Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book 2: Coming of Age - Chapter 1 - The Lost are Found

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ONE

The Lost are Found


2079. January 13th.

“I guess I can let you skip the test today, Gretchen,” Mrs. Watson said. “We’ll be starting the new unit tomorrow anyway so you can just jump back in then.”
Gretchen did not relish the idea of getting back into school. She hadn’t liked it much before and now she was probably going to have to retake her freshman year, no matter how hard she tried to catch up. The fifteen-year-old red-head had skipped out on the entire first half of the year by living with, getting high with, and getting pregnant by her thirty-something year old boyfriend, Tim Hammond.
That was until she decided that she didn’t want her baby to die from drug withdrawal – her little brother had died that way – or to have a drugged-out father, as Tim would inevitably be. She had experienced enough of that from her own parents. Abortion was out of the question, as was adoption. She knew she could never live with the guilt of having killed her own child and she could never live with the thought that she had given her child away. Gretchen was going to keep her baby and she was going to make the best she could of it. She was determined to raise her child right and to be a better parent than her own parents had been.
Which was why, when she had finally left Tim and went back home to find her parents – recently released from Detention and Rehab – her patience with them was utterly gone. There they were, in their government-funded apartment, shooting up Cruise once again. How could Gretchen live with them if she was trying to break the habit herself? How could she go back to them and expect them to help her raise her child when she had just left Tim because of the very thing they were now doing? Gretchen had immediately left the apartment and had called her family’s caseworker, Peggy Kines, to see what she could do about getting Gretchen some help.   
After having Gretchen’s parents arrested for the third time, Peggy had taken Gretchen and her little sister, Jenny – diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome – back to Viola’s Christian Home for Children. The two girls had stayed there off and on over the years whenever their parents were serving time.  
On pulling up to Viola’s, Gretchen had been greeted by the sight of her former friend, Ling, transforming into some kind of massive body-builder and crushing some guy’s head.
The next morning, she had stayed home from school with nausea. It wasn’t because of the murder she had witnessed or her pregnancy. It was because she had woken up seeing everything. Every place and everyone for three miles around were suddenly in vivid focus and flashing through her mind. By the end of the day, she had learned to concentrate on one scene enough to push the rest of the flashing images, and thus the nausea, into the background.
One of the scenes she had observed that day included two missing kids, the Protector General’s kids, being drugged, bound, and held captive by a large black man.  She had walked over, called the situation into the Force, and then snuck the two kids’ unconscious bodies out through the back window while a man with a pointy head and some super-powered teens killed the black man.
Now, two days after all that had happened, Mrs. Watson was offering to let her skip the unit test. Good, Gretchen thought, school’s about the last thing on my mind. Then again…Gretchen suddenly realized that with her new vision, she could see the answer key to the test lying right on Mrs. Watson’s desk. “I can take the test today,” Gretchen volunteered. Maybe coming back to school won’t be so bad after all! I mean what is this ability for if I can’t get some benefit from it, right? I did rescue those kids the other day so I might as well reward myself.
“Are you sure?” Mrs. Watson asked.
“Yeah. I actually like…” Let’s see, what is this test about? She quickly scanned some of the questions. “The Roman Empire.”
“Okay,” Mrs. Watson said, handing her a copy of the test, “it’s your choice.”
Feeling rather pleased with herself, Gretchen took out her pencil and allowed Mrs. Watson’s answer key to once again come into focus.
THIS IS NOT WHAT I HAVE CALLED YOU TO.
Gretchen felt like her heart had suddenly frozen inside her. Her stomach was clenched in alarm. What was that? It was as if someone had just said something in her mind. The thought was so sudden, so clear…I didn’t think that.
I’VE CALLED YOU TO SOMETHING HIGHER.
God? Gretchen questioned. Is God talking to me?
She had never in her entire fifteen and a half years heard God talk to her. But she was sure she was hearing Him now. I thought I saw my guardian angel once, but that was nothing like this, Gretchen thought.
Without answering any of the questions, she slowly set her pencil down and waited for Mrs. Watson to collect the tests again.

Ling’s hand found his cheek again. The fifteen-year-old had been touching his cheek a lot lately, usually without thinking about it. Three days ago it had stung to touch it. Now it just felt rough from the tiny scabs that covered the abrasion. 
Three days ago, he had been shot in the face. And he had killed a man, murdered him. True, the man had been waiting for him when he came home from school and had tried to kidnap him – again! But then something had happened to Ling. He had transformed, had grown bigger and stronger, and his skin had become hard. The man tried to run away – Ling should have let him go – but he grabbed the man. It was as if his adrenaline had just taken over. He didn’t know what he was doing. The man shot him, but it didn’t hurt. That’s when Ling killed him, murdered him…with his bare hands. If only I had let him run away, Ling thought. Why didn’t I let him run away?
Viola came home with Gretchen then. They saw Ling and he ran. He didn’t know what else to do. How could he explain what had just happened? He didn’t understand it himself.
That was three days ago and he hadn’t been home since. Having spent what little money he had on him, his pockets were empty now and he was hungry. More than that, he was cold. He had slept in an empty store front last night to get out of the wind, but what he really needed was some new clothes. His pants, shoes, socks, shirt, and coat were all ripped and stretched out from his transformation. When he had calmed down that day and shrunk back to normal size, none of his clothes had fit right and now he had to keep one hand in his pockets at all times just to hold his pants up since the button had popped off.
He needed someone to help him, but where could he go? LandForce had to be looking for him and when they found him, they’d probably lock him up in Detention for murder.
“Young man!”
Ling looked up. He was standing in front of the Chinese Family Restaurant and a Chinese man in a suit was holding the door open, looking at him.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
Ling cautiously approached. “We don’t have school today,” he lied. Ling could feel the man looking him over, knew he was noticing his tattered clothes and dirty black hair.
“Where are your parents?”
“I…I don’t have any parents.”
“Huh. What’s your name, then?”
Ling didn’t know what to say. Had his name been on the news yet? Either way, it might be best not to give out too much real information about himself. “Jason.”
“Jason? I don’t believe that. You took too long to answer. But what does it matter? My name is Mr. Meng. Are you hungry?”
Ling nodded. “Yes. I am.”
Mr. Meng smiled. “Then come. Have some lunch. This is my restaurant. We Chinese have to stick together.”

Peggy, Melody, and Luca all jumped when they heard the front door open. Peggy was still cuddling Melody on the debris-powdered bed while Luca stood to the side, trying to figure out what had just happened. Now they were all wondering and fearing who had just come into the house. Luca started searching the room for a weapon when the idea struck him that it might be Jim and the boys coming back home. That presented a whole different problem. What would Luca say to explain why he was here?
A few seconds later and Jim, Eric, and Danny did walk into the bedroom. Jim Slate, the newly-installed Protector General of Base City, took in the scene immediately. A large piece of the ceiling, the piece right above Melody’s bed, had fallen down. “What happened?” he asked in shock. “Is anyone hurt?” It had only been three days since his house had caught on fire, his wife had been killed, and Eric and Melody had been kidnapped. Now the guest house they were staying in was falling down on top of them?
“Everyone’s okay,” Peggy answered. Peggy was Melody’s aunt on her mom’s side, but Melody’s mom, dad, and stepmom had all died. “There was this man, this…he had a pointy head in back…”
“What?” Jim asked, obviously confused. Jim was Melody’s uncle on her dad’s side and now, since her dad and stepmom had died, he was her guardian.
“He wasn’t human,” Luca put in. Luca was the father of Susan, Melody’s best friend. “He had a pointy head in the back…called himself Magus…and he had a boy, a human boy, with him.”
“They came in and froze us,” Peggy continued.
“Froze you?” Jim asked. None of this was making any sense.
“So we couldn’t move,” Peggy clarified. “They tried to take Melody, but then these other people with pointy heads showed up and took the, uh, Magus away.”
“I made the ceiling fall on him,” Melody said, looking up and brushing her light brown bangs out of her face.
“What?” Jim asked again.
“He said he made me and wanted me to go with him,” the eleven-year-old girl explained, “but I brought the ceiling down and knocked him out. The boy he had with him ran out. Then the other ones came.”
“There had to be ten or twelve of them,” Peggy said. “And they were talking like they were the Greek gods, calling each other Apollo and Athena and Hera…but then the one told me to trust in God. They said they had been looking for Magus and that they were going to judge him when they got home. Then they healed Melody and just disappeared.”
“Healed…?”
“When the ceiling fell,” Luca explained, “it hit her, too.”
“What are you all talking about?” Jim asked in exasperation. “Why are you here?” he asked Luca.
“Um…Well, Susan told me about what happened…at the funeral,” with your dead wife’s hand suddenly coming up out of the coffin, “and she wanted me to come see if Melody was okay.”
“And,” Melody was about to say, “he was the one who showed me how to use my power.” But then she thought better of it. Magus had said that Luca had been involved in making Melody the way she was and that Susan, Luca’s daughter, was also like her. So for her friend Susan’s sake, maybe she shouldn’t talk about Luca’s part just yet, at least not until she knew how Uncle Jim was going to react to her power.
After they had explained again what had happened, Jim asked Melody, “What do you mean you brought the ceiling down?”
“Magus gave me a power. I can move things just by thinking about it. I thought about the ceiling falling on his head and it did.”
“Do it,” Eric said. Eric, Melody’s cousin and Jim’s son, and Danny, Melody’s half-brother, had walked in behind Jim and had been standing in the room, listening.
“Okay!” Melody said. Looking over at the piece of ceiling on the floor, she stared at it for a moment and then everyone watched as it slid across the carpet to the desk. When no one said anything, she made it float halfway up to the ceiling, spin around, and come back down.
“Cool,” Eric said.
“How…?” Jim asked.
“I can do something, too,” Eric volunteered. Everyone turned to the blonde, spiky-haired twelve-year-old. “You know the fire?” he too-eagerly reminded them. “That burned our house down?” He held up his hand and made flames cover it. “I started it. I can do my whole body, too.”
“You…?” Jim asked. “How is this happening? Turn it off! Put it out!” Jim’s mind flashed directly to another fire-starter he knew about, but had never been able to locate – a boy named Sammy Auger. As a baby, Sammy had blown up almost two city blocks on two different occasions nearly twelve years ago to the day and then had gone completely off the radar.
Eric wished the fire out and his hand was completely normal. “I don’t know how I can do it,” he said. “I just think about it happening and it does. It doesn’t hurt. Nothing hot hurts me.”
“It seems they both have an ability,” Luca observed. Luca, the researcher who had made all of the Genetically Altered children – he knew now that it was by Magus’ mental suggestion – had his own daughter, Susan, and had known about Melody, but had lost track of most of the others. Now he had found a third former test-subject in Eric. Maybe there was a fourth here? “How about you, Danny?” the scientist asked.
Ten-year-old Danny, shocked by their story and by what he had just seen his sister and cousin do, was slow to answer Luca’s question. “What? No. I don’t think so. I…I’m pretty smart.”
But Luca knew that increased intelligence was not something he had coded into any of the children. Magus had wanted obedient soldiers, not independent thinkers.
“How?” Jim demanded. It sounded like he was getting angry now, frustrated. “Is this even possible?” he asked, looking at Luca.
If anyone would know, it would be Luca. He was the owner and operator of GenRes, the region’s largest and most well-respected genetic research company. “I don’t know,” Luca lied. “Certainly not with the knowledge we have now, but, like we said, Magus and the others were different. The way they appeared and vanished like that, they obviously have technology that we don’t.”
“You’re saying they were aliens or something?” Jim asked
Peggy wasn’t sure what to think about that, but Luca said, “Sounds like the best idea I’ve got. Who knows what was on that ship we took from the Chinese?”

