Senator Jack Alton glanced down at his watch as the testimony dragged on.
While he loved the power, attention and money, he found this part of elected office tiresome. Any time an issue arose in public awareness, they had to put on this show. So they would gather, squabbling and posturing for the cameras, getting their names out there so some citizens might remember it next election.
After all, without term limits, this was a long game. They became rich and powerful by following the same strategies embraced since feudal times, since they worked so very well. Like benevolent lords of old, they used the entire geographic region and the people living there as their fodder for a better life. Like medieval serfs, the public worked to feed the coffers of their betters, of which he was most certainly one.
He hadn’t started out like that, of course. He’d been scraping by as an attorney when he had first been elected. But because insider trading was not a crime for elected officials, he’d rectified that soon enough. It had been easy. He’d waited until the latest extension of the interstate had been finalized, but not yet released to the public. Then he’d bought up as much land as he could along the route, financing himself to the hilt through his very agreeable bank, which also understood how things worked in reality.
Eighteen months later, he was a multimillionaire.
Seeing that, he was determined to be reelected. So he did favors when asked, which were reciprocated when election time came, keeping him in place to do more favors. It was a very efficient cycle, which had kept him in place for four terms now. He’d made millions each year through stock trades and real estate sales, leveraging all the privileged information his office provided to him for his own personal gain.
That was how the game was played, after all. No one could be so naive as to think a power broker, someone capable of operating at this level, would take on this chore for any other reason. His colleagues bore that out. They all enriched themselves when they could. There was no law against it, after all, and it was foolish to leave money on the table when the world was so very uncertain.
The irony that he and his colleagues consistently voted against term limits, restrictions on their personal financial enrichment and anything else that would spoil their fun was not lost on him. He just didn’t care. Unlike some, he’d not started out an idealist, then been crushed into retreat or corrupt compliance under the weight of modern politics.
He’d begun benignly corrupt to some degree, because the power and money had been what interested him the most. After all, to gain that legitimately would mean a soul-crushing amount of work compared to getting elected to a public office. Getting elected was a few years of brutal struggle, but not decades like it might be were he forced to distinguish himself any other way, assuming he even could. He was handsome, intelligent and well-spoken, but other than lying well and making people like him, he had no particular talents or skills. Outside of politics, his road would have been much harder.
But with politics, he was as wealthy as any titan of industry, despite producing nothing. He didn’t even feel it was a bad bargain for his constituents. He did look after them and address their concerns, though they fell far below his special-interest patrons on the ladder of importance. If those two interests conflicted, then he would spin it so the public fell into line soon enough. Once they were fed the narrative enough times, they always did.
It had gotten more difficult to balance everything lately, though. His son, Alan, had always been a high-spirited boy, which had meant his daddy had to occasionally bail him out over the years. Alan’s antics had not always put his father in the best light, of course. But since boys will be boys, there wasn’t much to be done about it. Prior to now, it had meant some payoffs to offended young ladies and a few stints in rehab.
Most recently, it had been another drunk driving incident. That had been both expensive and sticky, as Alan had taken offense to the arresting officer’s attitude and had assaulted him. That had left his father with no choice but to pay off the officer to get him to drop the charges. That was bad enough. What had been worse had been the criminal records of the three young men in the car with Alan, miscreants whom he foolishly considered friends.
It had turned out that Alan had made some very unsavory friends, connections he would never have been allowed had his father known about them up front. His son didn’t need to consort with criminals, after all. He was a United States Senator, which meant there were so many legal ways to profit from his insider knowledge that neither he nor his son needed to break the law. So had he known the specifics, he never would have willingly allowed Alan to make friends like that.
But he had been busy with his re-election campaign, which meant he hadn’t had time to deal with Alan. Now he was hearing very ugly rumors about his son, suggesting he too was involved in some very unsavory activities. Since his new friends made their money in very questionable ways, like illegal gambling, Jack was understandably concerned. He’d worked very hard to stay within the letter of the law his entire career, because there was so much leeway that he could get everything he wanted that way, and in record time, too. So this did not please him at all.
Alan was not the problem, of course. He was just a young man finding his way in the world, easily misled along the way. Yes, he’d had some issues in his past, but those had been more about him associating with the wrong people than behaving badly. After all, he knew his son, so he knew those claims about him were lies. But even still, Alan’s recent behavior was troubling and dangerous to his father’s eventual re-election. That meant he was probably going to have to do something about his impetuous son before the situation worsened.
Tuning out the speaker, the Senator pondered his options.
