“I’VE ALWAYS liked airplanes, you know?” Liam said. “Not like my Uncle Edwin. First time he ever flew, the bloody plane crashed straight into a control tower. Never left Belfast again till the day he died. He used to say, ‘If man was meant to fly, he’d have landing gear on his butt.’”
Steven liked listening to Liam’s stories, but right now he had something else on his mind. He mumbled an excuse, unfastened his seat belt, and slipped out into the aisle.
Jasmine had booked them on a series of commercial flights. This was the last leg of the trip, a long flight from Budapest through to Beijing, China. Everyone was tired and stiff from all the travel, and there was still a long truck ride ahead before they reached their destination.
Jasmine had explained the mission; apparently they needed to be in a particular spot in China to pull it off. But Steven still had the strange feeling she wasn’t telling him everything.
He walked forward in the cabin. Just ahead, Kim and Roxanne sat together. Kim seemed to be trying to make conversation, but Roxanne was wearing ear buds, rocking back and forth in her seat.
“This is pretty exciting, isn’t it?” Kim asked.
Roxanne didn’t say anything.
“I mean, this whole thing,” Kim continued. “Training to use powers, flying all over the world, going on a mission into unknown territory. Mildly terrifying.”
Roxanne made a very faint “Mmmm” noise.
“I just hope we’re ready,” Kim said. “I think we’re really starting to work well together. Don’t you think?”
Roxanne raised an eyebrow. Very deliberately, she reached up and removed one earbud.
“Kim, don’t take this wrong, but I don’t want to talk,” Roxanne said. “I’m just here to learn how to use my stupid power without knockin’ down walls. That’s all I want to focus on.”
Kim frowned. “What if you need us? What if one of us needs you, to save our lives?”
Roxanne shrugged. She looked at Kim for a long moment, and her expression seemed to soften.
“Then I’ll save your life,” she said.
In the next row, Jasmine lay sprawled out over both seats, dozing. She probably hasn’t slept for days, Steven realized. She twitched slightly, as if in the grip of a nightmare.
Steven walked past Jasmine to the next row, where Duane and Carlos sat together. A large laptop computer sat on Carlos’s lap, and Duane held a strange cube-shaped machine wired into the laptop with a thick cable. Duane’s fingers tapped on the cube’s tiny touchscreen, almost too quickly to see.
Carlos looked up, surprised. “Steven.”
Steven smiled tentatively. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Just completing the programming for the procedure,” Carlos replied. “It requires a lot of custom code. I was worried about getting it all written in time. But Duane here understood what I needed right away.”
Steven watched Duane for a moment, but Duane just kept working, not even looking up. We all use the Zodiac powers in different ways, Steven thought.
“Hey, since you’re here,” Carlos continued, “take a look at this.” He pressed a button on the laptop and a logo appeared, with lettering underneath it:
“Another name for the group?” Steven asked.
Steven frowned. “What’s a ‘Zero Assembly’?”
“Ah, nothing. I think I was just hungry.” Carlos pressed DELETE, and the words vanished. “Something else I can do for you?”
“I, uh…” Steven held out his hand, allowing a slight Tiger-glow to ripple across his fingers. “I was wondering if Jasmine told you about what happened.”
“The power-sharing, you mean. Yes. When we get back, I’ll run a full barrage of tests.” Carlos tapped at the computer again distractedly.
“Okay. But…do you understand it at all?”
“The Zodiac powers operate on a wide spectrum of wavelengths. It sounds like the Tiger can instinctively sense the wavelength of another person’s power, and adjust its own to match. This causes a cascading amplification effect.” He paused. “That’s just a guess, though.”
“I don’t know how to control it. What if it happens on this mission?”
“I hope it happens.” Carlos set his computer aside and looked at Steven, very seriously. “You don’t understand—none of you understand how powerful Maxwell is. We’re going to need every trick, every edge we can muster just to get past his defenses.”
Steven nodded, letting that sink in. “And after that? When we get to the, uh…”
“The Grottoes.” Carlos paused. “Well, the plan is to draw the Dragon power out of Maxwell. Which means it’ll all go into…”
Carlos twisted his neck around to look at Jasmine, still asleep. Her mouth moved softly, forming words, but Steven couldn’t make them out.
