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Mg10, 1st, cons, ped, oral, MF, action/adventure, science fiction, very slow

Late on a cold night, with fog banks drifting across a lonely road deep in Virginia, Theo Harris almost runs over a strange young girl and his life is forever changed.



Chapter One

Alarms erupted, loud sirens abruptly shattering the silence of the night. Red lights sprang into life, rotating inside glass housings attached high to the walls and above the doors of the huge, sprawling, single story windowless building, casting crimson light over the well-tended yet unadorned grounds. Armed security guards in dark uniforms flooded out through the metal doors, some running out towards three concentric chain-link fences topped with razor barbed wire surrounding the property, some racing along the sides of the building, hunting, eyes seeking for the source of the security breach.

Inside the building, uniformed men and women ran in organized urgency, faces serious, eyes sharp. More security guards, gripping machine guns, collected in the lobby.

One man issued instructions with sharp barks and hand gestures. "Room-to-room sweeps. Two together at all times. Go!"

Civilian men and women joined the frantic activity, some pulling on white lab coats, others yelling at each other. "What's happening?" "Where's the security breach?"

Outer doors locked with loud thumps; state of the art electronic security measures kicking in. The large facility was now impregnable. It was also now a prison, no one allowed to enter, no one allowed to leave.

In the main security room, an expansive bank of digital monitors gave clear images of every corridor. The head of security, Rob Kitchen, scanned the monitors, his eyes seeking. What had set the alarms off?

Suddenly everything went dark - lights, monitors, alarms. The silence was deafening. People in the security room froze, waiting for backup generators to kick in. The facility had been designed with triple redundancy. Complete electrical failure was an impossibility.

Except for tonight.

For three excruciating minutes everyone held their breath, frozen in inky darkness, alert and worried. Finally, emergency lights clicked on illuminating corridors in a weak yellow glow. People started moving again.

In the security room, monitors flickered back to life, one by one, but not reliably. Screens randomly went blank then pictures returned, some suffering extreme static or pixilation that obscured the picture. There was no obvious pattern to the interference.

In the west wing, the highest security zone, the door of room 103B was open. A small girl emerged. In a simple white gown-like dress and barefoot, she looked up and down the corridor before turning right towards double security doors.

She walked towards the locked doors, calm, almost serene, her bare feet making no sound. A security guard stood with his back to her, his hand on the gun at his belt, alert and ready to protect against intruders.

Tonight there were no intruders. Tonight, there was an escape.

He glanced around and saw the small girl.

"How did you get out? The doors are on lockdown. You have to go back to . . ."

He never finished his sentence. The small girl, with large green eyes, stared up at him without fear. Her eyes flashed; small, intense, lavender coronas forming around her irises that disappeared as fast as they had arrived.

The security guard immediately stopped talking. He smiled at her, turned, swiped his security card through a reader, tapped an alphanumeric code into a keypad, and pulled the door open to let the girl pass before resuming his guard duties.

The small girl walked with purpose but no haste. At each locked set of doors she looked at the guard, a small burst of lavender flashed in her eyes, and the guard opened the door with a smile. Her eyes flashed at each security cam she passed, calmly walking, unperturbed, serene. By the time she reached a side door, running feet could be heard echoing in the corridor.

The electronically locked outer door opened effortlessly when she pushed it. In the chilly autumn night, with a ghostly fog drifting over the forested landscape, the young girl walked across a well-groomed lawn towards a guarded side gate at the first line of fencing.

Back in the security room, chaos reigned. Technicians scrambled, tapping keyboards in a desperate attempt to restore full video coverage on the supposedly fail-proof system.

“What the Hell’s wrong with the monitors?” Rob Kitchen yelled, infuriated by the random static.

“Don’t know,” a technician replied from under the console, lying on his back with a flashlight inspecting complex wiring.

“Get it fixed!”

“We’re trying!”

Radio chatter played in the background as security guards reported in. None of them reported anything unusual. If it was a false alarm, it was the first they’d experienced.

Rob, contemplating the appearance of static across the wall of monitors, suddenly stiffened. “Do you see a pattern here?” he asked no one in particular. “Look.” Pointing to different screens, he said, “It started there in the 100 wing, then there, then there, and there. It’s like a digital ghost is drifting through the corridor, blanking out the cams and . . . Oh shit! That’s the side gate!

“Get them on the radio!” he yelled.

At the side gate, three heavily armed guards stood at alert, two facing out, one facing in. A radio crackled. One guard listened and responded, “Nothing’s happening out here.”

Fifty yards away, already hidden by the dense pine forest, the girl walked barefoot on the damp, needle-covered ground. Like a phantom, she walked through laser intrusion detection lines, over randomly hidden pressure pads, and slowly left the compound behind. Wet fog soaked her very pale, platinum blonde hair flat to her skull. She didn’t notice.

In the compound, all hell broke loose when a room-to-room search discovered room 103B empty. Frantic calls were placed to headquarters in Virginia alerting them to an unprecedented breach of security. General Harold Lattimer ordered an immediate isolation zone be set up. Forty miles away from the compound, an army base exploded with organized activity; soldiers running and climbing into canvas-covered army trucks in a well rehearsed but never before needed emergency plan. Troop transport trucks fired up spitting dark diesel smoke into the air, and drove out in a long convoy. Eighty soldiers headed towards the anonymous compound.

**********

Theo Harris swore and wrestled with the shaking steering wheel. “Fucking drizzle” he muttered. He hated drizzle. If it was going to rain, then let it fucking rain! Weak headlights hardly lit the greasy road ahead. The dark pine forest pressed in on both sides along the isolated road.

The Jeep Cherokee briefly lost grip at the rear when he took a corner that any other vehicle could handle with ease. He wrestled with the wheel again and restored control. God damn tires! Next time, he thought, he’d spend more and buy new tires, not these used pieces of shit.

He checked the dash clock. Almost midnight and he wanted to be home, not here, thirty-some miles past get-me-the-fuck-outa-here and fifteen miles from Holy-fuck-how-can-anyone-live-here.

Why the hell did I ever . . .

Ahead, a girl in white walked out into the road. He slammed the brakes on, tires squealing, the Cherokee shaking before rear adhesion was lost. In slow motion, the SUV turned broadside, skidding on all wheels towards the girl. Impact was inevitable.

She stood in the road watching it approach.

“Get out of the way!” Theo yelled, desperately wrestling with the steering wheel and stamping on the brakes, his gut tightening as the out of control Cherokee slid towards her.

Twenty feet disappeared in the blink of an eye. Ten feet. The girl watched. Five feet from her, Theo thought he saw a flash of lavender before the Cherokee came to a sudden stop so violently his head slammed into the driver's side window, cracks radiating from the point of impact. It felt like the Cherokee had hit a lamp post or concrete barrier, the stop was so sudden. Stars burst in his eyes. Darkness briefly clouded his vision before clearing. When his ears stopped ringing he heard absolute silence, the engine dead.

Fear gripped him. The girl!

Looking out the fractured door window, he saw her, still standing five feet away and unhurt. What the fuck?

Shaken, Theo struggled with the door handle. It opened suddenly and he tumbled out onto his hands and knees.

“Are you okay?” he asked, standing slowly. She studied him. He blinked. Did her eyes just flash? No. No way. Maybe he was concussed and seeing things.

“Are you okay?” he asked again, shivering from the damp cold seeping through his shirt. Then he noticed her clothes, or lack thereof. She wore a white institutional looking sack dress. Was there a hospital somewhere close by? Nope. Not that he could remember. They were in the middle of nowhere.

It happened again. Her eyes seemed to flash! He wasn’t imagining it. Definitely lavender, the flash gone almost before he registered it.

Another shiver shook him. Theo looked around. There was nothing here. The dark pine forest scented the air. Drizzle fell. Fog drifted in patches making the landscape eerie. No paths. No crossroad. Where had she come from?

“You’d better get in out of the cold and rain,” he told her.

She tilted her head to the side and studied him. Theo noticed her emerald green eyes for the first time, then her pale, almost platinum hair, long and soaking wet.

“Get in the car. You’ll freeze,” he urged, pointing.

The girl finally moved, calmly walking around to the passenger side.

Theo, still shivering, studied the driver-side door. No dent. No scratches marred the spots of rust. What had he hit?

He climbed in and slammed the door shut, turned the key and heard clicking, the engine not even turning over. Shit! What now?

The girl watched him.

“Damn! Decrepit piece of garbage!” Theo swore, thumping the steering wheel.

The girl reached over and touched the keys in the ignition, then sat back, watching him with big green eyes.

“Yeah. I tried that. I’ll have to check the engine. Maybe something came loose.” He turned the key again out of habit. The engine started, grinding ominously then settling into idle. “Huh. How ’bout that?”

Twisting the wheel, he straightened the Cherokee, drove, and reached over to turn the heat up, blower on high. Welcome warmth arrived. He shivered.

“Who are you?” he asked. “I can take you home. Where do you live?”

She studied him.

There! Definitely a flash, Theo thought. Damn weird.

The girl tilted her head to the side slightly, stared, then said, “You’re different,” in a light voice.

“I’m different? Me? I’ve got nothing on you! Who are you?”

“One.”

“One what?” Theo asked.

She didn’t respond. Turning to look ahead, she said, “They’re there.” She pointed through the winshield.

“Who?”

Straining to see into the dark road ahead, flashing red lights appeared in the distance. As he drew closer, he saw two army trucks and a barricade blocking the road. Soldiers were inspecting a minivan stopped at the barricade. He slowed carefully to avoid skidding.

“Are they looking for you?” Theo asked.

The girl nodded once.

Why would the army be looking for a small girl? “Who are you?” he asked again, slowing to a stop behind the minivan.

A soldier approached, drizzle running off his helmet and rain slicker, a rifle over his shoulder. Theo lowered the cracked window to speak. The soldier looked at him, then the girl. He smiled suddenly and stepped back.

“She’s not in this one,” he yelled to the other soldiers. “You can go now,” he informed Theo, pointing ahead.

A temporary barricade was lifted. Theo, confused, followed the minivan through and sped up. Wipers cleared the drizzle, the rear lights of the minivan sparkling as it pulled away.

Out-accelerated by a friggin’ minivan! Theo thought. It’s embarrassing.

He glanced at the girl. “Who are you? Why is the army looking for you? And what happened to that soldier? Why didn’t he recognize you?”

“I asked him not to.”

“You asked . . .? You didn’t say a thing!”

“You don’t hear me,” she answered, staring ahead.

Theo, exasperated and confused, pulled over and stopped halfway off the wet road. He turned to her. “What’s going on?”

She remained silent, still staring ahead, patient and calm.

What was he supposed to do? Turf her out into the chilly wet night to die from exposure? Shit! Why me? Why tonight? Theo steered the Cherokee back onto the road and accelerated. He’d drop this strange girl off at the police station, if anyone was there this late at night.

Wipers swept the winshield intermittently, clearing a fine mist. Weak headlights made drifting patches of fog appear ghostly. The engine complained as Theo drove steadily higher into the Appalachians, the road becoming sinuous.

Every so often, he glanced at the girl. She was motionless, her hands folded in her lap, eyes watching ahead. As the ends of her hair dried they turned pale platinum, almost white . Her hair was very long, falling straight in a curtain to below her waist. Her face showed no expression. Her eyes were too big for her face, nose small, mouth small, lips surprisingly lush, she looked like she was eight, nine, or ten.

He couldn’t decide. She could be older, for all he knew.

She had a frail body, on the edge of being malnourished, thin arms and legs, dirty bare feet. Where had she come from? And why would the army be looking for her?

He wracked his brain. As far as he could remember, that section of Virginia was forested and uninhabited.

The road changed, now descending, still sinuous with switchback curves. Through the thick forest he caught glimpses of light. The road hit the valley floor. He drove into Lebanon, a small town of less than four thousand. This late, Main Street was deserted. A few street lights battled back darkness without much success. Shadowed store windows passed.

Ahead, on the right, the police station - a squat two-storied building - was the only one with lights. Theo parked.

“Let’s go. The police will be able to help you.”

The girl sat quietly, ignoring him. She looked at the police station, giving no indication she’d heard him. He tried again.

“You have to come with me. They’ll look after you.”

“No.”

It was said softly, not defiant, a simple statement.

Theo shrugged, got out and, shivering in the cold damp air, headed into the station.

Officer Ripkin glanced up from the newspaper lying on the reception desk. A mug of coffee steamed next to him. Large and still boyish despite his fifty-plus years, he smiled. “Hey, Theo. What’s up?”

“Caught the late shift?” Theo asked.

“Yup. Can’t complain. Marcy and the girls are driving me nuts. They want me to take them on a Disney cruise. Can you believe it? A ship full of screaming kids? That’s not what I call a vacation.”

He pointed to the newspaper. “Cozumel. Great packages. Ten days. Everything included. That’s what I call a vacation.”

Closing the newspaper, he asked, “What can I do for you?”

“I picked up a girl out on Route 616. I think she’s lost.”

Ripkin looked behind Theo. “I don’t see anyone.”

“She’s in the truck. She won’t come out.”

“Well, let’s go see,” he responded, sliding off the stool. “We haven't had a report of a missing child.”

Theo led Officer Ripkin to the Cherokee. The girl sat quietly in the passenger seat. Ripkin leaned to look through the passenger window. The girl turned her head, looked at Ripkin, and her eyes flashed lavender so briefly it was hardly noticeable.

Theo saw it. While he knew what to watch for, it still amazed him; like something out of the X-Files.

Then Ripkin straightened and smiled at Theo. “She’s fine. Nothing to worry about.” With that, Officer Ripkin turned and headed back into the station.

“Hey!” Theo yelled. “You’re supposed to take her!”

The station door closed.

Through the door window, the girl looked at Theo, her emerald green eyes expressionless.

“What did you do?” he asked to the closed window.

The girl turned her face away, again staring ahead.


Chapter Two

In the government facility buried deep in the Virginia woods, four people sat at a conference table, all facing a large LED display mounted on the wall.

“Have you found her?” a jowly general asked from the screen.

“No, sir,” Rob Kitchen responded. “She vanished like a wisp of smoke.”

General Howard Lattimer scowled. “How did this happen? Your facility is one of the most secure in the world.”

“Sir, we've talked to every guard and to a one, they swear they saw nothing. Lie detector tests show they’re telling the truth, yet our systems show they opened security gates.”

“And the explanation?” General Lattimer demanded.

For the first time Phillip Bell spoke up. “General, we don’t know how it happened, only that Opticon One was responsible.”

“How?” the general growled.

Phillip moved uncomfortably in his chair. “We think she must have developed some power we hadn’t foreseen.”

“Like what?”

Phillip shrugged. “Mind control?” he suggested, somewhat embarrassed. As a scientist, mind control was too sci-fi for his rational mind to accept.

A moment of uncomfortable silence ensued. Finally, the general asked, “What about the other three? Have they demonstrated any similar skills?”

“No, sir. As far as we can tell, they’re unchanged.”

“Did they all receive the same treatments as Opticon One?”

“Yes, sir. All four have been treated identically. That’s why we’re so surprised. We don't know why One reacted differently. Our scientists are poring over all the data and tests to identify any differences, but as you know, the other three are perfect clones right down to their DNA.”

General Lattimer rubbed his broad jaw. “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. You keep digging for what happened to Opticon One. I’m recalling the military. We’ll tell the media it was an exercise. We can’t risk information about the girl leaking, so you’re on lockdown until further notice. In the meantime, I’ll have someone find her and if he can’t bring her back, deal with her.”

Rob Kitchen asked, “If the military couldn’t find her, how can one person?”

“Mr. Kitchen, the man I have in mind is very good. He’ll find her. Trust me. Okay, this conference is over. Contact me when you have any answers or if you see a change in the other three.”

The screen went black. For the first time, Kelly Denton spoke. “What did he mean, deal with her?”

Rob sighed. “He means kill her.”

“No!” Kelly exclaimed. “You can’t let him! She’s just a girl for God sake!”

Phillip wiped his face, looking exhausted. “She’s not just a girl by a long shot, Kelly.”

**********

Theo opened his front door and ushered the girl in. His small apartment above the hardware store wasn’t much; a living room/kitchen combo, a bedroom, and a bathroom. The furniture matched his income - sparse and unattractive.

The girl walked in slowly, her head turning, taking everything in.

“You can sit anywhere,” Theo said. “Are you cold?”

“No.”

He reached out and touched her arm. It was icy. “You’re dirty and freezing cold. Go take a shower and warm up.”

He steered her to the small bathroom by her elbow. “There’s a towel, soap, and shampoo. Are you hungry?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“I’ll make something. You shower.”

Closing the door, Theo absentmindedly searched for food. A package of Mac & Cheese would have to do. He grabbed a bottle of beer and sipped it before starting.

Who was she? She was just about the strangest girl he’d ever met. And what was it with those flashes in her eyes? Was it mind control? And what sort of name was One? Was it a name?

The shower ran in the background. Theo turned the television on to see if an amber alert had been issued. The last thing he wanted was to be charged with kidnapping a child!

Nothing. Not one mention of a missing person. There was a special report of military maneuvers that had disrupted traffic for a while. That was what they’d run into - the road block. But, why was the military looking for her? Maybe it was a coincidence.

He noticed the silence. No shower running. Where was she? Moving to the bathroom door, he knocked. “Are you all right in there?”

“I don’t have clothes.”

Well, shit! He didn’t have any for her!

In the bedroom, he pulled out a big T-shirt and sweater. Back at the bathroom door, he opened it slightly and offered the clothes through the gap. She took them with a polite, “Thank you.”

He was stirring the Mac & Cheese when she emerged. She looked lost in the large sweater. The T-shirt fell to the top of her knees. Her damp hair fell straight and long to her behind.

Theo watched her as she wandered around, taking everything in. She showed no expression, just huge green eyes observing. Grabbing spoons and forks, he placed them on the tiny two-person dining table.

“Sit. I’ve made food,” he said, reaching for a couple of mismatched chipped plates.

The girl sat. She looked at the cutlery, then carefully arranged the fork and spoon, aligning them with space between for a plate.

Theo poured a glass of milk for her and set it down on the table along with his half-finished beer. She adjusted the glass while he poured Mac & Cheese onto the plates. Carrying them, he sat at the table, placing the plates down.

“It’s all I have. I hope you like Mac & Cheese.”

The girl’s eyes looked at him, then down at the plate. She picked up the fork and took a small bite, chewing slowly, head tilted as if judging the taste. Satisfied, she took another small bite.

Theo shoved a spoonful into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and asked, “What’s your real name?”

“One.”

“One isn’t a name. It’s a number. I’m talking about Julie, or Sandra, or Mary; a real name.”

Taking another small bite, the girl studied Theo with her astonishing gem-like green eyes. She chewed slowly, swallowed, and said, “My name is One.”

Frustrated, Theo asked, “Where do you live?”

“In a room.” She ate slowly, carefully chewing each mouthful, setting her fork down between bites.

“Let’s try another approach,” Theo said. “Do you have parents? A family?”

She paused, thought about it, then said, “No.”

“How about friends. Do you have a friend?”

“Two, Three, and Four.”

“Which?” Theo asked. “Two, three or four friends?”

“Three.”

Theo had the impression he wasn’t getting anywhere. It was as if they were talking about two different things. Nothing made sense. Giving it some thought, he changed direction.

“What’s that lavender light that flashes in your eyes?” he asked.

“What light?”

“The one in your eyes!” he said, his frustration intensifying.

“I don’t see a light.”

“So what did you do to the soldier and policeman?”

“I asked the soldier to not see me and told the policeman I was okay and not to worry.”

“You didn’t say a word!” Theo exclaimed.

The girl tilted her head, studying him. “You don’t hear me. Why?”

Theo shook his head. Must be too tired. “Would you like more dinner?”

“No, thank you.”

“Okay. It’s very late. You can sleep on the couch. Tomorrow, we can try to figure this out.”

After clearing the small table, he found a pillow and blanket for the girl, settled her, and went to bed. Sleep eluded him. Who was this strange girl? What was he supposed to do with her?

**********

A flushing toilet woke Theo up. His head hurt, almost like a hangover. He rolled out of bed, groaning, grabbed a T-shirt and tugged it on. Scratching his hair vigorously, he headed to the kitchen to make coffee.

At first, the sight of a girl sitting and watching television confused him. Then he remembered. She didn’t turn or notice him, her attention riveted to a news channel.

Theo made coffee, instant, the kettle boiling water quickly. Waiting for the mug to cool, blowing on the coffee, he studied his apartment. Something wasn’t right. Everything was the same, but not. As he sipped, as caffeine seeped into his system, it finally registered.

Everything wasn’t the same. Odds and ends usually scattered on shelves fighting for space with books, were all neatly organized; aligned perfectly. His books were standing upright, not sprawled in odd piles.

On the coffee table, his laptop was aligned with the edge of the table, the mouse neat at the side, and magazines were neatly displayed in a fan shape.

Studying the kitchenette, he noticed the counter was neat, too! Nothing was missing, yet he had more counter space. Salt and pepper grinders were aligned. Kitchen implements were back in the large Mason jar, not haphazardly spread around.

He looked at the kitchen sink. Last night’s dinner plates were sitting in the sink, one on top of the other, and the dirty pot was on top of the plates, filled with water, forks and spoons in it.

Moving into the small living room, he noticed the blanket folded neatly at one end of the couch, the pillow fluffed and sitting on top.

The girl concentrated on the television, sitting upright, her hands folded in her lap. Her hair, now completely dry, was pure platinum, straight and neat.

Theo sat next to her, sipped coffee from the chipped mug, and said, “I have to find you clothes and figure out what to do. And I have to go to work.”

She turned her head and looked at him.

“Will you be okay on your own here?” Theo asked.

“Yes.”

“What size clothes should I buy?”

“I don’t know.”

“How old are you? That might help find the right size.”

“I don’t know.”

Frustration returned. Theo drained his coffee and left to shower, mulling over how he’d pick clothes that would fit. And who doesn’t know how old they are?

The day passed without incident. His job, working in a distribution warehouse processing orders and loading trucks, was mindless. At the end of the day he went to the ATM, checked his balance, frowned, and withdrew a hundred dollars, leaving him with a balance of thirty-two to carry him to next week’s payday.

In a Salvation Army thrift store, he searched for clothes, finding socks and boots and underwear, pink sweat pants, a royal blue T-shirt, a sweater, and a colorful padded anorak. Seventy-eight dollars.

With the last of his funds, Theo bought groceries, all non-branded, cheap. Then he headed home.

The neatness of his apartment still surprised him. The girl was sitting on the couch, the television tuned to a news network, and busy studying his laptop. She didn't look up when he entered, as if she hadn't heard him walk in.

Putting away the meager groceries, Theo was astonished to find everything in his refrigerator perfectly organized. He opened cupboards finding everything organized and neat in them. Even the cutlery in the drawer was perfectly arranged!

About to ask why, he stopped. He couldn’t call her One. It sounded ridiculous! Grabbing the Salvation Army bags, he went and sat next to her on the couch. She still didn’t react, her index finger touching the edge of the laptop case, pages appearing and disappearing on the screen. Images and web pages flashed across the screen so fast he couldn’t tell what she was reading - if she was reading.

“Here. I bought you clothes,” he informed her, placing the bags next to her. She didn’t respond. He touched her arm and she straightened. The screen stopped when her finger lost contact with the case.

“I bought you clothes,” he repeated.

She closed the laptop, and looked at the bags.

“Go get dressed,” Theo suggested. “If they don’t fit, I’ll take them back and exchange them. I can’t afford to buy more.”

She looked at him, still expressionless.

“Change in my bedroom,” he suggested, pointing.

When she emerged, Theo grinned. Clearly he had no fashion sense. Pink sweats clashed with the blue T-shirt and yellow socks. Then the girl stunned him.

She smiled. “Pretty colors. Thank you.”

Her smile was broad and beautiful, dimples forming, her emerald eyes alight with pleasure. She transformed in front of him.

Theo smiled. “You’re welcome.”

“It’s so soft,” she said, rubbing the sweats. “Feel. I’ve never had colored clothes before.”

Theo rubbed her thigh when she sat next to him. The sweats felt like brushed cotton, her thigh very slim.

“You need a name,” he said. “I can't call you One. It’s not a proper name. So pick a new one.”

Her head tilted, her eyes looking into his. She curled her long hair behind a small ear. He thought, with her unusual platinum hair, she looked like an Ashlie.

Her eyes opened wide, almost surprised.

“Ashlie,” she said, testing the name. “Okay. I like it.”

Theo’s jaw dropped. “How did you do that? Can you read minds, too?”

“I’m not sure. I heard you say the name.”

Damn! “Can you hear everyone’s thoughts?”

“I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone.”

Theo took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself. He leaned back on the couch and said, “It’s time to talk. And no crazy answers. Where were you living before I found you?”

“At The Facility.”

“What facility?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why were you at the facility?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay, let’s try this. Where did you live before the facility?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about your parents? Where are they?”

“I don’t have parents. I’ve always been at The Facility.”

Frustration returned. Theo wracked his brain to find another angle of approach. “Why did you leave it?”

“It was time to help Two, Three, and Four.”

“Two, three . . . Are those other kids?”

She nodded.

“In the facility with you?”

“Yes.”

“Are they like you?” Theo asked.

“Not really. It didn’t work the same with them.”

“What didn’t work?”

“The experiments. They didn’t change.”

“What experiments? No! Never mind. Do you know who runs the facility?”

“I do now. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.”

“DARPA? Why would they be interested in children?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“How do you know it’s DARPA?”

“I looked it up on your computer.”

Theo sat quietly, his mind busy. Since when did DARPA list their research projects online? Weren’t they supposed to be top secret? And if it was DARPA, no wonder he never knew that facility existed. He still didn’t understand.

“Show me what you did.”

The girl opened the laptop. She touched the edge and pages started flashing up, one after another, so fast he couldn’t follow.

“Slow down! Start over and do it slowly.”

“Kay.” The pages disappeared. She started over with a touch, a DOS box opening.

“How do you do that without typing?” Theo asked.

“The keyboard has different electronic signatures for each key. Those signals are sent to the processor and translated into instructions which open programs. The program formats language and send instructions through packets over the Internet to . . .”

“No. Not that. How do you use the computer by touching it?” Theo clarified, fascinated.

“Electrical signals have energy. You bend the energy and shape it to what you want,” the girl answered perfectly seriously.

“You can do that?”

“Uh-huh. It’s easy. Watch.”

She leaned forward, touched the case again, and instructions appeared across the DOS box on the screen. Suddenly, the DOS screen flowed with scrolling programming language.

“What are you doing?” Theo asked.

“I'm asking the Department of Defense computer if it will let me visit.”

“Huh?”

The girl looked at Theo. “You have to ask it if you can visit. It likes to play games with you. Wait.” She placed her finger on the laptop case and concentrated, then continued, “It asks me for a new name and then for a funny code. I give it both and it lets me in. See?” She pointed at the screen.

A new page had opened with the DoD logo. When she reached out to touch the laptop, he grabbed her hand and stopped her.

“You can’t do that. It’s illegal! And how did you know the password?”

She shrugged. “It’s a game. I give it any name and code and it has to go back to check if it’s right. It stores all the information in a list. I follow it and read a real name and code from the list.”

Theo tried to wrap his brain around it and failed. He simply didn’t understand.

More pages flashed across the screen. Then it stopped, a DARPA logo displayed. She touched the computer, and screens flashed again. It stopped on a list. She pointed. “That one. Project Athena.”

Theo read the notation under the title. Restricted. No electronic record access online. Top secret. Ref: General Howard Lattimer/The Facility. Project initiated 06/04/1996. Status: Confidential.

“It doesn’t say anything here,” Theo observed, noticing the project started two decades ago.

“General Howard Lattimer and The Facility,” the girl said. “This is the only place in DARPA computers those two are used.”

“So what did they . . .”

The girl interrupted him. “They’ve found me.” She touched the laptop and a flurry of data scrolled through the DOS box. “They’re tracing me,” she added, pointing. “We have to go.”

“Go? Go where?”

“Away from here. If they get me I can’t help Two, Three, and Four.”


Chapter Three

The general’s phone rang. He answered with a bark, “Lattimer.”

“Sir, we’ve had a breach of security just as you said. The mainframe was accessed from offsite by a employee currently in his office. He couldn’t be in two places at once.

“Where did the breach originate from?” General Lattimer growled.

“Lebanon, sir.”

“Lebanon? Did I hear you correctly?”

“Yes, sir. Lebanon in Russell County, Virginia.”

“Do you have an address?”

When General Lattimer hung up, he immediately redialed. “Carver? I have a location.” He dictated the address and added, “Get over there and, if you can’t retrieve her, make sure she isn’t of value to anyone else.”

“I’ll find her.” The phone went dead.

General Lattimer leaned back in his chair, anger and annoyance making him frown. Why now? Twenty years of careful research, billions of dollars invested, right on the cusp of having the single biggest intelligence weapon against enemies of the United States, and it was falling apart all because of an unexpected side reaction to treatment?

Opticon One was the only one; the exception, unexplainable, and confounding the team of scientists. Her astonishing ability had developed recently; the ability to manipulate electrical signals almost as if she could see them. They’d tested her on isolated computer systems. At first, she’d been able to manipulate the computer by touch. Then the breakthrough happened. Three weeks ago Opticon One had broken through a firewall, then demolished every security system she’d been challenged with.

The breakthrough was a game changer. Massive 256bit Advanced Encryption Standard security was useless in the hands of someone who could surf the electronic paths unseen, decrypting on the fly, following signals and watching; an undetectable ghost in the system. There would be no secrets beyond the reach of US Intelligence, allies and enemies alike.

Opticon Two, Three, and Four had shown no exceptional talents. As if they’d been treated differently, they were simply kids - useless to the program; a distraction and draining resources. That’s why he’d made the tough call three days ago - time to retire them and start over again. As long as they had Opticon One, funding would flow.

And then she’d escaped!

General Lattimer slammed his fist down on the desk. Now, he had to keep the other three alive in case they couldn’t retrieve Opticon One, just so he had something to show for the huge sums invested in the program.

**********

Theo mindlessly steered the Cherokee along Route 640, tree-covered hills rising to each side as they left Lebanon behind, heading north. Curves in the road kept him alert, but his mind was working furiously.

Three identical girls still left behind at The Facility; three girls genetically identical to Ashlie? Wasn’t human cloning banned? Or, was it really human cloning? Was it something else? Genetic engineering?

He understood, with her amazing talents, the government would do anything to find her and keep her secret - absolutely anything - and that scared him. But . . .

“Ashlie?”

The girl turned and gave him a broad, blinding smile, her emerald green eyes sparkling. Theo almost drove off the road he was so absorbed by her. Then she laughed lightly.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“Ashlie. It’s a pretty name! I like having a name. Say it again.”

“Ashlie.”

She laughed again. “Uh-huh, nice!”

“I have a question,” Theo said more seriously. “Why didn’t you take Two, Three, and Four with you when you left The Facility?”

All pleasure vanished in the blink of an eye. She was once more the quiet, serious little girl.

“Take them where? We have nowhere to go.”

“But you left,” Theo pointed out.

A yellow light blinked on the dash. “Damnit!”

“What’s Damnit?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re angry. Was it something I said?”

“No. I’m almost out of gas. We have to stop and get more.”

“Where?”

“At a gas station,” Theo answered, distracted. He dug into his pockets as he drove, searching. Pulling out his cash, he counted. Five dollars! Damn!

Now distracted, he was quiet. How much money did he have left in his account? His one credit card was tapped out.

“Look for a Wells Fargo,” he told Ashlie.

“What’s a Wells Fargo?”

“A bank. I need an ATM to see if I have any money left.”

Ashlie tilted her head, looking at Theo. “What’s an ATM?”

He explained. She absorbed without question, then stared ahead.

When they entered the town of Honaker, he spotted a free-standing Wells Fargo bank and pulled in. Early evening traffic was sparse. It looked like the bank was just closed. Employees were exiting from a side door.

Theo parked. Ashlie followed him to the ATM. He checked his balance: thirty-two dollars and fifty-seven cents.

Not even enough for a full tank of gas! He withdrew twenty and fingered the bill. “Damn!”

“What?” Ashlie asked.

“I’m broke. Twenty dollars isn’t going to get us a motel room, let alone dinner and gas.”

Ashlie tilted her head and studied the ATM. “You get your money from this machine. Is it a computer?” She stepped closer and reached out to touch it.

“What are you doing?” Theo asked, shoving the twenty into his jean pocket.

“I’m asking the machine if it will please give you more money.”

“You’re what?” Theo asked, astonished, amused, and suddenly scared. He quickly glanced around to see if anyone was watching them.

This time, not distracted by her finger touching a computer, he watched her and saw it; a quick, lavender flash around the corona of her eyes when her finger touched the edge of the ATM. She held her finger on it for several seconds, then stepped back.

“Try again,” she said.

Theo reinserted his card, entered his numeric pass code, and pressed Account Balance.

He stopped breathing. It must be a mistake! There, on the screen, his account had a balance of two million, one hundred and seven thousand, five hundred and sixty-two dollars and thirty-three cents! Two million?

“What did you do?” he asked, shocked.

Ashlie looked at him. “I asked the bank computer to please give you three cents from every account it has. Isn’t it enough?”

“Enough?” Theo asked, dumbfounded.

“I can ask it for more if you want.”

“Heck, no!” Theo exclaimed. He rapidly tried to withdraw two thousand and was refused. Then he remembered his daily limit. He withdrew nine hundred and ninety-eight, now grinning. He was a millionaire! Hot damn!

Back in the Cherokee, after the engine groaned into life, he asked, “Why three cents?”

“Losing three cents won’t hurt anyone.”

Feeling flush, he headed north again, now looking for a nice motel. Then it hit him. He was a thief! He’d just stolen two million dollars! Shit!

“Can you put it back?” he asked as panic set in.

“Why?”

“Because I’ll be arrested and sent to jail as soon as the bank discovers the money’s been stolen, that’s why.”

“The computer won’t tell them. I asked it not to.”

“You asked . . .?”

“Uh-huh.”

“So, what happens? It just forgets?”

“Uh-huh. The electronic records are gone.”

“Jesus! No wonder the government wants you so badly!”

At seven-twenty, Theo spotted The Pallisade, an independent motel, slightly upscale, offering a swimming pool in the summer and free Wi-Fi. He pulled in.

“Stay here,” he ordered Ashlie.

Theo’s breath misted as he headed towards the front office. He shivered and pulled his jacket closed. Fall temperatures had dipped towards freezing. Darkness had arrived making the weak parking lot lights create pools of yellow illumination that battled and lost to shadows. Cars and trucks filled the parking spaces, their colors washed out; blue appearing black, white looking like dirty cream.

At the registration desk, a young woman smiled when he asked for a room.

“You’re in luck. We have a cancellation. A single on the ground floor.”

“I’ll take it,” Theo told her. After a quick discussion about his tapped out credit card, the young woman accepted five hundred dollars as a deposit on the eighty-five dollar daily rate.

Back in the Jeep, he drove out of the parking lot in search of food. Two miles down the highway, he saw the familiar golden arches - McDonalds. Perfect.

In the drive through, he asked Ashlie, “What do you want?”

“What do they have?” she asked.

“They have . . .” Theo stopped. “You’ve never had McDonalds?”

She shook her head.

He ordered for both of them, paid, and was soon handed two paper bags. The familiar aroma of fries filled the Jeep as he headed back to the motel.

Opening the room door, Theo was pleasantly surprised. The owners obviously took care of their motel. The room was spacious. One large queen bed, a nice table with two cushioned chairs, a broad dresser with a flat panel television, and bedside tables and lamps, made the room look homey. Pale yellow walls and a tan carpet were nicely matched. The room was spotless. It had an aroma of clean orange blossoms.

Placing his backpack on the floor and the McDonalds bags on the table, he went and inspected the bathroom. It, too, was neat and spotlessly clean.

Back in the bedroom, he shrugged his jacket off. The room was toasty warm. All in all, he was impressed. This room was better than his apartment! If it had a kitchen . . .

Ashlie removed her insulated anorak and sat at the table. She took one bag and opened it, peering in.

Theo sat at the table with her and unpacked dinner; three cheeseburgers - one for Ashlie, two for him - fries, and small packets of ketchup. He placed a cola in front of her and handed her a straw and paper napkin.

Ashlie inspected the paper-covered straw. “What is it?”

Amused, Theo asked, “Have you ever had fast food?”

She shook her head, still inspecting the straw. Theo stripped the paper off his straw. She watched and copied him, now fascinated by the plastic straw.

“Have you ever had cheeseburgers and fries?”

“Fries, yes. I like fries. What’s a cheeseburger?”

“Heaven in a soft bun,” Theo answered, grinning.

He poked his straw through the top of his cola. Ashlie copied him, then pulled it out, watched a dark drop of liquid fall, then pushed it back in. She discovered the flexible accordion on the straw and started bending it back and forth.

Still grinning, amused by her actions, Theo set a wrapped cheeseburger in front of her, grabbed his and opened it, taking a large bite of the still-warm burger.

Ashlie’s emerald green eyes watched him.

With an overly dramatic, “Mmmm,” he swallowed and sucked soda through the straw.

Ashlie’s attention turned to her burger. She unwrapped it, studied it, then carefully took the top bun off, looking at the burger. Somewhat hesitantly, she replaced the top, picked the burger up, and took a small bite.

Theo watched while eating a French fry. He saw her chew slowly, swallow, and a broad, beautiful smile emerge.

Taking a packet of ketchup, he reached across and squeezed it out on her wrapper. She took a fry and carefully dipped it before eating it; two bites. Nodding, she focused on her burger, completely absorbed, letting out quiet sounds of pleasure - “Mmmm,” and, “This is good.”

