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It was still early afternoon. They set up the shower, rolled out the length of black tubing so it would lay in the sun and filled the reservoir with ice cold melt-water from the stream. They set up camp, found grazing for the llamas, and washed their clothes. Angela sent Jacob to take the first shower when the water was warm and took his clothes to the stream.

She rubbed soap into the worst of the stains and thought about her competing responsibilities. They needed to call for help. Should they go together? Should they head back down the mountain? Should she split them up? Should someone return to the crash site? Should they try to help the wounded there? Was it even possible to help someone with alien physiology? Was it? Could she leave them, knowing that they might be hurt, and count herself blameless because there was nothing she could do anyway? And what about germs? What about chemicals or radiation from the craft?

With a flash of panic she considered the topography. Probably... probably if there was radiation they would be safe. The plume of black smoke had been drifting the opposite direction from them. They also had a great deal of solid earth as a wall between them and the crash site. Probably... probably they were safe. Jesse and Ruth had been closer but the damage from radiation, unless it was a huge amount all at once, was cumulative. Tests could show if they'd been exposed.

"Mom?" Ruth held one of the maps and her GPS unit. Leah trailed behind her. Angela laid Jacob's socks out on a rock and gave the girls her attention.

"We think we've found out how to get a signal out." Ruth spread the map out on the ground. "Jesse wanted to try to rig a dipole and [do a McGyver to use the radios they had] but even he didn't think it had much chance of working. Assuming that only the one repeater is out, the nearest repeater is here," she pointed to a spot on the other side of the main peak, "so that's a bust. The next nearest is over here." She pointed again. "To get line of sight we have to get someone above this ridge."

"That's the other side of the valley we were in yesterday." Angela studied the map. "This," she ran her fingers along the closely spaced topo lines, "is the cliff face. Is there a way around it?"

Ruth flipped her braid back over her shoulder and exchanged a "look" with her sister. Leah shrugged. "Ruth thinks she should go alone. I think we should both go. We think we can get up over this part, it looks like the cliff sort of ends farther up. If we have to go all the way around it will take a couple of days. If we can find a way up sooner..." she shrugged.

Days.

Well it wasn't like she hadn't known that.

It was denial again, Angela supposed. But days... once the signal was out it would only take hours for help to arrive, assuming helicopters. Three days? They couldn't leave the people at the crash site for that long. They just couldn't.

"Ruth should go alone, I need you for radio relay here. After that repeater, where is the next one?"

Leah looked disappointed but indicated the direction of another repeater off the edge of the map. "The same ridge blocks it, but I don't think that any of our radios have the range to reach it."

"When do you want to go?"

"I want to shower." Ruth wrinkled her nose. "But I think I can reach our last camp tonight. My clothes won't be dry but I can hang them up again when I get there."

"Okay." Angela watched Ruth walk away then turned to Leah. "I think we need to go back to make sure the pilot ejected. I still don't want you or Deborah or Jacob to see the crash, particularly if the pilot was still in it, but if Jesse and I go I need you to be here. Deborah isn't old enough to be responsible for Jacob all by herself, but the two of you should be able to manage. Plus, you can use the radio and Deborah can't. We'll need you here to sit on the ridge so we can all keep in touch."

"Okay, Mom. Sounds like a plan." Leah didn't sound enthused, but then, what kid would? Angela wasn't enthused either. In fact, her gut had developed into a cold hard stone that threatened to shift to nausea. Leaving her three youngest wasn't a matter of a short trip and a return. When she and Jesse reached the crash site she knew that they would find the pilot, alive and too injured to be moved and have to stay there.

Or that would be her story.

She was tempted to go alone. What did it matter if she caught some alien bug or got radiated or soaked up some toxic chemical? It didn't feel quite right, though. If she could do anything useful, she could probably not do it alone. Failing to bring another set of eyes and ears, another strong back, she couldn't quite convince herself it was a good idea. She just hoped that she wasn't radiating her future grandchildren out of existence.

She'd make him stay back, though, if she possibly could.

