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A Change of Plans 


The smell of diesel overpowered the steady rumble of the bus tires as Nikita closed her eyes and put her knees on the seat in front of her. Cassie had been asleep for the last thirty miles as Sasha and Slider talked about what the BETA facility would look like when they arrived.  Darnell and Briana sat quietly on opposite sides of the bus looking at the trees along the side of the road lost in their private thoughts about what awaited them in the months ahead.  

Nikita occasionally cracked one eyelid open enough to see if she had missed anything as the miles faded into the rearview mirror over the bus driver's head. Nikita watched as the driver looked up occasionally to check on the cadets. The hours slowly rolled passed and the scenery seemed to stay the same. Trees followed by more trees. Nikita wondered where they were headed and how any place could be so far removed from civilization.  

Nikita chuckled as Cassie let out a snort. As she looked over to see Cassie, drool was running down one side of her face. Sasha and slider looked back to see Cassie snoring and drooling as they giggled. Everyone knew that sleep was a precious and rare commodity, so no one disturbed Cassie. As funny as the moment was, everyone on the bus could remember a time when they were just as tired.  

Nikita held one finger in front of her mouth, signaling to Slider and Sasha not to say anything. Sasha smiled and nodded as she put her finger over her own mouth and turned back around. Slider just shook his head and returned to his conversation with Sasha. Darnell waved a hand toward Briana. 

“Yo! Bree, chunk me a sandwich. I’m starving.” 

The cafeteria had provided an ice chest full of water, sandwiches, and oatmeal cookies for the trip that had sat undisturbed until now. Brianna casually opened the ice chest lid with her foot and pointed at its contents as she looked at Darnell. 

“I’m not your momma. There they are.” 

Darnell rolled his eyes and slid to the center of the bus to grab a snack from the ice chest. 

“Why you gotta be like that?” 

Brianna moved her foot and the lid fell closed as Darnell sat back in his seat. 

“I've been following Payne’s orders for nearly two years. When we get to BETA, I’ll be following somebody else’s orders. I’ll be damned if I plan to use my one day of free time to follow yours.” 

“It wasn’t an order; it was a request.” 

“I’m not a radio station and I don’t take requests.” 

“So, it’s like that now,” said Darnell assuming Briana was mad about something. 

“After a few seconds Briana opened the ice chest and grabbed a cookie. She underhanded it to Darnell as she said, “Don’t forget dessert.” 

As Briana showed a smile, Darnel said, “I knew you still loved me.” 

“I tolerate you, Darnell. It’s not the same thing.” 

“I’ll take what I can get,” resigned Darnell, as he returned to looking out of the window and eating his sandwich. 

Nikita watched the exchange through a half-open eye and showed a subtle smile before returning to her half-sleeping solitude. The sound of the road became white noise and the cool wind on Nikita’s face was quickly pulling her to deep sleep. The last thing she remembered seeing was a train track that ran alongside a deep ravine with steep sides. As she thought about how isolated and how beautiful the clash of metal and nature was, she closed her eyes accepting the temptation to fall asleep.  

Nikita was almost asleep when a loud explosion snatched her back into reality. As Cassie and Nikita sprang upright in their seat, they caught a glimpse of the bus driver frantically fighting to keep the bus under control. As he began to slow down, he managed to get the bus off to the side of the road. 

“Everybody okay?” 

All of the cadets looked around as they confirmed, one at a time, that they were okay.  

“I think we hit something guys. I’m going to go look around the bus and see what the damage looks like. I’m pretty sure it’s just a flat tire.” 

As the driver exited the bus to assess the damage, the cadets looked out of the windows curiously waiting to see what caused the commotion. Sasha couldn’t resist the urge to use the moment to be funny. 

‘I knew it! I knew there was no BETA facility. Payne sent us out here to die!” 

“You don’t know Payne very well. If she was planning to kill us, she would have wanted to drive the bus herself,” Slider said with a smirk. 

“Keep an eye on that driver. If he tries to make a run for it, we need to chase him down. He’s the only one who knows where we are,” added Darnell. 

As the six cadets joked about the incident, the bus driver got back on the bus and instructed Slider and Darnell to give him a hand. 

“Ladies, if you want to stretch your legs, now is the time. Just stay where I can see you.” 

Briana, not being one to miss a chance to fight for equal rights, said, “Yeah, all you helpless women-folk take shelter while the men save us.” 

The bus driver, not young enough to appreciate the delicate nature of the subject, fired back, “ Hey, anybody who wants to grab that two hundred-pound, greasy, bus tire, and wrestle it over to the back side of the bus is welcome to give it a go but the smart money is on sitting in the shade while we fight this thing out for the next hour.” 

Sasha, not interested in being a mechanic on her day off said, “Goodness me! I feel faint. You, big strong men, change that tire while I fan myself in the shade of yonder oak.”  

As Sasha fanned herself with her hand and pretended to swoon in the heat, Cassie and Nikita grabbed her arms pretending to help hold her up. 

“Oh my, Scarlet! You look weak. We should help you get to the shade and keep an eye on you,” added Cassie. 

Briana rolled her eyes and surrendered herself to following the three girls to a shaded spot on the edge of the road.  Slider and Darnell walked with the driver to a large door that opened on the back, bottom side of the bus. The three of them began to struggle to remove a large tire that was bolted to the wall of the bus.  