Before he had finished his burger, Ashlie had consumed hers and started eyeing the third cheeseburger. Theo grinned and pushed it across to her.

She smiled with pleasure, politely said, “Thank you,” and then consumed it. When finished, she turned her attention to the fries, dipping each carefully in ketchup, then munching delicately. When she noticed Theo sucking on his cola, she stopped eating and put her mouth on the straw, lips closing. She waited.

With a laugh, Theo suggested, “Suck it.”

Her cheeks indented. She swallowed and laughed brightly, obviously amused. “It’s fizzy!” Now distracted by the straw, she drank, fries forgotten.

Theo was charmed by her. He’d never been so entertained by anyone eating fast food. Then she burped and he laughed.

Finally, meal over, he went to shower. Washing himself, he tried to understand how his life had changed so drastically in just two days. She was such a strange creature. Was she even human? And why did he feel the need to protect her?

His mind went back to the three others. Why had she left without them?

Dried, back in his underwear, he left the bathroom to find Ashlie sitting on the bed, cross-legged, bending forward and staring at his open laptop, her finger touching the case. The television was on, tuned to a news channel. The fast food mess had been cleaned up, the table clean.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he watched web pages appear and disappear and data scroll across a small box in one corner. What was she doing?

“Ashlie?”

When she didn’t respond, he touched her arm. “Ashlie?”

She stopped and straightened. Another big smile emerged, dimples forming, her enchanting eyes sparkling. “Yes?”

Theo shook himself. For a moment he’d lost himself in her eyes. “Why didn’t you take the three other girls with you when you left The Facility?”

“Taking them out with nowhere to go would be the same as staying. I need to find somewhere safe first.”

“First? Before what?”

“Before I go back for them,” she said calmly. “You’re going to protect us.”

Somewhat taken back, Theo informed her, “I can’t. I’m broke and can hardly take care of myself.”

“Why not? You have money now. Do you need more? I can ask that ATM machine for more.”

That’s right! He had two million dollars! He could even buy a new car! Theo shook himself. “No. It’s not the money. I mean I’m not capable of taking care of anyone, protecting you or the others.”

“You’re the one,” Ashlie said. “Don’t worry. I’ll help you.”

“Why now?” he asked. “What made you decide to leave?”

Ashlie lost all expression. “Because.”

“Because what?”

“I read the email.”

Frustrated, Theo said, “You need to explain it to me. I know nothing and, if I’m going to help, I need to know it all.”

Ashlie curled her long platinum hair behind her ear.

“I started talking to the computer last month for the first time. They made me play games, trying to make the computer do things. They were excited about it and kept asking me to do more. Then, three days ago, they left the computer connected to their network, so I explored their computers. On Phillip’s computer I read an email from General Lattimer that ordered him to get rid of Two, Three, and Four.”

Her eyes lost focus. “It said, In light of the current performance of Opticon One and the lack of any progress with Opticon Two, Three, or Four, I believe we should start over. It is critical we develop more than one subject as a strategic intelligence weapon. Should Opticon One fall ill or lose her abilities we’d be back at square one. Given the scale of the investment in Project Athena to date, we cannot afford to take that risk. To that end, you are to terminate Opticon Two, Three, and Four and begin creation of four more. I expect your team to identify exactly what happened with Opticon One to make her a success and apply that learning to the new group. In the meantime, you are to expand Opticon One’s testing to the Internet with a specific focus on uncovering intelligence on Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. We need to assess the potential intelligence value of Opticon One in order to demonstrate to the government oversight committee that continued funding is warranted.”

She looked at Theo. “Terminate means kill. I had to escape. Without me, they have to keep Two, Three, and Four alive.”

Theo pondered it. It was beyond him. “How did they create you?”

“I don’t know.”

“What did they do to you?”

“I don’t know.”

He pondered it some more. “What’s to stop them making more of you if they lose you and the other three?”

“I don’t know.”

“How do we get the other three out?” Theo asked.

“The same way I got out. I’ll ask the guards to let them go.”

“You’ll ask . . .” It was too much to process. “Go take your shower,” he suggested.

While she showered, Theo stretched out on the bed and thought about it. Was it really that easy? Just walk in, letting Ashlie use her remarkable powers to make security ignore them? And what would stop The Facility from starting over?

Somehow, Theo thought, he'd have to find out what The Facility had done to create the four girls in the first place, then figure out how to stop them. However, to do it, they’d need time inside The Facility. Would they have time?

Another spike of fear hit him. This was impossible! Take on the government and armed guards? Was he fucking crazy? There was no way they could succeed! Ashlie would be captured. He’d be detained, interrogated and, Theo realized with shock, there was no way they could let him live with the knowledge he now had!

Jesus fuck!

The bathroom door opened, steam rolling out. Ashlie emerged in her cotton panties, her long, long hair damp. Theo noticed her almost frail body and tiny buds on her chest; little pads forming under pink areolae.

She walked over and climbed onto the bed, unconcerned with her nakedness. Crossing her legs, she tugged the laptop close, leaned forward, opened it, and touched the case. Lavender coronas flashed. The screen started frantic scrolling with jumbled web pages.

“Are you reading those pages?” he asked after watching for a while, fascinated.

She didn’t respond. He touched her bare arm.

She stopped touching the laptop and looked at him.

“Are you reading those pages?” he asked again.

“No. I’m reading the electronic signals. This Internet is so big. So much information. Did you know there’s a monster in Loch Ness? And who is God? He made the world in seven days!”

Theo laughed, reached out and closed the laptop. “You can’t believe everything on the Internet. There are as many lies as there are truths on it. Didn’t they teach you about the Internet?”

He put the laptop on the side table.

“No. I could only go into their system at The Facility. The Internet is much bigger.”

“It is,” he agreed, switching the light out. “I’m exhausted. It’s late. We can talk tomorrow.”

Ashlie climbed off the bed and carefully folded the sheet and blanket back, then climbed in. Theo pulled the sheet and blanket out from under him and settled in bed. Ashlie, on her side, had her back to him. Despite a mind tumbling with questions, he fell asleep.


Chapter Four

Carver Johnson eased his car around the hardware store. Behind, he saw rickety stairs leading up to a second floor apartment. Theo Harris lived there. That was the location of the Internet intrusion into the DoD system.

He turned the engine off, still studying the upper apartment. The windows were dark. Was Theo Harris a skilled hacker? Or was it the girl, Opticon One?

Opening his door quietly, he got out. Automatically, he reached under his jacket to settle the silenced Sig Sauer P226 in the shoulder holster, then zipped his jacket up half way. He closed the car door gently.

The stairs squeaked and groaned in the silence of the night. His breath misted. At the apartment door, he looked through the glass seeing the shadowed outline of a living room; a couch, a television, a wall unit with neatly organized books on the shelves.

Was Theo home?

From a pocket, he withdrew two lock-picks and silently jimmied the lock. The door squeaked slightly when he opened it. Like a ghost, his rubber-soled shoes making no sound, he entered, eyes alert, ears straining. The apartment felt empty.

It was.

A quick check of the three rooms confirmed it. Not discouraged, Carver turned a light on and studied the living room. It was surprisingly organized, almost obsessively, yet dust had collected under the couch and against the base of the walls. Odd. He searched the small kitchen area. The same; obsessively organized but not obsessively clean.

Back in the living room, he searched through a pile of mail and a cheap plastic box of files, making note of any personal information.

Then, in the bedroom, he found confirmation; an institutional, plain cream dress the size a child would wear. Opticon One had been here. He was on the right track.

Search over, he turned the light out and quietly left the apartment. In the sedan, he pulled his cell phone out and dialed.

“She was here. They’re gone,” he said when his call was answered.

Listening, he responded, “We have to track his credit card and bank activity. I’ll email the details. I’m going to talk to his coworkers and friends tomorrow to see if he has a favored getaway spot or relatives he’d run to.”

After listening again, he said, “Of course. I’ll find him. He’s just a warehouse employee. He’s not smart enough to elude me.”

Starting the car, he backed out and headed to the police station. At the desk, he pulled out a photograph and addressed the desk officer.

“Have you seen this girl?”

The cop looked at the picture. “No. Who is she?”

“It’s a custody battle problem,” Carver said.

The officer’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”

Carver smiled. “Mike Halsen, private investigator.”

“Show me your license.”

Carver reached into his back pocket and presented the fake credentials.

The officer studied it and relaxed, satisfied. Carver decided further questioning would raise too many suspicions, so he left. He needed a motel to crash at until the morning. Then, he would talk to Theo’s coworkers.

**********

Light disturbed Theo’s sleep. He opened his eyes to find the girl sitting cross-legged, bending over his laptop, touching the case, the screen flashing with images and pages so fast he couldn’t discern what she was doing.

He checked the time - three-ten in the morning. What was she doing? For a minute or two he watched her. She didn’t move, didn’t fidget, didn’t lose concentration. Eventually, he reached out and touched her arm.

“Ashlie?”

Her finger left the laptop and it stopped. She looked at him, a big, broad smile forming. “I like hearing my name.”

Theo smiled back at her. “What are you doing? Why aren’t you asleep?”

“I was looking for information.”

“Now? It’s three in the morning. What was so important?”

Expecting another revelation about the government, Theo was shocked when she explained.

“Erections. They’re the male reproductive organ responsible for delivering spermatozoa to a woman’s Fallopian tubes where an ovum is fertilized.”

“Huh?”

Ashlie looked at him, perfectly serious, and added, “I wanted to know what was poking me.”

“Huh? Poking you?”

“Uh-huh. You were asleep.”

“I must have been! Sorry.”

“For what? Was it deliberate?”

“Hell no!”

She pointed at the laptop. “It said erections during the night are natural. I was just getting to the part where an erection goes into the female vagina and . . .”

“No you weren’t!” Theo exclaimed, grabbing the laptop and closing it, his face heated. “No more computer for you.”

Ashlie tilted her head, confusion on her face. “You’re embarrassed. Why?”

“Because. How old are you, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Does it make a difference?”

Placing the laptop on the floor next to him, Theo collapsed back on the bed. What was he supposed to say? Ashlie sat quietly, her deep green eyes studying him, her platinum hair falling like a curtain down her bare back. He noticed the little buds on her chest again; the first signs of puberty.

What now? Three in the morning wasn’t the time to explain about sex. But if he slept, she’d just go back on the Internet. Damn!

“Okay, let me explain.”

For the next hour, Theo explained about sex, the mechanics, the reproductive aspects, the recreational aspects, orgasms, and more. Ashlie listened and asked sharp questions, showing only fascination.

Finishing, Theo asked, “Can we sleep now?”

“Kay.”

She got under the covers and turned on her side, then scooted back at him. “I liked it when you were hugging me. Will you hug me again, please?”

Theo turned onto his side, spooned her, his arms wrapping around her. He smelled shampoo in her hair. Her naked skin was cool against him, her feet chilly. For reasons unknown, peace settled over him and he fell asleep, wondering why she charmed him so.

When he woke up, he had an erection; a normal condition. Ashlie was still curled up in his arms, still slightly cool against him. For several minutes, in the peace of early morning before life became hectic, he relaxed and enjoyed the sensation. Eventually, nature called and he eased himself away from her, trying not to wake her.

Ashlie turned her head and looked at him.

“You’re awake,” he commented.

“Yes. For a long time.”

Heading towards the bathroom, he asked, “Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“It felt good being hugged. I’ve never been hugged before.”

As the bathroom door closed, Ashlie climbed out of bed and dressed. She smiled to herself. Wait until she told Two, Three, and Four about being hugged at night. It’s amazing!

Her mind turned to the Internet. There was so much information there; more than she could understand. Yesterday, when she’d gone into the Internet for the first time, it had made her dizzy; flashing lights, endless rushing. Then she’d started understanding the electronic signals, and information inundated her, too much. Now she could control it just like she did with the network back at The Facility.

She thought Theo’s explanation of sex was funny. It was so much simpler than what she’d discovered, but she didn’t want to tell him she now knew everything; even the weird things people did together.

Theo was different. He didn’t hear her. She couldn’t ask him to do things. From the first moment she saw him, she’d noticed how kind his eyes were. Oddly, she felt safe with him. He was the one. He was going to help her and her sisters, protect them, take care of them. She knew it with absolute certainty, even if he didn’t.

Pulling her socks on, she paused to admire their yellow color. Really pretty! She loved colors!

She wondered what else would change in her. Finding out she could sense electrical signals was strange. That first time in The Facility, she’d heard the computer talking when she touched it. She didn’t understand why no one else heard it. They all got so excited when she told them and made her take test after test. But, finding out she could make people do things was even stranger. Why her? Why not Two, Three, or Four?

She’d kept her ability to change people’s minds secret. She’d tested her ability out on her sisters and they couldn’t hear her, just like Theo. But she could make everyone else hear her. It wasn’t difficult. Just concentrate hard and ask. That was how she was going to save her sisters, but this time she’d ask the security alarm to go to sleep first. She’d forgotten to do it when she left The Facility.

Now she had to get her sisters out. But first, she needed somewhere safe to take them. Theo would help.

Ashlie finished making the bed when the bathroom door opened. Theo emerged and stopped.

“Why are you making the bed?”

“It was messy. You always make your bed.”

“No you don’t. The maid does it.”

“Maid?”

“Never mind. We need to talk and get breakfast.”

“Can I have a hamburger?” she asked hopefully. She really liked hamburgers.

Theo grinned. “I don’t think they serve them this early. We’ll see.”

Theo checked out, got his deposit back, and drove to McDonalds. He smiled to himself, amused at Ashlie’s disappointment they didn’t serve burgers for breakfast. He ordered her an egg McMuffin and laughed with pleasure at Ashlie’s excitement over such a simple thing. Apparently she’d had eggs and English muffins before, but never together like a burger.

With every small thing, Theo felt her charm. She was a sweet girl with a lovable personality, despite being as strange as Hell.

Over breakfast, sitting at the table, he asked, “When do we get the other girls out?”

“Not yet. First we have to find somewhere safe to hide.”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea where that might be,” Theo said. “We could go to the West Coast, I guess.”

“Let me use the computer,” Ashlie said between mouthfuls. “I can find somewhere.”

Theo sipped his coffee quietly, thinking. Eventually, he said, “Okay. We’ll find an Internet café as soon as you’re finished.”

Ashlie nodded. “Can I have another egg McThingy?”

An hour later, in Princeton, West Virginia, Theo found an Internet store. He bought an hour of time and sat with Ashlie at the desktop. She touched the CPU case. Her eyes flashed lavender. This time, he noted, the monitor hadn’t been turned on. Probably a good thing. What would people think if they saw the astonishing speed of information cascading across the screen?

He waited. Ashlie was gone, her deep green eyes open and unblinking, unfocused. He waited longer, then checked his watch. Ten minutes had passed. Finally, at the fifteen minute mark, he touched her hand.

She blinked and stopped touching the computer. “I found it.”

“What did you find?”

“A place we can hide. It’s called Captiva Island near somewhere called Cape Coral. There’s a big, walled estate for sale.”

“We can’t buy an estate,” Theo pointed out.

“Yes you can. That’s what took more time. I asked a bank in the Cayman Islands to take your money.”

“What money? The two million?”

“No. Other money. It’s in the Bank of Butterfield International now.”

“Ashlie, we can’t go to the Cayman Islands! You have no identification and I don’t own a passport.” After a deep breath, Theo added, “You can’t steal money, either. It’s wrong.”

Ashlie stared at him. “I took some money from Project Athena. And you don’t need to go to the island. The Internet says you can do everything by telephone as long as you have the account number and password.”

She reached out and turned the monitor on, then touched the minitower case. An image of a large, two-storied white house appeared. Low and sleek, it had huge windows. The granite walls and white steel beams gave it a futuristic look. It was set amid lush tended gardens. Below the images were the real estate listing details.

Theo bent forward and read. Three and a half acres, fronting the Roosevelt Chanel. Six bedrooms, ten bathrooms, pool, living room, family room, game room, media room, formal dining room, large eat-in kitchen, study, library, separate four car garage with self-contained servant’s quarters above. Listed at $12,250,000.

“Are you kidding me?” Theo exclaimed. “Did you see how much it costs?”

Ashlie nodded. “You’ve got more than that in the Cayman bank.”

“How much more?” Theo asked. “No! Don’t tell me!” He leaned back and breathed, “Jesus!”

Ashlie pointed to the screen. “Call them and buy it.”

Theo laughed. “Just like that? From rags to riches?”

“We will be safe there,” Ashlie said very seriously.

Theo thought about it, finally shrugging. So what if the money came from Project Athena? What was the government going to do? Expose the program by bringing in the FBI?

A bit more thought and he smiled. Just like he’d seen in a film, he’d get himself a lawyer and buy the house by proxy! What was the film? The Firm? No. Maybe it was a book.

“Can you find a law firm in the Cayman Islands?” he asked Ashlie.

She touched the computer. A flurry of activity passed. Fifteen seconds later, Theo was looking at a web page for a private investment firm providing legal services.

He pulled his cell phone out and dialed.

It took two hours to arrange the purchase, including the transfer of three hundred thousand dollars as a fee for services rendered. Done! Amazing!

Excited by the experience of actually having money, Theo led Ashlie out to the Cherokee, his mind now occupied with what it’ll feel like to live on a big estate. To not worry about money? Hot darn!

Reality intruded when the Cherokee refused to start, the engine turning over but not catching.

“Damnit! What now?” he exclaimed, turning the ignition key again.

Ashlie reached out and touched the ignition switch, then sat back.

“Well?” Theo asked. “Make it start.”

“I can’t,” she answered calmly. “The engine’s tired and doesn’t want to work anymore.”

“Tired? Doesn’t want to work?” Theo asked, astonished. “What part’s broken?”

“I don’t know. Maybe all of it.”

Theo sat, staring out the windshield, frustration retuning.

“We need another car,” Ashlie commented.

“Right. Okay.”

Forty minutes later, the cab dropped them off at Five Star Autos. They’d made a quick visit to Wells Fargo to withdraw nine thousand dollars.

Ashlie slipped her hand into his as they entered the used car lot. They wandered through it, checking out the selection.

Ashlie politely suggested, “How about that red one? Red’s nice,” and, “That blue one is pretty.” It made Theo smile.

Then he saw a classic ’65 Corvette Stingray and felt a tug of lust. It looked so good! Unfortunately, it wasn’t large enough to carry four passengers. Instead, he searched for minivans and SUVs.

Eventually, they settled on a used Subaru Forester; reliable, well built, and spacious enough for him and four girls. The eleven thousand price tag was a hurdle until Ashlie did her eye thing. Suddenly, the price dropped to forty-five hundred and Jerry Dopler, the balding salesman in a badly ironed shirt, was delighted.

As Theo drove out of the lot, he asked, “What happens when he remembers how much we actually paid?”

“He won’t. I asked him to please forget us,” Ashlie replied. “I liked the blue car more, but this black one is nice,” she told him, leaning forward and pushing buttons on the dash. “When will you own the house in Captiva Island?”

“Three days.”

“We’ll get my sisters out in three days.”

Chilly air conditioning blasted into the car. Theo reached across and turned it off. Ashlie, unperturbed, started fiddling with the radio.


Chapter Five

Carver settled into his dark blue Chrysler sedan and closed the door. None of the employees at the warehouse had any idea where Theo Harris might be. It had wasted his time.

Pulling his cell phone out, he reported his lack of progress to General Lattimer.

“You’re in luck,” the general growled. “Harris used an ATM in Honaker to withdraw money last night. He’s driving a 1992 tan Jeep Cherokee. ATM video confirmed Opticon One is with him.”

“So he’s heading north. I’ll canvass motels in Honaker and north. I’ll find them, General.”

“Hold on.”

Carver waited, listening to the muffled sound of General Lattimer’s voice. Then he came back on line.

“They’re in Princeton. Harris withdrew close to ten thousand dollars from the Wells Fargo bank this morning.”

“I’ll head there now,” Carver responded. “I’m four hours behind them.”

“Make it fast.” The call cut off.

Carver smiled. Four hours behind? She was practically in his grasp. This was easy duty. Two or three days work, fifteen thousand dollars. Then back to his boat.

He whistled as he drove north towards Princeton.

**********

Theo headed west. He decided to spend the three days driving a box around The Facility, maybe pass by it to have a look.

“McDonalds,” Ashlie said, pointing.

He drove on. It wasn’t dinner time.

She sat silently. She didn’t fidget or need to fill the silences, simply watching the world pass by with fascination.

Idly, he wondered how much of his thoughts she could read. He thought about the Corvette. No reaction. He thought about her smile, and smiled to himself. Ashlie had a beautiful smile, very attractive, even though it made rare appearances.

Then his mind went back to seeing her pleasure at a simple cheeseburger. Her eyes had danced gemstone bright with delight. Very, very beautiful. Maybe he’d take her for another burger for dinner.

The miles passed as he digested everything that had happened since almost running her over. Surprising himself, he realized he was having fun. This was exciting and new, a break from his boring routine-of-a-life. And he was driving a nice car that actually accelerated without complaining!

“McDonalds,” Ashlie said, pointing out the winshield at another restaurant.

“It’s too early for dinner. Besides, we need to find somewhere to stop for the night.”

He found another clean motel just outside of Beckley as dusk was falling. Dark clouds were rolling in threatening rain. He got a room, then headed out to find a dinner spot.

Ashlie suggested, “McDonalds would be good.”

It didn’t take long to find one. Once again, Theo was charmed by Ashlie’s obvious pleasure with the cheeseburger. She ate it so delicately, savoring each bite. And unlike almost everyone he knew, she concentrated on consuming the two cheeseburgers before turning her attention to the fries, carefully dipping each fry into ketchup, inspecting it, then eating it. Fries consumed, she finished by sucking on her cola, bending the flexible straw back and forth between sips.

Through it all, her observant, iridescent green eyes sparkled with pleasure.

Theo felt his chest tightening. She was adorable. How could he protect her when the might of the government was after her? He had no idea what he was doing.

His mind drifted into fear; for her more than him. The government’s resources were so deep. The NSA alone could track them.

Holy shit! They could trace his bank withdrawal and his cell phone use, and his Internet use!! He was leaving a trail leading them right to him!

“Finished?” Theo asked, now really nervous and glancing around. He pulled his cell phone out and removed the battery. He’d seen it done in a movie.

“Yes. Thank you for dinner,” Ashlie said, wiping her mouth with the paper napkin, then folding it carefully.

“Was it good?”

“Uh-huh. Very.”

“When we get back to the motel, I need you to do some things on the computer.”

Ashlie tilted her head and looked at him, curling her long, long hair behind a delicate ear. “Do what?”

“I’ll explain when we’re in the room.”

Back at the motel, Theo explained.

“When you’re on the Internet, they can track you. You need to find a way to hide your connection.”

Ashlie nodded.

“And I need you to change the motel registration here so my name doesn’t show.”

“Okay.”

“And can you change the . . . Never mind. Just those two things first.”

“Kay.”

Ashlie removed her boots, placed them together next to the small table, took the laptop and climbed onto one of the beds. Sitting cross-legged, she opened it, turned it on, then leaned forward and touched the case. Her eyes flashed lavender and the screen became jumbled with flashing pages.

Theo watched her. Each time she connected with the computer, she’d become absolutely still, her eyes open and unfocused. It was a bit disconcerting. After half an hour, he got bored and went to shower. She was still at it when he emerged, his hair damp. Feeling clean always made him feel better.

Sitting on her bed, he touched her sweater. She didn’t react. He touched the skin of her hand and she blinked and sat up straight.

“What were you doing?” Theo asked.

“Learning.”

“How about what I asked you to do?”

“I fixed it. They can’t find us.”

“Thank goodness for that. You should take your shower.”

“Kay.”

Theo closed the laptop, plugged it in to recharge, and turned the television on to a news channel, waiting to see if there was any mention of Ashlie or him. There wasn’t, not one hint.

He got into bed and relaxed. They were safe for tonight. He smiled. He had a new car, too. One that worked! He was staying in a motel room that was ten times better than his apartment, and he didn’t have to go to work! Life was good.

The shower stopped. Ashlie emerged wearing nothing but pink and white cotton panties. Her hair was straggly, damp, and so long it fell to below her bottom. She glanced at her bed and climbed into Theo’s.

“You have a bed,” he observed with a smile.

“I don’t get hugs in that bed,” Ashlie informed him, moving close.

Theo put his arm around her and pulled her close. Despite the shower, her skin was cool when she snuggled to his side, her head in the crook of his shoulder. He heard her quiet sigh and it touched him.

In silence, they watched the news on TV. When it started repeating the cycle at the top of the hour, he turned it off, switched the bedside lamp off, and darkness arrived.

“What did you learn tonight?” Theo asked.

“I learned that I’m glad you found me,” Ashlie answered quietly. “There are a lot of bad people in the world.”

“You can’t learn that on the Internet.”

“I did. You were born twenty-three years ago, in New York. Your parents were killed in the convenience store they owned when you were seventeen. They wouldn’t pay protection money to a local gang.”

She was silent for a moment, then continued. “You’re nice. I like you. You like all sorts of music, read thriller books, like airplanes, and watch people having sex on the Internet . . . But not very often.”

Theo shifted uncomfortably. “How could you know that? Let me guess, my laptop?”

“Uh-huh. The records show where you’ve been. Why do you like watching two women having sex?”

“Um . . . I’m not sure. I think because they’re gentler with each other. Most of the stuff with guys and girls is too fake. Let’s talk about something else.”

“Does sex embarrass you? Isn’t it natural?”

“Talking about it with you embarrasses me.”

“Why? That’s what I was reading tonight. Sexual feelings start at puberty. It says masturbation is natural. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s supposed to feel really good. Does it? I have a clitoris.”

Theo shifted again and changed the subject. “Tell me about Two, Three, and Four.”

“We were supposed to be the same, but we’re not. Two is shy and likes to draw. She’s good at it. Three likes to read and listen to music and play puzzles. Four likes to play jokes, watch movies and TV, and never sits still. She doesn’t listen to Kelly and gets into trouble.”

“Who’s Kelly?”

“Our teacher. She takes care of us.”

“She’s a scientist?”

“No. The others are scientists. Kelly is nice. She cares, too. Like you. They don’t tell her everything.”

“Why not?”

“They don’t trust her.”

Theo mulled her comments for a while. It sounded like this Kelly was a friend to the girls. Could she help? Would she?

Theo’s eyelids drooped. Warm in bed with a cool girl cuddled to his side, he relaxed. There’d be time to learn more tomorrow.

Quietly, he asked, “When you’re free and safe, what do you want to do?”

“I’d like to go to school, and play with other boys and girls, and take long walks to see everything. I want to see a forest and a lake. And I’d like to see animals. I like animals. I’ve never played with a cat or dog or seen a real horse. I think I’d like to try swimming in a pool, and have a birthday party, and have more nice colored clothes to wear.”

“You’ve never done those things?” Theo asked.

“No. We live in The Facility. What does snow feel like? Is it really cold and soft?”

Theo, overcome with emotions, turned to face her, hugging her tightly. “You’ll find out. I promise you.”

“Kay,” she sighed. “Would you say my name again?”

“Ashlie.”

“I like having a real name,” she whispered.

Theo smiled. She was too cute.

About to drift off, Ashlie spoke again.

“According to the Tanner scale, I’ve started puberty. Stage two. I’d like to try a climax. That’s what the good feeling is called. Would you help?”

Theo rolled onto his back again. Why had his body reacted? It was a familiar sensation; blood stirring. Was it simply the result of talking about sex?

“You can do it to yourself,” he said. “That’s why it’s called masturbation.”

“I think I’d like to try it with you. You can show me.”

“I really can’t,” Theo countered. “It’s wrong.”

“Because I’m young?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know how young I am? Maybe I’m older than you and just age slowly.”

“It’s possible, but it doesn’t matter.”

“Why?”

“In the eyes of the law, you’re a child. Any sexual contact is considered illegal.”

“Okay.” Ashlie rolled onto her side. “Will you hug me, please?”

Theo smiled, rolled, spooned her small body, and hugged her. Her drying hair wafted floral shampoo at him. Her body was cool, yet she didn’t act like she was cold. Sleep, like an old and familiar blanket, wrapped him in dreams.


Chapter Six

Theo awoke in the dark to the feeling of Ashlie moving in his arms. His sleep-muddled brain couldn’t figure out what she was doing; her shoulder then her body shifting, all in complete silence. Was she dreaming?

Still hugging her, he felt her arm moving. She inhaled sharply and shuddered, and Theo suddenly understood Ashlie was playing with herself.

Unable to control his reaction, an erection formed. He’d always been turned on by women masturbating. He grew hornier as Ashlie shivered, her breath silently panting, her body moving only slightly.

Through the movement of her arm, he could feel her touching herself and it excited him beyond belief; a young girl playing with herself was erotic on a whole new level. His erection strengthened, rising inside his underwear to press against her. Without thought, Theo eased his hip back and his erection straightened. He moved back against her and her small bum cradled him. Then Ashlie shuddered and stilled.

Silence.

She clenched her bottom on his erection and Theo almost moaned aloud with pleasure. It felt like she was massaging him. In the darkness, when she clenched her little buttocks again, he kissed her hair and whispered, “No. Don’t.”

“Why not?” she whispered, pressing her bum back.

“Please don’t.”

“Kay.”

Sleep took a bit longer to arrive, his erection calling for attention. And it felt so damn good against her; too good. She felt wonderful in his arms; a sweet, petite girl.

Ashlie lay silently, not moving. She loved being hugged. She knew when Theo fell asleep. His breathing slowed, arms relaxed around her, and his erection faded against her behind. She inhaled the scent of him and sighed. In his arms, she felt safe and at peace; something she’d never felt before.

Her body was still alive. Her muscles were limp. Her climax had been like waves of warm tingles making her feel so good; like nothing she’d experienced before. No wonder there was so much sex on the Internet.

Theo’s knee moved, pushing her leg up and resting on her lower leg. It was heavy and nice. She thought about getting up and exploring the Internet to learn more, like she did last night, but didn’t want to move. This was too nice.

There was something special about Theo. He accepted her. He hadn’t hesitated to help her. In his soft, light brown eyes she saw kindness and security, and his smile showed real pleasure; not the fake smiles the people at The Facility had.

Her mind pictured his mouth, his lips, and she thought about kissing. Why would pressing lips together feel special? It was one of the strange things she’d discovered on the Internet. People kissed for so many reasons. Why? Did it feel good? Was that why lips are so sensitive?

She wanted to go back into the Net. Why was it wrong for Theo to help her experience orgasms? Did that mean it was wrong for her to help him, too?

Theo muttered something in his sleep. Ashlie hugged his arms tighter so he wouldn’t turn away. Her mind drifted to her sisters. How were they doing? They’d never been separated before and she missed them a lot. Two more days and she’d see them again. Two more days and they’d all be free.

When Theo rolled onto his other side, Ashlie slipped out of bed and found the laptop. She’d never needed much sleep. Night was a good time to explore.

Theo woke to the sound of a semi truck rumbling into life. He opened his eyes. Weak morning light lit the room. Ashlie was sitting up, cross-legged, fully dressed, and watching him. The tips of her long platinum hair brushed the bed. She smiled, her emerald eyes bright, and Theo felt like the whole room became brighter.

He smiled and said, “Morning.”

“Good morning, Theo. It’s raining.”

“Is it?” Theo noticed her clothes. She’d worn them for the last few days. Then her comments from last night came back to him. And as he remembered her touching herself, as a morning erection threatened, he rolled out of bed.

Heading to the bathroom, he said, “I’m going to take you to a shopping mall today. Have you ever been in one?”

“No.”

When he emerged from the bathroom, Ashlie was closing the laptop. He dressed.

“Shopping malls started in the last century as a way to attract shoppers. They have lots of stores, air conditioning in summer, heating in winter, and plenty of free parking space,” Ashlie seriously informed him. “I’ve never seen one. I’d like to.”

Theo chuckled. “This should be fun.”

**********

Carver thumped the steering wheel in frustration. Still in Princeton, he was at a dead end. He’d found Harris’ abandoned Cherokee in the parking lot of a McDonalds.

His assumption was Harris would find some wheels. Yet canvassing the three used car lots had been fruitless. None of them recognized the girl’s picture or remembered selling a car to Harris. No bus had picked them up and no cab driver could remember them. Carver was convinced they weren’t lying.

He sat in his sedan pondering his next step.

No activity on the Internet. No credit card use. No transportation. No registration at any motel, hotel, or inn. Theo Harris and Opticon One had vanished.

Maybe Harris wasn’t so stupid.

Carver changed tracks. Where were they going? He looked at Google Maps on his Smartphone, zoomed out, and plotted The Facility, Theo’s apartment, the Wells Fargo ATM, the motel - each location he’d verified they’d been at.

Nothing.

Why hadn’t they left the area? By now, they could have been a thousand miles away. It looked like they were circling The Facility. Why?

He dialed. When General Lattimer answered, he asked, “Why would Opticon One stay close to The Facility?”

There was a brief silence before the general spoke. “Is that what they’re doing?”

“It’s one possibility. They could have been hundreds of miles away by now, but they aren’t. Is there a reason why they’d go back there?”

“Only one I can think of and you’re not cleared for that information.”

Carver frowned. “Should I concentrate on them returning to The Facility or would that be a waste of my time?”

“If you’re right about them staying in the area, then yes, focus on The Facility,” was all the general said.

Carver cut the call. He studied the map. He knew where The Facility was even though there was nothing on the map to reveal its location. Even the satellite view was obscured. How would he approach it? There was one road leading past it, thick forest surrounding it. Would he approach from the northeast? Or the southwest?

Picturing Harris’ path so far, Carver smiled to himself. Southwest. Now, when? Today? Tomorrow? What was he waiting for?

No matter. The odds were in Carver’s favor. He’d wait. He was good at waiting.

**********

Ashlie was a bit overwhelmed walking through the mall. So many stores with so many things in them! People walking with shopping bags. Music and so much noise.

She held Theo’s hand tighter, not sure if she liked shopping malls. Too many people. She didn’t like so many people around. It made breathing hard. Why?

Theo led her into one store. Ashlie stood next to him, looking around at everything. Shoppers wandered through the store. Different music was playing even louder. The air smelled of something. Everywhere she looked there were colored clothes.

“Go pick something out,” he suggested. “Whatever you like. You need more clothes.”

A rush of panic hit her. How was she supposed to choose? She’d never had to pick clothes before.

As if sensing her, Theo led her by the hand. “Let’s start with pants. Do you like jeans? Or something softer? Here, feel these.”

Ashlie froze. Choice was something she’d never had. Her clothes had always been pale cream, mostly dresses. She’d never had to choose what to do next, or what to eat, or what to wear.

“Go on,” Theo encouraged.

“I can’t,” Ashlie whispered, her panic intensifying. Why was the store getting smaller?

Theo felt her fear. Her hand tightened in his, trembling slightly. He looked at her and saw it in her expression, eyes wide like a doe caught in headlights, face pale.

Mentally, he kicked himself. How stupid could he be? She’d lived a reclusive life and he was dragging her into a busy mall?

Quickly, he led her out of the store and through the mall, heading back to the car. In the car, he sat quietly, waiting for Ashlie to stop trembling and relax. He reached out and took her cold hand, squeezing it.

“Sorry. It was thoughtless of me to bring you here,” he said.

Ashlie was silent, staring through the winshield.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No,” she whispered.

Theo’s heart broke and he swore at himself. Without thought, he reached across and lifted her sideways into his lap, the steering wheel making it a tight fit. He hugged her and felt her trembling.

Ashlie’s head dropped to his shoulder, her breath warm on his neck. She calmed slowly, letting out a quiet sigh. For half an hour he held her and she didn’t move, just breathed quietly.

Eventually, she sat up, looked at him and said, “I don’t want more clothes.”

“Yeah. I can understand that. I’ll buy them for you.”

Ashlie smiled slightly. “Kay.”

“What colors do you want?” Theo asked, relieved with the return of life to her eyes.

“Any color.” Looking out at the parking lot, she said, “I like that blue,” and tried to point. Her elbow hit the steering wheel. The horn blared and her whole body jumped. “What happened?” she asked.

Theo explained, then eased her back to the passenger seat. He drove away from the mall. Thinking back to first finding Ashlie, he realized he’d never taken her to any crowded place. Even the McDonalds had been empty that late at night. It made him think about her life.

If she’d been brought up in The Facility, she’d have no experience with so many things he took for granted. His mistake, he now understood, was to think she’d welcome being exposed to the real world instead of intimidated by it. Her natural inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge had led him to believe she’d welcome new experiences. He’d been thoughtless and it didn’t sit well with him.

However, now he knew, he decided he’d take a more cautious approach to introducing her to things.

Checking his watch, he decided lunch was in order before heading west along the top side of the square he was driving around The Facility. Something other than McDonalds.

When he spotted Pizza Hut, he pulled in. The restaurant was bustling. He took one look at the filled tables, felt Ashlie tense, and turned around, leading her by the hand.

Back on the road, he saw Kentucky Fried Chicken and pulled in. “Wait here,” he told her. Fifteen minutes later he returned. Sitting in the car, they ate piping hot chicken pieces, slaw, and fries. Ashlie, he noticed with amusement, used only the tips of her fingers to eat, taking small bites, and wiping her mouth between each. The mouthwatering aroma of chicken turned nauseating the more he ate.

Lunch over, they resumed their journey. Theo chose Sweenyesburg Road to avoid the West Virginia Turnpike. Sweenesburg meandered north. He turned west on Clear Fork Road and began a long drive through the Appalachians, dark forests rising to each side. Despite the light drizzle, it was a beautiful drive. Soon, the road met Big Coal River and paralleled its sinuous path. Rural homes appeared and disappeared, most rundown.

