jueves, 7 de junio de 2018

ZODIACS 1-3

THERE WAS SOMETHING odd about the tour guide. She was tall, with long hair, and she seemed to know a lot about Chinese history—as she should, working in a museum. But as Steven Lee listened to her, he couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t quite what she seemed.
“The New China Heritage Museum first opened five years ago,” the guide said. “It was designed to resemble a traditional Chinese quadrangle house, with several buildings surrounding a central courtyard.”
Steven raised his hand. Mr. Singh, the teacher, nodded to him.
“Was it always planned to be a museum?” Steven asked.
“Yes,” the guide replied. She seemed distracted; her eyes darted quickly around the room. “I mean, no. Maybe. I think it was supposed to be a hotel?”
Steven frowned. A hotel? That didn’t sound right. And the guide didn’t sound very sure of herself.
The rest of the class just nodded.
Steven looked around the room. Its high walls were covered with intricate wooden carvings, stained-glass windows, and stylized artwork depicting ancient peasants with their oxen. A couple of large Buddha statues stood in the center of the room.
“The earliest books were manufactured in China,” the guide said, gesturing toward a glass case. “Even before the invention of paper, writing was printed on materials like bone, wood, and, uh…” She trailed off.
Steven’s friend Harani stepped forward. “And what?” she asked.
“Umm…” The guide had pulled out her phone and stood frowning at it. “Uh, plastic…”
Mr. Singh cocked his head. “Excuse me, ma’am. Did…did you say plastic?”
“Did I?” She smiled distantly. “That’s silly, of course. I meant, uh…aluminum foil.”
That’s definitely not right, Steven thought.
“This woman is way off-script,” Harani whispered, leaning in close to Steven. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face and she wore a bright orange sweater.
“I know, right?” Steven replied. “And what’s she doing now?”
The guide was jabbing at her phone’s screen, shaking her head.
Harani smiled. “Maybe she’s waiting for a better job offer.”
Then he noticed the guide’s name tag: It read Jumanne. Steven frowned; the woman sounded Chinese, but the name didn’t. Then again, Steven looked Chinese, and his name was American—a fact that had surprised a few of the locals in Hong Kong on this very trip.
Ryan, a friendly kid with red hair, pushed in between Steven and Harani. “Hey, Lee,” Ryan said. “You see this?”
Ryan pointed at a display case. Inside it, a very old printed book stood propped open. A few Chinese characters ran down the side, but the page was dominated by an old-style etching, a stylized drawing of a man in robes shooting some kind of lightning out of his hand.
Steven blinked. “We’ve been over this, Ryan. I don’t know what everything here says,” he said.
“I know, dude, but it’s not that—the guy in the drawing. He looks like a crazy super hero!”
“He looks like that guy,” Harani said. She pointed at Steven’s chest.
Steven looked from the book down to the image on his T-shirt. It showed a dark-skinned man in metallic armor, his hand crackling with energy.
Steven looked up at Harani in disbelief. “You mean the Steel Mongoose?” he asked.
She shrugged.
“You’ve never heard of the Steel Mongoose?” Steven continued. “African adventurer Bob Mugabi, who found himself critically injured and built a high-tech exoskeleton that gives him the powers of a cute but deadly wild animal?”
“Is, uh, is he in comic books?” Harani asked.
“No. Maybe, I dunno. He only starred in Steel Mongoose 3, the top-grossing film of last year! It was playing on the flight?”
“I like poetry,” she said.
Then Harani looked past him and grimaced. Steven turned to see Mr. Singh glaring at them from a few feet away.
“We better cool it,” Harani whispered.
Ryan laughed. “You and your heroes, Lee. They’re not real, you know.”
Harani and Ryan moved off. Steven lingered behind for a moment, staring at the book in the case. The strange image of the man with the lightning bolts seemed to stare back at him, as if it were speaking to him through the ages.
“Hey, Lee,” Ryan called. “Take a look at this.”
Steven crossed over to the wall. Ryan had stopped next to a big empty case with a sign reading, in English and Chinese: EXHIBIT REMOVED FOR REPAIRS.
