The series was filled with seven full-length novels (and inspired an excellent feature film). Once it ended (in the most *epic* manner), the Lorien Legacies Reborn series began, with a new group of teenagers taking on the mantle of heroes. Three books later, we find ourselves at the end, my friends. Return to Zero is the final book set in the world that began with I Am Number Four all those years ago. It features all of the epic super powered-action, hilarious characters, and heartwarming moments you’ve come to expect from the series.
And the end begins here. Read the first three chapters of Return to Zero right now, and be sure to grab your copy on June 25th to see how it all ends!
EARTH GARDE COMMAND—WASHINGTON, DC
Daniela gazed up at the hologram of the globe as it did a slow rotation above the polished mahogany conference table. The lights in the briefing room’s domed ceiling automatically dimmed whenever the operations map was active, so she stood there bathed in the projection’s vivid blue glow. She traced her fingers across the back of one of the twenty vinyl chairs that surrounded the table. She’d been sitting right there, months ago, when she was assigned to Melanie Jackson’s “good works and public relations” team. Daniela still remembered the positive vibes in the air that day, how everyone was smiling, even her. Earth Garde was going to let her help rebuild New York City. Her home.
Now, the room was empty. There was no briefing scheduled today and the mood around headquarters was decidedly uncheerful.
Daniela shook her head and reminded herself that, despite recent craziness, life was pretty good. She cracked a disbelieving smile, the way she did whenever she considered how far she’d gotten from Harlem. Not like physically far, at least not at the moment. NYC was three hours away on the train, faster if Earth Garde assigned her a helicopter. And they often did. How baller was that? She should put in a request to go visit her mom once she wasn’t confined to headquarters anymore. It had been too long and her mom was probably worried. Especially if she’d been watching the news.
Thinking about her mom, it was hard to believe the gulf between this life and her old one. Where had she been two years ago? Hooking up with boys in Harlem River Park? Getting fired from her job for being rude to customers? She certainly hadn’t been hanging around any high-tech military briefing rooms in state-of-the-art buildings just down the block from the Pentagon.
The invasion changed everything, of course. She developed Legacies. She may or may not have robbed a bank. She met John Smith. She helped save humanity.
And now? She’d been all over the world. Seen some crap straight out of those dorky sci-fi movies her stepdad—rest his soul—used to watch all the time. She’d made friends that weren’t even human. She’d helped rebuild what the Mogadorians had broken.
Daniela liked to think she was making a difference. Even if sometimes all she did was sit on a beach and babysit Melanie. She frowned at the holographic globe. All the places she could go, all the good she could be doing. Instead, she was stuck at headquarters. Grounded. At least until the fallout from Switzerland blew over.
It had seemed like a cake assignment at the time. Hang out at the mansion of the billionaire tech guru Wade Sydal, who, of course, was a family friend of the well-connected Melanie. Ride around on his new spaceship that he’d reverse-engineered from Mogadorian tech. Eat lobster.
Daniela still hadn’t wrapped her head around how it all went to hell. Apparently, Sydal was involved with some shady people who helped him acquire black-market alien technology. Without telling them what he was up to, Sydal brought Daniela and her Earth Garde teammates Melanie and Caleb to Switzerland so that they could watch his back. The British lady selling him Mogadorian ooze had some mercenaries and Garde of her own—Nigel and Taylor—although they were actually double agents. Before the deal could even be completed, freaking Number Five and that maniac Einar showed up to do, like, a citizen’s arrest on all the adults. It all popped off. They fought, even more Garde showed up and they fought some more.
“Bananas,” Daniela muttered.
Sydal had been killed in the process of bailing on his Earth Garde escort like a scared little bitch. There were a ton of soft-focus tributes to him on TV. The official story was that Einar killed him, even though she was pretty sure one of the Brit’s mercenaries took out Sydal with a rocket. But no one around headquarters was interested in Daniela’s version of the events, especially not with video of Einar’s unhinged speech playing on cable news 24/7.
Daniela surprised herself with how often she thought about Einar’s screed. He’d definitely come off like the type of dude who sent mail bombs from his basement, but some of what he said actually made sense, especially in light of the whole Sydal-being-corrupt-as-hell thing. Daniela didn’t know anything about cabals and conspiracies. No one filled her in on that stuff while she was acting as a glorified sidekick to the pretty face fronting Earth Garde. But it sure sounded like Einar and his people had some legitimate beef with how the Human Garde were being treated. He’d convinced some to run away with him, including Caleb, who Daniela didn’t think had ever broken a rule in his life, much less disobeyed the UN.
Ultimately, Number Nine had let Einar and his followers escape. After one ugly battle, none of them had wanted to fight each other again. At the time, Daniela never considered rolling with Einar. Her gut told her to stick with Nine and his people. He wouldn’t steer her wrong.
But Nine was back at the Academy with his students and Daniela was stuck here at Earth Garde headquarters with a bunch of adults who gave her the hairy eyeball and wouldn’t let her leave.
Daniela breathed out a sigh through her nose. When would things get less complicated?
When would they let her out of here?
The globe rotated so Europe was facing Daniela. With the press of a button, she called up the operations overlay. A dot pulsed over Switzerland. Daniela poked her finger into the hologram and a text pop-up appeared:
CLEANUP OPERATION UNDER WAY. UNKNOWN EXTRATERRESTrIAL SUBSTANCE BELIEVED AT LARGE.
On the hologram, Daniela could check on the progress of all of Earth Garde’s operations. Sometimes the details were vague due to the limits of her security clearance, but she could still get a pretty good idea about what Earth Garde was working on. Right now, there were hardly any glowing dots on the map. There were only a few dozen trained Human Garde to begin with and operations had been scaled way back since Switzerland. Garde like Daniela could rebuild all the world’s exploded landmarks and Melanie could smile all pretty for the cameras, but all it took was one unhinged Icelandic kid rambling about taking over the planet to shake the public’s confidence in their fledgling organization.
“Didn’t hear them complaining when I was busting my ass laying down stonework for them,” Daniela muttered, thinking about all the foundations she’d supplemented using her stone-vision. She tapped a few buttons on a tablet computer mounted on the conference table. “Let’s see who still wants our help . . .”
The glowing dots on the projection increased tenfold. Here were the open requests from countries for Earth Garde assistance. Waving her fingers through the map, Daniela accessed a few of them at random. Sickness in Kenya, an oil field under threat in Egypt, drug cartels in Mexico—all potential jobs for Earth Garde. More requests than they had personnel to handle.
“Oh, Puerto Rico’s got a bridge near collapse?” Daniela asked the empty room. “I could help with that, if I wasn’t cooped up in here answering the same dumb questions over and over.”
Officials had been interrogating her about Switzerland on pretty much the daily over the last two weeks. There were different faces from different governments and intelligence agencies, some of them were nice and some of them were gruff and one of them even tried to ply her with cookies like she was five years old, but their questions were all the same.
“What happened in Engelberg?”
“Do you know where the rogue Garde might be hiding?”
“Do you think the Loric known as Number Nine had anything to do with the attack?”
“Did Caleb Crane tell you he planned to defect?”
With a frustrated swipe of her hand, Daniela gave the transparent globe a spin. The hologram blurred, blue lines flickering.
Daniela always answered their questions honestly. Or tried to, at least. She really didn’t know much. The only time she bent the truth a little was when they asked about Caleb. Of course she’d noticed how strange he’d been acting. She knew that Caleb and his clique from the Academy were tangled up in some weirdness. She’d been assigned to help extract them from that crazy religious cult a couple of months back, hadn’t she? She remembered how, on the way to Switzerland, it had seemed like Caleb was trying to warn her that something bonkers might go down.
But Daniela played dumb about that. She wasn’t a snitch. She liked Caleb. She’d survived alongside him, Nigel and Ran back at Patience Creek. Just because they’d chosen different sides back in Switzerland didn’t mean they were bad guys or defectors or terrorists or whatever else the so-so-serious diplomats and generals implied when they peppered her with questions.
Daniela wondered, not for the first time, what Melanie might be telling the interrogators. Back in Engelberg, she’d been too shell-shocked to say anything when Nine had let Caleb and the others leave. But, on the flight back, Daniela had seen a dark look on Melanie’s face. “I can’t believe he let them escape” was all she’d said to Daniela.
They’d been kept separate since returning—Daniela was stuck in the barracks, but she was pretty sure Melanie got to go back to her dad’s estate in Maryland. Or maybe Melanie was just avoiding her. She probably didn’t appreciate how Daniela had literally slapped some sense into her in the middle of battle. Daniela smirked at the memory.