At the very back of her mind was what would happen when the government arrived. They'd be concerned with contamination as well, and not simply biological or chemical. So far she could claim that her three youngest had had no contact worth worrying about. Separating both Jesse and Ruth from the others as soon as possible could only help her convince their rescuers to take the younger kids home.

"Chuck," she murmured, alone again and back to washing socks. "I know you wish you were here but I'm so very glad you're not. I'm going to need you to take care of my babies. Maybe for a very long time."

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Morning was pristine, but noisy. Zeus had treed a critter of some sort and was barking. Jesse and Ruth were fighting over breakfast, Ruth demanding something more than sourdough pancakes and Jesse finally agreeing to wrap them around some rehydrated freeze dried sausage.

Rehydrated freeze dried sausage. Ugh.

"Jesse!" Angela unzipped her sleeping bag and dug around for her socks. "Make mine without the sausage." She found the rest of her clothes and pulled them on quickly. Jacob was still asleep. She left him in the tent and crawled out to find a bush.

Pancakes for six people with one frying pan took time. Deborah was eating when Angela came up to the fire with her cup to get water for her hot chocolate. Ruth was taking down her pup tent and packing her stuff. Leah was rolling up her sleeping bag. Someone had fed Zeus. Jesse finished the next pancake and called to Leah to eat, and so it went.

Angela finished her chocolate and woke Jacob. She was done packing for the two of them by the time Jesse called her to eat.

They packed everything and prepared to load the llamas. Angela checked her radio, they'd gained a bit of altitude yesterday afternoon, still no signal. She looked up to find Jesse checking his hand held. He shook his head. They weren't reaching the repeater. Maps and GPS units came out to plan the day's hike.

Leah ran her finger along the penciled in line. "There should be water here. At least I hope."

Jesse agreed. "We know there's water down below that point. This early in the year it should be wet for a long way."

"A couple hours, do you think?" Ruth looked from one of them to the other. "Do we have time to set up the shower?"

"We'll see." Angela studied the map. "It depends on how steep this part is. I think we'll want to get up to here," she pointed to a spot opposite the stream where the topography lines were farther apart, "before late afternoon."

Leah was tapping at her GPS unit. Angela watched her get up and dig though her pack to find extra batteries. "Leave the power on?"

"Yeah," Leah admitted. "I think the batteries are dead." She removed the old batteries and put in the new ones. "Still doesn't work."

Angela took the unit and turned it over in her hands. She turned it on and off, nothing happened. "I think we have the receipt at home still. It sure seems like it's broken."

"Good thing we have two more." Leah frowned at the dead GPS. "Hate to have to use nothing but Jacob's compass."

"True." Angela checked hers just to be sure. It worked fine. She turned it off again. They'd been using the one Ruth carried while they planned their route, so she knew that one was good.

They made good time climbing the rest of the way up the South slope of the valley. The South slope, of course, faced North and slightly East. It was shaded, cool, and green. As they topped the crest the world changed. They could have been in a different state. This side baked in the sun.

The ground was bare rock and gravel between clumps of prickly pear, pinon and yucca. The prickly pear cactus was in full bloom, dozens of huge yellow flowers covered each plant. Jesse got his camera out to take pictures as Jacob enthused over all the different kinds of bees crawling over the petals.

"Mom?" It was Deborah. "Mom? Look over there. Is that smoke?"

It was smoke.

A thin plume of greasy black wound up into the sky. Angela keyed her radio. Nothing. She frowned. "Leah? Get the map out. Find the location of the nearest repeater."

Leah tied her llama to a scraggly bush and got out the maps. Ruth brought her GPS unit and the two of them poured over the paper, marking locations and drawing a long thin line with a pencil.

"This ridge?"

"8700 feet."

"That one?"

"Only 7200."

"This one?"

"That's not a ridge, it's a ravine."

"Huh."

"Mom, we have line of sight to the repeater."

Jesse, Ruth and Leah keyed their radios. One by one they shook their heads. "No signal." Ruth keyed a sequence and each of the other radios beeped. "It's not our radios." She looked up. "Could the repeater be down?"

"Must be." Angela rubbed her forehead. "We can keep trying. I'm sure they're working on getting it fixed."