“Sucks, huh?” Ryan said. “This thing must be fifteen feet tall.”
Steven peered closer. Inside the case was a small cardboard standup with a picture of the missing exhibit: a large flat disk, etched with a series of concentric circles and lines. The lines formed hundreds of tiny boxes, each filled with one or more ancient Chinese characters. Notches studded the outer part, marked with numbers from 0 to 360. A label read: Shipan—Astrological Compass. C. 200 B.C.
“My grandfather,” Steven said. “He’s got one of those. Well, his is a lot smaller. I think he brought it over from China.” Steven pointed. “The markings are the names of stars in the sky.”
“I like your grandpa,” Ryan said. “He makes those tasty little salty peapods. Yo, we better get moving.”
Ryan started off after Harani and the rest of the class, who had gathered around a large Buddha statue. But Steven hesitated. He looked around at the rugs and weathered maps covering the walls. The glass cases holding ancient pieces of bone and pottery. An exhibit of Cantonese opera showing people in bright, lavish costumes. The vast history and culture of China preserved in this place.
Steven hadn’t wanted to come to Hong Kong. He liked his home in suburban Philadelphia, his big TV and his Xbox and his Blu-ray collection of superhero movies. But his parents had insisted. “You should see China,” his father had said. “You have to be in a place to understand it. You need to know where you came from.”
It must have been important, Steven knew, because his father rarely spoke for that long. In fact, Steven’s parents weren’t around much; ever since he could remember, they’d been busy running their company, seven days a week. But grandfather was always around, with his awesome cooking and his warm smile and his long stories about old China.
I should listen to those stories more, Steven thought.
He gazed over at the class. Harani asked the guide another question. Steven couldn’t hear the answer, but some of the other kids laughed. Mr. Singh frowned, leaning forward to reprimand them gently.
Standing apart from the class, Steven suddenly felt very lonely, very much out of place. Just two weeks…he thought. But I’m already looking forward to getting home.
He looked down at his shirt again. He stared at the determined, muscular figure of the Steel Mongoose, fists glowing with righteous power.
“Mr. Lee!”
Mr. Singh was glaring at him. The class was marching through a high archway into an adjacent exhibit space. Frowning, Steven started forward to join them.
Then he stopped in his tracks.
The scream was quiet—so faint that Steven could barely make it out. But it felt deep and resonant, and it penetrated right into his skull. It sounded like someone—a man or woman, Steven couldn’t tell—howling in agony.
Steven whirled around, trying to locate the source of the scream. It seemed to be coming from the far wall. Two huge ornate rugs covered most of the wall, with a small door between them.
Then the noise was gone.
Steven frowned. Did I really hear that? he wondered. He shook his head and started toward the archway—then stopped again as the scream sounded once more.
The class had moved on to the next room. But the guide, the strange woman named Jumanne, stood alone now. She stared intently at her phone, then glanced up at the door—the one between the two rugs. The door the screams had come from.
Instinctively, Steven moved behind a Buddha statue. He peered around the side, watching Jumanne as her eyes flicked from the door back to the phone, and then to the door again. She looked like she was trying to make a decision.
Then she tossed the phone aside and strode toward the door. Her whole demeanor seemed different now; she wasn’t awkward or distracted at all. She moved quickly, with purpose. Her eyes were sharp and hard.
Steven ducked from one Buddha to the next, moving closer. The woman didn’t notice him.
Jumanne reached out and pushed the door open. Casting a quick, grim glance backward, she disappeared into the darkness. The door swung shut behind her.
Steven looked around again. He was alone in the exhibit hall. Even the guards had gone, following the students into the next room.
He sprinted over to the door the woman had passed through. It bore a red sign reading: NO ENTRY. MUSEUM PERSONNEL ONLY.
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Steven grabbed hold of the door handle. Then he stopped and turned to look back at the archway. I should go back to the class, he thought. This is a foreign country. I could get in a lot of trouble.
Then he heard the scream again. It was louder this time, and higher-pitched. Someone, he realized, is in a lot of pain.