Sasha and Cassie continued to pretend to be helpless little southern ladies depending on the guys to save them as Nikita suddenly seemed distracted. After a few seconds, Nikita held her hand up and signaled for the other girls to stop talking. She looked up the road and studied a shining object that Cassie, Sasha, and Briana could barely make out.  

“What is it?” asked Cassie. 

“Shhh! Wait!” ordered Nikita.  

The three girls watched Nikita as she looked at the shiny object and then looked along the tree line. For several seconds the girls were silent as Nikita studied the trees along the road. She caught a glimpse of a man holding a rifle just inside the tree line.  Just as Briana was about to ask what she saw, Nikita turned to Cassie looking concerned. Remembering Payne’s advice about taking survival kits, Nikita acted quickly as she realized that something was very wrong and about to get worse. 

“Cassie, get everyone into the woods! Do it now!” 

Cassie knew Nikita wasn’t joking and if she said to go now, she had a good reason. Without asking questions Cassie acted immediately and moved quickly to grab Sasha’s arm as she instructed Briana to follow her. 

Briana opened her mouth to ask what all this was about and before she could speak, Cassie barked, “Now!” 

Nikita ran toward the bus and yelled, “Slider! Get into the woods!” 

Slider saw everyone running and grabbed Darnell, pulling him away from the bus.  

“What's going on?” asked the bus driver. 

Cassie, seeing that Nikita had gone back to the bus, ran to get her into the woods.  

Nikita jumped inside the bus and began to grab survival kits as she remembered Payne’s training. 

As everyone was scrambling, the bus driver stood at the bus looking confused and ordering the cadets to settle down and stay away from the woods.  

“If you kids don’t stop playing, I will have all of you sitting on the bus while I change the …" 

Suddenly the bus driver stopped talking. Nikita, who had nine survival kits that she grabbed from under the seats, jumped from the bus as Cassie met her at the door. They both turned just in time to see blood spray across the bus as the driver’s body collapsed to the ground. Nikita stooped down to set the rescue kits on the steps and ran toward the driver to see how she could help him. Cassie grabbed her arm hard and jerked her back upright.  

“Run!” Get to the woods, Nikita!” 

Cassie reached into the bus door, grabbed the flare gun kit and turned to run.  

“Get into the woods, Darnell. Leave everything and go!” Yelled Nikita.  

Before she took a step, four loud pops echoed from the wall of the bus. Nikita looked to see holes in the bus wall. She ducked down and scrambled up the bus steps just as Darnell had made his way from the back of the bus to hide inside instead of running to the woods.  

“Get up! We have to get off the bus! Get in the woods!” yelled Cassie. “Stay low and move!” 

Just as the cadets were scrambling to get off of the bus, Sasha caught sight of four armed men dressed in camouflage, exiting the tree line almost two-hundred feet from the bus. As they started trotting toward the bus with their rifles up and ready to fire, Nikita turned to grab Sasha’s shirt, ready to drag her further into the trees if she didn’t move faster.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw more camouflaged figures stepping from the tree line on the opposite side of the road.  

As all of the cadets made it to the tree line, Cassie asked Nikita, “What’s happening?” 

“I don’t know Cassie! We need to keep moving! They are coming!” 

As the team began to run deeper into the woods, Slider said, “Stop!” 

Everyone paused as Slider grabbed the handle of the ice chest that Sasha and Briana were carrying as they ran. As he pulled it to the ground, he threw open the lid. 

“It’s slowing us down. Everybody, grab two bottled waters. Leave the sandwiches, they will go bad.” 

No one questioned Slider’s logic as they grabbed two bottles before turning to run. The team ran without talking as Cassie led the way deeper into the woods. After nearly twenty minutes, Cassie stopped and signaled to everyone to stay down and huddle up.  

“Why are we stopping?” asked Darnell. 

“We need to stop and gather our thoughts,” answered Cassie. 

“Gather our thoughts? My thoughts are telling me to keep running,’ said Darnell. 

“No, Cassie is right,” added Nikita, “we are running but where are we going?  The people following us are obviously not amateurs trying to steal our protein bars. For all we know, we are leaving a trail behind us that they know how to track. We need to slow down, collect our thoughts, and start thinking strategy.” 

Sasha, trying to catch her breath, asked, “Why are these people after us?” 

Everyone looked at each other waiting for someone to offer an answer until Cassie said, “We will ask them when we get out of these woods.” 

“Cassie, we don’t know where we are or how far it is to anywhere. We could be miles, hell, hundreds of miles from anywhere,” Briana argued. 

“How many of them are there? Did anyone see?” asked Slider. 

“I was at the tree line waiting for everyone to get off the bus, so I had the best view. I counted eight that were right behind us, but I could see more movement along the trees further down the road. Let’s just assume it's more than ten,” determined Cassie. 

 “Hell, if it’s more than one we are already screwed because they obviously have guns. All we have is a survival kit.” 

“No! Enough of that! We are Payne’s cadets. They may have guns, but we can out-run, out-climb, and out-endure whoever is out there. We have each other and we will get through this. I don’t want to hear negative talk. Save that for the therapy sessions we will need when this is over,” ordered Cassie as she demonstrated the leadership skills that Payne had recognized two years before.  

“Do you think this is one of Payne’s exercises designed to test us?” asked Briana. 

“Cassie, looking determined, replied, I watched the bus driver’s head spray across the bus so if it’s an exercise, Payne ain’t messing around.” 

“Blood and guts can be faked. Movie sets do it all the time. What if this is just an exercise?” Insisted Briana. 