Leah rotated the map and peered at it. "Maybe we can reach a different repeater."

Angela went back to looking at the smoke. It seemed to be lessening. If she hadn't known where to look she wouldn't have been able to see it.

"Lets make our way down to the stream," she said. "Jesse and I can climb the other side and maybe get a better look while the rest of you set up the shower and fill the empty water bottles. Be sure to mark them! We'll plan on a short day today. I want to find out what that smoke is." Not a wood fire from other campers, that she was sure of. At least not unless they were burning old car tires.

The way down was a jumble of loose stones and plants that thought that needles and knives were leaves. They had to stop twice for first aid. Jacob had lost his balance and reached out only to pierce his hand on a yucca spine. Leah had slipped, landed on her butt, and put her forearm into a prickly pear. Only three spines had stuck but when they pulled them out the wound had bled. Angela's sweet and angelic children took the opportunity to write "Turn Back Or Die" on the flat surface of a rock with human blood.

The ravine held a flowing stream.

Pinon and cactus gave way to gamble oak, box elder, and drifts of half-grown rudbeckia. The rudbeckia would bloom in August, setting off the green-gold of fall leaves with its own long, twisted, yellow petals. This early in the year clematis vines were beginning to set their mauve buds and wine red penstemon clustered in the shade, leaving the sun to clumps of purple iris. Painted Ladies fluttered to spots of sun along the moist edge of the stream and away again.

"Mom?" Ruth and Jesse had caught up with the rest of them. Ruth held the lead rope of her llama out to Angela. "We think that Jesse and I should go, instead of Jesse and you. We can be up and back more quickly."

Angela looked from one to the other and then at the younger of her children who had found a log that spanned the stream and were trying to coax Zeus into walking across it.

Probably the smoke was nothing. Probably. But of the things that it could be, most of them weren't good. She sighed.

"Okay, look. I want you both to be very careful. If it's a forest fire, even if it seems to be out it could flare up. Fires move as fast as the wind. If it's people it could just be campers burning something foul, plastic or something. Don't introduce yourselves. If you see people, just come back. It could be people who aren't campers. The maps don't show a road there... it doesn't mean that there isn't one. The season is too short so I don't think it would be someone growing weed but it could be survivalist wackos." Sure, it was ages ago, but Angela remembered the news story about a "Mountain Man" who'd kidnapped a woman jogger to be his son's wife. She wasn't about to discount the possibility of psychos. "If it's survivalists they've got guns and maybe boobie traps." She stopped. The both of them had just gone glassy eyed. She sighed.

"Okay, fine, your Mother is paranoid. Just be careful, stay together, and don't approach anyone. Okay?"

"Sure, Mom."

"Don't go out more than an hour before heading back."

"We won't."

They decided to travel light, leaving backpacks behind and taking only water and snacks in addition to radios, GPS, pistols, and a map. Jesse put his Gerber multi-tool on his belt and Ruth added her hunting knife and sheath opposite her holster. Jesse had his camera and Ruth got the binoculars from Jacob, who complained.

Angela watched them go. If she couldn't handle them going off on their own now, how would she handle it when they were in their own apartments in a strange city? They bounded up the opposite side of the ravine, a race to the top, Jesse's long legs against the training Ruth had been doing at altitude to prepare for boot camp. Angela watched them until they disappeared from sight.

When they weren't back in two hours Leah climbed out of the ravine with her radio. "They're fine, Mom," she said when she climbed down again. "They said they're about halfway here. They took pictures."

An hour later they were back. Instead of answering questions, Jesse handed Angela the camera. She turned it on and started flipping through the pictures. Cactus flowers, llamas, the rock with "Turn Back Or Die" on it. The next picture was of pine trees broken off halfway up their trunks followed by a picture that appeared to be tumbled boulders and a gouge in the earth and more broken pine trees.

Jesse tapped the camera and simply said, "Ponderosa." Angela adjusted her mental image of the scope of the destruction upward. Way upward. She continued through the pictures.

There was a picture of a torn piece of metal, a wing? Angela looked from Jesse to Ruth in sharp question. Were they so quiet because they'd found dead bodies? "An aircraft?"