“Where have you been?” War and Peace exclaimed as Trinity walked in the front door.
It had been hours since Trinity and Magus had left. Trinity had gone with the pointy-headed alien to pick up Melody from the Slates’ guest house. He had kept Peggy the aunt and Luca the scientist still while Magus talked to the girl, but then had fled when Melody started bringing the ceiling down on top of them. Even though he was fifteen – all of the kids in this group were approximately that old – he wasn’t a registered driver. Bobby Fraley had kept him and the others in complete seclusion and never would have taken them to get anything official like a driver’s license. All of the identification used for the kids would have to be forged. So Trinity hadn’t been able to start Magus’ van and escape from the Slates’ that way, and since Bobby had always taught them not to use their powers until he ordered them to, Trinity had also refrained from ‘flying’ home.
Now, even though Fraley was dead – at least that was what Magus had told them – they were still living in his house, the house in which they had grown up. They had, however, migrated to the main level in Bobby’s absence rather than staying in the basement where he had kept them.
“Yeah. Where you been, man?” came Cobra’s accusing voice.
Trinity shot him a look. Cobra, the only black kid in the group, was always trying to pick a fight with him. Probably because he knew Trinity was the strongest of the group and was jealous of his power. If Trinity didn’t regard Cobra as his brother, he would have killed him by now. As it was, he viewed Cobra’s jealousy as simply an annoying form of flattery, like a younger brother pretending to be stronger than the older.
“He’s gone,” Trinity said.
“Magus?” Sammy asked in surprise. Sammy Augur still bore the burn scars he had given himself when his powers had malfunctioned as an infant. He didn’t look as bad as he used to, though.
Trinity nodded. “The girl, Melody, used her power, dropped the ceiling right on his head.”
“He dead?” Cobra asked.
“No,” Trinity said, shaking his head so that his black bangs swayed back and forth, “but he’s gone. Another group of aliens, like him, came and took ‘im.”
“Where?” Lightning asked.
“Back home to their planet, babe. To Anduris.” Lightning was by far the prettiest in the group. She was super-model beautiful with her silky blonde hair and her bright blue eyes and full lips. Trinity had never seen such a gorgeous girl, not even on TV.  Who cared if they had grown up together? They weren’t related.
“Don’t call me that,” Lightning protested, a look of slight disgust on her face.
Trinity grinned at her as War and Peace asked, “Why didn’t you bring him back here?”
Trinity shrugged. He knew the falling ceiling wouldn’t have hurt him. And after the ceiling fell, he could have run in and grabbed Magus before the other aliens showed up. If he had brought Magus back here, War and Peace could have healed him and made him as good as new. But, the simple truth was that Trinity still didn’t trust Magus. Magus had told them that he had come from another planet called Anduris, that he had given Luca Temlane, a famous geneticist, the knowledge to give them all super-powers, and that now he had come to take them all back to his home-planet to fight the super-powered dictators there and impose them, Trinity and the others, as the Andurian rulers instead. He had said that their ‘father’, their caregiver, Bobby Fraley, had been killed, but then had refused to tell them who did it, saying that he would be gathering more kids like themselves and that they would all need to focus on obtaining their objective together rather than fighting amongst themselves. That meant that someone like them had done it, but that Magus was shielding that person from their wrath. It was even possible that Magus himself had killed Bobby so that he could take Bobby’s place with the kids. Either way, the answer to War and Peace’s question was simple. “I didn’t want to bring him back.”
Everyone understood his answer. They all had the same doubts he did.
“Now what?” Nales asked. Out of all of them, the skinny blonde boy was the most unsure of himself.
“Now we on our own,” Cobra answered. “Fraley wanted to use us as criminals, alien wanted us to be his army. Now it’s our turn. Now we be what we wanna be.”
In the corner, a grin slowly spread across Plague’s face as Trinity said, “You’re right, Cobra. We’re in control now. But I do wish you’d stop watching the rap channel. You sound like a moron.”
“They my people, man,” Cobra replied. “Living with you kids all this time can drag a body down, you know what I mean? I gotta find my roots.”

Two and a half hours later. School was out for the day and Gretchen was in the car with Viola, heading to her doctor’s appointment. Gretchen had been sitting silently for a moment and Viola was starting to wonder if Gretchen was nervous about her appointment, when Gretchen suddenly asked, “What does it mean to be called to something?”
Viola turned toward the girl. “Called?” she asked in surprise. She had no idea why Gretchen was asking, but it pleased her that she was. She had been wanting to talk to her before everyone in the Home went to church on Sunday and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. “Well, when you’re called,” Viola explained, “it usually means that God has chosen you to do something. Why do you ask?”
“I…um…I think I’m called to do something.”
“Like what?”
“I don’t know.” Gretchen had been thinking about that all day. Maybe saving those kids was a start? Maybe God gave me this new kind of vision so I could do more things like that? “I need…I want to become a Christian.”
“That’s great! Do you know…”
“I know all about Jesus. I know He died on the cross for me, to forgive me and everything. I just never…um…listened to Him, obeyed Him, took Him seriously. But now I want to.”
So as the satellite system steered the car to their destination, Viola, bubbling with thanks to God, led Gretchen in prayer.

Viola and Gretchen were still talking about the girl’s decision while they sat in the examining room, waiting for Doctor Temlane to see them. As she and Viola spoke, Gretchen was using her newfound vision to watch the doctor examine another girl, a younger girl, in a room down the hall. “Make your arm stay still, Susan,” Doctor Temlane laughed. “I need to get a blood sample.”
Gretchen saw that the girl’s arm kept bending in weird ways, like it was trying to avoid the doctor’s poke. It wasn’t normal. “I guess I just don’t like needles,” Susan laughed.
Finally, Susan calmed down, closed her eyes, and stuck her arm straight out. Doctor Temlane got the blood sample, put a Band-Aid on the girl’s arm, and said, “Okay, Brandie’ll find you a ride home. I’ll see you tonight.”
Susan jumped down from the table and walked out into the hall.
Seeing this, Gretchen abruptly stood, interrupting what Viola had been saying. Gretchen smiled apologetically at her and said, “Sorry. I’ll be right back. I have to…” But then she trailed off, opened the door, and walked out into the hall.
Susan was just passing her door when Gretchen whispered, “Hey!” Susan turned around and Gretchen said, “I saw what you did.”
“What did you see?” Susan asked suspiciously.
“Your arm, moving all around.”
Susan didn’t say anything for a moment and Gretchen knew the younger girl must be trying to think of how she should respond. Then Susan’s eyes suddenly brightened in realization as she asked, “How? The door was closed.”
“I…have an ability, too,” Gretchen answered. “I see things. I think God wanted us to meet. He’s called me to…” Gretchen trailed off as the door Susan had come out of opened and Doctor Temlane stepped out into the hall.
“Give me your phone number,” Gretchen said, pulling out her phone to type in the new contact. “I’ll call you later.”
Susan gave it to her and Doctor Temlane walked up. “Making new friends, I see. That’s good. Now, you’re Gretchen, right?”
Gretchen and Luca went back into the examining room together. They were going to do an ultrasound on Gretchen’s baby. Ironically, Gretchen could see her baby perfectly well with her new vision, could look right at it through her own body. The problem was that she couldn’t interpret what she was seeing. How was she supposed to know what a three-month-old fetus was supposed to look like?

Luca had left and Melody and Eric had both given a couple more demonstrations of their abilities before Jim ordered them to stop. Now Peggy had gone home too. Jim had heard their story over and over again and had seen what the kids could do, but now he just needed some time to process it all. He needed time to process a lot of things.
Melody, Peggy, and Luca had all said that the man who had made Eric and Melody the way they were looked different. Luca said he guessed Magus was an alien. But were aliens even real? Jim knew that Force Intelligence was in possession of a supposed alien ship – the spacecraft being the focal point of the recent Chinese-American war – but most people, everyone that wasn’t a fanatic, assumed that the craft was actually part of some government’s secret military technology. Were Eric and Melody, and Sammy Auger, also part of some government experiment? Were the ‘aliens’ Melody, Peggy, and Luca had seen a hoax, meant to throw them off track?
But when would the government have gotten hold of the kids? Peggy had helped him and Doranne adopt Eric and she always said that Eric was dropped off anonymously. Sammy Auger had also been dropped off anonymously at the County Family Services building and the two boys seemed to have similar abilities. But Melody had not been adopted. She really was the daughter of his brother, Richie, and his ex-girlfriend, Bethany, both of whom were now deceased. But Richie and Bethany had both been SkyForce. Had the government gotten to Melody then, maybe while Bethany was pregnant with her?
Jim didn’t know. But if the aliens or the government or whoever had come to collect the kids once – or was it twice? – what would stop them from coming again? Had Nick Santori and Ben Cummings been working for the government when they kidnapped Eric and Melody? Why else would they have only taken the two with abilities and left Danny? It could be that they had been hired to take the kids without knowing that it was the government that was contracting with them. Jim made a note to dig a little deeper into that.
The question for now was still whether or not his kids’ makers would be coming back for them anytime soon and what he could do stop them. His wife, Doranne, had already died because of all this and he wasn’t going to lose his kids again.
And what should he do about these ‘abilities’ that they had now? He could take them to the Force medical facility, but if he did that, he could be delivering them right into the government’s hands. And if the government wasn’t the one trying to take Eric and Melody now, they would be once the Force doctors found out what the two of them could do.
Before he left, Luca had offered to run some tests on the kids and, right now, that was probably the best option. Luca already knew as much as anyone since he had been there when this ‘Magus’ person showed up. Jim just hoped the doctor could be trusted not to tell anyone else.

In the living room, a news announcement interrupted Eric and Danny’s TV show. “This is footage from the Base City Mall just a few moments ago,” came the reporter’s voice. “I’ll let you come to your own conclusions, but it appears from the video that a group of…super-powered juveniles have broken in and are wreaking havoc.” On the screen, the mall’s security cameras showed two teenage boys, one a dark-haired Caucasian and the other a big black boy, beating up mall security officers, who, inexplicably, were not moving at all, much less fighting back, while other kids rushed past them into the mall. One of the kids, a pretty blonde, turned toward the security camera, pointed her open hand up to it, and shot a bolt of lightning right out of her hand toward the camera. The screen went blank and then the footage started over as the reporter said, “I don’t know if this is a hoax or not, but if it is, LandForce is certainly treating the situation seriously. Units are arriving on scene and taking their positions outside the Mall as I speak. We…”
“Did you see that?” Eric asked wide-eyed, as they watched the girl electrocute the camera again. “Mel!” he called. “Come here!”
Melody came out from her bedroom – she had been practicing her abilities – and watched as the TV showed her a boy, completely engulfed in fire, sticking his head under the IceCream Kings’ soft-serve ice-cream dispenser in the mall’s food court. “Is…?”
“He’s like me,” Eric answered.
They were silent for a few moments then, just watching the TV, until Trinity showed back up on one of the camera feeds. He was in TrEnDZ, rifling through the t-shirt racks. “Hey!” Melody shouted. “That’s him! That’s the one! He was here!”
“We should, you know, go do something,” Eric said.
“Like what?” Melody asked.
“I don’t know. We should go catch ‘em, question ‘em, ask ‘em what’s going on. We could call Susan and have her help us.” The three of them had known about Susan’s bending abilities from the very moment she did.
“Can I come?” Danny asked.
Melody looked at him. “No.”
“You don’t have any powers,” Eric explained sympathetically.
“So?” Danny retorted.
“Besides, we need someone to cover for us,” Eric continued.
A minute later, all three of the kids went into the study where Jim was sitting and told him they were going to bed, it being such a crazy day and all.
A minute after that, Eric and Melody were pedaling their bikes furiously down the street toward downtown and explaining their plan to Susan over speakerphone.
Mr. Meng had brought Ling to a warehouse two blocks away from the Base City Mall. Mr. Meng was the owner of the China Family Restaurant and he apparently owned this place, too. The warehouse was already filled with dozens of tough-looking Chinese men and women and more kept coming in. Most of them were young – upper teens or mid-twenties – but some of them were middle-aged like Mr. Meng. Ling saw a lot of them pulling guns out of the back of their pants or from under their coats and checking to make sure they were ready to be used. “You’ve all seen the news,” Mr. Meng was saying to the crowd, holding up his phone with the news still playing on it. “We will nip this in the bud. These kids will not become a threat. Whichever ones the Force doesn’t catch, the Chinese League will.  Now let’s everyone get out on the street. And pay attention. Keep your eyes open and be ready when they come.”

