domingo, 1 de julio de 2018

ZODIACS 29

“AND HERE WE ARE,” Jasmine said. “The heart of our little operation: the War Room.”
Steven gazed around the room. It was wide but low, with a few computers clustered in the center. Wires hung from the ceiling, and a group of old-fashioned desks sat together in one corner. A giant LCD screen covered one wall.
There were plenty of chairs, but only one was occupied—by Dafari, the man Steven had met in the lab. Carlos stood over Dafari’s shoulder, pointing at a screen, talking in a low voice.
“Steven!” a voice called. He looked across the room at the old desks just in time to see a figure wink out of existence. A split second later, Kim reappeared at his side with a quiet poof. Steven jumped.
“Sorry,” she said. “Didn’t mean to freak you out. Isn’t this place awesome?”
Jasmine crossed over to Carlos and pointed at a tablet he held in his hand. As he touched the tablet, large type appeared on the big wall screen:
Z.A.P.P.E.R.S.
Zodiac
Action
Preparation &
Protection
Emergency
Response
Squad
Jasmine frowned. “Another name for the group?”
“That’s, uh, sorry.” Carlos tapped the tablet frantically. “I didn’t want anyone to see that yet.”
“I can see why.”
The type faded—and then the wallscreen sparked and died. A puff of smoke rose up from it.
Jasmine grimaced. “We really do need some new toys.”
Carlos shook his head and walked over to the screen. He yanked out a wire, sending another spark flaring up into the air. Steven, Kim, and Jasmine all flinched.
“Please don’t burn down the War Room,” Jasmine said.
But Carlos held up a second sparking wire, and smiled. He touched the wires together, and the screen flickered back to life.
It took Steven a moment to figure out the image on the screen. It was a long shot of a blinding ice storm, snow and wind whipping wildly all around.
“Nasty weather outside,” Jasmine said. “We got home just in time.”
“I’m not worried about the storm,” Carlos said, manipulating the display on his tablet. On the big screen, the image zoomed in to show the headquarters exterior, its outline barely visible through the wind and ice. From the top, the place looked like a low, flat hill.
“Tough to get readings,” Carlos continued.
“If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.” Jasmine smiled. “Not just the Z.A.P.P.E.R.S.
Carlos shot her a quick glare and kept working.
Liam and Roxanne filed into the room. “So this is where y’make the doughnuts,” Liam said.
Duane—Pig—stopped short in the doorway, his eyes wide. He walked up to the wall screen and touched the cables leading out of it.
“Duane,” Carlos said. “Careful with your power, please? This system is barely hanging together as it is.”
Duane nodded absently. He started moving around the room, his fingers tracing the path of the wiring.
“There,” Jasmine said, pointing at the tablet. “Those are the energy signatures?”
Carlos nodded and touched the tablet again. Up on the wallscreen, a cluster of icons shaped like the letter “Z” appeared on one side of the headquarters. The icons wavered and wobbled. Two of them winked out for a moment, then reappeared.
“Four Zodiac-powered agents,” Carlos said. “Maybe five. But I can’t get a precise fix on them in this storm.”
“That’s what they counted on, aye?” said Liam. “My Uncle Johnny used to wait till his enemies were really drunk, then he’d sneak up and head-butt ’em. They couldn’t move fast enough to get out of the way.”
“What do you do when this kind of stuff happens?” Steven asked. “Put the headquarters on alert, or something?”
A column of three small windows appeared down the side of the big wall screen. Two of the new images showed pairs of armed guards in heavy winter coats stationed at the outer walls of the complex. The third showed another group of guards being buffeted by wind on the flat, icy roof. Wind swirled the snow all around, hiding the guards from view and then revealing them again.
“All personnel are on guard duty, inside and out of the complex,” Carlos said. “That’s why the War Room is on a skeleton staff. But these winds are so strong, I don’t know if our people would even see an enemy coming.”
Steven thought he recognized Mags, the mechanic, doing guard duty on the roof. But it was hard to tell through the thick coats, in the driving storm.
Duane stood at the far side of the room. “What’s on the other side of this wall?” he asked.
“The hangar bay,” Carlos said. “It stretches up two floors, to the roof. It’s where we store copters and planes.”
“If we had any planes,” Jasmine added. “Listen, seeing our attackers coming is only half the problem. The other half is that our people aren’t trained to defend against a paramilitary squad of Zodiac-powered agents.”
“Ma’am? Isn’t that why you recruited us…”
Jasmine, Carlos, and Steven all turned at the sound of Kim’s voice. But she was gone. Steven heard a soft poof, and turned back again to see her reappear in front of the wallscreen.
“…to use our Zodiac powers?” Kim finished.
Duane and Liam quickly joined her. Roxanne followed, eyeing Jasmine carefully. When they were all assembled, Steven walked over to stand in front of them, facing Carlos and Jasmine.
“Well?” he asked.
Jasmine stared at them for a long moment. The Dragon energy began to take shape around her, fierce jaws and scales forming just above her head. She rose a few inches off the floor.
“No,” she said. “You’re not ready.”
Roxanne threw up her hands. Steven swore he heard her make a clucking sound.
Steven felt the energy surge inside him. Power rippled across his skin, flaring up to become a raging Tiger. He turned toward Jasmine and growled.
Jasmine winced. Her Dragon form flickered once, and almost vanished. Jasmine gritted her teeth and the Dragon flared back to life, its jaws opening in a silent screech.
