domingo, 1 de julio de 2018

ZODIACS 15

THE IRISH TOWN’S winding streets made Josie dizzy. She trotted down the main road, around sharp turns, stopping every now and then to check her target’s location on her holographic wrist-computer. She had to keep pulling up a street-map overlay in order to find her way.
Once, a man staggered up to her, identified himself as Glenn, and mumbled something unintelligible. She frowned and pushed him away. He reeled back, sneered, and clenched a fist at her.
Then he froze, staring at the air above her. A fierce horse’s head, twice the size of a normal creature’s, stared down at him with deadly, challenging eyes. When it reared back, Glenn let out a little noise and bolted.
Jose watched, one eyebrow raised, as Glenn rounded a corner and disappeared. The first test of my power, she thought. The next one won’t be so easy.
A few blocks farther on, she spotted the sign on the faded blue pub: THE RAVEN AND THE TIGER. She stopped, staring at it. Tiger. Was that coincidence, or luck—what Maxwell called yun?
Then she noticed the man leaning against the wall, just outside the door: Carlos, the renegade Vanguard technician Maxwell had yelled so much about. The man who had overseen the Zodiac Convergence process, then deliberately sabotaged it.
Josie drew in a breath and backed up, concealing herself behind a brick wall. Carlos hadn’t seen her yet. He was completely engrossed in operating a small, crude, handheld analyzer device.
He’s tracking me, she realized. Maxwell had warned her that all Zodiac operatives give off a unique power signature. In a moment, Carlos would detect her presence.
Carlos had no special powers; Josie could take him down with one blow, even without using her new powers. But Carlos was allied with Jasmine, and if she were around, that could be trouble. Better to scout out the place a bit more first.
Leaning out just slightly from her hiding place, Josie aimed her arm at the pub. With her other hand, she tapped furiously at the wrist-computer. The X-ray imager kicked in, providing a view through the pub’s stone-and-brick wall, penetrating inside.
Josie gasped.
A scene of utter mayhem rose up before her. Steven Lee, the young Tiger, grappled furiously with another man whose face was a blur of motion. They tumbled to the floor and rolled up against the wall. The man’s round face came into clear view.
“The Ram,” Josie whispered.
The two fighters rolled back and forth, climbed to their feet, then knocked each other down again. A crowd of spectators clustered around them, following them around the room, keeping a constant distance away from the battle.
Josie stared at the three-dimensional image projected before her. It looked like Steven and Ram weren’t getting along, which could be good news for the Vanguard company. But on the other hand, this was exactly what Maxwell had hoped to avoid: a public spectacle. If I move in now, she thought, things could get messy.
Josie winced as Liam head-butted Steven in the face. Messier, she corrected herself.
She shifted her arm back and forth, varying the angle of the image. She studied the crowd inside the pub, watching them cheer at the two combatants’ blows. Where is she? Josie wondered. Where’s
“Josie,” a female voice said. “You been working out?”
Josie looked up from the projected image. Jasmine stood just outside the pub, her hands on her hips.
Josie snapped her arm down, killing the hologram. She stepped out into the street, feeling vaguely like an old-west gunfighter. “Jasmine,” she said. “Funny running into you here.”
“I don’t think it’s funny at all.”
Carlos had disappeared. Called in the big gun, Josie thought.
A few people brushed past them, hurrying into the pub. The drunken man—Glenn—cast a quick glance at Josie, then at Jasmine. Then he scurried inside with the others.
“You know what I’m here for,” Josie said.
“And you know I can’t let you have it,” Jasmine replied.
Josie frowned; despite everything, she liked Jasmine. “You used to be one of us,” Josie said. “You were working for Vanguard before you turned eighteen.”
“I turned in my notice, Josie. The day I learned what kind of monster Maxwell really is.”
“He’s tough, but he’s a good man,” Josie replied. “The world’s a messed-up place, and we need a person like him. You’ll see—the Zodiac powers are a path to peace, Jasmine.”
“He’s a murderer.”
