Kumail hit the enter key on two separate keyboards with such force that he broke one.  The enter key he had punched with his right hand was now stuck in its depressed state, but that didn’t matter.  The program had started successfully and Kumail had moved onto the next computer, grabbing a small zip file off his desk and jamming it into his secondary laptop.  He hit a few buttons to initiate the file transfer and he moved on.    

 

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

 

He couldn’t find his main laptop.  Trolling through his mind, reaching for the location, after a fevered moment, it came to him; the bedroom, he had left it in the bedroom!

 

He scrambled across his apartment, between the myriad computers, all now executing purges and self-destruct sequences, grabbed his laptop off of his bed, nearly yanked the electrical socket out of the wall along with the charger, stuffed both things into his backpack and ran back into the main room.

 

He stopped for a moment, gazing in horror out his window and across the way as even more SWAT team members forced their way into his friend’s apartment.  How much time did that leave him?  He needed to leave, now, before his apartment was breached if it wasn’t being breached already.  He whipped his head towards his front door, but it remained steadfastly on its hinges.  Kumail was all right.  For now.  But he had to get out of there. 

 

He kneeled down behind the first computer, clawed off a small piece of plastic from the back panel and flipped the switch he had installed there.  A small pop and a flash from inside the case and he moved on to the next one.  Three computers later and he was done. He stood up, again, looking frantically to the door as he patted himself down.

 

Keys?  Yes.  Phone, check.  Laptop was in the backpack?  Totally.  But he was missing something.  And he knew he was missing something.  But what could it be? 

 

He couldn’t remember.  And he didn’t have time.  He had to leave before anyone entered his apartment.  Fuck it. 

 

He ran to the window and just as he was putting his foot through to the fire escape platform on the other side he let out a yelp.  The flash drive!

 

He threw himself violently away from the window and towards the desk, his former secondary laptop was sitting on, ripped the flash drive from its socket and throwing one last frightened look at the door, he turned and left through the window, leaving it open in his rush to flee the scene.

 

A short while later and he was fighting the urge to bolt, walking down the street and away from his apartment, as slow as he could force himself to go and as fast as he could dare to allow.  Every so often and much to his own chagrin, he would turn to look back towards his now-former home and attempt a stealthy glimpse of what was going on.  Each time Kumail did so he became even more unnerved.  His apartment seemed to be perfectly fine.

 

There were no flash bangs blowing out the windows, there was no shouting accompanied by the sounds of heavy laden men in military boots storming in, nor was there any sign that much of anything at all was transpiring on his side of the block.  Why would they raid his neighbor when he had the largest cache of info?  Why would they bother to raid one political opponent home when there was another one less than 700 ft. across the way?

 

This thought terrified him, but he couldn’t let that stop him.  He had to keep going and act like nothing was wrong.  Even if they were trying to force him into giving up his peers they were out of luck there.  As far as Kumail was aware, only one other person that was there had managed to successfully escape arrest and was currently being captured in that apartment on the other side of the block.  So there was no problem there.  But if they somehow were not following him, and by some twist of fate the Police had absolutely NO IDEA that Kumail had been living across the street, he couldn’t risk making a scene so close to a bunch of Cops and end up getting himself arrested.  Plus, if they were now tailing him in force with the intent to detain him, at this point, alone and on the run with only his laptop, his cell phone, and a flash drive in his bag there was very little he could do to stop them, although it would not be for want of trying.

 

Kumail turned a corner and proceeded into a narrow alleyway.  With businesses along his left and apartments to the right, with fences blocking most paths of escape in either direction Kumail expected one of two things to happen to him here.  He would either be ambushed and arrested, or he would have whittled down the possibilities to him either being bait or somehow, still, a free man.  The difference was negligible.  If he wasn’t being incarcerated right now there was only one thing left for him to do.

 

He slumped against a fence made to look like wood, careful not to crush the contents of his bag as he lowered himself towards the concrete.  He removed his hood, now sodden with sweat from both his paranoid anguish and the added heat of having the thing on his head.  He stared down the alley from whence he came, needing a second to breathe and a moment to steel himself in case of the worst, and when no men with assault rifles and Police shields rounded the corner he whipped out his phone, activated his encryption programs and sent off a single text.

 

Even without his hood up in this unseasonably hot situation, Kumail was sweating bullets as the wait for a response ran into minutes and each of those minutes appeared to drag on into eternities.  Well aware that this might potentially be his fault for sending the message through encryption he was half tempted to shut everything off in the hopes that she would hurry the hell up.  But if he wasn’t being arrested now, despite the fact that he was sure the air near the end of the alleyway was about to explode into captors shrieking that if he moved he would die, there was no point in risking getting caught over a message as simple as:

 

Where are you?

 

Finally, a response came through, the beep from his phone making him jump as Kumail was ripped from his delusional reverie.

 

Im at home. Y?     

 

He typed as fast as he could:

 

Stay there.  I’m coming over.  It is incredibly important. Do not leave.

 

He terminated his programs, put his phone to sleep, and tried very hard not to run out of the alley.  He was still too close to the Police action and in too visible a neighborhood.  He could run later.

 

Kumail was beginning to lose it again, she wasn’t answering the door.  Why wasn’t she answering the door? 

 

Kumail knocked for the second time, three rapid, loud instances of his knuckles against the wooden body of her door and he was back to tapping his foot against the boards below him.  He peered behind him checking for the umpteenth time to make sure that he had not been followed.  As was the case every other time he had done this, no one was there.  This should have made him feel better but of course, it didn’t.

 

If he was actually being tailed he doubted very much that he would even be able to notice the perpetrators.  They could probably just follow him on the cameras placed around the city, or with a drone perhaps, only actually sending people within arresting distance when the time was just right.  For all he knew

 

Marie still wasn’t answering the door.  This too was worrying its way against the exacerbated endings of his sympathetic nervous system.  He stopped tapping his foot, withdrew his right hand from its tentative position in his pocket and pounded it once more against the door. 

 

It opened in the middle of his second strike and Kumail awkwardly stumbled forwards.  His fist barely missed Marie’s face and he over balanced falling directly into her and forcing the both of them several paces into her apartment.  The pair righted themselves, making sure they weren’t going to fall to the floor, and disentangled from one another.

 

“Oh, um Sorry.” came Kumail’s awkward and nervous response, “I’ll just shut this” he said as he turned and closed the door behind him.

 

The feeling inside Marie’s home was tense.  The air in the room immediately became uncomfortable as neither moved to say anything and the two simply stared at each other, Marie with a look of angry anticipation and Kumail with one of nervous agitation.

 

Marie was the one who eventually broke the silence.

 

“Well?”

 

Her response was both brief and brusque.  She was mad.  Whenever she balled her fists against her ample hips like that it meant she was really pissed.  Why was she upset before he had even said anything?  Unless…. Oh, no!  Had his escape made the news?

 

Kumail’s instinctual reaction was to run over to the television and thumb it over to the news.  He even began to turn in that direction ever so slightly to make his way into her living room and to jump over her couch in a mad dash for the remote, but as he began to come back to his senses he saw Marie, still standing angrily in front of him partially blocking his way and this centered him on the task at hand.  If it actually was so bad it was on the news, they had little chance of escape anyways.  He decided that it would be best to get the explaining over and done with so they could get through the arguing and start to flee.

 

“Now Marie.  I can see that you’re mad, but don’t be mad.  Because you seem pretty mad.  But I was pretty sure that something like this was going to be very difficult to avoid after everything ended up falling apart in D.C.  But don’t worry.  I’ve got a plan to get you, me, and the baby out of here before anything worse happens.  I’ve been trying to prevent this, but I’ve also been planning for this exact scenario since I got back, all right?  Everything will be as ok as I can make it but you have to trust me and we have to get out of here, now.”