Nikita looked at Briana and said, “You’re not wrong. This could all be an exercise but if we run into one of these gun-toting, fake soldiers and discover this is not a game, we are dead before we get to say time-out. I suggest we all get it in our heads that this is real and act accordingly. If Payne sent people after us and we send them back in an ambulance, that’s on her and on them. When we fight, we fight to win! Does everyone understand that?” 

The cadets, remembering how many times Payne drilled the thought into their heads that when they fight, they fight to win, shook their heads in agreement. 

Cassie added, “Nikita is right. We can’t risk assuming this is a game. What we do moving forward, we do as if it’s life or death. Now let’s figure out what we are doing and get to it.” 

Slider, beginning to collect his emotions and focus said, “It’s going to be dark soon. We need somewhere to hide. We can’t walk through the woods in the dark without knowing anything about these woods. If a snake doesn't get us a wild animal may. We need shelter.” 

“Slider is right,” agreed Cassie, “We need to get out of sight and figure out what to do at first light.” 

“How do we know if we are out of sight? Payne said there are special glasses that can see in the dark,” added Darnell. 

“Cassie, who had the type of personality that takes charge and commanded the respect of the team, concluded, “For now we just need to find a large hollow tree or some thick brush that we can use to make a make-shift wall of bushes. If we can’t see them, they can’t see us.” 

Briana, worried that the plan sounded too simple added, “I’ve heard that there is stuff that can see our body heat at night.” 

Darnell agreed, “Thermal sensors. That’s a real thing.” 

Nikita, realizing that the team was slowly turning against Cassie’s plan, added, “Well if they have eyeballs, they can see our dumbasses standing here arguing about what to do so I say we get a hiding spot right now and we can use it to argue about the technological advancements that will lead to our inevitable doom.” 

Briana and Darnell didn’t like Nikita's tone but they both understood that her logic was spot-on. 

Cassie said, “Let’s find a place where there is thick brush that’s hard to get past. It will provide some cover and may give us a few seconds head start if we have to run.” 

The team agreed and followed behind Cassie as they kept an eye out for anything that moved around them. Every bird that flew out of a tree and every butterfly that fluttered from a flower was noted in their mind and everyone’s head was on a constant swivel knowing their lives depended on their ability to see danger before it saw them. 

The Dark Night Ahead 


As the team continued to keep a steady pace moving further into the woods, Cassie told the team to make a mental note of the position of the sun and the moss growing at the base of the trees to help them find their way back if they needed to turn around.  

After almost a half hour of walking quickly through the woods while looking for anything that might make a good hiding spot, Slider pointed out two large trees. One had a hollow at the base where the second tree grew nearly close enough to cover the whole.  

“There,” instructed Slider, pointing at the two large trees.  

Cassie agreed, “That will work. We can all fit in that tree.” 

“What else is living in that tree?” asked Briana. 

Sasha, finding her sense of humor in all of the drama said, “If it doesn’t have a gun it can stay in there with us.” 

Briana’s expression showed that she was not sure she wanted to climb into the base of a creepy-looking tree in the woods, but the team didn’t hesitate, and she decided she’d rather be in a tree with them than on her own in the woods.  

The hollow was about six feet around and tall enough for everyone to sit in a circle. The temperature had begun to drop as the sun slowly settled over the trees.  

“It's about to get cold out here,” reminded Darnell.  

Nikita took the survival kits from her shirt where she had stashed them to run.  

“I grabbed nine survival kits. Did anyone else get anything?” 

“I grabbed the flare gun,” said Cassie.  

“Well, I’ll tell you what I got. I got my ass off the bus and got in the woods. That’s what I got. You think I was worried about protein bars and foil blankets while people were trying to put a hole in me?” 

Cassie, not seeing a reason to disagree with Darnell said, “Okay, well we have nine survival kits. That’s sixty-three protein bars, nine foil blankets, nine boot knives, nine water filter straws, nine lighters, and nine flashlights. How many waters did we get?” 

“Why does that matter? Are you keeping score?” asked Darnell. 

Nikita interrupted, “We have to assume we will be out here for days, maybe a week or more. We can’t assume anyone is coming to rescue us. No one knows where we are or what has happened. We need to take an inventory of our supplies and ration them as if we will be here indefinitely.” 

“We were scheduled to arrive at BETA this evening at some point. When we don’t show, someone will start asking questions. We are in the middle of nowhere, so phone calls and radio messages are out of the question. We have to assume that these people will move the bus and the driver so there is nothing to call attention to where we stopped. We are on our own and it is up to us to get ourselves out of this mess,” explained Cassie. 

“Well, that was encouraging. No one is coming and even if they do, they can’t find us,” moaned Briana.  

Cassie, growing tired of the negativity scolded Briana, “It’s the woods. People used to live in the woods all year. It’s our natural environment. Were you even listening to Payne when she showed us how to survive in the woods? Briana, we can do this. There are berries, rabbits, fish, water... all we have to do is keep moving and stay alert. We will get through this. Our worst enemy out here is not the people looking for us, it’s our own mind. We have to stay positive.” 

“Listen,” said Briana,” I'm scared. There are people with guns hunting for us and we don’t know why. You act like I can stay positive when I may be dead by morning.” 

“We are all scared,” explained Sasha, “but we can’t afford to fall apart or give up right now. Everything we have ever learned matters right now. It’s okay to be scared but you can be scared and still be brave. Let’s focus on what we know to do, and we will figure the rest out as we go.” 