Rand was standing with his wife, watching the blur out the window as the girls sped by.
It still amazed him how fast they were, so that the greyhound with them was running flat out. He didn’t think they were running at their top speed yet though, which was hard to believe. But Rand had stopped doubting anything where these adopted children of his were concerned.
There were eight of them now, including Cole, who had started off as his ranch-hand before becoming an honorary son. Then had come Nina after her escape, her sisters Sara and Emily hot on her heels and just as interested in living a normal life, which would never be possible with their intended use as assassins. Created and genetically modified to be used as military assets, the girls had joined forces to stay free long enough to pass along the proof of their existence to Charlotte Anderson, an investigative journalist who had broken open the story, bringing Sentinel Biotech, the company responsible, to their knees.
Along the way, they had renamed themselves, altering the numbers they were assigned as names into actual human names, so that Nine became Nina, Eight became Emily and Seven became Sara. Once named like normal girls, they had done their best to behave just like that, helping out at the ranch and taking college classes. Aside from some rather rambunctious roughhousing on a daily basis where they beat on each other while giggling the entire time, they were model daughters to him and Stacey and beloved sisters to Cole.
But even in freedom, they were still connected to their parent company, unfortunately. They had learned that when they had been activated to help their siblings, four younger children created with the same basic genetic material purchased from Sentinel. But those children had been at risk of much worse than being sold to the military. Instead, they had been slated to be killed, destroying all evidence of the illegal program which had created them under the auspices of a government grant.
So the girls had rescued them with some help, collecting all kinds of incriminating evidence along the way. That too had been passed along to prosecutors via Charlotte Anderson, since they could trust her to always do the right thing. So she had, even ensuring these children could stay here with their biological sisters for the years that their case would take to wind its way through the courts.
Considering how they all had taken to these kids, he was more grateful for that than he could say. He’d never been a father until all these kids had just shown up needing the help of a sympathetic adult, but once they had, he wouldn’t change a thing. He and Cole were still building the new addition on the house, which they hoped to finish in another month or two. But until then, they were doing fine, even if the kids were sharing rooms. He glanced over at Stacey with a smile, seeing how big her eyes were as she continued looking in the direction the girls had gone.
“Sure takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?” he murmured. “The good news is that when we get old and feeble, the kids can just carry us around all day. Should save us a lot of money on wheelchairs, ramps and walkers.” He shot her a look as he quoted her. “So there is that, at least.”
Stacey burst into laughter, shaking her coffee mug so hard it nearly spilled.
Sara was currently running with her sisters and their greyhound, Zephyr.
Genetically altered as they were, they weren’t yet running at top-speed, but the dog was. He loved their daily runs, when he could run as fast as he wanted, for as long as he wanted. They generally did a few fast miles each morning with him, circling the ranch so that no one outside their family would see. Haven and Ashley, their herding dogs, came too, but they had since learned to double back along the route if they fell too far behind. So they would appear and disappear during their runs, excited barking fading in and out based on how close they currently were.
Now, as they approached the house for the last time, based on how Zephyr had naturally started to slow, Sara slowed with him, careful not to let the leash pull on his neck. Unlike Haven and Ashley, who were bred to work on a farm and so had no urge to roam, greyhounds had to be kept leashed. If they were free in an open area, the risk was too great that they might simply start running and end up far enough away to be lost by the time they finally stopped. Worse, they could be killed by a car while trying to cross the road.
As fast as she and her sisters were, they could catch Zephyr before that ever happened. But Rand had asked that the girls simply never take that chance, reminding them that keeping the dog leashed in open areas was a requirement they agreed to when they adopted the dog. Should Zephyr be unleashed outside a fenced area, not only would they be putting the dog at risk, they would be breaking their agreement.
Even worse, Rand had reminded the girls that they might hurt or scare the dog while chasing and catching it, which was a cruel thing to do to any creature. Being that keeping Zephyr leashed was the sole condition he demanded before agreeing to adopt the dog for them, they had cheerfully agreed.
Now, as they reached the house, they were walking, Haven and Ashley tearing across the lawn to intercept them. As Nina and Emily fussed over them, Sara led Zephyr into the house before unsnapping the leash. He went right into the kitchen and the water bowls, while she followed to pour kibble into the three dog bowls, just as the other two dogs burst into the kitchen. After long, noisy drinks, all three dogs were crunching away, just as Stacey came into the kitchen, a coffee mug in her hand and a smile on her face.
“Good morning, girls,” she said. “How was your run?”