They stared at each other for a long moment. Jasmine had told him several times that the Dragon was the most powerful sign of all. The Tiger was strong and fast, but the Dragon was in a whole other league.
Yet something was different now. Some instinct told Steven that Jasmine wasn’t as unbeatable as she’d seemed before. The Tiger roared within him, aching to challenge her.
This is how animals act, he realized. When the world grows dangerous around them, when predators wait just beyond the cave entrance.
Or when they’re competing to rule the pack.
Jasmine seemed to soften. She held up her hands in a placating gesture, and allowed the Dragon energy to softly fade.
They’re not ready, I mean,” she said. “The recruits. And Maxwell’s agents are far stronger.”
Carlos walked up, watching Jasmine with worried eyes. “That was part of Maxwell’s plan,” he said. “He deliberately took the most powerful Zodiac powers first, in case something went wrong.”
Steven clenched his fists. “I’m as powerful as any of them,” he said. The Tiger energy still flared all around him, begging for release.
“I know,” Jasmine said. “That’s why we…you and I…are going to be the main line of defense.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Liam said. “I didn’t come here to hide meself away. I’ve been a fighter all my life.”
“I never backed away from a battle either,” Roxanne said, holding an imaginary microphone in her hand. “This is just powers instead of mics.”
“Why are we here,” Kim added, “if not to help?”
“You’re here so we can keep you safe!” Jasmine exclaimed.
“Jaz,” Carlos said sharply. He pointed at the wallscreen.
Two of the video feeds showing guards had gone blank. As the group watched, the third one winked off, changing to static.
Roxanne stepped up between Jasmine and Steven. “Whatever the plan is, now might be the time.”
“The plan is for Steven to take you four down to the reinforced sub-basement bunker,” Jasmine said. “Then get back up here, alone, as fast as he can.”
“And in the meantime?” Steven replied. “You’ll take on Maxwell’s whole attack team by yourself?”
Jasmine rose up into the air. The Dragon shape appeared above her, glowing and shimmering with energy.
“I’m the Dragon,” she said. “Remember?”
This time, Steven could clearly see the strain on her face. Jasmine was putting on a show, displaying her power dramatically for the others. But that power was far weaker than it had been before.
“Are you?” Steven asked. “Really?”
Her eyes flared with anger, mirrored in fire on the Dragon’s face. She dropped back to the ground, letting the energy fade away. Then she grabbed Steven’s shoulder in a grip like steel and dragged him over to the far corner of the room.
“Um, headquarters, probably already under attack?” Carlos said. “Just a little reminder.”
As soon as they were out of earshot, Jasmine leaned in to speak intensely to Steven. “There’s no time to argue. The recruits are not ready. Most of you haven’t had any training time at—”
“I’m not worried about them,” he said. “I’m worried about you.”
Jasmine blinked.
“I know you’re weaker than you were,” he continued. “I can tell.”
“No, I’m not!”
But when she turned away from him, he knew he was right.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Maxwell is doing something,” she said, her voice low. “He’s drawing the energy out of me, back into himself. Remember, we share the Dragon power.”
“If you fight them all, you’re gonna get hurt,” Steven said. He could hear his voice breaking. “You can’t stop them by yourself.”
“I have to!”
Then they both turned at the sound of shouting. Dafari, the technician, was yelling at Duane, who leaned over his console, pointing at the screen. “I am working, Mister Pig,” Dafari said. “Leave me alone!”
Duane just shook his head. “But that energy surge. It’s inside the building—”
The far wall exploded, collapsing inward with a thunderous crash. Dust and plaster filled the air. Steven coughed and ducked behind a desk.
When he looked up, a large figure crouched in front of a giant hole in the wall: Horse, the leader of Maxwell’s field team. Steven hadn’t met her yet, but Jasmine had described their faceoff outside the pub in Ireland. Horse surveyed the room, waving dust away from her face.
Then the rest of Horse’s team approached, gathering behind her. A big man with a mustache; that would be Ox. Then Monkey, and the familiar, yellow-furred Dog.
Four of them, Steven thought. Four of the most powerful Zodiac powers, all with the same goal: Capture us and take us back to Maxwell.
He clenched his fists and prepared for the fight of his life.


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THE HANGAR BAY was partly visible behind the Vanguard operatives. They’d entered through the bay, Steven realized, and burst in from there. Dust filled the War Room, swirling through the air.
“Steven?” Kim whispered. He turned to see her crouched next to him, behind the desk.
“Don’t be scared,” Steven said.
“I’m not,” she said, keeping her voice low. “But what do we do?”
The Vanguard agents were regrouping, slapping dust off their clothes. They’d catch sight of Steven and the others in a few seconds.
Steven couldn’t see Roxanne. Liam was leading Duane around the edge of the room, toward Steven and Kim. Carlos and Dafari were crouched along a far wall. And Jasmine…
The Vanguard agents turned in alarm as Jasmine sprinted toward them. She took off into the air like a bird, Dragon energy flaring all around her.
“One chance,” she said to the attackers. “Leave this place. Now.”
She looked as bright and terrible as Steven had ever seen her. But he knew it was a bluff.
Horse motioned to her team. Ox, Monkey, and Dog began to fan out, forming a semicircle.
“Jaz!” Carlos yelled. “They’re trying to surround you!”