Cassie, hoping to calm the tension said, “We need rest if we plan to keep moving Tomorrow. I will stay awake and keep an eye out for the first two hours. Nikita, you will keep watch after me, then Briana, then Darnell. Agreed?” 

The team agreed and Cassie took the first watch. As everyone leaned against the inside of the hollow tree, Cassie took one of the foil blankets and opened it. She found two slivers of bark on either side of the opening to the hollow tree and hung it like a curtain across the entrance.  

Nikita, watching Cassie work, asked, ‘What are you doing?” 

“I’m trying to block the air so that the heat from our body stays in the tree to help keep us warm. Plus, if there really is some truth to these people possibly having the ability to see heat from our body at night, the foil may help block the heat from being seen.” 

“Will that work?” asked Nikita? 

“I have no idea, Little Sis. It’s just a guess but it can’t hurt.” 

Nikita found some comfort in knowing that Cassie was taking first watch because she was the most responsible cadet on the team. She managed to fall asleep for a few hours until she woke up and stuck her head outside of the foil curtain to see Cassie kneeling behind the tree watching everything that moved.  

“Come get some rest Cassie. I can keep watch for a while.” 

"I’m really not sleepy,” said Cassie, “so if you would like to get more rest, I can take your watch.” 

“I can’t sleep either.” I can’t believe all of this is really happening; it makes no since.” 

“Little Sis, how did you know that we needed to get into the woods before anyone else knew?” 

“I’m not sure Cassie. It’s strange, but ever since I arrived and started this program, it’s like my senses are on ten. I can hear better, see better, smell everything, and I have more energy than I have ever had before. I just assumed it was because of all the physical fitness or getting good meals every day, but when I look at the other cadets, I don’t know..., I guess I feel like I’m more aware of things than other people.” 

“Well, something caught your attention by the bus, and I saw you studying the trees and the road before you told everyone to get in the woods. I’ve never seen you so certain of anything and you were focused. None of us would be alive right now if you hadn’t warned us and you even remembered that we needed the survival kits. I just don’t understand how you knew that.” 

“I guess it’s all of Payne’s training.” 

“Little Sis, I trained under Payne for two years and it seems like you are more aware and more prepared than I am. You don’t even seem scared out here in the woods.” 

“As far as being scared out here goes, I can’t explain it, but I feel like I belong here in the woods. Nothing about this is frightening to me. In fact, I have never felt more alive. I felt the same way when we went camping with Payne. One thing is for certain though, knowing you are out here with me does make the idea of being stuck out here for a long time seem more tolerable.” 

Cassie sat quietly for a moment as she listened to see if she could hear anything in the woods. The occasional cricket broke the silence, but she didn’t hear anything but nature sounds.  

 “They don’t seem to be giving up.” 

Cassie replied,” What do you mean?” 

“The people looking for us. They are still searching for us, but the darkness is slowing them down.” 

Cassie looked at Nikita with a puzzled eyebrow raised. 

“Little Sis, how would you know that?” 

“It’s all they are talking about. Aren’t you paying attention to what they are saying?” 

“Nikita, I don’t hear anyone. Are you losing your mind?” 

Nikita stared at Cassie for a moment before saying, “You’re serious.” 

“Yes, I’m serious. All I hear are crickets.” 

“Cassie, I hear everything they are saying. They are just over that hill with the tall tree in the middle. They have been there since nightfall.” 

“Little Sis, did you hit your head while we were being chased?” 

“No Cassie. There are twelve of them and they have been discussing the search dogs they brought into the woods.” 

Cassie’s eyes got big as she asked, “They have search dogs? Nikita, we have to get everyone up and keep moving. Their dogs can smell us. They can find us!” 

“No,” insisted Nikita, “The dogs were sent back out of the woods. They were going crazy and wouldn’t follow our trail. The mean one said he was going to shoot them because they were useless, but the one they call ‘Silvo’ convinced him to let him take them back to their cage. They aren’t going anywhere. They decided that they didn’t have dogs to search for us and that we are no longer able to find our way through the woods at night. They concluded that we would be finding a spot and waiting until morning. They were right too. I just assumed you could hear them.” 

“Little Sis, I have to know that you are not nuts.” 

“If it helps, I can tell you their names and what they are heating on the fire. I just can’t believe you don’t hear anything. I should be the one asking if you’re nuts.” I bet if we climb this tree, we can see their campsite from here.” 

“Climb the tree, Little Sis. If we get up there and don’t see anything, maybe you will realize how crazy you sound.” 

Nikita wasted no time getting to the top of one of the two tall trees they were hiding in. As she reached the top, she waited for Cassie to join her. 

“See?” asked Nikita, “Right over that hill. You can see the campfire light and shadows from the people sitting around it.” 

Cassie squinted a bit as she admitted, “I can see the glow from the fire on the treetops but that’s so far away. There's no way you can hear them from here.” 

“I’m not sure what you want me to tell you Cassie. We can walk over there and ask them if I'm right if you want, but we may not like their answer.” 

“Okay! I mean, I see the campfire and you wouldn’t have known it was there if you couldn’t hear them. It’s weird but you’ve been doing weird stuff since we met so...”  

“Cassie, do you have any idea why these people would want to hurt us?” 

“If I did, I would have already told you. Nothing about this makes sense. We are just a bunch of kids. We don’t have anything of value and it’s not like we are in possession of some top-secret information...,” 

Cassie paused and slowly turned toward Nikita. 

“You’re not a secret agent carrying top secret documents, are you?” 