“Good,” Sara replied as she pulled out a few bowls and the oatmeal from the cabinet. “I fed the dogs.”
“I can see that,” Stacey replied, as she glanced at the dogs finishing up their breakfasts, then smiled at Sara. “Thank you, honey. That was very helpful. I’m going to scramble up a big batch of eggs and get some bacon going, since everyone should be up soon.” She glanced at Nina, who was watching the dogs with a smile. “Nina, sweetie, you want to start the toast?” Then her gaze shifted to Emily. “Honey, can you take out the fruit salad I made last night? I’m trying to make sure the kids get enough fruits and vegetables.”
The kids were their younger brothers and sisters who had been living with them now for just a few months. It was odd, to go from being raised in a lab to having such a big family, but Sara actually liked it. The house was always filled with noise and activity now and she never felt alone.
The girls, Cassie and Ellie, were only seven, while Otter was ten and Leo was twelve. Like she and her sisters, they were genetically engineered for military use. But unlike them, their younger brothers and sisters weren’t meant to be the perfect assassins.
Instead, they were created to be an infiltration and espionage team, with each of them having specific talents. Cassie was a remote viewer, skilled enough to give them real time information on enemy movements, while Ellie could hack any network or security system, actually manipulating the electrical energy in a way normal humans couldn’t even attempt without being electrocuted. Otter and Leo were created for infiltration and demolition, as Otter had gills beneath his arms and Leo had giant claw-like nails which allowed him to climb like a cat. Like their older siblings, the children could see in the dark and were faster, smarter and stronger than average humans, so at least they had that in common.
But she had to admit that sometimes, she thought it would have been fun to be able to do what they could, especially Leo. He was self-conscious about his hands, she knew, because they didn’t look exactly like normal hands, even when his nails were retracted. But once they were extended, there was no way he could pass for a normal little boy. For some reason, that made Sara feel especially protective of him, because no matter how different she and her sisters might be, they looked entirely normal.
But nobody here cared about Leo’s hands, or any of the children’s abilities. Instead, Rand and Stacey treated them just like they treated her and her sisters: as part of the family. That meant time spent helping out on the ranch, meals together and family movie nights with popcorn. Just like it had worked to integrate her and her sisters into this life, so it appeared to be working for their younger siblings. The children seemed much happier and less guarded as they learned what the real world was like for the first time, safeguarded by their doting older sisters.
Delighted to have younger siblings who looked up to them, Sara and her sisters had done all they could to make the children feel welcome. At Leo’s request, they had started working with all of them, even Cassie, on basic self-defense skills. Since these children were much stronger and faster than normal children, just as they had been, they felt that was vital.
It would not do to have one of them inadvertently kill or harm someone by accident, unaware of how easily that could happen. While she and her sisters knew by now that normal people were terribly delicate, these children had never been allowed to learn that. Being kept from anything but the most benign exercises due to their young ages, they had never realized how very dangerous they were in relation to normal people. So they had begun training them over the past few weeks, and it had been loads of fun for both them and their new siblings.
Sara could still recall how confusing it had been for her, once she understood that she was free. For the first few months, she had not really trusted anyone here aside from Emily and to a lesser extent, Nina. While she had liked Rand, Stacey and Cole, she had not been sure why they were helping them, or what it might really mean in the longer term.
But now, she understood. It was love that had compelled them to help. Not even a specific love for them as individuals, though there was that, too. But ultimately, she believed that it was a love for humanity as a whole which had driven them to help, a belief that did not allow them to ignore the abuse of their fellow humans.
Now that she lived with them, she saw that in all of them. They were good people, these adoptive parents and brother of theirs, the kind of people who stood up and acted when necessary, rather than let abuse and corruption continue on their watch. She was thinking of that when Rand came into the kitchen and smiled at them all.
“Good run, girls? I saw you all flying past the window earlier. Is Zephyr still enjoying it? I thought he might be, but you tore past in a blur, so I figured I’d ask.”
“He loves it,” Sara assured him as Emily and Nina broke into noisy agreement.
As they were busy assuring him of how much Zephyr enjoyed their morning runs, the other four children came in. As Leo and Otter yawned simultaneously, then plopped down into chairs, Ellie and Cassie came up on each side of Stacey and hugged her, their faces bright. Stacey stopped cooking momentarily, her arms sliding down to each of the girls’ shoulders as she hugged them gently, smiling down at them one at a time.
“Good morning, girls. Did you sleep well? Are you hungry?” At their enthusiastic nods, she smiled, then her gaze shifted to Sara. “Honey, can you get them some milk?”