She turned in alarm, panic on her face. “Carlos! Get out of here—”
Horse jumped straight into the air and grabbed Jasmine by the shoulders, reaching through the roiling Dragon energy. Horse grimaced in pain, but she didn’t let go. She started to pull Jasmine down.
Ox reached up and punched Jasmine, hard, in the stomach. She doubled over and fell to the floor, coughing. Her power began to fade.
Then the other agents were on her. Monkey leapt and capered, punching and kicking Jasmine. Dog howled and roared, swiping at her with sharp claws.
Her power’s failed, Steven thought. She’s helpless.
Kim pointed at Jasmine. “They’re gonna kill her.”
“No,” Steven said. “They want her. They want all of us alive.”
“Well, that’s not an option, right?” Liam asked. “So what do we do?”
Steven turned to look at them. Duane and Liam had sneaked over to join Kim. All three of them stared at him with urgent, scared expressions.
“Steven?” Kim said.
Steven stared back. I don’t know, he thought. I don’t know what to do.
He opened his mouth to say something—anything. But before he could speak, a sharp blow struck him on the back of the head. He cried out and fell to the floor.
Through a haze of dust, he saw the calm, looming figure of Ox pointing a handheld analyzer down at him.
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“Got him,” Ox called out.
Monkey capered up, grinning. “It’s fun to hit kids!” he said to Ox. “Isn’t it?”
“No, it isn’t. This is business,” Ox replied. “Do your job—secure the targets.”
Steven followed Ox’s pointing finger to the other members of his team. They stood watching, frozen and terrified.
“Run!” Steven yelled. “Get away from here!”
Duane and Liam took off, sprinting toward the doors. But Kim lingered for a moment, staring at Steven with worried eyes.
Then Dog, the fur-covered Vanguard operative, bounded up to stare Kim right in the face. She froze. Dog growled, a long low sound that slowly resolved itself into a single, familiar word:
“Rrrrrrrraaaaabit?”
With a poof, Kim sprinted away and vanished.
Dog reached out to swipe his paw through the air where Kim had been just a moment before. “Rrraabit!” he said again.
Then he sniffed the air and bounded off, hands over feet, heading for the door.
Horse ran up to join Ox and Monkey. “Get after the last two,” Horse said. “I’ll find the French girl.”
Ox gestured at Steven. “What about this one? And Jasmine?”
Horse glared down at Steven, dismissing him with a look. “They’ll keep,” she said.
Steven tried to say something, but the dust got into his lungs and he coughed. He struggled to rise from the floor. Ox reached out again, barely exerting himself, and cuffed Steven on the back of the head.
“Just business,” Ox said.
As Steven fell, his last thought was: I’ve failed. I’ve failed them all.
Then he struck the floor and was still.
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Poof! Kim appeared in midair, flinching as the wind and ice struck her. Then she fell to the ground, landing awkwardly in a snowdrift.
Great, she thought. Maybe teleporting randomly wasn’t the best idea ever!
She spat snow, stood up, and dusted herself off. The storm was passing now. Ice still fell from the sky, but the wind was weaker than before. A thin shaft of sunlight pushed its way down through the clouds.
Kim lurched, dizzy. Steven and Jasmine had promised to train her, teach her to use her powers without getting disoriented, to extend her range. But they hadn’t gotten around to that yet.
Guess all it took was blind panic. She thought of Dog and shivered, both from the memory and the cold.
The fog began to clear, revealing the side of the ice mound concealing Jasmine’s headquarters, about a hundred feet away. A couple of guards lay unconscious near the hidden door. At least, Kim hoped they were unconscious, not dead. She crept over to check on them—
—and then the hidden door in the ice rumbled to life, opening slowly upward. Before it was even halfway open, Dog came loping out, sniffing the air and heading straight toward his prey.
“Rrrrraaaabit!” he growled.
Kim stopped short. Her first instinct was to run, or to poof herself out of here. It was the same instinct she’d had back home, that time when Dad went off his medication and started breaking things. Or every time she saw another old store close down, another park locked up because the town couldn’t afford to keep it open.
Like Steven had said, Kim was good at running. And she was careful, too.
She stood her ground, waiting for Dog to come closer. Finally he leapt through the air, his claws raised to strike. Kim smiled, jumped straight up, and poofed away.
Dog landed face-first on the ice. He shook his head and looked around, dazed.
“Silly doggy,” Kim said, waving to him from a few feet away. “Did you fall on your little pink nose?”
Dog growled and climbed to his feet, shaking snow off his long ears. Kim swallowed hard and glanced backward at the complex. I can’t make it all the way back inside, she knew. I’m too weak from that first big jump.
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Maybe I need more training after all.
Dog charged her again.
“You got major self-control issues,” she said. “Have you thought about obedience school?”
As Dog’s claws swiped out, Kim poofed again. This time she reappeared just a few feet behind him. He snarled, turned, and charged again.
Poof.
Poof.
Poof.
Again and again, Dog snarled and swept the air with his sharp claws. And every time, Kim poofed out of his reach. But each jump took her a shorter distance.
I’m getting tired, she thought. If he manages to grab me, I won’t be able to teleport—I can only poof when I’m in motion. Sooner or later he’ll catch me.
And then what? Will he take me to this mysterious Maxwell dude? Or…or will he just eat me?
Dog slavered, frustrated, as his prey poofed away again. “RRRRAAAABIT!” he howled, louder than ever. He whirled around in a circle and charged.
Once again, Kim closed her eyes and went poof.