Susan had snuck out of her house and called a cab as soon Eric and Melody called her. Now she was three blocks from the mall, waiting for them to meet her. Her phone rang. She expected it to be them, but she didn’t recognize the number. “Hello?”
“Hey, remember me? It’s Gretchen. I met you at the doctor’s today.”
“Um…yeah. The girl who sees things. I can’t really talk right now.”
“The way I see it there’s only one reason for you to be on that corner right now.”
“What?” Susan asked, turning around in circles to try and find where Gretchen was.
“You can stop looking,” Gretchen laughed. “I’m still a couple miles away. Now do you want to catch those kids or not?”
“I’m waiting for Melody and Eric.”
“The PG’s kids?”
“Yeah.”
“I’m the one who rescued them. The kids at the Mall – they were with pointy-head at the house where the PG’s kids were being kept. Give me your friends’ numbers and I’ll send them in after you.”
“Where am I going?”
“LandForce has the Mall kids on the run and electricity girl just shorted out the alarm system and broke into a building about half a block from where you are.”
“Um…so what, you want me to go in after her?”
“What are you afraid of? It looked to me today like you couldn’t get hurt unless you wanted to. Now, I’m guessing electric girl’s gonna try to make a run for it again as soon as she catches her breath, so you’ll have to be quick. The building’s Rodley Insurance, straight ahead of you.”
“…Okay,” Susan agreed after a moment, her jaw tightening with determination. She sent Melody and Eric’s phone numbers to Gretchen and started jogging toward Rodley Insurance.

 “We’ve got two coming this way,” came a voice over Mr. Meng’s walkie-talkie. “It’s the big black kid and a skinny white boy.”
“Where are you?” Mr. Meng asked.
“Corner of Burkhart and Fairview.” That was only a block away from where Mr. Meng and Ling’s group were stationed.
“You’re sure they’re from the mall?” Mr. Meng asked.
“Yeah.”
“Then shoot ‘em. Everyone to Burkhart and Fairview.”

Gunfire ricocheted off the ground in front of Cobra and he immediately pushed Plague out of the way, jumping behind the nearest building. He had thought that coming down this alley would be better than going out on the main street, but apparently not.
“Force?” Plague panted when he had sat back up.
“Don’t think so,” Cobra answered evenly.
“You want me to do my thing?” Plague asked, brushing his curls out of his eyes and sucking in a deep breath.
Cobra immediately swung his hand up and smacked Plague square on the mouth. “Don’t even think about it. I ain’t got a mask.”
Plague laughed and cleared his throat. “Well, whose fault is that?”
“Don’t worry. I got this,” Cobra said, standing. “Just let me pop the hood.” Then he closed his eyes for a moment and concentrated. Almost immediately, he began growing wider. When he was twice his normal breadth, he smiled and said, “Just like the cobra’s hood expanding. It’s the signal of attack.”

Susan’s phone vibrated and she quickly answered it. “Hello?” she whispered. She was right in front of Rodley Insurance.
“It’s me,” Gretchen said. “I’ll guide you on your cell. Put me on speaker and keep your phone where you can hear it.”
“Speaker phone?” Susan questioned, obviously thinking that was not a good idea.
“Don’t worry. I’ll talk quiet. Now, she’s already fried the alarm and broken in so you should be able to just open the door.”
Susan clipped her phone onto her coat collar and walked up to the door, ready to open it. Then she backed up again. “What if she sees me?”
“She won’t see you. She’s on the second floor.” Susan quietly opened the door. Once she was inside, Gretchen said, “Take the stairs to your left.” Susan turned that way. “Yeah. Now just go up slow. She doesn’t know you’re there yet, so be quiet. She’ll be in the back of the room, up against the window.”
“Okay,” Susan whispered, taking her first step up the stairs. “Wait! What do I hit her with?”
“Oh,” Gretchen said. “…There’s a snow shovel around the corner by the door. It’s plastic so her electricity shouldn’t affect it.”
“I see it.” Susan grabbed the shovel and went back to the stairs.
She saw electricity girl as soon as she reached the second floor. The girl was lounging in a desk chair, looking out the window at the dark city, no doubt waiting for the time when it would be safe to go out on the streets again. Susan, snow shovel half raised, was trying to think of the best way to sneak up on her when she saw her own reflection in the window.  The girl suddenly spun in her seat, electricity flowing out of her hands as she stood. She, apparently, had seen Susan’s reflection as well.
“She sees you!” Gretchen yelled.
“Yeah, ya think?” Susan yelled back as her body automatically bent and contorted in several places to avoid the forked electrical currents.
“Who are you?” Lightning demanded. She had stopped her flow of electricity when she saw Susan bend. “You’re one of us, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Susan shot back. “Who are you?”
“Lightning,” the girl answered. “Are you the one who killed Fraley?” she asked suspiciously.
Susan could see Lightning’s hands sparking with electricity. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she repeated, raising her shovel instinctively.
Lightning aimed another long bolt of electricity at her as Susan charged forward.
 “You’ve got company!” Gretchen said.
“Who?” Susan asked, but then felt something new. As she got closer to Lightning, the lashes of her bolts were not as scattered as they had been. The forks hadn’t branched off nearly as much and her body had to work harder to avoid the increased concentration of blows. This time, the sides of her torso had pressed inward to avoid lashes on either side, while her chest had separated in the middle to make a hole for the main bolt to pass through.
“Whoa!” Gretchen said.
“Yeah,” Susan agreed, and swung her shovel at Lightning’s head.
Lightning ducked and the shovel sliced through the air.
Just as Lightning was about to unleash another bolt, the building’s sprinkler system turned on and Lightning began shaking violently. The next instant, she was lying on the floor unconscious.
“Guess she shorted herself out,” Susan said, smiling.
“Yeah. You have Eric to thank for that.”
“What?” But before Gretchen could answer, Susan saw a light coming up the stairs – firelight. Gearing up for another fight, she hid behind a desk, shovel at the ready.
“It’s okay,” Gretchen said. “I told you, it’s Eric.”

Ling saw the black kid, bulkier now, running toward them. Mr. Meng and the rest of the Chinese League with him were shooting, but it wasn’t having any effect. The kid’s body just seemed to absorb the bullets without slowing him down. Ling watched as he reached the first gunner and punched his head, sending him sprawling backward. The next second he was punching another one in the gut. “C’mon!” he shouted. “You got nothin’! I’m the King! King Cobra!” and he smashed in another gunner’s face.
Mr. Meng kept shooting and cursing, while some of the League began to retreat before ‘King Cobra’ got to them. As Cobra started coming toward him and Mr. Meng, Ling transformed. He regretted exposing his secret to Mr. Meng, but the alternative would have been letting Cobra punch his head in.
Mr. Meng caught a glimpse of Ling out of the corner of his eye. When he looked over at him, the boy was three times the size of a body-builder and his skin looked like it was rock hard. “Jason?” Mr. Meng asked.
But Ling didn’t answer him. He was walking forward to meet Cobra. “I don’t want to fight you,” Ling said. “You’re like me.”  
“Yeah?” Cobra asked, curling his fists. “Ain’t nobody like me. Not Trinity, and not you either.”

“I can’t do it,” Melody hissed. She was standing behind Eric and staring up at the flashes of lightning in the Rodley Insurance building’s windows.
 “Just be ready,” Eric whispered back, opening the door. He was already on fire and as he entered, the building’s sprinkler system immediately began pouring down water.
Oddly, all was quiet when the two reached the second story. The room was destroyed, sure enough, but there was no one around. Eric motioned to Melody and Melody cautiously began mentally moving the furniture around.

To Susan’s left, a filing cabinet suddenly scooted a few feet out from the wall. Then the book shelf at her right somehow started coming toward her. Then the desk she was hiding behind suddenly slid across the floor, exposing her. She stood up, brandishing her shovel.
“Susan?” Eric asked.
“Susan?” Melody echoed. “Why are you hiding? Where’s the girl with the…electric stuff?”
“She’s hiding from you, even though I told her not to,” Susan’s phone said. Melody and Eric recognized the voice as the same girl who had called them and told them to come here.
“I had to be sure it was them,” Susan said defensively. “And Lightning is over there.” She pointed behind the next desk.
“She shorted out when you set the sprinklers off,” Gretchen said.
They all went over and were staring down at Lightning. “We better tie her up or something,” Melody suggested. “Before she wakes up again.”
“I could freeze her,” Susan offered, going over and kneeling over Lightning’s body.
“What do you mean ‘freeze her’?” Eric asked.
“I can freeze her,” Susan repeated. “I can make things really cold. With the sprinklers going off, I could freeze the water on her and, like, close her up in ice so she wouldn’t be able to move or do anything if she wakes up.”
“Wouldn’t that kill her?” Eric asked.
“Yeah, let’s not ice the girl,” Gretchen agreed over Susan’s phone. “There’s some caution tape in that cabinet over there.”
“Fine,” Susan said. She flicked her ponytail behind her as she stood.
Melody looked at the cabinet against the wall and it opened.
“So that’s how all that stuff was moving!” Susan said.
“Yeah,” Melody said, smiling.
“Speaking of the sprinklers, though,” Eric said, “can we turn them off? It’s taking kind of a lot of concentration to keep the fire going with them on and you all don’t want to see me when the fire goes out.”
Melody nodded. “He’s right. He burnt his clothes off.”
“There’s a valve downstairs,” Gretchen said, “but you don’t have any time. Another one’s coming your way.”

Floodlights from a Force hovercar swept down on the alley as Ling stepped out of the shadows to meet Cobra. “I don’t want to hurt you,” Ling said.
“Oh, you ain’t gonna hurt me, China-boy. I’m gonna be the one hurtin’ you.” And Cobra ran forward and punched Ling in the chest, making Ling take a couple of steps back to regain his balance.
Cobra, shaking out his hand, said, “Man, you’re worse than hittin’ Trinity! Guess I’ll just have to kick you next time.”
“I don’t think so,” Ling said, running forward.
Cobra, straightening up and standing perfectly still, whispered, “Hey, China.”
Ling, still running, glanced up into Cobra’s eyes and was suddenly still.
“Ah, see?” Cobra laughed. “I knew you’d do that.” Then, keeping his eyes locked with Ling’s, he kicked him in the chest and knocked him down this time. “You’re mine now.”
Before Ling could get up, Cobra was on him, staring down into his eyes as he punched him again and again. It didn’t hurt Ling. Nothing Cobra had done had hurt him. Ling was just frustrated that he couldn’t move to hit Cobra back.
“Freez!” a voice shouted.
Force, Ling thought. Cobra looked over to see the newcomers and in that instant, Ling was free of Cobra’s control.  He swung his arm up and clobbered Cobra against the side of the head.
“I said freeze!” the Forceman shouted.
“Put your hands up!” a Forcewoman yelled.
Ling was up, kicking Cobra as hard as he could in the side.
“You think that hurts?” Cobra yelled.
Gunshots suddenly ricocheted off Ling’s body and he turned to face the shooters. There were more Forcepersons coming down the alley than he had thought. Where’s the League? Ling wondered. Where’s Mr. Meng?
Cobra had rolled away from Ling and was on his feet again, running the opposite way out of the alley. Glancing back at the Force and continuing to hear the impact of their bullets on his skin, Ling decided to do the same.