Jesse shook his head, no. Ruth sniffed and said, "More or less."

As Angela went through the rest of the pictures she became calmer. It was denial, she knew, but anything that helped her to function was a good thing. Telling herself it was an experimental aircraft didn't work. Telling herself that those were humans in the spacesuits failed miserably. But it worked to tell herself that none of it was real. How odd was that?

"What is it, Mom?" Leah, Deborah and Jacob clustered around, frustrated that they couldn't see the display.

"It's a stealth fighter." She said the words as firmly as she could.

"What about the pilot?" Leah was trying to see over Angela's shoulder.

"Maybe the pilot ejected."

Leah had narrowed her eyes at Angela and Deborah looked like she wasn't buying the story either.

"You're lying to us." Deborah looked disgusted.

Angela looked down at Jacob and then significantly at Leah and Deborah. "It's a stealth fighter, probably a new model. Most likely it's a big secret. Probably it's very classified. If you don't see the pictures, then you can't accidentally tell what it looks like or tell anything about it. You won't know what is important and what isn't, but that doesn't mean that someone else can't use what you say."

"We wouldn't tell, Mom." Jacob looked up at her, entirely serious.

"I know sweetie." He was the only of her children still shorter than she was, and she knew it wouldn't last long. "Did I ever tell you about when your Dad and I were in the Air Force? We both had Top Secret clearances. That means they trusted us. Even though we almost never dealt with classified material, we never talked about that part of our jobs, not even in bed at night in whispers." She could feel the presence of Jesse and Ruth at her back, feel the intensity as they listened. "Not with each other. Not with anyone else. We knew not to ask questions like that."

"If you didn't know any secrets anyway, what difference would it make?" Jesse asked. Angela turned to him to answer.

"Because we never talked about work it was all the same if we ever did have a secret. What would you think if someone who talked about the information they handled at work suddenly stopped talking? You'd know they knew something special, right?"

"What if," and now she turned to Ruth, "everyone else talked about the information they handled at work and you were the only one who didn't? It's the same thing. To keep secrets the best, everyone just puts what they do at work off limits. That way, no one knows who has secrets and who doesn't." She turned back to the younger kids.

"People will ask you about the crash. You should tell them everything that you know as honestly as you can. That's why I'm not going to let you see the pictures. Okay?"

"Okay," Leah's agreement was sullen at best. Deborah and Jacob nodded as well.

"Okay." Angela smiled widely as if a huge breakthrough had been made. "We'll camp in that little clearing that we found upstream a little way. We're going to have to let the Air Force know where their plane went down, they've lost them in the mountains before you know. You three haul everything up there and start setting up, I need to talk to Ruth and Jesse for just a little bit."

Reluctantly they went to do as they were told. Angela watched until they were well out of earshot.

"Are you two okay?"

"I'm... not sure." Jesse was pale.

"I'm trying not to think about it." Ruth crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her weight from foot to foot.

Angela smiled in self-depreciation. "I'm in complete denial, and I only saw pictures." She turned the camera back on and looked at the last few pictures again. "Shit."

"So what we heard yesterday was a sonic boom and then the impact?" Jesse cast his eyes upward. "And the meteorites? What were they?"

It was Ruth's turn for gallows humor. "The Mother Ship, blown to bits and burning up on entry?"

Angela closed her eyes and sucked her breath between her teeth. "Denial is a good thing. Denial is a good thing."

"Mom?" Now Jesse sounded scared.

"Seriously." Angela opened her eyes again to look at them. "Did I ever tell you kids about when I was about 13 and having nightmares about what was at the end of the universe? I learned not to think about it. This is the same. Maybe you could be like Stephen Hawkings or someone and stare straight into infinity without losing your mind, but I can't. I can't think about what this means, mostly because I don't know what it means and I'll start making stuff up and..."

Ruth put one hand on both sides of Angela's face. "Chill, Mom."

"I'm fine, really... I just have to deal with here and now, okay?"

"Sounds good to me." Jesse took his camera back. "So what do we need to do right now?"