“Girl’s over there crying instead of using her superstrength,” Daniela mumbled with an incredulous shake of her head. “And I’m not going to give her a smack?”
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” a voice answered.
Daniela spun around just as a man in a very expensive suit entered the room. His brown hair was slicked back, his face bright and wrinkle-free, even though he was probably in his forties. He had a European accent that she couldn’t quite place. She’d seen him around before, in the halls of Earth Garde HQ. He was a diplomat or something. The guy carried a tablet computer, glancing down at it every few seconds, like he was too busy for this conversation.
“I’m sorry—who are you?” Daniela asked with a cocked eyebrow, unable to keep the surliness out of her voice. Dudes who thought they were hot shit always brought it out of her. “Since when can’t I be in here?”
The man crossed the room and turned off the operations map. The blue glow faded, the normal lights coming on.
“We were actually just coming to talk to you about that,” the man said, a bit of impatience in his voice. “Had to search all over the complex for you, Ms. Morales.”
The “we” he was talking about became clear as a trio of Peacekeepers entered the room. Daniela squinted at the soldiers. They were stone-faced, dressed in body armor and carrying those shock-collar Inhibitor cannons that Sydal Corp produced.
A lump rose in Daniela’s throat. The vibe here was all wrong.
Why would these guys be dressed for combat inside headquarters?
“Am I supposed to know you, man?” Daniela asked the guy in the suit. She casually circled around the table.
He smiled. “My name is Greger Karlsson. Usually, I work with your friend Nine at the Academy, but I’ve been asked to supervise the installation of Earth Garde’s new safety protocols.”
“Safety protocols? What’s that got to do with me?”
Greger glanced down at his tablet, double-checking some bit of data. “Now, according to your psychological profile, there’s a high likelihood of you interpreting what I’m about to tell you in a negative way. Let’s try to maintain a cool head and approach this matter with maturity, yes?”
“I mean, you’re already pissing me off with that tone and we just met like thirty seconds ago, so no promises.”
Daniela thought one of the soldiers almost cracked a smile at that. Greger continued on like he hadn’t heard her.
“The UN has determined that, in light of recent events, measures must be taken to ensure Garde do not become a threat to the public. Going forward, it will be mandatory for all Garde to have an Inhibitor chip implanted.”
Daniela’s eyes narrowed. She’d heard Ran say something about Inhibitor chips back in Switzerland. The government had apparently put them into her and Kopano without asking permission. She got the feeling Greger here wasn’t asking either.
“You want to stick one of those things in my brain,” Daniela said. “And I’m supposed to be mature about that?”
“It’s a very simple procedure. We have a healer on hand. Once it’s done, you won’t even know it’s there.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” Daniela said, her voice rising. “All I’ve done is help people.”
“Your model service is all noted in your file,” Greger said with a smile. “If that behavior continues, you’ll have nothing to worry about.”
Daniela glanced at the Peacekeepers. “This is some stop-and-frisk shit, man.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Yeah. Of course not.” She edged farther around the conference table, making sure it was directly between her and the soldiers. “So, what? You put this chip in me and give me a shock whenever I’m late to a meeting?”
Greger actually chuckled. “It’s not meant as a punishment, Ms. Morales. It’s a worst-case scenario. A last resort. The Inhibitor will only be used if your conduct becomes dangerous.”
“And who decides that? You?”
“No, actually, you’ll be assigned a trained Peacekeeper as a handler who will monitor your behavior and assist you in the field. We got the idea from the Loric themselves, actually. Back on their home planet, we understand that their Garde also had minders. They called them Cêpan.”
Daniela took a deep breath. She was out of questions, except for the big one. Here we go. Moment of truth.
“What if I say no?”
“I’m afraid it isn’t optional. The agreement you signed with Earth Garde in conjunction with the Garde Accord gives us unlimited discretion to implement safety measures necessary to protect the human race.”
“Who’s protecting me from you?” Daniela asked sharply. “I’m part of the human race, too.”
“That, Ms. Morales, is a matter of some contention.”
Daniela’s hands shook. This creep just told her she wasn’t human.
“Don’t you need my mom’s permission before you like cut my head open?”
“Again, as per your agreement with Earth Garde, the organization has guardianship over you now, not your mother.” Greger smiled patiently. “Any other questions?”
Daniela shrugged her shoulders, loosening them up. One of the soldiers behind Greger twitched, watching her closely. She was officially out of ways to stall what was about to happen.
“Guess you’ve got it all figured out,” she said coldly. “One more thing, though. What did you say about my psychological profile? About how I’d process some totalitarian-ass news like this?”
Greger glanced down at his tablet. “I said—”
Daniela didn’t let him finish. With a burst of telekinesis, she flung the conference table at the Peacekeepers. Only one of them managed to get his weapon up in time, the electrified collar fired from his cannon deflecting harmlessly off the table. Daniela’s eyes sparked silver as she unleashed a current of stone-energy, cementing the table to the conference room wall, thereby trapping the Peacekeepers behind it. She stepped over the broken hologram projector, glaring at Greger.
“Honestly,” he said, shrinking back. “This is futile.”
“My ass,” Daniela replied. She snatched the tablet away from him and, in one smooth motion, backhanded the man across the face with it. He fell with an undignified shriek, clutching a broken nose.
Daniela made for the door, already reminding herself of the HQ’s layout. There would be more guards throughout the building, but Daniela thought she could avoid most of them if she snuck down the service stairwell. The easiest way out from there would be through the cafeteria. She knew some of the workers down there liked to smoke on the back loading dock. They wouldn’t give her any trouble. But she needed to be quick.
She stepped out of the conference room, turned down the hall and was immediately struck by a massive weight in the middle of her chest.
Daniela actually heard her ribs crack. She managed only a whistling scream and hit the ground, bouncing off the tiles from the force of the blow.
Melanie stood over her, fist cocked back, ready to punch Daniela again. The photogenic face of Earth Garde looked grim, her blond hair tied back in an all-business ponytail.
Of course. She would be a sellout.
“Stay down, Daniela,” Melanie said. She tried to sound hard, but Daniela saw through that—she knew how easily the girl scared. “I’ll hit you again if you make me.”
Daniela couldn’t have stood up if she wanted to. She couldn’t even focus enough to encase Melanie’s stupid head in a block of stone. She couldn’t breathe.
“Wow, you really messed her up,” said an Asian girl as she sidled up next to Melanie. She looked like she’d just stepped off a runway, her black hair in a bun, her slim frame clad in a metallic sleeveless dress.
Melanie looked down at her fist. “He told me to hit her if she came out unescorted.”
The unfamiliar girl crouched next to Daniela and laid a hand gently on her breastbone. She felt the familiar sensation of a healing Legacy, the probing tendrils of restorative energy—but not enough. This girl wasn’t actually helping her; she was just assessing the damage. Daniela still couldn’t get in even a whisper of breath. She arched her back painfully, trying to find an angle that would relieve the pressure.
“You punctured her lung,” the healer said, clucking her tongue. “My goodness, you Earth Garde people are all so barbaric.”
“Just heal her, would you, Jiao?” Melanie said, looking away from Daniela’s pleading eyes.
“Not until she’s sedated,” Jiao replied. She stroked Daniela’s cheek with the back of her hand. “Nothing personal, darling. We’ll all be on the same side soon enough.”
Just then, Greger stumbled out of the conference room. He held a handkerchief to his bloody nose. Daniela would’ve taken more pride in that if she wasn’t slowly suffocating.
“Well done, girls,” he said nasally as he produced a syringe from inside his jacket pocket. “Well done.”
Daniela closed her eyes. There was no way she was getting out of this.
Her last thought, as she felt the pinprick in the side of her neck and the darkness closed in, was that she should’ve gone with Caleb and the others.
Two weeks ago she’d been in Switzerland.
Two weeks ago she could’ve escaped.
THE HUMAN GARDE ACADEMY—POINT REYES, CALIFORNIA
TWO WEEKS EARLIER
“hey, taylor, right? you all good?”
Taylor blinked and turned away from her window. From across the spacecraft’s aisle, that Earth Garde girl who’d shown up with Caleb was giving her a concerned look. Taylor thought her name was Daniela.
“What?” Taylor asked tiredly. The corners of her eyes stung, her cheeks were still hot with windburn.
“I asked if you’re okay,” Daniela said. “You were grinding your teeth.”