 

As on edge as Kumail was and as angry as Marie seemed he tried to calm her with his words and hand gestures and much to his astonishment, his efforts did seem to mollify her somewhat and her expression softened.  But then came her response.

 

“Why?  What’s happened?”

 

Her question seemed genuine, an honest request for additional information and this threw Kumail off balance once again.  He could have sworn by how angry she had been when he stumbled in that she….. he didn’t have the time.  He had to get them moving again.  He ignored it and moved on.

 

“I’m sorry.  I thought…. I thought maybe it had made the news.  Jiggory was raided.  The feds are probably looking for me now, and that means they are probably on the lookout for you as well.  We’ve got to take Theodore and go.”

 

Kumail scanned the room looking for a carrier or crib, but could see no indication of their child.

 

“Um.  Where is Theodore anyways?”

 

Marie, apparently, was in no mood to let him move past anything however.  Shaking her head she began to yell at Kumail, slowly increasing in volume and proximity as her rage boiled over and into her eyes until she was only inches away from Kumail, poking him painfully in the chest.

 

“No.  NO!  I refuse to go anywhere with you Kumail Kakar!  You’re gone for three whole months.  I don’t see you.  And I don’t get any word about what is going on with you, not that I’d want any, but I get no support from you in the raising of our child, physically OR financially, and all of my messages to all of your old accounts and contacts remain either unanswered OR give me an error message when I try to send them saying that the recipient account no longer exists.  I can’t find anywhere to contact you online, your phone number now belongs to some teenage girl in Sweden, and when I do finally get SOMETHING out of you it’s in the form of one of your hippy friends dropping by in the middle of the night, waking me AND YOUR CHILD, only to give me the EXTREMELY IMPORTANT update of: Your boyfriend is fine.  Things went bad.  He will be in touch as soon as possible!”

 

At this point Kumail attempted to step away from the mother of his child in an attempt to create some space between him and the wrath bomb now detonating inches from his face, however, as he had not yet left the small square of linoleum directly in front of Marie’s apartment door he had nowhere to go and found himself immediately backing up into it.

 

The onslaught continued, the frequency of painful finger jabs increasing by the word now that Kumail had been successfully cornered.

 

“And do you know what I told those dreadlocked deadbeats the few times they came to visit me?”

 

“Well…. no?” answered Kumail.

 

“That they could tell my so-called “boyfriend” that not only were we through, as we had been since the day he had refused to stay in town during the delivery of his own child, but that they could tell that no-good irresponsible runaway sperm donor of mine that if he ever tried to come near me or his child again I would call the police on his bum ass!”

 

There was a stunned silence in which Marie shook, her large chest heaving with each breath and her dark hair waving back and forth as she moved her head side to side in a still menacing fashion with each concurrent breath.

 

“Marie?” he asked.

 

She stared him down still clearly furious, but no longer exploding.

 

“Are you finished?”

 

Kumail threw up his arms to cover his face as Marie screamed in rage.  Instead of attacking him, however, she turned and stomped off towards her kitchen, giving Kumail a moment to breathe.  He took this opportunity to move further into the apartment, past her television and the far wall of her living room, he peered through the open door of her bedroom, trying to find the baby.  She had a right to be mad, and he knew that, but if they were to stand any chance of living outside of jail for the next few decades, he had to get them out of there.  And Marie would come around eventually.  Plus, if he was holding the baby maybe she would be less likely to hit him.

 

Either way, there were as many signs of a child in the bedroom as there had been in the living room.  Now curious and confused Kumail turned around only to be immediately re-assaulted by a still furious Marie.

 

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” 

 

 Kumail made a bold move and grabbed Marie by the tops of her arms, just below the shoulders.  This rapid action seemed to catch Marie slightly off guard and Kumail took this minor opening in the conversation while he had the chance.

 

“Marie.  You have every right to be mad at me and even to hate me.  I haven’t been there for you or our baby and while I had EXTREMELY good reasons for being gone”

 

She looked incredulous at this, but Kumail pressed on before Marie could regain her previous fervor.

 

“when I was, I’m sure it has been extremely hard for you.  But we don’t have time.  We can argue about why I thought it was important enough to be at that rally that is was worth the risk of missing the birth of my only child, when we are on the road.  Honestly, once we have you and little Theodore out of the city and away from most areas of heavy surveillance, you can leave, and you can leave me if you like.”

 

This admission of guilt and willingness to concede seemed to have exactly the effect Kumail desired.  The hardness in Marie’s face melted away and her whole posture loosened.  They almost had an understanding, so Kumail pushed forward one last time.

 

“You’re right, I’ve been completely absent for the past three months and while I was doing that for your protection I am sorry.  I am genuinely sorry about how things ended up between us, but even without me missing Theodore’s birth we were already beginning to drift apart.  We both knew that, and I won’t try to hold you after this, you have every right to feel the way you do and frankly, you taking Theodore and getting as far away from me as possible is probably the safest thing the two of you can do for now.  So Marie.  One. last. time.  I need to know.  Where is Theodore?”

 

Several emotions flashed very quickly across Marie’s rounded features.  At first, she appeared to be both touched and relieved by Kumail’s various statements.  But as he continued with his monologue she seemed worried, as though she knew where he was going and by the time she was sure about it she was both angry and afraid.  After he had finally finished she looked away, her eyes falling to the floor as blood flushed her cheeks.  She was struggling with the answer, her facial muscles moving slightly as she tried to figure out how to say what she had finally been forced to say.  Her voice was low and small as she answered, perhaps hoping that Kumail wouldn’t hear her and that she could somehow delay the inevitable just a little while longer.

 

“He’s not here.”

 

Kumail blinked.  He didn’t understand.  Of course, he understood what Marie had said, but what she had said didn’t make much sense.

 

“Little Teddy.  Theodore, our three-month-old child isn’t here, Marie?  Did I hear you right?”

 

She still couldn’t look at him.  She nodded a feverish and ashamed affirmative.

 

“That doesn’t make any sense Marie.  Seriously, where is Teddy?”

 

 Marie turned her head so that she was looking upwards, directly into Kumail’s eyes.  She was shaking slightly now, but the quavering did nothing to make her stare any more tolerable.  The intensity of her renewed rage took Kumail aback, and he took a step back unconsciously.

 

“Marie…”

 

The fuck was going on?

 

“I gave him away Kumail.”

 

“YOU WHAT?!?!?”

 

“I gave Theodore to the LDC, Kumail Kakar.  I gave our son away.”

 

This new information was significantly beyond anything Kumail could have possibly been prepared for.  He had been on the verge of releasing Marie from his grasp but now he redoubled his grip and began to shake her as a full-blown panic began to grip him.

 

“What the fuck are you talking about Marie?!  You gave our three-month-old baby to the Latter Day Church, the same organization that I went to Washington specifically to try and dethrone?!  Is this some kind of sick joke Marie?  Please tell me it is!”

 

Kumail paused here, desperately hoping that his ex would do something, that she would say something to redact her previous statements and make this situation seem much less dire.  But Marie did not make everything better.  She continued to stare through Kumail with that burning stalwart defiance she would effect when she would stick on an issue that she considered a matter of deepest personal pride and importance and the true degree to which things had gone awry began to whip Kumail into a full-blown freakout.  He started screaming as he continued to shake this demon women he had somehow managed to grab ahold of.

 

“Marie.  O my god… Marie.  What the fuck where you thinking?  Do you have any idea what you’ve done?  It’s like you’ve given our son to an orphanage run by Nazi’s at the beginning of the Third Reich.  They’re gonna brainwash him, Marie!  They’re gonna take our child and turn him into a religious drone hell-bent on destroying everything meaningful and unique about America and the world at large.  They control the government, Marie!  They control everything!  And you just gave our child to them?  What the fuck where you thinking?”