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ROXANNE SCURRIED along the wall of the large hangar bay, moving with a dancer’s grace past ladders, forklifts, and helicopters. She cast a nervous glance back toward the hole in the wall, the one that led to the War Room. She could hear crashing and yelling, but from this angle she couldn’t see what was going on.
She’d fled, hoping to gain time to think. Now she crouched down to hide behind a small copter, her mind racing. She didn’t know what to do. Jasmine and the others clearly needed help—but the Vanguard agents were just too powerful.
Looks like I’m a solo act for now, she thought.
Roxanne had two options: fight or run away. She looked up at the ceiling, where a concealed hatchway allowed aircraft to enter and exit the bay. That hatch was partway ajar now—the Vanguard agents must have forced it open, so they could enter from the roof. Ice and snow swirled down through the opening, chilling the room. But the storm seemed to be dying down.
Directly below the hatch stood a large combat helicopter, surrounded by a six-foot-high temporary metal fence. A sign on the fence read MI-17 HELICOPTER UNDER REPAIR / NO ADMITTANCE.
Roxanne turned to a smaller copter, an MH-6 Little Bird with only two seats. Unlike the MI-17, the Little Bird could fly. But Roxanne didn’t know how to pilot it, and even if she managed to get it in the air, the hatch above was only halfway open. The Little Bird probably wouldn’t fit through.
The only other vehicle in the room was a small vertical-takeoff plane, spread out in pieces along the floor: two giant rotors, a few weird-shaped fins, a thick tubular body split in half. Mags was in the process of assembling it from surplus parts. It wouldn’t be in shape to fly for weeks to come.
Roxanne studied the large MI-17 copter, running her eyes up to the roof hatch. If I can climb over the fence and up on top of the copter, she thought, I could escape through the hatch. And maybe I could go for help.
Then she remembered where she was: way out on the ice shelf of Greenland, hundreds of miles from any settlement. Where could she possibly go?
She heard a clomping noise coming from the direction of the War Room. Someone was coming.
Suddenly, despite her present circumstances, Roxanne realized she was grinning. She felt energized, the way she always did just before a performance. Adrenalized. She ran around to the far side of the big copter, then leapt onto the fence surrounding it. She grabbed at the top of the fence, but lost her grip and fell backward, landing on her butt.
“Rooster Girl? Is that you?”
The voice was deep and female. Roxanne couldn’t see its owner behind the bulk of the copter, but she knew it was Josie, the Horse and the leader of the Vanguard field team.
“You can’t fight us,” Josie continued. “We’re stronger than you, and better trained. We know all about you, too…cherie.”
“I know you, too!” Roxanne yelled back. “Josie, right? You’re not so tough without your crew.”
Roxanne’s voice echoed in the large room, concealing her position. But she knew she sounded scared, and hated herself for it.
“Give up now,” Josie replied, “and you won’t have to find out how tough I am.”
The Horse sounded closer now. She must be edging around the far side of the copter. Roxanne moved along the outside of the fence. Her only chance was to keep the copter’s bulk between her and her attacker.
“Maxwell isn’t evil, you know,” Josie continued. “He has a plan for the Zodiac powers. In fact, he’s the only one who knows how to control them.”
Gritting her teeth, Roxanne leapt up again and grabbed hold of the top of the fence. The metal dug into her fingers, cutting them, but she grunted through the pain, vaulted over the fence, and landed on the helicopter’s sideboard. She leaned against the copter’s hull, gasping for breath.
“What did Jasmine tell you?” Josie asked. “That she and her boy toy Carlos had rebelled against the big bad Maxwell? It’s not as simple as that, kid.”
Rooster remembered her father calling her kid, back before he’d left for good. She hadn’t liked it then, and she didn’t like it now.
Horse was still on the far side of the room—she hadn’t seen Roxanne yet. As quietly as she could, Roxanne began to climb up the body of the copter.
“I think you know I’m right,” Josie continued. “Jasmine can’t be trusted. How much do you really know about these people, anyway?”
Roxanne stopped dead, halfway up the copter’s fuselage. She turned to look down, around the copter, and caught Horse’s eye. The Vanguard operative stood on the far side of the fence, next to the jagged hole in the wall.
“You’re a hypocrite, Josie,” Roxanne said, surprised at the anger in her own voice. “Just like every adult I’ve ever met. How much do you know about your people?”
For just a second, she thought she saw a flicker of doubt cross the woman’s face. Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone. “And you, Roxanne, are an innocent,” she said, “underneath all that makeup and attitude. I’ll give you one chance: come down peacefully and we’ll discuss this back at Vanguard headquarters.”
Roxanne stood frozen for a long moment. She glanced upward, flinching as a gust of frigid air blew in through the roof hatch. She hated to admit it, but Josie’s words had hit home.
I only agreed to come here for training, she thought, and because Mom…she didn’t want me anymore. I didn’t have anyplace else to go.
I hardly even know Steven and the others. Is it worth risking my life for them?
But then again…
“Maybe I don’t trust Jasmine,” Roxanne said. “But I sure don’t trust you.”
She turned away and resumed climbing. Above her, the roof hatch gaped open. Just a few more feet…
Josie shrugged. “I tried.” She stepped back a few feet, then charged forward, the Zodiac energy forming a horse shape around her. She vaulted over the fence in a single motion, as if she were running a steeplechase.