“If you’re talking about that city in the Middle East—”
“You have no idea what I’m talking about.”
A flash of anger crossed Jasmine’s face. A burst of Zodiac energy flared up around her, then faded quickly away.
Josie grimaced. Jasmine shared the Dragon power with Maxwell—and the Dragon was the most powerful of the Zodiac signs. That made Jasmine very, very dangerous.
And Josie was still untrained in her new power. Even if the Horse could hold its own against the Dragon—which was doubtful—Jasmine had had precious extra days to practice her new abilities.
I’ve only got one advantage, Josie thought. I know she’s got Zodiac power—but she doesn’t know I have it, too.
Josie clenched her fists, willing the power of the Horse to come forth. It shimmered into being in the air above her, hooves flashing, its long noble head searching back and forth in the air.
“Give him to me, Jasmine,” she said.
Jasmine stepped back for a moment, startled.
My only chance is to take her by surprise, Josie thought. She stepped forward, staring at Jasmine with all the menace she could summon up.
But Jasmine was staring at her now, shaking her head. “Oh, Josie,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“For what?”
“I’m sorry Maxwell got you mixed up in this.”
Then, like an explosion of fire, Jasmine’s own energy form flared up.
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Josie’s breath caught in her throat. Jasmine’s Dragon was different in shape from Maxwell’s: sharp-clawed, lithe, and sinuous, a lean mass of coiled, whipping muscle. Maxwell’s Dragon seemed ready to crush the world within its bat-wings, but Jasmine’s looked like a sinewy whipcord of death. When its head surged forward, hissing, Josie flinched despite herself.
Jasmine stared at her. “You really don’t want to do this, Josie.”
Josie considered the situation. Jasmine outpowered her, and Josie still hadn’t wielded her new power in a combat situation. And even if I somehow manage to beat Jasmine
A thunderous crash resonated from inside the pub.
even if I can defeat the Dragon, there are two more Zodiac-powered people to face.
Josie forced herself to relax, letting the Horse energy fade. “Another time, Jasmine,” she said. “And there will be another.”
Jasmine just kept staring. “I hope so.”
Above her small form, the Dragon let out another loud hiss.
Josie turned and ran. She didn’t look back.
Maxwell won’t be happy, she thought, racing down the now dark street. I’ve failed him. But there was really no choice. We just got here too late.
He’ll understand. Maxwell will understand.


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STEVEN FLUNG OUT both arms, pushing Liam away. Liam staggered back against the wall, and Steven dropped to the ground, scuttling away from him.
This may have been a bad idea, Steven thought.
The crowd let out a disappointed noise. “Get ’im, Liam!” a woman yelled. “Pin ’im down!”
Liam turned toward them and raised his arms like a prizefighter. The crowd cheered wildly.
Then he turned and ran toward Steven, swinging his fists. But that one distracted moment, while Liam was playing to the crowd, was all Steven had needed to get his wind back. He leapt out of the way easily, the Tiger lending him agility and precision. Liam lurched past him, stumbling.
Steven jumped up high and kicked out. His foot struck Liam in the throat, snapping the Irishman’s head around.
For a moment Steven panicked. Did I just break his neck? But Liam shook his head out almost casually, as if he were drying a towel in the breeze.
Can’t let him recover, Steven thought. I have to beat him. That means letting the Tiger out—all the way.
Before Liam could turn around, Steven grabbed him by the shoulder, leaping on top of him. Liam grabbed him back, and together they tumbled to the floor again. With a roar, Steven struck out with both fists. His hands felt like Tiger paws, thick, meaty weapons made for pummeling prey into submission.
Liam just smiled. He reached up and slapped both of Steven’s ears at once, fast and hard. The blow was deafening; Steven roared in pain. He reared back off of Liam, pivoted on his lower back, reached out with both legs like a wrestler—
—and grabbed Liam’s head between his legs.
Liam cried out in surprise as Steven leaned back again, lifting him up into the air. Liam squirmed around, but couldn’t break the Tiger’s grip. For just a moment their eyes met, and Liam seemed to nod slightly.
