Brigandeers: Chapter 9: Eye of the Storm

 

“Where are we?” I demand of Rift.

He is smirking, satisfied, on the other side of the bars. “What did you do? Where is John? And Jacob, and the others?” I step forward and grasp the bars, shaking them, rattling them pointlessly.

“Oh, you needn’t worry about them,” says Rift, smiling exactly like the Cheshire cat. “My people will be picking them up right this second. They’ll be getting very familiar with bars very soon, pretty much like the ones you’re holding right now. Unfortunately for them, they’ll be staying in prison for quite a long while. Murder is a serious business. Very serious.”

“But Jacob is only a small boy! He didn’t murder anyone! He’s innocent!” says Janice urgently. “You can’t but him in jail. Kids don’t go to jail in this country!”

“No,” agrees Rift reluctantly. “They don’t. But we’re certain to find him a nice new home with some good military people once we’ve…ahh…reconditioned him.”

Brainwashed him!” says Ani in digust, while Janice collapses to the floor with a tiny moan in shock, and Rift gives a tiny, almost imperceptibly nod of acquiescence.

“You’re revolting,” says Ani, wrinkling her nose. “You should be ashamed!”

“However, you three, unlike them,” says Rift, a false, brassy tone in his voice as he changes the subject. “You three have choices. You have options. You have futures. It all depends on how well you behave, now you’re here at our Department Headquarters. And, of course, on how well you co-operate with what we have in store for you.”

“But how did we actually get here?” asks Ani, still in shock. We’re all still in shock. “And where are we? First we were at the hangar, and now we’re here. Not even seconds later. How did that happen?”

“You’re not the only one with Power here,” says Rift easily, squaring his shoulders and standing a little taller. “You’re at our Headquarters, in the main building for my Department – the Department for Unnatural Forces. In Wellington, that is. North island. You know.”

He taps a drumbeat against the bars subconsciously, and continues. “You see, when things went a bit…difficult…and you and your friends started causing trouble, I decided we’d skip the whole uncomfortable flight and airports and nonsense. So I brought you right here. I didn’t particularly want to reveal my..talent…right away, but it did save time and effort, and flight are so costly these days, you know.”

I don’t know what to say. But I’m starting to understand what Rift’s Power does, what he can do.

“But Nigel said that only women can have Power,” says Janice, confused. “How can you…be…what we are? How can you…how are you able to bring us here, like that? So fast?” She shakes her head. “I don’t understand. How did you do it?”

“Young Nigel is just an amateur,” says Rift, almost spitting in derision. “Young Nigel is an idiot. He knows next to nothing. Lives with Ani and Rose here for over two years, and still knows next to nothing about what they are, what they can do, what Power they have!”

He grips the bar firmly, his knuckles turning white. “Look how fast you ended up here. That’s how clever Nigel is! We’ve been watching you all a long while, and the moment we decided to bring you in, you were caught, as neatly as insects in a web. Young Nigel understands nothing. He’s ignorant.”

He gives a grin that might be meant to be fatherly, but seems malevolent against the steel bars and the white concrete of the brightly lit room. “Yes, your Power is for women only. Yes, it’s true that you Power is x-linked, on the x chromosome. But that doesn’t mean we can’t transfer your Power to others. Stem cell technology has been around for a long, long time.”

“So you stole it,” says Ani, a note of derision in her voice. “You couldn’t have Powers of your own, so you stole your Powers from someone else.”

“I prefer to think of it as ‘reassigned’,” says Rift, airily. “Of course, it wasn’t easy. And the transference technique was quite painful. Lengthy. It took several attempts before the transfer of cells was successful enough to ‘take” and adapt to my own body from the original host. I’m not quite the same person I was before the transference.”

“But yes, I have Power over Matter. I can shift Matter – physical Matter, physical things, living things, even people – from one place to another, across space. You might call it teleporting. It’s a rather useful talent.”

“Who is the original host?” asks Janice quietly.

“You mean who was,” says Rift. “It was my unborn child. So I was fully entitled to make use of it, and I did.”

He lets go of the bars, and paces back and forth behind them, on the other side from us, in freedom, a free man, reminiscing.”My ex-wife had Powers too… of a sort. She could teleport herself over short distances, nothing special, nothing useful. Just a meter or so. But some of the studies we did on her, some of the tests, were quite remarkable.”