He turned back to Carlos. “You’re worried about her, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Carlos replied. “The Dragon power isn’t like the other signs.” His voice barely wavered—most people wouldn’t have registered the emotion behind it. But Steven was starting to get to know Carlos, and the strange way he and Jasmine related to each other.
“I know,” Steven said. “It’s much stronger.”
“I hope she can handle it. She’s so strong and so proud—she hates to ask anyone for help. But…” Carlos trailed off, looking away.
For the first time, Steven realized: He really cares about her.
Above, the seat belt lights winked on. A voice blared over the loudspeaker. Steven had learned just enough Cantonese to know it was telling him to take his seat. They were about to begin the approach for landing.
Steven turned and started to walk away. But to his surprise, Carlos grabbed his arm.
“You saved her,” Carlos said, his voice intense. “When the power threatened to overwhelm her, you helped her. You may have to do it again.”
Steven nodded solemnly.
“Help her,” Carlos repeated.
Steven trudged back to his seat. The plane began to tilt forward, descending toward the ground. And Steven felt the weight of yet another burden resting on his shoulders.
They disembarked from the truck and walked across a long stone bridge spanning the Yi River. Carlos was toting a big satchel full of equipment, with Duane and Liam carrying smaller bags. Jasmine ushered them all forward, like a drill sergeant. Other tourists fell in next to them on the bridge.
Duane, who had barely said a word the entire trip, suddenly started talking non-stop. “The Grottoes are one of the greatest historical treasures in China,” he said. “There are more than two thousand caves in all, built over a period of four hundred years.”
A series of high arches, built into the side of a mountain, marked the entrance to the caves. Jasmine ushered the group in behind a commercial tour, and soon they were inside the mountain itself.
The path sloped downward, leading them underground. The cave walls began to display a wide variety of carved figures, animals, and landscapes.
“Thousands of examples of Buddhist art are contained in these caverns,” Duane continued. “Since very few ancient temples on the surface have survived, the Grottoes have become even more historically important.”
The cavern widened out into a big hall. Straight ahead, a cluster of gigantic statues, built into the walls, stared down at the visitors. Each statue was at least eight times as tall as a man. In the center, a Buddha sat serenely. It was the largest of all.
“The Buddha is the most important image in the caves,” Duane said. “He’s usually depicted, as we see here, with his followers. These statues were carved almost fifteen hundred years ago.”
Roxanne rolled her eyes. “If I wanted the Wikipedia entry, I’d read it.”
Duane looked puzzled. “I gathered a lot of data on this place during the trip here,” he said. “I thought it might be useful.”
“Yeah,” Liam said to Roxanne, “lighten up on the lad. Somebody’s got to be the smart one around here.”
“Every group has a smart one,” Kim agreed.
Roxanne glared at them all, one by one, her mouth twitching. Then her expression softened. “Sorry, man.”
Duane turned away. He looked sad now, almost miserable.
Liam clapped a hand on Duane’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about her.” He gestured up at the huge, looming statues. “This place makes us all feel kinda small.”
Kim gazed up at the statues, awestruck. “This was a long time ago,” she whispered, barely loud enough to be heard.
Steven found himself staring at the Buddha statue—and, mostly, at the giant figures surrounding it. They wore a variety of clothing, from robes to crowns to ancient military uniforms. They’re all very different from each other, he thought. Just like us. Just like our team.
He looked down to see a perfectly circular smooth stone. I wonder how long this has been here, how many people have walked past it, for how many years. This place is so full of history.
“Steven?” Jasmine touched his shoulder. “The tour group is moving along. This is our chance to slip away.”
He nodded absently.
He gestured up at the statues. “Jasmine,” he said hesitantly. “Do you think some of the people who lived during this time…do you think they might have had Zodiac powers, too? Like us?”
She nodded. “Could be. And, like us, they probably had to keep their powers secret from the rest of the world.” She slapped him on the back. “Come on. Before the guards notice us leaving.”