He glanced down again at the image on his T-shirt. He thought of the woman, the tour guide. Was she in trouble on the other side of this door? Or had she gone through to save someone who was?
Maybe I should just see if anyone needs help, he thought.
As he pushed the door open, he realized he was smiling.


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STEVEN TOOK a step forward into the darkness. He blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Then he stopped short.
The floor dropped off just ahead of him, descending into a long stairway. It was made of wood, with a creaky old railing beside it. The walls were worn metal, stained and weathered by time.
Steven sucked in a breath. The air was stale and quiet. Whatever this place is, he thought, it’s a lot older than the museum.
Once again, he hesitated. He leaned forward, but he couldn’t see more than a few steps down. There was no way to tell where it went, or how far down it stretched.
Suddenly, the scream rang out again, deep and resonant.
Steven pulled out his phone. Shining it like a weak flashlight, he started down the staircase. The steps sagged under his feet, and the railing felt like it might snap off in his hand. The light from his phone illuminated a few steps at a time, but that was all.
Soon he couldn’t see the door anymore, either.
I’m headed deep underground, Steven thought, but sideways, too. I think we’re going…away from the museum?
The scream rose to a high pitch, then went silent again.
Steven tried to keep track of how far he’d traveled. But he hadn’t thought to start counting steps at the beginning, and now it was impossible to tell where he was.
“Oh!” Steven cried as he stumbled, reaching the staircase’s abrupt end. Something lay at his feet, crumpled in a shapeless lump.
For a terrible moment, he thought it was a body.
Grimacing, afraid to look, he leaned down and touched it. With relief, he realized it was just a pile of cloth—a uniform, like the ones worn by the guides at the museum. Something sharp pricked his finger, and he felt a small hard object pinned to the uniform.
Wincing, he lifted the object. It was a name tag.
Jumanne.
A million thoughts raced through Steven’s brain. Had the guide changed clothes down here for some reason, hastily tossing her old uniform aside? Had she been attacked?
The stairwell was still dark, but Steven’s eyes were starting to adjust. Just ahead, a metal door loomed at the end of the passageway. He tossed the clothing aside and felt around until his hand closed over a doorknob.
For a moment, he thought about turning and running back up the stairs. Then he glanced at the discarded uniform, crumpled on the floor. His heart skipped a beat.
If somebody’s in trouble…
He pushed open the door and stepped forward. Then he gasped.
Steven stood on a thin catwalk running all the way around a large, perfectly circular room. The room was dark, lit only slightly from the floor below.
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Steven realized that the catwalk frighteningly didn’t have a railing. He stepped forward carefully, peering over the edge. Ten or twelve feet below, a dozen round circles were arrayed around the edges of the chamber, each about the size of a wading pool. Looking closer, he noticed they actually were pools, filled with some strange, shimmering liquid. They radiated a pale, eerie greenish light into the room.
The room was quiet. If someone had been screaming in here, they’d stopped now.
Steven looked up. The chamber stretched far upward, several stories high. Its walls were made of metal and tapered, narrowing toward the ceiling like an upside-down ice-cream cone. This gave the room a claustrophobic feel, despite its immense size.
Round holes and old support struts dotted the walls, as if other catwalks had once been mounted there and then removed. And at the narrow top of the chamber, where the walls converged almost to a point, a large flat disk had been mounted on the ceiling. It looked very old, and on its visible side, facing down, it was marked with a very familiar set of numbers and boxes.
That’s the—what was it called?—the shipan! Steven realized. The exhibit from upstairs, the one that had been removed for repairs.
The one that looks like grandfather’s little compass.
Steven sucked in a deep breath. What was going on? What was this room, anyway? What were those mysterious pools of liquid? Why had a valuable exhibit from the museum been installed in such a bizarre place?
And how did the mysterious Jumanne fit in?
In the exact center of the room, a group of lights winked on. Steven blinked and saw a small elevated stage with three people standing on it. The stage was covered with computers, monitors, and technical equipment, all rigged up in a crazy tangle of wires and cables.