Roxanne climbed higher. She grabbed hold of the copter’s top rotor—
—just as Horse landed on the helicopter, a few feet below. Horse leaned back and head-butted the copter, very hard. The whole structure shook.
Roxanne slipped, almost losing her grip.
Horse’s second head-butt knocked her loose. As Roxanne fell through the air, straight toward her attacker, she had time for a single thought:
Showtime.
Roxanne whipped her head around and let out a sharp sonic cry, the Rooster form flaring up around her. Horse ducked and dropped easily to the floor inside the wooden fence. The sonic assault missed her, striking the fence and splintering a hole into it.
Still falling, Roxanne let out a second cry, then a third. The fourth cry struck the copter, shattering a window. Glass fragments flew into Josie’s face, blinding her momentarily.
The next cry hit Horse head-on. She staggered back.
Roxanne twisted around in midair. Got to land on my feet, she thought.
But Josie grabbed her by the arms, swinging her around in the air. Roxanne saw the metallic fuselage of the helicopter rushing toward her in a blur of green and black. Then her whole body exploded in pain.
“You’ve got power, girl,” she heard Josie say. “But you got no idea how to use it. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure it goes to someone who deserves it.”
Roxanne felt a flash of rage. I didn’t ask for this power, she thought. I didn’t want my career, my whole life, smashed like a guitar onstage. And I sure don’t wanna die in Greenland!
And suddenly there was blackness.
When she came to, Horse was dragging her across the floor, back toward the War Room. Roxanne struggled, but her arms and legs had been tied with rope. She tried to clear her throat, to let out a sonic cry, but she coughed and tasted leather. Josie had gagged her as well.
“I meant what I said, Rooster Girl,” Josie said. “You’re an innocent. But even innocents make the wrong choices sometimes.”
This ain’t over, Rooster thought. You don’t know who you just messed with, Josie. When I get out of this, I’ll…I’ll…
Despair washed over her. She was helpless, unable to move.
It’s up to them now, she thought. The others. Steven and Jasmine and Liam and Kim and Duane.
At that moment, Roxanne missed everything about her old life. Her guitar, her band, her bed with the little flowers on the night table…and her mom. She felt a terrible urge to flee, to leave everything here behind and run as far and as fast as she could. But it was too late. With the ropes binding her and the gag blocking her power, she couldn’t move.
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When Steven struggled back to consciousness, he, too, was bound up in ropes, cocooned in a tightly bound series of cords. Bits of wall plaster and broken computer parts littered the War Room floor. Sounds of fighting carried from across the room.
He struggled and squirmed, but the ropes were too tight. He felt a moment of panic—then stopped, forcing himself to concentrate. Clenching his arms tightly around himself, he thought: I summon the power of the Tiger. He paused. That sounds super lame. But it might work!
Energy rippled through Steven, from his heart outward to his arms and legs. The Tiger energy burned, forming its now-familiar manifestation above and around him. He flexed his muscles and threw his arms wide, splitting the ropes like spaghetti.
Steven leapt to his feet. A ceiling beam had fallen, crushing a bank of computer consoles. Just beyond, Carlos sat crouched down, tending to Jasmine. Steven ran over to them.
Jasmine had cuts on her face and arms. She looked very weak. “The power,” she said. “The Dragon power…it’s gone. I can’t feel it at all anymore.”
Carlos dabbed at her face with a tissue, wiping up blood. “It’s okay, Jaz. Lie still.”
“Dafari,” she said. “Is he okay?”
“Yes,” Carlos replied. “I sent him to the basement, to set up the…actually, I need to go, too. It’s important. I’m sorry, Jaz—”
“It’s okay.” Jasmine grinned. With surprising strength, she reached up and grabbed Steven’s shoulder. “I’ve got the Tiger.”
Steven reached out and pulled her to her feet.
Carlos looked from Steven to Jasmine, considering. Then he squeezed Jasmine’s hand and flashed her a quick, scared smile.
“Don’t die,” he said.
Jasmine watched him run off, shaking her head. “He’s so romantic,” she said.
Steven looked around. The room was a mess: fallen wall fragments, smashed computers. The wallscreen hung loose, cracked in half. Strangely, the old desks in the far corner were still intact.
“Looks like I was out for a while,” Steven said. “What happened?”
“They trashed the place, tied us up, then went after the newbies. But they didn’t see Carlos hiding in the shadows. He untied me.”
“The recruits,” Steven said. “They asked me what to do, and I…I didn’t know what to tell them.”
The memory came back to him then. The three faces—Liam, Duane, and Kim—staring at him. Begging for guidance, for leadership. For something he couldn’t give them.
“Hey!” Jasmine punched him on the shoulder, hard. “Snap out of it.”
“What do I do?” Steven asked. “And, ow.”
“Go help them!”
“What about you?”
Jasmine frowned and scrunched up her face. As she squeezed her eyes closed, a very faint Dragon aura began to rise up around her body. “Come on,” she whispered. “Comeoncomeoncomeon…”
Then she gasped, coughed, and doubled over. The Dragon energy vanished.
Steven reached for her. “I’m all right,” she said, waving him off. “But I’m not gonna be much help until I can get my power back. It’s like a…a battle between me and Maxwell, waged across the whole world.” She gave a dry laugh. “Come to think of it, that’s been true for a long time.”
Steven frowned. Again, the thought came to him: She’s got more history with Maxwell than we know.
“But never mind me,” she continued. “You need to pull your head out of the sand and go help your teammates.”