Taylor touched her mouth. “Was I?” Was she? Jesus. She made a conscious effort to unclench her jaw. “Been a long few . . .” Days? Weeks? “I’m tired as hell,” Taylor concluded. “And too pissed off to sleep.”
“That was some crazy shit,” Daniela said, laughing incredulously. “Most bananas situation I’ve been in since the invasion.”
“Yeah,” Taylor replied. “Sure was bananas.”
Professor Nine came down the aisle from the cockpit, looking grim. He nodded at Taylor before addressing Daniela.
“Earth Garde’s already up my ass,” he said. “They’ve got transportation for you and Melanie waiting at the Academy. They want you back in Washington . . .”
Taylor tuned them out, returning to her window as Lexa’s spacecraft descended. When the Academy came into view, Taylor could see Maiken Megalos doing hyperspeed laps around the track. Maiken stopped her run, staring up at the ship as it swooped in overhead. Then, she darted towards the student union. Maiken was well known as a busybody. She’d want to be the one to break the news that Professor Nine and some of his wayward charges had returned to campus. She’d tell everyone.
Which meant Taylor didn’t have long to catch Miki, if the guy was even still on campus. It turned out the tweeb was actually hiding a Legacy that let him transform into wind and was also spying for the Foundation. He’d helped sneak Taylor off campus once she’d convinced the Foundation she was on their side. She badly wanted to bust him.
She could at least do that. One small victory after so much failure.
The engines on Lexa’s spacecraft weren’t even cool, the exit ramp barely in the dirt, when Taylor made a wordless beeline off the ship and headed for the student union. Most of the others were too tired to notice. Nine had a small group of Peacekeepers to deal with, and Daniela and a still-sniffling Melanie were with him, probably arranging their return to Earth Garde. Nigel had his mother, Bea, to worry about—the black tendrils curling under her skin looked a lot like what Taylor had seen on the Blackstone soldiers back in Siberia. The woman wasn’t well, but Taylor wasn’t in the mood to offer her healing. And then there was that spy lady, Agent Walker, the one responsible for “handling” Kopano and Ran for that shady Watchtower group operating within Earth Garde. Walker was focused on looking after Rabiya, the Foundation teleporter that was allegedly now on their side, their new recruit looking around the Academy with shining eyes like she was stoked to be here.
That left no one to follow Taylor.
Well, no one except for Kopano.
“I know that walk,” Kopano said, his longer legs matching her stride for stride. “We are about to do something badass.”
Taylor glanced over at him, too drained for jokes. Frankly, she didn’t understand how he could be so upbeat after getting kidnapped, having a chip installed in his head and then fighting a massive battle against a genuine Loric. But Kopano was going to Kopano.
“Got to get Miki,” Taylor said, her voice scratchy.
“Yeah, we talked about him on the flight back,” Kopano replied.
“And we decided not to do anything rash.”
Taylor picked up speed. “Who decided? Not me.”
All the voices in the student union abruptly fell silent when Taylor shoved the double doors open with her telekinesis. There was Maiken, front and center, probably having just finished telling everyone about how she’d seen Lexa’s ship land. The girl edged away from Taylor with a nervous look.
Taylor couldn’t blame them for staring. Her face was windburned, her hair greasy and matted. She wore a heavy-duty black snowsuit, totally inappropriate for California, looking like she’d just gotten back from climbing the Himalayas or, more accurately, like she’d fallen off a mountain. The suit was ripped in patches and smeared with mud and blood, mostly not her own.
Taylor scanned the room. Maiken, Nicolas Lambert, Omar Azoulay, Simon Clement, a girl with aquamarine hair whose name Taylor didn’t know, about forty others.
Where was he?
Simon, the French boy with the Legacy of knowledge transference, finally broke the silence. “Mon Dieu. Taylor, what happened to you?”
She said nothing. Her eyes bounced from table to table.
“Holy shit, Kopano,” Nicolas exclaimed. “They let you out of prison?”
Kopano had followed Taylor inside, slightly out of breath from trying to keep pace with her. He wore a dress shirt and slacks, not a winter getup like Taylor, but his clothes were similarly ripped and bloody. Unlike Taylor, he immediately processed the fact that they were making a scene.
“Hi, guys,” he said sheepishly. “I’m back. And, um, I wasn’t in prison. It’s a long story.”
“I think I speak for everyone when I say we’d love to hear your story,” Maiken said to Kopano, still side-eyeing Taylor.
At the back. A table of tweebs.
“Well—,” Kopano started to say.
“You,” Taylor said, and she pointed right at Miki.
That took everyone by surprise, except maybe him. The tweebs sitting with Miki all turned to look at him, but soon they were yelling and shooting to their feet as Taylor telekinetically swiped their table out of the way. Taylor strode into their midst, ignoring questions and complaints, until she loomed over Miki. He didn’t even stand up.
“I’m not going to fight you,” Miki told her. Everyone around them exchanged looks—like, what would Taylor want to fight Miki for?
“Good,” Taylor said. “If you’re thinking of running, don’t bother. All we did on the ride home was think about ways to stop you.”
Miki squinted at her, then cracked an uncertain smile. “I think you’re bluffing. But I’m not going to run either.”
“It wouldn’t be running, really,” Kopano said, relief in his voice. “Breezing. That’s a more accurate term.”
“Breezing,” Miki said. “I like it. I won’t do that either.”
“Who cares what we call it?” Taylor snapped. “You’ll come peacefully then?”
“Sure,” Miki replied. “Where are we going?”
“Professor Nine wants to see you.”
Behind them, Nicolas let out an exaggerated ooohh that failed to lighten the moment. Taylor grabbed the smaller boy by his upper arm and marched him right out of the student union without another word.
Kopano rubbed his hands together.
“So,” he said. “What’s for lunch?”
Outside, Miki wiggled his arm in Taylor’s grip.
“You don’t have to drag me all the way there,” he said as Taylor pulled him across the lawn, towards the administration building. When she didn’t respond, he added, “You’re hurting me.”
Taylor glanced down at Miki. His eyes were wet and earnest. She hadn’t even realized how tightly she’d been squeezing his narrow bicep. Her mind was singularly focused on putting one foot in front of the other. She was operating on no sleep. It was hard to calculate on account of the time zones, but she was pretty sure she was fighting Mogadorians in Siberia just a couple of days ago. From Siberia to Switzerland. Always in danger. From Switzerland back here. She’d traveled halfway around the world, catching fitful naps on private jets or Loric spacecraft.
What had all that stress accomplished? She had three less friends, for starters. Her big infiltration plan had taken one Foundation member into custody—one—and she was Nigel’s mother, at that. Not to mention, it almost seemed like the woman wanted to be captured.
And now, she had Miki. No more moles burrowed into the Academy. So that was something. A small victory.
But what good were those?
The more Taylor saw of the world outside of South Dakota, the less it made sense. Everything was a mess, and the corrupt people at the top just kept getting away with their shady plans, driving good people like her —like Isabela and Caleb and Ran—further and further towards the edge. How far would she have to go to win against an organization like the Foundation that completely lacked morals and boundaries? What would “winning” even look like?
“Ow,” Miki said. “Taylor. Come on.”
Taylor realized that she’d been digging her nails into his skin. She let him go.
“Sorry,” Taylor mumbled.
“It’s okay,” Miki said, rubbing his arm. “So what happened? Did you get them?”
Taylor glared at Miki again. She knew that he could escape if he wanted. She had been bluffing before about having a plan to stop him from using his Legacy. The best they’d been able to brainstorm was arming themselves with some high-powered vacuums. If Miki wanted to fly out of here, she couldn’t stop him.
But he looked relieved to be caught.
“We got . . .” Taylor rubbed a hand over her face. “We got one of them. A leader, I think. But I’m not sure it matters.”
“Oh,” Miki said, crestfallen. “I was hoping you would tell me it was all over.”
“Sorry, but remind me why you care, exactly?” Taylor replied. “Don’t you work for those jerks?”
“Not willingly,” Miki said. “I could’ve told them about your plans. Your secret meetings with Professor Nine and the others. But I didn’t.”
“Or maybe this is all just a cover to get you in tighter with us so you can do maximum damage.”
Miki chuckled. “Seriously? That’s way paranoid, Taylor.”
“You’d be paranoid too if you’d seen half the crap I have.”
“I can’t blame you for not trusting me,” Miki said. “I wouldn’t trust me either. So if it makes you feel better, I’ll let you guys lock me up in the cells underneath administration. I won’t try to escape, even though we both know I could. I’ll sit down there until you’re ready to trust me.”