Susan, Eric, and Melody all turned toward the window and stared down at the streets below them. Gretchen had said someone else was heading their way, but they couldn’t see anyone.
“Look up,” Gretchen said. They did, but it was too dark to see anything. “Move!” Gretchen yelled.
The next second, something came crashing through the window in front of them. Susan’s body bent in half backward to avoid it, but it plowed Eric and Melody down.
Susan turned and saw another boy facing her. “Nice move, bendy!” the boy said. “Now what did you do to Lightning?”
“Who are you?” Susan asked, raising her shovel again.
“Name’s Trinity.”
“Trinity?” Susan asked. What the what does that mean?
“He’s the one that tried to kidnap me!” Melody shouted, as she got back up.
“I guess that makes him one of the bad guys,” Eric said, and shot a flow of fire toward him.
Trinity’s clothes were burning, but not his skin. He was just smiling, walking against the flames straight toward Eric.
Eric stopped the flow and Trinity ran at him, fist cocked. But just before he reached Eric, he froze, suddenly unable to move.
“I stopped him!” Melody said.
Susan swung her shovel as hard as she could, shattering the plastic against Trinity’s head.
The next second, Trinity began laughing. “You can still me,” he said, looking at Melody, “but I can unstill me. All I have to do is will myself to move again. And you,” he looked at Susan and Eric, “can’t hurt me. That’s why they call me Trinity. Because I’m the best, the most powerful, the one with the most abilities. I’m like God to you.”
 Trinity began walking toward Eric again and Eric, afraid now, hurriedly began spewing more fire at him while Melody telepathically picked up any object she could see around the office and hurled it at him.
Susan tried whacking him a few times with the stick of her shovel, but quickly realized that it wasn’t doing any good. Throwing it down with a yell, she charged at Trinity and jumped on his back, her arms around his neck, trying to choke him. Squeezing as hard as she could, she couldn’t get her hands to make any impression. It was like squeezing on a steel bar.
He’s too powerful, Susan thought. Only someone as powerful as him could stop him. And then she got a mental picture of another Trinity fighting this one.
Suddenly, she felt her body begin to change, to stretch, to grow.
“Susan! What’s happening?” Gretchen yelled.
Susan looked down and saw that she was completely changed. She looked and felt like Trinity. She was thinking as herself, but knew instinctively how to use all of Trinity’s powers. She stood – she was behind Trinity now – and said in Trinity’s voice, “Looks like you don’t have all the powers, after all.”
Confused, Trinity turned and she kicked him, sending him sprawling backward.
He caught himself against the broken window frame and said, “How…?”
“I’m you,” Susan answered, and flew toward him, her fist stretched out in front of her.
But before she reached him, Trinity jumped out the window and flew up over the building.
“The Force is coming!” Gretchen shouted. “Get out of there! It’s the PG!”

“Clear!” A Forcewoman yelled a couple of minutes later.
Lighting, still unconscious, lay at Jim’s feet while another officer handcuffed her. Pretty girl, Jim thought, but also dangerous. “All right,” Jim called. “Have your tranqs ready and be alert. There’s no telling what this girl can do. Now let’s move out.” First my kids show me they have powers and then this group attacks the Mall.  Looks like Magus really kicked the anthill open.
“That was awesome!” Eric exclaimed.
“I know,” Melody whispered, her body still shaking from the adrenaline. “You’ve said that, like, a thousand times. Now be quiet.” They were on the front porch of their guest house, waiting for Danny to come down and unlock the door for them so they could sneak back in.
A few seconds later and the door front opened. “It’s okay,” Danny said. “Uncle Jim saw the news and went out with the Force.” So for the next hour, Eric and Melody told Danny all about everything that had happened that night.

Trinity landed when he reached his own neighborhood and then ran the rest of the way to the house. Panting, he opened the door and yelled, “They got Lightning!”
Cobra laughed. “Aw, did they get your little girlfriend, Trin?”
Trinity rushed over, ready to punch Cobra, but War and Peace jumped in between them. “Calm down,” she ordered.
“It’s your fault,” Trinity said, glaring at Cobra. “You wanted to go out.”
“ “And he didn’t even let me play,” Plague giggled.  
“None of you should have gone out,” War and Peace said. She was the only one who had stayed home. “And I’m disappointed in you, Cobra. Don’t you even care about what happened to Lightning?”
Cobra sighed. “I care.”
“We’ve gotta get her back!” Trinity yelled.
“How’d it happen?” Tsunami asked. Tsunami was a pretty, dark-haired Asian girl with water powers.
“It must’ve been some of the others that Magus was tryin’ to pick up. I saw three there, but there was a fourth they were talkin’ to on the phone.”
 “I met another one tonight, too,” Cobra said. “Dude got bigger than me and was harder than you.”
Trinity acknowledged this with a nod and then said, “The Force got ‘er. We’ve gotta break in there and get ‘er back.”
“You think we can?” Sammy asked.
“Of course we can!” Trinity answered. “Why couldn’t we? The Force can’t stop us.”
But Sammy hadn’t been asking Trinity. He and everyone else was looking at War and Peace.

Two hours later, two Force medics, surrounded by armed officers, jumped down out of the ambulance and lowered Lightning’s stretcher to the ground in the back of Washington, D.C.’s Central Force Intelligence Headquarters.  


January 14th.

The next morning. “Hey!”
Eric was just getting off the bus to go into school. He looked over and saw Susan talking to some older, redheaded girl he didn’t know. He walked over with Melody following mechanically behind him.
 “I’m so tired,” Melody said.
Susan smiled at them and the other girl said, “I was wondering when you’d finally get here. I saw your bus going around that last neighborhood and it seemed like it was taking forever.”
“What? Are you…?” Eric began.
“I’m Gretchen,” the girl said, stretching her hand out to him and then to Melody. “I’m the one who called you last night.”
“Right,” Eric nodded. “Susan gave you our number. How old are you?” She didn’t look like a middle-schooler and she was…well, pregnant.
“I’m fifteen,” Gretchen laughed.
“She’s also the one who saved your butts when you were kidnapped,” Susan said.
“Really?” Melody said.
Gretchen nodded and Eric said, “Thanks!”
“Yeah. Thank you,” Melody said.
“My dad said something about maybe meeting you sometime, but…” Eric trailed off.
 “Sure,” Gretchen said. “But I bet you won’t let that happen again, though, huh? You’d prob’ly just fireball or,” looking at Melody, “move the kidnappers out of your way!” They all laughed and Gretchen said, “Anyway, I’ve had some ideas since last night.” She moved to sit on the edge of the school’s flowerbeds, wanting to have the next part of this conversation sitting down. Melody sat down cautiously and Eric took his time taking his book bag off his shoulder.
“You guys sore?” Susan asked, taking Eric’s hand in hers.
“Yeah,” said Eric, sighing inwardly. He had forgotten Susan was supposed to be his girlfriend now. “From when that guy came flying through the window and knocked us over.”
Gretchen nodded. “How do you think it went last night?”
“I don’t know,” Eric began. “I wasn’t really able to do anything against that guy.”
“No,” Gretchen said, “but Susan was. And you were the one who shorted out Lightning.”
“Yeah, kinda,” Eric agreed.
“So here’s the thing – I know it sounds weird, but I think God is calling us…to start our own super-hero team. We could call ourselves, like, the Crusaders or the God Squad or something. Do you all believe in God?”
“Um…I guess,” Eric answered.
“Kind of,” said Melody. “My aunt does. And I used to go to synagogue every week before my dad and step-mom died. Her side of the family was Jewish.”
“My parents don’t really talk about God,” Susan said. “Ayla asked if I could go with her to church one time, though, and they said no.”
Gretchen nodded. “Okay. Well…”
“Thing is,” Eric said, “we need to practice and learn how to fight and stuff. I mean, we didn’t do that great last night – we caught one of the bad guys, I know – but I think if we really worked on it, we could make a pretty good team. You,” he looked at Gretchen, “could see everything and tell everyone what’s happening and,” he looked at Melody and Susan, “if one of our powers doesn’t work on someone or in some situation or whatever, maybe someone else’s will.”
Susan was nodding her agreement, but Melody was just sitting still, staring at him.
“Of course we’ll need masks and codenames and stuff,” Eric continued.
“Right,” Gretchen agreed. “Last night you were all a little crazy just going out as yourselves. Anyway, I was thinking of calling ourselves the God Squad because God’s probably the one who gave us our powers.”
“Actually,” corrected Eric, “we already know where we got out powers. Tell ‘em, Melody.”
“What? Oh.” Then Melody told them about Magus and everything he had told her, but was again careful not to mention Luca’s involvement in the story.
“Pointy-head was an alien?” Gretchen asked.
Melody and Eric both nodded.
“Well,” Gretchen said, “I guess that still doesn’t change the fact that God would want us to use what we’ve been given.”
“We should call ourselves the Changers,” Susan suggested.
“The Changers?” Gretchen asked, not sure what the name was supposed to mean.
“Yeah,” Susan explained. “Because we’ve all been changed and because…we can…change society or whatever by using our powers. You know, change things for the good.”
Eric nodded. “The Changers. I like that.”
“And I thought it was lame last night when that called herself Lightning,” Susan said, “but I kinda like it now. Her name says what she does. So I’m gonna call myself Bender, because my body bends to keep from getting hurt.”
“That doesn’t really say anything about your shape-changing ability, though,” Melody said.
“Well, she did pull a gender-bender last night!” Eric laughed.
Everyone else started laughing, too, including Susan, but she still reached over and smacked his arm. “Fine,” Susan said, “what are you going to be named?”
 “I don’t know,” Eric laughed
“How about Fireball!” Melody offered.
“I don’t really shoot fireballs,” Eric said. “I guess I could.”
“Firebrand,” Susan suggested.
“Flamethrower,” Melody said.
“Flamer!” Gretchen laughed.
This time it was Eric’s turn to hit someone and he said, “How about just Fire?”
“Okay,” Susan said. “Melody?”
Melody thought for a moment and then said, “Moves?”
“Yeah,” Susan said, “because you can move stuff with your mind.”
“She just wants someone to put the moves on her!” Eric said.
“I do not,” Melody countered.
“Okay, your turn,” Susan said, looking at Gretchen.
“Hmm,” Gretchen said. She really did want to use a name that had something to do with God, but what? “Seer?” she said. She thought she remembered some of the Old Testament prophets being called that. But she wasn’t a prophet exactly, was she? “How about Visionary?”
“Visionary,” Eric nodded. “Okay.”
But then the bell for homeroom rang.
“Oh! I’ve gotta get over to the high school,” Gretchen said, pushing herself up. “Do you all want to meet here again after school?”
 “We’re leaving halfway through the day,” Melody said.
“Yeah,” Eric put in. “My dad’s taking us to get tested today.”
“You told the PG about your powers?” Gretchen asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” answered Eric. “He’s my dad.”
“What doctor are you going to?” Susan asked. “The Force doctors?”
“Your dad,” Melody told her.
“Doctor Temlane?” Gretchen asked.
They all nodded. “He already knows, too,” Eric informed her.
Gretchen shook her head in disbelief. “Well, don’t tell ‘im about me! He’s my doctor, too.”