The people wore baggy jumpsuits and held clipboards and tablet computers. One of them, a serious-looking technician with thin glasses, looked up, away from Steven. “Sorry, Maxwell,” he called out. “Just a minor power glitch.”
Steven followed the technician’s gaze. Partway across the room, a large figure hovered in midair. He was lit from below by one of the pools so Steven couldn’t make out his features; but his body was coiled, his fists clenched. The pool below him seemed to glow slightly brighter than the others, casting long, imposing shadows along his body.
When the man—Maxwell—spoke, his voice was deep and commanding. “Is it repaired now?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” the technician replied.
Maxwell reached out a hand and pointed to another pool. Now Steven could see: Maxwell was astride a one-person hover-vehicle, sort of a crazy, higher-tech version of a Segway. And around Maxwell’s outstretched arm—around his entire body, in fact—a greenish glow radiated, a fainter version of the glow from the pools below.
“Then proceed,” Maxwell said. “And Carlos?”
The technician cocked his head. He seemed agitated, even a bit fearful.
“I’m counting on you,” Maxwell finished.
Carlos nodded. He cast a nervous glance around the chamber, from the compass on the roof down the sides to the catwalk. His eyes almost met Steven’s, and for a moment Steven was afraid Carlos had spotted him.
Then Carlos turned away, issuing a series of orders to the other techs. The three technicians consulted a bank of monitors, their eyes darting quickly from screen to screen.
“Upper stems look good,” Carlos said. “Lower branches…slight blockage in branch two.”
“On it,” said the female technician. “Flushing the branch now…qi levels returning to normal.”
Steven pressed his back against the wall of the chamber, shaking his head. What are they talking about?
“All systems nominal.” Carlos turned back toward the hovering figure. “Maxwell, we’re ready for Position Three.”
“No,” Maxwell replied, his voice booming through the chamber. “Position Six.”
Carlos grimaced.
“I told you,” Maxwell continued. “I want the strongest powers first.”
When Carlos hesitated, Maxwell swiveled his hover-vehicle to face the stage. Maxwell’s eyes glowed a fierce, angry green, and a spasm of pain seemed to pass through him.
“Carlos,” Maxwell said. “Your knowledge of the Convergence has gotten us this far. I am grateful, and I would prefer that you complete the procedure.” His voice grew cold. “But if necessary, I can bring in someone else.”
Carlos shook his head quickly and returned to his work.
Maxwell turned away without a word and glided across the center of the chamber. He came to a stop just above another pool, a few spaces closer to Steven.
“I’ve got a slight Fire deficit,” said another male technician.
“I see it,” Carlos replied. “Maria, shunt some Wood energy over to branch five.”
“What?” the woman asked. “That’ll overload that whole branch.”
“Right, uh, my mistake,” Carlos said. “I meant branch four. Qi levels compensated; activating shipan now.”
A whirring noise filled the room. Steven looked up at the source: the shipan, the ancient astrological disk mounted on the narrow ceiling. A large bright light flashed on, one of twelve lamps mounted around the shipan’s outer edge. The spotlight stabbed straight onto the ground.
The other eleven lamps ranged around the edge of the shipan were dark.
“Alignment sequence is go,” the female technician said.
With a loud grinding sound, the shipan began to swivel slowly in place. As it moved, the spotlight traveled along the floor between the pools.
Except, Steven saw now, it wasn’t a floor at all. It was dirt, ordinary soil. That meant the pools hadn’t been brought into the museum after it was constructed. The pools were already here, sunken deep in this strange chamber beneath the Earth. The museum had been constructed above them.
Steven drew in another, deep breath. What is this place?
The shipan ground to a halt, directly above Maxwell’s hovering figure. Its light shone straight down and around him, focused directly on the pool beneath his feet. Maxwell floated between the disk above and the pool below, caught between the two sources of unnatural radiance.
Then Steven noticed something else strange. Something—someone—was creeping along the ground, in the darkness at the edge of the room. A slim, lithe figure, darting from one pool to another, moving closer to Maxwell’s position. Steven couldn’t see the figure clearly; it was keeping to the shadows. But something about the shadow’s motion reminded him of the last time he’d seen Jumanne, the tour guide, as she’d crossed the exhibit hall to the door.