As they closed in on the shiny glass façade of the administration building, Taylor slowed down a little bit.
“How do you know there are cells under there?” Taylor asked.
“I’m the wind. I’ve explored every inch of this place. Did you not know?”
Taylor shook her head. “No.”
“I assume that’s where Professor Nine is going to put me. They’ve already got Dr. Linda there and this mercenary bastard Alejandro.” Miki smiled. “I think Isabela kicked the shit out of him. That was cool of her. He was my Foundation contact. He really needed to catch a beating.”
Just like on the night that he’d spirited her away from the Academy, Taylor was surprised by Miki’s candor. In spite of herself, she was starting to like him.
“Why do you do it?” she asked. “Work for them, I mean.”
Miki exhaled through his nose. “Have you ever heard of the Nome Nine?”
“Is that like a tiny version of Professor Nine?”
He snorted. “Not gnome with a g. Nome with an n. It’s where I’m from in Alaska.”
“I’ve never been,” Taylor said.
“Yeah. Not many people have. It’s protected land for indigenous people. A few years ago, one of the big gas companies found a rich oil vein in the ocean just outside the boundary of our waters. My parents were actually convinced that they fudged the report and that the oil was on our land, but the government didn’t listen or didn’t care. They let the company go ahead with building one of those big offshore rigs, even though they always spill and even though my people relied on those waters for . . . well, for everything.”
Taylor nodded. “Okay? So did a spill happen?”
“Thing never got the chance to spill because my parents and some of their friends blew it up. The press called them the Nome Nine.”
“Oh,” Taylor replied. “That’s intense.”
“They got arrested like a week before the Mogadorian warships showed up, so the story didn’t really make the news. I was in foster care when I developed my Legacies. And that’s where the Foundation found me.” Miki swiped his hand through the air at the memory, flattening the grass up ahead with a burst of telekinesis. “This lawyer showed up and said he could get my parents out of prison, even though they were basically terrorists. Not only that, he said that he could prevent the gas company from coming back and rebuilding their rig.”
Taylor already knew how the story would end. “And all you had to do was work for them.”
“Bingo,” Miki said. “I didn’t know what the Foundation was then. There was barely even an Earth Garde or an Academy. I didn’t care whose side I was on. I just wanted to help my parents and save our home.”
Taylor plucked at a hole in her bulky snowsuit. She felt a little guilty for handling Miki so roughly.
“I probably would’ve done the same thing,” she admitted.
“Thing is, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my parents would have done in my position. Or what they would think if I told them about the deal I made.” Miki looked down at his sneakers. “I think they’d be pissed at me. So ashamed they’d probably insist on going back to prison. They’re that hard-core. I’m finally ready to do what my mom and dad would’ve encouraged me to do from the start. And that’s blow the whole thing up. Screw the Foundation. I’m done being their puppet.”
Miki’s story was a lot to take in. Taylor had been around a lot of liars recently, but he seemed sincere.
Moments later, they stood in front of the administration building. Professor Nine waited for them there, flexing the fingers on his cybernetic hand. He looked, as ever, like he wanted to punch something. He’d been wearing that sour expression ever since Switzerland and their run-in with his old friend Number Five. Taylor felt Miki shrink back from Nine’s look.
“All right, you,” Nine said, waving his hand at Miki. “Let’s see it.”
“You know what.” Nine snapped his fingers. “I heard you’ve been holding out on us, wendigo.”
With an uncertain glance in Taylor’s direction, Miki transformed himself. One moment he was standing next to Taylor, the next he was gone—except not entirely. If she squinted, Taylor could still make out Miki’s particles as they swirled through the air. He looked like a small cloud of dust. A breeze now, Miki floated through the air around Nine’s head, before reappearing on the other side of Taylor.
“Cute,” Nine said, smoothing down his hair. “We could help you with that. Train you. Figure out what you’re capable of.”
“I know,” Miki said. “I’d like that.”
Nine clamped his robotic hand on Miki’s shoulder. “Let’s go inside.” He looked at Taylor. “Earth Garde wants to talk to you. They want to talk to all of us. I told them they can wait. You should get some rest.”
“Not yet,” she said. “There’s some other people I need to talk to.”
Nine squinted at her. “What? Who?”
Taylor nodded back at the student union. “My people.”
“Your people . . .” Nine raised an eyebrow at that. “I don’t know what you’ve got in mind. Maybe we should talk it out first. Or, at least, I could go with you . . .”
“No offense,” Taylor replied, “but I think this is something we Human Garde have to hash out among ourselves.”
Nine’s lips compressed. That was the face the big lunk made when he was trying to figure out the angles. The self-appointed professor was more of a straight-ahead-hit-something type, but he was really trying to be more circumspect. To see the big picture.
“You aren’t going to incite a mass rebellion, are you?” Nine asked. “I can only handle, like, one of those a month.”
“They already know something is up,” Taylor said. “We can’t keep them in the dark forever.”
Nine thought this over. “I trust you,” he said finally. “Do what you’ve gotta do.”
Taylor went back to the student union. This time, she didn’t blast open the doors. Instead, she slipped in unnoticed via the side entrance. Everyone was focused on Kopano, who sat at a central table with a massive burrito bowl in front of him. They were all talking at once, so Taylor watched and listened.
“They told us you were taken away for your own protection,” Lisbette said to Kopano. “Was that not true?”
Taylor found herself taking stock of Lisbette. She was from Bolivia. She could create and manipulate ice. She was way more into using her Legacy to erect glittery sculptures than, like, stabby icicles, but she still showed good control. She could be useful.
“Uh, I guess that’s one way to put it,” Kopano replied. He shoveled some rice and beans into his mouth, using the food as a method of deflection. “Sorry, guys, I’m really hungry . . .”
“Gosh, me too,” Maiken said. “I’m always starving after I run.” She reached out and snagged some tortilla chips off Kopano’s plate, eating them at high velocity. “Seriously, though, Kopano, you have to tell us what’s going on . . .”
Maiken was Greek. Nosy and talkative. Fast as hell.
“I’m not sure how much I can tell you,” Kopano replied, swallowing. Taylor could see that a part of him was enjoying the attention. “It’s sort of top secret.”
“Is no one going to mention how Taylor just hauled Miki out of here like she’s some kind of cop?” That came from Danny, a Canadian tweeb, whose lunch Taylor had ruined when she flung aside Miki’s table.
“She looked pissed,” said Greta Schmidt, a German Garde whose Legacy allowed her to see in all different spectrums of light.
“She always looks pissed,” Danny replied.
“I don’t know,” Anika Jindal spoke up, setting down the plastic cutlery she was using on her lunch. “Taylor’s always been really nice about healing me. If she’s mad at Miki, she probably has a good reason.”
Anika was new at the Academy, newer even than Taylor. She was from Delhi and her Legacy was magnetism. She didn’t have good control yet and so was frequently pulling sharp metal objects towards herself. Taylor had fixed her up multiple times.
“Forget about Taylor and Miki,” boomed Nicolas Lambert, the Belgian with superstrength, as he loomed over Kopano. “I want to know what these secret missions you guys keep going on are all about.”
“The first time wasn’t a secret mission,” Kopano replied innocently. “We just got in trouble sneaking off campus.”
“Merde, Nic, let the guy eat,” said Simon. He was seated across from the Moroccan fire-breather Omar Azoulay, the two of them engaged in a game of chess. Omar was more focused on his next move than all the conversations around him.
“It doesn’t bother you that they don’t tell us anything?” Nic asked Simon.
“Not really,” Simon replied.
“It bothers me,” Maiken put in.
“Like, we go here too,” Nic continued, glaring at Kopano, who kept on cheerfully eating. “We deserve to know what’s going on.”
“Checkmate, you French fool,” Omar said.
“It’s not even your turn,” Simon replied distractedly. He reached across the table and grabbed Omar’s bracelet. “Did you forget how to play? Let me recharge this.”
“I wish I could tell you guys more,” Kopano said. “I’m—”
“You could tell us more,” Nic butted in. “You just don’t want to. You guys are a clique. Trying to keep all the action to yourselves.”
“How long have you been at the Academy, Nic?” The question came from the girl with the spiky turquoise-dyed hair who Taylor hadn’t seen before.
“I’ve been here since the beginning, ‘Nemo,’” Nic replied with air quotes. “What does that matter?”