He looks at us, almost as if confiding a secret he’s rarely shared. “They suggested that, should she become pregnant, the chances of a child having an extraordinarily strong version of that talent were quite high. Very high. I was curious. I was a scientist, working here at the Department. I’d studied such things, and I wanted to know. Here was my chance. How could I turn it down? I might never get the chance ever again! So naturally I impregnated her, aborted the child when it was well-developed, and used the stem cells upon myself, as a test subject for Power transference.”

He grins widely. “As you can see, it worked very well. A perfect result.”

I stare at him in horror, but attempt to cover the revulsion I’m feeling.

“And what happened to your ex-wife?” asks Janice softly, her face pale.

“Oh, nothing you need to know about,” says Rift brusquely. “She was of no use to us, or to the Department, and certainly of no relevance to any of you. She was collateral damage. Something that just had to go.”

He eyes us greedily. “But your Powers are on a completely different level. You’ll be very useful! Incredibly so. And our knowledge has advanced a great deal since that first test case upon myself. We know so much more now. As for her Powers…well,” He shrugs.  “I can barely call them “Powers” at all. But I am happy to say they were enough to lead us to the experiments that made me what I am today.”

“Why have you brought us here though?” I ask, the bile rising in my throat. “You know that nothing can hold us, and we’ll just get out.”

“Not out of here,” says Rift. “Never out of here. Here, your Powers are useless. You’re in an Ensell room, dear Rose.”

I obviously look confused because he continues. “Have you not heard of such a thing? I suppose not. It’s a world within the world. This whole wing is blocked solid, and safe from your Powers. There is absolutely no contact with the outside world in here for people with any kind of Power. Try calling plants, trees, anything you like, Rose. You’ll have no success. It’s the equivalent of a padded cell for people with Powers. You can’t use your gifts in here. In here, you’re ordinary human beings, I’m afraid.”

He laughs smugly, and I hate him more than ever. But I reach out with my mind, and I find he is right. It feels like I’m dampened down, restrained, enclosed.

“And you, Ani,” he says, with a smile that turns my insides to ice. “I’m afraid you’ll have no luck Calling any of your animal friends either. As I said, Ensell room. Encased in lead.”

He taps the steel bars in an annoying drum beat again. “We’ve been studying you for a long time. You might not realise is, but your Powers don’t work through lead. Just as must as these bars keep your body locked away, so too does the lead casing on this wing keep your mind safely locked away. The sting has been removed from your tail, my dear.”

I sense Ani trying to Call, and I can hear her in my mind. Her Power is working withing the walls, but although I can feel her Calling outwards, somehow I’m also aware that she too is having no luck beyond our cell.

And you, Janice,” says Rift, now grinning widely, an evil glint in his eye. “You’re perhaps the most interesting of the three of you. A hippie. Lord knows I hate hippies! They never do any prenatal testing. What a pest that is! I wish we knew the gender of that child you’re carrying. If it’s a female, it may be just as powerful, if not more so, than you yourself. But we’ll find out. It could be very useful, very useful…”

He paces the room outside our cell, and I can sense he is delighted, barely containing the thrill inside him. “But your unborn child aside, your own unique Power is fascinating. Fascinating!

He stares at Janice like a scientist observing an animal at the zoo, admiring her openly like she is some unintelligent thing over which he has complete control. “Geomagnetism. Who would have ever even thought such a thing is even possible? I have to say, the human genome continues to thrill our scientists. They are going to love testing you, and learning all about what makes you capable of such incredible feats. Doctor Papadopoulos and her team are going to love experimenting on you!”

“Your Doctor is dead,” I say coldly. For the first time in my life, I’m glad to have killed someone.

“Oh no!” he disagrees. “No, no, no! As soon as your amazing mangrove roots pulled her under, I teleported her back here. She’s a bit bruised up, and more than a bit…annoyed…with you, but she’ll be absolutely fine in a few days. Right as rain. She’s up in our hospital ward, getting treated.”

His phone beeps, breaking my shocked silence, and he answers it, reading a text that has just come in.

“Now, as I said, you have choice, you three lovely ladies,” he says, beaming around at all of us. “It’s entirely up to you, and your behaviour, how well your friends fare. I’ve just received word that the rest of your little…bastard squad…have just been rounded up by my people down in Dunedin.”