“Mr. Meng,” Horace greeted, nodding and taking the older man’s coat. It was the lunch hour and the China Family Restaurant was full of people as usual. “Your guest from yesterday is back, sir.”
“My guest?”
“The young man, sir. He was waiting outside when the kitchen staff came in and said he wouldn’t leave until he saw you. Seeing how friendly you had been with him yesterday, I thought it best not to send him away.”
“Good! Good, Horace! Where is he now?”
“He’s in the back, sir, keeping the chefs company.”
Mr. Meng hurried to the kitchen and found Ling with a bowl full of white rice and General Tso’s chicken. “Jason!” Mr Meng exclaimed, and dragged Ling by the elbow toward his office.
Mr. Meng closed the office door and asked, “What are you doing here? And what happened to your face?”
“I…I didn’t know where else to go. Last night…”
“I tried to tell you we were leaving, but you must not have heard me.”
Ling didn’t think Mr. Meng had said anything about them leaving, but he didn’t care. He could understand Mr. Meng wanting to run away from him. As far as the fresh abrasions on his face, he explained, “When I get shot, like by the Force last night, this is what happens. It doesn’t hurt when it happens, but afterward I have these little cuts.”
“Well, I’m just glad the Force didn’t get you. Did they get the other boy?”
 Ling shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
Mr. Meng nodded and then continued. “It’s just that I can’t have you here right now.”
“Why?” Ling asked. “You’re not afraid of me, are you? I’m not gonna do anything, I promise.”
“What? No. I know that. I trust you. You’re one of us. It’s just that the Force knows what you look like now – some of them had to have seen you last night – so I can’t have you being seen here. They’ve already questioned me, asking me if I know anything about the League.”
“But the Force didn’t…I mean I looked…”
“You looked different, yes, but you were still recognizable. I could still tell it was you.”
Ling nodded. Viola had still been able to tell it was him too.
Mr. Meng sighed and smiled. “It’s okay. Listen, do you know how you do it?”
“Not really. I just… imagine it happening.”
Mr. Meng nodded and rubbed his chin. “Did you know that boy last night? The kids in the mall? Have you ever seen any of them before?”
“No. I know they…can do things…like me, but…”
“Where did you grow up, Jason? Were there a lot of kids like you where you were?”
“What? No. I grew up…How much do I tell him? Should I tell him about Viola’s? No, better not. “I grew up like normal, with my family.”
“Hmmm. Did you go to a lot of doctors?”
“No. I told you. I don’t know how I do it.”
“Okay, no need to get excited,” Mr. Meng said, opening the office door again. “Let’s go. I really do need to get you out of here. And there’s a man flying in from China today to meet you. He’ll be very happy to hear that you came back here today.”
“What?” Ling asked, suddenly nervous. “Who?”
“He calls himself Lord Chen.”

 Early that afternoon. “Dr. Temlane,” Lois Pearney said, walking into Luca’s office, “Nurse Mills just called. Your appointment is here.”
A minute later, Luca welcomed Jim, Peggy, Eric, and Melody onto the GenRes MedFloor and escorted them to an examining room. “Don’t worry,” he assured them. “we’ll be completely private in here.”
Jim scanned the room and then nodded.
“So…” Luca said, not sure where they wanted to start.
Jim dove right in. “You saw the news last night?”
Luca nodded. “More children with abilities.”
“These weren’t children,” Jim said. “They were older than Melody and Eric – teenagers.”
“True,” Luca agreed.
“We caught one. Shipped her to DC.”
“Good,” Luca said cheerily.
“Maybe.” Jim didn’t sound so sure. “Assuming that someone did this – intentionally made the kids this way – how would it be done?”
“Well,” Luca began, an alien would need to have come down and subconsciously inspiree me with the knowledge of how to radically but very subtly alter an infant’s DNA. “My first guess would be that it has to have something to do with their genes.”
“I had Eric tested before Jim and Doranne adopted him,” Peggy said.
“She was the social worker at the county who arranged the adoption for us,” Jim explained. “And I’ve got the printout from Beth’s prenatal testing on Melody. She even had it done here.”
Luca nodded, pretending not to remember Bethany’s visit. In reality, Melody had been Luca’s first Genetically Altered experiment. Her mother, Bethany, had come in for a DNA screening on her unborn child and Luca had impulsively taken the opportunity to inject the fetus with a virus that would replace the child’s DNA and give her powers of telekinesis upon adolescence. The problem was that Luca could not, for the life of him, remember how he made that virus. The alien, Magus, had somehow given him the knowledge to make Melody and the others and then had taken that knowledge back just as easily.
“It could have been something that developed, or happened to them, later,” Luca suggested. “I mean we all hear about alien abductions, right? If Magus was an alien…”
Jim was willing to let Luca continue with his theory, but Peggy said, “I don’t know if that’s even possible. I’m sorry, but I just have to say it. I’ve been going over and over it in my mind since yesterday. The thing is I’m a Christian and the Bible just doesn’t mention anything about there being aliens or other worlds or…”
Luca nodded his understanding. He wanted to say, Of course the Bible doesn’t mention aliens. The Bible isn’t science. It’s some ancient, mythological story invented and born out of primitive Jewish culture. But saying that would be being insensitive to Peggy’s religious sensibilities, he knew. So he asked, “But what does it say? It says that God created the world, right? That He made all kinds of different animals and all kinds of different landscapes and environments all over the earth. I mean, the Bible doesn’t mention life on other planets, but it does show that God likes variety. So, if God can be everywhere and do everything, why not have other little pockets of life somewhere? Why would He limit Himself to earth? Why would He make all those planets out there and create such a big universe if He’s not going to do anything with it?”
Peggy nodded. His argument sounded logical. It was certainly something to think about. And just because the Bible didn’t specifically say that there were aliens, that didn’t mean that it was saying there weren’t. Laughing to herself, she thought, It just means we humans aren’t as special as we thought.
“So I can do some blood tests and measure their brainwaves, if you want,” Luca continued. “I’d do it all myself, obviously, but that would be the first step to see if I can find anything.”
Jim wasn’t sure he wanted Luca or anyone taking blood samples from his kids. If they did and the blood did show something, that would be solid proof that his kids were different. Luca was assuring them that he’d keep it private, but how far did he really trust Luca? Melody and Luca’s daughter, Susan, were friends and Jim knew that Luca’s company did a lot of good for the city, but he didn’t really know the man. Once Luca had the blood samples, what would keep him from experimenting on it, trying to recreate Eric and Melody’s powers? The Force Intelligence doctors were already going to be having a field-day with the girl, Lightning. In fact, they probably already were.
Then again, recreating these kids’ abilities might not be such a bad thing, if it was done right. Jim could imagine a Force full of people with powers like that. He could also imagine what would happen if another country suddenly had super-powered people. Maybe other countries already did have people with powers. Maybe Magus had kids like this scattered all over the world!
As he was thinking, Jim’s phone began ringing. He pulled it out and saw that the call was coming from LandForce HQ. He answered and, a few seconds later, hung back up. “I’ve gotta go!” he announced, heading for the door. “Peggy, can you catch a cab or something and take the kids home?”
“I can send a car to take them,” Luca offered. “Is something the matter?”
“The kids from the mall last night are attacking the Detention Facility!”
As soon as Jim closed the examining room door behind him, Eric stood up and asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Sure,” Luca answered. “Go out the door, go back toward the elevators, and take a left.”
“Melody,” Eric said, “you have to go, too, right?”
“Um…no, not really.”
“Well, c’mon,” Eric insisted, “you can help me find it.”
Reluctantly, Melody got up and they both walked out the door.
When they were halfway down the hall, Eric whispered, “We’ve gotta call Gretchen and Susan and get over there.”
“What? Eric, no.”
But Eric was walking toward the elevators and was already pulling out his phone. “C’mon, Melody. We’re the Changers now, remember?”
Melody got on the elevator, saying, “That’s not official yet. You’re going to get us in trouble.”
As they walked out of the GenRes building, Eric, texting Gretchen on his cell phone, headed toward the street, but Melody grabbed his arm and dragged him to the back of the parking lot. “This way.” Then she closed her eyes and used her ability to lift both of them into the air.
Eric lowered his phone and said, “Whoa. We’re flying.”
“Not really,” Melody said, flipping her light brown bangs away from her eyes. “We’re just moving upward.” Eric felt his body jerk forward as Melody said, “Now we’re also moving towards downtown, since that’s apparently where you want to go.”

Melody brought them down on top of the Rize Communications roof, caddy-corner to the LandForce HQ and the Hemmle County Detention Facility. “That was sweet!” Eric exclaimed, feeling his feet touching something solid again.
A couple of minutes later, they heard Susan and Gretchen land behind them. They turned just in time to see Susan transforming from Trinity back into herself.
“Good idea!” Gretchen said, beaming at Melody. Gretchen had no doubt seen Melody floating on their way here.
Melody smiled. “Well, after I saw Trinity ‘flying’ last night, it gave me the idea to try it, too.”
Gretchen took her backpack off – Eric realized that they must have left straight from school – and pulled out four cloth bandanas. She held them up to the group and said, “Take one and tie it around your face. I got ‘em from art class today.”

Down below, Trinity yelled, “Where is she?” as he threw another hovercar toward the row of Forcepersons guarding the Detention Facility. “Where’d you take her?”
“I wish you’d stop throwing my cover!” Nales grumbled, running to get behind the next car with Cobra and Tsunami.
Cobra, laughing, picked up the car and started walking forward as Force tranquilizer darts bounced off its hood and disappeared into Cobra’s skin.  “You can’t shoot ‘em with your skinny little butt hiding, Nales!”
“Some of my spikes are getting over there,” Nales panted, tensing to send another round of metal barbs toward the Force.
“Here comes another wave!” Tsunami announced and sent a stream of water toward the Force.
The gush knocked a couple of Forcepeople down, but that was it. “Nice wave!” Cobra said sarcastically.
“What do you want me to do? The air’s dry and it’s been too long since the last snow.”
“Put the car down!” Jim yelled behind his riot shield.
But Cobra didn’t listen. He just kept walking forward, providing cover for Nales and Tsunami, and now Trinity was running straight at the line.
“Tell me where she is!”
“Brace yourselves!” Jim yelled.
But just before Trinity made impact with the line, his apparent double swooped down out of the sky and grabbed him up. Behind Cobra and the others, a boy completely on fire except for his left hand was lowered to the ground by a girl flying. Jim recognized these two immediately. “Hold your fire!” he yelled, not wanting the Force to tranquilize and capture Eric and Melody along with the rest.
“Sir?” Darcey Piper, the Fire Deputy, asked beside him.
“I said hold your fire!”
Cobra, Tsunami, and Nales, having seen Trinity get carried up into the air by his mysterious twin, now turned around to see what the Force was staring at. “Sammy? War and Peace?” Nales asked, seeing Eric on fire and Melody in her mask.
“That’s not War and Peace, you idiot” Tsunami said. “Her hair’s a different color.” And she sent a jet of water toward them with as much pressure as she could muster.
Eric hurriedly sent a wall of fire to meet the water and turned Tsunami’s jet into steam. Then, hurtling through the steam, came a spray of Nales’ spikes and Melody had to push Eric out of the way. “I can’t stop all those!” she yelled, dropping to the ground.
Eric was just getting back up again when he saw Cobra running toward them. But before Cobra reached them, Susan’s body, still in the form of Trinity, came falling out of the sky and hit the ground between them, cracking the pavement.
“Susan!” Melody yelled.
Susan, unhurt, got up and looked over at her. In Trinity’s voice, she hissed, “It’s Bends, remember?”
Then the real Trinity came flying down on top of her, knocking her back to the ground. “Sammy and War and Peace were supposed to be keeping a lookout for you!” he yelled. He was going to hit Susan again, while she was down, but she used her telekinesis – one of the abilities she was borrowing from him – to freeze his movements. He unfroze a half-second later and then froze again. It kept going like that, with Trinity moving in jerky starts and stops for a few seconds before Susan said, “Hey, um…Moves, a little help here? He keeps cancelling me out.”
Then Melody also willed Trinity to keep still. With Susan and Melody both holding him there, Trinity was stuck.
Cobra, having stopped in his charge toward Eric and Melody to watch the battle, now looked behind him to see what his backup was doing. Nales was lying facedown on the ground, probably having fainted from all the exertion, and Tsunami was, at this moment, just feeling the sting of a tranquilizer dart in the back of her neck from Jim’s gun. Realizing the fight was over, Cobra turned and ran out of the parking lot. A hail of Force tranquilizer darts followed him, but, again, they had no effect. They just disappeared into his increased mass.
Jim walked toward the two Trinitys and Eric and Melody in the middle of the parking lot. Darcey and a few Forcepeople inched cautiously forward behind him. “We’ve got ‘im!” Jim said through clenched teeth, pulling out his handcuffs.
“No, you don’t” Eric informed his dad. “Because those aren’t going to hold him. He’ll break those handcuffs the second you put ‘em on.”
“You can’t tranquilize ‘im, either,” Melody said. “The needle’ll just bounce right off.”
Jim, seething, but also trusting that they were right, asked, “What do we have to do?”

