Jack Connor gripped the saddle he was slung over with one hand. His other hand worked another quarter out of the roll Frank had given him earlier when they were still at N.I.H. It dropped onto the ground and Jack started silently counting to one hundred before dropping the next one.
Natalie was on another horse, so at least they were being kidnapped to the same place. He didn't want to think about the look on her face as she tackled the man with the gun. Dad's job was dangerous—one of the few things both his parents agreed on—but he thought it was from catching a deadly disease, not people shooting at them.
His hands and the ground below blurred. He squeezed his eyes shut. Dad fell back, twisting when the bullet hit him. The men in the black trench coats laughed, saying they got Cain. Jack blinked his eyes and dropped another quarter.
Dad would find them or would send someone to find them. And if the worst had happened, the quarters would lead the police to who shot Dad.
The group that had taken them traveled through forested hills. Jack was surprised by how bright three moons made everything at night. Maybe Natalie and he could escape and find their way out of this forest. Avoiding all houses made of gingerbread, he thought.
The group stopped and Jack held off dropping another quarter. Someone may see it. After the delay, they rode into a campground. The rider tipped Jack out of the saddle and into the arms of another man in a trench coat."Watch him and the woman. I'm sure the General will have some questions."
The new guard shoved him across the open space to a tree and Natalie. She grabbed Jack in a hug. "Are you okay?"
"I'm not bleeding." He leaned against her for the hug and stuffed the remains of the quarter roll into his jeans' pocket.
She combed his hair back. "Stay close to me and don't make these men angry. Okay?"
Another trench coat-wearing man joined the one guarding them. "Come on, General Zero has some questions."
Natalie kept her arm around Jack's shoulders while they were led into a tent, large enough to stand up comfortably in. The blond man who greeted them was as tall as Dad, but his hair was longer. Maybe military haircuts weren't as strict on this planet. Jack also didn't like the appraising look he was giving Natalie while unbuckling the armor around his arm. Some of Mom's dates had looked at her like that and usually vanished after they realized she had a kid. "I'm General Zero. I hope my men weren't too rough with you, Missus?"
"Dr. Natalie Durant."
"And I'm Jack Durant."
Natalie didn't betray Jack's sudden adoption. "Why have you taken us prisoner?"
The General sat down beside a long table. "First, it was to only ask why that Gale bitch had gone to the Other Side and brought you to the Outer Zone. But now, you maybe more useful than that. What is your specialty, Dr. Durant?"
"I'm a pathologist and epidemiologist." Zero's eyebrow raised as he smirked. "I trace diseases through the affect they have on the human body. I perform autopsies to figure out cause of death."
"And how are you with cutting on living people?"
Natalie glanced around the tent. "I've worked disasters before with limited supplies, but most of my work is done in hospitals."
Zero nodded. "Why did you come here? What is the Gale bit—" He glanced at Jack, "the Crown Princess Dorothy Gale of the House of Gale up to?"
"She has sick people and no doctors. So we came to help."
"And you brought your son too. Planning to stay?" Zero leaned his elbow on the table.
"Didn't know how long it would take." She pressed her lips together tightly.
"So you'd want to do anything to keep your son safe." Zero stood up and nodded. One of the guards grabbed Jack and one grabbed Natalie pulling them apart. "Put the boy somewhere safe while the doctor sees her patients."
Jack tried to drag his feet, but the larger man just picked him up and carried him out of the tent. They stopped before they reached the ring of undergrowth. "Get the gate," the man carrying him said to another one of their group.
The other man bent over and lifted a metal grate from the ground. They dropped Jack into a dug pit and dropped the grate back over the hole. The pit was deeper than Jack was tall but he landed on his feet. The trench coat-wearing men walked away.
He could see the largest moon in the sky, so it wasn't as nearly as dark as a hole in the ground could be. No one had taken his camping backpack away from him either. He pulled out his windbreaker and touched his flashlight gratefully. He didn't plan on using it and get it confiscated, but at least he had it.
He zipped on his windbreaker and felt his pocket for the remains of the roll of quarters. Ten coins filled his palm. There had to be enough out there to show their rescuers the way. Had to be. But he really wished Dad was here to convince him.