She moved off, and the others followed. But Steven remained for a moment, lost in thought. When he turned, the tour group had moved on ahead. Jasmine and Carlos were just leading the others off into a branching corridor.
“Steven?” Duane said.
Steven turned back around. Duane had stepped away, in the opposite direction from the others. He pointed, tentatively, farther down into the cave.
Steven followed him to another frieze, another clutch of statues carved into the wall. This one showed a collection of men and women in robes. They were divided into two groups, facing off against each other as if they were about to do battle.
“Look,” Duane said.
Steven followed his pointing finger. Carved above one figure, the leader of the left-hand group, was a flare of energy that could have been a Dragon. And above the other leader, a chipped, worn Tiger shape rose toward the ceiling.
Steven peered closer. The Tiger leader reminded him of the etching he’d seen in the old Chinese book back in the museum. The ancient hero with mysterious powers.
Now I know, Steven thought. I know a little bit, at least, about what those powers might have been.
Duane took a few more steps, and Steven followed. The next carving showed the Tiger leader fallen to the ground. Dead.
“They…” Steven’s breath caught in his throat. “Did they destroy each other?”
Duane spoke softly. “They say that, on the day this cave was completed, the people all around saw a bright flash of light that lit up the river.”
Steven remembered the flash that had struck him, back in the Convergence room in Hong Kong. He remembered the cold fire lancing through him, the unimaginable sensation of power filling him up for the first time.
Then he glanced, again, at the weathered carving of the dead Tiger leader.
“People like us,” he whispered.
He turned, gesturing for Duane to follow. Together they ran to catch up with the others.
CARLOS LED the group into a narrow branching corridor, where he swiped a passkey against the rock wall. A hidden door opened to reveal a creaky, disused freight elevator.
Steven climbed inside with the others, grimacing as the elevator groaned under their weight. Carlos opened a panel and hotwired it. The elevator hummed to life, and they plunged downward at stomach-turning speed.
Steven couldn’t tell how many levels down the elevator took them. But when the doors opened, he gasped at the sight that confronted him.
They were in a high, wide cavern with no visible exits. One wall was dominated by an ornate statue of a dragon, its wings spread wide, stone-carved fire flashing from its mouth. Its eyes burned with an ancient ferocity.
“Will ye look at that,” Liam said.
Steven felt Kim’s hand clutching his hand, a little too tightly. “I, I’m not awesome with confined spaces,” she said.
He turned to her and smiled. She squeezed his hand, smiled back, and let go.
This area wasn’t open to tourists—the ground was uneven, the air musky and stale. Steven thought briefly of the Convergence chamber, the underground room where Maxwell had sought to harness the Zodiac power. This place reeked of the power, too; but where the Convergence hall had been a metallic, man-made room, this chamber was far older, lined on all sides with earth and rock.
Steven walked forward, almost tripping over some jagged rocks, toward the dragon carving. He touched the dragon’s lower talon, the only part he could reach. The Tiger burned within him, as if it recognized a kindred spirit.
Now he could see, on either side of the dragon carving, an array of other animals. A charging ram. A crowing rooster. A snorting ox, a capering monkey. A coiled snake, slithering around the edges of the dragon’s wings.
And next to the dragon: a fierce, roaring tiger.
“This place is not in the guidebooks,” Duane said.
“No,” Jasmine agreed. “But it’s where we need to be.”
Carlos was already pulling equipment out of his bag, setting up something at the base of the dragon carving. “Duane?” he called.
“This is where you pull off the big move?” Steven asked. “Where you drain Maxwell of all his Dragon power?”
“If we can do it anywhere, it’ll be here,” Jasmine said. “This place is called Dragon’s Gate. It’s a unique meeting point of Zodiac energy and, uh, ley lines…” She shrugged. “Carlos? Little help?”
“It’s where we need to be,” Carlos said.
Steven moved over to watch, followed by Kim, Liam, and Roxanne. Carlos and Duane were setting up a small machine on a telescoping tripod. They whispered to each other, fastening screws and adjusting settings on Carlos’s laptop.
When they were done, Carlos pulled out the cube-machine that Duane had been programming on the airplane. Carlos hoisted it on top of the tripod assembly and twisted it into place. It hummed, its touchscreen flashing to life.