It was a long drive made pleasant by the constant curves, the lush vegetation, and glimpses of the river. The two hour drive ended at Coal River Road. Theo stopped at a Marathon Gas station and filled up, inhaling the clean air and pleasant gas vapors as he did. Drizzle dampened everything.

Back on the road, he headed south through Rock Creek and Arnett. Slowly, Theo lost his sense of direction, confused by hours of twists and turns. He was sure he was heading south, or sort of south, and was unprepared when they hit Princeton. He’d driven in a circle! How had that happened?

Dusk was arriving. He couldn’t believe he’d wasted his time. Embarrassed, he didn’t mention it to Ashlie and made for a familiar road west.

Ashlie calmly pointed and observed, “That’s the McDonalds we ate at,” as they drove by.

Theo grunted.

It was dark when they passed through Fallsburg. Shortly after, they arrived in Huntington and found another well kept motel. Ashlie had demonstrated no impatience or annoyance with the long drive. She was inquisitive, pointing at things, asking, “What’s that?” and, “Why are some of the leaves red?”

Theo, however, had energy to burn after the long drive and needed to stretch his legs, so they walked in search of dinner.

Drizzle had passed. The air was crisp. Early October was nice during the day, but chilly at night, his breath fogging the air. As they walked, Ashlie’s hand in his, he asked, “Do you like Chinese food?”

“Sweet and sour. Yes.”

“How about Italian?”

“Spaghetti. Yes.”

Theo, smiling, asked, “English?”

Ashlie tilted her head in thought. “I don’t know any English food.”

“Fish and chips,” Theo offered.

“I like fish. What are chips?”

“How about Indian?”

“I don’t know. Is there Indian food here?”

Grinning, Theo answered, “I don’t know. How about Vietnamese?”

Ashlie ignored him, her eyes taking in Huntington. She pointed. “Gino’s Pizza and Spaghetti House. I like pizza.”

The long walk to and from Gino’s had done its job. Theo was tired, full, relaxed, and ready to sleep when they entered their room.

Ashlie stripped down to her panties and went to shower. Theo turned the television on to an all news channel. While he watched, sprawled out on the bed, his mind drifted. Ashlie was not self conscious in the least. She’d undressed without hesitation, casually, as if she’d never been told not to undress around strangers. She was a skinny girl. The tiny buds on her chest were the only signs of pubescence.

Eyes closed, he thought about her. She didn’t run, or skip, or burn off energy. She didn’t throw tantrums. In fact, she didn’t seem to get angry at anything. She was curious and observant and, he thought, smart, given her understanding of information on the Internet.

But . . .

Despite everything, he thought she was sad. She didn’t smile often, rarely laughed, and had giggled once - just once. Theo pictured her smile and found himself smiling. Ashlie had the most radiant smile. He wished she’d smile more often. Did she have a sense of humor?

There were so many unknowns with her. Three days with her and he’d become absorbed, his life completely changed, maybe permanently. Did he care?

No. Not a bit.

Before he’d almost run her down, his life had been fine. He had friends, a job, a roof over his head. He was independent and had a social life, if somewhat limited.

Now, everything was different. Having Ashlie in his life filled it. She made everything better; more exciting, more fascinating, and full of the unexpected. Despite the fear for her and himself, he realized he was alive inside, and he liked it.

How old was she? What had she said? Tanner scale?

Theo grabbed his laptop and connected to the Internet. A quick search and he discovered breast buds typically formed around nine or ten years old, sometimes earlier, sometimes later. Big help.

He closed the laptop and laid back on the bed, arms under his head.

The shower stopped. A few minutes later Ashlie emerged with a towel wrapped around her, her long hair damp and straggly. She returned his smile and, as he stood to undress, she sat on the bed.

Ashlie watched Theo undress to his underwear and head into the bathroom. He was lean but not muscled. She liked his smile. It reached his eyes every time.

She turned her attention to the laptop, opening it. It was already on. She touched the case, concentrated, and felt the sudden rush. The room disappeared. She plunged, racing with dizzying speed, as she followed the endless electronic pathways. Information slammed into her. Concentrating, she muted the flow and explored.

It took seconds to access the Department of Defense computer mainframe. There, she probed until she found what she was looking for; General Lattimer’s personal file. She read it in the blink of an eye and moved on, searching for Rob Kitchen, the head of security for The Facility. She absorbed his file and moved on, finding Phillip Bell’s file. Then she hunted and read Kelly Denton’s file.

Satisfied, Ashlie left their Intranet and flew free on the Internet, absorbing knowledge. She didn’t understand everything immediately. Some things needed more explanation and she found it. She didn’t understand how she could absorb so much. She didn’t care. It was like waking up from a long sleep. She’d learned more over the last few days than she’d ever known before and there was an endless universe to explore.

A touch on her arm drew her out. Blinking, she saw Theo, his dark hair damp, cheeks shaved, his warm eyes concerned again, and a flush of affection hit her.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Ashlie smiled. “Yes. I was exploring.” She closed the laptop, set it aside, and took the bath towel off, folding it carefully and setting it on the other bed.

Theo was staring at her when she turned and got under the covers. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Um . . . Where’s your underwear?”

“I washed it. It’s over there on the heater,” she told him, pointing.

He looked away from her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing. It’s just . . . Nothing.”

Theo turned the lights off and slowly got in bed. The television cast a flickering glow in the room, the volume on low.

When Ashlie turned her back to Theo, said, “Hug me, please,” and edged back, Theo carefully spooned her, wrapping his arms around her very slender body. He held her lightly, very, very conscious of her nakedness.

Her scent wafted at him - clean and sweet, her hair still damp. Her bare skin, despite being cool, burned his skin. He was hyper-aware of every point of contact between them; her back, her buttocks, her legs.

With the news playing quietly, Theo tried desperately to control his body, to tamp down the response to her. An erection slowly formed despite his best efforts.

He tried not to think about it and failed. Always partial to women who shaved their pubes, the sight of Ashlie’s small pussy had hit him hard. It was exposed briefly but burned on his retinas, forever captured in his mind and impossible to forget. On her almost starved body, her pubis was small yet magnificent. Her mons swelled like a lush pad, beautifully tapered. The tip of her cleft looked so remarkably sexy, her labia tightly closed.

Theo’s penis swelled even more, slowly lengthening and straightening. Thank God it was constrained by underwear. He tried to concentrate on anything else and failed again.

In his arms was a naked angel, young, innocent yet not, so sweet, and it struck a chord in him, awakening yearning he shouldn’t have - desires he’d never felt before.

His erection strengthened, pushing at his underwear, wanting to rise. It pressed against the back of Ashlie’s thighs. Almost desperately, Theo tried to concentrate on anything else, anything but this charming girl. He almost succeeded.

Ashlie turned in his arms, wiggling until she was facing him, her green eyes so big, looking into his, probing. To Theo, it felt like she was burrowing inside his head. What did she see?

“It’s okay,” she said softly. Staring into him, she asked, “Would you like to kiss me?”

In a strained whisper, Theo said, “No.” Then, “Yes.”

His face edged closer to hers. He could feel her breath brushing against him. Her lips, so small, looked lush. Under his hands, the skin on her back was silken.

She moved closer, her thighs pressing against his erection; so damn good.

He held off. Desire built. He tried to steel himself, be strong, and, in a sudden release of the tension in his body, his resistance crumbled. Very slowly, Theo touched his lips to hers. She stared at him. Then her eyes blinked out, closing, and their lips pressed together.

There was nothing chaste about the kiss. It might have been only lips touching, but it was intense in a way he’d never experienced, her mouth silky soft, small, and when he realized his hand had dropped to hold her exquisite little bottom, Theo moaned quietly.

He was lost and he knew it.

When their lips parted, Ashlie’s eyes opened and stared into his - luminous, impossibly green. Her clean breath brushed against his face. Her cool hand rested on his chest.

“I like kissing,” she said quietly. “It give gives me nice tingles. Thank you.”

Before he could answer, Ashlie pressed herself against him, her face nuzzling to his shoulder and neck; a young girl seeking comfort.

Theo held her for a long, long time. He didn’t dare move. And somehow, despite the television being on, despite having an erection, despite the desire that flowed like hot lava through him, he fell asleep.


Chapter Seven

When Theo woke up, he found Ashlie studying him intently. At the sight of her, desire rushed back. He smiled, kissed her lightly, and rolled out of bed just as an erection started to form.

Brushing his teeth, he wondered why he was so awake, so alert without having consumed his morning coffee. Toothpaste foam gathered as he brushed vigorously. Then he stopped and grinned. He knew why. It was Ashlie.

He didn’t wrestle with it. He didn’t feel guilty, either. It was what it was. Somehow, in the short time she’d been in his life, he’d grown to adore her; this impossibly strange girl. Even his sexual response to her felt good - exciting and new, unfamiliar yet thrilling.

Brushing hard, he replayed holding her naked bottom last night and an erection formed. Jesus, her butt was perfect!

Theo grinned, bent and spit. He felt liberated. Free. And, damn, did it feel good!

Ashlie was dressed when he emerged. She smiled slightly at his grin and disappeared into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

Theo dressed and packed their meager belongings. His mind was sharp, active. Today was day three. Today he would confirm the purchase of the mansion on Captive Island and arrange to pick up the keys in a couple of days.

Then his mood evaporated, replaced by a bolt of fear. Tonight they were getting the other girls out. His hands went cold. How could they succeed? He and a young girl against the government?

And what would happen to Ashlie if they failed? What would they do to her?

A shiver of fear ran up his spine. What would he do without her? Going back to his old life was impossible now. It would be drab, a passing of time, unrewarding, unexciting, and so lonely.

Ashlie emerged from the bathroom and went to make the bed. Theo shook his head, but didn’t stop her. It was who she was.

“Let’s go,” he suggested. “I need breakfast.”

“McDonalds?” she asked, eyes bright.

Smiling, Theo agreed. “McDonalds.”

Twenty minutes later, Ashlie was carefully eating her McMuffin, this time with sausage, another breakfast sandwich wrapped and ready on the table.

Theo pulled out his cell phone, replaced the battery, and called the Cayman Islands. The call was quick. He jotted down the address of the local lawyer in Florida who would have the legal papers and keys, and ended the call.

“We have the house,” he informed her.

She nodded. When she finished her food, she drank the small cup of orange juice and wiped her mouth, carefully folding the paper napkin.

“We need to shop for clothes.” Theo added, “For you and your sisters.”

When a shimmer of fear passed over her face, Theo smiled reassuringly. “You’ll stay in the car. I’ll power shop.”

Ashlie nodded with relief. “Kay.”

“What size should I buy?” Theo asked before thinking. Then, with a grin, he said, “Never mind. Stupid question.”

Ashlie just looked at him, her head tilting again.

Now doubting himself, he asked, “It is a stupid question, isn’t it?”

She nodded, then gave him a big, broad, bright smile. “Really stupid.”

With a laugh, he suggested they get moving.

Still flush with cash, by early afternoon, Theo had two new suitcases filled with clothes and three paper maps to help in the drive to Florida.

“Miss me?” he asked Ashlie when he returned to the car, noticing her visibly relax.

“No.”

Theo smiled. Now they had the afternoon to waste until it got dark. “Want to go to the movies?”


Chapter Eight

Dusk arrived. Carver sat in his sedan pulled into a side access road three miles from The Facility.

Cars and trucks occasionally passed and he inspected them, searching for a man and girl. So far, nothing.

On the seat next to him a walkie-talkie, courtesy of General Lattimer, occasionally squawked with a guard reporting in or instructions being issued. The Facility was on tight lockdown.

Next to the walkie-talkie were his night vision goggles, a taser, and a spare magazine of ammo for his Sig Sauer.

He’d spent the day scouting, becoming familiar with the terrain. He was convinced Harris and the girl would approach from the southwest. When he saw them, he’d follow at a distance, headlights off.

The taser was for the girl. His Sig for Harris. Tonight it would end and he’d go back to his boat, fifty thousand richer. General Lattimer wasn’t happy with their renegotiated fee, but the Harris’ death cost more.

Carver sat quietly, confident. He’d never failed before and wouldn’t now, despite the general’s warning that the girl has unusual powers. Carver didn’t plan to get close to her until she was taken out by the taser.

**********

With each passing mile, Theo tensed up. His gut roiled. Fear grew. This was impossible and foolhardy!

Ashlie sat quietly watching the dark forest pass.

The Subaru’s headlights cut the darkness ahead. Occasional cars and trucks passed them on the single lane road, heading in the opposite direction.

“You’re sure about this?” he asked for the third time.

“Yes.”

“A lot can go wrong.”

They drove in silence. In the dark, despite the pale moonlight, they missed the dark blue sedan parked in an access road.

Five minutes later, Theo eased the Subaru to the shoulder and stopped. He took a deep breath. “Ready?”

Ashlie nodded.

They left the car. Now Ashlie took over, leading Theo through the dense forest. Wet branches bent and snapped back. The ground undulated, never flat. Wet pine needles made the footing slippery, Theo dropping to his knee several times. The pale moonlight disappeared briefly as a cloud passed, then returned making the forest ghostly grey. Ashlie walked without slipping, sure-footed, ever deeper into the woods.

Within ten minutes, Theo was lost. He had no idea which direction they were heading and doubted he could find the car again. Yet Ashlie walked without hesitation as if following a mental map.

Branches rustled. His breath fogged the air. Theo could hear nothing beyond the sounds he was making. So he was surprised when Ashlie stopped suddenly, tilting her head.

She asked, “What’s . . .”

Suddenly, her whole body went rigid and shook like she was having a fit. Strange clicking sounds reached him. She collapsed and Theo’s stunned immobility was broken. He lunged towards her and, as he did, wood from the tree trunk exploded right where he'd been standing, a quiet thut sounding.

Fuck! Someone’s shooting!

Out of the corner of his eye, a shadow separated from another tree; a man wearing goggles and holding a gun in each hand.

The gun moved, aiming towards him and something snapped inside Theo. Rage exploded. Without thought, he charged. The man fired. Theo, so lost in rage, closed the ten foot distance in the blink of an eye and, head down, slammed into the gunman.

His head hit the goggles and face, his momentum driving the gunman back against the trunk of the tree. Breath exploded. Pain erupted in his head. The gunman grunted.

Movement stopped. Theo had him pinned to the tree, but the gunman wasn’t moving.

When Theo backed away, the gunman slumped, body limp, yet he remained upright. Why? How?

Either way, he was out, unconscious.

Turning, his terror returning, Theo raced over to Ashlie. She’d collapsed in a heap. Theo dropped to his knees and pulled her upper body into his arms. As if a third person, he heard his quiet moan as he rocked her. His vision blurred, her face so pale; too pale.

He couldn’t think. He didn’t know what to do. His mind was empty except for the sorrow that echoed inside. It can't be! It can’t!

Then hope erupted when he felt her stir. Looking down at her face, her eyes opened and emerald green eyes appeared, distorted by dampness in his. He blinked several times. She spoke.

“Theo.”

One word and Theo’s brain kicked in. First, he tried to brush her pale platinum hair from her face. Then he tried to rub away a dirt smudge on one cheek. And finally he noticed the twin prongs of a stun gun imbedded in her jacket, the wires trailing off.

“Jesus Christ you scared me!” he exclaimed.

Ashlie didn’t move. “I hurt.”

“No kidding! You were tased. Just rest for a minute.”

“It doesn’t feel good,” she observed.

Theo chuckled with relief. “I’ll bet.”

Ashlie eventually sat up, then stood. She glanced around, noticed the man still drooping against the tree and walked over to him, touching his hand.

“I think he’s dead,” Theo observed.

Ashlie nodded, turned away and continued the journey through the forest. Theo followed.

His mind wasn’t working. Every noise made him jump, his nerves strung as taut as violin strings. His heart thumped unpleasantly in his chest. He’d killed a man! Gagging suddenly, he stopped and threw up. Fuck! I killed him! Now I’m a murderer!

When he wiped his mouth and straightened, Ashlie was waiting patiently, watching him. He tried to smile and failed.

Ashlie turned away and continued walking. Theo stumbled after her.

Ten minutes later, Ashlie stopped. She crouched down, reached out, and touched something, then stood and continued. Three times she repeated the act.

About to ask what she’d been doing, Theo noticed a chain-link fence topped by razor wire. The Facility. Fear gripped him again, his fingertips ice cold.

“What do we do?” he whispered.

“Follow me.”

He did, tension ratcheting up with every step. They walked along the fence and a gate appeared, manned by a guard in a dark uniform; intimidating with his sidearm. Theo’s heart thumped in his chest again. His hands became clammy, breath short.

Ashlie walked up to the guard without breaking her pace, stopped at the gate, and looked at the guard.

Behind her, Theo saw the guard smile and move to the gate, opening it for them. He locked it behind them, then let them through the inner two gates before returning to his post.

The Facility looked ominous. There were no windows, just solid walls. The place was huge, sprawling, one story high.

Ashlie kept moving, leading them to a secure door. She touched the electronic keypad for a moment. This time he saw her eyes flash lavender. The door clicked.

Inside, the walls were painted white. Speckled linoleum tiles covered the wide corridor. Numbered doors, some solid, some with inset glass panels, lined the hall. And Ashlie walked without hesitation, leading him to the right.

Theo thought it was surreal. This was a highly secure facility, yet Ashlie was passing through it as if unseen. Even the security cameras didn’t seem to see her. Three locked sections guarded by big men, all armed, were silently opened with a smile. However, Theo noticed a vacant stare in their eyes.

They entered Wing 100.

Ashlie walked down the corridor and stopped in front of a door marked 100B. She touched the lock and opened the door.

Inside, the room was large. A simple sitting room with utilitarian furniture had three doors leading off it. Ashlie walked to one and opened the door, walking through.

Theo waited, still studying the living room. He looked at a shelf unit. It was full of books and neatly stacked board games. Across from it was a television. Cork boards were on each wall. Papers, drawings, and paper shapes were pinned to them. From a distance, some of the drawings were quite beautiful demonstrating a fine eye. The room might have looked homey if it wasn’t for the utilitarian furniture and linoleum tiled floor.

Perhaps for that reason, to Theo, the room bothered him. He walked over to the one window and peered out. Through the wire-laced glass he saw what must have been a central courtyard. The Facility completely surrounded it. On the concrete ground, he saw a climbing set, a sand box, and three planters filled with dead vegetation.

It was, to him, the most depressing sight ever.

“Theo, we need to go,” Ashlie said from behind him.

Theo turned and stopped. He should have expected it, but actually seeing it was disconcerting. Beside Ashlie, wearing a cream nightgown, was the splitting image of her - absolutely identical down to the stunning green eyes that were studying him with interest. Her platinum hair was pulled back in a clasp at the nape of her neck.

Ashlie was holding the other girls hand. “This is Theo,” she said.

The girl tilted her head, studying him, then said, “Hello Theo.”

“Um. Hi.”

“Let’s go,” Ashlie urged, leading the other girl.

Two doors down, the scene was repeated. This living area was identical except the room was messier. Games and books were scattered over the floor along with half-finished crafts.

Ashlie disappeared into a side room. The other girl stood still. Theo smiled at her. “Let me guess, you’re Two?”

She looked up at him and nodded. “Yes. How did you know?”

“And this room must be Four’s room?”

“Yes. How do you know?”

“Your room is neat and has some beautiful drawings on the wall. Ashlie told me Two likes to draw.”

“Who’s Ashlie?”

“It’s . . .”

Theo was interrupted by Ashlie emerging from the door. Behind her was another girl identical to Two.

“Hi. I’m Theo,” he said.

The girl studied him, then smiled brightly. “Hello Theo.”

Despite the gnawing fear still haunting him, Theo grinned. How the heck did anyone tell them apart?

Two minutes later, Ashlie led Three out. After introducing himself, Theo turned to tell Ashlie they should leave.

From behind him, a voice asked, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

Theo almost jumped out of his skin. He turned.

The young lady at the door was staring at him, frowning. Her eyes darted to the girls and widened at the sight of Ashlie.

“One? You’re back?”

Ashlie nodded. “I’ve come for my sisters.”

Theo forgotten, the woman moved to Ashlie, giving her a big hug. “How are you?” she asked, concern in her eyes.

“I’m fine. Theo’s kept me safe. We’re leaving, Kelly.”

So this is Kelly, Theo thought. She seemed too young to be a teacher.

Kelly looked at the girls, then at Theo. She surprised him by saying, “Good. You should get moving before you’re discovered.”

Theo almost left. He couldn’t wait to get out of The Facility, but he didn’t. Something bothered him. Something he’d worried about before. What was it? There was one last thing to do. He searched his memory.

When the girls started moving to the exit, he said, “Wait.”

Then it came to him. General Lattimer’s email. He’d mentioned creating four new girls. It wasn’t enough to help these girls. Theo wanted to make sure they couldn’t create more.

Turning to Kelly, he asked, “What made these girls so special? What happened to them?”

Kelly didn’t answer at first. Then she said, “It’s too long and complex to explain. You have to leave now.”

“No. I want to stop them from repeating the experiment. How do I stop them?” When Kelly hesitated, Theo said, “Please. What they’ve done is inhuman.”

Kelly nodded. “Okay. I don't have time to explain. We have to go to the labs and get something. Without it, they cannot duplicate the experiment.”

The six of them hustled out, led by Ashlie and Kelly. Three security gates later, Kelly led them into a lab. Machines he couldn’t identify lined the walls. Lab benches were arranged in the middle of the room with strange electronic equipment on top. The faint smell of chemicals reached him; clinical and unsettling.

Kelly led them to the far end. Inset into the wall was an eight foot safe door. A digital display panel jutted out from the front. Ashlie moved close and touched the panel. Her eyes flashed. They waited. Seconds seemed like hours. Then, finally, Ashlie stepped back as electronic locks thunked open.

A two-foot thick door silently opened. When the gap was wide enough, Kelly slipped through. Theo followed. The metal lined room, ten feet square, was full of file cabinets and, on the far wall, a shelving unit.

Kelly rushed to the back, grabbed something, and turning, handed it to Theo.

Theo looked down at the small, very heavy metal box. Not quite three inches in length, two inches wide, and one inch deep, it must have weighed a couple of pounds!

“Take that with you,” Kelly urged. “Without it, they have nothing.”

“Thanks,” Theo said pocketing the heavy box. Then he paused. “Did the girls know about this box?”

“No. Why?”

Theo stared at her. “You have to come with us. As soon as the box is found missing, they’ll know it was you.”

Kelly appeared shocked, then scared. “I . . . I didn’t think,” she stuttered.

Taking her arm, Theo urged her to move. “You’ll come with us. Besides, the girls need you.”

Kelly looked at the girls. Ashlie nodded. “Come with us. Theo will keep us all safe.”

Fifteen minutes later, the six of them passed through the outer fence and disappeared into the forest.

Theo led the group until Ashlie grabbed his hand.

“It’s that way,” she said, pointing to the left. She took over, leading them back to the Subaru.

When they passed the dead man still drooping from the tree trunk, his night vision goggles making him alien in appearance, Kelly gasped and stopped. Theo grabbed her hand and pulled her along. “I’ll explain later.”

This time, as he passed close to the dead man, he noticed the broken branch protruding from his chest.

**********

Returning to the security control room, Rob Kitchen sat with a fresh mug of coffee. He looked haggard and exhausted, unshaven, with circles under his eyes. Two other technicians were bent over their desks. Rob scanned the monitors out of habit. Nothing amiss.

He needed sleep desperately. This lockdown couldn’t be maintained forever.

In the quiet, a radio squawked with routine chatter.

Yawning, he put the mug down and stretched his arms up, then glanced at a computer monitor. Odd. Leaning closer, he studied it.

“When did General Lattimer arrive? Why wasn’t I informed?” he asked the technicians.

A technician looked up. “He’s here?”

“According to the computer, he’s in the lab. He opened the secure safe room.”

The technician shrugged his shoulders.

Annoyed, Rob got on the radio to the front gate. Fatigue fell away as the response came, “No one’s passed through in hours, sir.”

Rob lunged and hit the alarm. The Facility erupted with noise. Locks automatically closed.

“Fuck! Go check on the girls!”


Chapter Nine

Theo’s eyes drooped closed. He shook himself again. Six hours on the road after a long day, excessive adrenaline, and escaping The Facility was too much for him. He needed rest, even if it was only seven in the morning.

Twenty minutes later, he pulled into a travel inn. In the passenger seat, Ashlie sat quietly. Behind them, three girls and Kelly were asleep.

“Stay here. I’ll get some rooms.”

“Kay. Can we eat?”

“Sure. After we have rooms.”

He registered, taking two adjoining rooms, providing a cash deposit for one day.

Back at the car, everyone was now awake. He grabbed the two suitcases from the trunk, telling the girls, “You’ll have to dress before we go for breakfast.”

Ashlie asked, “McDonalds?”

Despite his fatigue, Theo smiled. “Sure.”

In the adjoining rooms, he dumped the suitcases on one bed and stretched out on the other. The last thing he remembered was excited chatter.

Ashlie opened the suitcases and started removing clothes. They were all so colorful!

“Pick any and change,” she told her sisters.

Kelly joined them. “These are nice,” she observed, handing a pair of soft pale blue sweatpants to Three.

Four asked, “How come Theo calls you Ashlie?”

“It’s my name.”

“You’re One, not Ashlie,” Four observed.

“Theo gave me the name,” Ashlie informed her. “I like it. It’s a real name.”

“Then I want one, too!”

“Me, too!” Three agreed.

Two turned to Kelly and asked, “Why didn’t we get real names?”

Kelly smiled ruefully. “I asked them to but they wouldn’t let me.”

“You can now.”

“So choose a name,” Kelly suggested.

Two thought about it and announced, “My name is Purple. It’s my favorite color.”

Kelly laughed lightly. “Purple’s not a name.”

An animated discussion ensued while clothes were inspected. Panties, socks, shoes, tops and pants were chosen.

Kelly stopped them when they started to change. “You can’t put clean clothes on until you’re clean!”

As one, the three girls looked down at their dirty cream dresses and dirty sneakers.

“Shower,” Kelly suggested, pointing.

The three took off, jostling each other.

“There is another shower in the other room!” Kelly yelled when it sounded like an argument breaking out.

An hour later, Theo woke when his shoulder was prodded. He groaned. Damn.

“It’s time to go for breakfast,” he was told, deep green eyes staring at him - Ashlie.

Theo rubbed his eyes and sat up. Four identical girls, all dressed, were watching him. He asked Ashlie, “How can you tell them apart?”

She grinned and pointed. “That one is Two. That one is Three. And that one is Ashlie.”

It took a moment to sink in. Eyes popping open, he asked, “You’re not Ashlie?”

“No. I’m Four.”

All of them reacted with a laugh.

Theo shook his head and rose from the bed, groaning again. Everyone moved towards the door. Then he remembered.

“Which one of you is Ashlie?”

“I am,” all four answered.

Theo grinned. “No. Really. I need you to do your thing with the hotel registration.

Ashlie smiled and walked over. “This is fun,” she commented, opening the laptop. She turned it on, touched the case, her eyes flashing lavender. A minute later, she closed the laptop. “All done.”

The girls led the way to the elevator.

Not twenty minutes later, Theo and Kelly collected breakfast orders at McDonalds and took them over to the four girls huddled together at one table. Theo passed out breakfast and sat at the adjoining table.

He ate slowly and sipped coffee while studying Kelly. She looked to be in her mid-twenties. Her hair was short, thick, cut feathery in layers, and the color of burnt umber; not dark brown, not light brown, but an intense color between.

Her light hazel eyes watched him study her. Theo did it without shame. He couldn’t put his finger on the exact reason, but her slender nose with its slight ski jump, her full mouth, and defined jaw, combined to make her remarkably pretty.

A burst of laughter erupted at the next table. Theo glanced at the girls as Ashlie seriously explained about cheeseburgers.

Theo turned back to Kelly. “How do you tell them apart?”

Kelly smiled. “When you get to know them, you can tell from their personalities.”

“And what about those who don’t know them?”

Kelly’s smile vanished. “They have a number tattooed on the inside of their ankle above their heel.”

“That’s . . . That’s . . .” Theo stuttered.

“I know. Callous,” Kelly agreed.

Sipping coffee, as his mind cleared and sharpened, he said, “What happened to them?”

Kelly sighed and dropped her plastic fork. She sipped coffee before speaking. “It’s a long story.”

“I have time.”

She changed the subject. “Where are you taking the girls?”

Theo considered pressing her on the story, but decided there was a long drive ahead. He’d interrogate her on the trip.

“We’ve acquired an estate on Captiva Island in Florida. It’s secure and private. We’ll be there tomorrow.”

“Who owns it?” Kelly asked. “How can you be sure they’ll be safe?”

Theo laughed briefly. “4231 Investments Ltd, incorporated in the Cayman Islands owns the property as of yesterday. And before you ask, it was Ashlie that figured it out.”

Kelly smiled. “How much has she learned? Has she had access to the Internet?”

“Yes.”

“I’d love to test her again to see how she’s progressed.”

“Then ask her,” Theo responded a bit sharply.

Kelly smiled. “Not like you think. I’m not a scientist. All I do is teach. But I’d like to measure her intellectual abilities to see how they’ve progressed . . . with her permission.”

Theo nodded. “Sorry for being sharp.”

Before Kelly could respond, a mother and her young daughter stopped at the table. She smiled. “I’ve never seen identical quadruplets before. They’re beautiful. How do you tell them apart?”

Theo blurted, “You check their ankles.”

“Sorry?” the mother asked, eyebrows arching.

Kelly stifled a laugh. “You get to know them. They’re different in small ways.”

“Well, you’re very lucky parents. They must be quite a handful,” the mother said, smiling and walking away.

Kelly drained her coffee. “Two, Three, and Four want real names.”

“Let them choose one,” Theo suggested.

“It might not be that simple. Two chose the name Purple because it’s her favorite color.”

Theo laughed. “Maybe we should help.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Back at the travel inn, Kelly took one room with two girls, Theo the other with two girls, the connecting door open.

Theo managed a shower, closed the drapes, and fell into bed. He was asleep in minutes.

Late afternoon, Kelly woke up. She went to the bathroom and, when returning, glanced into the other room. Theo was sound asleep. What made her smile was seeing him spooning One, both asleep.

Back in bed, with Two and Three in the other bed, Kelly let her thoughts drift to Theo.

He looked like he was in his early- or mid-twenties; around her age. About average height, he looked taller by the way he carried himself and his slender physique. He wasn’t that handsome, but there was something in his eyes and personality that made him attractive. It was the caring in his brown eyes when he looked at One - at Ashlie. It was how incensed he’d been at the way the girls had been treated. And it was how he treated the girls - with kindness and an easy, honest smile.

But he could do with a haircut and shave. He looked a bit shaggy.

Kelly’s thoughts turned to the girls and how they’d reacted to Theo. Perhaps more than everything, it was the girls obvious ease with him that impressed her. The girls had never taken to men, largely because it was male scientists who treated them like lab rats. It could be because the four were together again, or that they were out of The Facility, but their sadness and withdrawn behavior that deepened with One’s departure was gone. Thank goodness.

She glanced across to the girls sleeping in the next bed. That, too, was strange. The girls needed very little sleep, yet there they were, all at peace.

What would the future hold? She didn’t know. However, she knew one thing - she was going to stay with the girls and help them. In the last four years in her care, she’d grown to love each and every one of them.

**********

Theo glanced across at Kelly in the passenger seat. Behind him, the girls were chatting together. Ashlie was updating them about what she’d done since leaving The Facility.

Ahead, they had a ten hour drive, made longer by their need to avoid major highways.

“Okay. We have time. Tell me about the girls,” he suggested to Kelly.

Kelly glanced at him, then stared out the winshield. She was silent. Theo waited her out. Eventually, with a quiet sigh, she spoke.

“It started back in the 1990's in Montana when a rancher discovered a small meteorite. In and of itself, it wasn’t special. But it weighed far more than it should. He asked a geologist about it and the strange meteorite made its way to the Smithsonian.

“There, geologists studied it. They discovered it was impervious to x-rays, so they couldn’t discover it’s mineral makeup. They threw every test they had at it with no results. At that point, it came to the attention of DARPA. The theory was, if they could decode the mineral, it might lead to a new metal they could use for military equipment.

“That’s where General Lattimer entered the scene. He was in charge of assessing the meteorite. It took a year before they decided to cut the meteorite open, and used an argon laser to bore a hole into it. They were excited because it took so long to bore the hole; longer than any material they’d ever encountered.”

Kelly paused for a while, then continued. “From what I was told by one of the scientists, the center of the meteorite was hollow and in that space, scientists discovered traces of deoxyribonucleic acid that . . .”

“What?” Theo asked, interrupting her.

“Deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA.”

“Ah. Got it.”

Kelly continued. “The scientists were thrilled with the discovery. How had DNA become imbedded in a meteorite, and such a strange meteorite at that? Where had it come from? How old was the DNA and was it proof of life out in the cosmos?

“The analysis showed the DNA to have a strange nucleotide. They started experiments using the DNA with mice, splicing the strange nucleotide into the mice’ DNA. Those mice demonstrated remarkable abilities in base maze tests. The DNA modified mice were faster at running mazes and seemed to have the ability to remember every maze they were exposed to.

“It was General Lattimer that pushed for human trial. That’s where the four girls come in. A donated human ovum was used, sperm was cleansed, and the new DNA was introduced. The ovum was in vitro fertilized and a woman was impregnated. She gave birth to quadruplets.”

“So the girls have a mother,” Theo observed. “Where is she?”

“The woman died giving birth.”

For the next few minutes there was silence. Theo’s mind was churning, trying to understand Kelly’s revelation.

She continued unprompted. “The girls were raised in The Facility. I’m their second teacher. I’ve been with them for four years.

“For the first ten years, despite carrying the new DNA, the girls demonstrated no special abilities. They were assessed every week with a series of tests designed to probe their intellect, their memory, and any other trait they might have. To all intents, they were normal girls until three weeks ago.”

“What happened?” Theo asked.

“Opticon One changed. It was a sudden change, too. One day she was normal. The next, she demonstrated a remarkable ability to manipulate electronic signals on the computer. All Hell broke loose with that discovery.

“Suddenly, everyone was excited. General Lattimer ordered a series of tests on the isolated Intranet at The Facility. Opticon One . . .”

“Ashlie,” Theo interrupted.

“Sorry. Ashlie demolished every test she was given. There was nothing they could do that Ashlie couldn’t penetrate effortlessly. No encryption, no firewall, nothing.

“And then Ashlie escaped,” Kelly finished.

Theo thought about it, then said, “So she’s an alien.”

Kelly shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s possible.”

“And when did she develop her ability to control minds?”

“What?” Kelly asked loudly.

Theo grinned. “I gather you don’t know. Ashlie can mess with your head.”

“How? Since when?” Kelly asked, glancing behind at the girls.

Theo talked, relating his story of finding her and how she’d make people do things. An animated discussion followed long into the night as Theo headed south.

At one point, Theo asked, “Why don’t the other girls have the same abilities?”

“No one knows.”

“What happened to make Ashlie suddenly different?”

Kelly thought about it. “The scientists don’t know. Personally, I think it has to do with maturity. Ashlie started puberty and her abilities emerged. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.”

As dawn broke, Theo asked, “The small metal box you gave me, is that the meteorite?”

“Yes. It’s the only source of DNA. The scientists haven’t been able to replicate the DNA in lab tests. Every time they try, the DNA reverts to normal human DNA.”

In a quieter voice, she added, “They were planning on breeding her to see if her DNA could be passed on.”

“Jesus! How cold-hearted are they?” Theo exclaimed.

“Very. My understanding is, there is no computer in the world she can’t get into. Can you imagine every secret in the world open to the American intelligence community? With that power, America could control the world. Think about it. There’s nothing that isn’t connected electronically anymore. Even cell phone calls are routed through computers. She’s able to see everything.”


Chapter Ten

Theo walked out of the law office into intense sunlight. Heat beat down despite it being late October. In his pocket, he had the keys to their new house, instructions for the security system, and directions to get there.

He should have felt relief. Safety was so close. But he didn’t. In the periods of silence on the drive, his mind had been active. Getting the girls out and taking the only source of DNA with them may have stopped The Facility, but other huge problems loomed.

How hard would it be for the government to find identical quadruplets, especially when they were so distinctive in appearance? Emerald green eyes and pale platinum hair made the girls stand out. Even stopping for gas, people had stared into the car.

And what did that mean for the girls? Ashlie wanted to go to school. The other three probably wanted to as well. But how? They didn’t even have papers. For all intents and purposes, the girls didn’t exist.

Theo got in the car and started it, handing the directions to Kelly.

Behind them, the girls were chatting and staring out the car windows at Cape Coral, pointing at new sights.

He crossed the Cape Coral Bridge and turned south on McGregor Boulevard. It would end at the Sanibel Causeway leading to Sanibel Island. From there, there were several twists and turns to get to the Sanibel Captiva Road.

He drove deep while thought. The only solution he could figure out would be to keep the girls in the mansion, limit them to the estate. But wasn’t that another prison like The Facility? It might be nicer, however, a prison it would still be.

“Turn right onto Periwinkle Way,” Kelly instructed, pointing ahead to an intersection.

Theo turned the Subaru, still troubled. He’d need to have a long chat with Kelly when they were alone. Thinking of Kelly, what was she going to do? Give up her life for the girls? What was fair about that?

The more he thought about it, the more impossible the situation became. He’d thought getting the girls out would be the end. It was only the beginning.

“Turn right,” Kelly said.

A minute later, she said, “Turn left up there.”

Verdant trees lined Sanibel Captiva Road to the right. Residential developments passed on the left. Between the trees, waterways appeared and disappeared on the right, the water a murky green. Passing over a bridge at Blind Pass, they hit Captiva Drive.

Several miles later, guided by Kelly, Theo turned into a side road. A hundred yards later, massive white gates appeared. At the security box, Theo punched in the access code and the gates opened slowly.