“Doctor Temlane,” Lois said over Luca’s intercom, “Mr. Bresee in security says there are two teenagers here to see you. They say they’re relatives of yours.”
Luca pressed his intercom button, wondering who the children might be. Could they be more from his Genetically Altered experiment? He had been watching the news of the battle at the Detention Facility. It really did seem that the GAs were all coming out of the woodwork now that Magus was gone. “Thank you, Lois. Tell Milo I’ll be right down.”
Waiting outside with Mr. Bresee, Sammy Auger whispered to War and Peace, “Do you think Trinity’ll be mad that we weren’t on the lookout for those other kids?”
“Probably,” War and Peace answered, “but he wanted us to kill ‘em if we saw ‘em and we’re not killing anyone.”
“But they beat up Lightning.”
“Well, Lightning was breaking the law.”
“I know.”
“So we can’t kill those kids for trying to stop her. You’re lucky they didn’t catch you too.”
“I know. I just don’t want Trinity to be mad at us.”
“Well then just hope this works. And hope that Trinity never finds us.”
“Yeah,” Sammy agreed.
“Thank you, Mr. Bresee,” Luca said, stepping out the front door. “It’s okay. You can go back inside. I’ll just take a walk with these two around the grounds.”
The security chief closed the door and Luca approached his visitors. “Hi! I’m Doctor Temlane. What can I do for you two?”
“I’m War and Peace,” the girl said. “This is Sammy – Sammy Auger. His other name is Third Degree…”
“Sammy?” Luca asked. “You look…good!” I expected your scaring to be a lot worse. At least it was the last time I saw you.
“Um…thanks. War and Peace,” he said, nodding to her, “has been helping me, healing me.”
Ah. So you’re the healer, Luca thought, looking back to the girl. Peace. And the drainer. War.
“Mr. Temlane, we know that you helped Magus make us,” War and Peace continued, “so we’ve come to ask for your help.”

“Jason – or should I call you Ling?” Lord Chen greeted in a tired voice. “Please, don’t worry. I know you killed that ex-con, Fraley or whoever he was. I don’t care about him. I care about you. Now come here. Let me look at you.”
Ling and Mr. Meng were in Lord Chen’s hotel suite. “It’s okay, Jason,” Mr. Meng said. “Do what Lord Chen asks.”
The boy took a couple of steps forward and stopped.
“Can you show me?” Lord Chen asked.
“You…you want me to…?
“Transform!” Chen commanded irritably.
Nervously, Ling did as Lord Chen had ordered. It was only his third time transforming like this, but it was as easy as thought.
Lord Chen, looking him up and down, inspecting Ling’s hardened skin, said in a little brighter tone, “Hmph. Impressive. And you have no idea how you got this way?”
Ling shook his head.
“Mr. Meng,” Lord Chen said, “give me your gun.” Meng handed him his gun and Chen asked, “Ling, what would happen if I were to shoot you right now?”
Ling shrugged. “Nothing. I get a little scratch when I turn back, but it doesn’t hurt when I’m like this.”
“Do you mind if I try it?”
But before Ling could answer, Chen had leveled the gun and shot Ling in the shin. The bullet ricocheted off and Chen chuckled. “You’re a tank! That’s what I’m going to call you: Tank.”

Back in the car, Mr. Meng asked, “So, what did you think of him?”
“Who? Lord Chen? I don’t know. He’s weird. Is he…your boss?”
Mr. Meng glanced at Ling and he took a moment to answer. Finally, he said, “The League has an agreement with Lord Chen. We both want the same things and he…helps us to achieve those things. He can buy you your freedom, you know.”
“Buy me my freedom? You mean he can make it so the Force isn’t looking for me anymore?”
“He can do anything. I don’t think he’s contacted the new PG yet – this Slate guy – but he had the last one, Willoughby, right where he wanted him.”
“How?” Ling wondered.
 “You ever hear of a drug called Cruise?”
“I guess,” Ling answered. Everyone had heard of Cruise.
“Well,” Mr. Meng explained, “it’s made Lord Chen incredibly rich. He’s untouchable. You’ve never tried it, have you?”
“Cruise? No.” Was Mr. Meng telling him that he had actually taken him to meet with a drug lord?
“Good. Chen used to sell it to other Chinese, before the war, but not anymore. Now he hates it when other Chinese do things like that. He says it pollutes them, makes our people weak.
“Okay…” Why did you take me to see him? You don’t think I’m going to work for a guy like that, do you?
“The problem, if the rumors are true, is that Lord Chen’s supply of the drug is running out and he can’t make anymore, for some reason.
Good, Ling thought. But why wouldn’t he be able to make any more? If he’s the one selling it, he should know how to make it.
“Do you know what will happen when no one can get any more Cruise, Ling?”
Ling shook his head. Don’t care. Was this guy saying that Lord Chen was the only one who sold Cruise?
“Things will get ugly. Everyone will know that we no longer have Cruise to sell and our enemies, who have been forced to buy from us for so long, will turn against us. They will try and regain the control that we took from them.”
“So…you’re saying that there’s going to be some kind of mob war?”
“I’m saying that you are our miracle, Ling. You can stand by us, be our rock, and help protect your fellow Chinese from those who would see us fall.”
Ling didn’t know what to say. He had to get away from Mr. Meng. He especially had to not have any more meetings with drug lords. He wanted to go home, but he knew he couldn’t. LandForce would still be looking for him. And more than that, Lord Chen knew who he was now. He had called him Ling. And he and Mr. Meng both knew what he could do. They would certainly try to come get him if he went back to the Home. He could fight them off, maybe, but that would just be putting Viola and Shawn and everyone else in danger. What could he do?
“Are you with us, Ling?” Mr. Meng asked.
“Um…Yeah.” For now.

“It’s crud that other one got away,” Eric said, floating in mid-air as Melody ‘flew’ them both home. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
“Me?” Melody asked, a defensive tone in her voice. “I was busy helping Susan keep Trinity still. What were you doing?”
“What could I have done?”
“I don’t know. Fire-bomb him or something. You didn’t do anything.”
“Well, I didn’t want to hurt the guy. Or kill him. I don’t know what my fire would have done to him. Maybe nothing.”
They landed on the front porch of their guest house, tucked their masks into their pockets, and opened the door.
“Where have you been?” Peggy shrieked. “I looked everywhere for you! You said you were going to the bathroom and then you just never came back. I had to have Doctor Temlane show me the security tape of you leaving the building before I would believe you hadn’t been kidnapped!”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Peggy,” Eric began. “We were…”
Jim, opening the door behind them, began yelling as well. “What do you two think you were doing? You could have been killed pulling something like that!”
Eric spun around, startled and suddenly afraid. “Dad!”
Jim was on him, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and pulling him close. “Don’t you ever do something like that again, do you hear me? I’ll kill you myself! Promise me! Promise me you won’t do it again!”
Eric, looking into his dad’s eyes, suddenly realized how worried Jim must have been for him. His mother, his dad’s wife, had just died because of all this and now here he was, playing super-hero and…“I…I promise.”
Jim, slowly relaxing, let Eric go and walked toward the kitchen.
“Jim?” Peggy asked, following. “What happened?”
Leaning against the couch, Eric began to cry a little.
Danny, who had been sitting on the loveseat, set his book down and whispered, “Were you guys fighting those other kids again?”

Panting, Cobra closed the door to Fraley’s house, and let out a long breath. As he did so, his body deflated back to normal size and all of the darts that the Force had shot at him clattered onto the floor.  
Plague, getting up to meet him, said, “Hey. What happened? Where’s everyone else?”
Cobra shook his head, still breathing hard. “Gone, man. Force got ‘em.”
“What?” Plague said, smiling. “Trinity said it was going to be easy! You were just supposed to get Lightning and come back.”
Taking a seat on the floor, Cobra said, “I don’t think she was there anymore. Trin said he couldn’t hear her. But we never got inside to make sure. The other kids, the one that fought Lightning and Trinity last night, showed up. Trinity, Tsunami, and Nales all got caught. I don’t know where Sammy and War and Peace were. They prob’ly got caught too. All I know is we can’t stay here anymore. Someone’s eventually gonna come looking in this ol’ house and find us squatting here. Know what I mean?”
“Yes,” Plague said, grinning widely.

Late that night, inside the Central Force Intelligence Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Lightning, Trinity, Nales, and Tsunami were all pushed forward by the facility’s guards and made to stand in a row before a man in a General’s uniform. After being arrested in Base City, they had all been knocked out – Trinity by gas and the other three with tranquilizer darts – and dressed inside the full-body tungsten containment suits that they were now wearing.
“I am General Joseph Raines,” the man in front of them crisply announced, “and you all work for me now. The first order of business is for you to tell me where the rest of your friends are.”
“We’re not telling you anything!” Trinity growled. “You’re going to let us go. You think you can keep us here? You think you can keep me here?” And he swung backward at the guard behind him, knocking the man down. Trinity was already moving to the next guard when he suddenly heard the sound of gas being vented into his head piece. Before he could even try to rip the suit off, he was throwing up, unable to concentrate on anything else.
Beside him, all three of his companions were also retching inside their suits. “You will cooperate,” General Raines warned. “All of the guards have one of these,” he held up his remote, “and we can certainly think of other, more interesting forms of punishment, if you like. But know this; if even one of you steps out of line, you will all suffer for it. Now, as I was saying, who wants to tell me where your friends are?”


January 15th.

The next morning, Gretchen and Susan were sitting out in front of the school again, waiting for Eric and Melody to get off the bus. “Here they come,” the older girl announced.
A minute later and Eric and Melody’s school bus turned into the drive. Eric got off first, followed closely by Melody. “Hey!” Susan yelled.
Eric and Melody both looked over and Eric took a step toward them. “Eric!” Melody barked. Then Eric dropped his head and turned to go into the school.
“What are they doing?” Susan wondered aloud.
“I don’t know,” Gretchen said. “They saw us.”
“I’ll text ‘em.”

There was a moving truck parked in front of their guest house when Danny got off the bus that day and ‘Aunt’ Peggy had a lamp in her hand, walking toward the house.
“Hey, Sport!” Jim called, jumping down from inside the trailer, a box in his hands. “Wanna take this for me?”
“Um, sure,” the half-Mexican answered. “What’s going on?”
“Peggy’s moving in with us. Take that to her room downstairs, will ya?”
Jim climbed back into the trailer and Danny started for the house. He was just trying to figure out how to keep a hold of the box and open the door when Eric opened the door on his way back out to the truck.
“Hey!” Eric said. “Come here! I want to show you something!”
“I have to take this box downstairs.”
“Just set it down for a sec,” Eric said, taking the box out of his hands and setting it on the floor in front of the couch. “I want to show you something.”
Danny slung his backpack off and followed Eric down the hall to his room. “Check it out!” Eric chuckled, pointing to his bed.
Danny looked, but all he could see was that Eric had new sheets and a blanket. “Yeah?”
“They’re fire-proof! Dad said he was afraid I’d have a nightmare or a dream or something and catch my bed on fire. So he bought me these.
“Makes sense,” Danny agreed, as Eric’s phone began to vibrate. Eric looked at it but didn’t answer. “Who was it?” Danny asked.
“Susan again. She and that Gretchen girl have been texting me and Melody all day.”
“What’d you tell ‘em?”
“What do you think?” Eric asked. “I told ‘em we couldn’t do the Changers anymore.”
Danny had liked hearing about Eric and Melody’s adventures over the last couple of days, but he was glad they weren’t doing the Changers anymore. One, it was dangerous and two, he was jealous. It just didn’t seem fair for the two of them to go off playing hero while he had to sit at home doing nothing except reading all the time. “Why’s Peggy moving in?”
“Dad said it was just to help out with things since Mom died, but I think it’s so she can help keep an eye on us, to keep us from going out with the Changers when he’s not around.”
Danny nodded. That also made sense. Also, “Didn’t Peggy get fired from her job or something?”
“Yeah, but she could find another job if she wanted to. She’s just here to watch us.”
Eric walked back toward the living room, signaling that the conversation was over. Danny followed and picked up his box again, heading for the basement.
“Where do you want this one?” Melody was asking, a large box hovering in mid-air.
“Oh, I think that one’s clothes, isn’t it?” Peggy asked. “No, that’s all my blankets. Just put it by the bed. Hi, Danny!”
“Hey. I’ve got…” he held the box far enough in front of him to see what was written on the side, “kitchen.”
“Hmm. Can you take that up back upstairs? I might have some things we need since the fire.”
Hanging his head, Danny turned around.
“Danny,” Peggy called after him, “Melody and I are going to church Sunday. Do you want to come with us?”
“Um…” What was he supposed to say? Peggy knew what religion he was, didn’t she? “I’m Jewish.”
“I know. I just thought you might want to learn about something new. Think about it, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, not really meaning it. Great, he thought. Grandma Jodie already bugs me about being Jewish every time I see her and now Peggy’s going to start. I wonder if it’s too late to ask Uncle Jim to change his mind about letting her live with us.