 

Marie’s eyes were watering but she said nothing and continued to stare through the watery film at Kumail with that cruel hatred that had been slowly building since he had first grabbed her.  She fucking hated him.  And he couldn’t stand it anymore.  He screamed, pressing their noses together as tears began to stream down his face too.

 

“Stop staring at me and say something, Marie!”

 

Her mouth contorted to express the same disgust that was growing alongside the rage behind her eyes and from that angry grimace, she finally unloaded on him.

 

“Yeah, I gave Teddy away Kumail!  I gave our son away and I am happy about it!  You were gone for three whole months and when I saw an ad asking for mixed-race babies who would be provided with a good life and a decent education so long as they were raised within the stricture of the Church I gave our child up because you know what?  You were right about one thing.  The safest place our child can be is away from you and your felon friends.  I gave our kid up so you couldn’t turn him into the same sort of anti-authority jailbird piece of irresponsible shit his father is and there is nothing you can possibly do about it so there!”

 

Marie, whose face was now coated in both sweat and tears, was wearing an expression of intermingled hatred and victory.  Pleased to see the effect her words had had on Kumail, happy to finally get to say her piece, and disgusted by the entirety of the situation, she wore a smile that was truly revolting, it was at once clearly extremely smug and also quietly displeased.  But the displeasure only increased until there was nothing left of the sick happiness behind it and Kumail finally released her.  He had a hard look in his eyes as well as a fiery expression which clearly came from deep within.  Marie was unfamiliar with this well Kumail was suddenly drawing from and it disturbed her.  As he let go of her he pressed past her and through her bedroom door, fishing his phone out of his pocket as he headed towards her apartment door.

 

“Where are you going Kumail?  Theodore’s been with the LDC for a couple of weeks now.  Even I don’t know where he is.  There is legitimately NOTHING you can do for him.”

 

Her voice quavered and maybe that’s what made Kumail pause.  He turned to look at her and that look of inflamed determination made her step back this time.

 

“Yeah.  We’ll just see about that.”

 

Kumail slammed the door behind him leaving Marie alone in her apartment to ponder.

 

Kumail restarted all of his encryption programs and sent off an email to Brother Ezze.  As dire as his child’s fate seemed, as intense as his situation had become he could not allow himself to fuck up and ruin the precarious balance that Brother had been able to establish and maintain and so despite the roar of the blood pumping overtime through his now furious internal organs as Kumail blindly made his way away from his baby mama’s apartment, if the response Brother sent back was one of hold on, Kumail would just have to wait.  So he sent off a very basic message:

 

Brother, I have a very important emergency only you can help me with.  Call me from a secure line as soon as you can. yhbK.

 

His phone rang about a minute later.

 

“Brother?”

 

“I don’t have long to talk.  What’s up?”

 

“Marie has lost her mind and gave up our kid to the Church.  I need to know where he’s been taken so that I can go and get him back.”

 

There was silence from the other end of the line.  And just as it was starting to drag Brother spoke.

 

“Ok.  What is his full name?”

 

Kumail breathed a small sigh of relief.

 

“Theodore Alvarez.  Is there anything else I can tell you to help you find where they’ve stashed him?”

 

Another brief silence and then:

 

“No.  I have to go now.  I’ll call you back when I have something for you.”

 

And with that the call ended.

 

Brother pocketed his cell phone and did a quick check of his surroundings.  The little alcove he had chosen to make his phone call in had proven a good choice.  No one had overheard his conversation, and even if someone had, he was quite sure that he had said nothing particularly scandalous. 

 

It was good that Kumail had sent his request for a call when he had, as Brother’s lunch hour was almost up.  He had needed a few minutes to orchestrate an escape from his coworkers and the lunchroom and if Kumail’s plea had arrived any later Brother might not have had enough time to make a break for it and get back to work before he was missed.  His phone told him that he still might not.

 

So he hurried.  He couldn’t run, looking conspicuous wouldn’t do, but nonetheless, he worked quickly.  Most of the other staff members would still be eating in the cafeteria or perhaps a nearby restaurant, so all he had to do was find an unattended computer in an office which someone had forgotten to log out of.  And if all he could find was an empty office he always had Kumail’s backdoor on his phone, so…

 

Still, that would take more time and could potentially give him away if someone came back from lunch early, so he would have to see what he could find.  And he thought he knew where to start.

 

He reentered the dimly lit office building and made his way right, passing up several offices full of computers that he could potentially utilize.  Going this far was a bit of a gamble he knew, but if he was right it would save him time and leave less of a trail.  So he ducked under the doorframe, a little lower in this particular office block then was average, and hurried over to the specific computer he was looking for.

 

He was alone in the room currently, he could see that, but this was also a disadvantage.  This office was for underling day workers.  These people didn’t have quarters in the Lord’s White House, as Brother Ezze did, and so, being less trustworthy in the eyes of the Church the office was arranged for maximum ease of survailability.  All of the employee’s computers were in two long rows, chunky and outdated monitors arranged back to back across the length of the two tables placed in the middle of the rectangular room.  This was done so that the single overseer in the room, who’s desk was in the recessed corner, to the right of Brother, would have a decent view of everyone’s screens from his stationary vantage point.  Of course, they could just as easily, and likely were, at least occasionally, monitoring what went on on these networked machines digitally, but the Overseer was a much better way to remind these antlings to fear the eye of the Lord as well as that of the Church.

 

This all posed a problem for Brother.  Not so much because he was worried that his network traffic would be monitored, but simply because since these computers weren’t in cubicles, and the one he was looking for was the last one on the end of the row, if someone DID come back early, or he took too long and he was still here when lunch ended, what he was doing would be very easy to see as this monitor was right in front of the door.

 

Brother went over to the thing and jiggled the mouse.  Nothing.  He double tapped the space bar.  And the monitor glowed into life, not to a log in screen, but to a glorious and cluttered desktop.  Johnston had forgotten to log off, the idiot.  He knew that Johnston was forgetful like this sometimes and since he happened to have unfettered access to the files Brother needed, it was exactly what he had been hoping for.

 

Brother worked as quickly as he could, moving the mouse to the icon of the Church filing system and clicking it open, as he stood over the table unwilling to take the time to sit down.  He configured the program to search the information reported by all of the (acronym for Child Reducation Camps that would sound appealing to parents and Christian and not scary, but sounds quite nefarious when you know the meaning behind the title) and entered in the name Theodore Alvarez.  Zero results.

 

Brother stared blankly at the screen.  What did this mean?  Had Kumail somehow given him the wrong info?  It couldn’t be.  He would surely know his own child’s name.  Brother checked the computers clock.  He only had two minutes to finish up here, so that he would still have the five necessary to get back to where he was supposed to be without anyone noticing that he had been loitering in the complete opposite side of the office building from where he was supposed to be.  Fuck.  What to do?

 

Then it came to him.  Teddy.  Kumail’s kid was named Theodore, but they almost always called him Teddy.  Whomever had taken in his child was supposed to have made sure that the paperwork matched the child’s info on their birth records… so he should come up as Theodore.  But it was worth a try.

 

He typed Teddy Alvarez into the box and hit enter.

 

And there he was!  In a camp a few hours upstate of Kumail.  He attached his phone to the machine with a USB wire that was sticking out of it, another unwilling gift from Johnston, and downloaded all the files he could.  He got all the information about Theodore, the camp’s floor plan, as well as the staff instructions; shift changes every twelve hours, and password changes with each shift change.  And then Brother was out of time.  He disconnected his phone, exited all of the documents, and turned off the monitor, fleeing from the room through the door behind him, heading out via the hallway that ran parallel to the one he had entered from. 

 

Brother moved deeper into the bowels of the office building, pulling away from the exposed hallways with his first right turn, methodically suppressing his urge to run.  The best he could manage was to roll things back to a brisk walk. 