Carlos stood up and brushed cave dust off his pants. “That’s it,” he said. “Duane, you want to do a last-minute check of my wiring?”
Duane nodded and started fiddling with the far side of the cube. He pressed a button and two heavy metal manacles slid out on thick cables, one from each side of the machine’s base.
Steven peered at the touchscreen:
DRAGON TRANSFER PROTOCOL
“Okay,” Steven said. “So we’re all set, right?” He pointed at the screen, where a green button winked underneath the word ready. “Press the button, suck all the Dragon power out of Maxwell and into Jasmine.”
Liam nodded. “Sounds good to me.”
“Guess we’re on guard duty,” Roxanne said.
Kim smiled. “Can I push the button?”
Jasmine and Carlos exchanged uncomfortable glances.
“We, uh, we can’t start yet,” she said.
Steven felt a weird, sinking sensation. “Why not?” he asked.
“Because Maxwell has to be present for the protocol to work.”
Steven’s eyes went wide. “Present?”
“Maxwell?” Roxanne asked. “You mean Maxwell, the most powerful dude, possibly, in all the world, who has sworn to capture us. He’s coming here?”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Carlos said.
“He’ll be here,” Jasmine said. “He won’t be able to resist this big a concentration of Zodiac power.”
“Wait a minute,” Liam said.
“Whoa,” Kim added.
“Are…are you saying…” Steven paused. “Are we here as bait?”
Carlos cleared his throat. He turned away, toward the cube. Duane had stopped working, his eyes shifting warily from Carlos and Jasmine over to Steven and the others.
Jasmine looked away too. “We’re all bait,” she said, evasively. “Wherever we go.”
“I thought we were a team,” Steven said.
“We are. Of course we’re a team,” Jasmine said. But she wouldn’t look him in the eye.
“You don’t trust us,” Steven said. “You don’t think we can beat the Vanguard agents.”
“I—I can’t take any chances with Maxwell.” She pointed at the machine. “This is our only chance to stop him.”
“That whole pep talk you gave me. Everything you said about teamwork, about wanting us to lead normal lives.” Steven struggled to keep his voice from breaking. “That was all crap, wasn’t it? All you care about is destroying Maxwell. No matter who you have to hurt in the process.”
Jasmine turned, slowly, to face him. “That’s not true.”
They stood still for a long moment. Kim, Liam, and Roxanne fell in behind Steven, facing Jasmine. She stood with Carlos under the shadow of the ancient dragon statue.
“Liam,” Jasmine said. “Kim. You know I’d never hurt you. Roxanne—”
At the sound of her name, Roxanne let out a sharp, angry sonic cry. Steven clapped his hands over his ears. The whole cavern shook, and loose rock rattled down from the ceiling.
Duane walked over, slowly, to join Steven’s group. Liam clapped Duane on the back.
“We are a team,” Steven said, “whether you know it or not.”
“I do know it,” Jasmine said, almost in a whisper. “But the Vanguard forces almost killed you before. I can’t let that—”
A rumbling rose up, low at first. Steven turned toward Roxanne to see if she was using her powers again. But she just looked around, puzzled, along with the rest of them.
“The machine,” Jasmine said. “Carlos, protect the machine!”
As the rumbling grew louder, the ground began to shake. Rocks fell from the ceiling, small at first, then larger. Kim poofed out of the way just as a boulder crashed to the ground, right where she’d been standing.
“Below!” Liam yelled. “It’s comin’ from down there!”
Steven took a step back. The others followed him instinctively, just as the ground in front of them began to crack and split. Something rose up from the center of the room, scattering dust and rock everywhere. Steven stumbled, falling back toward the far wall.
Through the heavy dust cloud, the outline of the massive object tunneling up into the cavern became visible. Steven watched it with a sinking feeling, and he knew:
Vanguard is here.
DUST FELL like a shroud over the cavern. Steven coughed. Through the dust cloud, he could see the Vanguard ship: a thick vessel the size of a small house, with tank treads and retractable drills protruding from the front of its body. It nosed up above the hole in the ground, coming to rest at an angle.