“Nikita kept a serious look on her face as she said, “I was hoping you didn’t discover my secret identity. My real name is Captain Hindsight. My superpower allows me to see everything we should have done differently, and these people have come to steal the secret of my power.”  

“Cassie, maintaining the mood of the moment, replied,” I knew it from the moment we met. You had a look on your face that told me you had made a huge mistake by joining Payne’s group of misfits. Only Captain Hindsight could know such a thing. So, tell me, what is the source of your power?” 

“If I tell you I will have to kill you.” 

“Oh, that’s no problem. We are all probably as good as dead anyway so let’s have it.” 

“It’s protein bars.” 

“Cassie put her hand over her mouth as her eye’s got big.” 

“That’s why you remembered the survival kits! They are full of protein bars.” 

Nikita could no longer keep a straight face and started laughing. Cassie put her finger over her mouth to remind Nikita not to get too loud, as she joined her in the laughter for a moment. 

“This is why I am glad you are here Cassie.” 

“I hear you Little Sis. Now let’s get down before we fall and wake the neighbors.” 

As they reached the base of the tree, Nikita asked Cassie, “You don’t think this is one of Payne’s training exercises? I mean, it would make sense. We are headed to a BETA facility that we have never seen just to find ourselves being required to know all of the survival skills that Payne taught us about surviving in the woods. Don’t you think that’s strange?” 

“We already covered this Little Sis. You were the one who reminded everyone that we have no choice but to assume this is real and fight to win.” 

“I know. I still think that’s the only option we have but I can’t help thinking that this whole thing could be made up to test us. At some point, we are going to have to fight back if these people find us and it would be a horrible thing to find out that we hurt someone who was just doing their job to train us.” 

“Little sis, listen to me. If Payne sent armed soldiers after us, shot holes in the bus, shot the driver in front of us, whether it was fake or not, what happens next is a result of the situation we are in. If this is some game, then everyone involved has made a stupid decision by chasing us out here because we can’t run forever. Eventually, we will have to fight back and when we do, we cannot afford to be playing games just to learn that they are not. I won’t risk my life, the lives of my team and most of all I won’t risk having my little sis hurt or even worse just because I didn’t want to risk hurting one of Payne’s people. If I have to choose between us or them, they won’t have anyone to blame but themselves for what happens to them.” 

“Cassie, we don’t have any weapons. We are defenseless.” 

“Look around you. Remember what Payne said? The woods are full of sticks. Sticks are weapons. Spears, bows, traps..., this is what Payne was trying to tell us. As soon as the sun comes up, we need to be moving and we need to start finding and preparing weapons just in case we have to use them.” 

“Whatever you say Cassie. You’re the boss. It will be dawn soon and we will be ready to move. If we can find some straight sticks for arrows, strong sticks for bows and some thin vines, to make the bows with, we will have a way to strike back. We have knives and we can use those to tie to spears.” 

“Little Sis, I’m going to need you to have my back. Darnell and Briana are not as close to me as you, Sasha, and Slider. I can already hear Briana pointing out how insane it is that we plan to fight a group of trained killers with guns and all we have are sticks and knives.” 

“Well, they won’t be wrong but the only other option we have is running and we could be running further into...who knows where? If we can get our hands on a gun, at least we could fight back.” 

“That’s what scares me. None of us knows anything about guns and even if we get one, we are up against trained soldiers.” 

“It would answer one question for certain.” 

“What’s that, Little Sis?” 

“Nikita chuckled, “If this really is just an exercise, I guarantee you that if we get our hands on a gun and start shooting at anything that moves, the games will come to an abrupt stop. I may not know anything about guns, but I know they have a trigger and bullets fly out toward whatever you’re aiming at when you pull it. That may not make me an expert killer, but it pretty much makes me a monkey with a machine gun. Nobody will know what to expect.” 

Cassie tried to muffle her laughter out of fear of being heard.  

“Little Sis, I’ve never seen this side of you. You’re really not scared, are you?” 

“I am, I guess. I just see all these woods and I feel like we have the advantage. We decide where to run, where to hide, where to attack, and they have to react to our actions. They have to chase us, but we have been running for weeks and we are good at it. We are younger, faster, smaller, and in my case, way prettier than they are. They should be scared not us.” 

Cassie smiled and said, “yeah, I see what you did there. They obviously need to put a mirror in those survival kits because you need a brush and a shower, Beauty Queen.” 

Nikita laughed and looked around once again just to make sure no one was sneaking up on their hiding spot. 

“Cassie, we are going to be okay. You’re doing a good job of taking charge and I have your back. When this is over this will be our first adventure story. 

“Your optimism is both impressive and frightening at the same time.” 

Cassie and Nikita stayed up talking through the night. They both agreed that letting the team sleep would be better than trading places just to sit up unable to sleep so they took the watch for everyone.  

The following morning, just as the sky began to show signs of dawn, Nikita and Cassie woke the team up and got everyone moving. Everyone was stiff from sleeping upright in the tree, but it was better than not having any sleep, so they grabbed a protein bar and headed out behind Cassie.  

“Where are we headed?” asked Darnell. “Do we have some kind of plan, or do we just keep moving until we die in the woods?” 

“There’s a plan. We just need to get some distance between us and them before we stop. When we do, we can get our thoughts together on how to proceed,” said Cassie. 

Everyone accepted Cassie’s vague answer for the time, and quietly put some distance between them and the trees where they slept the night before. 