That night. “You ready, man? I can’t wait to see that stuff you do. Meng said it was dazzlin’! Even though you were holdin’ out on me back at the apartment. I’ll forgive ya.”
Ling didn’t know what to think of Andy. He thought he had seen the twenty-something-year-old at the warehouse the other night, but he wasn’t sure. Mr. Meng had dropped him off at Andy’s apartment after his interview with Lord Chen and now Andy was supposed to be what? His new babysitter? His keeper for Mr. Meng and Lord Chen? Of course Andy had wanted to see what Ling could do – had been asking Ling to show him all afternoon – but Ling had refused. Now that he knew that Lord Chen, a drug lord, was in charge of the League, he didn’t want to show them his power any more. He knew they were just going to try to use him to do wrong things.
“You can do that stuff, right?” Andy asked. “Cause I am not about to get killed in here.”
Ling looked out the window of the car. They were parked in front of a nightclub, a place called Loose. “What are we doing?” Ling asked nervously. He had not liked Andy’s comment about getting killed.
“Don’t worry,” Andy laughed. “You’re a tank, right? You’ll be fine. C’mon.”
Andy got out of the car, but Ling didn’t move. Andy walked around to Ling’s side, staring at him. “What are we doing?” Ling asked again.
Andy looked at him for a moment before answering. “Meng said you might be like this. We’re going into that nightclub over there and we’re going to kill us some Panthers before they get the dazzlin’ idea to kill us first.”
“Andy!” someone yelled. Ling looked behind him out the car window. A bunch of other Chinese Americans – Andy’s age and older, male and female – were getting out of their cars too. Then he noticed that some people, all of them black, were starting to come out of the nightclub. There were about ten of them all grouped together in front of the entrance, watching Andy and the League.
Andy looked back at Ling. “Time’s up, man. Time to do your thing.”
“I…I’m not killing anyone,” Ling stammered.
Andy glanced back at the black guys behind him. A few more had come out of the club and joined them. When Andy turned back to Ling, he said, “I told you it’s time. I’m tired of you holding out on me.” And almost faster than Ling could see him do it, Andy pulled a gun out of the front of his pants and shot Ling in the face.
Ling flinched and felt the bullet’s impact. It was like someone had just tapped his head. He had changed just in time.
“They got one of those kids!” one of the men in front of the club yelled and the next instant, a spray of gunfire erupted.
Andy tried to run back around the hood of his car to take cover, but he wasn’t quick enough and Ling saw him go down. A lot of the other League members had taken cover and were now firing back across the street. Ling started to get out of the car. He was going to pick Andy up and get him out of the line of fire if he wasn’t already dead, but then a thought occurred to Ling. Should I save Andy? He brought this on himself. He wanted me to kill those other guys, wanted to use me. He shot me! But Ling felt bad thinking he could just leave Andy in the street like that, no matter what Andy had done. I have to save him.
He got out, feeling the bullets glancing off him, and dragged a still-conscious Andy around the other side of the car. “You’re huge, man,” Andy marveled.
Ling didn’t answer. He just turned and started walking toward the black guys across the street. More and more of them kept pouring out of the club. ‘Panthers’, Andy had called them. Because panthers are black? Ling wondered.
Ling approached and, as he had wanted, all of the Panthers were now directing their fire at him. When he reached the curb in front of the club, he grabbed the first man’s gun and threw it away. Then he punched him in the head – Ling was sure the blow would only render him unconscious – to prevent him from just running after and picking up his gun again. From there, he moved onto the next Panther, fully aware that the League was still firing behind him. Maybe I should have disarmed them first, Ling thought. At least they have their cars to hide behind. These Panthers are right out in the open.
As he grabbed the second Panther’s gun, Ling saw LandForce hovercars begin to pull up, blocking either side of the street. “Put your guns down!” a Forceman ordered through a bullhorn. “Cease fire!” At the same time, other officers began shooting rubber bullets and gas bombs into the two lines of combatants.
A gas canister bounced onto the ground in front of him and exploded. Panthers began coughing and then quickly passing out. Ling couldn’t smell the gas – he couldn’t smell anything in Tank form – and guessed that it wouldn’t affect him, but still knew he had to get out of there. He had no desire to fight the Force. The Panthers that were still conscious were running back into the club and Ling followed them. With Forcepersons blocking both sides of the street, it was the closest place he could think to go.
But as he entered the club, he immediately wished he hadn’t, because the Panthers just kept shooting him. Getting angry now, he grabbed two of their guns at once and started swinging them at his assailants. “Stop shooting me!” he yelled.
After a couple of minutes, all of the clubbers were either unconscious or had fled the building. Finally able to rest for a moment, Ling suddenly remembered the Force outside. Why haven’t they come in here? he wondered. Or thrown in their gas bombs, at least?
The club’s door opened and two people walked in. They were teenagers – a big, black kid wearing a gas mask, and a skinny, curly-haired white boy with no mask. As the black kid walked more into the light, Ling recognized him as being the same person he had fought outside the mall. “Cobra,” he said.
“My man,” Cobra said, looking around at all the unconscious Panthers. “You sure know how to do some damage, don’t ya? Of course, so do we.”
“Where’s the Force?” Ling asked.
Cobra laughed. “They dead, man. My man, Plague, here,” he cupped Plague’s shoulder, “he took ‘em all out – the Force and your China-boys out there.” Cobra inflated. “Now I get to take you out.”
Ling could see Cobra looking at him, trying to fix him with his stare, but Ling wasn’t having any of it. He remembered the last time he had met Cobra’s stare. He had been frozen, unable to move. He wasn’t going to let that happen this time. Keeping his head down, Ling charged.
Plague, at the door, giggled and called, “More LandForce are showing up!” Then he sucked in a deep breath, ready to expel more of his deadly toxins.

“Blast it!” Jim cursed. Five of his men were reeling away from the club’s door, infected by whatever bio-weapon the kid inside was made of. He looked back down at his scanners. Sure enough, there were still two more kids, besides the germ-spewer, inside the building. These other two looked like they were fighting each other, but Jim had no idea how they weren’t being affected.

“Hello?” Eric sighed, answering his phone. He knew it was Gretchen calling.
“Eric! Are you watching the news?”
“No…”
“Listen, I’m at the Loose club. I need you to come down here. They’ve got –“
“I can’t.”
“Eric, they’ve got Ling.”
“Who?”
“He’s this kid from the Home where I live.” She told him about Cobra and Plague and Ling fighting in the club and about how neither the Force nor anyone else could go in because of Plague’s germs.
“What do you want me to do about it?” Eric asked.
“Eric, do you know how to kill germs? You make them hot. Plague’s…junk…whatever’s he’s breathing out, won’t be able to get to you through your fire.”
Melody came into Eric’s room then, carrying her own phone. When she saw Eric on the phone, too, she pointed at her phone and mouthed the word, “Susan.”
Eric nodded and asked Gretchen, “Is my dad there?”
“Yeah, he’s here. He’s right outside the club.”
“Then I can’t come. I told you, he’ll kill me if I do anything –”
“What, he’s allowed to take chances with his life, but you’re not just because you’re younger? You’re the one with the powers, not him!”
“…Okay,” Eric sighed. “I’ll be there.”
“Thank you.”
Eric hung up his phone and Melody, also hanging up hers, burst out with, “What do you mean you’re going?”
“I have to.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Who else is going to?”
“I don’t know. Not you. Uncle Jim said –”
“My dad doesn’t know everything. Now are you coming or not?”
“No!”
“Fine.”
Danny had heard them yelling from his room and came to see what all the commotion was about. He caught up with them just as Eric was heading out the front door. “What’s going on?” Danny asked.
Peggy, coming up from her room in the basement, asked, “Where are you going?”
But Eric didn’t stop. He just walked out into the middle of the front lawn and flamed up.
“Eric!” Peggy gasped. “Get back in here! Someone’ll see you!”
“I have to go,” Eric said. “I have to help Ling.”
“Who’s Ling?” Peggy asked, confused. “Ling Dybek?” She knew the boy from God’s Love Church, knew that he had run away from Viola’s Home, but how could Eric be involved in that situation?
Eric, rather than answering her question, concentrated all of his efforts on producing more fire out of the bottoms of his feet. He could feel the flames under him beginning to lift him up.
“Eric!” Melody yelled. “You can’t fly!”
I’m like a rocket, Eric thought, and took off.

A few minutes later, Jim saw a flaming body whiz past him and crash through one of the front windows of the nightclub. Eric?
The flames from Eric’s feet were propelling him forward while more flames from his down-stretched fists kept him horizontal. Inside the club, Plague heard the sound of shattering glass and saw something bright hurtling toward him, but before he could duck, Eric flew full force into him, tackling him to the ground. Plague tried to get out from under Eric’s flaming body, but the next instant, Eric had grabbed him by his hair and was slamming his head against the floor.
With Plague unconscious, Eric turned toward Cobra and sent a wide jet of flame blowing his way.
Cobra, who had let Ling go when he heard the window breaking, was now utterly shocked to find himself suddenly on fire.
“Stop, drop, and roll,” Eric advised.
But Cobra didn’t need to do that. The fire burned off his top layer of skin, his cobra’s hood, but then went out, leaving him normal-sized. Eric, having taken a few steps closer, stood with fists outstretched, ready to shoot another fire blast.
Ling, seizing the opportunity, swung his rock-hard first into the side of Cobra’s head.
Cobra fell and Eric lowered his fists. “You Ling?”
“Yeah.” Ling’s response came out more as a question than a definite answer.
“Did that Plague guy get you? You feel sick or anything?”
“No. I…I must be immune or something.”
“Good. Then let’s go. Out the back. There’s less Force back there. Just bust through ‘em. Gretchen and Susan are waiting for us down the road.”
“Gretchen’s here? How? Is Shawn and Viola here?”
“Um, no, just Gretchen. C’mon!”
Ling led the way out the back door, taking all of the fire from the Forcepersons stationed there, to give Eric enough time to get airborne again.
Eric started flying over the buildings in one direction, expecting Ling to follow him, but when he looked back, Ling wasn’t there. Eric turned around and found Ling running down an alley in a completely different direction. Eric flew directly over his head and asked, “Hey, what are you doing? Gretchen’s waiting for you.”
 “I can’t go back,” Ling answered. “They’ll find me.”
“Who? The Force?”
“Well, them too. But mostly I’m talking about Mr. Meng and Lord Chen.”
“Who?” Eric asked again.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ling said. “Just tell Gretchen I can’t go back. I’d be putting everyone in danger.”