“Gotta admit, I’m impressed,” Roxanne said. “That is an entrance.”
Steven peered through the dust. He couldn’t see Carlos and Jasmine anymore, or their machine. They were trapped on the far side of the room, past the huge Vanguard ship.
Kim pointed. “What’s that?”
The ship began to vibrate and hum. A flat plate, shaped like a square with the corners clipped, rose up and out of the ship’s hull. It started to glow.
“Oh, no,” Duane said. “I think that’s a—”
Steven didn’t hear the rest. Suddenly his skin felt like it was on fire, burning from the inside out. He looked down at his arm, expecting to see flames. But there was no trace of a fire, no marks at all.
Steven, Roxanne, and Kim were flailing around in pain. “What is it?!” Roxanne screamed.
“A.D.S.,” Duane replied, grimacing. He pointed at the glowing plate on the ship. “Active Denial System—commonly known, for obvious reasons, as a heat ray. The U.S. military uses it for riot control.”
“What’ll it do to us?” Kim asked.
“Nothing permanent. Except stop us in our tracks…”
Steven closed his eyes, concentrating as hard as he could. His Tiger form began to rise up around him, flaring with power. But then it wavered and vanished.
The pain, he thought, it’s too strong. We can’t concentrate enough to use our powers!
He looked around. Duane and Kim were on their knees now, teeth gritted in agony. Roxanne backed up, through the thick dust cloud, toward the cave wall. Liam was still on his feet, but just barely.
Steven’s lapel-radio crackled to life. “—you hear me?”
He jumped. He’d forgotten the tiny radios that Carlos had issued to them.
“Jasmine?” he replied.
“I can’t see you,” she said. “You’re on the other side of the ship. What’s going on? Are you all right?”
“We’re under attack,” he said. “Are you feeling the…the heat ray, too?”
“We can feel something, but it’s much weaker over here. Must be unidirectional.” She paused. “Carlos says it’s a clever way to attack you. He wishes he’d thought of it.”
“I wish he’d thought of it, too!”
Steven looked up. Through the haze, he thought he saw something else moving on the hull of the Vanguard ship. Was it…a hatch, opening?
“I gotta go, Jasmine.”
“Do you see Maxwell?” Jasmine asked.
“No. No, I do not see Maxwell.” Steven couldn’t keep the irritation out of his voice.
“Steven, I can’t help you right now. I have to help Carlos start the power-drain procedure.”
“And Steven? I’m sorry. I should have told you the plan.”
“Yeah, okay. Later!”
The dust blew toward him now, obscuring the ship. Steven coughed and reached out for Duane, wincing with every move. He felt as if his insides were on fire.
“Duane,” he said, “see if you can get near the ship, take out that heat ray.”
Duane looked up, tears of pain in his eyes. “Okay,” he said, “b-but Carlos said the Vanguard tech was shielded.”
“But my power—”
“Duane?” Steven grabbed him by both shoulders and stared into his frightened eyes. “This is one time we want your power to disrupt something.”
Duane smiled quickly. He coughed, nodded, and disappeared into the dust.
Steven whirled around toward the others—and found himself staring straight into the grim face of Ox.
Ox’s massive fist lashed out. Steven ducked back, dodging sideways. He reached into the pocket of his cargo pants and pulled out a small electronic staff, a tiny version of the one Carlos had used to repel the Vanguard team back in Greenland. Steven clicked it on and a beam of yellow energy reached forward to engulf Ox.
“Remember this?” Steven said.
Ox just smiled. “Yeah,” he said, “but we’re shielded from it now. Along with the heat ray.”
Steven barely saw the next punch. It slammed him backward, knocking him to the ground. He hit it hard, coughing dust. His skin still burned like fire.
Well, he told himself, we expected that. Still, it’d be nice to catch a break once in a while.
With an effort, he shook his head and looked up. Roxanne lay on the ground, with Horse kneeling over her. Just past them, Liam and Ox circled each other like boxers. He couldn’t see Kim. She must have poofed away.