Everyone’s eyes were alert as he drove onto the estate. Lush vegetation gave way to manicured lawns, a tennis court to the right. Tropical trees and bushes provided privacy. Well tended flower beds were filled with sharp-colored blossoming plants.

Then the house came into view. Theo slowed. The photographs on the Internet hadn’t done it justice. It was huge!

Long and linear, with two floors and a flat roof, it looked modernistic. Huge glass windows, granite, and white steel beams made the house look sprawling, horizontal, futuristic.

The girls were crowding Theo as he unlocked the broad double front doors and rushed by him when opened. Kelly was more reserved, studying the house in amazement.

When Theo entered the vaulted entry hall, he immediately spotted a problem. There wasn’t a stick of furniture in the place! The online images had shown a furnished home. How had he been so stupid?

Kelly turned from inspecting the free-hanging, wire supported, sweeping staircase. “I think we have a problem - no furniture.”

Theo grinned sheepishly. “You noticed, too?”

“Hard not to,” she said with a smile.

Running feet echoed through the empty house. Excited chatter broke out every so often. Theo looked at his watch. One-forty. There was still time.

“What say you we go shopping for sleeping bags, air mattresses, and food?”

Kelly agreed, adding, “I could do with a change of clothes and some toiletries.” She turned and yelled, “GIRLS!” It echoed in the empty house.

Two of them appeared on the upper level. Ashlie emerged from down the hall. The fourth girl was MIA.

Kelly explained what she and Theo were going to do, warned the girls to stay away from water and not leave the estate.

Four hours later, Theo and Kelly returned, the car jamb-packed with purchases. Half an hour of unpacking was followed by a walk-through led by the girls.

Upstairs, each girl pointed out the bedroom they’d selected and the one picked for Kelly.

One of the girls took Theo’s hand and said, “Yours is over here.”

Theo grinned and asked, “You’re Ashlie, right?”

She laughed. “Uh-huh. Can’t you tell?”

Another girl frowned and objected. “She’s not Ashlie! I’m Ashlie! She’s Four!” Ashlie glowered at her sister’s laughter. “It’s not funny!”

“Relax. I knew she wasn’t you,” Theo said. “She’s wearing blue sneakers. Yours are white and pink.”

Ashlie walked over, took Four’s hand out of Theo’s, and held Theo’s hand. “This way,” she said with a tug.

Ashlie led him down the hall to double doors and opened them.

Theo walked in and stopped. Jesus! His bedroom was at least three times the size of his old apartment! Even bigger! Along one wall were two doors. He looked in. The first was a massive walk-in closet with shelving, drawers, and hanging racks. The second led to a huge bathroom done in marble; a glass shower, large tub, toilet, and two-sink counter.

“And look,” Ashlie said, dragging him out of the bathroom and pointing to a blank wall.

“What?”

“It’s a hidden door. You push this button here and the door opens.”

She pushed the almost invisible flat button lightly. The door slid back into the wall revealing a large study complete with a fireplace!

Theo smiled broadly. “This is great!”

One of the girls asked, “Can we eat? I’m hungry.”

**********

The night was full of sounds. Through an open window, Theo could hear crickets singing their nightly song, bullfrogs croaking, and an occasional motorboat passing along the channel behind the property.

His room seemed even bigger when lying on the floor in a sleeping bag with only the air mattress underneath him. Noise echoed from lack of furnishings. Then the bedroom door opened silently and Ashlie slipped in, wearing a big T-shirt as a nightgown.

Theo smiled. Warmth suffused him at the sight of her. Despite being with her all day, he’d missed her.

Without a word, Ashlie crawled into the sleeping bag with him. Deep green eyes looked at him. Theo smiled and kissed her. Ashlie’s lips were so soft. A bit of pressure communicated affection, and her sigh at the end hit him deeply.

She turned and gave him her back. “Hug me, please.”

“Gladly,” he answered, smiling.

Lying together, Ashlie broke the silence, quietly saying, “I don’t like that you don’t know which one I am.”

“I know exactly which one you are,” Theo assured her.

“How?”

Theo brought his hand up and touched her temple right at her hairline. “You have a small twirl of baby hair right here. Your sisters don't. I’m only kidding when I pretend not to know.”

Ashlie sighed. “Kay. Four likes to joke too much. I got angry with her today.”

“I noticed.”

After a moments silence, Ashlie added, “It’s the first time I’ve really been angry. I don’t like it. It doesn’t feel good.”

“Hasn’t your sister made you angry before?”

“No. I never cared about her jokes. But you’re mine. I’m not sharing you with her.”

“That’s a bit selfish,” Theo pointed out.

“I don’t care. You’re mine.”

Oddly, Theo liked her possessiveness. It matched his own emerging feelings for her. And, spooning her, holding her in his arms, brought him such peace. Why?

Ashlie shifted slightly and took his hand. She guided it down, asking, “Would you give me a climax?”

She asked simply, quietly. And Theo’s first impulse was to resist. He did, refusing to let her push his hand down her body further.

“Please?” she asked quietly.

The trouble was, he knew it was wrong and didn’t want to care. His body didn’t know it was wrong. Blood flowed with a stir of excitement, his penis awakening. Suddenly her small bum felt wonderful pressed to his groin. She felt deliciously delicate against him, so young.

And he wondered what it would be like to actually feel her small pussy, the one he’d seen naked - cute, hairless, and so sensual.

In the warmth of the sleeping bag, Theo briefly wrestled with himself and lost, the allure of intimacy with Ashlie too strong.

“Okay,” he whispered.

Ashlie guided his hand down and pressed it against her crotch, lifting her leg far enough for Theo to palm her pussy, and Theo groaned mentally at the touch.

Blind, every contour became exaggerated. Soft cotton panties formed to her small but soft pubis, his hand so large. The pad of her mons was full, tapering delicately, her labia forming a succulent little vulva surprisingly prominent between her legs.

Theo pressed gently, then lightly traced her pussy; down one side and up the opposite side, across her mons to the middle and down, feeling the distinct dip of her cleft through soft cotton.

Ashlie sighed softly as he caressed her cleft. Then she reached down, grabbed his hand, and drew it up.

“Inside,” she whispered, pushing his fingers at the waist of her panties.

This time, Theo didn’t hesitate. He eased his fingers into her panties, his excitement mounting, slowly pushed deeper feeling her silky soft skin, the rise of her mons, and cupped her naked pussy.

In his head, he groaned again. Her pussy was so small, perfectly hairless, baby soft, and so exciting. His penis thickened and lengthened. An erection slowly formed, trying to rise in his underwear.

Theo, lost in the experience, kissed her hair and explored her pussy, mapping its remarkable shape. He rubbed her short cleft gently, slowly, and when he felt a trace of warm, slippery moisture at its base, his cock flexed hard, pressing against the back of her thighs.

Carefully, he applied pressure and his fingertip was partially hugged by her labia. He touched a small spot of dampness at the base and spread it with slow strokes, his own excitement mounting.

Ashlie murmured quietly and wiggled her bum. She surprised him by reaching behind and fishing down to touch his erection over his underwear, her small fingers lightly groping and exploring its shape.

In the dark, aroused beyond belief, Theo lost the last of his restraint. He took the initiative for the first time, selfishly driven by horniness and by desire for Ashlie.

“Wait,” he whispered.

Pulling his hand from inside her panties, he rolled his hip away from her, reached down, pushed the front of his underwear down releasing his erection. Then, with his heart beating hard, with his excitement making his cock throb, he eased the back of Ashlie’s cute cotton panties down over her buttocks.

Holding her panties down, he rolled back to her. The tip of his erection touched her bum crack. He guided it, and Ashlie raised her leg again.

Theo’s groan was audible this time. His erection slowly pressed into the gap, along her hairless pussy, and was cradled by her thighs. Soft cotton panties pressed his cock against her when he released himself. Ashlie closed her legs, trapping him.

For a moment he didn’t move. His cock pulsed and Ashlie responded, squeezing her thighs together.

Cuddled to her behind, Theo reached around and slipped his hand inside her panties, touching her silken mons, then down, following her cleft, and shuddered when he felt his thick tip poking out from behind. Soft cotton panties pressed to the back of his hand. He caressed her cleft slowly, finding the small spot of moisture at its base and drawing it up.

Ashlie squeezed her thighs again and Theo responded, his erection flexing, leaking, pleasure coursing through him. He touched the tip of his cock and collected a bead of precum, spreading it along her cleft. Suddenly she was very slippery. His fingertip slipped into her silken cleft and he touched her clit, his excitement so strong he had to close his eyes and breathe deeply to calm down.

Ashlie responded, jerking slightly at his touch, then sighing.

For the next little while there was silence in the bedroom as he stroked her clit, each time letting himself probe deeper. Another powerful pulse hit him, pleasure now making him hot. He gathered more precum and spread it on her. His finger slipped up and down her slit easily, finding the tiny entrance to her at the base, and then rubbing her clit.

Ashlie murmured and finally started responding. She undulated her hips, her small bum moving, rubbing her pussy against his touch. So turned on, Theo unconsciously started moving his hips. His erection rubbed back and forth between her thighs. Precum spread even more and Theo groaned.

God it felt good!

Giving in to the powerful urge, he moved his hand and used his fingertips to press his crown against her pussy, using the upper side to rub her clit.

Ashlie started humping herself against his tip. Her small labia caressed his crown, her clit rubbing. She inhaled sharply, then humped his crown faster. Theo, lost in the incredible sensation, pressed the side of his crown against her little cleft even harder, guiding his erection as he humped her pussy. They were very slippery, gliding smoothly, and Theo felt the first sign of his orgasm; his testicles tensing, pressure building, heart racing.

Ashlie humped, hips moving. Then she shivered and let out a quiet grunt of pleasure as she climaxed. Scrubbing her cleft on his crown, Theo let himself go. His orgasm rushed at him.

Fingertips pressing his tip of his erection into her cleft, Theo climaxed with Ashlie. His cock swelled, pulsed, and pleasure hit as semen raced up his shaft and exploded against Ashlie’s pussy, thick, hot, wet. He gasped and another harder pulse hit, sweet ecstasy slamming into him as cum exploded again against his palm and her pussy.

Ashlie grunted and humped, her buttocks clenching against him, and Theo came hard, thrusting and spurting, her panties and pussy covered in semen, bliss blossoming and filling him. He thrust and spurted, soaking her in cum, lost in pleasure, until, with a final, almost painful pulse, his orgasm passed. He slowed. Stopped.

Ashlie was still, breathing deeply.

Theo’s palm was soaked with warm semen. Her pussy was covered. Her panties messy, too. Neither moved. Eventually, his erection softened, shrank, and he eased it out from the back of her panties.

“I’ve made a mess,” he said, pulling his hand out of her panties.

“I don’t mind. It feels good,” Ashlie responded in a whisper, reaching behind to tug her panties up.


Chapter Eleven

At breakfast, all of them sitting on the kitchen floor cross-legged, except for Kelly who’d curled her legs to the side, they ate muffins and dry cereal. Bowls had yet to be purchased, and crumbs littered the floor.

Theo contemplated this small troop he’d inherited. He noticed the personality differences between the girls. Two was always quiet. Her laughs and giggles were quiet, and she was constantly studying things; the garden through the window, the shape of a room, the pattern of solid wood floors. Three was bright and smiled, but bored. And Four always had a twinkle of mischief in her eyes and a sharp wit. She was the most vocal of them all.

He was impressed with Kelly. Somehow, she divided her attention equally between all four girls, and it was obvious the girls liked her. There was a lot to like, too. Kelly was naturally outgoing, had a ready smile, and showed she cared in everything she did.

He looked at Two. When he caught her eye, he smiled and asked, “What’s your favorite letter?”

She tilted her head in thought, then said, “J. It has a nice shape. Why?”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Purple. Why?” she asked again.

“How about Jacey as a name. It starts with the letter J, and means purple after the hyacinth blossom,” Theo proposed.

Two tilted her head. “Jacey.” She smiled. “I like it. Jacey.”

Four immediately spoke. “Me! Do me!”

“Please,” Kelly suggested.

Four looked contrite. “Please?”

Theo smiled. “Favorite letter?”

Four immediately responded, “K! No, R! No, Q! No. Wait a minute. S! I like the letter S.”

“And your favorite color?”

“Red. No, brown,” Four announced, looking uncertain.

Theo suggested, “How about Sienna?”

“Okay. Now give me a name.”

Kelly laughed lightly. “I think Theo’s suggesting Sienna as a name, not a color.”

Four’s eyes brightened. “Sienna. I like it! Let me hear it.”

Kelly smiled. “Sienna, you’ve made a mess on the floor.”

Four laughed and nodded. “I’m Sienna.”

Theo looked at Three, sitting attentively and observing everything.

She said, “I want to be called Nancy.”

“Okay. Why?”

“I like Nancy Drew.”

“Who’s Nancy Drew?” Theo asked.

Kelly answered, “The Nancy Drew mystery books are her favorite.”

Theo nodded. “Good. First names done. Next, surname.”

Ashlie, in a quiet voice, said, “Harris. Mine’s going to be Harris.” Her eyes studied Theo’s watching for a response.

“I think I’d like that,” he answered.

**********

Life was complex and confusing to Theo. It seemed every small decision brought with it unexpected complications.

Something as simple as going out to power shop for furniture became a problem. Could the girls accompany them? Ashlie had no interest in shopping. She was still wrestling with her fear of crowds. The other three wanted to go. But, the girls were so distinctive in appearance they’d draw attention and with it could reveal their location to the government.

Ashlie suggested shopping online. Theo balked, as did Kelly. They needed furniture now, not a week from today. They needed kitchen equipment, cutlery, and plates, linens, towels, and more; an endless list of more.

It was Kelly that suggested a solution.

“If we can survive with a frozen meal or two, we can buy disposable plates and cutlery. In the meantime,” she added, looking at the girls, “we can change your appearance. I’ll cut your hair differently, and change the color, too.”

Four - Sienna - was all for it, enthusiastically announcing, “I want brown hair like yours!”

Jacey contributed, voting for purple hair. Nancy remained silent, as did Ashlie.

Kelly offered to go buy the needed supplies. Theo agreed, handing her the car keys. He still wanted to explore the house and estate. Of particular interest was the multi-media room. It looked like a huge LCD screen would fit on the wall. Maybe even a 4K one!

By ten-twenty that morning, Kelly returned with boxes and bags. Everything was unpacked in the kitchen. They now had plates, cutlery, and a selection of oven/microwavable meals, bread, cold deli meats and basic condiments, and much needed coffee. Kelly also had a selection of hair dyes and scissors and a comb.

Theo offered to help. Kelly laughed and led the girls away. Bored, he wandered around, became even more bored and, inspired, he left the estate.

In town, Theo hunted through stores. He had a list. He knew exactly what he wanted: books, stereo systems, music, art supplies, and a television. He bought puzzles and DVD’s, games, a Sony PlayStation, and more. In his mind, he went through what Ashlie had told him about her sisters, their likes, and he tried to find something for each of them.

But.

When he came to the end of his spending binge, he realized he had nothing for Ashlie! He didn’t know what she liked. How come? He’d spent more time with her than any of the others. Sitting in the Subaru, Theo wracked his brains trying to remember if she’d shown pleasure in anything and could only come up with colorful clothes.

He was stumped. He couldn’t go back with gifts for the other three and nothing for her. Yet, as a half hour passed, he had nothing.

Finally, out of frustration, he went back to the book store. Maybe some books on science? Or geography? Or the universe? He strolled through the store, spotted something and bought it. Why not? She was still a little girl after all, even with her strange and scary powers.

When he returned, it was late afternoon. He unloaded the car. Bright laughter reached him from upstairs. Intrigued, Theo headed up.

The sight that met him when he walked into Kelly’s bedroom made him pause. One of the girls now had dirty blonde hair parted on the side. One had coppery brown hair cut to shoulder length, the color making her green eyes glow. Another had burgundy hair cut to shoulder blade length. And there was Ashlie, exactly the same with pale platinum hair falling to below her rear – not changed in the slightest.

“What do you think?” Kelly asked, smiling.

“Who’s who?” Theo asked.

Kelly pointed to the brown haired girl. “That’s Sienna.” She pointed to the dirty blonde. “That’s Jacey.” She pointed to the burgundy haired girl. “And that’s Nancy.”

Theo smiled. “You all look . . . so different, but great!”

Sienna and Jacey smiled.

Theo turned to Ashlie. “What about you? Didn’t you want a different color?”

Kelly, beside him, informed Theo, “It’s the strangest thing. We tried to dye her hair but it won’t take any color. It just washes away.”

Theo smiled at Ashlie and walked over. He hugged her and whispered, “I’m glad. I love you like you are. I don’t want you to change.”

Ashlie gave him one of her blinding smiles; the ones that touched him so deep.

He cleared his throat and announced, “I have gifts downstairs. Anyone want one?”

That night, Theo watched the bedroom door, hoping Ashlie would come. He thought about the gifts he’d bought. The girls had been thrilled, each getting exactly what they were interested in. But it was Ashlie that stole his heart. He’d bought the Harry Potter series for her, thinking that a bit of fantasy, of magic, might make her feel good. She’d smiled when given the set; her shy smile that hit him deep. And like the first clothes he’d given her, those from the Salvation Army thrift store, she’d touched the books gently, almost reverently.

Theo suspected it wasn’t the books themselves that she was reacting to, but receiving a gift.

The bedroom door opened silently. Ashlie slipped in, closing the door behind her. In one arm, she carried a book. She came to his sleeping bag and slipped in. Placing the book carefully on the floor next to her, she turned and looked at him, her eyes so beautiful. Theo gathered her in his arms. Ashlie snuggled to him and a feeling of peace stole over him.

She edged back, looked at him and said, “I didn’t thank you for the books.”

She kissed him, her lips brushing against his, so soft. “Thank you,” she said softly before settling against him.

Theo smiled. “I have to ask. Haven’t you been given gifts before?”

“Yes. At Christmas Kelly gives us each a gift. But this one’s special. It’s from you.”

**********

For the next five days, delivery vans were arriving. Furniture was finally filling bedrooms and the den and the kitchen.

Other deliveries brought basics; pots and pans and kitchen appliances and cooking utensils. Linen and towels arrived. And most importantly, the cable company hooked up the television and Internet connection.

Kelly volunteered to be the decorator. She left every morning with one or another of the girls and shopped all day. Each girl selected their own bedroom furnishings except for Ashlie. Ashlie refused to go shopping. She showed no interest in furnishing her bedroom.

Kelly, concerned about Ashlie’s reluctance to leave the estate, asked Theo about it. He explained about her experience at the mall. Intrigued, Kelly took Ashlie aside and spent several hours talking to her, away from everyone else. Later that evening, as the girls watched a movie and occupied themselves with this and that, Kelly and Theo sat in the kitchen and shared a bottle of white wine.

“Ashlie’s changed enormously,” Kelly observed. “I ran her through some basic tests to judge her progress and it’s quite unbelievable.”

“How so? Is it good or bad?” Theo asked.

“I don’t know yet.” Kelly thought for a while and continued, “I haven’t tested her IQ. I don’t have the materials here to do it. But her understanding and awareness of the world is rather mind-boggling. If I didn’t see her, I would swear I was talking to a full-grown adult.”

Theo responded, “I don’t get it. You knew she was special, so why are you surprised?”

“I expected her to have the ability to acquire prodigious knowledge, especially after you told me about her exposure to the Internet. She’s always been the smartest of the four. But what I didn’t expect was how her intelligence would develop.”

Theo was confused. “Is there a difference?”

Kelly smiled gently. “Yes. Knowledge is just that; the collection of skills and information. However, intelligence is the ability to apply knowledge. Without intelligence, Ashlie would be nothing more than an encyclopedia.”

She continued, “It’s believed we’re all born with intelligence but not with knowledge. In Ashlie’s case, her intelligence seems to be developing rapidly, which is unusual.”

“And?”

Kelly sipped her wine, thinking before speaking. “There’s a third dimension to her development, and that’s emotional intelligence - her ability to handle what she’s learning. Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.”

Kelly, now serious, looked at Theo and added, “Ashlie is sad and growing sadder the more she learns. She’s not depressed, yet. But it’s a possibility, and that concerns me.”

Theo’s chest tightened, worry unfurling. “Why’s she sad? She’s out of The Facility. Her sisters are safe for now.”

“I’m not certain, but I think she’s having difficulty dealing with her awareness of what’s going on in the world.”

“How so?”

“As I said, I’m not sure. The Internet is raw, unfiltered knowledge. Her ability to surf it the way she does exposes her to everything, good and bad, true and false. I think she’s wrestling with her awareness of the hate, and wars, and racism, and abuse in the world. Don’t forget, she’s still a little girl, despite her abilities.”

“How can I help her?” Theo asked, the tightness in his chest growing. It disturbed him deeply to think of Ashlie hurting in any way.

Kelly smiled softly, her brown eyes warm. “Ashlie appears to have bonded to you. She’s decided you’re her rock, her companion. That you’re the one who’ll protect her. It’s surprising given how short a time she’s known you.”

“It might be because I’m the only other person she knows,” Theo observed.

Kelly’s smile changed, showing amusement. “No. I think, in her way, she loves you. Haven’t you noticed how close she stays to you? It’s almost possessive. When you’re interacting with the other girls, she watches you carefully.”

“Is she jealous?”

Kelly shrugged. “I don’t know. But the anger she expressed when Sienna pretended to be her was a first.”

Kelly studied Theo, eyes probing. “You’ve become attached to her,” she observed. She studied his reaction, her eyes widening. “You love her, don’t you?”

Despite a flick of fear, Theo nodded. “I can’t explain it,” he said. “She touches something inside me. I don’t have any say over it. It’s odd. When I hug her or hold her hand, everything in the world seems right. I find a peace I’ve never experienced before.” Theo shrugged. “As I said, I don’t understand it at all.”

“Have you considered it might be something she’s giving you? Either way, whatever it is, it’s good for both of you. Just accept it.”

Theo, surprised, asked, “Did she zap you?”

“Zap me?”

“You know, her Jedi mind thing.”

Kelly laughed. “I don’t know. But, how would I know if she did?”

Late that night, Theo studied Ashlie when she slipped into his bedroom. From moonlight alone he could make out the colorful fish printed on her cotton panties. Then he studied her expression and body language. Not being an expert, he saw a young, serious girl. When she crawled into his sleeping bag and sought comfort, cuddling to him, Theo’s heart ached at the thought she might be hurting.

Perhaps distracting her would help and give her something else to occupy her mind.

Theo wrapped her slightly cool body in a hug and felt a familiar reaction; a sense of peace and warmth suffusing him.

“I need your help,” he informed her. When she looked at him, Theo smiled and kissed her gently, loving the feel of her small, soft lips against his. Warmth evolved into a stir of arousal.

Kiss over, he said, “We aren’t safe yet. Changing hair color, cutting it differently, and having names isn’t enough to hide us from the government. There’s a lot more we need to do.”

“Like what?” she asked, her deep green eyes studying him.

Theo curled her hair behind her ear. He studied her face. So pretty, almost painfully pretty, yet in her remarkable eyes he saw sadness and more; maybe a maturity or wisdom that shouldn’t be there at her age.

“We need new identities that can withstand scrutiny. We need to appear to be completely normal, too.”

“I don’t understand,” Ashlie said softly.

Theo explained. He talked about background and family history, about work and needing an explanation for their wealth. And he admitted he knew nothing about how to do it.

“I need you to find out how,” he told to her. “I need you to go onto the Internet and do your thing.”

“Kay.” She looked at him. “Would you kiss me again, please?”

Theo smiled. “Anytime you want.”

This kiss was different. This kiss started with lips brushing lightly, breath exchanged. Theo teased, flirting, enjoying how his body was responding, attraction building, excitement arriving.

Ashlie pressed her lips to his and, when Theo closed his eyes to drown in the experience, when his hand dropped to cup her small ass, he tentatively tasted her lips.

Excitement rushed in. His erection hardened. And, unable to resist, with his hand on her sexy little bottom, he pulled her body against his, sandwiching his erection between them.

Ashlie responded, the tip of her tongue touching his lips, then flitting away. Theo opened his eyes to see Ashlie watching him as they kissed. A flit of a smile danced through her absorbing eyes, and her tongue brushed his lips.

It was a vertiginous experience; desire mixing with adoration and excitement. Theo fell, hard, and, with a silent groan, their tongues touched.

He caressed her perfect bum, soft cotton panties moving under his hand, the shape of her buttocks easy to explore. The kiss intensified slowly, tongues flirting, then caressing, and with an audible groan of pleasure, Theo probed into her small mouth.

The kiss felt like it lasted for hours, yet it passed too fast. His heart was racing, cock straining, and breath rushed when it ended

Ashlie smiled with pleasure, her eyes sparkling. “French kissing,” she announced. “It’s the best!”

Theo chuckled. “What else did you research?”

“Everything,” she informed him, still smiling.

“Everything?”

“Uh-huh. Everything,” she confirmed. “You have an erection because you’re aroused. That means I excite you, which means you’d like to have sex with me. Me, too. Your kiss gives me tingles down there and I ache. That means I’m aroused and want to, too. I like orgasms.”

“Jesus, Ashlie,” Theo said with a chuckle. “Wanting to and being able to are two different things.”

“Because I’m so young?” she asked.

“Because you’re so small. Your body’s just started changing. There’s a long way to go before you’ll be ready.”

“You’re wrong,” she stated. “Sex isn’t just . . . copulation. That’s intercourse,” she informed him. “There are lots of other ways to have sex. I can tell you about them if you don’t know.”

Theo laughed. “Thank you, but I think I know just about every way there is to have sex.”

Ashlie responded with a smile. “Then, let’s try some. I want another orgasm. It makes me feel very good.”

Theo grinned. He didn’t wrestle with his attraction to her. Why bother denying it? “Let’s start by getting undressed,” he suggested.

“Kay.”

Ashlie eased away from him and pulled off the simple white cotton camisole she’d worn; more like an undershirt. While Theo shoved his underwear off, releasing his erection, Ashlie wiggled and pulled her panties off, placing them behind her on the floor.

She moved back against him. The first touch of bare skin against bare skin was incredible. Complete nakedness, pure contact, added another dimension to their intimacy; more intense and far, far more exciting.

Theo caressed her skin. She was cool. Her shoulders were bony, her back slender. Shoulder blades were prominent. He could feel every disk of her spine. The out-sweep of her bottom thrilled him. His hand practically spanned both buttocks and brought on a surge of desire, his erection flexing, now so hard.

Theo pulled her against him even tighter. She was so petite. He loved it. He loved the feel of her against him.

Hugging her, he kissed her, caressing her sexy naked bottom. Ashlie responded, kissing him back, her tongue touching his playfully, then caressing. With a moan, Theo probed into her mouth. He explored the shape of her buttocks, and traced her butt crack down, down deeper, and the tip of his fingers brushed against her cleft.

Lost in the sensations bombarding him, he traced her cleft, then pressed in. Her slit slowly oozed apart to hug his fingertip and he touched silken moisture.

Between them, his cock swelled and throbbed, and Ashlie reacted by reaching down. She stared into his eyes, watching his reaction as her finger touched the tip of his erection. Theo’s body trembled in response to her first intimate touch. He eased his body away, inviting more, and Ashlie responded.

She explored his shaft with a light touch, just fingertips, moving lower until she touched the base. Then, sending a shiver of pleasure through Theo, Ashlie gently wrapped her hand around his cock and tested its firmness with a delicate squeeze.

Theo’s pulse raced. “That feels so good,” he whispered, caressing the back of her thigh. Then he lifted her leg over his thigh, her foot hooked behind him.

With Ashlie gently squeezing his erection, Theo stroked up the back of her thigh and touched her pussy again. His cock flexed with excitement, Ashlie squeezing it harder in response.

Theo traced the shape of her pussy with a light touch, running his fingers up the outside of her pussy, across her mons, over the dip of her cleft, and back down the side until he touched where her pussy met her buttocks. There, he found the trace of silken moisture, pressed carefully, and probed into Ashlie’s cleft. His fingertip discovered more slipperiness, warmth, silky smoothness. He drew his finger up through her short cleft. His penis flexed in her hand, straining and rigid.

Ashlie felt herself melt. Pleasure washed through her, her body tingling. She inhaled deeply when Theo rubbed her clit and started stroking his erection slowly, letting the tingles from Theo’s touch flow through her. She loved his touch. It was different than hers, better, so much better. Her body ached. The tingling changed, pleasure radiating through her. Her heart beat faster. Then Theo kissed her again. He smelled so good. His lips were so warm. She closed her eyes and let herself float. His touch, so gentle, excited her. A spark of pleasure made her body twitch. She moved her hips, rubbing her clit on his finger and more soft waves of pleasure pulsed through her.

When the kiss ended, Ashlie buried her face against his neck, inhaled his scent, and slowly, slowly, the ache built inside her. She held her breath, then gasped as her body erupted, bliss radiating up and blossoming in her mind, her body tensing. Another wave hit her, so good, and she whimpered silently at the intensity of her orgasm, toes curling. She came with beautiful waves of pleasure, sweet release that eased the ache inside and left her limp and tired and feeling so good.

She let Theo collect her in his arms. She felt his erection between them, but she had no energy. All she wanted was to burrow deeper against him and find safety and peace and love - Theo protecting her.

Theo held Ashlie tightly. Despite her climax, she was still cool, her feet cold. And despite having a raging erection, the way she tried to get impossibly close to him touched him deeply. He bent his head, inhaled the scent of her hair, and caressed her naked back. She didn’t move. Eventually he smiled. Ashlie’s breathing became light and regular. She’d fallen asleep.

He let himself drift, eyes closed, and sleep eventually arrived.

Something woke him. He opened his eyes and saw the laptop computer open, the screen flashing with pages. For a moment he watched the screen and noticed, every so often, an image would stay just a bit longer, then disappear in the blink of an eye. Intrigued, he relaxed his eyes and caught images: a small boy covered in dust without legs reaching out, pleading; a mother holding her dead child, her face twisted in grief; a dead child being pulled from rubble. More images flashed, each more disturbing than the last.

Theo finally looked at Ashlie’s face. The flickering light gave her a spectral presence. She was touching the laptop, naked and sitting cross-legged, her luminous eyes open. Theo’s gut twisted at the sight of tears on her cheeks. His throat closed. Why was she looking at these things?

Reaching out, he touched her. She blinked. The screen went blank. She looked at him with haunted eyes.

“No, Ashlie,” he whispered, reaching out and drawing her down. “Why are you looking at that stuff?”

She melted into his arms. She was cold. He felt her trembling. Slowly, she calmed. Theo drew the sleeping bag over them.

“Are you all right?” he asked softly.

She whispered, “No.”

“You shouldn’t be looking at those things. They’ll bring nothing but grief.”

“Why do people do it?” she asked quietly.

“Because not all people are angels.”

“Why doesn’t anybody do something?”

Theo was quiet for a moment. “You can’t change what’s inside people.”

“I can,” she whispered.

“No. You can’t, honey. You can't see what’s inside people. Everyone wears a mask.”


Chapter Twelve

Theo, sipping a glass of Coke on ice, waited patiently for Ashlie to finish. He watched her with an eagle eye. Sitting at the breakfast table - the only table in the house - her eyes were open and unseeing, her finger touching the laptop.

They’d discussed everything they needed to do to change IDs and forge the paperwork and records necessary to allow the girls to go to school, although which school had yet to be decided.

Kelly wanted to continue home schooling, but Theo wanted the girls to be immersed in a real life as soon as possible.

He sat quietly, still troubled. He couldn’t relax no matter how much he wanted to. Inside, something kept whispering to him that they weren’t safe; that they’d never be safe. Ashlie was too valuable to the government for them to stop hunting for her.

Other problems loomed, too. What was Kelly supposed to do? Give up her life to look after the girls? Was that fair? And what about Ashlie? While Kelly had yet to test all the girls to measure their education against normal kids their age, Theo knew Ashlie was way, way beyond her peers now.

And that was the cause of even more discomfort to Theo. He couldn’t shake the image of her last night, tears falling as she drowned in the sorrows of the world. It still hit him in the gut; a physical pain.

He looked at her face. To him, Ashlie looked borderline gaunt. Kelly swore Ashlie was healthy. Theo didn’t believe her.

This morning, Theo had seen her hesitate before touching the laptop. It looked like she was afraid to go on the Internet. His gut had clenched then, too, as if suffering a bout of diarrhea. He hurt for her and his hurt was growing. He knew that, despite knowing her for less than two weeks, he loved her. He’d never felt anything like it before; the worry, his preoccupation, having her on his mind every minute of the day, fear for her, and how his body reacted to her rare smile, heat blossoming inside.

Ashlie stopped touching the laptop. Her eyes focused and sought out Theo. She gave him a small smile.

“I’m done,” she told him.

“Everything?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Did you create birth records for you and your sisters?” Theo asked.

“Uh-huh.”

“Did you . . .”

“I did everything,” Ashlie cut in.

“You sure? It didn’t take very long.”

“I said yes. It’s all done.”

“Good. I’m tired of going to the bank and withdrawing cash every two days. How much credit did you give me on the credit card?”

She studied him. “This much,” she replied, holding her hands apart, then smiled at him.

Theo laughed. It was the first time she’d shown a sense of humor. Maybe she was all right after all.

The front doorbell chimed. Sighing with annoyance, Theo got up, muttering, “I hate furnishing this house,” as he left the kitchen.

He thanked the delivery man and closed the front door, dropped the box on the floor to join other unopened packages and headed back to the kitchen. With Kelly having taken the girls shopping with her, Theo had two things on his agenda.

The first was getting everyone’s cover story and ID fixed. Ashlie had done it.

The other was finding a way to distract her. He needed something that would bring her pleasure and he thought he knew what to do.

Only six or seven days ago, he’d asked her what she wanted to do when she was free. Today, he was going to do two of them; a walk in the forest and swimming. First, swimming.

Since bathing suits had yet to be bought, and with only the two of them at home, skinny dipping would do.

Striding into the kitchen, he said, “Come on. Follow me.”

“Where?” Ashlie asked.

“You’ll see.”

With Ashlie following, he walked out of the house into the back garden. Warm Florida winter heat greeted him. The swimming pool was large, surrounded by rustic paving stones, and crystal clear. Artfully planted bushes and small trees provided privacy from the Roosevelt Channel. A tall, white-washed brick wall surrounded the rest of the estate.

He started pulling his shirt off.

“What are you doing?” Ashlie asked.

“Get undressed. We’re going for a swim.”

“I don’t know how to swim,” she pointed out.

Theo smiled. “I’m going to teach you. You told me swimming is one of the things you’d like to do when you’re free. Well, now you’re free, so now you swim.”

Ashlie smiled broadly, bright and beautiful, dimples forming. “Really?”

Theo shoved his jeans down. “Come on. Get naked!” he told her with a grin.

“Kay!”

She wasted no time, untying her sneakers and taking them off, pulling her T-shirt off and folding it, placing it on a chair. She sat and removed her colorful socks putting them in her sneakers, then, removed her jeans. Theo stood naked at the stairs into the pool, his clothes strewn about, and shook his head, grinning. Ashlie shucked her panties, folded them and placed them on top of her folded jeans.

Naked, she joined him.

Theo grinned and dipped his toe into the warm water. “Ready?”

“I don’t know.”

He took her hand and led her down the stairs to the shallow end, watching her carefully.

Tentative, she concentrated, staring at the water while descending each step, gripping his hand tightly, arms raised. Water edged up her body and, when it reached her chest and the point of buoyancy arrived, she let out a little yelp of surprise and grabbed his arm with her free hand.

Theo chuckled and pulled her into a hug. He carried her deeper until he was chest high in the pool. He let her go, holding onto her arm. Ashlie had no footing.

Pale platinum hair spread in a fan behind her. Her eyes were huge, uncertain, her face showing not quite fear, but close. Theo smiled reassuringly.

“Try floating. I’ve got you. You won’t go under.”

“Are you certain?” she asked doubtfully.

He nodded.

She tried and stopped, still gripping his arms. “I can’t,” she informed him. “I don’t float.”

With a grin, Theo said, “I’ll hold you up.” He reached down and swept her body out, supporting her stomach and chest.

Ashlie strained her head up to keep it above water.

“Relax.”

“I am relaxed,” she answered, stiff as a board.

“Try paddling like a dog. I’ll keep you up.”

“Kay. But don’t let me go.”

“I won’t.”

“Promise?” she asked.

“I promise. Try paddling"”

She tried, splashing water with arms and legs. Theo held her afloat. Then he realized his mistake. Holding her up, her two gorgeous little buttocks were breaking the surface; two small globes with perfect shape flexing as she kicked.

He ogled her ass, admiring it’s diminutive size and flawless skin, and how her firm cheeks formed a deep, sexy crack. Then, as arousal warmed his body, as his penis stirred awake, he registered where one hand supported her chest and how her small breast bud pressed against his palm; a remarkably firm bump.

She gamely kicked. Theo grew erect. And slowly he supported her less and less, following her across the width of the pool in the shallow end, and back again. The moment came when his hands were only touching her, providing nothing but psychological support. She was swimming.

However, when he removed his hands, Ashlie let out a quiet screech and grabbed for him, suddenly floundering.

“Relax, Ash. You were swimming on your own,” he said, drawing her into his arms.

“You let me go!” she accused, wrapping her arms around his neck and legs around his body. “You promised you wouldn’t!” Her eyes flashed lavender. Then she breathed deeply to calm herself, and continued, “You have an erection,” pressing herself to it. “Why? Is swimming erotic?”

Theo laughed. “With you it is.”

Legs hooked around his thighs, Ashlie pressed her pussy to his shaft. Her emerald eyes watched him closely and a small smile played on her face when she saw his reaction.