Angela straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath and let it out in a puff. "It's been almost 24 hours, if anyone had seen it come down they'd be here by now. So we assume that no one knows, or at least that the notice of an anomaly is at the bottom of some in-box somewhere under Cheyenne Mountain where it will eventually be read and passed on to someone else's in-box. We need to get notice out."

"Provided we can get a radio signal out," Jesse crossed his arms across his chest, "what do we say?"

Angela shrugged. "The stealth fighter story is as good as any. We can get someone out here by claiming survivors or injuries to ourselves if we have to, but I'd rather get the military out here first instead of civilian search and rescue."

"So the biggest problem is getting the signal out," Ruth agreed.

"And there's something important you should know, Mom." Jesse looked at Ruth who nodded. "We think there may have been survivors for real. We thought there was some movement but we didn't see anything, but look at this." He held his camera out to her showing the picture of the creatures in the spacesuits. "The picture is really small, even when I had both the lens and program at maximum zoom, but look how they are laying."

"Someone put them there, all in a row."

"Uh huh," Ruth said. "And if you think about it... just because they aren't moving doesn't mean that these people are dead either."

"People?"

"Maybe we're in denial, too." Jesse smiled and ran a hand through his hair. "On the way back, though, we decided that "people" was the best word to use."

Angela thought about it. "I think you're right."

People. She could deal with people, no problem.


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Posts I make to my livejournal show up automatically in your "friend" space?

I was planning to post the next huge chunk of my novel and do that every week.   If anyone doesn't want those showing up in their friend space you'd probably want to un-friend me.    I don't want to annoy anyone with huge posts if they don't want them.
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At noon they took out the topo maps, checked GPS readings and charted their new course against their proposed course and talked about how to reach the peak they were headed for. Since the second boom the day had been quiet. They'd logged a dozen bird species, one a golden eagle, and three kinds of squirrels. Angela had delightedly called Jesse up from the rear to photograph a calypso orchid, blooming pink and lonely under some bushes. Jacob had seen a horned lizard, his absolute favorite, except for Gila Monsters. He demanded to know if Gila Monsters occurred at this altitude. Angela raised one eyebrow in surprise at his phrasing and told him that she didn't know.

At a little after five o'clock they reached a flower filled meadow with grazing for the llamas and flat spaces large enough for their tents.

"Camping?" Deborah stopped beside her while both Zeus and Jacob bounded past them into the meadow, Jacob shedding his pack without even slowing down.

Angela looked sideways and up into her youngest daughter's face. Tall. How had she gotten so tall? "Absolutely, but try not to trample the iris." She looked back at the meadow. Jacob had tackled Zeus or Zeus had tackled Jacob and the two of them were now rolling around squashing everything flat. "This is fabulous. We could always just stay here until it's time to go back. What do you think?"

Deborah laughed. "Mom, you're a wimp."

"So true," Angela agreed as she slid her backpack from her aching shoulders. "So very true."

The llamas were quickly unloaded, watered, and staked out to graze. Leah pointed out some [kind of plant] she said was poisonous to llamas and told everyone else to watch out that the llamas were kept away from it. Angela and Jacob collected wood while Jesse sorted though the cooking gear and the girls set up the tents. It would be hours before dark, but they'd learned the hard way to rest after setting up camp rather than before.

Dinner was curried rice with raisins and dried apples. "It needs meat," Ruth complained as she pushed it around in her bowl.

"You're getting plenty of protein," Jesse insisted. "You eat jerky and nuts all day long. You need grains and fiber too, or you'll get the runs."

Ruth opened her mouth to emit an indignant squawk, a reaction from her to any possible suggestion of bodily functions that was as inevitable as sunrise. Angela reached forward and scooped half a ladle more rice into Ruth's bowl. The squawk turned into a surprised sputter. "But..!"

"Eat it." Angela gestured at Ruth's bowl. "It's really very excellent."

"Thanks, Mom." Jesse accepted the complement. "If you shoot a deer, Ruth, we can all eat burnt meat off sticks like cavemen."

Ruth grinned widely and opened her mouth to say something.

"Don't you dare shoot any deer!" Angela scowled theatrically at her daughter.