Under other circumstances, Steven realized, it might have been a fair fight. But Horse and Ox were both fully powered up, their energy forms blazing around them. Liam and Roxanne were trying to use their powers, but the heat ray made it impossible for them to concentrate. A spectral Ram shape flickered in the air above Liam, while a fierce Rooster struggled to stay corporeal around Roxanne’s helpless form.
They’ve got us, Steven realized. They’ve planned for this…planned for everything. Everything except…
“We’re going to need every trick,” Carlos had said on the plane. “Every edge we can muster.”
Steven squeezed his eyes shut, willing the pain away. He reached inside and forced the reluctant Tiger out of its cage. It radiated forth, seeking out others of its kind. Seeking its friends, its allies.
Steven bolted toward Roxanne, reaching out with his hand. The Tiger power radiated forward, ahead of him. Energy flashed through the air, expanding and billowing outward.
When Steven’s energy touched Roxanne, her eyes burned with sudden fire. The Rooster form flared up above her, its beak snapping furiously. Roxanne threw Horse away, breaking the Vanguard agent’s powerful grip. Then she opened her mouth wide.
A fierce, powerful scream burst forth, stronger than any cry Roxanne had ever managed before. It struck the startled Horse head-on, enveloping her in an unimaginable blast of sound. Horse cried out and raised her hands to her ears. She staggered backward, colliding hard against the hull of the Vanguard ship.
Steven saw his chance and swung, punching Horse hard on the side of the head. She went down.
He held out a hand to Roxanne. She looked at him, dazed, for a moment. Then she extended her hand and let him help her up.
“Thanks,” she said, coughing and holding her throat.
“You with us?” he asked.
She nodded, her face grim.
Then she turned, very fast, and pushed Steven aside. He turned, surprised, to see Ox charging toward them. Roxanne ducked her head low and cried out.
Her sonic blast struck Ox on his feet, knocking him off-balance. Steven saw his chance and leapt through the air. Ox twisted and tried to regain his footing, but he stumbled and went down.
Steven landed on top of him, punching and kicking with the full force of the Tiger. Don’t let him get the advantage, Steven thought. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t give him a chance!
The battle raged for several minutes. Ox was muscular—every time one of his blows connected, Steven felt it in his bones. But Steven was faster. He landed two punches for every one of Ox’s.
Finally he heard a voice in his ear: “Cannonball!”
Steven looked up to see Liam leaping through the air. Steven held up a hand, sending Tiger energy surging into Liam. The Ram form whirled and rolled along with Liam, its spectral horns slicing the air. Steven’s energy flashed into him, supercharging his power, lighting him up like a full moon.
At the last minute, Steven rolled out of the way.
Liam landed on top of Ox with the full force of his steel-hard skin. Ox let out a loud gasp and went limp.
Liam rolled to his feet. “How about that,” he said, smiling easily. “Immovable object wins after all.”
Steven pointed toward the heat-ray projector, still glowing atop the Vanguard ship. “We’ve got to take that thing out,” he said.
Liam reached for Ox’s limp form. “How ’bout we use this?”
Steven nodded sharply. He took hold of Ox’s arms, while Liam grabbed the big man’s feet. Roxanne hefted his middle, and together they hurled him toward the ship.
Ox traveled two feet through the air and fell short, landing on the ground with a thud. He groaned faintly.
Roxanne gestured at the unconscious Horse. “Maybe something lighter?”
One minute later, Horse’s body slammed into the heat-ray beam. The projector cracked, sparked, and split in half. One section hung loose off the ship, while the other clattered to the ground.
All at once, the pain was gone. Steven exhaled in relief, shaking out his limbs. “Vanguard does have the best toys,” he said.
“Maybe.” Liam smiled. “But I always used to break my toys.”
Kim’s voice sounded scared over the radio. Steven whipped his head around, searching for her. “On our way!” he yelled. He took off at a run, with Liam and Roxanne right behind.
The Vanguard ship’s entrance had piled up a mound of rock against the zodiac statues. Steven zigzagged around it and stopped short. Dog, the third Vanguard agent, stood braced against the rock pile, holding Kim tight in a vise-like grip.
“He’s got me,” Kim said. “I, I can’t jump if I can’t move!”