“So you’ve been safe in here for almost two years. You don’t know how crazy life’s gotten out in the real world,” Nemo replied. “Whatever Kopano and the others were doing, I’m sure they were helping people like us.”
“They still shouldn’t keep us in the dark. It’s not fair,” Nic countered with a surly frown. “Like I’m not good enough for their secret missions? Look at me. I can do more than swim for a long time, at least.”
Nemo rolled her eyes. “Legacy-shaming. Real nice.”
Someone cleared their throat next to Taylor. She turned her head to find that Nigel had sidled up beside her along the wall. His eyes were red-rimmed, his posture like a wilted flower. If anyone had a rougher last few weeks than Taylor, it was Nigel. She started to say something, to put a hand on his shoulder, but he jerked his chin in Kopano’s direction.
“You going to let the big lad take all the heat?”
Taylor returned her gaze to Kopano, who had leaned back in his chair and was now blotting at his mouth with a napkin while Nic stood over him.
“My friends, truly, I wish I could tell you more about our many adventures,” Kopano declared grandly, “but they are highly classified.”
“Aw, that’s horseshit,” Nic complained. “Classified by who?”
“We should say something to Professor Nine or one of the other administrators,” Maiken said. “This situation is really detracting from my ability to learn.”
Taylor sighed. She pushed away from the wall. Looking beyond the crowded tables and arguing students, Taylor saw there were a few members of the kitchen staff hovering around the buffet, plus a Peacekeeper guarding the back exit. She couldn’t tell if they were eavesdropping. Couldn’t take any chances.
She turned to Nigel. “Can you put us in a sound bubble so no one outside can hear?”
“You and me?”
“No,” Taylor said, shaking her head. She motioned to the Garde at the tables surrounding Kopano. “All of us.”
“What’re you going to do?”
“There’s too many secrets,” Taylor replied. “I’m sick of it.”
With that, she strode forward, into the midst of her classmates. They fell gradually silent as they realized Taylor had been standing there for a good portion of their argument. Nic spun away from Kopano and sized her up.
“What’d you do with Miki?” he asked.
Taylor held up a finger. She waited until she sensed a change in the air and could no longer hear the birds chirping outside the student union. Nigel had done as she asked.
“You want to know what’s been going on?” Taylor looked straight at Nic, then past him, at all the faces turned in her direction.
“Uh, I mean, you could go take a shower first . . . ,” Lisbette said quietly. “We’d wait.”
Taylor ignored her, taking a deep breath. She could tell by the expectant looks that her classmates were all ears.
“We first found out about the Foundation when they kidnapped me . . . ,” she began.
Taylor told them everything.
About the Foundation and Bea Barnaby.
About the mole at the Academy.
About Watchtower, the clandestine organization working within Earth Garde.
About Sydal Corp and the weapon designer’s ties to both Earth Garde and the Foundation.
About all the factions interested in controlling them or profiting off them or simply eradicating them.
And then Taylor told them what might happen next.
It was nearly sunset when Taylor finally finished fielding what seemed like endless questions from her classmates. The size of the crowd kept growing, her classmates leaving to go get their roommates or friends, to let them know big stuff was happening. Classes got skipped. Every student came through eventually. She felt like she had to keep explaining the same things over and over, but she stayed patient. At one point, Professor Nine and Dr. Goode popped in to watch, but they respectfully stayed outside Nigel’s sound bubble.
Her mouth was dry from talking. Still in her battle-shredded snowsuit, now unzipped to the waist, Taylor trudged back towards the dormitory feeling like she could sleep for a year. Luckily, Kopano was at her side and seemed happy to let her lean against his shoulder.
“That was very cool,” he told her.
Taylor rubbed her jaw. “I’m freaking exhausted.”
“You know, when the first generation of Human Garde got their Legacies, John Smith pulled us all into a vision and explained everything about the Mogadorians. For the longest time, I thought I dreamed it.”
“Yeah,” Taylor said tiredly, “you told me about that.”
“You reminded me of him just now,” Kopano said.
Taylor snorted. “Of John Smith? Really? Your idol?”
“You are my new idol.”
Taylor squeezed his arm. “I’m glad that’s who you were thinking of, because the whole time I was talking I kept thinking about Einar.”
“His whole speech about us sticking together. About liberating us. He’s an insane, murderous asshole, but some of that stuff made sense. He wanted to get it all out in the open.”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Kopano said. “I hope there’s a ‘but’ coming.”
As they neared the entrance to the dorms, Taylor’s eyes started to feel heavy. Her bed. So close. She took a long pause, getting her thoughts together.
“But,” she said at last, “he was wrong about one thing, especially. About us needing to be liberated. We don’t need that. We already have a place where we can be free.”
Taylor waved a hand in front of her, encompassing the grounds, the lights flickering on in the buildings, the Garde hanging around in small groups, probably discussing all the insane stuff she’d just told them.
“It’s here,” she said. “This is our place. And we’re going to fight for it.”
as he stood in the doorway of the master bedroom, which was roughly the size of the entire first floor of his house back in Nebraska, Caleb was struck by how every inch of the villa seemed to glitter. He’d read somewhere that all the gold ever mined in human history would fit into just three Olympic swimming pools. Caleb figured this place had to account for at least a bathtub’s worth. The marble floor tiles were flecked with gold. Veins of gold ran through the massive bed’s wooden posts. The bizarre painting on the wall—topless angels with flaming swords chasing after a grinning man in a sparkling race car—was housed in an ornate gold frame.
Caleb couldn’t quite wrap his head around the style. The guy who lived here was superrich. Got it. Understood. But why did he feel the need to constantly remind himself of the fact? Something was definitely wrong with anyone who needed to be so flashy.
Then again, the villa’s owner was a member of the Foundation, so bad taste was just the tip of the iceberg of his psychological problems.
The bedroom was empty, just like all the other rooms Caleb had checked so far. The top floor was clear. He was about to go in search of the others when something jabbed him in the small of the back.
“Stop looking at boobs,” commanded a voice behind him. “We’re trying to do an infiltration here.”
Caleb spun around to find Isabela smirking at him. She held a nectarine in one hand and a knife in the other, the handle still pointed at Caleb.
“You shouldn’t sneak up on me,” Caleb said, blushing as he realized how it must have looked to Isabela: like he was ogling that skeevy painting. “One of my duplicates could’ve attacked you.”
“Oh please, all your selves love me,” she replied, brushing past him. “Anyway. The place is empty. We’ve checked everywhere.”
“Just like the last one,” Caleb said sourly.
Two weeks had gone by since Switzerland. Two weeks since Caleb turned his back on Earth Garde and teamed up with Einar (a psychopath), Five (also a psychopath) and Duanphen (surprisingly normal by comparison). After a couple of days resting up on Einar’s cramped spaceship, they had tried to track down more of his former Foundation contacts. Even after the mess in Switzerland, they all agreed that bringing Foundation members to justice was the best use of their time. Well, Isabela thought they should be partying and enjoying the wealth they’d amassed, but the rest of them wanted to do something productive.
In Greece they found a conspirator’s estate deserted. They’d tried another name with another mansion, this time in Croatia. No one home. And then, they’d come here, to the villa of a former Formula One driver turned angel investor, apparently a big spender on the Human Garde black market. But he was gone, too.
“Rome seems like it’ll be more fun than Crete,” Isabela said cheerily. “But the other mansion was much nicer. This place is kinda trashy, don’t you think?”
“It hurts my eyes,” Caleb said, always happy to be able to agree with Isabela about something. He cleared his throat. “Also, I wasn’t looking at those boobs before. Just so you know.”
Isabela considered the painting like she was at a museum, tapping her knife on her chin. “Why not? Don’t you like them?”
Caleb opened his mouth but didn’t manage a response.
Random articles of clothing were pooled on the bedroom floor or sloppily hung from half-open drawers. The door to the walk-in closet was ajar, empty hangers piled in one corner. From the look of things, the race car driver must have packed in a hurry. Maybe he sensed the avenging angels from his painting were finally catching up to him.
Isabela plucked a lavender silk shirt from the ground and tossed it into Caleb’s face.
“Put that on and we can go clubbing,” Isabela said.
Caleb disentangled himself from the shirt and made a face. “You need to take this more seriously.”
“Oh, right, we’re on a mission.” Isabela dropped her voice to a whisper and wiggled her fingers at him. “Psh. I would’ve stayed at the Academy if I wanted lectures, Caleb.”
“It doesn’t bother you that none of Einar’s leads on the Foundation have panned out? That we haven’t accomplished anything? That we’re basically fugitives without a plan?”