"Aw, Mom, you're no fun at all."

Later they put the fire out and lay looking up at the stars. Jacob snuggled up to Angela's side, a warm bundle in the night chill. Zeus lay on her other side, his heavy head on her shoulder. Leah checked on the llamas and moved the stakes so they could get at fresh grass while keeping them far from the poisonous bushes. Angela could hear her moving slowly across the meadow in the dark. Deborah and Ruth were counting shooting stars to see who could get the most. Jesse had taken the camp shovel and gone to find a bush.

"Sixteen."

"I've seen twenty."

"No way. Oh! One, two, four... no five more! Twenty-one."

"I only saw three more."

"There's another."

"That's a satellite."

"Was not. I see the satellite."

"Thirty-two."

"Twenty-seven."

Jacob snuggled closer into her shoulder and she realized he'd turned his face away from the sky. "What's the matter honey?"

"Are the asteroids going to blow up the Earth?" His muffled voice came from somewhere close to her arm pit.

"No, honey." So much for educational television. When they got home she'd lock the cable to Cartoon Network. "They are small and they burn up from the friction. That's why they're bright and we can see them."

"Forty."

"No way."

Just then a streak of light lit the sky from zenith to where the trees blocked their view. The after image glowed for a slow count of five. A shiver slid up Angela's spine.

"Wow! Did you see that?" Leah had returned and was standing with her head tilted to the sky.

"I think that one counts as 50, all by itself." Deborah had jumped up and was staring at the sky.

Ruth apparently agreed because she said, "Ninety!"

Angela ran her fingers through Jacob's hair. "And the big ones," she whispered, "the big ones burn up twice as much."

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The concussion echoed through the ascending valley, building as waves of sound reflected from the cliff face to the North and the steep upward slope to the South. It rattled the bones of the backpackers wending their way up the center of the valley like a small line of ants.

"Mom!"

"It's okay, Jake," Angela reassured her youngest as she quickly took a tally of them all. Deborah had taken hold of Zeus and was petting the rottie-shepard mix, her mouth moving in reassurances that Angela could not hear. Ruth and Leah had the rented llamas under control, barely. Jesse, who took last place in the column and had no animals to be responsible for, had his camera up and ready and was searching for the source of the sound as well.

They'd settled on this strict marching order many years ago when Angela finally lost patience over the bickering of which kid got to be leader. She went first, she told them, because she was old and slow, any trail she could climb the rest of them could certainly manage. After that they went youngest to oldest, her firstborn, Jesse, at the rear to make sure no one got separated and left behind.

This would likely be their last hiking trip together.

Jesse was 19 now, and about to finish his culinary course at the vo-tech. He hadn't decided, yet, between going on to a more prestigious chef's school or applying to cruise lines, as Angela had suggested he do while he was still young and without responsibilities. Either way, by next year he'd be gone. Ruth was leaving too, and even sooner. In three more weeks, just after her 18th birthday, she'd be leaving for Marine boot camp at Parris Island. Leah at 15 and Deborah at 13 wouldn't be that far behind their older siblings. Angela knew just how quickly those years would go by. Jacob, the baby and proof that not even a vasectomy took reproduction from God's control, was only eight.

She waited while they all caught up to her. "Sonic boom, I think," she said. She still scanned the skies. If it had been an aircraft they might not see it down between the shoulders of the mountain as they were. Still, other possibilities than a sonic boom pressed at her. What would it sound like if part of the cliff face had separated? And if boulders came crashing down, how far would they tumble? She looked up the South slope. It would be harder going than the valley bottom but they, and the llamas, would manage.

The second boom was louder and shook the ground beneath their feet. This time Angela's eyes stayed focused on the cliff face. Ruth and Leah kept control of the llamas, Angela could hear their stomping and knew they hadn't gotten away. Zeus was running circles about them all, barking excitedly. "I think we should make our way up to higher ground in case any rocks have worked loose up there. Water yourself and the animals and lets get going."