That’s her, he thought. I know it.
Maxwell glanced up at the shipan, then down at the luminous pool. His fists clenched open and closed on the handles of his hover-vehicle. He seemed to be bracing himself for something.
“Resume Convergence,” he said. “Position Six.”
On the central stage, Carlos pointed a finger at the female technician. She tapped out a command on her screen.
On the underside of the shipan, the spotlight surged brighter. Energy crackled across the surface of the disk, pulsing and gathering. At the same time, directly below Maxwell, the pool erupted with light. When the energy from above met the blazing liquid shooting up from below—
—Maxwell screamed.
It was a deep, soul-chilling sound. Steven recognized it immediately as the scream he’d heard upstairs in the museum and then again in the stairwell. It sounds, he thought, as if something’s being ripped out of his body.
Then he realized: No. It’s more like something’s being forced into him. Something foreign, alien.
The energy flared, forming a vertical column. Maxwell’s body became a silhouette, a twitching mass still clinging to its high-tech hover-machine. Something else started to form: a second figure, rearing and bucking in the energy-glow above Maxwell. A raging beast, a creature of pure energy, wild and untamed.
As Steven stared into the glow, the beast coalesced into a huge, wild stallion. Its mouth opened wide, and its mane whipped back and forth in a breathtaking display of silent savagery.
Steven glanced over at the control stage. Carlos and the other technicians stood watching Maxwell with clinical, scientific eyes. Carlos flinched slightly, just once, when Maxwell’s scream rose to a deafening pitch.
Steven cast a look down at the corner of the room again, but the “tour guide” had vanished. If she was still here, she must be hiding deep in the shadows.
The energy flared once, then again. Maxwell raised his head to the heavens and howled, even louder, more savagely than before.
Then, all at once, the energy was gone. The shipan went dark; the liquid splashed back down into the pool. The glow flashed and faded around Maxwell, taking the ethereal stallion-vision with it.
On the control stage, the technicians rushed around, manipulating touchscreen controls. The woman began to speak, but Carlos motioned her to silence. All three of them turned to stare at their leader.
Maxwell still hovered in midair, wobbling slightly. He glowed more brightly than before, like a coal that had been heated in a fire. Green energy leaked from his eyes, his mouth, his fingertips. Liquid from the pool dripped off of him, drying rapidly.
Slowly he looked up, staring just past Steven. His head swiveled to face the control stage. Then he smiled and spoke a single word.

Horse,” he said.

STEVEN STOOD for a long moment, almost paralyzed. He struggled to collect his thoughts, to make sense of what he had just seen.
I could bounce, he thought. The door’s right behind me. I could bolt back up that staircase, get back to the class, and make up some lame excuse about getting lost. It’d be like all this never happened. I bet, after a while, even I’d think I made it all up in my head.
But there was still Jumanne, the tour guide—or whatever she was. And more than that: There was a mystery here. Something very important, something that might even affect the future of the world.
Something a hero would investigate.
Maxwell raised his head slowly as if it weighed a hundred pounds. “Carlos,” he said. “Position Five.”
“Sir,” the female technician said, “are you sure?”
Maxwell glared at her. When he bared his teeth, a bit of green energy leaked out. The woman stepped back, frightened.
“Maxwell,” Carlos said. “The Zodiac power—it’s not meant to be held by a single person. Especially someone who’s not the appropriate sign.”
“You’re not a Horse!” the woman cried.
That, Steven thought, is a strange thing to say.
Carlos swept an arm around to indicate the pools on the ground. “You’ve absorbed three of the twelve Zodiac signs,” he said. “The rest could kill you.”
“They would kill a person like you. They will make me the most powerful man on Earth.”
There was silence for a moment. Carlos’s gaze flicked briefly down to the ground, below the stage.
“Position Five,” Maxwell repeated.
Carlos nodded. He turned back to his work, issuing a series of low commands to the other techs.
Above, the shipan began to grind once again. A second light flared to life on its underside, blazing down toward another pool.