“You like me doing this,” she observed.

Theo held her sexy, naked bottom. “And you don’t like pressing your pussy against me?”

“My what? No wait.” Her eyes lost focus for a second and cleared. “Pussy, or twat, or coochie, or snatch or cun. . .”

Theo kissed her before she could continue, but it didn't stop her from mumbling a list of names, increasingly rude, into the kiss.

“Stop!” he ordered with a laugh when he couldn’t hold the kiss. “Don’t get crude.”

“I wasn’t. It’s what women call their privates.” A flit of amusement passed through her eyes. She asked slowly, “What do you call it?” rubbing her pussy up and down his erection.

Theo groaned. With slight pressure on her bare bottom, he helped her move. She was weightless in the warm water.

“I like pussy,” he informed her.

“Like as a name or that part of me?” she asked.

“Both.”

Sun beat down on them. They stood in the pool. Ashlie gently humped his erection sandwiched between them and Theo helped, holding her small buttocks, his cock straining and feeling so good.

Ashlie’s smile faded. She pulled herself close, resting her cheek on his shoulder, her arms around his neck. She humped him gently, legs tugging, her hips tilted slightly.

“I like this,” she sighed. “It feels good.”

“Yeah, for me too,” Theo concurred, slowly getting hornier and hornier.

He lost himself in the experience. It was more than having his erection caressed by her pussy. It was being outside in the pool that gave what they were doing an exciting edge. It was how petite Ashlie was in his arms that added a thrill. This wasn’t the dark of night when stark truths stayed hidden. This was blatant sex with a very young girl and it touched an illicit thrill inside him.

Theo kissed her shoulder, using his hands to move her body, her hairless pussy caressing his erection. Ashlie sighed quietly, responding by rubbing more firmly. She hung onto his neck tightly and humped his shaft. Her breath changed from soft wafts of warmth against his neck to puffs of air. She murmured quietly, humping his erection and Theo responded, his cock flexing, straining.

It was endless. The burbling of a passing motorboat echoed and faded. Birds twittered and called. In the distance, the faint sound of traffic reached them. And heat beat down on their shoulders as they slowly humped against each other.

Ashlie was the first to break the rhythm. Tilting her hips, she scrubbed her clit along Theo’s shaft, her buttocks tightening and relaxing. She twitched, motion broken, then resumed. He heard her let out a quiet, “Mmmm.”

Her rhythm tripped again, her small body shaking, then resumed, humping his cock up and down, up and down. Theo’s erection strained, thick, aching, and weight emerged in his gut; a warning of his orgasm stirring. Holding her exquisite buttocks, he guided her, encouraging her to move faster, press harder, rub her hairless pussy all the way up and down his shaft, and Ashlie broke the rhythm again, issuing a quiet grunt, then resumed.

Her arms clutched his neck. Her buttocks clenched. She stopped, gasped quietly, and started humping him faster as she climaxed. Theo lost it. He’d been horny from last night and having a writhing, naked little girl he adored so much humping his erection, quietly gasping her pleasure in his ear, was too much.

Gripping her sexy ass, he pulled her body to him, and as she humped his cock, his climax arrived. Pressure built and released. Pleasure blossomed, and he came, semen spurting into the water between them. Gripping her ass, he guided her hairless pussy up and down, each stroke bringing exquisite release, cum exploding. He came hard, spurting, heart racing, with Ashlie clinging to him, and as his climax peaked and passed, his pulses weakened, Ashlie’s movements slowed, and eventually they stopped.

He stood in the pool holding her gently. Her legs loosened and dropped from his thighs. She went limp in his arms and sighed deeply. Theo didn’t move. He held a naked angel, his eyes closed. He relaxed, satiated, and peace arrived.

Ashlie broke the silence. “I’m tired.”

“Me, too,” Theo admitted.

“Should we get out?” she asked quietly.

“I guess so,” Theo answered, not moving. His erection faded.

“I like swimming,” she murmured.

“You’re a natural,” Theo said.

Ashlie’s body shook with silent laughter.

Twenty minutes later and dressed, Theo and Ashlie were sitting at the end of the wooden dock that extended into Roosevelt Channel, their bare feet hanging over. Three hundred or so feet across from them was the dark green vegetation and thick trees of the Buck Key Preserve. Insects buzzed and whined.

Ashlie was quiet, sitting still and observing. She asked, “Can we get a boat and go for a ride?”

“I’ve never been in a boat,” Theo said. “I’d like to try it.”

“We could go for a picnic. I’ve never done that. And we could go to a beach. I haven’t done that either. Nancy and Sienna would have fun, too. Maybe even Jacey.” She continued talking for a while.

Theo agreed. “It sounds like fun. I’ll start looking for a boat.”

Comfortable silence followed. Ashlie leaned against him. Theo put his arm around her.

“This isn’t going to last,” Ashlie said quietly.

“I hope it does,” Theo answered.

“They’re still looking for me.”

Concerned, Theo asked, “How do you know?”

“I read all their emails.”

“Ash, I think you should stay off the Internet for a while. It’s hurting you.”

Ashlie glanced up at him and smiled, bright, full, dimples forming. “I like when you call me Ash. You did it in the swimming pool, too.”

Theo smiled in return. Then it faded. “Stay off the Internet.”

Ashlie turned to watch the lazy water flow by. “I can’t. I need to see if they find us.” After a brief pause, she commented, “Maybe if I go away, you and Kelly and my sisters will be safe. They want me, not you.”

Theo gripped her shoulder. “No! Don’t ever think it. I won’t allow it,” he said forcefully, a shiver of fear gripping him.

Ashlie didn’t respond.

Theo was silent, lost in contemplative thought. Kelly had been right. Ashlie’s growth in reasoning and intellect was outstripping her age. To Theo, it felt like she was losing any chance at a carefree childhood. In the short two weeks they’d been together, her manner of talking was evolving, becoming more mature. Her mind was sharpening, quicker and more agile. And it saddened him.

He felt a stir of anger mixed with frustration. There was nothing he could do. He was powerless to change her or stop her development. And more than anything, it was the melancholy in her amazing eyes that hurt the most, that now tore at his heart. Despite wracking his brain, he couldn’t see a solution to their situation. Inside, he agreed with Ashlie’s assessment; they weren’t truly safe. Yet he didn’t have a clue how to solve the problem.

Until he figured it out, there was only one thing he could do for her; be upbeat and positive, try to bring her happiness, make her smile or, even better, make her laugh. Perhaps in happiness she’d pay less attention to the sorrow inside her.

When they finally returned to the house, the others were busy unpacking more purchases.

Kelly glanced at them and smiled. “You need to go to the bank again. We’re almost out of cash.”

Theo studied the pile of bags and boxes, and shrugged. “Okay. I’ll be happy when we get credit cards. By the way, how do you feel about boats? I want to buy one.”

Kelly paused her unpacking. The other three girls stopped opening boxes, too, and glanced at him, their eyes excited.

“We need a second car more that a boat.”

Theo grinned. “In case you’ve forgotten, money isn’t an issue. We can get both; a Ferrari and a race boat.”

“A Ferrari? I don’t think so.”

“Then a classic ’65 Corvette Stingray. I saw one last week.”

Kelly frowned. “How many girls can you get in a Corvette?”

Theo grinned. “What’s your point?”

With a bright laugh, Kelly shook her head and resumed unpacking, placing new bed sheets on the kitchen table. “A minivan would be useful.”

Theo pretended indignation. “A minivan?! I’m in my twenties. It’s illegal for me to own a minivan! Get one for yourself!”

She laughed again. “Maybe I will.”

“And we get a boat, right? Ashlie wants to go for a ride and have a picnic and go to the beach. She said her sisters would like it, too.”

“Yes!” Sienna exclaimed, the other two nodding in support.

Kelly shook her head with amusement. “I guess, if it’s for the girls.”

Theo immediately replied, “The Corvette would be for the girls, too!”

He left the kitchen to the sounds of Kelly's laughter and the girls giggling. In the only other furnished room, the media room, he grabbed an iPad and slumped onto the leather couch. Automatically he turned the large television on and switched it to an all news network.

Listening to the news, he surfed the Internet, hunting for a boat. Admiring a 100’ Christensen and a 75’ Larson with wishful thinking, he kept browsing, looking at progressively smaller boats. Theo looked longingly at the Monte Carlo MC5 and drooled at the Pershing 62. But, never having piloted a boat in his life, he searched for something more manageable and available, not the custom-ordered ones from Europe. One finally caught his eye: a Back Cove Downeast 37.

He liked the large rear deck and low profile. It was small enough for him to handle and had basic amenities. Best of all, there was a two year old one up for sale in Cape Coral.

Theo chuckled to himself when he realized he thought the almost half-million price tag was reasonable. Half a million dollars? Crazy! Still, it did look nice.

Tomorrow he’d go have a look at it. Early, too. Maybe make it a surprise. The girls could do with a pleasant surprise.


Chapter Thirteen

Theo climbed out of the Back Cove Downeast. With a final admiring look, he turned to the salesman, Brent Warner, and smiled.

“I’ll take it. Write up the invoice, give me the total, taxes included, and I’ll have the full payment transferred today. When can it be ready for delivery?”

“We’ll arrange for the independent inspection, complete the detailing, and can deliver it to your dock tomorrow morning,” Brent informed him enthusiastically.

“With a full tank and fully equipped, right?”

“Absolutely,” he assured Theo.

“Okay. Let’s do it. You’ve got yourself a deal.”

As a taxi carried Theo to the Wells Fargo branch, he couldn’t help smiling. He felt good. He was excited at having a new toy and excited at the prospect of going out on the water with everyone.

This morning, Kelly had promised to buy bathing suits and promised not to tell the girls about the boat. Even she seemed excited.

The cab slowed and eased around a parked SUV, pulling to the curb in front of Wells Fargo.

“Give me fifteen minutes.”

The cab driver looked at him suspiciously. Theo pulled out forty dollars and handed it to him.

“There’s a sixty dollar tip if you wait.”

The driver nodded, settled back, and turned the radio on.

Theo climbed out, heat hitting him like a wet blanket. The cool air inside the bank was welcome. It took him ten minutes to arrange the transfer of funds. He smiled, picturing the pretty boat, and left.

Walking towards the cab, an insect bit him. He smacked his neck, felt something that wasn’t a bug, and darkness rushed at him. His knees weakened.

Hands grabbed his arms. He felt himself being lifted and carried. Blackness arrived.

Two large men manhandled Harris into the blacked-out Suburban and jumped in.

Pedestrians started yelling, one pointing at the SUV, another running towards it, a third pulling out her Smartphone.

“Go! Go!” one of the men yelled inside the Suburban.

The driver hit the accelerator. Wheels squealed, and the SUV took off, muscling its way into the morning traffic.

The man in the passenger seat pulled out his cell phone and dialed.

“We have Harris and are heading back to Southwest Florida International Airport.” He listened, then responded, “No, sir. The girl wasn’t with him.”

The next silence was longer. The man’s face flushed. “Sorry, sir. We should have followed him, but with the traffic and . . . Yes, sir.”

The SUV dodged through traffic. A Lear was fueled and waiting for them.

**********

Twenty-three miles away, Kelly placed the late breakfast on the kitchen table; boxes of cereal, milk, and day old bran muffins.

The excitement as Ashlie described swimming to her sisters was palpable, her sisters attentive and throwing questions at her.

Suddenly, Ashlie froze, her spoon dropping from her hand, rattling on the table, and falling to the floor.

“Theo,” she whispered, her eyes wide and unfocused.

A chill rushed down Kelly’s spine.

“Theo,” Ashlie whispered again.

Looking at her, Kelly felt fear course through her, her heart stopping. She rushed over to the table. “What?” she asked. “What about Theo?”

“They have him,” Ashlie whispered, her already pale face turning white.

“Who has him?” Kelly asked.

Ashlie was silent, almost comatose.

Jacey asked Ashlie, “What happened to Theo?”

The other two looked confused.

And as the minutes passed, as Ashlie stared unblinking, Kelly’s panic increased. For an eternity, Ashlie was frozen, her eyes open and unseeing.

Then Ashlie whispered, “Theo,” again and tears welled in her exceptional green eyes, brimming and falling down her cheeks.

Kelly’s panic grew. She grabbed Ashlie and pulled her out of her chair into a hug. Ashlie was rigid, unresponsive. She hugged Ashlie tight and felt her own eyes brimming. Something was terribly wrong!

The three others fell silent, watching. For the longest time nothing was said, no one moved. And when Ashlie blinked, Kelly almost cried with relief.

Ashlie looked at Kelly. “I need the computer.”

“What happened to Theo?” Kelly asked.

Ashlie eased out of Kelly’s arms, turned and walked out of the kitchen. Everyone followed. In the media room, Ashlie walked over to the modem and touched it.

A familiar rush hit her. Like falling, she raced through the Internet at unbelievable speed, her journey twisting and turning as she searched. She hit the DoD mainframe and blew through it without stealth, burrowing deeper into DARPA’s system. Information flashed past her, all collected, and she arrived at General Lattimer’s personal computer.

The innocuous note was simple. Encrypted with 256bit AES, she read it like an open newspaper:

You or Harris. Your choice. 174.252.001.225. 3:20.

Ashlie blinked and disconnected. She sat on the floor.

“Ashlie? Talk to me, honey,” Kelly pleaded.

“Three twenty,” Ashlie responded.

“Three twenty what?” Kelly asked gently. When Ashlie didn’t respond, she pleaded, “Please, what’s going on?”

“Three twenty.”

Ashlie sat next to the modem. At three-twenty in the afternoon, she touched the modem. Plunging, she followed the path, finding the IP address; 174.252.001.225.

It was a web cam. A plain whitewashed cinder block room. A single chair in the middle of the floor. A steel-framed bed to one side with a mattress. Tied in the chair, a hooded man.

A stranger walked into the picture and tore the hood off the seated man - Theo.

Viciously, he struck his fist against Theo’s face. Theo’s head slammed back and fell forward. The man hit Theo again, and again, and again, blood erupting on Theo’s eyebrow, lips split, spittle flying, and tears tumbled down Ashlie’s cheeks, her eyes wide and pupils dilated.

An exceptionally hard hit forced the chair over backwards, Theo’s head smacking against the linoleum floor. His body was limp. Undeterred, the man righted Theo and set about beating him to a pulp, focused, his rhythm never changing, coldly and dispassionately inflicting damage. Theo no longer reacted, slumped in the chair.

Ashlie watched silently, tears falling.

The man turned and stared at the camera. He reached out and grabbed something. With a smile that never reached his eyes, he held up a board with writing scrawled on it.

You or Harris. 24 hours.

Ashlie went cold. Ice cold. The cam shut down. Didn’t matter. She knew where it was coming from; The Facility.

Blinking, she finally noticed Kelly and her sisters, their faces full of fear.

“You have to take me to The Facility,” she told Kelly. “Theo’s there.”

Kelly nodded. She didn’t hesitate despite the fear that haunted her, her hands shaking. Seeing Ashlie cry silently terrified her. She packed hurriedly and left on the thirteen hour drive back to Virginia.

**********

“That’s enough!” General Lattimer barked from across the room. “Untie him and put him on the bed.”

Rob Kitchen turned away from the scene, his stomach turning at the sight of the brutal cold-hearted beating of Harris. Security, he thought, is one thing, but torture is a step too far. He was never going to be able to get the wet, smacking sounds of a fist hitting Harris out of his mind.

General Lattimer turned to him. “The army will be here shortly. They’ll provide security. Pull your men back to inside The Facility when they arrive.”

“Yes, sir.”

“It’ll take her fourteen hours to get here. Be ready.” General Lattimer turned and strode out of the bare room. He knew the girl had strange powers but he was prepared. Overwhelming force. Eye protection for his troops. She would be back under his control before daybreak. He had an ace in his hands - Theo Harris. With Opticon One under his control, America wouldn’t have to fear terrorists. Their secrets would be laid bare.

He’d worked too hard and too long to lose now.

**********

Kelly was exhausted. Only fear kept her going. She glanced at Ashlie in the passenger seat. She hadn’t moved, staring ahead, silent and not responding to any questions.

Sienna, Jacey, and Nancy were back at the estate. They’d been scared and pleaded to come, but Kelly wasn’t prepared to get them enmeshed in this - whatever it was that Ashlie was going to do.

Her heart hadn’t stopped thumping. Her fear for Theo and Ashlie wouldn’t leave her. And, wracking her mind, she couldn’t think of anything else to do, anyone to call for assistance, or any way she could help Theo.

Dark forests passed on either side of the lonely road.

“There,” Ashlie said, pointing to the side.

Kelly pulled over. “Ashlie . . .”

For the first time, Ashlie looked at her. “It’s okay. Just wait here, please.”

Kelly nodded. Yet, Ashlie looked gaunt and haunted. If anything, her eyes burned more intensely, sharply contrasting with her pale face.

Ashlie opened the door and, without closing it, walked calmly into the forest.

Army personnel, armed and ready - for what they didn’t know - waited impatiently, shuffling, eyes staring into the dark evergreen forest. High intensity lights hummed, lighting the grounds around The Facility. At each gate and the main entrance an armored personnel carrier was parked.

Radio chatter broke the silence of the night. They were prepared. They’d been told some unbelievable story about an enemy that used light waves to stun. They all wore dark glasses, feeling stupid but following orders.

Who was this all powerful enemy? And why would the enemy be so stupid to break into this location when it was surrounded? What was so special inside it?

They watched the forest vigilantly and, when a girl emerged, a small girl with flowing platinum hair, they wondered if she was lost. Then all Hell broke loose.

Her head turned and looked at them. Soldiers went flying through the air, tossed by an invisible force, and slamming into the ground, no longer moving. The girl looked at them with luminescent green eyes flashing lavender. Other soldiers seeing the chaos she was unleashing, brought their rifles up but hesitated. Their instructions had been clear; CAPTURE. DO NOT HARM HER.

The small girl cut a swath through the troops, and those that mistakenly took their eye protection off to see her more clearly, froze in place when she looked at them, her strange eyes flashing.

As she approached the side gate, she looked at the electronic locks and sparks erupted. The gates swung open without being touched and she calmly walked through, expressionless, determined.

In the control room, General Lattimer watched the security feed and saw Opticon One stop in front of the east door. She looked up and stared into the cam as if seeing him. Her eyes flashed with a lavender light and the cam died. The monitors died. The lights died. Silence arrived in the inky black room.

General Lattimer flicked on his flashlight, casting it around the security room. Technicians sat at their station not moving, unsure what to do.

The general turned and left the room. He walked down the corridor, knowing exactly where he was going. Every security door he came to was unlocked, the guard at alert but blinded by the darkness. There were no lights working in The Facility. He smiled in admiration. Her power was unbelievable. How much would it grow over time? Imagine an army of them!

Ashlie walked through the inky black corridors, not rushing or looking around. She knew where she was going. The pitch darkness didn’t bother her. And with every armed guard she came across, her eyes flashed lavender, briefly lighting the area, and the guards would freeze, eyes open and unseeing.

Ashlie turned into a secondary corridor. Twenty feet later, she approached a closed door. She touched it with her fingertip and the door exploded inwards.

Inside, General Lattimer stood waiting. A battery powered lamp lit the bare room. Holding a taser in one hand just in case, he smiled at her. There was no warmth in his smile.

“Hello, Opticon One. Glad you could join me.”

Ashlie looked at Theo lying inert on his side on the bare mattress, his face swollen and distorted beyond recognition, a bloodied mess.

For a moment, General Lattimer thought Opticon One’s green eyes intensified. “Here’s the deal. You stay, do what I ask, and Harris will live.”

“No,” she said quietly.

“I don’t think you under . . .” the general started to say.

Ashlie’s eyes flashed lavender and he was thrown suddenly and violently backwards, flying through the air. He slammed into the wall, his skull crushed, dead before he slumped to the floor.

Ashlie moved to the bed and looked at Theo. She studied his almost unrecognizable face and tears welled and fell. She whispered, “Theo,” pain in her voice. Slowly, very carefully, she crawled onto the mattress, and turning, snuggled back against him, pulling his arms around her and closed her eyes.

Ten minutes later her eyes popped open, gemstone hard. Lavender coronas flared and burned brightly, strong enough to light the room and change the color of the white walls. She stared unseeing, holding Theo’s arms around her, his unresponsive body spooning hers.

Three hundred feet away, at the other end of The Facility, a computer in the security room burst into life, the monitor waking up. In the pitch black room, three technicians and Rob Kitchen glanced at the computer, confused. It was the only thing working.

Rob Kitchen rose from his seat and approached it, bending to study the screen. Data flashed across it with astonishing speed, so fast he couldn’t catch anything.

“Bill,” he called out to a technician, “come over here and tell me what’s going on.”

Bill rose and walked over. He bent and studied the screen. “I have no idea, sir.”

Rob snorted. “You’re a computer geek. What's the code doing?”

Bill straightened. “Sir,” he said pointing at the monitor, “I’ve never seen programming language like that before. It’s alien to me.”

Suddenly, Rob, Bill and the other technicians straightened, their expression void of any life.

Back in the bare room, Ashlie’s eyes now pulsed lavender, rhythmic, the pace slowly speeding up. Her consciousness spread like a virus through the Internet.

In Langley, the CIA computers froze, their server unresponsive. The disruption spread to other government agencies. Phones started ringing as employees called in panic. In the White House, a Secret Service agent knocked on the President’s bedroom door to wake him up. An emergency was in progress.

Six hours ahead of them, the British government was in full emergency mode, computer specialists desperately working to understand what was going on. Frantic calls were made to the Prime Minister and cabinet members.

In a small village in the hills outside of Islamabad, Pakistan, a bearded mullah dialed a number on his encrypted cell phone to set a planned terrorist action into effect in Paris, France. As soon as the call was connected and he spoke, his cell phone exploded, killing him instantly.

In a small, rundown bungalow in Anita, Iowa, an uncle held up his iPhone to take a picture of his six-year-old niece, naked and tied spread-eagled to the bed. The iPhone screen flashed white with the intensity of the sun, so bright he was instantly blinded, his sight lost forever.

Deep in northern Nigeria, Abu Musab al-Barwani, the leader of Boko Haram, placed a call on his cell phone to his second in command. One minute into the call, both mobile phones exploded, killing them instantly.

Malak al-Fisal, Minister of Justice in Ryadh, Saudi Arabia, sitting at his desk, tried to type out the official order to punish a woman who’d dared to drive a car, her sentence - death by stoning. When he finished filling in the order, his computer went blank, dead.

Strange events spread like wildfire through the world. Oddly, computer systems responsible for medical care continued to function. Air traffic control systems continued to work. Traffic lights were unaffected. Netflix still streamed.

Over the next two hours, government systems around the world stopped responding. Governments came to a standstill. Then, for a brief ten minutes, the world stopped working.

Media reports flooded the air. A cyber attack of unprecedented proportions was paralyzing the country! Experts opined about a massive hack perpetrated by enemy states. Russia blamed America. America blamed Russia. Britain blamed extreme Islamist groups. Israel blamed Palestinians. And as the governments tried to implement a high state of emergency in their armed forces, they found their exceptionally secure communications were dead, refusing to respond.

In a small, bare room in The Facility, a young girl slowly closed her eyes. Tears returned. Ashlie pressed herself back against Theo and waited. She waited for him to come back to her.


Chapter Fourteen

Twenty-two days after the world briefly came to a halt, Kelly walked into a Cape Coral hospital room. Morning sun streamed through the window in the private room.

She walked over to Ashlie, bent and kissed her forehead before handing her a wrapped sandwich.

Ashlie ignored her. Her eyes were on Theo lying in bed. Her hand rested on top of his, maintaining contact. Cuts had been stitched. Bruises had changed from ugly purple to jaundice-like yellow. A life monitor beeped. Theo hadn’t moved in three weeks. Ashlie hadn’t left the hospital room in three weeks. She’d sat quietly at his side, waiting patiently for him.

“How much longer?” Kelly asked gently.

“I don’t know,” Ashlie responded quietly.

Kelly sighed. “Come home and rest for a while,” she suggested, knowing she’d be ignored.

“No.”

Kelly left to talk to the nurse. The news was the same; Theo was still in a coma. They didn’t know if he’d be in a permanent vegetative state. She spent the morning keeping Ashlie company. She was worried for Theo, but really scared for Ashlie. Ashlie looked gaunt. Her hair was dull, dirty. And the hollowness in her eyes made Kelly shiver. Ashlie had refused to leave Theo’s side. She’d refused to shower, and what terrified Kelly was her worry that if Theo died, Ashlie might, too.

With a final caress of her hair, Kelly left to look after the girls.

Ashlie sat quietly, waiting. The afternoon passed, the sun edging to the western horizon. Shadows formed in the room. Darkness fell. And as the hospital grew quiet, Ashlie climbed up onto the bed and cuddled close to Theo to keep him company through the night; something she did every night. She whispered, “Theo.”

In the dark, her eyes flashed lavender. Her mind flew. She no longer needed to touch a computer. She could connect to any within a mile’s radius.

Her consciousness spread out over the Internet, checking the strange code she’d infected it with. Government systems had been restored. Life went on. But a new reality had set in.

Word had spread through terrorist organizations to avoid cell phone use after many of the leaders had died from exploding phones. Communication was restricted to word of mouth, which hampered their ability to wage a holy war. Drug cartels had suffered the same fate.

Governments of repressive regimes discovered the electronic orders they sent vanished into the ether, never delivered. Telephone orders were garbled. And intelligence services received untraceable emails each signed Athena, warning of imminent bombing or terrorist acts, the details so accurate, every act had been thwarted.

News of the virus was still being debated in public. Experts worked furiously to decode the new computer language without success. It was alien to them, encrypted to levels that had been considered impossible. Ordinary people followed news of strange events around the world. It was as if they were being watched. Hate emails never reached their destination. Racist and hate posts on social networks never registered. And people had learned to be careful of what they said on their Smartphones - incite hatred and their phone would go dead, permanently.

In the hospital room, Ashlie closed her eyes. She whispered, “Come back, Theo. Please come back.”

**********

Awareness arrived suddenly. Theo opened his eyes to see a white ceiling. His eyes scanned the unfamiliar room. Where was he?

He felt a presence against his side. Her scent hit him and he inhaled deeply. Long, pure platinum hair spread at his side. He studied the face of the strange girl lying with him. She was young and quite beautiful. Who was she?

She stirred and opened her eyes. Theo was shocked at her emerald green eyes, exquisite eyes that studied him, and memories flooded back in a torrent.

“Ash,” he whispered.

Ashlie smiled slowly. Her smile grew, becoming blinding, dimples forming, and Theo felt breathless.

“You’re back,” she said softly.

A bolt of fear for her made him jerk. She was in danger! He struggled to sit up, heart racing.

As if reading him, Ashlie said, “It’s over. It’s finished. We’re safe for now.”

“How?” he asked, his voice hoarse from lack of use.

Ashlie talked quietly, explaining what had happened. Slowly, understanding arrived. Relief poured through him. His tense muscles relaxed.

“It’s over,” he whispered.

A nurse bustled in, smiling. “You’re awake,” she observed. “How are you feeling, Mr. Harris?”

“Fine,” he croaked, sitting up. His body ached.

She studied the monitor, checked his pulse, took his temperature, and agreed. “Perfectly normal. I’ll inform Dr. Kendrick.”

An hour later, the taxi pulled up in front of the mansion on Captive Island. The front door opened and, as Theo got out, three girls ran at him, smothered him, chatting excitedly. Behind them, Kelly waited, her warm brown eyes crinkled with a soft, pleased smile.

“Welcome home,” she said. Nodding at the girls, she added, “You were missed.”

Theo finally extracted himself from the girls. But Ashlie refused to let his hand go. With his free arm, Theo hugged Kelly and she returned it, hugging him tightly. The taxi left.

As they headed in, Theo asked, “Did they deliver my boat?” And, before Kelly could answer, when he stepped inside, he proclaimed, “Holy cow!”

Kelly smiled. “Like it?”

Theo looked around. Everything was furnished, the furniture subtle, elegant. Light filled the entry hall. Small, bright tropical flower arrangements decorated the space.

“Come see,” she encouraged, taking his free hand.

Theo was bemused. “How long was I gone?” he asked. Kelly had done a superlative job.

“Too long.”

When he walked into the media room, he stopped. Mounted on the wall was a huge television. Electronics were neatly installed below. Strange, futuristic shell-like speakers sat on the floor. Comfortable leather furniture filled the room.

“The installers assured me everything was top of the line,” Kelly told him. “I like those speakers. They’re called Nautilus.”

Theo smiled broadly. “Please tell me there’s a ’65 Corvette Stingray in the garage.”

Kelly laughed. “No. There’s a Honda minivan.”

Grinning, Theo told her, “No worries. I can fix it.”

The day passed in a flurry of excited chatter and plans being made and a blow-by-blow description of how the house was decorated. Through it all, Ashlie stayed at his side, quiet, and smiling occasionally, her eyes locked on his bruised face.

And that night, she entered his bedroom wearing a cotton undershirt and colorful cotton panties. She crawled into his new bed and cuddled to his side.

Peace settled over Theo. He hugged her so tightly she complained. He smiled at her, studied her incredible eyes, and kissed her gently, her lips so soft. Her almost silent murmur touched the deepest part of him.

When the kiss ended, he asked, “That code, how did you know it?”

“I don’t know.”

“How does it work?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

He studied her. “What other abilities do you have now?”

Ashlie smiled. A lavender corona flashed in her eyes. The sheet covering them was tossed down the bed. The bedside lamp went out. Moonlight lit the bedroom.

Theo laughed. “You have the power of telekinesis?”

She nodded, smiling.

“How strong is it?”

Ashlie’s eyes flashed again and Theo’s underwear was shoved down and off.

He laughed, amused. She no longer surprised him. He was beyond wonder. “Can you make a beer come to me from the kitchen?”

“No. I have to be closer.”

“I think you should keep this new talent a secret between us,” Theo said. “If people know about it, you’ll never be left alone.”

“Kay.”

Then Theo gave her an exaggerated blink of his eyes. She watched him. He did it again, squeezing his eyes shut.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Trying telekinesis to remove your clothes.”

Ashlie giggled and pulled her cotton undershirt off. She reached down and shoved her panties off. “It worked!” she said, smiling.

Theo, overcome with a flush of love, kissed her smile. Her enchanting eyes crinkled with her smile. The tip of a small tongue touched his lips and darted away playfully, and Theo felt the all too familiar rush of affection and desire. He rolled to face her, teased her lips with his tongue, and stroked down her back to caress her bare ass.

An erection slowly formed as he explored the shape of her small buttocks, loving their firmness.

When the kiss ended, he asked, “Are you okay?”

Ashlie smiled. “Yes. For now it’s over.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Nothing’s left at The Facility. Nobody remembers it.”

Theo believed her. He sighed with relief and kissed her again. This time, Ashlie’s tongue brushed his. Her eyes closed and she murmured her pleasure, wiggling closer to him, full body contact, skin against skin.

Theo’s erection strengthened, pressing against her thighs, and Ashlie lifted one leg. His erection sprang up, settling along her pussy. She lowered her leg, trapping him, and squeezed gently.

Desire washed through Theo, hot, exciting. He caressed her gorgeous ass, and kissed her harder, his tongue probing. When Ashlie opened her mouth, Theo moaned and kissed her even harder, passion rising.

Emotions confused him. He didn’t understand how he could adore her so much. Impossibly, his love for her swelled. His heart was racing when the kiss ended. He kissed her cheek, brushed his lips across hers, and kissed her other cheek, inhaling the scent of her; sweet, clean, and intoxicating.

Ashlie opened her eyes. Theo struggled with how to express what he was feeling, and before he did, Ashlie smiled, broad, bright, her eyes sparkling. “I know,” she said.

“Are you reading my mind?”

“A bit.”

“You can read minds?!”

Ashlie giggled. “No. But I can still hear you sometimes.” Her eyes softened. She fell quiet, then asked, “Would you kiss me again?”

He did and his heart rate jumped. His erection jerked. And Ashlie responded by squeezing her legs against his cock. In the darkness broken by moonlight, in the silence, Theo sucked Ashlie’s upper lip. He smiled at her. “Mmmm, delicious.”

Ashlie giggled quietly.

Theo drew his hand up from her buttock, up her side and, as his hand reached her chest, his thumb touched her breast bud. He caressed it softly, marveling at the tiny, firm pad forming under her areola.

When his erection flexed again, Ashlie smiled. “You like touching me.”

“And kissing you,” he responded, smiling, then kissing her.

The kiss evolved from light to harder, from sweet to passionate. Their tongues caressed, teased, flirted, and when they wrestled, when Ashlie mimicked him and her tongue probed into his mouth, Theo moaned.

Very slowly, bodies began moving, rubbing against each other. Theo groaned at the sensation of his erection moving back and forth between her tightly closed legs, her pussy caressing him.

Ashlie moved as well, turning her hips, rubbing her clit on his shaft. And when a wave of excitement hit Theo, his cock swelled, so stiff, and precum leaked.

Slowly, slippery precum spread. They humped against each other and, to Theo, it felt like he was having intercourse with her. His arousal became disorienting, his desire powerful. Without thinking, he rolled on top of Ashlie.

The kiss ended. Completely new sensations hit him. He raised his head and looked at her; so beautiful, her eyes absorbing with endless depth as she watched him. On top of her, it hit home how small she really was. He shuffled down to be face to face. His legs fell outside of hers, and, as he moved down, his erection slowly pulled back until the tip was pressing against her pussy, the shaft cradled by her thighs.

Ashlie watched him carefully, her eyes flicking from one to the other. Theo smiled and she responded, smiling back at him.

His cock throbbed. God it felt good! Even her petite body felt wonderful beneath him.

He edged lower, the tip of his erection losing touch with her pussy, and Theo kissed the small bud on her chest. He formed his lips around the tiny mound and sucked gently, then repeated with her other bud, his cock flexing with excitement.

When he finished, her small areolae looked flushed, redder, her tiny nipples forming little beads. He moved back up and groaned quietly when the tip of his erection nudged to her hairless pussy. Precum made her very slippery. Arousal thrummed through his body, muscles tensing. The urges inside screamed at him.

“Should I stop?” he asked. His mouth so close to hers.

“No.”

“I’m really turned on right now. I’m not sure I can hold back.”

Ashlie smiled softly, her eyes sparkling. “S’okay.”

Unable to resist, Theo pressed his erection against her and groaned deeply. His tip pressed and slipped down along her cleft, hugged by her thighs, in a smooth, slippery stroke. It felt so close to actual sex his cock surged. And when he pulled back, her small pussy caressed his crown.

Theo stopped and briefly closed his eyes, his body shaking with excitement. Then he stroked forward again, shuddering at the exquisite sensation. Ashlie felt so small against him, so incredibly sexy, so utterly desirable, he was in danger of cumming.

Opening his eyes, he smiled and kissed her gently, stroking again, slippery and smooth, snug.

Ashlie wrapped her arms around him. She smiled at him, her incredible green eyes watching, and when Theo kissed her again, she teased his lips with her tongue. He responded, meeting her, lips parting, their tongues caressing in a passionate kiss, her small mouth responding.

He groaned with pleasure and stroked slowly, his crown sliding down along her pussy, then reversing. And as he kissed her, his strokes became rhythmic, erection straining, pulse racing. Her hairless pussy caressed him. Her thighs held him snuggly. He fucked slowly, excitement building, intense, overwhelming . . . too much.

With a deep groan, Theo broke the kiss and came, his cock swelling, pulsing, semen exploding into her little cleft, hot and wet. He pulled back, stroked and exploded, exquisite ecstasy slamming into him. He buried his face against her neck, held her small shoulders and thrust, exploding again, bliss wracking him. Lost in ecstasy, he thrust, spurted, gasped, withdrew and thrust again, cum exploding. Ashlie’s crotch was soaked and slippery and warm as he fucked faster, each thrust bringing bliss, semen spurting, gut clenching. He rode his orgasm, fucking between her thighs, cumming, cumming, Jesus cumming!

His orgasm passed. His weight settled on her. His heart thumped loudly, and his cock pulsed gently, fading, stopping. Fatigue settled over him, a feeling of being drained, utterly exhausted, and peace arrived.

When it registered he had his whole weight on her, Theo rolled off slowly, settling to her side, partially over her.

Ashlie smiled at him. “Was it good?” she asked.

“Unbelievable,” he answered truthfully. Then Theo rubbed her body, his hand passing over the small buds on her chest, tracing down her stomach to brush against her hairless mons. He touched warm semen and went lower.

Ashlie eased her legs apart, watching him. He cupped her soaking pussy and squeezed, drawing his middle finger up through her cleft to touch her clit.

Ashlie’s eyes narrowed slightly when he caressed her. She inhaled deeply, her nostrils flaring. And as Theo rubbed her clit, Ashlie’s eyes closed. He probed deeper, feeling his way down and, deep inside at the base, he touched her entrance protected by her hymen. With a gentle press, he tested its resiliency and he drew his finger back up, semen making her very, very slippery. And, with her eyes closed, he kissed her cheek, caressed her clit, and whispered, “You’re so incredibly beautiful, Ash.”

Ashlie’s lips curled in a smile of pleasure then relaxed as she inhaled deeply. She moved against his touch, slowly undulating her pelvis up and down. Theo started gently strumming her clit and Ashlie reacted, inhaling sharply. Her legs twitched, trying to close. Her brow narrowed into a frown of concentration, eyes tightly closed. She moaned, undulating her hips, rubbing her pussy against Theo’s finger.