“We have a spaceship filled with money. What do we need a plan for?” She grazed her knife against the bed frame. “Think this is real gold?”
“Isabela. Come on.”
“You should be happy we haven’t found any Foundation people,” Isabela said, her eyes darkening as she focused on Caleb. “Einar and Five would probably want to kill them, you and Ran would say no and I’d have to listen to all the arguing.”
“We said we wouldn’t kill anyone,” Caleb replied. “We aren’t murderers. We’re trying to bring these people to justice.”
Isabela scoffed. “You’re sweet.”
“You mean that as an insult.”
“Obviously.” Isabela waved her knife through the air as she spoke. “Who do you think will help with this ‘justice,’ hmm? Earth Garde wants to arrest us. Every government thinks we are terroristas. The Foundation buys its way out of any trouble. If you want justice, killing them is really the best we can do.”
“You don’t really believe that,” Caleb said quietly.
She popped the last slice of fruit into her mouth and tossed away the pit. “Look, I’m with you. Killing is a big waste of effort. We have a saying—se correr o bicho pega; se ficar o bicho come. If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you. Get it?”
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
“Exactly! So if there is nothing we can do without screwing ourselves, our best option is to go screw.”
“I’m not sure that means what you think it does.”
“Forget all this fighting. We can do anything.” She jumped up on the bed. “We have money; we have powers; we can— Ah!”
Isabela lost her balance as the bed shifted weirdly beneath her feet. She would’ve fallen off, but Caleb hopped forward and she braced herself on his shoulder.
“A waterbed,” Isabela declared, stomping down on the rippling mattress. “How ridiculous. Now we know that this man is evil.”
Isabela pushed off Caleb’s shoulder and navigated the bed’s waves until she stood on the pillows directly beneath the painting. She flipped her knife into an overhand grip.
“He must have had this made special, yes? What do you think he asked for? Sistine Chapel but for a horny loser?”
Caleb cracked a smile and tried to think up a joke. He wasn’t the best when it came to riffing, especially not with Isabela. Before he could formulate something witty, Isabela slashed her knife through the canvas. Caleb cringed.
“I mean, someone did spend time painting that . . . ,” he said weakly.
“Yes, and they got paid and then probably spent a week washing their eyeballs.” Isabela flopped into a sitting position, the motion ‘accidentally’ plunging her knife into the waterbed. She left it there, a steady trickle of water bubbling up around the handle. “Oops.”
“So, we’re vandals now,” Caleb said. “That’s what we left Earth Garde for.”
She stood up and gently slapped his cheek, her fingers still sticky from the nectarine. “I don’t know why you left,” Isabela said. “Me? I was tired of being told what to do. You might not want to admit it, but I think you like this too.” She gave the leaking bed an emphatic kick. “You’re tired of orders. But you have that little thing inside—a conscience or whatever—it keeps telling you that you need to do something important. The sooner you stop listening to that, the happier you’ll be.”
Once again, Caleb’s mind filled with half-formed sentences, none of which would do as responses to Isabela. His mouth hung open and he made a conscious effort to snap it shut so that he wouldn’t look like a total idiot. Isabela didn’t notice. She had already started across the room, towards the attached bathroom.
“Did you check in here?” she asked over her shoulder as she nudged open the door.
“No, not yet. I—”
Isabela’s shriek cut him off. Caleb jolted forward, pushing into the bathroom right behind her. He half expected to find some Foundation assassin lurking in the shower or a bomb affixed to the shimmering bidet. But there was no threat at all.
There was only a Jacuzzi.
Isabela clutched his arm. “Are you seeing this? I think it has a whirlpool.” She brushed her fingers through her hair. “Do you know how greasy I feel cooped up on that spaceship?”
She didn’t look greasy to Caleb. As usual, her skin was perfect, her hair flawless. But then, that was all thanks to Isabela’s shape-shifting Legacy. Caleb had seen Isabela’s true form, the burn scars that she’d gotten in an accident before the invasion. He squinted at her, trying to see through her façade. Could she really be so cynical about their situation? Would he really be happier if he ignored the tug of his conscience and went full-on YOLO like Isabela recommended? Was he even capable of that? Did people still say YOLO? Even thinking that acronym gave him anxiety.
Isabela unzipped the Jacuzzi’s cover and shoved it aside. She turned on the jets, steam immediately rising. The gold inlaid wall-to-wall mirrors over the sink began to fog up. She reached around to her hip and unzipped her skirt, shimmying out of it in the same fluid motion as she began peeling off her shirt.
She glanced over her shoulder at Caleb like she’d totally forgotten him, although that was obviously just another one of her games.
“Coming in?” she asked, one arm draped demurely across her chest.
“No, uh, I—”
“Then shut the door,” she said with a wave. “You’re letting in the cold.”
His cheeks hot, Caleb backed out of the room. As he closed the door behind him, he swore he could hear Isabela laughing over the bubbling tub.
“Seriously, dude? That’s your decision?”
A duplicate stood next to Caleb. When had he gotten loose?
“Remember when she made out with us on the beach?” the duplicate asked. “That was dope.”
“I remember,” Caleb said. “Shut up.”
Caleb absorbed the duplicate and went in search of Ran and the rest who, hopefully, were all fully clothed. He found most of them gathered downstairs in the villa’s expansive living room—or maybe the rich guy who lived here called it something fancy like a “parlor” or a “salon.” Whatever. There was a big-screen TV mounted on one wall, an endless leather sectional and a bar. That made it a living room, no matter how many nude sculptures stood watch around the edges.
Duanphen nodded at Caleb as he walked into the room. She sat at the bar, her long legs crossed, idly scratching her fingers across the dark stubble growing in on her once clean-shaven scalp. In the time Caleb had been traveling with her, Duanphen hadn’t said much. She was difficult to read, seemingly content to go with the flow. Like Isabela, she seemed happy just to be out of her past life and in the world uncontrolled. Even seated, there was a readiness about her, like she could snap into action at a moment’s notice.
“Find anything?” she asked Caleb.
He shook his head. “You guys?”
Duanphen dragged her finger across the bar, making a squiggle in the dust. “This man has been gone for weeks. Even the maid stopped coming.”
“Another dead end,” Caleb said with a sigh. “What should we—?”
Caleb and Duanphen both turned at the shout. Across the room, Einar paced back and forth behind the couch. He pushed a hand through his hair and left a tuft sticking up. The Icelandic boy had seemed so fastidious when Caleb first saw him in his collection of expensive dress shirts and slacks, but since Switzerland he had stopped taking so much pride in his appearance. Back in Greece, when they rested at the abandoned mansion, Caleb had walked in on Einar ironing one of his shirts. Lost in thought, he’d let the iron linger too long and left a brown scorch mark on the sleeve. Then, he’d thrown the appliance at the wall. Caleb had left the room before Einar noticed him watching.
“I thought we agreed to not let him watch TV,” Caleb said.
“You try to stop him,” Duanphen said lazily.
The big screen was tuned to the BBC. There was Einar, speaking directly into the camera, his unblinking gaze either passionate or unhinged, depending on your interpretation. Caleb had seen this clip before. He’d been there when it was filmed. The video was captured on Isabela’s cell phone right before the battle broke out. They had never discussed uploading it to YouTube; Einar had gone ahead and done that without asking permission, snagging Isabela’s cell phone while the rest of them slept. He’d expected his speech to be a call to revolution for the Garde suffering under repressive regimes—Foundation or otherwise—around the world.
“This is how we do it. By banding together. By not abiding by any law they pass to control us. We will not be their pawns. They will not be our masters,” the Einar on-screen ranted.
Caleb wished they could delete the clip off the internet, but that wouldn’t do any good now. It was out there. Picked up by every news service in the world. At first, Einar had been practically giddy that his message was getting boosted by the mainstream media.
Now, though, Einar realized his error. They all did.
He looked like a crazy person.
Which, Caleb supposed, was pretty accurate.
The clip froze on a still of Einar where a bit of spit flecked off his lips. That image stayed in the top corner of the screen as the broadcast cut back to the studio, where a prim newscaster sat behind a desk.
“The Garde terrorist known as Einar would go on to describe humanity as ‘leeches’ before he and his minions, one of which is believed to be an actual Loric alien, murdered the inventor and philanthropist Wade Sydal. Earth Garde assured the BBC that steps are being taken to bring these perpetrators to justice and to prevent further incidents. Two weeks have gone by and the rogue Garde remain at large . . .”