He grins. “Now, as our friend John said a little while ago, it truly is over. Play nice, and your friends may be a little more comfortable. Play nasty, and you can guarantee that you won’t ever see any of them again. Nor will anyone else. We have…places…for people to disappear.”

He looms in close to the bars of our cell, and leers at Janice. “You wouldn’t want anything to happen to that small boy of yours, would you?” he says menacingly. “Jacob, isn’t he? Such a nice, sweet kid. It’d be a shame if anything bad were to happen to him.” He chuckles gleefully.

Janice clutches her stomach, she looks like she’s about to fall over. I rush to her side, and hold her up so she doesn’t fall.

“Get out of here!” says Ani. “Leave us! Now!” And Rift, suddenly obedient and still, turns around almost robot-like and leaves without another word, marching out into the corridor and off.

“Janice sits down slowly in a corner of our empty cell, cradling her head in her lap, and moaning softly. “What are we going to do?

I sink down to the cold concrete floor next to her, and put an arm around her, trying to comfort her although I feel afraid myself too, and am worried about the others. What is happening to John? And Marika and Nigel? And little Jacob? I don’t know what to say, so I just hug her tighter.

“We’re going to get out of here,” I say, finally, after many minutes. “That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get out of here, and find the others, and free them too. There’s no way we’re ever working for this evil, evil man, and we’re never going to let them do tests on us either. He might have incredible Power, but there’s three of us, and one of him. I don’t believe he can be more powerful than all the three of us if we join forces. He has to have a blind spot – something he’s missed, somehow.”

Ani is still tanding up, and she’s pacing the cell, backwards and forwards, thinking hard. Then I hear her in my mind, like I did back at the hangar.

“Rose, can you hear me?” Her voice is inside my mind, clearer than ever – clearer, somehow, than if she were talking to me.

“Yes,” I think back. “Yes, I can.”

“Janice?” I hear Ani’s mind again.

Janice sits up, raises her head. “Yes, I can hear your thoughts, Ani,” comes Janice’s reply, thinking back.

“His one mistake – our chance – is that he doesn’t yet know we can communicate like this. He thinks I’m just up to animals, and can’t talk to people. But somehow I can talk with you and Janice.”

“Maybe because we all have Powers, so we all share a connection?” I wonder.

“I don’t know,” thinks Ani. “But we need to move fast. I can’t use my Power outside this room – that’s true, he was right. But within the room, as long as we’re together, we can communicate like this. I can also control other people. You saw how he left the room when I forced him to. I also made him think it was his decision to do so. He’s going back to his office. He’ll think he’s been there for ages when he gets there.”

A slow smile spreads across my face. “I’m impressed,” I think back. “Sometimes I love you, Ani. He called us the ‘Bastard Squad’. It’s time to live up to the name. So what are you thinking?”

“Rift is our passport out of here. If I control him, he can get us out of here, and back to Dunedin. He probably even knows where the others are being kept. If he doesn’t know, he’ll almost certainly be able to find out. My plan is: we find him, control him, use him to get home, and then use him to find the others.”

“I can’t think of any other plan,” thinks Janice, her face white as a sheet. “But we’d better move fast. I think I just had a contraction.”

“Oh no, God, not now!” thinks Ani. “Now is NOT a great time!”

“I might have been mistaken,” thinks Janice, relaxing again. Ani groans in annoyance, and together we work out our way home. It’s not a great plan, but it’s the best we have, and it might work.

Maybe.

It’s the only plan we’ve got, so it’d better.

Ani senses someone coming down the corridor outside, and we all sit down in the corner, trying to look as innocent and unassuming as possible. Whoever it is can’t suspect anything. We want to appear useless, clueless, helpless: three young women stuck in a situation way out of our control.

The door to the room outside our cell opens.

They didn’t give us a lot of time. I’d have thought we’d be here for hours, or days even, not minutes. I figured they’d make us sweat. That’s what happens in all the movies. You know, the type of scene where we’re stuck in there for ages, and end up bouncing a ball against the wall, over and over and over. That’s what I thought would happen.

A young woman enters. Just like the doctor back at the hangar, she’s wearing a lab coat and her hair is pulled neatly back, but she’s wearing trousers and a shirt beneath the coat, and flat shoes.