Theo watched her closely. She held her breath, then gasped quietly, her mouth open. And slowly her head arched back, her hands curled into fists on her stomach. With a quiet gasp, Ashlie climaxed, her legs straightening, feet turning inward, body trembling, taut. She let out the cutest grunt and, as Theo strummed her slippery little clit, she writhed, squirmed, and shook. She gasped for breath and reached down gripped his wrist with both her hands, her body shaking. Her climax intensified and, with a little cry of pleasure, Ashlie collapsed, panting and gasping. Her body shook with small tremors. Theo slowed his touch, then stopped, simply cupping her pussy.

Eventually, Ashlie stilled. Her eyes opened slowly. A soft smile formed when she looked at him and something permanently broke inside Theo.

He kissed her smile softly. “How did it feel?” he asked in a whisper.

“Amazing,” she whispered, rolling to face away from him. “Hug me, please.”


Chapter Fifteen

Kelly checked her watch. Eight-thirty. Where was Ashlie? The other three noisily consumed their breakfast cereal at the kitchen table.

Kelly left, headed upstairs and peeked into Ashlie’s room. It was empty. She noticed the bed, still neat, not used.

Kelly smiled. Ashlie probably went to Theo for comfort. She did it often. Walking down the hall, she almost knocked, and hesitated. She didn’t want to wake Theo up. He needed rest. Instead, she carefully turned the door handle and opened the door, peeking in.

For a moment she studied the sight, then withdrew, closing the door silently.

Eventually, Ashlie appeared in the kitchen. Unusually, she was bright and smiled frequently, interacting with her sisters. Unusually, Ashlie gave Kelly a tight hug, then started eating her breakfast.

An hour later, Theo arrived, damp from a shower, hair a mess, unshaven, and wearing an old T-shirt and jeans, his feet bare. He yawned and grinned at her.

Kelly smiled with amusement and didn’t miss the adoring look Ashlie gave him. Kelly understood why. Theo was very attractive in an odd way.

An hour later, with the four girls off doing who knows what and Theo sipping his third mug of coffee, Kelly finished the dishes, served herself coffee, and sat at the kitchen table.

Theo’s warm brown eyes twinkled at her.

“Can we talk?” she asked.

“Sure. What’s on your mind? Are you thinking about taking that boat out for its maiden cruise, too?”

She laughed lightly. “No. I want to talk to you about Ashlie.”

All pleasure fled from his face. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Kelly, feeling her face warm up, glanced down at her mug. “I went looking for Ashlie this morning. When I found her room empty, I checked yours.”

She glanced up at Theo. “I know she sneaks into your bed to find security. But, this morning, you were both naked. I didn’t mean to pry,” she added quickly. “But, I think we need to talk.”

Theo looked away. His eyes returned to her. “I haven’t taken advantage of her, Kelly. I haven’t initiated anything with her.”

In a quiet voice, he went on to explain how things started, her curiosity, how she learned things on the Internet, the way she initiated intimacy.

“. . . and no, I have not had intercourse with her. As hard as it is to believe, she’s initiating intimacy at her own pace. She asks, not me.”

Kelly was silent for a while, mulling it over. As unusual as the relationship was, Ashlie was equally unusual. Eventually, she spoke.

“Ashlie, more than any other ten-year-old, can understand consent. She’s emotionally very mature. If she says it’s what she wants, I trust her.”

Theo thought for a monument and responded, “But me on the other hand, a mature adult . . .” his voice trailing off, the statement unfinished.

Kelly studied him with a penetrating stare. She relaxed, shrugged, and smiled softly. “I was going to say something. But I realize I love the girls, too. I guess I’m saying, I understand.”

Theo nodded, looking relieved. “I don’t want you to think I lust after Jacey or Nancy or Sienna. It’s not Ashlie’s age that . . .”

“Stop, Theo. I know. Besides, the other three have shown no signs of being interested in sex. They’re happy with hugs and affection. So give them lots of affection and keep them happy.” She paused, then added, “Promise me you won’t hurt Ashlie.”

Theo looked affronted. “I never hurt women!”

“I meant emotionally, Theo. So, talk to me about this cruise.”

**********

Theo turned the ignition key. The Cummins engine burbled into life.

“Untie those rope things!” he called out.

Kelly grinned, untied the bow line and jumped onto the boat deck. Aft, Sienna leaned over and untied her line from the dock cleat.

Theo studied the instrument controls trying to remember what the brochure said. He gripped a joystick, pushed a button, and moved the stick. It was supposedly a bow thruster.

The bow of the Back Cove Downeast thumped into the dock.

“Sorry! Sorry!” he yelled as Kelly struggled to maintain her balance. “I’ve got this!”

“Clearly not!” she yelled back.

Theo grinned and moved the joystick. The prow eased away from the dock. Satisfied, Theo switched it off and eased the throttle forward. The Cummins engine rumbled quietly, a very pleasing sound. The boat inched forward into Roosevelt Channel. He turned the wheel and applied more throttle. The boat surged. Kelly tumbled to the deck. Behind him, Jacey screeched.

“Sorry! Sorry!” he yelled, pulling the throttle back too far, reverse now engaged. The aft diving deck thumped into the dock. He tentatively pushed the throttle forward into a slow idle, just enough to steer.

Kelly stood carefully and made her way back into the cabin. “You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?” she asked.

“Sure I do. Lever forward, go that way,” he said, pointing ahead. “Lever back, go that way,” he added with a grin, his thumb pointing back. “Turn this steering wheel and change direction.”

“Have you ever been on a boat?” Kelly asked.

“Um. Not really. But I’ve seen lots in films.”

Kelly laughed. “Let me.”

She pushed him away from the helm with a nudge of her hip, took control, and smoothly piloted the motorboat into the channel.

“That’s not fair! It’s my toy,” Theo complained.

Kelly laughed. “Then let me teach you.”

Theo glanced back at the four girls in bathing suits. Jacey was the only one wearing an oversized life jacket, sitting on the long seat lining the rear deck and holding on for dear life. Sienna was bending over the gunwale watching water pass. Nancy was rummaging through her bag for something.

And Ashlie, in a simple royal blue bathing suit, was watching him, smiling, her long, long hair fluttering in the breeze.

Theo told Kelly, “Teach me later,” and moved to the back deck. He sat next to Ashlie, stretched his legs out in the warm sun, and asked, “What’cha smiling at?”

“You. You can't drive a boat.”

“I can too!” Theo exclaimed indignantly. “I’m just letting Kelly feel like she’s contributing.”

“No you aren’t,” Ashlie countered.

Theo smiled. “So, how are you?” he asked.

Ashlie tilted her head and studied him pensively. Then she asked, “Why do you always ask me that?”

“Because I care,” Theo responded.

“You don’t have to worry.”

Theo caressed her head. “I will always worry about you. I don’t have a choice about it. So, how are you?”

She smiled, broad and blinding, dimples forming. “I’m fine. How are you?”

Theo leaned back, stretched his arms along the back cushions, turned his face up to the sun, and smiled. “On a boat with five pretty ladies, cruising in the sun, with the calming sound of a powerful engine filling the air, and money in the bank, how do you think I am?”

“Silly,” Ashlie answered, grinning.

Theo was quiet for a while, then observed, “I’ve been thinking about getting a puppy. I love dogs.”

Suddenly, the other three girls joined the conversation, all bubbly and excited and enthusiastic, Sienna suggesting they should go home immediately so they could buy one.

Kelly, from the helm, asked, “What’s all the fuss about?”

Nancy excitedly answered, “Theo’s taking us back to buy a puppy!”

“Woah! I only asked about it. I didn’t say we were going to!” Theo protested.

Kelly smiled with amusement, studying the girls’ enthusiasm. “You can barely handle four girls. Do you really think you can look after a dog, too?”

Theo grinned. “Who said anything about me looking after a dog? I have FIVE girls to do that!” He looked at Jacey, the quietest one, still wearing a big red life jacket. “What do you think, Jacey?”

“Jacey agrees!” Sienna exclaimed.

“Let her talk,” Kelly said, not even looking back at them.

“Jacey?” Theo invited.

She thought about it, her cute face serious. “We’d have to feed it or it will die. And we’d have to walk it and brush it and care for it. That’s a lot of work.”

Theo nodded, equally serious. “Quite right. And you’d have to pet it and run with it and play with it and love it, and even swim with it.”

She looked at Theo. “I don’t like the pool. It scares me.”

“If you keep trying, you’ll swim like your sisters and then you’ll have fun.”

“Maybe,” she countered with a shrug.

Sienna, impatient, declared, “I'll feed her!”

Nancy grinned. “I’ll teach HIM to fetch balls.”

Sienna frowned. “I’ll take HER for walks!”

Nancy, still grinning, countered, “I’ll teach HIM to heel.”

Sienna glared at her sister. “HER!”

“HIM!”

“HER!”

Nancy glared back at Sienna. “HIM!” she yelled.

“Nancy! Sienna!” Kelly said sharply.

They fell quiet, glowering at each other.

An hour later, Theo, leaning back with his eyes closed, opened them and looked around. “Where are we?” he asked, studying the broad expanse of water.

He stood and went to the helm.

Kelly gave him a smile and said, “I don’t know. You forgot to buy a chart.”

“You’re lost?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

She laughed. “No. I know how to get home.”

“How? Women don’t have a sense of direction.”

Kelly reacted immediately, affronted. “Theo! That’s sexist!”

“But true,” he countered, then grinned.

She laughed. “You’re an idiot. Go drop the anchor. We can eat lunch here.”

When he hesitated, Kelly pointed to the bow. “The anchor’s up there.”

“Right! I knew that,” he said, grinning.

By the time Kelly competently piloted the motorboat back to the dock, the girls were visibly flagging. Theo had the drowsy feeling one got from extended exposure to sun and heat, and a couple of beers.

The girls climbed out.

Kelly yelled, “Not so fast! We have to clean the boat first.”

Plenty of grumbling ensued. Theo was the last to leave the boat carrying garbage. He watched the girls walk away, then watched Kelly as she followed, admiring her ass in the blue and yellow bikini.

Kelly had surprised him when she’d finally taken her top and shorts off, revealing a beautiful body. On the slender side, she had a small but full bust and a seriously shapely ass, her body sensual. Theo had enjoyed seeing her in the bikini. Her animated and expressive face was lovely to watch, too.

Later, at dinner, all the girls eyes - except for Ashlie - were drooping. When they all watched a movie, three girls drifted to sleep with rosy, sun burnt faces. Ashlie sat on one side of Theo, Kelly on the other.

Theo quietly commented to Kelly, “Those three got as much sun as you did. Your nose and cheeks are red.”

Kelly touched her face. “I know. I forgot about sunscreen.”

“Did you notice Ashlie didn’t get a trace of color?”

Kelly leaned forward and looked at Ashlie, then leaned back. “Yet another mystery.” She yawned. “Sorry. I’m exhausted.”

Uncurling her legs, she stood. “Come on, girls. Wake up. It’s bedtime.”

Like the ten-year-olds they were, all three complained and moved slowly. Ashlie stood, smiled at Theo and left. When Theo was alone, he switched to an all news network and sipped his beer.

He listened with only one ear. News reporters talked about the strange decline in violent conflicts in trouble spots around the world, about a breakthrough in peace talks between India and Pakistan, and many others. They commented on how sanity and clear-thinking seems to have reigned supreme for a change; diplomacy at its finest.

There were still reports of violence. But most of them were individuals gone crazy, lone acts. Coordinated terrorism had mysteriously abated. Government’s took credit, announcing how they’d thwarted planned terrorist attacks through heightened intelligence abilities and improved inter-agency cooperation.

Theo rubbed the small scar on his eyebrow, feeling it’s uneven surface, then rubbed his eyes without thinking, wincing when he pressed on the still unhealed fracture of his suborbital bone, a twinge of pain hitting him.

His thoughts drifted to Ashlie, then the girls, and Kelly, and he thought about today’s cruise and smiled. Jacey had refused to take her life jacket off, preferring to draw in her sketch book. Nancy, the smart one, had goaded her sister, Sienna, into swimming and a competition had ensued; who could swim further from the boat. Kelly had watched them like a hawk, ready to dive in. She didn’t. In the three weeks he’d been gone, they’d become proficient swimmers.

Ashlie had watched her sisters, sometimes smiling. She’d wandered around, quietly inspected everything in the boat, curious and fascinated. As she’d study something, Theo had watched her almost unconsciously straighten and organize anything within reach. Every so often, Ashlie would glance at him as if feeling his eyes on her and smile, her green eyes bright. Then she’d go back to fiddling with things; the two element stove, the single tap, the two drawer fridge/freezer, electronics at the helm, the radio. Absolutely everything intrigued her. Unlike her sisters, she took nothing for granted, her curiosity insatiable.

Theo rubbed the scar on his eyebrow absentmindedly and smiled. He could watch Ashlie for a lifetime and it wouldn’t be enough. Why didn’t everyone see how magnetic she was?

He turned the TV off, drained the bottle of Corona, and stood. His body ached. Switching lights out as he went, he headed up the stairs. Affection for the girls made him pause outside Jacey’s room. He opened the door quietly and peeked in. Jacey was asleep, curled up into a small bundle and lost in the queen sized bed, her bedside lamp on. In a haphazard pattern, drawings were taped on the walls. Theo entered and walked around, looking at them.

He thought back to the drawings in her room at The Facility and compared them to these. The improvement was astonishing. There was no thread of similarity to these. Subjects ranged from a portrait of Kelly, to landscapes of the gardens, to a messy kitchen table, a view through a doorway into the living room, and anything that had caught her eye. But what gave him pause was the styles she’d used. Art wasn’t something he knew much about, yet he could see Andy Warhol realism in one, Monet’s soft use of colors in a couple others, Picasso’s abstract style, and even pointillism developed by George Seurat. There were more styles he couldn’t identify.

Was this skill her manifestation of the strange DNA? Whatever it was, Jacey was hugely talented!

Theo moved over to the bed, studied her familiar, pretty face, so sweetly innocent in slumber, and he bent, kissed her forehead, and turned the lamp off.

Mind busy, he stopped at Nancy’s room, again peeking in. Her room was dark, shadowed. She was asleep with an open book at her side. Theo moved over to her and picked up the book, placing it on her side table. He drew the covers up to her shoulders, bent, and kissed her forehead. He wasn’t surprised to see books collecting, or the stereo with her iPhone plugged in. Curious, he bent and looked at book spines: mysteries, thrillers, and fantasy novels. On her desk, she had a partially complete jigsaw puzzle.

Smiling, he left, closing her door quietly. Across the hall, he opened Sienna’s, now knowing what to expect. He wasn’t disappointed. Sienna was sprawled across her bed, sleeping on her front, her head at the foot of the bed, her pillow at the top, one bare foot resting on it. Theo eased himself into her room, careful where he stepped. Her room was a disaster. Unidentifiable things littered the floor. Clothes were dropped wherever they’d been taken off, her open closet doors revealing more disorganization.

A small TV perched on her dresser next to a stereo. A desktop computer sat on her desk amidst clutter; books, pencils and pens. Panties hung off one edge of the back of her chair. She’d put up posters of animals. When Theo looked closer, he grinned. She’d used nails to put them up. Of the four girls, Sienna amused him the most. She was a fireball of energy and enthusiasm, and had no restraint in expressing her opinions, of which she had plenty.

Theo walked around the bed, bent and kissed her cheek, and left.

He approached Ashlie’s room with interest. What would hers look like? Silently, he opened the door and looked in. What he saw worried him.

There was nothing in Ashlie’s room. There wasn’t a trace of individuality. Her bed was so perfectly made, any army major would be proud. Nothing was out of place because there was nothing to be in place. In one corner, unopened boxes were piled neatly; a stereo, an iPod, a laptop, a bedside lamp, and others.

Even Ashlie wasn’t there!

And then Theo noticed the box set of Harry Potter novels he’d given her sitting on a bedside table. Nothing else.

Theo stood in the doorway. He didn’t move. Neatness he’d expected, but this blank canvass of her life worried him. Where were the small trinkets you acquired just by living? Keepsakes? Mementos?

Ashlie’s room was a blank and it scared him. Was this how she felt? Was her room a reflection of her life? If so, it was terrifying!

Now concerned, he went looking for her and found her in his bedroom, in bed, quietly staring up at the ceiling. She noticed him and smiled. It didn’t allay his fears.

“So this is where you are,” he commented with a smile, pulling his shirt off.

“Uh-huh.”

Theo dropped his jeans and moved to the ensuite bathroom. He brushed his teeth quickly and returned, slipping into bed and drawing Ashlie to him, hugging her cool body. Ashlie snuggled closer.

“I stopped by your bedroom looking for you,” he said.

“I like it more here.”

He kissed her cheek, smiled, and asked, “How come you have nothing in your room? Even the boxes are unopened.”

“That’s stuff Kelly bought me.”

“Don’t you like them?”

“Uh-huh. They’re nice.”

“Then, why haven’t you unpacked them?” Theo asked.

“I don’t need them.”

Still concerned, Theo asked, “What do you need? Everyone needs something.”

Ashlie turned her face up and looked at him with her mesmerizing green eyes. “I have you. I don’t need anything else.”

Theo’s chest ached. “That’s not true, Ash. What about reading books, or watching TV, or hobbies? Everyone needs interests.”

She cuddled closer. “I have you.”

Theo rubbed her back and thought for a long, long time. Despite having her in bed with him, Theo was too worried to be aroused. In the silent darkness, he felt when Ashlie fell asleep, her breathing slowing, soft. He lay awake for a long time.

When Ashlie turned and curled up, he spooned her, hugging her. In her sleep, she sighed and held his arms. Her scent calmed him. Eventually, he drifted off.


Chapter Sixteen

Theo stood back and grinned broadly, watching the four girls, Ashlie included, giggle and play with four effervescent golden lab puppies on the lawn.

Kelly stood next to him, her arm casually hooked through his, and observed, “You have no idea the hell and destruction you’ve unleashed, Theo.”

“Tell me they’re not cute.”

Kelly smiled. “They are. The puppies are nice, too.”

Theo laughed. His eyes were on Ashlie. He watched her change in front of him, laughing and giggling; finally a real little girl emerging. The relief he experienced was huge.

He’d tried for the last two weeks to interest her in different things, only to be stymied by her responses. He’d thought she had sworn off the Internet, since he never saw her touch the laptop, and he’d been relieved given the emotional pain she’d experience on it. But, as he’d tried to interest her in hobbies, she’d calmly informed him she knew all about them, she’d read the books, she’d watched the videos, she’d investigated things.

He’d asked how? And Ashlie had revealed a new ability; she could access the Internet remotely! Any computer connection within a mile radius was enough. Shocked, Theo had paid more attention to her and he’d seen, when everyone was watching television, or when she was sitting quietly in the garden, how her eyes would briefly flash lavender and she’d go away for a minute, then refocus on her surroundings.

Today, Theo grinned like a fool. He couldn’t pull his eyes away from her. This girl, this beautiful creature, made his chest ache with every laugh and almost brought him to tears with every giggle. This was the answer, he realized - living, experiencing, touch and feel.

Intellectually, she was growing exponentially. But intellect couldn’t replace touching the soft fur of a puppy. It couldn’t replace watching a puppy stumble and fall over nothing, or the pure love it gave.

For Theo, it was a revelation. He’d been treating her as an emotionally mature girl and he needed to treat her like the young girl she was!

So lost in thought, he was surprised when Kelly nudged his arm and offered him a glass of icy cold white wine.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. This was a good thing you did, Theo.”

Unconsciously, he rested his arm over her shoulders. Kelly moved closer, her side touching him.

She asked, “Do you have any idea where all this is going? What’s going to happen next week, next month, or next year?”

“Not a clue,” Theo admitted. “I just want them to be safe and happy.”

Sienna yelled, jumped up, and raced after a running puppy trying to catch it. The puppy yipped with excitement and dodged back and forth, Sienna laughing.

Nancy egged her on, yelling, “You’re hopeless! You’ll never catch it!” while playing with a puppy on his back, cradled in her lap.

Kelly sipped her wine, quietly watching Theo as he smiled and enjoyed the girls. He wasn’t particularly handsome, a bit on the geeky side, lanky and perpetually scruffy. Yet, his face was fascinating. It was expressive, open, honest. His brown eyes radiated warmth and caring, especially when he looked at the girls.

He wasn’t without faults. He thought he could do anything. He couldn’t. He was distracted by the slightest thing, never spending time concentrating on one task. He was messy, leaving disorganization behind him like the path of a tornado. He forgot things all the time and had to be reminded constantly. Even grocery shopping was a challenge. Give him a list and he’d invariably come back with half the items missing and a bunch of things that she hadn’t put on it.

He couldn’t plan or budget. He seemed to think everything would work out fine. And he loved toys; the touch screen remote, the boat, and more. He’d started talking about a motorbike even though, as far as she could tell, he’d never ridden one.

Yet there were exceptions. He was thoughtful. He didn’t just buy the girls gifts, he bought her gifts, too. Sometimes it was a simple bouquet of flowers, sometimes clothes that had caught his eye. Inevitably she’d had to exchange them for the right size. Clearly he thought she was larger than she actually was.

The kitchen was full of gadgets. Theo wasn’t suggesting anything by giving them to her. He was simply fascinated by them. They didn’t need the George Foreman grill, or the fruit and vegetable drier, or the vacuum food sealer. The rooster-shaped hardboiled egg slicer was unused in the drawer, along with a parsley cutter. Parsley cutter? Really?

Kelly smiled to herself. In a way, it was endearing.

She studied him as he watched the girls and smiled with amusement. Then she saw the moment he looked at Ashlie. She knew it was Ashlie he was watching. It was in his eyes; utter adoration.

Kelly sighed. What she’d give to have someone look at her like that, such pure love. These glimpses made her feel empty. Theo’s expression was so powerful, as if Ashlie was his world.

He glanced at her, his eyes intense. She inhaled sharply and choked on her wine.

“Jesus! Are you okay?” he exclaimed.

Kelly coughed violently, clearing her throat. She straightened and smiled at Theo. “The wine went down the wrong way.”

“You had me scared for a moment. I thought I was going to have to use the Himmler maneuver on you.”

Kelly burst out laughing. “Himmler?”

“Yeah. You know. When you’re choking?”

Kelly laughed harder, tears forming. She bent, her sides hurting. Jesus she loved him!

With that realization, her laughter died. She caught her breath and straightened, glancing at Theo.

“What happened?” he asked, concerned.

“Nothing. Really. Nothing.”

That night, they put the puppies in a training pen before going to bed. The girls complained when the puppies started yapping for attention. Each girl wanted to take one to their room to sleep. Theo explained how they needed training, how having them sleep together, apart from the girls at night, was teaching them that nights were quiet time. He was firm about it, too. Apparently he’d promised the breeder.

In her room, in bed, Kelly curled up. Sleep eluded her. For the first time she felt lonely and sad. She understood why, too. She loved Theo. It was an impossible situation. Should she leave? What would the girls do without her?

In the master bedroom, Theo held Ashlie as they watched an old sitcom on TV.

Theo asked, “Did you notice Kelly tonight? She wasn’t the same. Did something happen that I don’t know about?”

Ashlie, her head in the crook of his shoulder, said, “Uh-huh.”

Theo waited, then asked, “Uh-huh what? Uh-huh you noticed something different with her tonight? Or uh-huh something happened?”

“Uh-huh,” Ashlie replied, nodding her head against him.

“Ash!”

Ashlie giggled quietly. ”I like it when you call me Ash.”

“I like it when you answer me without obfuscation,” Theo countered.

“Kelly just realized she loves you,” Ashlie informed him calmly.

“What?”

“Love. It’s an immeasurable affection for another that places them above self-interest. It manifests as . . .”

“Stop!”

“Kay.”

Theo broke the silence. “She loves me?”

“Uh-huh. You love her, too. You give her presents like you do with my sisters and me. You like being around her. She makes you feel good. You like talking to her and she makes you laugh. You think she’s pretty and sexy,” Ashlie said conversationally.

Theo thought about it. Ashlie was right. In a way, he’d grown to love Kelly. But . . .

“I love you,” he said.

Ashlie turned her face up to him, studied him, and said, “You’re IN love with me. You love Nancy, Jacey, Sienna, and Kelly. It’s okay to love lots of people.”

“Huh. When did you get so smart? No. Don’t answer that!”

“Kay. You should kiss her.”

“Kiss Kelly?”

“Uh-huh. It will make her feel better. It makes me feel better.”

“I’m lost,” Theo claimed, confused.

Ashlie, watching the television, said, “She’s lonely. I don’t want her to feel lonely or sad. Tonight Kelly is sad.”

Theo chatted with Ashlie long into the night. He struggled, trying to adjust to a little girl with such a sweet face reasoning with him so maturely. She seemed unaffected. To her, Kelly was important. She didn’t see why a relationship with Kelly was wrong.

Ashlie was adamant that, as long as she had Theo, she was happy.

Theo wasn’t convinced. Finding out he was attracted to a ten-year-old girl was hard enough. Sharing his love with someone else was a strange concept, unsettling. To him, it felt like a betrayal, as odd as it sounded.

Ashlie tired of arguing with him. “Will you kiss me, please?” she asked.

Smiling, Theo leaned over and kissed her soft cheek.

Ashlie’s deep green eyes studied him. A small smile formed. “Again.”

Theo smiled and kissed her lips, first brushing his against hers, then pressing carefully.

Her hand fished down and explored his crotch and, as his penis responded, gradually thickening, she smiled into the kiss; utterly enchanting.

She caressed him into a full erection in very short order, then searched for the waist of his underwear, slipped her hand inside, and closed her fingers around his erection.

Arousal slammed into Theo. He briefly closed his eyes when she squeezed. Breaking the kiss, he caressed her body, his hand first touching her small breast buds over her cotton top, rubbing her stomach, then, with a surge of excitement, he touched her cotton panties.

Ashlie smiled. She moved her legs apart and Theo cupped her incredibly sexy little pussy. Through the cotton he could feel her cleft, the pad of her mons, and the fullness of her vulva.

Worries about life melted away, displaced by arousal and desire for her. Caressing her pussy, Theo kissed her again, harder this time, his tongue tasting her. Ashlie’s eyes blinked out. Her tongue met his, her small mouth opening, and she stroked his erection inside his underwear.

Theo broke the kiss suddenly. “Stop,” he whispered, pulling her hand out of his underwear.

“What?” she asked.

Rising, Theo leaned over her and grabbed hem of her cotton undershirt. He tugged it up. Ashlie arched her back then raised her arms. He tossed it aside, shuffled down and grabbed the waist of her pale purple panties. He tugged them down and off, exposing her gorgeous little pussy.

Eyed locked on it, admiring how perfectly hairless she was, he shucked his underwear, his erection springing up.

Ashlie watched.

Theo was horny, very horny. But fueling him was intense desire and adoration of her, undoubtedly the strangest girl in the world. It was so powerful, his chest hurt.

He moved, nudging her legs apart, and hovered over her, his erection jutting out. Ashlie watched him with the cutest smile curling her lips, as if she could see his aching desire and the tightness in his body. Could she?

And, God, she was so petite, so beautiful, so intensely sexy!

Theo grinned, bent, and kissed her breast bud, teasing it with his tongue, then sucking gently. He moved to its twin and sucked. His cock bobbed with excitement.

He kissed her chest, moved up, still hovering above her, and nuzzled her neck, inhaling her intoxicating scent. Ashlie squirmed slightly.

Grinning, Theo kissed her; small kisses starting at the corners of her mouth, then a brush of her lips, then harder, pressing. He touched her lips with his tongue and backed off before she could respond.

“I’m horny,” he told her.

“Uh-huh,” she agreed.

Theo kissed her chest, shuffled down and kissed her soft stomach. He kissed each sharp hip and moved lower. Lying on the bed between her legs, he smiled at her, then looked down at her gorgeous little pussy and pressed his mouth to her mons. It was soft, thick, and he caught a hint of another scent.

Even with her legs parted, Ashlie’s short cleft remained closed, her labia plump, her clitoris hidden. Theo kissed the top of her cleft. His cock strained, pressed to the bed.

He lifted her knees, spreading her legs even more, and her cleft flowered open exposing her clit nestled between her labia.

Moaning silently, Theo pressed his mouth to her slit and tasted her. Briefly, he closed his eyes and savored the clean, slightly tart flavor of her. When he opened his eyes and looked up her body, Ashlie, with her head propped up on the pillow, was watching him intently.

He removed his mouth to tell her how delicious she was.

Ashlie spoke first. “Don’t stop.”

Smiling, Theo kissed her pussy and teased her soft clit with his tongue. He probed deeper, his tongue brushing over the two tiny wings of her inner labia and finding glassy smoothness below, warm, so sexy. Lower, deeper, he found the entrance to her vagina and her hymen. His tongue pressed to the tiny hole. He tasted her again, still clean, fresh, with a hint of tart; pure erotic ambrosia.

Pulse now racing, Theo returned to her clit. But he took his time, kissing and sucking her small, hairless labia on the journey back. He settled his mouth in her clit. His hands slipped under her to hold her cute buttocks in his palms.

Watching her face, Theo sucked her clit and caressed it with his tongue.

Ashlie’s eyes closed, her face relaxed.

For the next few minutes, he ate her, loving it. His cock flexed and strained, pressed to the bed, and precum leaked making the tip slip against the sheet.

Ashlie’s small pussy became moist; saliva and her own arousal. He sucked, licked, caressed, and Ashlie finally responded. It started with a slow tightening of her thighs, then relaxing, tightening, then relaxing. Her response spread to the hint of movement in her crotch, a slight twitch.

Her nostrils flared with deeper breaths, her face still relaxed, eyes closed.

In the palms of his hands, Theo felt her buttocks tighten and relax. Her pelvis twitched. He sucked and strummed her soft clit, swallowing her moisture, his cock aching. Ashlie’s body reacted with tighter clenches of her thighs, hips moving up and down, rubbing her pussy against his mouth. A slight frown of concentration emerged on her face and her lips parted. She started breathing through her mouth. Her hands curled into loose fists. And Theo watched closely, absorbed by her expression of sexual pleasure.

Her cute frown deepened. Theo ate her pussy, strumming her clit faster, and his excitement grew as she approached her climax, his cock straining.

Watching her intently, he saw the moment her climax arrived. Ashlie gasped quietly, a flash of agony passing across her face. Her body tensed, stomach muscles tightening, thighs closing against his head.

With an expulsion of breath, Ashlie came, her small body jerking. She grabbed the sheet with her hands. Her hips curled up, pussy pressing to his mouth. Suddenly, she tipped over, pussy scrubbing his mouth, hips churning. She let out the cutest cry of pleasure and moisture flooded his mouth. He swallowed. Her body shook and, making him smile despite having his mouth pressed to her pussy, Ashlie grunted, gasped, strained, froze, and collapsed, her knees falling away, body limp, face relaxing. Small tremors shook her.

With a final soft kiss on her sexy pussy, Theo moved up beside her and drew her naked body into his arms. He cuddled her, kissing her hair. Perspiration had formed along her hairline. He could feel her heart beating.

Minutes passed. She calmed. With a deep sigh, she opened her eyes and smiled at him.

“I saw stars. Will you do it again?” she asked.

“Right now?”

“No. Later. I’m tired.”

Theo kissed her cheek. “Anytime you want,” he whispered.

“Kay,” she whispered. She rolled, giving him her back, curling up. “Hug me, please.”

Theo did. His erection found her bum crack. She wiggled back against him. Despite cumming, Ashlie was cool against him, her feet even cooler. He held her gently as she fell asleep and his mind was active, reviewing everything he’d learned from her. Sleep eventually arrived.

**********

He stirred slowly, a soft caress waking him. It was dark, still night. He’d rolled onto his back at some point. Ashlie smiled at him. She was pressed to his side, her hand gently stroking his erection.

“My turn,” she said quietly.

Theo didn’t respond. He lost himself in her face, her prettiness, and her enchanting eyes. He studied her small lips, the shape of her mouth. And when he saw the adoration in her eyes, his heart tripped.

Ashlie eased away from him, still stroking his erection. She pushed the covers down and sat cross-legged at his side. Her platinum hair formed a curtain over her body. She flipped it over her shoulder.

“Ash,” he whispered.

“I want to try this.”

She looked at his erection and used both hands to stroke him, slowly, a careful, firm caress that sent shivers of pleasure through him. His cock flexed and strained. Ashlie smiled.

For the next few, silent minutes, Ashlie fondled, stroked, and teased the tip, exploring and testing. When he swelled again, she discovered the bead of precum and rubbed it, spreading it over his crown.

Theo groaned quietly, pleasure flowing, warm, exciting. He reached out and caressed her bare back. She glanced at him then returned to his cock, stroking slowly.

Theo froze when Ashlie curled her hair behind her ear, held her hair back, and leaned in. Her small tongue touched his tip. A shudder shook him. She tasted, then licked his inflamed head. It tickled and aroused him massively, his cock straining, now so damn hard.

Her hand stopped moving. She held his shaft, erection pointing up, and leaned in again, kissing his tip.

Theo groaned.

She licked her lips, then pressed them against the tip, and slowly, exquisitely slowly, Ashlie took his crown into her mouth. The sight was astonishing; a very young girl with a thick cock in her mouth. He’d never seen anything like it, anything so deeply arousing or erotic.

A hard pulse made his shaft visibly swell. Ashlie sucked, her cheeks indenting.

“Jesus,” he groaned.

With her mouth locked on him, his crown inside her warm mouth, Ashlie stroked his shaft slowly. Another tremor of pleasure hit him, muscles tensing. His erection throbbed, a long straining pulse.

She straightened, his tip popping out, glistening with saliva. Looking at him, Ashlie said, “You can cum in my mouth.”

“Jesus, Ash,” Theo groaned, his body taut, heart racing. He was so friggin' horny, unbelievably turned on.

Ashlie leaned in and took his head in, her lips sliding to below the ridge, then lower, and lower. With a slight gag, she pulled back slightly, sucked, and stroked his shaft.

Lips locked, Ashlie stroked faster. Theo’s body tensed even more, straining, pressure building in his groin - all the signs of being close. He couldn’t look away. The sight of Ashlie, a small girl sucking him off, sent shivers through him.

And when her tongue caressed his tip, Theo lost it. His erection strained, swelled, pulsed, and ecstasy erupted as semen burned up his shaft, exploding into her mouth. Before he could inhale, another even harder wave slammed into him. He groaned as a massive pulse of cum exploded so hard semen leaked from her lips and down his shaft. Her stroking hand spread it making his cock slippery, and Theo had no control. None. In rapid fire pulses he came, semen spurting into her mouth. Unbelievable pleasure wracked his body as he came harder than he’d ever cum before and Ashlie kept his spurting erection in her mouth, thick pearlescent semen leaking. He groaned deeply, spurting hard, her hand stroking him, his body straining to the point of pain. Then, tipping over the peak of his orgasm, his erection softened, pulses fading.

He was drained, exhausted, yet still mentally aroused. Nothing in his wildest dreams approached the erotic sight of Ashlie sucking him off.

She gave him one final stroke and lifted her mouth off him and spit cum onto his pubes. White semen still covered her lips and dripped down. She reached out and grabbed her undershirt, wiped her mouth, then wiped his flaccid penis and pubes.

Carefully bundling her dirty cotton undershirt, she set it aside. She laid down next to him and cuddled, pulling the covers up.

Deep green eyes studied him. “Was it okay?”

“Jesus, Ash,” he whispered, caressing her hair. “It was . . . It was . . .”

She smiled broadly, said, “Kay,” and rolled. “Will you hug me, please?”

**********

At breakfast, Theo felt awkward with Kelly for the first time. The girls were outside running and playing with the puppies. Through the open glass doors, a spirited argument was raging between Sienna and Nancy over names and ownership. Theo sipped his coffee and watched with interest.

Ashlie sat quietly on the lawn, full of smiles and occasional laughs at the antics of her sisters. The puppies would play with the other girls but inevitably return to Ashlie for a caress, a kiss, a cuddle, a playful nip of her hand, a lick of her face, and then happily race away to play, ears flapping. One, a female and the palest gold of them all, sat at Ashlie’s side, eyes alert and observant, tail wagging. She’d bark at something then turn her eyes to Ashlie, and Ashlie would say something, as if answering the puppy.

“She’s remarkable,” Kelly observed, sitting at the table. “I have a feeling we’ve only just begun to see her potential. It’s a bit scary.”

“You have no concept,” Theo responded, watching Ashlie.

He turned his attention away from the garden and studied Kelly, really studied her. He saw remarkably kind eyes that radiated strength of character. He saw a hint of melancholy and a soft, attractive smile. He noticed the shape of her lips, their fullness, and her nose, the slight ski jump adding fun to her looks.

Her short brown hair was feathery, rich and soft-looking. And when the morning light caught her eyes just so, he saw striations of green in them.

She looked at him openly, watching him inspect her, unflinching. Then a smile teased her lips.

“What?” he asked.

“I just realized you’re a fraud.”

Theo’s eyes opened wide. “A fraud?”

She nodded, her smile growing. “You’re not the happy-go-lucky, twenty-something-year-old guy you pretend to be, so blissfully clueless and innocently tickled by toys and gadgets. You’re deeper than that. Much deeper and more complex.”

Theo grinned. “Sorry. I’m not. I’m pretty clueless about things and I really do love gadgets. Give me a beer and pizza and I’m a happy camper.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Theo sipped his coffee, his eyes on her.

Kelly continued. “You swear like a drunken sailor, but never within hearing distance of the girls. You’re careful to share your attention between them to avoid jealousy. You’re sensitive enough to discover what they like doing, cater to their interests, and challenge them to grow.”

Kelly sipped her coffee. With the mug held in both hands, she continued. “You knew I could pilot that boat, didn’t you?”

Theo grinned. “Guilty.”

Kelly’s eyes opened wider. “You didn’t buy that boat for yourself or the girls. You bought it for me!”

Theo nodded, smiling. “Guilty.”

“How? Why?” Kelly asked, now truly shocked.