“Terrorist!” Einar shouted, drowning out the rest of the broadcast. “They didn’t even mention the substance of my argument. They didn’t listen at all.”
“I am not a minion,” Number Five grumbled.
The Loric sat on the couch, arms folded, curled in on himself, draped in the same baggy sweat suit he always wore, grass stains faded on the knees from the brawl in Switzerland. Caleb couldn’t swear to it, but he thought Five looked thinner since then. Honestly, he tried not to look in the Loric’s direction too often. Five was sensitive about the inky splotches that disfigured him, had a shorter temper than Einar and had nearly killed Caleb two weeks ago. He wasn’t eager to provoke the Garde.
An accused terrorist and a psychotic Garde. That’s who he had ditched Earth Garde for. In the heat of the moment, after that bloody battle, it had seemed to make so much sense . . .
Caleb caught himself fingering the vial of black ooze that he had pocketed back in Switzerland, hidden now in his coat pocket. Sydal had been buying a whole suitcase of the goo from Bea Barnaby—Nigel’s mom, a member of the Foundation; he still couldn’t get his brain around that one. The substance had driven Five into a rage, which Caleb supposed wasn’t surprising, as it appeared to be the same gunk that had disfigured him and still writhed beneath his skin. Caleb hadn’t told the others that he’d swiped a vial. He wasn’t even sure why he’d done it in the first place. Only Isabela knew and she kept quiet about it.
“Also, we weren’t the ones who blew up Sydal,” Einar continued. “Not that I’m sorry it happened. But these journalists are getting everything wrong.” Einar noticed that Caleb was in the room and glowered. “If only our plan hadn’t been derailed . . .”
Caleb stared at him, saying nothing. It was Caleb who had broken Einar’s psychological grip on Wade Sydal and the others, preventing him from taking them prisoner. Einar was still obviously bitter about that, and about the beating that Caleb had put on him. Also, the fact that Caleb could use his duplicates to work around Einar’s emotional manipulation Legacy surely didn’t sit well with him. Einar was used to being in control.
“Caleb,” a soft voice said. “Can you come here?”
With a sigh of relief, Caleb turned to look at Ran. Here, at least, was someone he could depend on to not do anything crazy. If Ran hadn’t stepped forward to join Einar’s crew back in Switzerland, Caleb didn’t think he would’ve found the courage to do the same. Caleb knew that, for Ran, this alliance was a matter of convenience. She wanted out of Earth Garde and Einar had transportation and the skills to evade their pursuers.
Caleb understood Ran’s position. She’d been treated horribly—tagged with an Inhibitor chip and forced into a spy program with the mission to bring down Einar. Caleb thought it was odd that Earth Garde hadn’t bothered trying to take down Einar until he started killing members of the Foundation. Didn’t they know about Einar when he was going around kidnapping healers for the Foundation? Had the Foundation simply covered their tracks or had Earth Garde turned a blind eye? Judging by the symbiotic relationship between Earth Garde, Sydal Corp and the Foundation, Caleb thought it was a little of both.
Every day since Switzerland, Caleb dreaded that Ran would decide she was better off on her own. He swallowed as he followed her out of the living room and back down the hallway she had emerged from, hoping that they weren’t about to have that conversation. She glanced in his direction and must have read the worry in his expression because she reached out to touch his shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing, I—” Caleb checked behind him to make sure they were out of earshot. “Just wondering what we’re doing here.”
“With these people.”
“Do you think we made a mistake?” Caleb asked. “Two weeks and we haven’t made any progress. Heck, I’m not even sure what progress would look like . . .”
“They are a means to an end,” Ran replied. “I will never trust Einar after what he did to Nigel. But he is right about one thing: We have a better chance surviving together than apart.”
Caleb nodded and fell silent. He reflected on the speech Einar had given, the one they were now using clips of on TV to label him a terrorist. The funny thing was, Caleb actually agreed with what Einar had said about the Garde needing to find their own way, about them not being able to trust the people in power. It had actually inspired Caleb to take Einar’s side.
Not that he would ever tell Einar that. It was the right message coming from the absolutely worst messenger.
Ran led Caleb through the dining room and out onto a wide terrace that overlooked a cobblestone backstreet. The villa was only a few blocks from the tourist-filled Piazza di Spagna, but here it was quiet. Nestled across the street were a small café and a pasta shop, neither of them crowded. The midafternoon sun was shining and Caleb took a deep breath of the brisk air. A bell tolled in the distance.
“It’s nice out here,” he said. “Too bad the rest of the place sucks.”
“At the café,” Ran said quietly. “Do you see that woman? Careful, do not make it obvious we have noticed her.”
Caleb edged closer to the terrace’s railing, peeking down at the café’s outdoor seating. Of course he saw the woman—she was the only one there. She was middle-aged, dark-haired, dressed in pants and a heavy knit sweater. Totally ordinary.
“What about her?” Caleb asked.
“She has not ordered anything,” Ran said. “Before her, there was a man sitting there. He also did not order anything. He left and she came minutes later. Sat in the exact same spot.”
“Hmm,” Caleb grunted.
He took a closer look at the woman and, as he did, her eyes flitted in his direction. Caleb edged back so she couldn’t see him.
“Definitely weird,” Caleb said. “But I’ve felt paranoid nonstop since leaving Earth Garde. So maybe let’s not jump to any conclusions about some lady.”
“If the Foundation knew enough to evacuate the people we’ve been looking for because of Einar, would it not stand to reason that they would post sentries here to trap him? To trap us?”
“We didn’t have any problems in Greece,” Caleb said thoughtfully. He took another look at the woman. She held her hands out in front of her, staring at them, like she was checking her nails.
“I have a bad feeling,” Ran said. “I know Isabela wanted to stay here. We could all use some time off that ship. But this is not right.”
“What’s going on?” Einar appeared on the terrace, Five and Duanphen behind him. Caleb could tell he was still angry about the news report and suppressing a scowl.
“I think we are being watched,” Ran said.
Einar came to stand next to Caleb so he could get a look at the woman. When Einar appeared, she looked straight at him, blatantly staring now, not even bothering to hide it.
“She could be anyone,” Caleb said cautiously, suddenly more worried for the woman’s safety than their own. “Or nobody.”
Five put a hand on Einar’s shoulder. “Step back. She might recognize you.”
“Just some woman,” Einar said, looking at Ran. “Is that all?”
Ran hesitated. “There was a man before. Same spot. It seemed like surveillance.”
“I see,” Einar replied. He clapped his hands, a disturbing vigor in his eyes. “Shall we go say hello?”
He left the veranda without waiting to see if the others would follow. Ran and Caleb exchanged a look, then went after him.
“Let’s not overreact,” Caleb said.
“Haven’t you been complaining that all our Foundation leads are garbage?” Einar asked. “Well, that is a lead down there.”
Caleb could already tell Einar wouldn’t be talked out of approaching that woman. But at least he could make sure no one got hurt and that they didn’t get in any deeper trouble.
“Uh, Five . . . ,” Caleb began, clearing his throat to keep his voice from cracking. “No offense, but you’re pretty conspicuous. Maybe you should get up in the air. There are a lot of narrow streets around here. If there’s an ambush coming, you’ll be able to spot it and scoop us up.”
Five stared at Caleb with his single, unblinking eye. “Einar?” he asked, after a moment.
“Yes, yes,” Einar replied. “That sounds like a good plan. Our ship is still hovering up there. We’ll need you to bring us back to it if a hasty exit becomes necessary.”
“What about me?” Duanphen asked. It took Caleb a moment to realize that she was talking to him and not Einar.
“Get Isabela,” Caleb said. “She’s in the bath.”
“Of course she is,” Ran murmured.
“Watch our backs from the terrace,” Caleb continued to Duanphen. “Tell her to get ready to shape-shift into a diversion. The pope or something.”
Duanphen nodded and jogged towards the stairs. Five went with her, heading for the roof, a more discreet place for him to leap into the air than the veranda.
Seconds later they were on the street, Einar leading the way, Ran and Caleb on his heels.
“We aren’t going to hurt anyone,” Caleb said, trying to match Einar’s determined gait.
“That depends on her, doesn’t it?” he replied.
The woman at the café had gotten up while they made their way downstairs. She was already halfway down the street, heading for the crowded plaza beyond. She walked backwards, eyes on them, lips curled in a smile. Baiting them.
“Enough,” Ran said. “This is a trap. We’d be stupid to follow.”
Ran’s warning didn’t stop Einar. He stalked down the narrow lane with his fists clenched at his sides.