She seems nice. Ordinary and normal. I imagine her going home at the end of the day to her partner, and maybe her kids. Sitting down in front of the TV, having a drink.

I wish people who are our enemies didn’t have to be so nice. I wish they had foreign accents or scary masks on or something.

“Hello Rose, Ani, Janice,” she says pleasantly, looking around at the three of us huddled in the corner of the cell. “I’m Cheryl Dodson. I’m here to take you up to the medical wing. Come with me, ladies.”

She unlocks the metal bar door to our cell, and I notice that no security guys have come with her. She doesn’t appear to have any weapon on her either. That meas these guys are either really, really certain we can’t escape, or they’re really really dumb.

I’m guessing they’re really really certain we can’t escape, and I wonder what the chances of our plan working actually are. Probably not good.

I get up with a sigh, and walk across to where Ms Dodson is standing waiting, just outside our cell. Janice and Ani follow me.

Ms Dodson leads us out of our cell and down a long, sterile, concrete-floored white corridor. There are doors with high metal-barred windows leading off at regular intervals, and I have the distinct feeling we’re not the only prisoners being held here. If this is the Department For Unnatural Forces, I can’t help wondering who else – or what else – is being held here against their will.

At the end of the corridor is a solid metal door. Ms Dodson taps in a security code to a panel on the side of the door, and with a beep the door opens.

We pass through into a huge wide room with a massive ceiling that must be at least three stories tall with huge wide metal beams crossing from one side of the room to the other, supporting the whole structure. There are no windows.

We’re seeing security staff again now, after a striking absence of them in the previous corridor and cells. On the other side of the door, on each side, there are two men in uniforms and berets with rifles, standing ready, and at regular intervals, maybe five meters apart, there are more soldiers, dressed the same – combat uniforms, berets, rifles ready – standing still and weapons raised. They’re dressed exactly the same as the guys we same at the hangar.

Ms Dodson nods to the guys at the door as we enter, and as she leads us across the floor to a door on the far side, two of the guys standing against the wall peel off from their positions and follow us. They’ve been expecting us, and are clearly going to be our escort.

I’m starting to feel like escape is even more unlikely than it ever was.

We’re marched through this huge, wide room into a smaller office at the far end.

Sitting down at the end of a very long, glossy black glass table surrounded by a dozen chairs, is Rift. There’s a huge, floor-to-ceiling window behind him that spans the width of the room. It’s the first window we’ve seen in the entire building, and I realize we’re high up, at least five stories, overlooking the Beehive, at the heart of Wellington.

Rift leans back in his chair, silhouetted by the view through the windows behind him, and surveys us thoughtfully.

“Thank you, Ms Dodson,” he says briskly. “You may leave.” She nods, turns sharply on her heel, and departs, shutting the door silently behind her. Our security guys take up their positions by the door, one on each side. The whole thing is way too familiar.

Haven’t we done this already? I think. Are these guys really that predictable?

Then I wonder just how predictable we are in our own habits, and I feel sick at the thought.

“Sit down, ladies,” says Rift. I almost expect him to pull out a cigar next and light it, but he doesn’t. He simply stares at us, across the distance of the table, his gaze boring deep into me. I feel pretty uncomfortable, but am not going to let him win, so I stare right back. His gaze drops first, and he chuckles. “Ever the fighter, Rose,” he says, laughing humorlessly.

I get the very strong impression he really doesn’t remember that we only saw each other minutes before. I wonder when he thinks we actually did last see each other, and in what circumstance, but I’m not able to focus on the present and ask Ani about that, so I let the question drop from my mind.

“What do you expect?” I say coldly. “You’re holding us here against our will. You haven’t actually charged us with anything. We’ve seen no lawyer, or legal representation. I’m guessing we’re not going to get any. So are you surprised that we’re not exactly joyful?”

“No,” he says frankly. “I’m not. But,” he adds. “You don’t really have a choice, do you – not unless you want to end up on death row for murders you absolutely did commit. So now we need to bargain.”

“We’re not bargaining,” says Janice flatly. “No chance. Not going to happen. So forget it.”

I hear Ani’s voice in my head: “Keep him talking…just keep him talking…”

Janice goes on. “From what we understand of you and your lot, you’d have no hesitation in doing…experimentation…on us. So why should we trust you? I have no plans to trust you. You’re about as evil as it gets.”

