Chris Howard



Fritz looked as if he wanted to get the hell out of there, but I shook my head, jerked a chin at the trampled path into the woods. “We have a friend in OKF. They just took him inside. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Fritz pulled in a deep breath, let it out. He nodded. “You need to get this friend out then.”

Brazley was checking her gun, eyeing Fritz suspiciously. I copied her. Andreus put a hand on her shoulder, and swung his gaze to Fritz. “Any suggestions?”

He looked us over one more time, made the decision. “We’ll help. It’s what we do.” It sounded a bit forced. “And I have ways to get in.” He started to turn, then gave us a stern look when we didn’t budge. “Not on me. I need to gather some supplies, and my partner. It’d be wise to plan a bit.”

Andreus looked at me, pale eyes steady. “Your decision.”

It was difficult not to turn and stare, hard to keep a mix of expressions off my face—pain, rage, something unfamiliar that I think people called “shame”. But I kept my gaze locked on Andreus. “I think...I would trust Fritz with my life.”

Out of my peripherals, I caught Fritz giving me a judicious look, then a frown, something he couldn’t figure out. He let it go, and was off, leading us through the woods. “This way.”

I waved Andreus ahead with Brazley, and I spun, sent out feelers for incoming trouble, didn’t feel anything near. I turned and sprinted after them.

We ran hard, closely following the same track we’d used to come north after Reed, then turning east for another ten kilometers, through a belt of marshland, with mist swirling around us, and into more forest and brush that grew denser with every step.

Slowing to a walk, we wound through a thick wood with almost nothing to guide us, no deer paths, creeks, a few clearings with open sky between the branches. A few kilometers in, Fritz was singing some kind of revealing song that lifted away the fog in the trees, and I knew I loved this guy, even at nine-years old, knew he was right and good. Also knew I couldn’t have him. He was already in love with someone, felt that just by the way he’d said “partner” in the woods up from OKF.

I stared into the thick grove of evergreens with Brazley and Andreus, and felt their approval as well—joy in the air around us. I couldn’t help saying, “This is good.”

Fritz lived in a goddamn treehouse, and I mean a full two floored living space with all amenities ten meters off the ground.

“Really beautiful, Fritz.” And he looked at me longer than the remark warranted. I didn’t meet his eyes, just kept my neck bent back, studying the structure high in the trees.

He led us up a ladder, two flights of switchbacked stairs, and onto an open deck, basically a platform with support columns every few meters and nothing but clean air and sight all the way around the lower floor.

Fritz came up last, calling “Carlos!” when we’d gathered at the head of the stairs. He held out an open hand as a pair of old-fashioned wood framed glass doors swung open. “This is my love, Carlos. Welcome to our home.”

Carlos stepped through the doors, crossed the deck with the controlled motion of a soldier—some scarily trained soldier, short cropped blond hair, intense blue eyes. Cleated boots, tight fitting natural color camo pants, a jacket of the same material with a stiff vertical collar, some sort of comm gear sewn into it in a row of black beads. Definitely something dangerous about him—probably many things. He kept his expression neutral, studying each of us in turn, and put an arm over Fritz’s shoulders. “Pleasure to meet you.” He kept glancing at Fritz for an explanation. Betting they didn’t have guests swing by their hidden treehouse often.

Fritz introduced us, one by one, getting our real names this time, and I shuffled to the left of Andreus to go last. He shook Andreus’ hand, then Brazley’s.

Then stopped.

One hand on Carlos’ shoulder, he started to say something and choked it back. He stared at me a second, Carlos reaching up to take his hand. He clearly felt something was wrong, and he was glaring at me now.

Fritz let it slip away, took a step toward me. “Do I know you?”

I let out the breath I’d been holding for three minutes, whispering, “It’s me Fritzy. Theodora from the OaK...” I blinked, almost missed the shock on Fritz’s face. “Holy fucking Tree. I never even saw it—in all these years, and with everything going on in the last month. The O, K, and F were all caps in OaK leaF.”

Shock melted off Fritz’s face, and he jumped forward, hugged me, and he felt right—and my tears tasted awful in my mouth. I swallowed them anyway. My guilt was a little tough going down.

Fritzy leaned away, just looking at me, full recognition in his eyes now.

I had to say something...stupid “Why didn’t you stay? Why did you leave before my Uncle and I got back from the OaK leaF?” The buried shame swarmed through my body, hot and prickly—as if I’d called it up from storage. “I’m so sorry. That sounded like an accusation. I was...shit this is hard... It wasn’t you. I was kind of glad you’d left. I didn’t know for certain that you hadn’t been on their side. I mean I knew you weren’t, but I was young and stupid and didn’t want to know. I’m so...self-absorbed, such a fool. I should have looked for you long ago.”