Then Liam went limp. Steven followed through with his legs, tossing the Irishman through the air. Liam sailed over a table and smashed into the wall.
The crowd made a loud “Oh!” noise.
Steven gasped, breathing hard. But Liam was already on his feet again.
Nothing hurts this guy, Steven realized. I can’t beat him—which means I can never convince him to come with us.
Then he looked at the indestructible figure stalking toward him. The energy form of the Ram blazed up and around Liam, lighting up the dark pub. Its horns whipped back and forth through the air.
Forget recruiting him, Steven thought. Am I gonna survive this fight?
Liam punched Steven in the chest. Steven stepped back, gasping. He whirled around and kicked out, catching Liam in the stomach. Liam responded with a roundhouse punch. Steven dodged, but Liam managed to land a glancing blow against his side.
Time seemed to stop for a moment. Liam looked into Steven’s eyes, judging him. “Not bad,” Liam said.
Then Liam took hold of Steven, grappling with him again. But this time when they fell to the ground, Liam twisted himself around to take the brunt of the impact. Steven rolled, trying to break free, and his shoulder slammed into a table leg. He cried out.
Liam smiled. Keeping his grip on Steven, he rolled them toward the back of the room. They tumbled over and over, faster and faster, gaining speed and momentum. People jumped and dodged out of the way.
Steven saw the back door looming in their path. But Liam crashed into it first, splintering it against his indestructible body. As they tumbled through into the dark, a shard of wood scraped against Steven’s arm, drawing blood. He pulled away again, but Liam held on.
“Ride with it, mate,” Liam said.
They rolled through a darkened kitchen, caroming off an old, disused stove. They sailed through the outer door, knocking it wide on its hinges, and rolled down three stone steps. Then they crashed to a stop in a concrete garbage alley strewn with metal trash cans.
Steven roared again. He pulled away, tried to break Liam’s grip. All around them, the Tiger’s energy warred with the Ram’s, sharp claws pawing and scraping against fierce, coiled horns.
But Liam held on.
“You’re not gonna give up, are you?” Liam asked.
From inside, Steven could hear the sounds of people approaching. “Never,” he said.
“Neither am I.”
For just a second, Liam smiled. Then, all at once, he released Steven and flopped down on his back. “OW!” he yelled, rolling around on the concrete. “AH, I GIVE UP! YE GOT ME!”
Dazed, Steven rose to his knees. “What?” he asked.
“YE GOT ME! AYE, IT’S TRUE!” Liam clutched his arm. “OH, ME ARM! YE GOT ME GOOD!”
The first of the locals burst through the outer door. They looked around, puzzled, squinting in the dim light.
“ME ARM! ME LEG! ME BUM! AH, KID, YE GOT ME!”
Mal, the large man they’d met in the street, stepped forward. He stared at Liam for a long moment, then turned to Steven with a hard look on his face. Uh-oh, Steven thought.
Then Mal reached out a meaty hand and clapped Steven hard on the back. “Good one, mate.”
The crowd moved forward, murmuring in agreement. Steven felt exhausted and slightly dizzy. He heard phrases like “Tough kid,” “Liam was due for a takedown,” and “Best brawl I’ve seen in years.”
Jasmine appeared in the doorway, alarmed. Then she looked from Steven to Liam, still writhing on the ground. She nodded, impressed.
Steven reached out a hand toward her. “But I didn’t…”
Her eyes widened. Quickly she mouthed the words: Ride with it.
Steven shook his head. He looked from Jasmine to Mal and the locals, then over at Liam. He reached out a hand to help Liam up.
“Good fight,” Steven said.
“Aye,” Liam said. He leaned in, giving Steven a wink that the others couldn’t see. “That it was.”
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“Move yer big feet, Liam?” the bartender asked. “Got to clean up yer mess here.”
Steven and Liam sat on stools, leaning against the bar. Jasmine and Carlos were off somewhere, arranging transportation back to headquarters. All the locals had dispersed, except for a few drunks sleeping in chairs and on the floor.