 

The area of the building he was heading towards was the employee services center, the portion of the place that separated the full-timers from the part timers, those in the Light from those on the Path.  There were various internal storefronts lining these halls, and while he wouldn’t have time to actually do it, he was heading in this direction so that if anyone happened to ask he could tell them that he had been heading to pick up his Daughters daily medicine ration.  Brother had a little girl, and she was Diabetic.  His usual routine consisted of him picking up his Daughters insulin on the way back to his office after eating lunch and that was where he had told his coworkers that he was heading.  If he could just make it down this last corridor his alibi would be secure.

 

Brother knew there wasn’t much hallway left before he could breathe easy and resume his normal routine without worry, but his phone laid heavy in his pocket.  With the pilfered files on it, if he was somehow caught…. Even with his extremely privileged position as Assistant to the Right Hand of the Holy Leader if things somehow lined up just so and what little circumstantial evidence his crimes had left behind led to him being seriously questioned….  Well, the evidence was right there in his pocket.  And then what would become of his little Mkula?

 

Despite the almost eerie stillness of the half-lit corridors beads of nervous sweat cropped up on his forehead as he worked his way towards his destination, mentally counting down the number of turns remaining between him and his goal.  And then there was only one turn remaining and he took it.  He turned left and several hundred feet in front of him he could see his supposed destination and the hallway was just as empty as the rest of them had been.  He was almost clear!  Brother’s pace finally began to normalize as he inched towards his goal.  He was 300 feet away, and then 200.. 

 

Brother had finally reached the pharmacy window when a voice called out from behind him.

 

“Brother Ezze!  What a wonderful working of fate that we meet in a moment of rare downtime for the both of us?  How are you doing on this most glorious of afternoons?”

 

It was his boss.  Of all of the people to catch him not where he was supposed to be why did it have to be Lady Illia, the Right Hand of the Holiest Leader?

 

He stopped walking and took a moment to compose himself, to raise his defenses and gird himself for all the possibilities that were to come, and he turned to face her.  She had emerged from the hallway he had just walked passed, the last potential spot from which someone could appear to break apart his alibi.  And it was his direct overseer, the second most powerful and dangerous person in the entire LDC.  He could not let any of that bother him though.  He had to be his normal, rational self despite the thing burning a hole in his pocket.  He went to the switch that controlled that part of his mind, all the burgeoning fear and worry and knowledge of how precarious his situation was and he grabbed ahold of it and clicked it off.

 

Brother’s smile was both neutral and passive but still pleased, the rictus of the slight smile drawing tight the lines of his dark face as he approached her.

 

“I am well, Lady Illia.  It is indeed a rare but pleasant surprise for us to meet outside of the office.  So I must return your question.  How are you today?”

 

She smiled, clearly delighting in the conversation.

 

“Always the polite gentleman Brother.  Would you care to walk with me?”

 

She extended her arm slightly to him, indicating that she would like him to take the lead and he obliged, wrapping his own arm through hers, gently but firmly.

 

“I would love to My Lady, so long as you are aware that this will likely cause me to be late in returning to work.”

 

Illia laughed and smirked at his words.

 

“And such a stickler for rules!” she teased.

 

Brother took a moment to formulate his next sentence, picking his words very carefully.

 

“I used to believe that most large systems founded upon rules were exquisitely designed and while many were less than perfect, most that had been able to maintain their form could be built upon or at the very least salvaged from within.” 

 

Lady Illia tugged on his arm gently then, indicating that they would need to turn, reminding him who was really leading.  And Brother obeyed, turning them into the hallway they had just reached.

 

She considered his words.

 

“And?” she said, encouraging him to complete his thought.

 

“Now I know that, despite appearances, many rule sets, while built with good intentions, are unsalvageable after they have reached a point where those original intentions are no longer recognizable in the current implementation of said rules.  And that the only rules set created that is impervious to this is that of The Church, as they were created by the infallible Lord, God, and delivered to us by the Enlightened One, High Lord and President Pai.  And that we are lucky to have him.”

 

She laughed.  This would have worried Brother; he had flown quite close to the truth with that diatribe, but it was clear that this was an amused sound, not one of malice or contempt.  Still, Brother observed her response carefully.

 

She tugged him to the left and he began to move them in that direction.

 

“That is why I love you Ezze.  You are such an interesting conversationalist.  Everyone is always terrified of me and what I could do to them if they displeased me, so it is always a wonderful breath of fresh air to speak with someone as candid as you.  You are honest with me, aren’t you Ezze?”

 

She held his gaze, then, inquiring, searching for any sign of deception.  Brother remained outwardly stoic as always.  He held his non-expression for a moment and then let a plain, gently warm smile open up his features.

 

“Of course I am, Mistress.  But you must be aware, that even if I wasn’t, I would most certainly NOT tell you, as doing so would be admitting to a most grievous sin and punishable offense.”

 

This took Lady Illia back for a moment. Her face blanched and she seemed distressed.  Had he taken it too far?  But then the confusion faded into a chuckle and a smile, and then Lady Illia was laughing so openly that she dropped her hand and clutched her stomach.  Brother smiled as well.  She was quite right.  It was terrible to have to keep your shields up at all times.  It was great to be open, if just for a second, even if it was with your direct oppressor.  And so they both laughed.

 

After a moment Lady Illia regained herself.  She brushed aside a strand of her long hair which had loosed itself during her mirth, and she gently placed her hand against Brothers lower back and began to guide him forwards.

 

“You are a true delight, in every sense of the word, Brother Ezze.  But we have reached our intended destination.  Follow me up to the glass will you?” she said, letting her hand drop back to her side. 

 

He did as he was bade and he found himself looking down through a long panel of two-way glass into a chamber he had never seen before.  Brother rarely came into this part of the building, so he was not entirely sure what he was looking at, but he was sure that it wasn’t good; they had entered the section of the building devoted to Discipline.

 

The glass they were looking through was all along the wall in this section of the hallway for about 30 feet in each direction.  The room it looked down into was equal parts decadent and sterile.  There was a large machine in the center of the chamber, something that resembled an iron lung that would fully enclose anyone who entered it.  The device resembled a large mechanical sarcophagus with gigantic canisters feeding into it from behind and a bevy of pipes like metal veins forcing their way deep into the grey tiled floor. 

 

The walls were only slightly less dark in color than the floor and it was clear that the room was originally designed after those used in the medical field with hospital architecture specifically in mind, only the whole design was even less enticing, somehow more angular and brutal than purely sterile.  The floors looked as though they were designed to facilitate easy clean ups after the room had fulfilled its intended purpose.  And yet, besides the machine which was clearly positioned as the centerpiece of the room, much else therein drew the eye.

 

There was clean padding placed on the floor in the five feet in front of the sarcophagus, and religious iconography plastered the walls and tables.  Specifically, there were four large stained glass windows taking up a decent amount of the wall space on either side of the doors in the room.  They appeared to depict a version of the Resurrection tale. 

 

In what was presumably intended as the first image, the one on the left closest to their stretch of glass wall, there was a picture of Jesus Christ, the Lord and about to be Saviour rendered through stained glass mosaic in all of his humble magnificence, down on both knees, his hands braced in all mighty devotion atop a small prayer bench, with a glorious beam of light shining down on him from Heaven above.  The next one showed Jesus upon the cross, Spear puncturing his side and all, with light now shining down on him from directly above.  The third image was harder to interpret, but in the context of the Resurrection tale, it was obviously intended to be a gigantic boulder having been rolled to the side of Christ’s now empty cave tomb.  The last image was, of course, the Lord Arisen, Jesus Christ, now with a halo over his head in addition to the light from Heaven, walking through a crowd of outstretched hands.

 

As they reached the glass and began to peer in Lady Illia began to speak to Brother.

 

“Do you know what truly separates those on the Path of the Lord and those just within his Light, Ezze?”

 

She was fishing for a specific answer.  So Brother considered potentials as they both gazed idly into the room below.

 

 

 

“Faith.” he chose.