Liam gritted his teeth and started forward. But Steven grabbed him by the shoulder. “No,” Steven said. “Like we practiced. Roxanne?”
Roxanne sucked in a deep breath and charged forward. As she drew near Dog, she let out a series of sonic cries. Steven tensed—but this time, Roxanne’s assault seemed to be silent. Steven couldn’t hear anything at all.
Dog could, however. He let go of Kim and whirled toward Roxanne, grabbing at his ears. He began to howl in agony.
“I’ll be a wart on my grandma’s nose,” Liam said. “That trick works.”
“Ultrasonic cries,” Steven said. “Too high-pitched for humans to hear. But dogs…”
Dog dropped to his knees, making a weak, high-pitched noise.
Liam clapped Steven on the back. “You’re up, mate.”
Steven charged forward, willing the Tiger power to come forth. It filled his arms, his legs, his senses. When he reached Roxanne, she backed up a step, making way for him. Dog turned, confused.
Steven leapt onto his back.
Dog reared back, howling. He reached out to grab hold of Kim. And, despite her instincts, Kim stayed put, knowing that she had to keep Dog from sprinting away. Steven grabbed him around the neck, clamping an arm around his windpipe. Dog started running, leaping around, bucking and jumping—anything that might throw Steven off his back. But the Tiger’s grip was unbreakable.
Steven tugged on Dog’s ear. The Vanguard agent let out a yip and turned in that direction.
“Huh,” Steven said. “Steering’s a little sticky…”
“What do you know?” Liam yelled. “Yer too young to drive!” He stepped forward and gave Steven a “Bring it on” gesture.
Steven pulled on Dog’s other ear, hard. Dog spun around and took off at a run, yelping and howling. Steven held on, held on, held on…then leapt away just as Dog slammed into Liam at full speed.
At the moment of impact, Liam flew backward. Dog bounced up in the other direction, high into the air.
At the top of Dog’s arc, Kim appeared in midair with a soft poof. “Remember me?” she asked. She punched him on the nose as hard as she could, then poofed away again.
Dog’s eyes rolled back into his head. By the time he crashed to the ground, he was unconscious.
Steven ran to Liam and Roxanne. “Everybody in one piece?” he asked.
“Safe as houses,” Liam said. He wasn’t even breathing hard.
Before Steven could answer, Kim poofed in and grabbed all three of them, pulling them in for a group hug. Steven was startled, and Roxanne tried to pull away.
But Kim held on tight. “This is happening, guys,” she said. “I got feels!”
“What the heck,” Roxanne said. “I guess we earned this.”
Steven felt a sense of pride stronger than anything he’d ever felt before. They really were a team, now.
Then Roxanne pulled away, pointing toward the Vanguard ship. “Is, um, is that supposed to be happening?”
A bright glow was rising up over the nose of the ship, piercing the settling dust. Steven’s heart beat faster as he recognized the shape within the glow: a shifting, shimmering Dragon.
Kim frowned. “Is it another heat ray?
“Or…” Roxanne grimaced. “…Maxwell?”
“No—it looks like Jasmine’s Dragon,” Steven said. “I think she’s activated Carlos’s machine.”
Liam started off around the ship. “Well, let’s go then. We better make sure no bloody rocks fall on her.”
But Steven frowned and thumbed his radio on. “Duane?” he called. “Where are you?”
No answer. That’s not good, Steven thought. There might be more Vanguard agents in the ship.
We’ve got to go after him. I can’t abandon a team member—
Then a second, bright light caught Steven’s eye. It was coming from the very center of the ceiling, directly above the Vanguard ship. As he watched, it grew stronger, almost blindingly bright. A white-hot opening began to appear in the rock, stretching upward farther than he could see.
Liam pointed up at the hole. “That,” he said slowly, “was not there before.”
“And it’s melty,” Roxanne added. “Melty bad.”
Kim turned to him. “Steven? What do we do?”
Steven looked up at the blinding light, then down to the glow emanating from Jasmine’s Dragon. Two problems, both demanding immediate attention.
And then there was Duane.
Another decision, Steven thought. And this time, I better choose right.