He smiled, the same Fritzy smile. “You would have found me—” He took Carlos’ hand again. “—us right here, doing what we can do to fight the OKF, looking for Strawberry and the others—to get the truth out of them, to bring you their heads—and their voices confirming the truth. I just wanted you to believe me, Thea. I didn’t think you would trust me again. So I left to look for the keys to that trust.”

“You think I’d believe some sick bitch who called herself Strawberry?” I tried to make it funny.

He shook his head, but said, “I wasn’t sure back then. It hurt—still hurts. They made me talk. I handed them everything I knew about me and you, and I couldn’t stop it.”

“They made you talk. It wasn’t you. We were kids, and they were monsters.” My voice was already low, dropping lower to add, “And you can stop looking for the Berries. I killed them all for what they did to us.” And I’ve never trusted another soul in my life, not really, not with anything that mattered.

There was silence for ten long seconds. No one wanted to break it. Fritz closed his eyes, breathing deeply, opened them again, whispering to me, “Thank you.”

* * *

We allowed ourselves a few minutes of stepping back through time along with a little storytelling, and then everything shifted back to the present, a flurry of motion, and Andreus was ripping through his pack for his medical gear, yanking out wipes for Brazley’s toxin exposed skin, reloading his gun, and jamming it back into its holster. Carlos called up maps of the OKF complex floating right out on the deck, large holoscreens with building layouts, grounds maps, and sim views we could walk through to get a spatial map, an automated sense of the scale and location of various maximum security cellblocks. Fritz did his music thing, showing us weapon shielding and a few offensive measures he could sing up. And I wanted to know where the damn bathroom was. Been holding it since this morning.

“Second door on the left.” Carlos pointed through the kitchen, followed me halfway there, turning off at a pantry with floor to ceiling supply racks to gather water bottles and food. I imagined similar stores of weapons somewhere in the house.

Sure enough, when I got back to the group, Carlos was already geared up, black body armor, stacks of ammo clips, two tactical assaults swinging lazily under his arms, similar to Andreus’ and Brazley’s, and a small pack on his back with who knows what else inside. I shuddered when my mind jumped automatically to the word, “incendiary.”

With a pointing finger and music, Fritz sketched out a map of the OKF grounds in mid-air, scaling up to bring in the surrounding territory, casually marking the southern edge of the Chicago Sphere’s proximity net in a red dashed line, one meandering finger in bright green marking the path Reed’s captors had taken to OKF. “I picked them up here. Three of them and your friend, Reed Gossi.”

Off to one side, Fritz used both hands, making circle gestures and then framing the space, four of them, each resolving into fairly clear still images of the group. Reed with a pair of restriction cuffs on his arms, a thin gray band around his head. He didn’t look injured. He looked...asleep, eyes half-closed.

Didn’t recognize the second and third, looked prismdead to me, a little too tall, too long-limbed for a normal human without mods. The rows of sharp teeth were also a dead giveaway.

I got a closer look at the final member of the raiding party, much taller than the rest, with meter long cable-hair and claws like a giant machine. “That’s Folesh.”

Carlos nodded, and Fritz and he exchanged a look.

Fritz pointed at the images. “Folesh-Lin-Ohnen is very dangerous. Not sure if he’s acting on his own or if someone controls him in our world, but we think he’s handed it over. He’s sort of an OKF independent contractor, working special cases for someone high-up in the org.”

Carlos added, “If Folesh-Lin-Ohnen ran the abduction then I know exactly where they will take Reed for... questioning.”

“Except for him, I would have intervened here.” Fritz gestured at the map. “I picked up the party heading northeast just above the Kankakee and Iroquois River confluence. Saw them coming through the trees, a rolling ball of a demon coming over the water, very high in the air, then into the trees on the north bank, snapping branches making a lot of noise. Only reason I noticed them.” He stopped, looked over at me. “What is it?”

“Uh...” The words scattered in my mouth. I coughed. I was suddenly battling a strong urge to open up with these guys—they seemed so direct, not holding back with anything they knew, jumping on my problems as if they were their own. Holy shit, they knew more about what was going on than I did.

And come on, it’s Fritzy, right?

I’m new at this trusting people thing, but still...this didn’t feel right, seemed way too fast. It kept me off balance. I turned to Fritz, forced the words out, “I knew Folesh before we met, not very well. He did some work for my mother twenty years ago or so. Barely remember him, but it’s the same guy.”