First Signs of Trouble 


Several hundred miles away, Instructor Payne lay sleeping in her office. She spent all of her time at the facility and over the years, she decided that she would save time by making her office a home away from home. Most people might need a lot of necessities to call a place home but for Payne, home meant having a bed, a shower and a change of clothes. She had all of that at the facility in her office so she was about as much at home as she would be anywhere.  

As Payne slept, the phone on her desk rang. After years of springing up at a moment’s notice, Payne had no trouble sounding alert as she made her way to the desk and said, “Payne.” 

The voice on the other end of the line sounded concerned as he said, “Instructor Payne, this is Craig Napp at the BETA facility. It’s zero-four hundred here and we have not received your cadets. They were due yesterday evening at about eighteen-hundred hours.” 

Payne grabbed the pen from the cup on her desk and a tablet that she kept on the desk for taking messages and asked, “What was the last contact you had with the driver?” 

“Ma’am, we haven’t had any phone or radio contact with the bus since it left your facility. The driver called from your facility and said he was taking his normal route and would arrive around eighteen-hundred hours. We tracked him on our GPS system until he reached the halfway point, and after that we lost his signal.” 

“How did you lose a GPS signal? Our busses are tracked by satellite, not cell towers.” 

“I don’t have an answer for you Instructor. We had a signal then we didn’t. We just assumed it was a glitch until the bus didn’t arrive.” 

“Give me the last coordinates that you have for the bus. Text them to my cell. I want to be notified if anyone hears anything about anything. Understood?” 

“Yes Ma’am, will do.” 

Payne hung up the phone but kept her hand on top of it as she thought for a minute. She then lifted the phone once more and called Doctor Kennedy. 

As the phone rang, there was a knock at the door of her office. She opened the door to find Doctor Kennedy leaning on his cane. 

“Doctor Kennedy, I was just calling you.” 

“I know but I was already at your door. So... we have some missing cadets.” 

“We are missing the six cadets that were headed to the BETA facility and the driver. With your permission, I would like to have our BETA facility chopper make a flyover and see if they can locate the bus.” 

“It’s already been done, Rachael. I had them do that two hours ago and they just called me to say they found the bus. It has bullet holes and blood on the side but there’s no sign of the cadets or the driver. I’m having the blood tested now and when I have something I will let you know. We have profiles on all of the cadets and the driver so knowing the blood type will help identify or at least narrow down who may have been injured.” 

“Did they look to see if the survival kits were missing?” Asked Payne.  

“Yes, there are nine kits missing, the flare gun, and the ice chest.” 

“Well, Cassie got out for sure. That’s good because she has a good head on her shoulders.” 

“What makes you sure she got out of the bus okay?” 

“She took the flare gun. It’s complicated but I know she is okay.” 

“If they took the survival kits, then they remembered their training and they are thinking instead of panicking.” 

Doctor Kennedy pulled out his chair opposite Payne’s chair to sit down but Payne asked, “Doctor, what are you doing? We don’t have time to sit and talk. Every second that those kids are out there they are in danger.” 

“I understand Rachael, but you and I need to talk. There are facts that you need to be aware of before you run into problems in those woods.” 

Payne studied Doctor Kennedy for a moment and then said, ‘You know what’s going on here, don’t you?” 

Doctor Kennedy hung his cane on Payne’s desk. 

“Rachael, before I get into this, I need you to give me your word that you will stay calm and be rational about all of this.” 

Payne, looking annoyed replied, “Let me see if I understand what you just said. You are about to tell me some bullshit that you have been hiding from me, and you are worried that I might react according to how I should feel, rather than the way you want me to react. Does that about sum it up?” 

Doctor Kennedy attempted to answer but Payne interrupted, “Doctor, there are six kids, kids that I have spent years training in most cases, all lost in the woods and possibly injured. Whatever it is that you want to tell me I suggest you make it short because I’m about to go look for them myself if I don’t get some answers soon.” 

“Rachael, I have every intention of sending you to look for our cadets. I just need you to understand what you are facing before I let you go after them. I know what these kids mean to you, and I promise you that you will have every resource at my disposal to get them back, but I need to give you the facts beforehand.” 

“Okay Doctor, I am all ears.” 

“ I had a business partner many years ago. He was directly involved in the Bio-Blend project that we discussed. He and I have been rivals for many years. We talk, we are cordial, but we have an understanding when it comes to business. We are competitors. We have both been working to get a contract with the government, to provide a better soldier. The bio-Blend project was his brainchild but when it was shut down due to the inhumane treatment of children, he came up with a new plan. He hid two of the children in the foster system. He considered them to be successful versions of his work.  

The idea of using the foster system was genius because it allowed him to give them a place to live while maintaining an eye on their progress. If one of them were to go crazy and wipe out a home full of kids, he could just pretend it never happened and move on. He had no direct ties to them.  

Soon after he put them into foster homes, one of the two girls went missing. He didn’t know if she ran away or was taken by a rival country. All he knew was that she was missing. That left him with one chance of getting the contract. You have to understand that he, like me, has invested everything into making the perfect soldier and the payoff is not just millions, it’s billions and an ongoing legacy for generations for the person who succeeds first.” 

Payne made her way to her seat as Doctor Kennedy’s story proved to be worth hearing. As she sat in her leather seat and continued to study his expressions, Doctor Kennedy continued. 