 

“Hah.  A good guess, but no, not quite.  Many of those within the rank and file of the Church are the most ardent believers in our Leader and our Cause.  No, the real thing that separates those outside the body of the organization and those within is devotion.”

 

“As we spoke of moments ago, Ezze, when you get to be in a position like mine it can be quite difficult to tell who is being honest with you.  And also, when you are in a position like mine, you sometimes think about who will replace you when you have finished your work here in this mortal realm and you have been allowed to join the Lord, God, in the eternal bliss of Heaven.”

 

Lady Illia, now in the full grips of her impassioned speech turned to Brother, and gently grasped his hands in her own, locking eyes with him, as she reached the peak of fervor.

 

“Sometimes I think that that person could be you, Brother Ezze.  But then I wonder if that truly would be a good choice.”

 

As though to punctuate the sincerity of her doubt, she looked down momentarily dropping her gaze to their enfolded hands.

 

“For as wonderful as you have been to me as an assistant, and as amusing as I find you as a person I cannot seem to pin down your devotion.  I trust you, of course, or you would certainly not even have the position that you hold now, but for you to truly become my worthy successor, and the right hand of our High Lord and Commander in Chief, A.j. Pai, and you do want to become my successor one day, don’t you Ezze?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“For that to happen, Ezze, you must prove yourself.  And the only way that one can truly prove the mettle of their faith is through a powerful act of devotion.  Do you understand me, Ezze?”

 

And at these words she looked down, briefly, at the sarcophagus at the center of the other room.

 

“I… I do.”  He didn’t.  But an affirmative was clearly expected of him.

 

“Excellent.” 

 

Her smile was a saccharin fever, that gave her eyes a look not entirely sane.  Brother took in the entirety of her expression and then the work bell rang signaling the end of lunch.

 

“Good.  I’ll be leaving you here Ezze.  I hope you can find your way back to your office easy enough.  Think on it.  Take your time, and truly think on it.”

 

She dropped her hands from his, turned, and walked back the way they had come.

 

Brother stood, unmoving, processing everything that had just been said, combing through the webs of subtext and hidden meaning.  And then he moved back to the window, placing his left hand on the glass as he focused on the machine within.  He did not know what it did.  And he was not entirely sure what she had meant.  But both left him feeling heavy, inside a cloud of dark foreboding.

 

Kumail fit the Nerdy hacker stereotype pretty well.  He wasn’t particularly fond of exercise and he could never have been described as athletic.  He had always, since puberty, been known as a lanky potato-faced half-Pakistani dude, and he had never found the description to be that far from the truth.  But Kumail had always loved to climb things and he had been pretty decent at it during his younger years.

 

Much to the dismay of his teachers, in high school, he had crawled over the protective enclosure of the ladder which led up to the school theatres cat walk and slowly jumped down, from one piece of thin metal to the next, solely for his own amusement.  While he was no longer a spry youth, he was still fairly stringy, and the years of practice had served him well in scaling the safety enclosure which was supposed to prevent him from using the ladder that lead to the roof of the building across the street from the Church facility holding his son.

 

Brother had sent him the location of the place within half an hour of their conversation and since the place was only a few hours’ drive upstate Kumail had gotten into Marie’s car and headed there immediately.  With the location Brother had also included the useful factoid that passcodes were changed with every shift, and so, Kumail had quietly set himself up on this roof across the street, waiting for someone to enter the facility so he could capture their keypad input on his phones camera.  The shift change would be happening any minute, and so all Kumail had to do was grab the code of the first entrant and wait till most of the employees had come and gone and then sneak himself in, unnoticed.

 

The facility was oddly designed.  It looked like a modern concrete high school built as a prison in the 1800’s.  Not that there had ever been such a thing.  What he was looking at was almost a single solid square chunk of brutalist concrete stitch together by cold metal bracing beams and walkways. 

 

The facility was just a few squat buildings connected by covered cement sidewalks around a utilitarianly miniscule square of a courtyard in the center with one building on each side.  The buildings to either side of the thing were long and rectangular, almost barracks like, which is probably what they were.  The building at the back of the square had a similar design to the barracks but it had more windows and was two stories tall, likely the classrooms.  Which made the building out front the main office.  It was a squat square construcion allowing entrance via a broken concrete sidewalk which led to the fence and the keypad he was looking for the code too.

 

The whole thing was made even stranger in that there was nothing else around it.  The four buildings were placed in a kempt field at the edge of the business district of the small town it was located in.  There was a fence separating it from the road that went for at least a mile in each direction and enclosed the facility and the field it was in.  Behind all of this was a patch of woods, which extended away from the facility and the town for as far as the eye could see.  Weird.  At least Kumail thought it was weird. But then he often found LDC layouts and designs to be strange.

 

And at last his time had come.  A fourty something Church person had gone up to the fence shortly after he had set up and he had nabbed the code.  6 hours later after all the day staff had had a chance to leave and the night was well underway and he was in.  But where was his son?

 

After sneaking inside and around the perimeter, Kumail had made his way to the barracks like building on the right.  Now inside, he found himself in long hall like room full of sleeping children.  His son must be close by.  But not here.  Theodore clearly wouldn’t have been placed in here.  This room was full of slightly older children, all the kids between the toddlers and preteens from the looks of it.  So Kumail turned to leave, intending to check the room on the other side of the hallway.  But as he did so, now standing no more than a foot away from the door, he heard the double doors he had entered the building through swing wide, and he froze in place.

 

Two pairs of footsteps echoed on the linoleum floor quickly moving towards the door right in front of Kumail.  Both mercifully both stopped right outside.  Kumail exhaled, and quickly, but now, silently, clapped his hands to his face.  Again, mercifully, the people outside didn’t appear to have heard him.  They were talking.

 

The door was heavy wood and muffled what they were saying but Kumail was just barely able to make out what the men were saying.

 

“Do we have to?”

 

“Yeah we do.”

 

“But I hate walking through there.  I mean, at least I do at night.  The kids are all right during the day but with the moonlight bouncing off of their pale skin.  It just creeps me out.”

 

What the fuck were they talking about?  Kumail looked over his shoulder and was immediately struck by just how apparent it actually was. 

 

The room was divided into two rows of six beds, half placed head first against the interior wall, and the other half with their heads against the exterior wall.  It was exactly as the one guy had said; with the top third of the exterior wall being fitted with large rectangular windowpanes across its entire length, the beds and the room at large were illuminated by the eerie nocturnal light, made all the stranger by the situation, and amped up tenfold by the children.  Around half of them seemed to be perfectly normal but the others…. randomly scattered amongst the sleeping children were albino kids.  But no.  That wasn’t quite right.  As he stared at the unnaturally pale child in the bed right next to him he thought maybe it was Vitiligo…. But why would the church be collecting children with a skin condition?  Plus this kid…. the poor bastard almost looked like he had been dipped in bleach.  There wasn’t a spot of color on him.  The one guard could not have known how right he was.  For Kumail, in this particular circumstance and in this particular situation, with the amassed pale kids sleeping peacefully behind him, these captured ghost children illuminated by spotty moonlight as the guards ignorantly chatted away feet from him.  Yeah.  Whatever was going on here seemed sinister as fuck.    

 

“Well that’s too bad.  You know they’ve got this place wired and if somehow they found out that we had shirked our duties and they checked the footage…..

 

No.  Oh no.  They were coming into the room.  What

 

The door was beginning to open.  There was no time to think.

 

Kumail dropped to the floor, trying to make as little noise as possible and wriggled under the nearest bed.  Just in time.

 

The boots of the two men moved within inches of his supine face as they entered the room and proceeded down the aisle.  After the one making such a show of his reluctance, it seemed that the by the books staffer was having them to take their time with whyever they had entered this room lest the record show that he was in anyway complicit in his partners sloth.