Maxwell sucked in a deep breath. He glided around the room, moving one space counterclockwise to the newly lit pool. He slipped easily into the spotlight from the shipan—moving, in the process, one position closer to Steven’s hiding place on the dark catwalk at the edge of the room.
Again, Steven saw a movement down below. He leaned over the edge of the catwalk, conscious of the drop to the ground. It was the woman, Jumanne, still hugging the shadows. She moved swiftly, gracefully, and her hair was pulled up now into a ponytail.
Jumanne crept toward Maxwell. Both of them were converging on Steven’s position—but neither of them seemed to have noticed him. Yet.
I should run, Steven thought, once more. But he couldn’t. Something held him rooted to the spot.
I’ve got to see this through to the end. Whatever this is.
Maxwell took up position above the newly illuminated pool, just as he had with the previous one. “Begin,” he said.
Again, the shipan in the ceiling glowed bright. Again the pool surged upward, meeting the blinding light from above in a flare of power. And again, Maxwell screamed.
Steven glanced down at the corner of the room. He could see Jumanne crouched behind another pool, the next one over. She’s using the pool to hide from Maxwell, Steven realized. And she was pulling something out of a pack, casting nervous glances up at the pulsing column of light.
Maxwell’s head whipped back and forth in the air, flinging drops of the strange green fluid all around. This time, his howl of agony sounded more like a hissing sound. The coiled form of a snake surged into being above him, its scaly head and sharp tongue hissing back and forth in time to Maxwell’s own movements.
Steven stared. The motion was mesmerizing, like the rhythmic motions of a hypnotist’s watch. The snake’s head seemed to turn toward him, its deep red eyes boring deep into his mind.
Then, once again, the energy faded away. Steven shook his head, still trapped by the snake’s hypnotic spell. And then, with a sinking feeling, he realized that Maxwell was staring straight at him.
Slowly, Maxwell twisted the handle-controls of his hover-device. He glided across the room, unhurried, keeping his eyes fixed on Steven. Green radiance leaked from his body, emanating from his face, his clothes, his very pores. He stopped just beyond the edge of the catwalk, hovering in midair, his eyes precisely level with Steven’s.
Then he smiled.
“Look what’s wandered in out of the wild,” Maxwell said. “A young Tiger.”
He sounded as if he’d just caught something for dinner.
Suddenly Steven remembered something. Grandfather used to call me that: “My little Tiger.” Is this an astrology thing? Something about the year I was born?
And then he understood. The horse, the snake. The pools—twelve of them. Twelve signs…just like on grandfather’s compass. He glanced up at the heavily marked disk in the ceiling, then found his gaze drawn back irresistibly to Maxwell’s probing eyes.
“The Zodiac,” Steven said. “Those are the signs.”
Maxwell’s smile stayed fixed. He nodded.
Below, Steven could see activity on the control stage. Carlos pointed, and the two other techs climbed down and started off across the floor toward Steven and Maxwell.
“You’re clever,” Maxwell said. “How did you get in here?”
Steven still couldn’t move. “The door,” he said, trying to sound confident.
Maxwell turned back toward the stage. “I ordered the Convergence chamber sealed.”
“It was,” Carlos replied. But his voice trembled.
The two other techs were running toward the catwalk now, swerving around the pools.
“I already have a Tiger,” Maxwell said, turning back toward Steven. “Unless you think you’re a better choice?”
Steven shrugged. He felt like he was watching a foreign film.
Abruptly Maxwell tipped sideways in midair and swooped away. Without looking back, he gestured at the two techs. “Maria, Fedor,” Maxwell said, “remove him. We can’t have him interfering with the Convergence.” Then he stopped a few feet from the stage and tilted his head back toward Steven. “But hold him. I’d like to continue this little chat later.”
The techs were climbing a small ladder now, a few yards down the catwalk from Steven. They’d be on him in a minute.
He looked around frantically. Maxwell had stopped just above the central stage, leaning down to argue with Carlos. Their voices were low; Steven couldn’t make out what they were saying. But Carlos didn’t look happy.
Above, the shipan glowed softly.