“I don’t—”
“Steven!” She was practically screaming at him now. “Help them.”
He nodded, turned away, and ran.
His mind was racing. The recruits had scattered—who needed his help most urgently? Ram’s pretty tough. Pig has no physical powers, so he’s vulnerable. Rabbit is the youngest. But Rooster
As he dashed out the door, Jasmine’s words echoed again in his mind: Help them.
There was no more time for doubt. He had to act.
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Josie dragged her bound captive across the floor of the garage. The gagged Rooster slid along easily on the oily floor, grunting muffled protests every few feet.
“You know,” Josie said. “If you were a Pig instead of a Rooster, you’d be Greased Pig by now.”
Stop it, Josie told herself. You’re starting to sound like Monkey. This team is driving me crazy.
She started toward the outer garage door, then stopped. An electric-powered jeep stood parked in the corner. A thick cord led from it to a large, inductive charging system mounted in a box on the wall.
Josie changed course, lurching toward the jeep. “Change of plans, girl,” she said. “Just gotta make a quick call.”
She reached into her pack and pulled out a short cord, snapping it quickly onto the analyzer on her wrist. Then she yanked the charging paddle out of the jeep. With the other end still connected to the wall, she plugged the little cord into a tiny port in the paddle.
A hologram rose up from Josie’s wrist. It flickered for a moment, flashing from blue static to red, then back to blue. Then it resolved into the hazy, indistinct form of Maxwell himself.
“Horse,” he said. “Is everything proceeding as planned?”
“Yes sir,” she replied. “I’ve secured one of the targets, and the other agents are dealing with the rest.”
“Then why,” he said slowly, “are you disturbing me?”
Maxwell’s image flickered. The holo-communicators used up an awful lot of power, and they weren’t perfected yet.
“I just, uh…” Josie hesitated. “It’s about Jasmine. I’m worried…is everything going as planned? With her?”
“It is,” Maxwell said. “I’m using a variety of meditative techniques, guided by my superior will and intellect, to extract the power from her. In a few hours, the Dragon will be mine and mine alone.”
Josie sighed in relief. The others were no problem; even the Tiger, powerful as he seemed, was young and inexperienced. As Josie had told her team, only Jasmine could conceivably disrupt their plans.
Josie squinted at the holo. Maxwell’s face was clearer now, and two ethereal images could be seen floating in the air above him. His bat-winged dragon hovered in profile, its wings wrapped tight around a different type of dragon: the slimmer, sharp-clawed serpent that represented Jasmine’s power. The two creatures’ mouths were only inches apart, snarling and hissing at each other like cats—as Maxwell’s dragon, the dominant one, sucked the life force slowly out of its victim.
“At least,” Maxwell continued, “the power will be mine if I am not interrupted again.
Josie gulped and nodded. “Understood, sir. Thank you.”
She yanked the cord out of the paddle. The hologram flashed and vanished.
On the floor, the Rooster girl let out a sharp cry.
Josie reached out and jabbed a red button on the wall. As the big garage door started to slide open, she smiled down at her struggling captive.
“Save your breath, rock star,” Josie said. “It’s cold outside.”


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DUANE DIDN’T LIKE to talk much. He found that a lot of the time, when he talked, people didn’t understand him. Or sometimes they understood the words, but not the ideas he was trying to express.
So when Monkey chased him into the training room, Duane didn’t say anything. He just ran across the floor, trampling over the exercise mats, pushing aside the treadmills and punching bags, until he reached the control screen.
Monkey swung around the doorway and into the room—just as Duane activated a half dozen training sequences all at once. Jungle gyms sprouted out of the floor, climbing ropes dropped from the ceiling. Monkey looked at the assortment of workout equipment and grinned wickedly.
“Big mistake, kid,” he said, reaching out to grab a pair of exercise rings hanging from the ceiling. “This is what I was made for.”
Monkey swooped forward on the rings, almost as if he were weightless. When he reached the top of his arc, he let go and tumbled through the air. He stretched out his unnaturally long feet and grabbed hold of a rope with his toes.
Duane ignored Monkey. He stared at the screen, at the data flashing past his eyes. Duane had always been good at concentrating on a single task, blocking out distractions. That had caused him trouble at school—sometimes he got so engrossed in solving a problem, he wouldn’t hear what the teacher was saying. And sometimes the kids made fun of him because he seemed strange and distant.
But at times like this, Duane’s ability to focus came in very handy.
“You’re missin’ the show, kid,” Monkey said. He swung around the rope in a circle a few times. “Of course, once I take you in, we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other.”
Duane frowned. The data on the screen was moving so slowly! He wanted to use his full power, to absorb all the information at once. But he remembered what had happened back in South Africa, when he’d let his power run wild. So he held himself back and allowed the information to come at its own speed.
“Maybe Maxwell will give you to me as a pet,” Monkey said. “You ever heard of a monkey owning a pig before?” He chittered with laughter.
Finally—finally!—the Advanced Obstacle Course menu appeared on the screen. Duane pressed an icon.
“Just stand still.” Monkey launched himself through the air, straight toward Duane. “This won’t hurt muuu-UUUUUHHHH?”
Thick plastic cables dropped from above. They snapped around Monkey’s swooping form, plucking him out of the air—binding his arms, legs, and ankles. He jerked upward, caught in midair.