It took only a moment. The girls took out collapsible containers and each poured water for the animal they were responsible for. Jesse took a few pictures between sucking at his water bottle, his other responsibilities centered primarily around meals. Angela made sure Jake drank then made a visual inspection of the equipment they carried, radios for those with licenses and walkie-talkies for the youngest two so they didn't feel left out. She and Ruth and Leah carried GPS receivers.

Angela unhooked the radio from her belt and turned it on. She made sure the frequency was set to the nearest repeater. No signal. She hadn't expected one with the mountains blocking line of sight. She turned the radio off to conserve batteries and hooked it back to her belt.

In addition to his camera Jesse carried his father's Army 1911 .45 cal semi-automatic in a holster and a tall walking staff. The pistol looked out of place on his thin, 6 foot 2 frame. His lanky build would fill out some as he got older, but he'd never look particularly dangerous. He had pale skin that would not tan, no beard to speak of, and his blond hair pulled back into a hippie-like pony tail that made his face look even narrower. Looks were deceptive. The staff he carried was as much a weapon as the pistol and just as deadly. Not an aggressive bone in the boy's body, just years of training his reflexes and his muscles to move without thought.

Ruth carried a 1911 as well, tied down low to her thigh in a military style web holster. It was her own, purchased with babysitting money. Where Jesse was comfortable with the weapon, Ruth was enthusiastic. She only waited for her 18th birthday to send in for her concealed carry permit, having taken all the classes with Angela. No staff, but only because she was in charge of one of the llamas and had her hands full and not because she didn't know how. Ruth was only a couple inches taller than Angela, perhaps as tall as 5 feet 3 inches if she stretched. Her brown hair was streaked blond and purple and woven into a braid that reached her waist. Dark liner ringed her eyes. Compact, curvy, probably 110 pounds soaking wet and prevented from slouching by years of karate, she was a spectacular failure at the Goth look, though she continued to try.

The guns were illegal depending on where they were on the trail. Angela checked her own, a [something 45]. If they crossed into the National Park they weren't supposed to have them. On Federal land or private property they could. Angela didn't care. They were tools and as necessary out here as they'd been when the West was Wild, as necessary as they'd be for someone making the same trek 100 years ago. Because, out here, nothing had changed.

They'd brought food, bags upon bags of home-made dehydrated meals. It would be enough if they didn't get trapped on the mountain. If they did, they'd need to hunt. They would probably not see a mountain lion or a bear, but there was always a slim chance they would and an even slimmer chance the predator would view them, or the llamas, as food. A slim chance wasn't zero. Neither was it impossible that the predator could be human. Stranger things had happened.

Chuck would never have let his wife and kids take this trip unarmed.

The first and last in the column had both hands free. Front and rear guard. Angela settled the straps of her backpack frame and shifted her walking stick to her right hand. The water containers had been put away. She sent one last distrustful glance toward the cliff face and turned her back to it. As she took the first step up the South slope she called out, "All right, troops. Let's go!"

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Actually, Zhenu Truth isn't me.    Zhenu Truth is a telepathic super agent who's gone rogue or native or AWOL, take your pick.

(She's also a fae dirge on EverQuest 2, Crushbone server.   But nevermind that.)

Zhenu Truth quit her job without permission when her mentor told her that he'd found a child with the ability to control the ancient relics on which the whole of their star spanning civilization depends, and that those that control the state by controlling  the single other person who can activate the relics, and who had given them the task of keeping an eye out for others, had the child killed.    

In theory Zhenu believes in order and agrees that keeping the relics operational and everything that must be done to control that operation while not risking losing the ability to do so are for the ultimate good of humanity.    It's unfortunate but unavoidable that the person who can use the relics must be controlled, and copied, and the clones dispersed as "off site back-up" and often enough destroyed in the end, but she can't see how a child, ignorant of his ability, was any threat to order.  

During her self-imposed exile she discovers one of the back-up clones, and when the order comes down for the girl's destruction Zhenu must decide what she will do.

Complicating matters is the fact that another agent has finally succeeded in tracking down the rogue telepath.     People distrust and fear the Truth Teller, the telepath that can hear their innermost secrets.    This is nothing compared to the fear a telepath feels when confronted with a Secret Keeper.
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