 

Kumail tried his best to be still and silent. He was afraid that if he tried to hold his breath he would explode before the men had left and so, he methodically made his inhalations slow and shallow.  Trying to focus on the sound of their boots and not the pounding of his blood and brain.  Unable to do either, he focused in on his breathing, counting each intake and each breathe out. 

 

And then they were gone.  How long had he been under this bed?  A thousand years?  Surely not.  It was still clearly the middle of the night.  But he was sure that he had heard a door close.  Still, he laid where he was, a sleeping child mere feet above him as he listened for the boots to return.

 

When they didn’t, Kumail shimmied out from under the bed and pressed himself up against the door that the Church lackeys had entered through.  There was a small pane of Plexiglas uptop, meant more for quickly looking in on the children then for spying on the other end of the hallway, but by mashing his nose directly into the glas and gripping the door frame for everything he was worth, Kumail was able to get a decent view of the other end of the hall without moving the door.

 

The two men were standing at the end of the hallway, still chatting.  And chatting.  And still chatting.  Kumail’s hands were beginning to get sweaty and his hold on the doorframe was beginning to loosen.  Just as he was beginning to legitimately become concerned that the two Churchmen would never leave, they pressed their way through the double doors at the end of the hallway and out into the night.  Kumail let himself down and began to breathe normally anew.

 

At long last, he made his way across the hall and into the other room and found himself in what was surely the place he had been looking for the entire time.  There were dozens of babies, all sleeping in their own individual medical style cradles, the room was something like a less welcoming version of a hospitals nursery.  Theodore didn’t jump out at him from amongst the dozens of swaddled and surprisingly silent bundles and so Kumail got to work, checking the name tags on the front of the individual baby cradles.

 

They didn’t appear to be alphabetical, as one might expect, and so, half an hour later, in the middle of the room, Kumail finally came across his child.  The name tag red Alvarez, Teddy.  Kumail found this surprisingly touching.  She had submitted him under their pet name, not his legal name.  Still.  She had submitted him.  But here he was, a beautiful little sleeping bundle gently laid into a small medical style container, the two of them reunited at long last.  Kumail leaned forward and scooped up his sleeping child.  Teddy, sniffled, wriggled, and then began to cry, his tiny caramel face distorting into a wailing siren.

 

Momentarily taken aback by the abrupt change in his newborn, he stood there, awkwardly, holding his child in what he thought was supposed to be the standard picking-up-a-baby position Kumail stared at the squalling blue bundle he was now holding.  And then the rest of the room started.

 

Teddy’s cries had awakened some of the nearer children, who had in turn started to bawl, which woke up even more children until in an astonishingly short time the whole room was shrieking at the top of its lungs.  Fuck. 

 

Kumail had to move.  Someone would surely be coming to check on this calamity of screaming infants any moment now, and if they hadn’t realized someone had been in here and taken Teddy they would eventually.  Kumail held his child close to his chest and ran as fast as he could towards the door he had entered through.  It was a shitty plan, it wasn’t really a plan, but all Kumail could think to do now was to run as hard and as fast as he could towards and through the growth of woods that bordered the property.  He took a moment at the door, gathered himself for what he was about to do and pushed the door aside with his shoulder.

 

At the same time he could barely make out, through the torrent of infant cries, the door opening at the other end of the room, with heavy footfalls entering just as he exited.  Kumail spun and pushed his foot against the door.  He caught it before it could begin to swing wildly and balancing on his other foot slowly let the door back to its neutral position inside the door frame.  If he was lucky whomever had just entered the baby room wouldn’t realize that someone had just exited.  And if he was REALLY lucky no one would be watching the cameras, and since the babies where still squalling it would take them a moment to quite them down and he would have a small head start on his pursuers.

 

Kumail turned and burst out into the night.  He ran and ran until his body couldn’t move another inch and he finally stopped.  He sunk down to the ground with his back against a tree, resting his child on the ground beside him.  They were both, now, nearly insensate.  Teddy had stopped squalling at some point, either tuckered out by his efforts or the frigid night air.  Kumail’s breathing was ragged, small jets of fire jettisoned from his lungs every few seconds creating icy puffs of smog in the air in front of him.

 

He was sure that they hadn’t escaped completely, someone would eventually realize Teddy had been taken after all, but he was also confident that they hadn’t been immediately followed and that he could take a break to rest and recuperate.  There had been no screams from over his shoulders, no hard foot falls in the night behind them, and he hadn’t seen anyone in his occasional sidelong glances back from whence they came.  So there was that.  He laughed a little as his breathe started to come easier. And then he noticed that his breathe was glowing green.  It was gone with the white puff of smoke.  He looked around unable to locate this new colors source.  Had he been imagining it?  Had the intense effort of escape made him adrenaly delirious?  He tried to replicate what he had seen.  He exhaled heavily, attempting to produce a particularly large cloud of condensation.  And there it was.  A line of green inside the white.  He did it a third time, now more curious then anything.  And this time he jumped up.  Because Kumail realized what he was seeing. 

 

He frantically searched the tree in front of him in full panic mode once again, and there it was.  About ten feet up, there was a camera pointing down at him.  He grabbed his child off the forest floor, starting him crying all over again and the two bolted away deeper into the woods, away from the motion detector they had set off, as the snow began to fall and dog howls were heard behind them.

 

 

300 eons of subjective time later Kumail stood at the edge of the woods, looking down the small hill in front of him to a shitty little gas station perched on its own tiny barge of concrete next to a….. highway?  Kumail couldn’t be sure.  He had no idea where he was; he barely had a grasp on where he had been.  He had rushed to the Church facility, taking with him only what he had on him at the time and Kumail was beginning to worry that that had been a mistake.

 

He had rushed here as soon as he had the centers location because he had to; he had already failed his son, in multiple ways and it was very possible that things would have gone different if he hadn’t spent all that time after the raid in D.C. data mining all of his imprisoned comrades computers, trying to make all of that failed effort worth something and trying to dodge the cops who were surely looking for him while dredging up false identities and an escape plan for himself, Marie, and Teddy.  

 

Maybe if he had been with her in those months or even just legitimately checked in with her, to tell her he was ok and that he would make things right, maybe then she wouldn’t have given Teddy away to the LDC.  Maybe he could have stopped her, or convinced her not to give their child to the organization he had been fighting against for forever now.  Maybe if he had been there he could have done something or maybe him being around would have been enough to prevent him and his son from getting into their current situation….. or maybe it wouldn’t have; he couldn’t know.   But the goons from the Church center had been relentless, they had given chase all night, and Kumail was sure that the only reason he had not yet been caught was due to his meager head start.  That and the fact that Churchmen weren’t trying as hard as they could was all that separated Kumail and Teddy from recapture.  Still, it had been a profoundly difficult night.

 

Running through a pitch black forest with no illumination aside from the beams of light pursuing him and ducking from every formless shadow that came at him from behind a tree he was genuinely surprised they had made it through the night.  And as hard as the flight had been what had almost been worse was the cold through which he’d done it.  Having only a mild jacket to protect himself as the temperature plummeted with the onset of the night, Kumail had begun to shake, his body heat slowly being absorbed by the frigid air around him.  And if he was cold, he could only imagine what Teddy was going through.  So, Kumail had tucked his jacket into his pants, and his pants into his boots, zipped his jacket up three-quarters of the way and gently nestled his bundled infant into the inside of this impromptu baby carrier.  Teddy settled right above his waistline and after a couple of minutes the awkwardness of the situation began to fade.  Kumail had done this to protect Teddy from the elements but was surprised to find that his child’s warmth so close to his own body was quite the welcome reprieve from the cold.

 

Now, holding Teddy in his arms again as he looked out over the edge of the woods, down a hill and towards the cracked concrete of a dingy little gas station below and in front of them, snow gently falling but never quite settling to the ground as the dawn light blossomed across the grey morning sky Kumail looked once more to his child.  And his child sniffled and coughed.  And then he coughed again.  And Kumail became very worried about the results of this entire endeavor.