“So,” Steven said, turning back to Liam. “Why’d you do it?”
Liam smiled. He seemed as fresh as the moment he’d walked in the door. Not like me, Steven thought, fingering a cut on his arm. I could sleep for a week.
“Decide to go with you?” Liam shrugged. “I got my reasons.”
“No,” Steven replied. “I mean, why’d you tell everyone I beat you?”
“You seem like a good kid. And I’d already told everyone I’d only leave if I lost the fight.”
“It’s the right thing to do,” Steven said quickly. “Jasmine and Carlos—they can explain about the—”
“Mate, mate.” Liam held up a hand. “No need for the hard sell. I said I’d go with you.”
“But…” Steven stared at him. “Just like that? Don’t you want to know more about the Zodiac? About Maxwell and the Vanguard company? About how your power works, and what it might mean for the future of the world?”
“I know all I need to know, mate.” Liam stared back, his eyes steady. “I know you’re a fighter.”
They looked around at the toppled barstools, the sleeping drunks, the cracked TV set over the bar. Liam sighed. “I love this town. It’s me home, you know?”
Steven nodded.
The bartender nudged an unconscious man with the broom. Steven recognized the man: Glenn, the drunk they’d met in the street. Glenn roused himself just slightly and muttered: “Right as summer rain.” Then he slumped down, asleep again.
“But maybe it’s time for a change,” Liam said.
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“Excuse me,” Steven said. “I think my TV’s broken again.”
The flight attendant glared at him. “For the last time, kid. None of these screens work. We told you that when we took off. There’s nothing we can do. Deal with it.”
“Can I have some gumdrops?”
She rolled her eyes. “We don’t have any gumdrops,” she said.
“Oh.” He thought for a moment. “Do you have maraschino cherries?”
“No.”
“Nachos?”
“Kid.” The attendant leaned down, glaring at him. “This isn’t a restaurant, and it isn’t a movie theater. If I get you a couple more packs of cashews, will you sit there quietly for the rest of the flight?”
Steven nodded. The attendant walked away, shaking her head.
When she was gone, Jasmine tapped him on the shoulder. Steven turned, craning his neck around to talk to her and Carlos in the row behind. Carlos was just clicking off his cell phone.
“I hate cashews,” Steven said. “And that was humiliating.”
Jasmine smiled. “It’s called teamwork! You distracted the attendant while Carlos called headquarters.”
Steven frowned. “Isn’t that dangerous? Making a call while we’re in the air?”
“Not with my phone,” Carlos said. “It works on a special frequency. But they don’t know that.”
“Spill, man,” Jasmine said to him. “What did they say?”
“Well,” Carlos said, “they’ve been tracking the other two new Zodiac hosts with more sophisticated equipment than I’ve got here. And they’re detecting a rise in the level of Zodiac energy at both locations.”
Jasmine swore softly. “That’s got to be Maxwell. He’s already got agents on the ground in both places. We’re running out of time.”
Steven thought furiously for a moment. “What if we split up?”
Jasmine looked at him. “What?”
“Send two teams. One to America, and the other to South Africa.”
She frowned. “That’s a good idea…we could all change planes in London. But we can’t do it alone. We’ll have to enlist Roxanne’s and Liam’s help, and they haven’t been trained yet.” She paused. “You think they can handle it?”
Steven glanced forward. Two rows up, on the other side of the aisle, Liam sat whacking himself in the head with a thick hardcover book, over and over again. A pair of small boys stood in the aisle, watching him in amazement.
“See?” Liam said, grinning broadly. “Nothin’ hurts me!”
He slammed the book against his head again, even harder. The boys squealed with delight.
Steven turned back to Jasmine. “I, uh, hope so,” he said.
The flight attendant returned, dropped a dozen packets of cashews onto Steven’s tray table, and gave him a withering glance. Then she left without a word.
Steven grimaced at the cashews.
Jasmine laughed and reached out to grab a packet. “Eat up,” she said. “You’re gonna need your strength.”