So Sara arranged glasses around the table before she took the milk from the fridge and filled them. By then Cassie and Ellie had detached themselves from Stacey and gone to sit down with the other children. A few moments later, Nina was there with a platter of toast, just as Stacey promised the eggs would be done momentarily.
Munching on toast, Sara enjoyed another breakfast with her family.
When Sara was late for dinner, Rand went to get her.
She was on the tactical training range, fine-tuning her aim as she did so frequently. Since Emily teased her about being a bad shot, he wasn’t terribly surprised to see her practicing again. It wasn’t necessary, of course, as all three of them were absolutely lethal already, but since Sara was the serious type, her effort didn’t really surprise him.
Of the three, she was the quietest and most reflective, so she was the most likely to take the teasing seriously instead of brushing it off. Thinking of that, he waved as he approached to indicate he wanted to speak with her. Once she had made her weapon safe and pulled out her earplugs, he spoke.
“You do know Emily’s only teasing, don’t you?” He smiled at her. “Everybody here knows you’re dead accurate.”
As he had hoped, she looked pleased. Over the past year, she had softened considerably. She was not as emotional as her sisters, but she loved being here just as much. He could see it when she looked around at their rather large, impromptu family, the way her eyes would light up and her expression would soften.
“At least you all know that much,” she grumbled, the color high on her cheeks from his compliment.
“Classes starting back up the week after next,” he reminded her. “You girls still happy with that? You’ve had all summer off, so I’d imagine that’s a switch, thinking of getting back to classes.”
“Oh, no, we’re looking forward to it,” she replied immediately, her tone sincere. “I like that. We all do.” She shot him a self-conscious look. “It’s something normal people do, so we like being a part of that.”
“Good, good,” he said, noting the brass casings in a bucket on the table. “How’s the reloading equipment working out for you girls? Looks like you’re getting some use out of it.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s been great, thank you,” she replied, nodding vigorously before she looked at the horizon and apparently noted where the sun was. “Oh, no wonder I’m hungry. It’s late.”
“Yes, it is.” He smiled at her. “I’m here to collect you for dinner.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” she said as she locked the chamber of her gun open and returned it to its case on the table. “I would have been along soon enough.”
“I needed the walk.” Rand leaned over to pick up a few shell casings by his feet, tossing them into the bucket once he was upright again. “With you kids doing all the work here and Stacey feeding me like she does, I’ll be running to fat in no time at this rate.”
Sara gave him a look, like she was trying not to smile. “Well, you could always start skipping dessert.”
“Bite your tongue, child,” he teased. “When you get to be my age, dessert matters.”
But Sara didn’t smile. Instead, she gave him an oddly vulnerable look.
“You always joke about how old you are,” she said very quietly, “but you’re not old. And you’re very healthy.” Her look transitioned into something just short of a glare as she narrowed her eyes at him. “And you are going to live for decades and decades yet.”
“I do hope so,” he said softly, smiling reassuringly at her.
“No, you will,” she insisted. “I asked Cassie. She said you and Stacey are fine and I have nothing to worry about. So that’s that. You will live for decades and decades.”
When she was done speaking, she nodded her head decisively, her expression stubborn. Seeing that, Rand was touched. While Sara was the most mature of the three girls, she too was oddly childlike at times. But not so much that she wasn’t struggling with that very adult issue of mortality now, it seemed.
“Well, I am glad to hear that.” He caught her eyes to see her face was once more red. “So it sounds to me like you shouldn’t worry about that.”
Her color only rose as she shrugged and avoided his eyes. “I don’t, really. Just sometimes. So I asked Cassie how you and Stacey were. Just in case. I know she can’t tell the future, only the present.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “But I still ask her about things sometimes. Just in case there’s something I need to know.”
“Normally I’d say that life is never certain,” he teased. “But with your little sister Cassie around now, I might have to rethink that.”
“It made me feel better,” she admitted, her voice just above a whisper as she continued avoiding his eyes. “To hear that you and Stacey are fine.”
Rand wasn’t sure how Cassie’s abilities worked, so he didn’t know if that was actually true, or just a reflection of what she could tell of their emotional well-being. It could be that Cassie had meant they were well emotionally, which Sara had then interpreted as meaning they were physically healthy, for all he knew. But that didn’t really matter. What did matter is that he take this moment to reassure Sara as she began battling those very normal adult demons for the first time in her young life.