But Duane’s victory was short-lived. Monkey looked down at his opponent and grinned again. Then he lifted his arm to his head and, in quick motions, began to gnaw away at the nearest cable.
“Can’t catcf a Nonkey in vis kind of frap,” Monkey said, chewing madly. When his hand was free, he reached down to untwist another cable from his legs.
Duane turned back to the control screen and tapped another icon, the one for the low-powered Taser gun. Only one of the Tasers was fully charged. He thumbed up the power on it to full, then pressed ACTIVATE.
The Taser shot up out of the floor. It swiveled around, tracking Monkey. But when it fired off its thin metal wire, Monkey dodged it easily. The Taser shot out to its maximum length, then fell to the floor, sparking harmlessly.
“You’re outmatched, kid,” Monkey continued, jumping down to the floor.
Duane jabbed at another icon. This was his last chance, and he knew it. The paintball cannon whirred out of the wall—and Monkey took it out with one punch, snapping it loose. As it clattered to the floor, a broken capsule dribbled paint onto the white tile. The paint looked vaguely like fresh blood.
Before Duane could even formulate a thought, Monkey grabbed him by the throat and spun him around. Duane coughed and choked, struggling to breathe.
“I woulda done the same thing,” Monkey said. “But it’s over, kid. You can’t beat Vanguard.”
Duane clutched at his throat. Panic began to bubble up inside him.
“You gotta surrender now,” Monkey continued. “Otherwise I’m gonna have to keep choking you till you ain’t breathing no more.”
Ever since he was a little boy, Duane had hated to feel helpless. Now he flailed, waving his arms around wildly. But Monkey hung on to his back, the grip on Duane’s throat as tight as iron.
I’m gonna die! Duane thought. I’m gonna die here!
Almost without thinking, he let the Pig out of its cage.
Freed at last from its constraints, Duane’s power reached out to fill the room. A giant raging energy-boar, larger than he’d ever manifested before, rose up, bucking and snorting. The Zodiac power swept over the control screen, setting off a shower of sparks.
The lights dimmed, flickered, and winked out. The room went dark.
“Wha?” Monkey asked. He turned in alarm, loosening his grip for just a second.
Duane wrenched himself loose and started to run. But before he could take a single step, a heavy weight struck him on the back of the neck. He fell forward, crying out softly.
A bright light shone into his face. When he looked up, Monkey stood holding a flashlight in one hand and the broken paintball cannon in the other.
“Monkeys can see in the dark, y’know. I guess pigs can’t.”
Duane groaned. He tried to focus his power, to direct it at his opponent—but he couldn’t concentrate. His head felt like somebody had just fought a battle inside it.
And he knew: he’d played his gambit and lost. With the power short-circuited, he couldn’t use the training room’s machines against Monkey anymore.
Monkey pulled out a rope and crouched down. “I’m just gonna tie you up with this now,” he said. “Don’t fight anymore, okay? I don’t wanna have to bring in a bruised pig.”
As Monkey pulled the ropes tight, Duane felt the panic rise inside him again. He turned away, fighting back tears. This time, he really was helpless.
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For good measure, Monkey grabbed a stray barbell and hit Duane hard on the crown of his head. Visions of Monkey and the other Vanguard surrounding him and the others, knocking their heads together, swarmed in his head. He didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. He only knew that there was no way out.
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Liam dashed out of the War Room, skidding a little as he swerved into the long corridor. Alarms rang all around, lights flashed red on the ceiling. He paused at the end of the hall and flung a security door open. Then he took off up the metal maintenance stairway, two steps at a time.
He could hear one of the Vanguard agents following. Heavy footsteps thudded, one after another, in a steady beat. The agent, whoever he or she was, was clearly in no hurry. Sooner or later he’d catch up.
Liam puffed a bit as he reached the first landing. He stopped for a moment, smiling to himself. With his Ram powers, Liam was nearly invulnerable; almost nothing could stop him. He could just let the Vanguard agent catch him and see what happened.
But he had something better in mind.
A crash rang out from below. Liam peered down around the staircase and saw Ox standing at the bottom in front of the smashed-in security door. Liam turned around quickly and started running again.
Ox’s footfalls resumed, echoing in the narrow stairwell.
At the top of the stairs, Liam dashed down another short hallway, then pulled open the door labeled MAIN LABORATORIES. Inside, the labs were deserted. Liam ran past cubicles and sinks, experiments left half-finished when the alarms had sounded. He came to the door labeled CARLOSS PRIVATE LABKEEP OUT! and shouldered it open.
Carlos’s lab was a maze of desks, computers, and mechanical experiments—and, at the far wall, there was another door. This one was labeled CONTAINMENT CHAMBER. Liam smiled and opened that door, too. Then he got to work.
Five minutes later, when Ox smashed down the Containment Chamber door, Liam was sitting casually inside a large transparent cube. It was about ten feet wide on each side, with an opening on the side nearest to Ox. Liam held a half-eaten candy bar in one hand and a small tablet in the other.
“Just a sec,” he said. “I’m about to level up on Legend of Zook.”
Ox smiled and shook his head. He ducked inside the cube, reached out to grab Liam—then turned in surprise as the opening slid shut behind him.
Now they were sealed inside the cube together.
Liam smiled back and held up the computer. “Ah, y’got me. I’m not really playin’ Zook,” he said. “This is more like a remote control.”
He pressed a button. Outside the cube, in the corner of the room, a computer hummed to life. A screen lit up with the words: CAGE MATCH PROTOCOLSACTIVATED.