“The problem that Ben faced was that his approach to building the soldier of the future was to start training her at a young age. Just as he mistreated the subjects in the Bio-Blend project, he pushed his girl too hard. Several weeks ago, she vanished. Ben was left with no opportunity to land the government contract. That meant he was finished both financially and as a serious contender for government contracts in general.  

If you recall, there was an incident at this facility a little over a year ago that led to us putting in card readers and additional cameras.” 

Payne nodded, “Yes, I remember.” 

Well, I learned that we had a leak. Some of the files I had used to find and secure cadets had been taken from my office. Among those files were the details about Nikki. I didn’t put it together until now, but it is my belief that Ben hired someone to come into this facility as an employee and used them to steal our research. Imagine his surprise when he learned that we had the first girl that went missing.” 

Payne leaned forward in her seat, “Doctor, are you telling me that you stole Nikita from this guy, and he found out about it? Now he is taking her back?” 

“In a nutshell, yes. But you have to understand that I took her because she would have been abused and I hid her in the same foster system that Ben used but I changed her identity several times to protect her. I was trying to keep her from going through the hell that her counterpart endured.” 

“So, her real name isn’t even Leanna Wells?” 

“No. She doesn’t really have a name.” 

Payne, looking suspicious said, “So Nikita was really one of Ben’s lab experiments that you are using to get a government contract that will pay you billions. He found out that you stole her, and he is in the process of stealing her back. Am I getting the picture Doctor?” 

“You’re over-simplifying things but yes, that covers the basics.” 

“So, what will I be facing when I go to get our cadets back?” 

“Rachael, I won’t sugar-coat this. Ben has the manpower, resources and resolve to throw a small army of well-trained mercenaries at you and he has no problem with death and torture. If he gets his hands on our cadets, he will take them apart one piece at a time until he gets Nikita. Then he will get rid of everyone he doesn’t need. If I didn’t think he was dangerous, we wouldn’t be having this meeting.” 

Payne’s face was red as she was fighting back the urge to snatch Doctor Kennedy over the desk. 

“Meeting? You think what we are doing here is having a meeting? You tell me that six kids that I have dumped years of my life into are in the woods with a maniac and an army of killers as they run for their lives, unarmed...., You think we are having a meeting?” 

Payne stood up from her chair as she put her fists on the desk and leaned toward Kennedy who sat upright awaiting an attack. 

“This is not a meeting, Doctor. This is a séance and you have just raised a ghost from the dead. You may wish you didn’t do that. I guarantee you that your friend Ben will regret it when I am done here. I left behind my life of crawling through woods and killing in the name of freedom so that I could help give direction to kids who needed it. Thanks to you, now I am forced to become the very thing I am running from.  

“Richard, you know better than anyone who I am and what I am capable of. You promised me a better life, but you have failed me by putting me in a position to go to war with your enemies. That’s what this is. This is you using me to clean up your mess. Don’t think I can’t see that.” 

“Rachael, I’m sorry. I never intended any of this to happen. I understand you are mad, and I won’t blame you if you want to leave this program but right now, I have no one else who can get our kids back.” 

“Kids? Don’t play word games with me, doctor. You mean, I am the only one who can get your weapon back. Don’t pretend like you care about what happens to the rest of them.” 

“Rachael, that’s not true. I mean it’s true that Nikita represents my life’s work but I’m not heartless. Of course, I care what happens to the other kids.” 

“Doctor, what else are you not telling me. Let me warn you before I go after our kids, if I get out in those woods and discover you have put me or these cadets at risk with some other secret that you failed to fill me in on, I will be coming for you next.” 

“Rachael don’t threaten me. That’s not smart.” 

“Doctor, you are one of a few people who know who ‘The Ghost’ really is. Do you know how I got that name? It wasn’t because rich business owners like yourself gave it to me. It was because you’ll be dead before you see me coming. Do you want to give it a shot? Get your best goons and let’s roll the dice.” 

Payne was leaning down on both fists and clinching her teeth as Doctor Kenedy squirmed in his chair knowing he was defenseless if Payne decided to snatch him out of his seat. 

“Okay Rachael, stop. You’re right. Everything you are saying is right and I have enough problems without having to look over my shoulder knowing you want me gone. Regardless of how you feel about my choices, I am a necessary evil just as you once were. I am not asking for your approval or your forgiveness. I’m asking for your help. We have a common interest here. Our kids are in harm's way and until we have them back, they are not safe. Should we spend our time fighting each other or should we work together to rescue them?”  

“Doctor, I will do whatever I need to do to rescue those kids. When and if I return in one piece, you and I are going to renegotiate the terms of our working arrangement.” 

“Rachael, before you go you need to know one more thing.” 

“Are you sure you want to push your luck Doctor?” asked Payne. 

“Nikita may be your best chance of getting out of those woods if you can find her. In my office, I have a red case that contains a pen. I want you to take it with you. The pen is designed for one purpose. If you place it in the center of Nikki’s forehead and push the button on the top it will deliver an infrared light at a specific frequency combined with a small dose of radiation that will activate her second key.” 

“Start making sense Richard because it sounds like you want me to help you experiment on Nikita and that would be the wrong thing to say right now.” 

“No, it’s not an experiment. This is how she was designed. The combination of light and radiation are a safeguard to keep her from accidentally being activated before she was mature enough for her mind to handle it.” 

“What is this going to do to her?” insisted Payne. 

“This pen will dissolve the capsule in her forehead. The capsule contains a chemical that will break down the barriers placed in her neural pathways. When those pathways are open, her mind will begin processing information at a speed that some might mistake for the ability to see the future.” 