“I asked Ashlie about your background. She read your file at DARPA.”

“So you knew I grew up around boats,” Kelly stated.

Theo nodded, still smiling.

“What else did she tell you?”

“Everything, including the psychological assessment they conducted. Are you really scared of spiders?”

Kelly frowned. “I guess I don’t have any secrets.”

“Nope.”

Theo fell silent. They studied each other. The air crackled between them.

“Time for me to confess,” Theo said. “You’re right. I’m not as clueless as I appear. It’s a protective suit I wear. It lets me socialize without revealing personal information.”

He sipped coffee and continued. “In the past five weeks or so, my world has turned upside down. In my wildest dreams, I’d never have thought I’d be in this situation. In some ways, I’m thrilled. Finding Ashlie, and everything that’s happened since, has made me feel alive.

“Everything I believed in has been shattered. It’s like living in a sci-fi movie. I’m still wrestling with my attraction to Ashlie. She’s like a drug to me. Morally I know it’s wrong, yet I have no resistance to her. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I’m feeling guilty, too.”

He paused and sipped coffee. Kelly watched him silently, cautious yet curious.

Theo sighed. “I’ve never been good at beating around the bush and I’m hopeless at subtlety. Ashlie informed me I was attracted to you and, until she said it, I hadn’t realized how true it is. I am. You’re a remarkable and beautiful woman. So now I feel guilty because of it.”

Kelly’s eyes dropped to the mug in her hands. “What did Ashlie say about it?”

Theo grinned suddenly. “She told me to kiss you.”

Kelly glanced up at him. A blush dusted her cheeks.

“And,” Theo continued, “if this isn’t too weird for you, I think I’d like to kiss you.”

Kelly’s blush intensified. “Well, if Ashlie thinks you should kiss me, maybe you should.”

Her gaze drifted to outside. Her blush faded and she stood quickly. “Oh-oh.” Leaving her mug on the table, she hurried out, issuing a sharp, “Nancy! Sienna!”

Theo turned. In the garden, the two were facing each other, yelling, fingers jabbing the air. At Kelly’s sharp voice, they glanced over, saw Kelly striding towards them, and immediately started accusing the other, pleading their case.

A sharp word from Kelly and they fell silent.

Theo stood and wandered over. He caught the gist of the disagreement. They were arguing over a puppy. Maybe puppies weren’t such a good idea, Theo thought.

“Golden labs have more than enough love for all of you! They share it. So should you two,” Kelly informed them firmly.

“But that one’s picked Ashlie,” Sienna complained, pointing at her sister sitting on the ground and watching. The lab sitting at her side yapped.

Interesting. What’s Kelly going to do now? Theo pondered. He didn't have to wait.

Kelly’s expression softened. “That might be true. But it was the puppy that chose Ashlie, not Ashlie choosing the puppy. Do you understand the difference? Let them decide. They might want both of you.”

Nancy grinned. “That’s true. They’ll all choose me.”

A frown emerged on her sister’s face.

“I’m kidding!” Nancy exclaimed with a laugh. “You’re so easy!”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

Kelly glared. Both fell silent.

“I was just bugging her,” Nancy said sheepishly.

“Instead of riling each other up, why don’t you take the puppies for a walk?”

“Kay!”

Kelly turned and saw Theo. She smiled.

“Nicely done,” Theo observed. “You’re a natural.”

Kelly smiled, reached out and took his hand. She led him back towards the kitchen. “Didn’t you say something about wanting to kiss me?”

In the garden, Ashlie watched Kelly lead Theo. She smiled. It would solve so many problems.

Kelly led Theo into the kitchen. Her nerves were sparking. She couldn’t believe how forward she was behaving. It was so unlike her. When she stopped and turned, she moved closer and caught his scent; masculine, a hint of spice - all guy. She looked at his lips, level with her eyes, the shape of his mouth, and then higher.

He was watching her, the corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement. And in his eyes she saw something strange to her; caring and affection and desire. Her nipples reacted, tightening. Her body came alive, tingling. She reached up, slipped her hands behind his head, combing her finger through his hair, and drew him down, turning her face up to meet him.

His breath, warm and clean, washed over her. His lips touched hers. Pressure. Kelly closed her eyes, moaned silently, tilted her head and settled her mouth over his. Her lips parted. She met his tongue and, with the kiss growing passionate, melted against him.

Theo’s hands settled on her hips, then moved up to hold her back. He drew her in tighter and she felt his response against her. Her body reacted; nipples sensitive against her bra, warmth flowing below, tingling, arousal stirring. Desires strengthened inside, passions she hadn’t felt in a long time, too long.

The kiss ended. She eased away from him and loved the heat in his eyes. Her heart still thumped, fingers tingling.

“You’re dangerous,” she informed him with a smile.

“He is,” Ashlie said from the open glass doors, smiling.

Theo turned and saw Ashlie. He smiled but it felt forced. Seeing her, he couldn’t overcome a feeling of guilt, as if he’d been caught cheating, and he didn’t like the sensation at all! Kelly’s kiss had been wonderful, different than Ashlie's, but just as arousing.

He noticed the golden lab puppy standing behind her legs, head peering around her.

Clearing his throat, he said, “Well . . . Maybe I should do a chore.”

“Like what?” Kelly asked.

He looked around. “Um . . . The dishes?”

Kelly laughed. “Okay. They’re all yours. Ashlie and I have some girl things to talk about. Come on, Ashlie,” she said, extending her hand. “Let’s leave Theo to it.”

As they walked out of the kitchen, Kelly threw over her shoulder, “The dish soap is under the counter.”

Theo grinned. He couldn’t cook but he knew how to wash dishes and do laundry. This would be a cinch.


Chapter Seventeen

Kelly sat on the couch in the family room and turned to face Ashlie. The golden lab puppy curled up at Ashlie’s feet and went to sleep.

Kelly smiled gently and asked, “Why did you tell Theo to kiss me?”

Ashlie answered, “Because you love him and he loves you. It’s what you do when you love each other.”

Thinking for a moment, Kelly informed her, “That’s not really true. There are a lot of people in the world who love someone but never become intimate.”

Ashlie nodded. “I know. But you needed to be kissed and . . .” her voice trailed off, eyes losing focus.

“And what, Ashlie?”

Ashlie focused on Kelly again. Quietly, without any emotion, as if observing the weather, she said, “You need Theo right now. But Theo’s going to need you. He’s going to need help.”

Confused, reached for Ashlie’s cool hand. “What are you talking about, honey? Need help how?”

Quietly, Ashlie talked, and fear unfurled inside Kelly. She questioned Ashlie, probed, desperately seeking understanding, but Ashlie’s most frequent response was, “I don’t know.”

“And you’re sure about this?” Kelly asked.

Ashlie nodded. “Theo’s going to need you.”

A crash echoed in from the kitchen. Ashlie’s head tilted, processed the sound and observed, “He dropped a plate.”

The puppy’s head came up with the noise, ears perked. Kelly smiled, noticing how the puppy tilted it’s head to listen to the strange sound. Two birds of a feather.

**********

“Henrietta,” Sienna announced, stroking a puppy’s head.

“That’s a stupid name,” Nancy observed.

“No it isn’t!”

“Okay. Mine’s Henry,” Nancy said, eyes full of mischief, leaning over in her chair to rub the lab lying on its back, paws in the air.

Sienna frowned. “You can’t call him Henry! Henrietta will get confused!”

“How do you know Henry won’t get confused?” Nancy shot back.

“Huh?”

Theo smiled and turned to Jacey. “What name have you picked?”

“Matisse,” she answered.

“I like it.” He asked Ashlie, noticing how the three-month-old lab sat patiently next to her chair, “And what’s her name?”

Ashlie, curled her hair behind her ear and calmly said, “I don’t know. She hasn’t told me yet.”

Kelly laughed.

“I’m going to call her NANCY!” Sienna claimed loudly, rubbing the lab’s head.

“You can’t do that!” Nancy exclaimed.

“Yes I can. Then YOU’LL be confused!”

Kelly intervened with a sharp, “Girls!”

Both fell silent, their green eyes shooting arrows at each other.

“If you can’t be civil and reasonable, I’ll chose a name for the puppies.”

“I’ll call him Spot,” Nancy announced.

Sienna giggled. “He doesn’t have any spots. I’ll call mine Snow.”

Nancy giggled, countering with, “Humphrey.”

“Lightening,” Sienna proposed.

Increasingly inane names flew, both girls giggling as they tried to outdo each other.

Theo grinned and enjoyed them. Kelly shook her head and started cleaning away the lunch dishes from the table. Theo rose and joined Nancy when she stood to help.

An hour later, with the labs safely contained in their large cage, Theo, Kelly, and the girls piled into Kelly’s minivan. Bags were packed. Three of the girls chatted excitedly.

Theo had consulted with Kelly and colluded with Jacey, Sienna, and Nancy. They were going to start slowly with a trip to the beach. Ashlie, still fearful of crowds, was quiet, observing.

It was a significant trip. With the exception of staying with Theo in the hospital, Ashlie had not left the estate by choice. Theo hoped a less crowded weekday beach would be a start. He also wanted Ashlie to experience walking in sand, waves, the sounds of people having fun - everyday normal life.

The beach, four minutes away at the southern tip of Captiva Island and next to the causeway connecting Captiva to Sanibel Island, had half a dozen groups enjoying the sun, some with large beach umbrellas providing shade.

Two-foot waves rose, curled, and gently thumped onto the sand, rushing up and losing steam, retreating slowly leaving a dark stain on the sand that slowly faded. A gentle breeze brought the scent of salty brine. Theo inhaled deeply.

Unpacked, with large beach towels spread, the girls stripped down to their bathing suits and ran towards the water. Ashlie, in a multi-colored one-piece swimsuit followed at a much slower pace. She stared down at her feet as they sank into the sand, experiencing the tactile feeling of sand yielding then supporting.

Kelly undressed revealing a very nice bikini, her body slender with sensual curves. Theo, in his swimming trunks, admired the undulation of her ass as she walked across the sand to catch up with Ashlie. Her shapely butt moved so sensually, Theo felt a response. Then guilt hit him.

Kelly took Ashlie’s hand and led her into the surf where the other three were jumping and splashing. Theo waited, fingers crossed, then relaxed. Ashlie laughed when the first wave slapped into her, knocking her down.

For the rest of the afternoon, despite the beach becoming busy with more sun worshipers, the four girls frolicked, Ashlie included. Theo introduced them to building sand castles and burying each other in sand.

Kelly was just as involved, smiling and suggesting the girls bury Theo. They did with giggles, laughter, and pure pleasure; young girls having fun.

Energy was burned. Sunscreen lotion was applied many, many times, usually just before the girls yelled excitedly and raced back into the surf. Even Jacey enjoyed the water, albeit keeping well away from the waves that swept her sisters off their feet.

And by the time they returned home, Theo was relaxed, feeling good. Exercise, salty air, and the sun had mellowed him. The girls were dragging until they heard excited barks, and they took off with renewed energy.

By bedtime, there were no complaints, all exhausted. Theo helped Kelly clean up and turned the lights out.

At the base of the stairs, Kelly moved close to him and kissed him softly. “It was a good day. Did you see how Ashlie relaxed despite the people around?”

Theo nodded. “Progress.”

Kelly smiled. “Night. Sleep well.”

She headed up. Theo didn’t, not right away. What was that look in her eyes? Almost as if she was concerned for him. Why? It had been a great day. Shrugging, he followed her up.

Ashlie emerged from the bathroom just as he entered. She had a bath towel wrapped around her, her long hair damp and straggly. Seeing him, she smiled.

“Did you have fun today?” he asked, undressing.

“Uh-huh. I like sand.”

“I’m going to shower quickly,” Theo informed her, deliberately not mentioning the slow crowd that had collected on the beach.

When he finished, Ashlie was sitting up watching the television - a news show. Theo shook his head. He wasn’t surprised, but still found it strange. He got into bed and Ashlie immediately moved over and cuddled up to him. She was naked. So was he.

Theo rolled to face her, gathered her slender, petite body in his arms, and, fondling her gorgeous little ass, said, “Would you give me a kiss?”

Ashlie smiled. Playfulness flitted through her eyes and she kissed his cheek softly.

“You missed,” Theo informed her.

Ashlie, smiling, kissed his jaw.

Theo loved it! Ashlie being playful was a rare event. He grinned and tickled her side.

She gave him a quizzical look. “What are you doing?”

“Tickling you.”

“That doesn’t tickle.”

Theo tried under her arms and Ashlie simply studied him.

“Don’t tell me you’re not ticklish!” he exclaimed.

“I don’t know.”

Determined, Theo grinned. “I know what’ll work.” He separated from her, pushed the covers down and moved to her feet, grabbing one and tickling her sole. Nothing! Then he saw the number 1 tattooed on her heel, inside, just below her ankle bone, and anger tore through him in a flash. Jesus! Those bastards!

Breathing deeply, he restored some calm. Ashlie was quietly watching him with interest. Theo smiled, then noticed her sexy little pussy, a perfect hairless peach.

Desire displaced the dark thoughts and, still smiling, he kissed her tattoo, then her leg, then higher. And as he made his way up to the inside of her thigh, a smile emerged on her beautiful face, light returned to her eyes. She did nothing, letting him edge ever higher until, with a sigh of pleasure, Theo kissed her small cleft.

Rolling onto his front, erection growing, Theo settled between her legs and kissed her soft mons. “Yum.”

Ashlie giggled quietly, sending his heart soaring again.

For the next few minutes, Theo ate her, loving how soft the hood protecting her clit was, and the amazing smoothness inside her cleft. With his tongue, he probed the entrance to her vagina, sensing her hymen, feeling it yield to pressure but not break. His nose pressed to her sexy mons, soft as a pillow, and slowly, so very beautifully, Ashlie became aroused.

Slippery from his saliva, he tasted her first; an almost sweetness with a hint of something earthier; just a trace. His erection strengthened, pressed to the bed. And Theo drowned in the experience, loving every second. He adored her smooth pussy, silken skin untouched by hair. He loved how small her pussy was, so petite he could cover her cleft with his mouth.

But, it was Ashlie’s stunning green eyes full of adoration watching him, and how they closed slowly as she sighed, “Theo,” that sent shivers through him.

Her nostrils flared with deeper breaths. Her hands slowly gripped the bed sheet. And her small body tensed and relaxed as she joined in, letting her pleasure grow. Theo’s erection strained. He couldn’t stop himself from rubbing it against the bed. And the cutest frown formed on her face, brows scrunching.

Ashlie started breathing through parted lips. A small tremor passed through her and she curled her pussy up against his mouth. Theo tongued her clit faster, his pulse now racing, and gently explored between her buttocks, finding her rosebud and rubbing.

Ashlie groaned quietly, moving her pussy, hips turning, rubbing herself against his mouth and a small flush of moisture was released from her. He swallowed, pressed his finger against her bum and, as his fingertip penetrated her to the first knuckle, Ashlie climaxed.

She gasped, her body rigid, frozen, an expression of agony on her cute face. Then she exploded, gasping, her whole body moving, scrubbing her pussy against his mouth. A surprisingly deep grunt accompanied her body curling up, stomach muscles straining, and the sweetest little cry of pleasure echoed through the bedroom as her body relaxed, shaking as if having an epileptic fit.

Theo followed her climax, slowing and turning gentle as she peaked and slowed, kissing her sexy pussy when she trembled, then removing his mouth when she lay limp, chest moving, still breathing fast.

As he rose, her frown melted away. She opened her eyes and gave him a huge, blinding smile, before glancing down at his erection. Without a word, she brought her knees up as he moved over her.

Desire and arousal punished him, suppressing any common sense. All Theo saw was this beautiful angel, this small girl, naked and gorgeous. And he wanted her more than anyone he’d ever lusted for. He wanted to love her, penetrate her, feel her petite body under him.

Senseless, the thought of how small she was, how tight she’d be, drove him - selfish, oblivious. He moved higher, her knees cradling his hips, his eyes locked on the stupendous sight of his erection jutting out over her small, hairless pussy. She made him look huge, massive and thick. Trembling, Theo reached down and gripped his shaft. He aimed, and when the tip touched her cleft, he groaned loudly. Such an astonishing sight! His cock throbbed, so rigid. He pressed forward and his crown filled her whole cleft, labia bulging!

Fuck!

Saliva and precum made her slippery. Driven, Theo rubbed the tip up and down her slit, pressing, excitement making his heart race, and Ashlie’s labia bulged again, then slowly oozed apart, hugging his tip in a sensual caress. Shaking with excitement at the erotic sight, Theo pressed, eased off, and pressed again. With each move, more and more of his flared head disappeared into her stretched cleft. He thought he felt her hymen. In his grip, his shaft was pulsing, swelling, and excitement pounded him. So close! So close to heaven!

Ashlie let out a soft cry of pain.

It broke through his haze of inflamed passion like a blowtorch on snow. He glanced up, saw her wince fade, but it was too late. Without penetrating her, Theo came.

His cock swelled. Semen raced up his shaft and, with pleasure exploding, he spurted into her cleft. Another more intense wave hit. His erection strained and cum exploded, white semen oozing out around his tip, filling her small slit. His body tried to thrust. He tugged his cock up and fired a long, long rope of cum over her body, ecstasy pounding him. Another surge, another exquisite pulse of pleasure and semen spurted hard, hard. Lost, in fast, glorious pulses, Theo came on her, long strings of cum decorating her stomach and pooling in her navel. And as his straining heaves slowed, viscous white semen covered her small hairless mons. Theo’s groan was deep and heartfelt when he saw her small labia partially open with a stream of cum flowing from the base down between her buttocks, semen oozing out through the tiny hole in her hymen.

The final weak waves of his orgasm passed and, shaking, he lowered himself to her side. His heart pounded. And as his brain cleared from the fog of passion, he saw Ashlie watching him, her torso covered in cum, her legs still parted.

Guilt slammed into him. “Jesus, Ash! I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” she asked quizzically.

“I almost raped you!”

Ashlie touched the semen on her body, stirring it with her fingertip. “No you didn’t. I wanted to try sex. It’s hot,” she commented playing with his cum. “Why did you stop?”

“I hurt you,” Theo explained.

“So? They say it will always hurt the first time.”

“Who . . . Never mind.”

Theo reached out for his shirt and started cleaning her.

With the TV off and lights out, Theo pulled her into a hug.

Ashlie nestled her face against him, inhaled deeply, sighed, and said, “Next time don’t stop. I want to try sex.”

“There isn’t going to be a next time,” Theo informed her.

“Why not?”

With the memory of the sight still sharp - of just how huge he was compared to her small, small pussy - he answered, “Because you’re too small for me. I could damage you.”

Ashlie was silent. Eventually, she rolled over, saying, “Hug me, please.”

In the dark, Theo didn’t see the flash of lavender in her eyes.


Chapter Eighteen

Ashlie hunted through the huge house. The lab puppy followed her. She found Kelly in the laundry room sorting clothes into piles. The lab immediately went over, sniffing the piles.

Kelly looked up. She smiled. “What’s up? Bored? You can help me sort.”

“Kay.” Ashlie joined her, carefully picking an item of clothing out of the basket, studying it, then placing it in the appropriate pile.

“I want some help,” she stated simply.

“Okay. With what?”

“Theo.”

Kelly paused. Ashlie started talking, explaining, and Kelly, with increasing surprise, asked questions, challenging Ashlie. She was adamant.

“It has to be you,” Ashlie said. “It has to be soon.”

“Why?”

Ashlie explained.

That night, Kelly curled up in her bed and cried herself to sleep.

**********

December arrived and, as Christmas neared, Theo noticed how Kelly showed her love of the holiday. Now able to afford anything, she went to town decorating. The girls excitement matched Kelly’s enthusiasm and frequent shopping trips ensued, more decorations purchased and put up. The house became a wonderland of light and ornaments. Even Ashlie joined in, smiling and inspecting every ornament.

The scent of a real Douglas fir filled the family room and, despite the temperature being warm, Theo lit a fire and turned the air conditioning on.

Nancy found Christmas music and played it endlessly. When she played cats meowing We Wish You a Merry Christmas, the puppies, now larger, howled so loudly, she turned it off, grinning with delight.

Kelly and Theo consulted on presents for the girls, choosing restraint and focusing on their hobbies and clothes. Theo subtly probed Kelly to find out what she’d like. As if knowing his number, she’d replied, “Not gadgets.”

And every night, Ashlie would cuddle to Theo and ask, “Please, Theo? I want to try it.”

Theo refused. Instead, they explored everything but intercourse.

Then things changed.

One week before Christmas, Theo returned from grocery shopping late in the afternoon and the four girls insisted on unloading the car themselves. They banished Theo from the kitchen, restricting him to the family room, the media room, and outside. Kelly was rather nicely dressed in black slacks, heels, and a cream silk blouse.

He asked her what was going on. She smiled subtly and said, “I don’t want to ruin their surprise.”

“In that case, want to walk the dogs?”

The labs responded to an offer to take a walk. They never refused being outside. Kelly slipped her arm through Theo’s as they strolled the vast property. The dogs ran, played, peed, and occasionally barked with joy when Theo threw a stick.

“You’re very quiet,” Theo observed. “Is everything okay?”

Kelly, startled out of thoughts, smiled. “I’m fine.”

“Are you bored being here?”

She laughed lightly. “With those girls, I don’t have time to be bored. Are you?”

“No. I like it here. I like having the girls around, and I really like having you here, too. But, I can’t shake the feeling it’s not going to last and I can't figure out why.”

“Life isn’t static, Theo. Change is normal. In January the girls are starting school, except for Ashlie. It’ll change our lives again. Is it Ashlie you’re worried about?”

“Yeah. I know it’s a waste of time sending her to school. But she needs to socialize with more than just her sisters.”

Kelly was silent. She rubbed his arm. “Don’t worry about that now. We’ll figure out something later.”

“What are they up to?” Theo asked again.

Kelly laughed and ignored him, bending to pick up a stick and throw it. All four puppies took off after it.

After a long walk, and still barred from the kitchen, they sat in the family room watching the smaller television. And every time a crash sounded from the kitchen, they look at each other. Then a hint of smoke reached them; an odor of burnt something.

“Should we check?” Kelly asked, looking worried. “We don't want the house to burn down.”

Theo grinned and shrugged. “We have a fire alarm. We’re at home. What’s the worst that can happen? They burn the house down, we rebuild.”

A burst of laughter reached them.

Smiling, Theo added, “Whatever they’re doing, they’re having fun. Look on the bright side. Sienna and Nancy aren’t going at each other.”

At just after six, the four girls called for them. Kelly took Theo’s hand, smiling.

She led him to the never before used dining room. There, on a carefully laid table, with Christmas candles burning, places for two had been set. Music on a small iPhone player filled the room with soft songs.

Plates were set out. Bowls steamed. The four girls waited. Four pairs of identical green eyes shone brightly.

“What gives?” Theo asked.

Sienna pulled a chair out. Ashlie pulled another. “You’re here,” she informed him.

As they sat, Nancy giggled, Sienna grinned, Jacey smiled, and Ashlie informed him, “It’s a romantic dinner.”

Jacey turned the light to low. Sienna announced, “We made your favorites; macaroni and cheese, salad, beans, and steaks!”

Nancy put a bottle of red wine on the table with a corkscrew. Ashlie smiled gently at Theo, her eyes talking. Then the girls danced and skipped out with excited laughter.

Theo felt uncomfortable. He looked at Kelly and she smiled.

“Perhaps I should explain,” she said. “Why don’t you open the wine.”

Theo nodded, reaching for the bottle.

“Ashlie came to me. She seems to be under the impression you’re feeling guilty.”

“About what?”

Pink dusted Kelly’s cheeks. “About me. This was her idea. Her way of telling you what she wanted.”

The cork popped. Theo poured. Eyes studying each other, they sipped the wine.

Kelly spoke first. “Nice wine. Ashlie told me I had to be more open, because you’d never do anything. She’s remarkably insightful when it comes to you.”

Theo sighed. “Kelly, I find you remarkable attractive. Lord knows I’d like nothing more than to be with you. I haven’t stopped thinking about that kiss. But, even knowing what she wants, guilt sits like a lump of iron in my gut.”

Kelly nodded. “Let’s eat,” she suggested, reaching out to serve herself some macaroni and cheese.

Theo speared a steak and frowned.

Kelly served drooping green beans and then a steak. She studied her plate. “Does this mac and cheese look lumpy to you?”

Theo, sawing his steak with a knife, grinned. “Mac and cheese can never be bad.” He took a bite of the steak.

Kelly hesitantly tasted the mac and cheese. Definitely clumps of powder. She watched Theo chew, and chew, and chew, and started smiling. He made a face and chewed, and chewed, finally swallowing dramatically, and with a grin, announced, “Yum!”

Kelly actually giggled, surprising herself. She forked a green bean. It drooped sadly. She waved it up and down. “Should I?”

“Go for it.” Theo took a bite of the mac and cheese, announcing, “Perfection.”

After tasting the overcooked green bean, she forked the salad. “Do I dare?” she asked.

“Go for it. Rather you than me,” Theo answered, sawing at his steak.

She tasted. “Hey! This is good!”

“So’s the mac and cheese,” Theo said, taking a big mouthful. “Really good.” His eyes twinkled.

Somehow, Kelly had fun; real fun. Dinner became an adventure. They laughed, conversation flowed, and electricity built in the air. They were both aware of it. Theo was funny and charming, and his eyes radiated such pleasure and kindness, Kelly felt her attraction grow, yearning and desire blossoming.

The bottle of wine slowly emptied. They struggled together to make a dent in the food so the girls wouldn’t be disappointed. And when the music suddenly changed into sappy teen love ballads, they both laughed.

She saw the moment Theo changed. It was how his warm brown eyes grew intense and it sent pleasing shivers through her, her body responding, nipples perking as if chilled, warmth flowing down, her pulse jumping.

Conversation died.

Kelly knew what she wanted. She wanted to be held and kissed and loved. She wanted to feel Theo against her, feel his arousal, and feel his hands on her. It was a powerful desire unlike she’d felt before. Was it the wine? Was it the result of the stress they’d experienced over the last several weeks? Was it being isolated with him, away from her friends?

She didn’t know. She didn’t care. Staring at Theo, she willed him, Make the move. Please make the move.

Theo silently studied Kelly. She was beautiful in interesting ways; not classical, but infinitely fascinating. She’d never be mundane or ordinary.

And he felt the power of her draw. It was different than Ashlie, more complex, and her eyes - such desire. His body reacted, pulse quickening. He wondered what she’d look like naked and how responsive her body would be. In his jeans, an erection stirred. He struggled with it. Yet, Ashlie had arranged this. Surely she understood what she was doing; not just encouraging but approving.

In his mind’s eye, he saw how Ashlie had looked at him, smiled, and her nod of satisfaction before leaving the dining room.

Maybe.

Just when Kelly thought the moment was lost, Theo looked into her eyes and said, “Have we paid enough tribute to the meal? Or do you want more punishment?”

“I think we’ve done an admirable job.”

Theo grinned. “Good. I want dessert.”

Kelly’s heart tripped. She smiled. “What do you have in mind?”

“Hmm. Something spicy more than sweet, and a feast for the eyes.” He stood, leaned over and blew out the candles. Smoke drifted. “But before dessert,” he said, moving towards her, “I wondered if you’d let me kiss you. The memory of the last one seems to be fading.”

Kelly smiled and let Theo draw her up by her hand. “We can't have that,” she said.

It seemed the most natural thing in the world; familiar yet exciting. When their lips touched, sparks flew. The kiss became passionate in the blink of an eye, and Kelly moaned quietly.

Lights out, dinner left on the table, Kelly led Theo by the hand, climbing the stairs and turning into her room. He closed the door quietly, watching her. Then he moved close, drawing her into his arms, and kissed her.

Kelly’s senses came alive. She felt his soft lips on hers, his hands caressing her back, and his scent - slightly spicy and masculine. His tongue brushed her lips and, when she responded, closing her eyes, warm arousal washed through her. Pressed to his chest, her nipples ached. His hands moved lower and held her buttocks, pulling her against him, and she felt the lump of his erection. Desire blossomed. It had been so long. She wrapped her arms around his neck, kissed him hard, her tongue playing, probing, and heat blossoming in her pussy. Then his hand caressed up her side, his thumb brushing the side of her breast and she moaned, lost in need.

Theo felt his erection strain in his pants. Kelly was rubbing herself against him, an erotic writhing. And when she moaned into his mouth, he forgot about everything except her. The room vanished, displaced by a sexy, sexy woman driving him crazy. Worries fled as her kiss became passionate. And when he cupped her breast, he seemed to shake with pent up desire. Like a mystical mist, her perfume - subtle honeysuckle and vanilla - surrounded him.

He reached between them and tugged her blouse out of her slacks, pulling it up, then easing his hand under. He touched her satin bra and the shape of her breast, petite, just more than a handful, and Kelly ended the kiss suddenly.

Opening his eyes, he found her staring into him, eyes hot, aroused, her lips lush, parted, and breathing slightly faster. She moved back slightly and her hands reached for the waist of his jeans, popping the button, slowly drawing the zipper down.

Theo hurriedly opened the buttons on her silk blouse, drew it off her shoulders, and it fell to the ground. He looked down, excited at his first intimate sight of her. Her bra was simple; powder blue satin, the swell of her breasts showing above the cups.

She pushed his jeans down and, as he kicked them off and tugged his shirt off, Kelly opened her slacks and let them drop. For a moment they stood and studied each other. Kelly’s panties, matching satin, were low-riding with a lace waist. Her mons swelled the front.

He studied her body, his erection tenting his underwear. She was beautiful. Her slender hips and narrow waist gave her body delicate curves.

She moved into him suddenly, her arms slipping around his waist. She looked up at him and smiled, eyes twinkling, and rubbed her mons against his erection. Her hands dropped to his ass and a her smile changed, a glint of amusement entering them.

“You’ve got a great ass, Theo. I’m partial to asses.”

Theo smiled and held her ass. “Yours is pretty fine, too, and I’m an aficionado of gorgeous glutes.”

He teased the waist of her panties and, kissing her lightly, slipped his hands inside, soft satin against the back of his hand, soft skin in his palms. Her buttocks were firm, sensual, and so exciting.

Kelly reacted with a sly smile. She caught his lip between her teeth and slipped her hands inside his underwear, holding his ass, then sucked his lip and groped his butt, letting out a soft, “Mmmm.”

He had time to groan, and her hands moved to his hips, pushed his underwear down and, easing her lower body away from him, gently took his erection in her hands. Theo reacted, kissing her harder, his tongue probing into her mouth, and moaned aloud when her hand cupped his balls.

When the kiss ended, he was panting, pulse racing, cock throbbing, and so damn horny.

Kelly stepped back, glanced down and, with a pleased smile, Kelly said, “You’ve got a beautiful cock, Theo. It’s almost as good as your ass.”

Still smiling, she hooked her fingers into the sides of her panties and, with a sexy wiggle, pushed them down. Theo didn’t see her reach behind her back. His eyes were locked on Kelly’s pussy.

His cock bobbed at the sexy sight. Kelly was perfectly hairless, her mons incredibly lush, almost plump; an erotic delta. When the bra dropped on the floor, he looked up and saw her breasts.

His cock bobbed wildly.

Kelly laughed lightly, pleased. “I guess you like what you see.”

“Like? Jeeesus, Kelly! You’re gorgeous!”

Theo stared in admiration.

Eyes twinkling, Kelly said, “You can touch me, Theo.”

“Touch you? I think I wanna eat you. Man! Talk about the perfect dessert!”

Kelly laughed brightly and moved in. Theo’s erection pressed against her and slipped to the side as she came close. Her warm, silken skin touched him. Her hands reached up and she drew his face down into a kiss.

Lips pressed. Tongues met. And Theo cupped her breast, rubbing his thumb across her prominent nipple. Kelly’s tongue faltered, then resumed with passion, and Theo explored the shape of her breast, sensual, weighty and firm, the underside beautifully curved, the top sloped. It fit his hand perfectly, just slightly larger, warm and silky.

Kelly couldn’t believe how turned on she was. Her body cried out for more. She broke the kiss, grabbed Theo’s hand, and tugged him towards the bed. The back of her knees hit the edge. She sat and, with his erection in front of her, she reached out and took it in her hand, squeezing, then stroking him. She loved his cock; full, thick, straight and hard, so hard. She loved his arousal, that she’d excited him so much. And she loved the sounds he made; rumbled groans, quiet gasps. They made her hornier.

She could feel her wetness. She’d been aroused through dinner, her panties damp. And her pussy throbbed, an ache inside. Excitement thrummed through her - sex.

Staring up at him, she smiled and leaned forward taking his cock into her mouth. It was large, so soft yet hard. His deep groan sent thrills through her. Her nipples ached. Slowly, she took more of him in, stroking his shaft, teasing the tip with her tongue, then caressing his crown. Through her hand and mouth she felt his cock throbbing and wondered if he’d cum. What would he taste like?

His sudden withdrawal surprised her. Then she looked up at him and saw raw desire, lust. She smiled slowly and moved up onto the bed. Theo followed her crawling over her. Hovering above her, he touched her pussy and sparks went off.

He stared into her eyes and caressed her pussy. A wave of pleasure hit her when he caressed her clit. Then his finger slipped down and penetrated her, and Kelly started trembling. God she was close already!

When Theo’s thumb strummed her clit, his finger penetrating her, Kelly had no control. Her climax slammed into her, pleasure blossoming, radiating up from her pussy to explode in her brain. She heard herself cry out. Her body shook, toes curling, nipples tingling. Wave after wave of utter bliss washed over her making her gasp for air and, closing her eyes, she rode it out, body hot, flushed, sensitive, pure pleasure cascading through her, higher, higher, and with a moan, she crested, slipping down the soft slope of peace and contentment, release, finally glorious release.

When she opened her eyes, Theo was watching her, smiling gently.

“Utterly spectacular,” Theo said. “There’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a woman climax. Nothing.”

Theo was suffering. Extreme horniness had his body tense. His erection ached it was so damn hard. Seeing Kelly climax was unbelievably sexy. But it was feeling how wet she was that amazed him.

He bent slightly and kissed her breast, tasting salty perspiration. Her soft nipple still large. Her dark pink areola crinkled when he sucked gently, caressing her nipple with his tongue.

Her hands touched him, pulling him. He looked at her and she smiled at him, her knees rising to cradle his hips. Slowly, she drew him down until he was lying on her, her body warm, alive, and so sensual.

She reached down between them, gripped his erection, and guided him, and Theo felt the first exciting touch. Kelly rubbed the tip up and down her cleft, her labia parting and hugging his crown.

It was an uncontrollable urge. When she seated him and tugged, as they stared at each other, Theo thrust gently. Kelly’s eyes winced. Then she smiled, and Theo drowned at the sensation of penetrating her, a silken caress, warm, slippery, snug.

His groin pressed to her pussy. He was buried inside her and, God, did it feel wonderful!

“It’s been so long. I missed this,” Kelly whispered. “You feel so good inside me.”

Before Theo could agree, she tightened her pussy and a pulse of pleasure washed through him. She caressed his back, her hands ending at his hips, and she moved under him.

It started with small moves, a slight caress as he pulled out ever so slightly and returned, pressing deep. He kissed her softly and her hands urged him on. Slight thrusts lengthened, each bringing pleasure, her pussy snug, slippery. Soft kisses evolved into playful nips and his strokes became longer, the crown almost breaching, then an exquisite thrust back into her velvet grip. Tongues teased with light kisses, and Theo fucked her slowly, cock aching.

Kelly undulated under him, her hands tugging his hips, urging him on, and Theo fucked her harder, firm thrusts, beautiful stokes. Kelly responded with murmurs of pleasure that inflamed Theo. He reached down and held her ass, thrusting, fucking, his pulse racing. Their kisses ended. Theo nuzzled her neck, inhaling her scent, and fucked her harder, desperation stirring, body tensing his groin slapping against her clit.

Then Kelly groaned, “Cum with me.” Her pussy clamped down on his cock and Theo lost the battle.

With a deep, deep groan, his cock swelled and heaven arrived, sudden, blissful release, semen burning up and exploding deep inside Kelly. The dam broke. Thrusting fast, Theo came hard, spurting into her, pleasure crashing into him. He thrust and came with exquisite release, spurting desperately, heaven, heaven, and, with a final deep groan, his orgasm passed, pulses slowing, weakening. He stilled, his weight fully on her, his erection weakly throbbing. Kelly’s body relaxed. An occasional shudder shook her. Her hands returned to his back, caressing him.

Eventually, after several moments rest, Theo lifted himself, his softening erection slipping out of her, and he settled to her side. He waited for post-orgasmic guilt to arrive. It didn’t.

Kelly rolled against his side, her breast pressing against him, and rubbed his chest. “I’ve missed sex,” she said softly.

“Me, too. That was wonderful.”

Kelly sounded surprised when she said, “I thought you and Ashlie . . .”

“No. We haven't. I can't hurt her. We’ve explored some sexy play, but not full sex.”

After a minute of silence, both contemplative, Theo asked, “How will this work? You, me, and Ashlie?”

“Do you want it to work?” she asked.

“Hell yes! Is it wrong that I love two people at the same time?”

When Kelly didn’t respond, he glanced at her and saw her eyes, moist, soft.

“What did I say?” he asked.

“Nothing. Jacey made the salad for dinner.”

“Huh?” Theo asked, trying to follow her train of thought.

“It was the best dish. Jacey likes to cook. I think it’s the artist in her. Ashlie set the table. Did you see how everything was perfectly aligned? I think Nancy was responsible for the burnt steaks and I’d bet Sienna didn’t have the patience to stir the mac and cheese properly.”

