piled into the green van for the ride home.

Five fingered the little gold horse in his pocket. He wondered about his own mother - where she was and how he had come to be an Alpha. He wondered if the older ones had ever asked Theta those questions. He wondered if he really wanted to know the answer.


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