“No Zook,” Ox said. He moved up close to Liam, towering over him. “What game are you playing, kid?”
“Game,” Liam said. “Aye, y’got my number, Mister Ox. I do like games. You know I wouldn’t let Steven recruit me to this little circus until he managed to beat me in combat?”
Ox cocked his head. “And how did he do that?”
“Ah, I see what ye did there!” Liam smiled again. “Nice try—but I’m afraid you’ll have to find out for yourself. Y’see, Carlos helped me set up this little game, right here, to play with Steven. Man’s got to get even, you know. But I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.”
Ox turned away. He pulled out a knife and began picking at the seal on the side of the chamber.
“Oh, don’t bother tryin’ to jimmy the door,” Liam continued. “You see, this chamber is now utterly sealed. An’ the computer is programmed not to open it again until one of us is unconscious.”
“Unconscious.”
“Aye. Just like a cage match, see? If ye can knock me out, I’m yours. Bloody clever, if I say so myself.”
Ox turned and moved toward Liam. “What if I just take that little ‘Nintendo’ from you and—”
Liam dropped the console on the floor and stamped on it. It shattered into a hundred pieces.
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“It doesn’t matter,” Ox said. He cracked his knuckles, a loud sound in the confined space. “I’m the strongest person on Earth…Mister Maxwell’s run the tests. Just close your eyes. This’ll be over in a minute.”
Ox reared back and punched Liam in the face. Liam’s head snapped back, bouncing off the side of the chamber with a loud thumping noise. Then he straightened up, cracked his neck muscles, and smiled.
“Ha!” Liam said. “See, that’s what makes this so interestin’. You might be the strongest person on Earth—I sure don’t remember ever being hit that hard before—but I’m the toughest. The Ram’s power is invulnerability, and mate, I’m as invulnerable as they come.”
Ox whipped out a small dart gun and fired. The dart struck Liam in the throat and bounced off. Liam scratched his neck, but there wasn’t even a mark.
“It’s a fascinatin’ philosophical dilemma, if ye think about it,” Liam continued. “The unstoppable force an’ the immovable object.”
“It is, at that.” Ox paused. He looked around the cube, and at the room visible past its transparent walls. “I think I could bash this chamber hard enough to bring the walls down around us. That would end your little game.”
“Aye, it might. But it would probably bring the whole building down too. An’ I’m not sure all your wee Vanguard pals could survive that. Are ye sure?”
Ox stood still for a moment, thinking. “I could tie you up.”
“That won’t end the game.”
“No, but I’m gonna have to tie you up sooner or later.” Ox reached into his pack and pulled out a length of rope. “Might as well get a head start.”
“That’s very practical thinkin’, Mister Ox. You don’t usually see that kind of planning in the muscleman of a gang.”
“Well,” Ox protested, “we’re not just a gang. We’re a paramilitary combat unit, and we pride ourselves on our professionalism. Personally, I like to think of myself as more than just a muscleman.”
Ox crossed over to Liam and began to bind his arms behind his back.
Liam didn’t resist. “Reminds me of my Uncle Seamus,” he said. “He was a hard man, no mistake. But he liked to do chess puzzles on the side, those brainteasers they used to put in the daily paper. All the other petty criminals made fun of ’im, but…well, when you’re the best legbreaker in all Belfast, you can pretty much do what you like.”
“I had an uncle like that. Name was Heinrich. He was into word searches.”
“Aye, well, word searches aren’t exactly yer thinkin’ man’s puzzle.”
“Nobody ever told Uncle Heinrich that,” Ox replied. “He wasn’t as strong as me, but he was kind of an immovable object. Like you.”
“I…I got to say, Mister Ox, it’s a pleasure to battle to the death against a man so philosophically inclined as yourself. Makes for a refreshing change.”
“Likewise.” Ox paused in his work, frowning. “My team are good people, and Horse is a very fair leader. But their idea of a good time is a sweaty game of soccer. Which is great, gets the blood pumping and all—but sometimes I crave more cerebral pursuits.”
“Aye.”
“However.”
“However?”
“I can’t play your game forever.”
Liam squirmed slightly in his ropes. “Have ye figured out a way to render me unconscious?”
“Not yet.”
“So you’ve got no way of actually winning right now?”
“Not in the least. But I know how these things work. Something will come along.”
“Huh! I must say, Mister Ox, that’s a very deterministic way of lookin’ at things. Even, y’might say, fatalistic—”
Suddenly the lights went out. The power went off, and the computer displays went dead.
Liam blinked, unable to see for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the darkness. In a flash, he realized what had happened: Duane.
Then he saw Ox standing before the chamber door. With the power off, the door had snapped open.
“Game over,” Ox said. “Let’s go.”
Ox tugged on the rope and Liam tumbled off his seat, onto the floor. It didn’t hurt—nothing hurt Liam, these days. But he hated to lose, especially because of a bloody power blackout.
“Let’s not be hasty,” Liam said. “I felt we were developing a bond here. Best two out of three?”
Ox said nothing. He picked up Liam and slung the younger man over his shoulder.
“Well, I tried.” Liam shrugged. “Maybe a rematch later? If yer not too busy dissecting me at Vanguard headquarters?”
“Maybe,” Ox replied, deadpan. “But it’ll have to be word searches.”
Aye, Liam thought. I probably deserved that.

He settled back and let Ox carry him away.

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