The first of the techs—Fedor, the man—climbed up onto the catwalk. He looked a little unsure of himself. Probably not used to doing guard duty, Steven thought. Still, Steven wasn’t sure he could take two of them in a fight.
But he really didn’t want to “chat” with Maxwell anymore.
Another motion caught his eye, just below. The woman from the museum, Jumanne. He couldn’t see her clearly, but it had to be her. He glanced quickly back at the two technicians advancing on him across the catwalk—
—and then he leaped over the edge.
He dropped through the air, into darkness, landing roughly on the bare ground. He dropped to his knees and tumbled onto his back.
When he looked up, the woman from the museum was just a few feet away, barely visible in the diffuse light from the pools. She was staring at a pair of round metal objects in her hand. Each was about the size of a baseball, and each had a blinking red light on its surface.
“Come on,” she whispered, apparently to the metal spheres. “Comeoncomeoncomeon!”
Steven glanced back up at the catwalk. The two technicians leaned over the edge, peering into the darkness. They didn’t seem to be able to see Steven—but then the female tech, Maria, pointed at the winking red lights in Jumanne’s hand.
Steven took a step toward the mysterious woman. “Uh, hi,” he said. “Are you—”
Without looking up, Jumanne swung her empty hand around and clamped it down hard over Steven’s mouth.
“Keep quiet and I can get you out,” she said, keeping her voice low. “Just do everything I say exactly when I say it.” She shook one of the spherical objects, as if it were a broken remote control. “Come ON!
“What…what…” Steven stared at the glowing figure above them and swallowed in fear. “What is all this?”
A blinding light washed over them. For a moment, Steven thought it was another power-light from the shipan disk in the ceiling. But when he squinted upward, he saw the hovering form of Maxwell, shining a small arc-light mounted on his hover-vehicle.
Maxwell cast an amused glance at Steven. Then he turned to Jumanne, and his expression turned dark.
“Jasmine,” he said.
Steven turned at a sound. The two technicians were climbing down off the ladder again, pointing and heading straight for Steven and Jumanne. Or Jasmine, he thought. Whatever her name is!
Jasmine looked back up at Maxwell, shading her eyes against the glare. “I was hurt, Maxwell,” she said, her mouth curling up into a nasty smile. “I’m not on your guest list anymore?”
“It’s a private party, Jasmine,” Maxwell replied.
“I get it—glass ceiling. Hold this for me, kid?”
Without looking, she tossed one of the metal spheres at Steven. He fumbled, but managed to catch it.
When he looked up, Jasmine was already in motion. She tossed her sphere up high, barely watching as it followed a lazy arc through the air. Then she leaped forward, aiming a fierce kick at Fedor, the male technician. Her foot struck him square in the stomach, doubling him over. The female tech, Maria, waved a Taser at her, electricity arcing at its tip. Jasmine chopped sideways into Maria’s wrist; the tech cried out in pain and the Taser fell, sparking, to the ground.
Jasmine followed up with a brutal elbow to the back of the woman’s head. Maria grunted and went down. Fedor struggled to rise, but Jasmine took him down with two fierce blows to his solar plexus.
Then she held out a hand, just in time to catch the sphere she’d thrown into the air. Its light, Steven noticed, was still red. He glanced down at the one in his hands: It was blinking red, too.
Then Jasmine marched back toward Steven, taking long strides. “Kid,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re killing me here.”
She’s barely winded, Steven thought. Who is this woman?
But before Jasmine could reach Steven, Maxwell’s spotlight shone back down on her.
“Very impressive, Jasmine.” Green energy radiated once more from Maxwell’s hovering form. “But time is short, and I can’t let you stay here. Carlos, please—”
A loud grinding noise cut him off. Steven looked up, knowing what he’d see. The shipan, the disk in the ceiling, was glowing. A third light blazed to life, and the disk began its loud, slow, circular movement once again.
Maxwell whirled around in midair. “Carlos?” he called. “What are you doing?”
“Jaz,” Carlos yelled, leaning over the edge of the stage. “Now!”
Jasmine looked down—just as the light turned green on the metal sphere in her hand. She smiled and threw the sphere into the air.