 “Am I good?” Eric asked when he had landed back in front of Gretchen and Susan.
“You’re good,” Gretchen confirmed. “No one’s following you.”
“You see what Ling said?”
“Yeah. Thanks for trying. I have to get him back, though.”
“Eric,” Susan said, “turn the flames off on your shoulder.”
“My shoulder?” Eric asked. “Why?” But he did it anyway.
Susan put her hand on his shoulder for a moment and then her face transformed into an exact replica of his. In Eric’s voice, she said, “Adding you to my repertoire, like I did with Trinity the other night. So next time you won’t have to come down if you don’t want to.”
“It’s not that I didn’t want to,” Eric said. “It’s just my dad…Anyway, I came down, didn’t I? And change back. That’s creepy.”
Susan transformed back into herself and touched Gretchen’s back.
“Hey!” Gretchen said, feeling like Susan was robbing her of something.
Susan transformed into Gretchen – except for the pregnant belly – but said, “It doesn’t work. How do you do your seeing thing?”
“I don’t know. I don’t do anything. It just happens. All the time.”
“Hmm. I can’t do it. With Trinity and Eric’s powers, I just touch them and I know how to do it.”
“Well, good,” Gretchen said. “You should ask before you try to steal other people’s abilities anyway.”
“We’re teammates,” Susan said. “You want me to be as strong as possible, don’t you?”
“…Yes,” Gretchen admitted. “But you should still ask. Now c’mon. The Force is still out there looking for people. We don’t need ‘em finding flame-boy here.”
“It’s Fire,” Eric said, and blasted off again.


January 16th.

Almost all of the first floor lights in the Home were still on when Gretchen walked up the drive. “Great!” Gretchen sighed. “Shawn and Viola must have noticed I wasn’t there. Oh well. I was gonna wake ‘em up anyway.” She opened the door and let Viola speak first.
“Gretchen! Where have you been? It’s after midnight. You have to let us know –“
“I found Ling,” Gretchen announced.
“Ling?” Viola gasped. “Where? How?”
“He…he has an ability, like those kids that attacked the Mall. We saw it that day that you brought me back here. He…gets big and strong and it’s like nothing can hurt him.”
“I…” Viola said, sitting down on the couch and shaking her head. Shawn leaned against the wall, ready to hear more.
“I have an ability, too.” She told them about her vision and proved it by telling Shawn and Viola what color underwear they each were wearing. Then she told them about how she had used her vision that first day to rescue Eric and Melody and how she had found Ling at the nightclub tonight and about her recent adventures with the Changers. “And two of the kids on the team – Fire and Moves – are Eric and Melody, the PG’s kids that I rescued. If the PG knows we know about them…”
“He won’t do anything to Ling for killing Fraley,” Shawn finished.
“You’re going to blackmail the Protector General?” Viola questioned.
“There is one other problem,” Gretchen put in, changing the subject. And she told them what she had seen Ling say about Mr. Meng and Lord Chen.
Viola began crying and Shawn said, “Good work, Gretchen. Go get some sleep and tomorrow, you and I are going to find Ling.”

“General Raines, sir, the new arrivals have been put in containment with the others.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” General Raines said from behind his desk. “Let’s see how they’re doing, shall we?” Raines flicked the monitor on his desk on and immediately saw individual camera feeds of Trinity, Lightning, Nales, Tsunami, and now Cobra and Plague, all standing up straight in their cells. Everyone except Cobra and Plague were looking very tired. Raines had ordered them to stand like that this morning and hadn’t let them rest since. Now both Lightning and Nales were starting to sway again, despite the punishment that would be doled out if they fell over.
Their cells were all lined up in a row with cement walls on the sides and rear, but reinforced plexi-glass in the front. A Force Intelligence guard was stationed just a few yards back from each pane of plexi-glass, a remote control held at the ready.
Cobra, who had just been revived and placed in his cell, suddenly shouted, “I don’t care! I ain’t standin’ here all night!” and plopped down on his bed.
Immediately, his guard pressed a button on his remote control and gas began to fill each of the cells.
General Raines watched as each of the four previous occupants groaned and tried to plug their nostrils. Despite their efforts at blocking the gas, all six prisoners – ‘trainees’ as Raines called them – were once again throwing up and dry heaving.
Raines pressed a button on his computer. His voice could now be heard in each of the cells. “This is General Joseph Raines. Tell me what you know and I’ll let you go to sleep. There’s no need to torture yourselves like this.”

“Jim,” Peggy whispered.
Jim looked up. He was sitting on the floor in the hallway, his back against Eric’s wall, with a half-empty bottle of wine between his legs.
“Jim,” Peggy repeated, not sure if she had his attention or not. “It’s four in the morning. I think you can go to bed. He’s not gonna sneak out again tonight.”
Jim nodded, set the bottle off to one side, and tried to stand. He didn’t do very well. “Here,” Peggy said, grabbing his arm, “let me help you.”
She got him to his feet and Jim leaned against Eric’s doorframe, looking in on his son as he slept. Jim had nailed Eric’s window shut and demanded that he keep his door open so that Jim could hear if he was trying to leave again. For now, all was well.
“C’mon,” Peggy said. “Let’s get you to bed, okay?”
Peggy walked Jim into his bedroom and positioned him in front of his bed, ready to lay him down. But then, rather than falling backward, he started falling into her. She caught him and was struggling to stand him back him up when he suddenly kissed her.
In shock, she pushed him away and, this time, he did fall onto the bed.
“‘m sorry,” Jim mumbled. “Jus’ miss Doranne.”
“I know,” Peggy said. “I understand. Just try to get some sleep.” And she walked out.

Seven hours later. “Lord Chen,” Mr. Meng greeted.
Chen was walking down the wooden stairs into the basement of an older League member’s home. In front of him was Mr. Meng, about fifteen of his gang, and Ling strapped down to a mattress with what looked to be about fifty ropes going around him and old t-shirt stuffed in his mouth. “You actually did like I said,” Chen remarked. “Good.”
“It took some doing,” Mr. Meng replied, “but we got him down.”
“Give me your gun,” Chen ordered.
Meng handed over his gun, again, and was promptly executed by Lord Chen.
Looking down at Ling, Chen said, “That was because Meng was the one who started this. He brought in this freak, this rogue Tank who refuses to listen to orders and cost us twenty-five of our soldiers last night. Now we will see how many bullets it takes to pierce the tank.” And he shot Ling in the forehead.

“I found him!” Gretchen exclaimed.
“Where?” Shawn asked and Gretchen read the address off the house. They had been driving around Base City for an hour now, allowing Gretchen to scan each of its many sections, street by street.
“Is he okay?” Susan asked from the backseat. Gretchen had insisted that Shawn let her come along in case they ran into any trouble and Shawn had promised not to ask who Bends was beneath her bandana mask.
“They’re shooting him!” Gretchen answered.
“Is he hurt?” Shawn asked.
“Not…I don’t know. He’s gonna be. His skin keeps flaking off. Eventually there won’t be anything left of him.”
“Okay.” Shawn parked the car, got out and ran around to open the trunk. A minute later and he came back around wearing a black, metal reinforced, ninja suit. “Let’s go,” he said to Susan. “And if you have to call me anything in there, call me Shadowstar. Gretchen, you stay here. Wait five minutes and then call the Force to come here.”

Lord Chen changed his clip for the third time while the other members of the League kept shooting Ling.
Ling struggled, tried to get free, to fight back, but there were too many ropes. He could hardly move. He knew he was going to die here.
But then he heard a series of shouts and loud thuds coming from upstairs in the house. It sounded like things kept falling or being thrown down. The League gathered around him turned and looked up the stairs, listening to the sound.
“Go!” Chen ordered, waving them up.
They ran up the stairs, but then a bunch of them fell back down. A boy about Ling’s age was coming down the stairs. Then a ninja sprang off the stairs and landed on the basement floor. The League attacked the two of them and tried to shoot them, but it was like they were both bullet-proof. One by one, the boy and the ninja punched or kicked all the League members unconscious.
Finally, only Lord Chen was left, with his back pressed up against the wall. The ninja punched him in the face and Chen’s head hit the cement behind him. He crumpled to the floor and the ninja turned back to Ling.
“It’s okay,” the ninja said, pulling down his mask. “I’m here.”
He removed Ling’s gag and Ling, once he had coughed a couple of times, said, “Shawn?”
“Yeah,” Shawn smiled, cutting Ling’s ropes.
“Where’d you learn how to do that stuff?”
“I’ll tell you later. We’ve gotta get outta here. Can you walk?”
“I think so,” Ling said, sitting up.
“Are you hurt?”
“A little.” Ling felt his head. “They kept shooting me in the same spot.”
“Okay. Well, stay like that until we get you home, okay?”
“Okay.”

Shawn and Susan – who was still in her Trinity form – ran Ling back out to the car where Gretchen was waiting. “Take the car and take Ling home,” Shawn told Gretchen.
“What are you gonna do?” Gretchen asked.
“I’m gonna settle things with the PG when he shows up.”

Shawn waited until Jim and the Force had come back out with Meng’s dead body and Chen and the League in handcuffs. Then he walked up to the Force tape line and called Jim over.
“Mr. Dybek,” Jim greeted. “What can I do for you?”
“I just wanted to let you know that Ling is back at home.”
“Oh yeah?” Jim asked, raising one of his eyebrows. “That’s certainly a coincidence, isn’t it? He’s not the one that punched all these people out, is he? Because I know he’s one of these…‘enhanced’…teenagers we’ve had running around the city the last few days. My men saw him three nights ago, after the mall incident, and again last night. After what he did to Fraley, I’m sure it was him they were seeing. No one else matching his description could have done that.”
“I just wanted to let you know that Ling is back at home,” Shawn repeated, “and to ask you to leave him there. Considering your own situation, I hope that won’t be too much of a problem.”
“My situation?” Jim asked.
“Your son and your niece…are also enhanced.”
“Are you threatening me?” Jim asked “Trying to blackmail me? Because I will –“
“I’m asking you for your understanding. I’m sure we both want to raise our children in peace.”
Jim sighed. “I’m willing to call Fraley’s death self-defense. It’s clear he was trying to kidnap Ling. He’s probably the one who tried to nab him before. What I want is information. I’ve arrested six of these kids in the last three days, but that might not even be a drop in the bucket. I have no idea how many are out there. I have no way of identifying them. Their DNA looks exactly the same as everyone else’s. You remember when I had you test Ling and nothing showed up. So tell me, how did Fraley know to kidnap Ling? Who was he working for? Who made these kids?”
“I don’t know,” Shawn replied. “But I will let you know anything we find out.”

Viola heard a car door slam and ran to open the front door. The first thing she saw was Susan, in Trinity form, flying up and away from the car. The second thing was Gretchen helping Ling limp up the walkway. “Ling!” Viola gasped. The boy’s clothes were shredded and he had all kinds of cuts and bruises all over his body. She ran to him to and put her shoulder under one of his arms. “What happened?”
“I…I’m okay,” Ling managed, tears coming to his eyes.
Viola, looking over Ling’s head to Gretchen, asked, “Where did you find him? Where’s Shawn?”
“Shawn’s talking to the Force,” Gretchen answered.
They got Ling into the house and up into the bathroom, where Viola cleaned his wounds.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” Ling asked.
“Mad? No, baby!” Viola said. “I just…I don’t understand. Can you really change like that?”
Ling transformed and Viola jerked back. She quickly got over the shock and spent a moment looking him over. “How did you do that?” she asked.
Ling returned to normal and said, “I don’t know. That day that guy tried to kidnap me, I just got so mad, I changed…and I killed him.”
Viola started to cry, but then quickly wiped her eyes and shook her head. “No. It was self-defense. You didn’t know your own strength.”
“It was…what do they call it?”
“Excessive force,” answered Shawn, back from his conversation with the PG. “But you can be forgiven for excessive force, Ling.” God knows I used excessive force almost exclusively as Shadowstar and He’s forgiven me. “You weren’t thinking. You were just reacting. God understands that.” He put an arm around Viola. “And we understand that.”
They all hugged and then Ling asked, “What if the League comes back, looking for me?”
“Then your sister’ll see ‘em coming and we’ll deal with ‘em.”
“My sister?” Ling asked.
“Gretchen. She has a gift too. That’s how we found you. And since no one else would understand what it is you two can do, we decided last night to adopt you both. You, Gretchen, and Jenny.”


Read or purchase the series at The Gifted Book Series!

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