“Doctor, are you telling me this kid will be psychic?” 

“Not exactly. Think of it as her having so much information available at any given moment, that she can understand all of the options a person has, and which one is statistically most likely to be chosen.” 

“Doctor, you want me to do this in the middle of the woods? What if something goes wrong?  What if she has a negative reaction? She could die before I could get her help.” 

“Rachael, this is my field of expertise. You do your job and trust me to know mine. If I know Ben, you will need every advantage you can get, and this is one they won't see coming.” 

“Doctor, what else can she do? I need to know what I’m working with.” 

“Honestly Rachael, she is the first of her kind. I can’t tell you exactly what to expect but I can tell you that she should be capable of seeing heat signatures at night. She should have the strength to tear a grown man’s head off of his body with her bare hands. She can see further, hear better, run faster, climb higher, heal faster...” 

“You people. You actually did it. You took all the worst parts of the experiments done at Bio-Blend and incorporated them into this child. You created a monster capable of killing her whole team and you want me to be the one to flip the switch that turns her on.” 

“I wanted to do this at BETA where we could monitor the results but that’s no longer an option. This is not what I wanted Rachael, but we aren’t being given any better options.” 

“Doctor, go get this pen you are talking about. I am about to contact two of my team's operators and tell them they need to risk their lives to clean up your mess. I need a chopper here in two hours to bring us to the last coordinates of the bus. I will have my gear on the roof and my team will be ready to leave as soon as it arrives.” 

An hour and forty-five minutes later, Payne was standing on the roof with two large men dressed in black military gear. One was bald and had a beard that reached his shirt, and the other man had long, black hair that was tied behind him and reached midway down his back. As they sat their gear bags down next to Payne, they both gave her a hug. It had been years since they had seen each other in person but they had a long history of working together. As far as Payne was concerned, this was as close to family as she ever had.  

Payne stepped back a few steps to take a look at both men. 

“Jesus, Ace, you look like you are in a rock band with that long hair.” 

Ace laughed, “Well, that’s because I am in a rock band. We call ourselves ‘Skull Duggery.” 

Payne chuckled, “I wish I could say that I couldn’t see this coming, but I always knew you’d become this person. They say the mind is the first thing to go for a soldier.” 

The second man laughed as Payne turned her attention to him. 

“Thumper, I don’t know what you’re laughing about. I keep more hair on my legs than you have on your head. Damn, put a hat on. The glare will give our position away. 

Thumper slapped Payne on the shoulder and said, “You never change Payne. Always an encouraging word.” 

“If you want encouragement you need to find a church. I deal in truth and the truth is, our asses are getting too old for this.” 

“Bring us up to speed, said Ace, getting down to business. 

“Bottom line, we have six cadets in the woods and no less than a dozen armed men looking for them. One is a special asset, and the rest are expendable to the aggressor. Our job is to locate and extract all six cadets with minimum contact with the opposition. That being said, if these assholes decide to get between us and these cadets, we will leave a horror story in these woods that will make the Black Forest look like a kiddy ride. These are armed, well trained mercs who have knowingly made a decision to hunt children and kill them. They work for a piece of shit who has no problem hurting kids. If they resist us, we will lay waste to every last one of them. I don’t care if I have to go back for more supplies to finish every last one of them.” 

Thumper looked at Ace and said, “The ghost is back.” 

Ace chuckles, “I kinda missed her.” 

Payne interrupted, “Listen, you two. I have gone to great lengths to get out of this work. I don’t want to be out here, and I have no desire to become what I once was. I’m here because they took something that I have invested my life into. They will give it back. The Ghost is just a myth made up by people who didn’t see the scars left from my battles. I’m older and where we are going, a myth is not enough to get the job done.” 

“We aren’t here because you are ‘The Ghost’, we are here because you are family, but you still have everything that made people fear you being in a fight. You have experience on your side. Besides, you were never that fast. We just let you beat us at everything because you're a chick.” 

“First of all, I think your definition of a “chick” is too broad because I am more of a man than you will ever be and the only thing you ever let me win was your dad’s heart so shut your trap before I send you too your room son.” 

Thumper laughed at the insults Payne fired back at Ace. 

“I missed you...bitch.” 

Payne laughed, “I missed you too dumbass.” 

As the three caught up on life, a black helicopter could be heard in the distance. As it appeared over the horizon, the team picked up their bags and waited for it to touch down. As the chopper hit the deck, all three threw their gear in and jumped up into a hard metal seat. 

“Pilot, get us in the air,” said Payne. 

“Ma’am, I need ten minutes to find a restroom and bottled water because I’ve been in the seat for two hours. I need to stretch my legs.” 

Payne, reading the pilot's nametag, replied, “Barn’s? Is it Barn’s?” 

“Yes Ma’am.” 

“Barns, I have over fifteen hundred hours of flight time in this model chopper. You step out of that seat, and you will wave at me as I fly over, and you can stretch your legs on a walk back to the BETA facility.” 

Barns had heard rumors about Payne and knew he would be better peeing his pants than testing her, so he put his seat harness back on and powered up the rotors.  

“I can just stretch my legs while I fly.” 

“Payne slapped him on his shoulder, “I like you already.” 

As Payne sat back in her seat, Ace said, “I didn’t know you had fifteen hundred hours of flight time.” 

“Hell, I can’t fly a kite, but he doesn’t know that.” 

Thumper and Ace laughed as the chopper lifted off the roof and headed to the last known location of the bus. 

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