Grimly, he tore open a packet.
“Hey,” Jasmine continued. She gestured over at Liam. “You never told us: how’d you beat him, anyway?”
A slow grin stole over Steven’s face.
“I’m the Tiger,” he said.
He knew he shouldn’t enjoy the look of frustration on her face. But he did.


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A BRIGHT LIGHT was shining in Duane’s eyes. He flinched, squinted, and squirmed in his chair. He opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was: “L-l-li…”
The woman in the striped business suit, sitting across the table from him, looked up. “Light? Oh, is it bothering you?”
She seemed almost amused. She reached over and adjusted the lamp, swiveling it back and forth. But somehow, when she was finished, it was still in his eyes.
“Th-thanks,” he stuttered.
Duane looked around, nervous. The room was small and dark. Two men in police uniforms stood behind the woman, both holding strange looking firearms. The guns were scary, but aside from that, the whole situation felt somewhat familiar. Duane’s classmates spent a lot of time shining bright lights at him. Not literally, of course—but that was what it felt like.
A very big man walked in the door and moved over to join the woman. The man wore a suit just like the woman’s, but much larger. “Sorry,” he said. “Had to drop a crazy big log back there.”
The woman rolled her eyes, just enough for Duane to see.
The man sat down next to the woman and made a show of opening a big, clunky laptop computer. Then he leaned forward and stared at Duane with cold, piercing eyes. “So, kid,” he said. “You’re in a whole pile of trouble.”
Duane looked away. “I didn’t mean to do anything,” he said.
“Didn’t mean to do anything,” the woman repeated. She shuffled some papers, then picked up the tablet again. “Let’s see. Your class was touring the provincial government building when your teacher noticed you were missing. At the same time, the computers registered a massive hacker attack.”
“It wasn’t an attack,” Duane said quietly.
“Soon after that,” the woman continued, ignoring him, “all the computers went haywire. They found you at a terminal in a secure section of the building, and when the guards tried to take you into custody, you panicked. And then all the power went out in the building.”
“You’re in a big steaming heap of trouble, son,” the big man said.
“You told him that already,” the woman said. She seemed a little testy.
“I was just curious,” Duane said. “I wanted to see the computers.”
The man leaned forward, placing his meaty hands on the table. “And what did you do when you saw ’em?”
Duane said nothing.
“Duane.” The woman lowered her tablet. “We’re here to help you. But we can’t do that if you won’t be straight with us.”
Duane frowned. “Wh-who are you again?”
“You can call him Alpha,” the woman said. “And I’m Beta.”
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“Well…Ms. Betty—”
“Beta.”
“Ms. Beta! Sorry! The thing is…” Duane paused, trying to figure out how to explain. “I’ve always been good with computers. I can make them do things.” He cast a nervous glance back at the armed policemen. “Am I going to jail?”
The man and the woman—Alpha and Beta—exchanged a glance. Then the woman reached over to adjust the light again. This time, she turned it off.
Duane blinked in relief.
Alpha leaned forward. “Duane, we ain’t with the police. We’re with the Vanguard company.”
Beta slammed a palm into her forehead. “You’re not supposed to use the real name!” she said to her companion.
The big man shrugged. “Who cares? He’s never heard of it. Have you, kid?”
Duane shook his head.
“Kid. Duane.” Beta leaned forward again, with a look on her face that said: Time for me to fix this mess. “You’ve heard of big corporations that hire hackers, people who know how to do a lot of damage to their computers, in order to have the hackers working for them instead of against them?”
Duane nodded. “My friend Alec got a job like that. Well, he’s not really my friend. He’s kind of a jerk.”
“Yeah. Whatever,” Beta replied. “Well, this is kind of like that.”
Duane gestured at the policemen. “Why do people from a corporation have c-cops with them?”
“They’re here for your protection.”
“Th-the cops or the guns?”
Alpha shrugged.
Duane was used to things not making sense. But this really didn’t make sense.
“You’re not a prisoner,” Beta assured him. “You can leave anytime.”