“Game on,” she said.
Maxwell wobbled in midair, dodging the sphere. But he wasn’t her target. The sphere sailed past him and struck the shipan, near its center. On impact, the sphere released an electrical charge, sending sparks dancing across the surface of the giant compass. The shipan ground even louder, and its light dimmed momentarily.
Maxwell had turned to stare at Carlos. “So,” Maxwell said. “A traitor at the very heart of my—”
Jasmine leaped up in the air, surprisingly high, and expertly checked Maxwell with the left side of her body. His hover-vehicle whined in protest, tipping perilously to the side. He managed to find his balance and whirled around, lashing out at her. But she ducked, standing her ground.
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Then, shockingly, Maxwell laughed.
“Impressive,” he said. “And yet, so disappointing.”
Jasmine’s eyes flashed with anger. “That’s what—my mother used to say,” she said, reaching out to grab Maxwell by the shoulders. “Remember her?”
“Oh, yes.”
Above, the shipan ground to a halt. Its light was steady again, shining down on yet another pool. The pool seemed to glow in response.
Taking advantage of Maxwell’s momentary distraction, Jasmine jumped behind Maxwell and climbed on to his back, grappling with him like a wrestler. She shifted her weight, and the hover-vehicle lurched through the air. She seemed to be steering Maxwell, forcing their combined flight in a particular direction.
“Why are you doing this, Jasmine?” Maxwell asked. “You’re like me: a Dragon. We’re stronger than all of them.”
Then Steven realized where Jasmine was leading Maxwell: toward the glowing pool beneath the shining light of the shipan.
“We answer to no one,” Maxwell added.
“I answer to my conscience,” Jasmine replied. “Ever heard of that?”
Jasmine climbed higher up Maxwell’s back. She placed a foot on Maxwell’s shoulder, bracing herself. She’s going to leap, Steven realized. She’s going to jump into the pool. Or into the light.
But Maxwell grabbed her leg in a firm grip. “Oh, no,” he said, his expression deadly. “Never, little girl. Never.”
Then Maxwell stopped and glanced upward. He turned in alarm, looking first down at Steven, then over toward Carlos—
—just as the brightest, widest beam of all stabbed down, engulfing both Jasmine and Maxwell in a thick cylinder of light. A matching surge of liquid splashed upward from the pool. The hover-vehicle sparked, shorted out, and fell to the ground with a clatter.
Even without the vehicle, Jasmine and Maxwell hung suspended in the air. They cried out together and rose up higher, held in a cocoon of sparkling, eldritch power.
Steven shielded his eyes, struggling to see. Maxwell and Jasmine were barely visible as silhouettes, jerking back and forth like puppets, suspended halfway between the shipan and the ground. As the energy beam held them, an animal figure began to form above their bodies…just as it had with Maxwell, before.
But this figure was different. It was blurry, a double image, as if two different forms were fighting to occupy the same space. One figure was lean and sinewy, like a snake, but with sharp, searching claws and a strange mustache-like growth above its gaping jaws. The other was also reptilian, but with sharply angled bat wings that stretched out wide.
The creature flickered and shifted, morphing rapidly from one form to the other. It opened its jaws and screamed, a piercing sound like nothing Steven had ever heard before.
The energy beam held both Jasmine and Maxwell for a long moment, filling both their bodies with its unknown mystic power. Then, all at once, it blinked off.
Maxwell glowed bright now. The energy beast resolved itself into the second, winged form. Maxwell spread his arms, and above, the creature’s bat wings flared out along with them.
Jasmine dropped like a rock. She landed hard at Steven’s feet, and grunted softly.
Maxwell was still hovering. When he spoke, his voice seemed to echo off the metal walls. He didn’t sound human anymore.
“Young Tiger,” he repeated. Power glowed from his eyes, his mouth.
Steven stared upward. His throat was dry. The dark-winged phantasm had wrapped itself tightly around its host. Maxwell shone like a fully charged battery, smiling as if he’d just won every lottery in the world.
“Meet the Dragon,” Maxwell said.

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