“Where are you going?” Einar called to the woman. “Why don’t you stay and have a chat?”
“Oh, I know how you like to talk, talk, talk,” the woman replied. She stopped walking and stood in the mouth of the alley. “Reckon I wouldn’t get a word in edgewise with you, Einar.”
Her English was perfect. In fact, she sounded to Caleb like she had a Southern accent.
“If you know me,” Einar said through his teeth as he continued towards her, “then you know that I’ll make you talk. But I don’t want to waste my time chasing around some flunky. Tell us who sent you and where we can find them and I might let you leave breathing.”
“You ain’t nearly so scary as on TV.” The woman sniffed the air. “You stink, though. I can smell your rot from here.”
A bent old man turned the corner and nearly bumped into the woman. She reached out and squeezed his hand in apology. And then, much to Caleb’s surprise, all hell broke loose.
The woman started screaming. “Dove sono? Dove sono?” Her eyes cast about wildly. “Un diavolo mi ha posseduto!”
“What the hell?” Caleb said.
Einar stopped advancing as the woman fell to her knees, people from the plaza beginning to trickle into the street to see what the commotion was about.
“We should go,” Ran said. “She’s drawing too much attention.”
Meanwhile, the old man continued down the street towards them like nothing happened, completely oblivious to the commotion. In fact, he seemed more interested in the three Garde than he did the panicking woman behind him. It was the old man’s smile—an odd twist of his chapped lips—that set off an alarm for Caleb.
“What’s with him?” Caleb said, pointing out the approaching octogenarian.
Ran and Einar, both distracted by the woman, turned their attention to the old man only when he was almost on top of them. He reached out a gnarled hand towards Einar’s face.
“Judgment has come for you, abomination,” the old man pronounced, his accent somehow just like the woman’s had been before she started shrieking in Italian.
Einar shrank back, pushing Ran and Caleb away as he did so. Then, with a telekinetic force that made the hair on Caleb’s arms stand up, Einar sent the old man flying into the nearest wall.
“Jesus!” Caleb shouted. “What did you do?”
“Go,” Einar said. “Get back.”
The old man slumped against the café’s front, his narrow rib cage rising and falling, breath whistling through his nose. And yet, he still wore that demented smile and kept staring at the Garde.
Ran rounded on Einar, eyes wide. “Why did you do that? You could have killed him.”
“We need to leave immediately,” Einar insisted.
He was right. The quiet street outside the villa was now a full-blown scene. The woman who first lured them down here was still shaking and holding herself while a group of people tried to make sense of what she was saying. Nearby, a handful of customers from inside the café checked on the old man. An apron-wearing Italian scrutinized the Garde.
“Lo hai attaccato?” he asked them.
As Caleb watched, the old man groped for the apron wearer’s leg and, as he touched him, the younger man’s face changed. He wasn’t angrily making accusations in Italian anymore. He was smiling at them and speaking English.
“Just a bit of fun, pal,” he pronounced, smiling at Einar. “Next time, you won’t see me coming.”
“Come on!” Einar yelled at Ran and Caleb. He turned and sprinted back towards the villa.
As he and Ran chased after Einar, a thought occurred to Caleb that made him even more uneasy about this bizarre encounter. Back in Switzerland, Einar had been shot in the throat by Bea Barnaby and nearly bled to death.
And yet, this was the most frightened that Caleb had ever seen him.
When he looked back up, John was gone.
Maybe he’d lost interest. Maybe he’d accidentally triggered John’s teleportation Legacy and sent himself halfway across the planet. Maybe he was on his way to the Academy.
From up above, Kopano heard voices and boots. The soldiers were breaching the warship. Maybe they were drawn to the sounds of battle or maybe John Smith led them here. Either way, he needed to go.
Kopano crouched down over Vontezza’s still-smoldering body. By any definition, the girl was dead. But she could come back from that, couldn’t she? He couldn’t leave her behind. Kopano patted out some last flames on Vontezza’s back and started to gather her up.
The metal floor creaked as something moved behind him. Kopano spun around just in time to see John reappear—invisibility, of course, he’d never even left the room. He held a broken section of pipe that he’d picked up somewhere, swinging this for Kopano’s chest.
Once again, Kopano went transparent. John stood there, holding the pipe in the ghostly space of Kopano’s shoulder. Kopano wondered how long this fool would go on like this. John had many tricks capable of doing damage, but Kopano only needed one move to avoid them all.
“I can do this all day,” Kopano said with a smile.
“I can see the strings that connect you to the power,” John said almost dreamily, his gaze becoming unfocused. He waved at the air, pointing from Kopano’s heart to the floor. “It’s hideous. Blue light coming up from the ground, sent from the underworld. I wonder what happens if I . . .”
John made a cutting motion.
Kopano howled as his shoulder exploded in pain. He had become solid around the pipe that John held inside him. Bone and muscle were pulped as Kopano’s body reasserted its mass. It was agony; like getting shot from inside his body.
His Legacies were gone. John had ripped them away.
“Aha, there you are,” John said. He touched Kopano’s cheek with his free hand. “Human again. That feels nice, don’t it?”
With his other hand, John jiggled the pipe that was now plunged into Kopano’s shoulder and sticking out his back.
The pain was unbearable. Even so, Kopano grabbed for John’s neck with his working hand. Clawed at him. Ripped at him.
The metal made a wet ripping sound when John used his superstrength to pull it out of Kopano. And that was it.
Kopano’s eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.
Kopano’s eyes fluttered open once as John dragged him by the ankle out of the Mogadorian warship. His head bumped across the metal floor and he felt chilled all over. There was a hole in him—not just the one in his shoulder—some bigger part of him was missing. He tried to use his telekinesis to shove John away from him and couldn’t. He was still cut off.
A flash of heat from Kopano’s shoulder made him moan. John glanced over his shoulder.
“There, there, fella,” John said. “We’ll get ya patched up.”
Kopano squeezed his fist tight. He clenched something there, cool and sharp against his skin. He needed to hold on to that. Even if he passed out again, he needed to . . . needed . . .
Kopano came to once again, this time with the sun shining in his face. He felt the grit of sand on his cheeks. Steady hands held him down. They were doing something to his wounded shoulder. The pain was still there, but further away now, a distant ache, like it was someone else’s shoulder that had gotten torn apart. He felt drugged and sleepy; it was a struggle to stay awake, to focus.
Two grim-faced Peacekeeper medics knelt over him. One of them realized he was alert and met his eyes.
“You’ve been badly hurt,” he said simply. “Don’t try to move.”
There was a weight around his neck. A collar. Kopano looked past the medics and saw a third Peacekeeper holding one of those Inhibitor cannons. Kopano was hooked up to its electrified steel cord. The Peacekeeper watched him close, finger on the trigger, ready to shock him at the slightest provocation.
“What’s he got there?” the Peacekeeper standing over him asked. “In his hand?”
One of the medics pried Kopano’s fingers open and lifted John’s medallion. Kopano had ripped it off him during their fight. He couldn’t let him teleport to New Lorien. It was a small victory, but maybe it would protect the others.
“Some weird alien thing,” the medic said, tossing the medallion into the sand. “Bag it up.”
Kopano sensed that he could slip free if he wanted to. His Legacy was back. But he was weak. So, so weak. He didn’t think that he could muster the energy. He’d lost a lot of blood. Too much, maybe.
But wait. If he could use his Legacy, that meant—
John Smith. Where was John Smith?
“Do you have any idea what you’ve unleashed down here?” a familiar voice shouted.
Kopano turned his head just enough so that he could see Colonel Archibald pacing back and forth across the sand, a satellite phone pressed to his ear. The man’s cheeks were rosy with anger.
“All due respect, sir, I don’t care how badly you want the Academy situation sewn up,” Archibald barked into the phone. “The asset you’ve selected is completely unstable.”
Archibald paused to listen for a response. Kopano could tell by his white-knuckle grip on the phone that Archibald wasn’t happy with whatever was said.
“I don’t have eyes on him, sir. He’s on the loose and he’s taken possession of some heavy ordnance. Nuclear grade. If you don’t pull him out now, you’re endangering the lives of every student at the Academy,” Archibald snarled into the phone.
Kopano felt a pinch at his shoulder. Darkness began to creep in at the edges of his already blurry vision. He was fading. He clenched his teeth, tried to stay awake.
The last thing he heard before slipping back into unconsciousness was Archibald’s final, grim pronouncement.
“He’s liable to kill them all.”