“You shouldn’t worry about things like that,” he said softly. “Even if something happened to me, you still have all the rest of our family.” He smiled as she finally met his eyes. “Worrying about that is normal and natural. It’s part of growing up. But you can’t let it eat at you. If you do, you’ll miss all the best parts of life while you’re busy worrying about the worst.”
She sighed softly, then nodded. “Right. It’s just hard not to think about that sometimes.”
“True,” he agreed gently. “But there’s more than one way to consider that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can either worry about it, or you can consider it a reminder to appreciate each day.”
She blinked at him, her eyes wide, like she had never thought about it like that. At the moment, she looked like a surprised child, he noted fondly.
“I never thought about it like that,” she admitted, still looking so surprised. “I only thought of it in the worst way.”
“Which gives it power over you,” he replied softly, certain he could make this point so she understood. “But there’s usually more than one way to consider anything. Sometimes you need to step back to see it, but you always have some degree of choice, Sara. Maybe you can’t stop something bad from happening, but you can control how it affects you to some degree. You don’t have to let it ruin you. Life is full of ups and downs. You have to choose which you want to focus on: the ups, or the downs.”
“So it’s a matter of strategy, then?” she asked, her expression confused. “How you see life, I mean?”
“I suppose you could call it strategy,” he agreed gently. “But maybe calling it a positive or optimistic mind-set is a better way to think about it. It makes sense, if you think about it. Fretting about what may happen years from now isn’t a very good use of your time. You miss out on all the best things happening now, because all your focus is on waiting for the worst, yet to come. Worse yet, all your energy, which could be used to do something, is only used to worry. So it’s basically wasted, and you feel badly, besides. That’s no way to live. Not if you want to be happy, at least.”
She nodded more decisively. “Being grateful would feel better, that’s for sure.” She met his eyes, her face once more red. “So I want you to know how grateful I am for you, Stacey and Cole. For the way you made us all family.” She cleared her throat, her eyes sliding away from his. “I never had parents before this. But you and Stacey are just like that to all of us. I appreciate that. More than I can say.”
Rand was touched, even as he felt nearly as uncomfortable as she now looked. Neither one of them wore their hearts on their sleeves, so this was the most emotional conversation they had ever had.
“We couldn’t ask for better girls,” he gruffly assured her. “We love you all like our very own daughters, because that’s how we think of you. No matter where you were born, you’re all our girls now.”
By now his face felt nearly as red as hers, so he was grateful when she nodded decisively, like that topic was now closed.
“Right,” she announced. “Now it’s time for dinner.”
“See?” he teased. “You’ve already got it down. No need to fret at all.”
“Stacey’s too good a cook for that,” Sara agreed, looking much more cheered. “I wonder what’s for dinner tonight?”
“I have no idea, because I forgot to ask before I came to get you,” he replied. “But whatever it was, it smelled amazing. So we better get a move on before everyone eats it all.”
“No, Stacey would never let them,” Sara argued happily, her expression bright. “As a mother, she’s like a whole restaurant or something. There’s always food, and it’s really good, too.”
“And my lasagna isn’t good?” he teased, making a face at her. “After all the years it took me to master that recipe, I can’t believe you would suggest that.”
“Oh, no, it’s really good,” she assured him, her tone earnest. “We all love your lasagna, even when you forget a layer.” Then she grimaced, looking guilty. “But Stacey makes all kinds of food really well, not just lasagna.”
Since Rand thought that was a very diplomatic way to describe the differences between his cooking and his wife’s, he could hardly disagree. He wouldn’t have cared if Stacey couldn’t boil water with the way he felt about her as a person, but he had to admit that her skill in the kitchen was a wonderful bonus. If he had to feed a family this size as their primary cook, they’d get tired of his limited menu in no time, he knew.
Fortunately, she loved to cook and bake, and always had. She had brought several large boxes of cookbooks with her when she had moved in, all of them well-thumbed and some of them downright tattered. In that respect, she was a creative marvel in his eyes, since he had only ever cooked to keep himself well-fed and healthy, not to challenge himself in the kitchen. But since she sincerely enjoyed the artistic and creative aspects of cooking and relished keeping them well-fed as a family, it hardly mattered that he only knew how to make a few things aside from his lasagna.
“She is quite the cook, all right,” he agreed with a smile as his belly rumbled. “And at this moment, I couldn’t be more grateful, hungry as I am.”
“Me, too,” Sara agreed, her expression once more bright. “I’m so glad she likes to cook, because I do like to eat. How perfect. Let’s go.”
Smiles on their faces, they walked back to the house.
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