 

Would he actually be able to find help in this gas station?  Could he possibly hope for a way out of this situation, or would whatever people where around down there turn him in as soon as the Church people caught up to him?

 

Drowning in doubt and paranoia and fading away into the dreamlike anxiety of this peculiarly busy cloud of thoughts the only thing that stopped Kumail from giving into sleep during this brief moment of standing still after an entire night of nothing but running, was a horrible, horrible sound from somewhere off in the woods behind him.

 

Echoing towards him through the trees Kumail was ripped from his unintentional reverie by the bark of a happy sounding dog followed by an inaudible conversation punctuated by men laughing.  Kumail whipped around to face his pursuers but there was no one there, at least not yet.  The search party must still have been some distance off, but if he could hear them again that meant they were closing in.  And that meant Kumail was out of time and options.  He grasped his child tightly to him and scrambled down towards the business in front of him at the bottom of the hill.

 

Kumail, fueled by little more than adrenaline at this point, mounted the pavement and made his way to the front of the building.  He looked up past the beige piece of crumbling plastic and plaster to the red and white sign displaying the Ramshack company logo affixed to the top of the thing and.   It had an eagle on it.  A bird flapping its way out of the red of the lettering, it was depicted in the middle of its powerful flap just as it was about to fly away and into the sky, a symbol of all that was good in this world the beauty of the slightly translucent bird calling to Kumail beckoning him back to sleep and, staring at the sign blankly, wrapped in the pleasantly seductive folds of his own exhaustion precious seconds ticked by around him

 

until:

 

“Hey.  Over here.  He’s got to have gone into that gas station. There’s nowhere else he could have gone”

 

This horrible truth, pronounced from on high, at the top of the hill Kumail had just descended brought him back.  What had he been doing?  A sign?  He

 

He started to hear other voices join the first, people with dogs, men complaining about even having to bother climbing down a hill.  And that was enough; Kumail no longer had time for delusion.  He forced, his feet, to move.  And he pushed in through the doors of the gas station.  What could he use in here?  How could he fight?

 

To his right.  A counter.  Shit everywhere.  Products everywhere.  But a person.  Maybe, possibly, not a Church person?

 

Kumail clomped over towards them, one barely felt foot fall after another.  His child was mewling now, crying?  No.  Sniffling.  Yet again. Was Teddy getting sick?  Was his son going to be ok?  Would Kumail?

 

“Sir?”

 

Kumail had never felt this tired before.

 

It was almost pleasant, this overwhelming emptiness.  He could fall asleep anywhere.  Doing anything.  Sleep sounded so nice.

 

“Sir?”

 

The person in front of him, the one with the heavy Southern accent.  They were trying to get his attention.  But why?

 

Kumail moved his half-closed peepers away from the face of his child at a truly glacial pace. 

 

“Next time you and all your family want to have a little get together at this piece of shit gas station, I’d suggest you all take cars.  We got a semi-functional parking lot out front and while it ain’t purty it’s sure as hell one heck of a lot easier than scrabblin down the hill and comin in the back way.”  The words of the store’s employee hit him long before their meaning did.  Only once his tired eyes noticed that the person in front of him was pointing out the window and to the parking lot from whence he came did he finally understand.

 

The window.  They were pointing out the

 

WINDOW!

 

“OH MY GOD!” Kumail shouted as realization set his brain ablaze.

 

The shock of understanding pulled his adrenaline lever dumping the very last of his epinephrine reserves, giving him just enough of a chemical boost to reinitiate his movement.  Kumail turned and began stumbling away from the counter, confirming through his blurry peripheral vision that, indeed, the party the store person had been talking about was the one that was chasing him.  He had to get out of here.  He had to go.  He was stomping his way…. away?  But to where exactly?  Kumail couldn’t be sure anymore.  Not that he ever had been.  He was going away.  Away from the churchmen obviously, but

 

“The bathroom.  On your right!”

 

What a wonderful Southerner.  Of course!  Kumail and Teddy could hide in the BATHROOM!  It WAS Sooooo obvious.  The LDC Goons were way too stupid to look in there!  Brilliant. 

 

“No, the bathroom is to your right, Sir!”

 

And so it was.  He had stumbled past the double doors which opened into the gas station lobby from outside, which the Churchies were maybe 50 feet away from now.  Could they see him yet? 

 

Bathroom was on his right.  Who new?

 

Kumail was inside it.  Lacking all grace and tact, more dead at this point than tired, his limp hands attached to his dreaming brain barely managed to rotate the knob, but it had turned and he was inside, and he and his son were safe, slumping against the wall a foot into a partially closed bathroom. 

 

Then the bell atop the door into that gas station rang.  Four times. 

 

But Kumail was floating now.  The light of the bathroom fading back into that pre-gray dawn color, the tiles, a similar hue, blurring together and fading out until the lines were no more.  There were no clouds and no sky, no bathroom, and no baby, Kumail’s eyes were neither closed nor open and all that now remained was a faded neutral illumination; The empty light at the end of an endless night.

 

“We’re sorry to bother you…uh …. Sir.  But we are representatives of the most glorious Latter Day Church and we are here in pursuit of a very dangerous criminal.  Might you have happened to see a man of middle-eastern descent carrying a small child in blue swaddling, which he’s kidnapped by the way, stumbling through your parking lot? Or he might uv maybe even entered your store when you weren’t looking?  Have you seen anyone like that?”

 

“O. Sure did.”

 

Fuck.  Again, he was fucked.  That Southerner had fucked him.

 

“He got in a car and drove away a minute or two before ya’ll got here.”

 

With this came a soft and prolonged

 

siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

 

The clerk wasn’t fucking Kumail, they were covering for him.  Amazing, A MAY ZING!  Kumail would have to thank them once he woke up. 

 

Kumail’s baby coughed.  Surely not in agreement.  Poor little Teddy.  He must be really getting sick.  Kumail would have to check on that whenever Kumail got back.  But wait.  He couldn’t sleep.  The guys.  The Church    guys….. they were right outside.  He had to wait until they left, he had to tuff it out.  4 the kid!

 

cough cough

 

Someone’s facial muscles had contorted into an expression of discontent and concern below eyes that were now far too heavy to control

 

“Well….. Shit.”  This was the man who had asked the Clerk for information about Kumail.  And he sounded as upset as Kumail was tired.

 

A moment’s hesitation then there was a general shuffling as the Churchers turned to each other to consider what to do.  Someone who hadn’t spoken yet was the first to ask “What do we do now, Sir?”

And almost before the leader of the posse could begin to make sounds in response, the voice of the Clerk came, moving towards the men from behind the counter where they had presumably been standing this whole time.

 

“I’ve got a suggestion if y’all’d be willing to hear me out.”

 

Such a sweetly twanged voice from such a wonderful person.  Whoever they were the space man floating in nothing a few feet away hoped they knew what they were doing.  Kumail….. Kumail, hoped they knew what they were doing.

 

“All right.  Watchya got?” asked the posse leader.

 

“Well.  Frankly, ya’ll look almost as haggard as that fella who hitchhiked his way out of my lot.  Have ya’ll been chasin him all night?  Through the snow and all that?”

 

“That’s right, Miss.” the leader answered as the goons affirmed.

 

“Seems to me that ya’ll hardworking Churchmen deserve some refreshment and reprieve.  I’ve always been one for supportin the Church

 

“As well you should be.” A new member of the posse interjected.  His cohorts snickered in agreement.

 

“Of course, of course.  But my point is ya’ll have been trekkin around through the wind and snow all night and now your quarries escaped ya.  I’m not guaranteeing nothin, but if ya’ll’d be interested, I could brew up some fresh coffee and whatever kind of food you might like.  You and your men can sit down and rest up before headin back to wherever you came from and while I don’t know if there’s any real chance of this, I can check the footage from all of our cameras and see if any of em caught the license plate on that car what took your suspect away.  Whaddaya think?”