Somehow the conversation turned to the girls, each discussed. An hour passed in easy, intimate comfort, naked bodies touching. Kelly’s hand rubbed his chest but drifted south. As if they’d been lovers for a long time, she found his penis and played with it, teased and fondled.

Theo grinned when she became obvious with her intent. “It’s dead,” he informed her

Kelly’s lovely eyes twinkled. She kissed him lightly and said, “Want to bet?”

Two minutes later, she rose and sat astride him.

**********

Theo woke slowly, his body relaxed. He felt rested and lazy. Yawning and stretching, the scent in the bed hit him first - Kelly. He opened his eyes and studied the unfamiliar bedroom. She’d done a very nice job of decorating. Pale ash furniture with inlayed olive accents matched the light pastel olive green on the walls.

Cushioned rattan chairs sided a small round reading table under the window. Soft area rugs on the hardwood floor added even more color, making the room bright and inviting. He smiled at the framed paintings on the walls; Jacey’s work. And small personal items decorated the dresser and bedside tables.

It was, Theo thought, elegant and comfortable, like Kelly.

When Theo finally made it to the kitchen, the enticing aroma of freshly brewed coffee welcoming him, he paused in the doorway and watched Kelly. She was busy at the stove and humming to herself.

Glancing at the kitchen table, he saw the girls grinning at him, four pairs of emerald green eyes twinkling. Even Ashlie was smiling; broad, dimples, and blinding.

Sienna spoke first: “Did you kiss last night?”

Nancy threw in her two bits, “Of course they kissed! But, did you dance, too? Kelly likes to dance.”

Sienna, refusing to be outdone, asked, “Where did you sleep, Theo? Was it . . .”

Kelly turned suddenly. “Sienna!” A blush dusted her cheeks. Then she looked at Theo and the blush intensified. She bustled about serving coffee.

Theo sat next to Ashlie. Under the table, Ashlie took his hand and squeezed, smiling and clearly happy.

Several puppies crowded Theo fighting for attention. He rubbed and petted, his hand eagerly licked, and asked, “So, do we have names for the puppies yet?” He rubbed the soft head of one. “Hello, Matisse.”

“Yup!” Sienna said. “Jessie.”

“Which one is Jessie?” he asked.

Sienna pointed. “The one with the darker ears.”

Theo looked, smiled and rubbed the puppy. “Hello, Jessie.”

Nancy, pointed and said, “Mine’s Spot!”

Kelly, from the stove, without turning, said, “You don’t own it, Nancy. They’re all ours.”

Theo, smiling, asked, “Why Spot?”

“Cuz he has black spots on the pads of his paws.” She slipped out of her chair and came over, bringing one paw up. “See?”

“I do. And has yours told you what her name is yet?” he asked Ashlie.

“Uh-huh. Charlie. I told her it’s a boy’s name but she doesn’t care.”

Theo smiled at the puppy sitting quietly at Ashlie’s side. “Hello, Charlie. Nice name.”

Soft brown, aware eyes looked back at him, her tail wagging. Theo wondered if Ashlie could actually communicate with Charlie and decided he’d ask her later. It wouldn’t surprise him if she could.

Kelly placed a steaming mug of coffee in front of him, smiling, her eyes bright and speaking volumes. Theo returned the smile. It grew bigger when she bent and kissed his cheek.

Nancy immediately started singing, “Kelly kissed Theo. Kelly kissed Theo.”

Kelly laughed and blushed slightly.

Throughout the day, the last of the Christmas decorations were put up. Led by Nancy and Sienna’s eternal competition, the girls spent time outside trying to train the puppies with no success, much laughter, and plenty of giggles. To Theo, three of them were evolving into perfectly normal ten-year-old kids.

But.

Despite Ashlie’s participation, her smiles and even laughter, he thought he saw melancholy in her eyes. Never energetic, to him she looked even more tired, drained, and it concerned him.

That night, when he headed up to bed, he looked forward to being with Ashlie. He’d missed her despite enjoying himself enormously with Kelly. Kelly had shown herself to be an adventurous and enthusiastic lover, enjoying sex. Yet she’d blush lightly, too, utterly charming him.

Ashlie was in the bathroom brushing her teeth when he joined her. She smiled, rinsed, and was in bed by the time he finished.

She immediately cuddled to him, her body cool, and sighed quietly, saying, “I missed you.”

“Why did you push for me to be with Kelly?” Theo asked, caressing her bare back.

“Now she’s happy. She was humming songs this morning. Did you see?”

“I did. But, I only need you,” Theo told her.

Ashlie hooked her leg over his, her head nestled into the crook of his shoulder. “You’ll need Kelly, too.”

“Why?”

Ashlie raised her head. “Would you kiss me, please?”

Theo smiled. He pulled her up. Lips touched and pleasure, like a tide, swelled. Her small lips were so soft, so exciting, and when her tongue touched his lips, Theo felt the familiar sensation of falling.

With his arm, he brought Ashlie up onto him, her knees falling to his side. She was so deliciously petite, so light, such a young girl. Yet her kiss aroused him, desire coursing through his veins like a narcotic; exciting, addictive, all consuming.

Blood flowed. An erection formed and rose slowly as he caressed her small, naked body, brushing down her sides to her narrow hips, and up to fondle her exquisite little ass. The kiss intensified, tongues caressing. Her clean scent settled over him, her taste minty fresh. And his erection rose to rest up against her pussy and between her buttocks.

Ashlie lifted her lower body and his cock slapped down onto his stomach. She settled down, pressing her soft mons against him.

Breaking the kiss, Ashlie laid her cheek on his shoulder and humped his shaft slightly.

“This is nice,” she whispered, curling her hips to stroke him again.

Theo, overcome with affection, wrapped his arms around her small body. He kissed her cheek and murmured, “This is wonderful. I’ll never get enough of you.”

Humping his shaft slowly, Ashlie sighed. “Kay.”

For several minutes, Ashlie rubbed her pussy along his erection, his arousal intensifying, cock hard and throbbing. When precum leaked, his crown slipped as if released, sliding on her silky skin, and he reacted, finally moving, hunching, rubbing his cock between their bodies, warm, exciting; simulated fucking.

Ashlie’s soft body caressed his erection. She sighed quietly and humped his shaft harder, curling her pelvis to rub her clit against him. Small shudders shook her. He hugged her tightly, his face pressed against her cheek, and every quiet sigh of pleasure drove his arousal higher. She was intensely sweet. Her pleasure was so erotic. And his cock swelled, pulsed, and more precum leaked.

Slipperiness spread down his shaft until Ashlie’s pussy was gliding against him, her movements rhythmic, simulated fucking, her soft stomach massaging his crown.

The room was silent. Her sighs of pleasure sounded loud. Her smooth humping evolved into writhing, scrubbing her pussy along his erection, up and down, hips tilting, and sighs changed to little murmurs of pleasure.

Theo’s pulse raced. His cock strained. He was drowning in her pleasure, so sweetly sexy. The familiar tightening in his body arrived; the prelude to his orgasm. He hugged her tighter, pressed his face to her cheek, and whispered, “Ash.”

He closed his eyes, concentrating on the incredible sensations. He couldn’t believe how intensely she aroused him; an all encompassing experience. And as his orgasm neared, he reached down and held her small, undulating bottom, helping her move, guiding her, urging her, his breath now ragged.

Ashlie curled her pussy up, letting out a quiet, cute grunt. Her pussy slipped up over his crown. His erection surged, rising, and, when she pressed back, Theo felt his tip press into her small cleft. Ashlie grunted again and shoved down. Before he could stop her, his tip tore through her hymen and penetrated her tiny entrance.

Exquisite, almost painful tightness gripped his flared head. Ashlie cried out in pain, and Theo’s orgasm erupted, his cock swelling, a painful pulse shaking him, and he felt his cum surge up into her tight pussy. He tried to pull out and his body betrayed him, demanding release, thrusting up into her. And as a massive pulse of cum erupted into her, exquisite bliss slamming into him, Ashlie cried out in pain again. Theo froze, but his orgasm took control, his erection swelling, another achingly painful explosion wracking his body, pleasure slamming into him. The storm of his climax raged over him, his erection swelling, spurting cum hard, hard. He couldn’t believe he was actually penetrating her, actually cumming inside her; a ten-year-old girl! And, body shaking as he tried not to hurt her even more, he came in an intense climax, glorious pulses, semen spurting, exquisite bliss, her little pussy so tight. Waves crashing over him peaked and finally slowed, weakening, weakening, and as he panted for breath, her tight pussy squeezed him out.

Sanity returned, fear, shame.

“Ash,” he whispered, caressing her hair. “Ash.”

Ashlie raised her face from his neck, looked at him, and said, “That hurt.”

“Aw, Jesus,” Theo moaned.

“S’okay, Theo. Really.”

Theo hugged her tightly, ashamed at his lack of control and ashamed at the excitement that refused to leave him.


Chapter Nineteen

Christmas morning arrived. The girls vibrated with excitement at the sight of so many presents under the tree. Still in their pajamas, Sienna and Nancy tore into their colorfully wrapped gifts. Jacey opened hers more sedately. And Ashlie opened hers like a surgeon, being careful not to damage the wrapping paper.

The labs barked and fought over presents specially wrapped for them; rawhides, dog biscuits, and toys.

And Kelly sat with Theo on the couch enjoying all their enthusiasm. She took his hand and squeezed it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen them so excited. It’s wonderful.”

Theo nodded in agreement. He watched with pleasure, but his eyes kept being drawn back to Ashlie.

His mind drifted back again.

The morning after he’d taken her virginity, he’d seen her moving gingerly and guilt had ravaged him. Embarrassed beyond belief, he’d confessed to Kelly about what had happened, waiting for her look of disgust or disapproval. She’d shown neither.

She’d rubbed his unshaven cheek and simply responded, “I think I’ll go and check on her.”

She’d been gone for a long time, his worry deepening. Then, when she finally returned to the kitchen, she was smiling gently.

“Ashlie’s fine. She’s sore. That’s all.” Her smile had broadened and she continued, “Ashlie thinks you’re dumb.”

Theo hadn’t returned her smile and Kelly became serious.

“Theo, it was her decision. It’s what she wanted. And she knew exactly what she was doing. We had discussed it before.”

“What?” Theo asked, shocked.

Kelly’s smile returned. “That’s right. Ashlie and I had a long chat a couple of weeks ago. Trust me. She’s absolutely fine.”

“And what about you?” Theo asked. “Are you disgusted at me?”

Kelly laughed lightly. “No. You might not have known it would happen, but I knew it was inevitable. Ashlie has her plans and you’ve very little say in it. Nor do I.” Then she’d turned serious. “She really is okay, Theo. Don’t make her feel bad. She will, you know.”

The girls excited exclamations over new clothes broke Theo out of his guilty reminiscing.

They were busy showing each other what they’d received. But Theo’s gaze was pulled to Ashlie. Not surprising him, she placed each item of clothing neatly in a stack next to her, caressing the material. Theo had bought the girls jewelry; a bracelet for Jacey and Nancy, a locket necklace for Sienna, and a simple necklace for Ashlie, a delicate gold chain with a gold carved Ash in script in the center.

Ashlie was staring at it in her palm. She glanced up at him and the pleasure in her enchanting eyes made his heart ache. She smiled shyly, rose, came to him and asked, “Would you put it on?”

Theo did. She turned and kissed his cheek. “Thank you. I love it. It’s the best present ever.”

Christmas dinner was chaotic. Between cooking, over-excited puppies, girls bouncing with energy and wanting to help, serving eight dishes, and carving a turkey that would have fed an army platoon, it was mayhem. And Theo loved it. He loved every frustrating, confused, loud minute of it. Kelly was the drill sergeant issuing orders, looking progressively more disheveled, her cheeks flushed - very beautiful.

Even Ashlie contributed, setting the table, straightening everything, repositioning the dishes her sisters dumped haphazardly on the kitchen table, and aligning the chairs.

Yet, with Theo’s acute awareness of her, it seems to him Ashlie moved slowly and appeared subdued despite her smiles.

With stomachs weighed down with Christmas dinner, the girls faded fast and didn’t complain when bedtime was announced. Theo spent another hour helping Kelly clean up.

While loading the dishwasher, Theo asked, “Did Ashlie seem distracted to you tonight?”

Kelly nodded. “She was a bit, but no more than normal. Did you see how excited the other girls were? They loved the jewelry you gave them. I have a feeling they’ll never take it off.”

“And will you?” Theo asked.

Kelly fingered the complex, twisted strand gold necklace at her throat and smiled. “No. I think I’ll keep it on, too.” She moved close, rose up on her toes and kissed Theo’s cheek. “I’m done. See you tomorrow.”

She looked into his eyes and rubbed his cheek. For a moment, Theo thought she was about to say something. She didn’t, simply leaving the kitchen.

Ten minutes later, he headed upstairs.

Ashlie was already in bed, the room shadowed from a soft bedside lamp. Her green eyes were almost luminescent, so incredibly beautiful. In Theo’s opinion, her eyes were different from her sisters, deeper, more gemstone like. She watched him undress and smiled when he slipped into bed with her. Automatically, she cuddled close.

Theo marveled at how, just having her with him, peace settled over him. Was she doing it or was it simply being with her? Whatever the cause, he felt it deeply like a sigh finally being released, his body relaxing.

Her scent wafted at him. Her bare skin felt silky, yet cool; something he’d grown accustom to. She was naked, wearing only the gold necklace.

Ashlie looked at him, so serious, and asked, “Would you kiss me, please?”

Theo smiled. “Always.”

Her small lips pressed against his, her hand clutching at his side. She sighed when the sweet, chaste kiss ended, settled her head into the crook of his shoulder, and said, “I’m not sore anymore.”

Theo, caressing her bare back and avoiding her bare bottom, answered her softly, “No.”

“Please? I want to try it again.”

“No, Ash. It’s not possible without hurting you and I can’t hurt you.”

“Please? It’s Christmas.”

Theo chuckled. “You got your presents this morning.”

Ashlie rose onto her elbow and stared at him. She smiled, her eyes now alive. “Give me another present. Just one more.”

If her hand hadn’t drifted down and rubbed gently, if Theo hadn’t consumed quite so many glasses of wine, and if he hadn’t been such a pushover when it came to her, he might have resisted. But he could feel it. Inside, he yearned to accede. He yearned to experience loving Ashlie again; such an incredibly sweet girl. And his body responded to her soft fondling.

Theo sighed and rolled to face her. Ashlie smiled and rubbed herself against him.

“You’re impossible,” he said, combing her platinum hair back.

Ashlie kept fondling him, his erection forming, hardening, the warm fog of desire settling over him. He caressed her gorgeous little buttocks, growing hornier.

Ashlie kissed him. A flit of satisfaction passed through her enchanting eyes before they closed, and the tip of her tongue teased his lips.

Theo drowned. Swirling sensations hit and he pressed his mouth against hers, his tongue touching her lips, then probing gently in a passionate kiss.

Ashlie squeezed his shaft. His cock flexed in response and, when she hooked her leg over his thigh, Theo slipped his hand lower on her butt, tracing her bum crack to where it met her hairless cleft. He touched a trace of dampness and groaned into the kiss. With care, he followed her cleft up, then back, pressing carefully, and his cock surged when Ashlie’s soft, soft labia hugged the tip of his finger. He touched her small clit, touched lower feeling the silky, glassy-smooth inside of her slit. And when the tip of his finger arrived at the tiny entrance to her vagina, Ashlie murmured and curled her ass back, forcing the tip of his finger into her.

Theo broke the kiss, breathing hard. Her tiny vagina gripped the tip of his finger so tightly; soft, warm, moist - so intensely erotic. The memory of how painfully tight she’d been hit him and desire unfurled, igniting like a raging bush fire.

Before he completely lost control - now a real possibility - he broke the sexy kiss, eased away from her and rolled her onto her back. Ashlie watched him with a small smile curling the corners of her mouth as if seeing the desire inside him.

“You’re too much, Ash,” Theo said, smiling. “I just can't get enough of you.”

“Kay.” Ashlie smiled.

He leaned over and kissed her smile, then her cheek, and, taking a moment to indulge, he nuzzled her neck - an act he adored - and inhaled her scent deeply; so perfect.

Ashlie was still smiling with pleasure when he shuffled down slightly to kiss the small buds on her chest. He nibbled with his lips, sucked gently, and teased her tiny nipple with his tongue. And when he finished enjoying both, he admired how they’d responded; flushed darker pink and ever so slightly plumper.

Ashlie still watched, not moving, a small smile playing, her eyes such a deep green.

Theo, returning her smile, moved lower and kissed her stomach, pressing his mouth against her silken skin. Then, sitting up, kneeling at her side, he admired her body. He loved the first blush of pubescence on her and her slenderness - almost delicate - so sexy. On her back, her stomach dipped. Her small hips rose in peaks and, lower, he trembled at the sight of her beautiful, hairless pussy, his erection bobbing up.

Ashlie’s petite mons was plump, lush, rising majestically in a soft pad. He reacted again at the sight of her cleft, so sexy, her small labia, and the slight gap at her crotch.

Desire intensified making his pulse jump.

He pressed his palm onto her mons and rubbed gently. He no longer wrestled with how attracted he was by her young body; prepubescent glory, utterly gorgeous.

With mounting excitement, he caressed the outside of her thigh, slipped his hand inside at her knee, and edged it back up. Ashlie reacted, moving her legs apart, and Theo shook with excitement when he cupped her exquisite, small pussy. Looking into her eyes, he caressed her, exploring the fullness of her vulva, her beautiful labia, and her soft, sexy cleft.

A burst of love flushed through him. He leaned over and brushed his mouth against hers in a soft kiss while lightly tracing her cleft with his finger, almost teasing, and then kissed her harder, tasting her when he eased his finger between her labia to touch her clit.

Ashlie reacted, reaching up to hug his neck, her mouth opening. Her tongue met his lightly and the kiss intensified, passionate and exciting. Theo shook lightly when his fingertip brushed over the slippery moisture at the base of her supple cleft. It was intense. He still couldn’t adjust to such a young girl being so aroused, and the thrill it gave him was powerful.

Desire raged. His erection ached it was so hard.

Breaking the kiss, he bent and kissed the soft pad of her mons and caught the slight, clean scent of her. He inhaled deeply, his eyes closing briefly.

Excitement mounting, Theo moved down, lifting her leg and kneeling between. He guided her legs over his thighs and, at the sight of her perfect small pussy, bent and kissed it, tasting her, slipping his tongue through her soft labia up to her clit. His cock strained. God, she was so delicious!

Sitting up, he smiled and wondered if Ashlie could see his body trembling with pent up desire. She returned his smile, calm, waiting. Her eyes dropped to his erection, then back up at him, her smile growing.

Moving up, Theo edged his knees to her sides. He brought her legs up higher over his thighs. Ashlie’s sexy cleft stayed closed despite her legs being spread. But, at the base of her cleft, her labia oozed apart exposing the smallest gap right at her entrance.

He glanced at his erection, so hard, so impossibly large, and couldn’t comprehend how she could take him without pain. His concern mixed with intense excitement. She’d taken his tip before. How deep could he penetrated her small body?

The memory of how almost painfully tight she’d been hit him and desire slammed into him, powerful and selfish. Sitting on his heels, he slowly grasped his shaft and guided his cock, brushing the tip along her short cleft. Precum left a glistening trail. Jesus! He was huge! His inflamed head was as wide as her pussy!

Shuddering, battling to maintain control, he pressed the tip against her cleft. Her soft labia bulged. Easing back, he pressed gently, rubbing the tip up and down, then side to side, trying to worm his crown into her cleft, and her labia yielded slowly, parting to hug the sides of his head.

Theo stopped moving. He inhaled deeply trying to restore the self control he’d almost lost. He’d felt the powerful impulse to be selfish, to penetrate her, to experience being inside her; excited by such a young girl.

The sight of his erection poised to penetrated her hairless pussy was too strong. He tore his eyes away and looked back at her face. Ashlie was quietly watching him with eyes that were too aware, too mature. Did she see his selfish need?

And Theo understood. This wasn’t what he wanted. This was erotic and thrilling, but it wasn’t loving, cherishing her. He wanted her in his arms, her body against his, to hold her, kiss her - love her.

With that realization, Theo relaxed, smiled and reached down. He gathered her in his arms and lifted her. She was so light it was easy to bring her up into his arms. Sitting back on his heels, he hugged her.

“This is better,” he whispered, kissing her.

Ashlie’s smile broadened into radiance, dimples forming. She wrapped her arms around his neck, her legs curling around his body.

“Much better,” she murmured, kissing him again.

Reaching behind her, Theo lifted her small bottom. With his other hand, he gripped his erection and pointed it up.

Ashlie took over. With Theo holding his cock, Ashlie pressed her pussy against the tip and slowly wiggled.

Unable to see, Theo’s sense of touch took over. He felt slight pressure and the erotic, teasing movement of her pussy. He felt the exact moment when her short cleft spread over his tip, warm and moist. And, with his cock throbbing hard, he felt Ashlie press, wiggle slowly, and press harder. She eased up and pressed down again, wiggling her little pussy, trying to get him inside her.

The sensations were so incredible, Theo closed his eyes, concentrating. His cock pulsed several times, precum leaking, and Ashlie became slippery. Warm labia edged down his flared crown and he felt resistance. He was logged at the entrance to her vagina.

Ashlie paused. He opened his eyes and smiled at her. She smiled and kissed him, her lips soft and sexy. Still kissing gently, she pushed down. Nothing. Pressure easing, she tried again.

Theo groaned into her mouth. Below, the tight entrance to her vagina stretched open and edged down. Ashlie moaned with pain. Suddenly, his crown oozed into her and the kiss ended, both of them gasping.

God she was tight! Almost painfully tight!

Movement stopped. For what seemed like forever, neither moved, Theo’s crown swelling inside her from the dangerous waves of pleasure hitting him. A sudden wave of excitement threatened and he tamped it down. How deep could he go without hurting her? How much could a ten-year-old take?

With his erection aching and harder than he could remember, he let his shaft go and hugged Ashlie to him, holding her tightly, so sweet, so perfect.

Ashlie sighed loudly and dropped her cheek to his shoulder, her warm breath washing against his neck. She relaxed and Theo’s erection slipped slightly deeper into her, so damn tight!

Locked together, aroused beyond belief, need raging through him, Theo, with one hand on her sexy ass, lifted her slightly, his erection easing out to the flared ridge, and let her down.

Pleasure slammed into him. Ashlie sank lower, half his erection stretching her, her small pussy so damn tight; utter heaven!

“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” Ashlie whispered into his neck. She moved.

“Stop! Don’t move!” Theo gasped. “I’m too close to cumming.”

She whispered, “Kay.”

Theo inhaled deeply, again, willing the rapid pulsing in is cock to subside. He’d been so close. When a small measure of control was restored, he slowly leaned forward, laying Ashlie on the bed, still joined. Very carefully, he settled on her, her legs spread wide. She hugged him.

Rising onto his elbows, he looked at her. God she was beautiful, yet so small, so young. Ashlie smiled. He kissed her smile and groaned when she clenched her pussy. His reaction was uncontrollable. Withdrawing slightly, he pressed back into her, his erection sinking slightly deeper into a snug embrace.

Ashlie’s tongue flirted with his lips. He responded and the kiss intensified. When it ended, he withdrew from her and pressed forward again, even more of his shaft gripped by a velvet glove. Exquisite.

Cock throbbing, he tried again and, as if suddenly released, her pussy became slippery, and slowly, so very slowly, he started fucking her, so tight yet silky smooth.

Ashlie didn’t move. She lay quietly at first. But, when Theo reached down between them and rubbed her soft clit, she responded with a sigh, her hips turning. Suddenly they were fucking each other slowly, exquisite withdrawals, beautiful gentle thrusts, intense. Ashlie’s pussy was impossibly tight, gripping his cock.

Theo stopped rubbing her clit, settled more of his weight onto her petite body, held her shoulders, and fucked her gently, slow strokes, pleasure flooding him.

Ashlie’s breath brushed against his shoulder. Her scent filled his nose, and he drowned; her pussy massaging him, an erotic caress as he withdrew and stroked into her.

To Theo, it felt like his erection grew thicker, impossibly hard, straining, and he fucked Ashlie carefully, slowly, lost in the pleasure, yet being cautious not to thrust too deeply.

His body grew taut. Weight emerged in his groin, once again close to cumming, cock straining. He fucked her gently, so intensely excited.

He might have lasted longer, but Ashlie whispered, “Theo.” Her pussy rhythmically constricted on him, soft clenches, announcing her climax and he had no control whatsoever.

With a deep, deep groan of pleasure, fucking her so very slowly, his cock swelled. Pressure built. Ache turned into pain and he tumbled into his orgasm. Semen burned up his shaft and spurted. Before he could inhale, another harder pulse of pleasure wracked his body and he exploded, cum erupting, exquisite bliss slamming into him. Gasping, thrusting slowly, another painful wave hit, his gut clenching, cock swelling, and bliss hit him with explosive release, a huge spurt, semen flooding into her. Ashlie’s pussy gripped and relaxed with each wave of her climax and Theo fucked her, swelling and exploding, pleasure wracking his body, his cock slipping deeper and deeper into her slippery vagina. In wave after wave of bliss, Theo came, spurting endlessly, heaven arriving, sweet release.

His orgasm peaked and faded. He wrestled with how all encompassing his orgasm had been; unlike any other orgasm he’d experienced before. His body was liquid, boneless. Utter peace and contentment permeated him. He melted on her, then worried he was smothering her. Reluctantly, he pulled his still hard penis from her, Ashlie’s vagina tight and reluctant to let him go.

Settling to her side, he smiled at her. “Are you okay? Did I hurt you?”

Her eyes lost focus. An expression of concentration made a brief appearance then cleared. She smiled. “No. I feel really good.”

Theo kissed her cheek. “Good, because I think I’m going to want you again . . . a lot.”

Ashlie simply smiled. She rolled, giving him her back. “Will you hug me?”

Theo did, relaxed and peaceful. He kissed her hair and hugged her gently.

Ashlie sensed Theo falling asleep, his hug relaxing, his breathing slow and deep. She listened to him for a while, wanting to burn the comforting sound into her memory. Her body was warm and melted. She closed her eyes and let the memory of Theo loving her play through her mind. She was glad she’d experienced it. It was the most amazing thing ever.

A quiet sigh escaped.

Then she whispered, “I love you, Theo. Please don’t forget me.”

Her eyes opened and lavender coronas flashed. They flashed again. Then the lavender light started pulsing, faster and faster, until it burned, the intensity chasing away shadows in the bedroom. The lavender light disappeared suddenly, darkness returning, and Ashlie closed her eyes.


Chapter Twenty

Theo woke slowly. Opening his eyes, he saw dawn just breaking, yet he felt refreshed. He was still spooning and hugging Ashlie, her warm body so comforting. Unusually, she was still sleeping peacefully.

His bladder called out for attention. Kissing Ashlie’s hair, he eased away from her, careful not to wake her.

When he entered the kitchen, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee hit him. He inhaled deeply, pleasantly surprised. Kelly was already up, washing and rinsing the last of the pots from Christmas dinner. She looked good in soft, thin, pale green pajama bottoms and a blue, ribbed cotton tank top.

“Morning.”

She placed the pot in the drainer, glanced over her shoulder and smiled. “Morning.”

With two mugs of coffee poured, she brought them to the kitchen table, sitting down. Theo noticed her smile. It was soft, but it didn’t reach her eyes. In fact, her eyes looked melancholic, almost sad. Why? Tendrils of fear reached his gut.

“What is it?” he asked.

Kelly wondered if Theo could see her hands shaking slightly. She gripped her hot mug of coffee. In his kind eyes, she watched concern rise and, taking a deep breath, steeling herself, she spoke.

“Ashlie and I had a long conversation three weeks ago. She told me some rather remarkable things.”

“Like what?” Theo asked.

“Like what she did on the Internet when she rescued you.”

“I know about it,” Theo responded, sipping his coffee gingerly.

“That’s not all. She talked about how every time she connected to the Internet she felt like a little bit of her was left there. She couldn’t explain it properly, but she started avoiding connecting for any length of time.”

Kelly sipped her coffee, her hands shaking slightly. She breathed deeply and continued. “She told me she had one more thing to do and it was going to take all of her to do it.”

Fear crept into Theo’s eyes.

Her voice softening, Kelly said, “She asked me to tell you. She didn’t want to see you hurt, Theo.”

Theo’s face paled. He whispered, “No.”

Kelly, with tightness growing in her chest, nodded. “I’m afraid so. I’m so sorry.”

“No!” Theo yelled suddenly, his mug dropped and shattering on the floor. He jumped up and ran out of the kitchen.

Kelly hurried after him, following him up the stairs. She caught up to him in the master bedroom just as he bent over the bed and gently shook Ashlie's shoulder.

He whispered, “Ashlie." When Ashlie didn’t respond, he said her name louder. When she still lay unresponsive, he carefully gathered her up in his arms and lifted, cradling her to his chest.

“I’m taking her to a doctor. They’ll help,” he said, his eyes desperate and haunted.

Kelly told him very softly, “It won’t help, Theo. It’s too late. You know it’s too late.”

He looked at her. Kelly’s throat closed at the utter desolation in his eyes.

“No,” he whispered, shaking his head. “No.” His face crumbled as he accepted the truth. Looking down at Ashlie in his arms, his voice so soft and gentle, he whispered, “No, Ash. Please God no.”

Kelly’s eyes welled with tears.

Slowly, so very slowly, without a sound, Theo turned and gently lay Ashlie back on the bed. He moved onto the bed as if trying not to disturb her, rolled towards her and drew her into his arms, spooning her, hugging her, his face buried in her hair.

And, at the sound of Theo’s moan of grief, the tears brimming in Kelly’s eyes finally fell.

Charlie, the pale blonde Labrador puppy, scampered into the bedroom, leapt onto the bed, and curled up at Ashlie’s feet. Kelly choked on the sob that suddenly hit her, her heart breaking for Theo’s pain.

**********

In a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Priestley sat at a mainframe terminal inputting data on a new alloy to compute the theoretical tensile strength under sub-zero conditions. His screen suddenly went blank. Before he could respond, it turned a deep blue. White characters started appearing in sequence. He watched, noticing it was a formula, and wondered which student was playing a joke. The complex formula grew longer - lines of mathematical information appearing - and as it did, Dr. Priestly inhaled sharply. He bent closer to the monitor. It couldn’t be. It looked like a formula for a completely new alloy unlike anyone had imagined; beyond even the theoretical hypothesis of leading scientists.

In a small, cluttered room at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, Martin Hardin, a young math genius and recipient of the Fields Medal, kicked his CPU case when the monitor suddenly went blank. The monitor changed, glowing deep blue. White type started appearing as if being typed by someone else. Annoyed, Martin froze when he recognized elements of a formula; an impossible formula! He stared, his mind racing as he deciphered on the fly. If it was a prank, it was an excellent one. But if not, he was looking at a theory to accelerate atoms beyond the speed of light! As the formula kept growing, Martin knew, without a doubt, what he’d be doing for the next ten years; proving this theory.

In silicon Valley, at an Internet startup focused on cyber security, Joe King was hunched over his laptop playing an action game against his colleague sitting across the room, his fingers flying over the keyboard, his computer character slaughtering aliens. His screen suddenly went black. “Fuck!” He hit the keyboard. The screen turned deep blue. White characters started appearing. Thinking his colleague was playing a joke, he studied the information. His fingertips went numb. His heart raced. Surely not! He tried to follow the complex algorithm on the fly and couldn’t, but if the parts he was catching were even slightly true, he was seeing way to code and condense data into minuscule packets never before even hypothesized. It would take years to study, understand, and confirm it. Joe’s blood rushed with excitement. This would revolutionize the Internet!

In Shikoku Electric Power Company’s nuclear research lab in Japan, Harihito Sinjo jumped when his monitor suddenly flashed, a deep blue screen appearing. Fascinated, he watched while information appeared, formulas and blueprints scrolling slowly. At first confused, he gasped when he understood what he was seeing; a solution to cold fusion with the design for a power plant so compact it could fit into a car. He didn’t move, afraid the information would disappear if he touched anything. If this was real, he thought, it would change the world.

In an office at Intel, Hajib Mansour worked on the large screen, rotating the 3D CAD-CAM design for the latest proposed computer processor. Unusually, his computer crashed. When it rebooted, the screen was a deep blue. Before he could react, a white rendering of an engineering drawing slowly appeared. Intrigued, he studied it, noticing the unusual architecture. Then data appeared at the sides and his jaw dropped. It couldn’t be! If he was reading it right, he was seeing a design for etching subatomic particles; a process beyond the capabilities of current manufacturing technology. Then, when more data appeared, he felt lightheaded. Instructions on how to manufacture the processor appeared using techniques they’d never even dreamed about.

In the Russian Space Research Institute in Moscow, Sergei Koslov, ate a sandwich at his desk, checking his watch. He wanted to go home. Eight months of intense work had taken a toll on him. His computer flashed, drawing his attention. A deep blue screen appeared and white drawings appeared. Fascinated, he leaned closer, studied the image and recognized the blueprints for a satellite, but a strange satellite design unlike he’d ever seen. It looked like a communication satellite, but different. He was intrigued by the fuel cell; impossibly small - too small. Reading the technical details appearing around the design, he didn’t recognize any of the materials; alloys foreign to him. He pondered the purpose of the elegant design and couldn’t come up with an answer. Shrugging, he tried to clear his screen. Instead, a series of detailed schematics started scrolling. He forgot about his sandwich and going home when he understood what he was seeing.

A computer in Karl Newey’s office at the NSC came alive despite his absence. A digital countdown clock appeared and, below it, a list of names from Iceland, and Japan, America and England and even Russia. When he’d eventually see it, he’d wonder why the countdown clock was set for twelve years, four months, thirteen days, eight hours, seven minutes, the seconds ticking away. In fourteen countries around the world, national security agencies received the same message.

And at midnight, every weapon in the world relying on electronics froze. ICBM’s were rendered useless. Command and control weaponry became scrap. Any offensive and defensive weapon was rendered useless. Governments scrambled to fix the problem but some unbelievable, never before seen encryption resisted every effort to crack it.


Epilogue – Eighteen Months Later

Theo scanned the headline news story on his iPad. Governments had jointly announced a new era of unprecedented cooperation, led by the United Nations. Russia, America, United Kingdom, Japan, and even China had agreed to share research and resources to develop over the next ten years what they claimed were breakthroughs that would change the world, save the environment, supply cheap and clean energy, and dramatically enhance their communications, including a new satellite that would seek to prove intelligent life in the heavens.

He dropped the iPad onto his lap.

“I’m going for another coffee. Would you like one?” Kelly asked with a smile.

Theo returned her smile. “No thanks.”

He watched her walk off, admiring her ass in the bikini. Over the last almost two years, he’d grown to love her deeply. She was thoughtful, kind-hearted yet tough. And she never ceased to surprise him in bed. Without a doubt, Kelly was the most adventurous and responsive sexual partner he’d ever had. To the world, they were husband and wife. It was true, even if there wasn’t a wedding certificate.

Morning heat made his forehead perspire. The sound of laughter brought his attention back to the swimming pool.

Three playful golden labs raced, swam, and barked excitedly at the girls frolicking in the pool.

Sipping his morning coffee, he studied them. The girls had sprouted, now almost twelve years old. In every way they were normal kids, just on the smart side with what some considered genius talent. In the last year and a half, pubescence had arrived. Their bodies, despite being as slender as willows, were blossoming; beautiful young girls emerging, still sweetly innocent of their emerging sexuality.

Theo watched Jacey swimming. He was proud of her. She was already selling her artwork. And despite it, she was still the quiet and reflective girl he adored so much.

Nancy caught his eye as she dived under, her compact bottom exposed briefly. Nancy had started writing her own fantasy novelettes. Theo fully expected her to spring a full sized novel on him one day. Nothing surprised him anymore.

With a smile, he studied Sienna’s form as she barreling along, swimming perfectly and fast. Theo still had a soft spot for her. She never slowed down, was exhausting to watch and, unsurprisingly, had demonstrated exceptional athletic talent.

Inevitably his eyes sought out another.

Ashlie.

He watched her run down the diving board, leap into the air with a scream of pleasure, and cannon ball into the pool. Her splash was dainty. Lying beside the diving board, Charlie, the palest golden lab, watched her with hawkish attention, protective, devoted. She almost never left Ashlie’s side, night or day.

Deep melancholy hit Theo. It always did when he looked at her.

Maybe he should have known back then. He’d seen her moving slower and had seen something in her eyes. He should have known when he woke up on Boxing Day and felt her toasty warm body – entirely wrong.

Ashlie had gone. She was still here, but the sweet, young girl who’d eventually stirred awake as if from a long slumber, the one who’d briefly made his heart sing, wasn’t Ashlie. She was perfectly normal, beautiful, and adorable, just not Ashlie. She was blissfully unaware of what had happened.

Occasionally he wondered why she refused to ever remove the necklace he’d given her that Christmas, something she had no memory of, and she couldn’t explain it. And Charlie knew, too. The lab watched over her, protective, her intelligent eyes always alert.

He sighed again and finished off his coffee.

In his lap, the iPad flashed, drawing his attention. The screen turned deep blue.

Words appeared.

You look sad, Theo.

A chill traced ghostly fingers up his spine. As the words faded, more appeared.

Please don’t be sad.

The words faded again to be replaced.

I miss your hugs.

A lump formed in his throat. Moisture blurred his vision. His thoughts were in turmoil.

I’m almost done. I’m coming back to you soon. I promise.

As if a leaden weight was lifted from his shoulders, Theo smiled, joy permeating him. He yelled, “Kelly! Kelly! Come here! You’re not going to believe this!” He stopped, thought about it, and grinned. Of course she’d believe it.

 
     
 

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Copyright © 2011-2016, Renpet. All rights reserved.