I had just said something very right or very wrong. Every eye in the place snapped to me, focusing laser sharp. Carlos and Fritz didn’t have to ask the question. I shrugged. “My mother is Kraneia. You know I’m the daughter of the one and only dryad in this world, right?”

Carlos let out a breath, almost a whistle, glanced at his partner, back at me. “Yeah, we knew it. Fritz said you were special.” He smiled, some hidden line of humor running through it, probably meant something to Fritz. “Didn’t realize just how special.”

“And one more thing. Reed and I met up with Folesh and a night-team on the way out here, somewhere in Ohio. We defeated them, strung up every one of Folesh’s guys, fed on them, and the old demon left us alone, just walked away. Gave me a weird line about being on the wrong side, and turned to go.”

That made Carlos go thoughtful, a deepening scowl he wore to the end of the strategy session. Andreus stood with his arms calmly at his side, goggles and other gear propped up on his head. He looked ready to take on the OKF. Brazley looked ready to take on the world.

Fritz hadn’t even buttoned his shirt. I gave him an approving shrug. I carried everything I needed with me, too.

Then we were off, back down the stairs, down the ladder, to the ground, Fritz singing to close some door he had opened to let us out. We hadn’t even made it to the marsh before Andreus had to stop to collect a mound of oozing ossi-friends. Apparently there was an old graveyard near, and all the bones had felt him pass by the first time, waiting for their master to return. He sank to his knees, appeared to cuddle the slippery looking bone mass, arms circling it, milky jelly-like stuff leaking through his fingers. Brazley joined him after he had the whole thing ready to consume.

I wasn’t the only one holding back a good acidy vomit. And these two were queasy when I took fresh materials from the prismdead? Fuck, get some perspective. Some of these bones could have been here three hundred years. That’s just nasty.

I nodded to Carlos and Fritz. “They’re hunters, prismdeads are their thing.” My arms folded, I jutted an elbow at Andreus and Brazley feeding, trying to make it sound casual with my stomach turning. “If it will help them help me get Reed back, I don’t care if they stop a few times to grab bones or bagels and coffee.”

Fritz looked sick. “Old friends of yours?”

“I have no friends.” I had to look away, but caught the hurt look on his face.

“What?” Carlos sounded genuinely amazed. “Everyone has friends.”

I shot him a glare. “I’m not everyone.”

Seeing Andreus and Brazley finishing up, he waved away my argument. “Tomorrow. When we get back to the treehouse. After some rest. I want to hear how you of all people have made it this far without friends.” He made a weird smile, made his doubt clear. “And I’ll get the truth out of you. Consider it a challenge.”

With Andreus still licking his lips, we jumped little grassy hills, clump to clump through the marshland, and then we were back into the woods, crossing ancient farmlands—fields that hadn’t been turned and tilled in a hundred years, but still looked like they were waiting for next year’s seeding.

Where in hell was the Leaf Father? Something eerie about his absence here, well into his side of the Mississippi, nowhere to run if he caught us.

I ran with Fritz, behind Carlos, Andreus and Brazley, the three of them sharing and comparing military sign language.

Five kilometers out from the complex, with the sun starting to set, Fritz and I jumped to the lead, and he went to work with his music, plucking the air, and although I couldn’t hear it, I felt the sense of pressure, something closing in around us, swallowing our voices, our heartbeats, our footsteps, every memory of our passing. We were invisible to the world—and more importantly to OKF, which wouldn’t limit things to just one world.

I grinned over at him. “You’re still pretty good with the noise, Fritzy.”

We reached one of the side gates without anyone sensing our approach, and the four guards—two of whom weren’t even human that I could tell, just pretending, didn’t even see my vines until they were tight around their throats, lifting them into the air, squeezing off countermeasures, breath, blood to the brain, life. Or whatever passed for life with the prismdeads.

I let them down easy, and Fritz, after a quick check, waved Carlos into the gate station to set everything on auto. He jacked into the panels, floated identity cards in hover trays at opposite ends of the station, barked a couple commands and responses to someone doing a routine status check.

I leaned into Fritz, still keeping an eye on his boyfriend. “What’s Carlos’ story?” Saw the sharpening edge of his smile coming around the side of his face.

“Carlos used to be chief of OKF perimeter security.”

My eyes went wide on their own. “Okay, after we get my Reed back, and skip through our little discussion about friendship—which won’t last long, I definitely want to hear about that.”

“You got it.” Fritz kept his smile, turned it to me, and said my name gently, as if a louder voice would break it, as if hearing it aloud might hurt his ears, or might stir up the pain. “Theodora.”

In seconds, we were past the defensive weaponry, inside the OKF grounds—after the Spheres, this world’s most secure chunk of property.

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