 

The leader laughed and there was a slight sound of shuffling as he turned to face his small crowd of companions.

 

“What do you say to that, men?” he asked.

 

And the group all shouted in simultaneous affirmation.

 

“Then it’s agreed.  And we thank you….. Faith.  What a charmingly appropriate name you are blessed with.  Thank you, Faith.”

 

“Anything to aide men of the cloth, sir.  I am sorry, but I’ll have to ask you to leave your dogs outside, you can tie em up to the bike rack if you like.”

 

In the bathroom the listener started.  Lulled by the pleasant lilt of the conversation and the calm that the gentle dark nothing of the small room gave him he had forgotten about the dogs.   

 

Kumail, had forgotten that they had dogs.

 

“Well..  I suppose that’ll be all right.  It’s warmin up now and we won’t stay too long.”

 

This. fucking. southerner!  Once again the previously forgotten dogs were a non-issue.  Faith was amazing.  For the first time in his life Kumail was glad that he had some, if only temporarily.

 

“Gentlemen.  If you’d just follow me, I have a few booths right over here with your names on em.”

 

Voices and shuffling followed the sounds of Faith as the stores attendant led the group of tired but pleased men deeper into the store and past the bathroom towards what was almost certainly the dining area of this particular pit stop.  These sorts of places are all more or less the same; small, occasionally cramped areas similar to the ones you would find inside a fast food restaurant featuring a smattering of tables topped with red epoxy resin, either in their own dedicated space or pressed up against the outside window or wall and placed wherever else tables could be bolted down in the spaces between one section of the store and another.  The door which was all that was separating the bathroom and the causeway leading to the dining area, was still slightly ajar and it swayed a little as each man in the small crowd passed it by on their way to the proffered respite and niceties.

 

Minutes passed by as the posse was heard through that small crack blowing off the stress of the nightlong chase, enjoying the pleasant change that being inside a heat controlled building offered and beginning to legitimately warm up once the store clerk returned with the promised coffee.

 

As the sounds of mild early morning conversation and yawns floated in and to the ears of the male fugitives sequestered in that semi-dark place barely five feet away from the group of churchmen tasked to hunt them, the meaning was lost as Kumail, who was no longer even aware that he was Kumail, was in the last stages of giving up consciousness, no longer clinging to his senses the man in the bathroom was barely even there.  Normally, he was given to the most prodigious types of constant concern, the type of person to check and recheck that his keys were in his pocket and that his computer was in his bag several times an hour, double, triple, and even quadruple checking that everything was where it was supposed to be, that he was definitely ok but now his brain was going through the last few checks on its nigh infinite list of things to do before the man on the floor could finally get some goddamned sleep. 

 

Under normal circumstances this particular individual would be quite concerned about the possibility that he and his child were about to be discovered by any of the men who had been tasked to capture them when they got up from their refreshing morning meal and strolling into what was potentially the only bathroom in this specific gas station happened to discover that their prey was taking a pleasant nap on the floor in front of him at which point, instead of taking a piss or a shit….. well….

 

he could no longer fight it, His mind was closing, shutting down, there was barely a He to be upset about it any more. 

 

Despite all of his usual paranoid planning and nearly neurotic tendencies Kumail Kakar was so… close to complete ego dissolution and the beauteous, neigh, HEAVENLY embrace of sleep that even though the bathroom door was open a full inch and a half the sounds of the no longer merely potential threat that was boots getting closer and closer to the bathroom door did not recall Kumail from dreams doorstep.

 

Nor did the words of the conversation taking place just on the other side of said door reach Kumail.  It was brief and worried, the gas station attendant once again inexplicably helping Kumail by biding for time.  But at last, but still, FAR too late, something began to rope Kumail back towards the shores of consciousness; his child coughing.

 

Then from directly outside the bathroom, he was yanked further back towards the shore:

 

“The fuck was that?!  That was a fucking baby’s cough!”

 

The head of the posse.  He had heard Teddy’s cough.  GodfuckingDamit…

 

The man’s hand was on the door.  The knob was being turned, despite the door not being locked or even closed, the man was yelling something, furious at having been deceived, he was ripping the door open and Kumail’s mind was an agony of sludge yet, he was awake now, no further chemical stimulation available Kumail was now conscious but only as one might be at the moment of initial stirring after a particularly heavy St Patrick’s day.  He couldn’t move and he couldn’t think but his brain had aroused him and Kumail was still alive.  He wanted to remain alive, he wanted to do something, something to protect his son and himself, but there was no. longer. Any. Time!

 

Kumail stared in horror as the door was ripped asunder and the blinding rays of the morning sun exploded into the bathroom along with the shriek of a dying harpy from about his victorious pursuer.  Blinded by the brightness, the man appeared as a large bulky shadow, a vision of malice and doom sent to this moment in time to ruin the visionless wretch yelling on the bathroom floor below him.  Kumail, clutching his child, who was now also screaming, as tightly as he could muster stared up into the slowly materializing face of the hideous entity before him.  The man was so filled up with feelings of hateful triumph that he was beginning to spasm, his mouth twitching upwards as viscous spittle formed around its cracked edges.  Then the spasms over took him fully so powerful were his emotions of mirth.  Kumail was sure he was about to burst out into chest spasming Saturday morning villain type laughter.  But instead the man fell.  The giant figure crashed forwards onto its knees, still shaking, muscles twitching and eyes rolling up into his head which came to rest hard on the floor a mere foot from Kumail and at last he lay still.

 

Kumail didn’t understand.  He was about to be taken.  He was going to put his all into making sure that they couldn’t separate him from his child, even if it meant he would be killed, but now.  His would be captor lay motionless on the ground in front of him.  Had he gotten so excited that he had had a heart attack?  No.  Clearly not. 

 

Things outside of the dark bathroom were still a bit fuzzy, the rays of the morning sun muddled the natural colors of the outside world making the scene before Kumail all the more surreal.  Two wires protruded from the back of the downed man’s thick coat where they had punctured his clothing and entered his skin.  Kumail followed the wires which lead back to a small, gun like Taser held loosely in the shaking hands of Faith, the gas station attendant.

…….

 

Behind the gas station attendant sat the entire posse, all in varying states of discombobulation.  Many seemed to be nearly unconscious, with the rest appearing to be very, very drunk with their heads lolling back and their bodies completely slackened as they moaned and tried to move roughly from side to side. 

 

Faith stepped forwards, moving into the bathroom, dropping the Taser to the floor as they moved over the unconscious man in the doorway.  Faith knelt in front of Kumail trying to get down to his level.

 

“Are you all right down there?”

 

The Southerner was talking to Kumail.  He shook his head up and down giving a bewildered affirmative.  He must have fallen asleep.  This had to be a dream.  Things were no longer making sense.

 

“Well then.  Would ya like a ride on outta here?”

 

The southerner stood up as they asked the question, producing keys from a pocket and twirling them around a long, bony finger.

 

Faith extended his other hand to Kumail.  Thoroughly stunned by everything that had just happened, and drained from everything that had come before it Kumail was both extremely dazed, and thoroughly confused as his brain began to shut down yet again, DEMANDING he follow it into sleep.  But if his brain was trying to force him to sleep…. Then this probably was not in and of itself a dream…. Kumail, out of options and grateful to have someone who seemed to be more aware of what was actually happening and what could and should be done about it, grabbed the proffered arm at the wrist, Spartan style, and let this strange deus ex savior of a gas station employee help him to his feet and out into a medium sized sedan and FINALLY onto the road and away from his pursuers at what he hoped was not the top but rather the much less conspicuous legal speed; a problem which his empty mind and decimated body could no l0nger be bothayr 2

 
 
 

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