Duane frowned again at the men with guns.
“Well,” Alpha said, smiling nastily. “Maybe not anytime.”
“You, you want to hire me?” Duane asked.
“Sort of.” The woman peered at him. “We know you’ve been in trouble before, Duane. You’ve been arrested for hacking more than once.”
Duane nodded sheepishly.
“But that’s not all,” Beta continued. “You haven’t told us everything, have you?”
He shrugged.
Beta consulted her tablet again. “A few days ago…were you struck by, let’s see, a bright light?”
Duane’s eyes widened with fright.
“Out of nowhere?” she continued. “A blinding flash, from the sky?”
Duane nodded, very fast.
“And now you can do things, can’t you? Strange things?”
The man, Alpha, snorted. “This is the part I don’t believe.”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe!” Beta snapped. “If you’re not going to be helpful, just sit there quietly.”
As she turned back toward Duane, Alpha made a face at her.
“Duane,” Beta continued. “What happened then? After the light hit you?”
“I could make computers do things.” Duane sighed loudly. “Things other people c-can’t do.”
“This is stupid.” Alpha lowered his laptop computer and fixed Duane with a challenging gaze. “You can, what, make computers sit up and dance? Prove it.”
Beta looked alarmed. “I don’t think that’s a good—”
“He says he can do things? Let’s see.” Alpha gestured at the door. “When she gets here, she’s gonna want proof.”
Duane looked up at the faces staring down at him. Alpha’s was hostile and challenging; Beta’s was cold and now a bit nervous. Behind them, the armed policemen seemed to have tightened their grips on their weapons.
Duane felt himself trembling. Nervously, he pulled his dreadlocks back. All his life, he’d tried to fit in, to hide how smart he was, so people wouldn’t make fun of him. Now, somehow, he’d been given something else besides his intelligence—and he really needed to hide that. If Duane had learned anything in his seventeen years, it was that people weren’t very kind to kids who could do exceptional things.
But the pressure was too much. He could feel it building inside him. And, he realized, if these weird people really did want to hire him—not hurt him—they wouldn’t let him go until they saw what he could do.
Duane reached out with both hands and let out a tiny bit of the power surging inside of him.
Beta’s tablet computer sparked and caught fire. She jumped, let out a little cry, and tossed the computer into the air. It clattered to the table, its screen cracking on impact.
Alpha’s laptop was flashing wildly. Smoke poured out of its top. The big man tried to slam it shut, but it popped back open with a loud electric crackling noise.
The two policemen’s guns let out a soft humming noise. They raised the guns and aimed them straight at Duane. Duane felt another stab of panic, and struggled to control his power.
Then he noticed something odd. Alpha and Beta had both risen to their feet, standing just in front of the policemen. Both of them now held small, high-tech hand weapons, too.
“Are…” Duane pointed at the handguns. “Are you really from this ‘Vanguard’ company?”
“Yeah, they are,” said a deep female voice. “But it’s not the kind of company you think.”
Duane looked over at the door and gasped. A muscular woman in combat gear strode into the room. A bright energy glow surrounded her, shimmering upward to form the shape of a fierce, whinnying horse.
That’s the same energy that struck me, Duane realized. The energy that appears whenever I dothe things I can do.
Alpha seemed stunned by the woman. “Whoa,” he said. He stepped back to let her come forward. Beta stared at the woman, too, but warily.
The newcomer ignored them both. She placed both powerful arms on the table and leaned forward, studying Duane closely. She seemed to only be concerned with him, not with anyone else in the room.
“Wh-wh-who—” Duane paused, hating his stutter more than ever. “Who are you?”
The woman’s face softened slightly.
“My name is Josie,” she said. “And my Zodiac sign is Horse. And you…”
She paused to press a few buttons on a small computer mounted on her wrist. Then she held up her arm, and as Duane watched in amazement, a three-dimensional image rose from the wrist-computer. It showed a savage, raging boar with two huge fangs, steam snorting out of its enormous nostrils.

“…you are Pig,” she said.

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