Janice looks him squarely in the eye. “There’s no way in hell we’re going to co-operate with you. And we’re certainly not going to let you do any experiments on us. So I don’t know what your idea of ‘bargaining’ is, but unless it involves letting us go and get back to our lives, we’re probably not going to be interested a whole lot of bargaining with you.”

Rift rises from his chair, menacing. “When I said ‘bargain’, I meant it,” he says, attempting to be mild but with an edge of steel in his voice. “I was intending to be pleasant. I was intending to be…humane. I was even intending to give you all some semblance of control over your futures.”

He begins to walk very slowly up the room, hands clasped behind his back, behind the rows of empty chairs, moving closer to us.

“Your futures here at the Department could be excellent. Quite excellent. We have a number of other… subjects… lined up and prepared, and we’d be very interested to see what happens when we blend your Powers with theirs.”

He’s even closer, and his voice is low. “You could have been Patriots. You could have assisted in a Program that would give New Zealand incredible military strength, with an army of amazing super soldiers unbeatable on the battlefield.”

“Is that what this is all about?” says Janice, shaking her head in disbelief. “Is this all about war?”

“Of course,” says Rift. “What else? You must know the world is gearing up for major confrontation. It’s only a matter of time, with resource scarcity being what it is.”

He’s getting louder, as the excitement increases in his voice. “We’re a small country. We can’t hope to hold our own in arms or military might in advanced technology. But a race of soldiers with the Power that you three have?”

He’s standing over us, looking down at us, and I’m really aware, for the first time, how much taller he is than me. “Think of it! You could control the battle from afar. In fact, battle would be unnecessary. No one could fight you! No one would dare try. Within a few short weeks, we’d control the entire planet, with no death necessary.”

He puts his hand on my shoulder, and I try not to flinch. “No battles, no civilian casualties. Just an end to things, and a new world order, with our country – our leaders, our government, our religions, our people – ruling the less…enlightened…in the world.”

He stops his pacing and turns to face us. “The three of you could create a world of peace. The first true peace this world has ever known.”

I listen to what he is saying, and I think about it. I imagine the conflict in the Middle East ended. I imagine no more terrorists. I imagine no more wars between India and Pakistan. I imagine refugees returning to their homes safely. I imagine all the skirmishes and wars of Africa at an end.

I imagine no more nuclear weapons, no more chemical weapons.

Then I think about my great-grandfather who fought in the second world war, and my great-uncle who fought in the Seige of Malta and who was a hero and had to live on rats to survive. He gave his rations to street children so they wouldn’t die.

I think about my Jewish relatives who suffered, and all the empty spaces in my family tree, where people just…disappeared. All those names and lives that were torn apart.

It could all end, if we decided to stop it.

I realise for the first time what true power is. I understand for the first time what a huge burden my Power – the ability to control green living things – is.

Then I think about Janice and her Power to control geomagnetism, and to stop people and animals even knowing where there are in the world.

Finally, I think on Ani’s Power, the Power to control and influence what people actually think and do – and I shudder at the thought of what it actually means.

Whole armies, at the whim of one person.

Whole countries, controlled by one person.

And the three of us at the centre of it all, like the eye of a storm. Calm, and quiet, yet the center of a maelstrom if we so choose.

And I know Rift’s plan for what it is.

I see it for what it is.

And I know the part we must play in it.

Brigandeers: Chapter 8: Rift

 

“And Janice will,” says new, light voice coming from somewhere off-screen.

Something about the casual tone makes me shudder. “I’m sure she’ll do an amazing job for us, won’t you, Janice?”

Within less than a second, John pilots the drone up and out of danger, hovering three meters above Nigel and Janice and out of reach, so no matter what happens we can maintain contact.

From the higher view, we can see who is speaking: a tall, thin, bespectacled man, with light, wavy brown hair. There’s nothing at all memorable about him – and maybe that’s part of what makes me shudder – that, and his demeanour which is one of absolute calm and control.

He’s with a group of strangers, he’s challenging them, and there’s nothing stressed or worried about him at all. This is a man who has power, and who has no fear that he might be in danger.

I can’t see any car, or vehicle of any kind parked nearby. Maybe it’s out of range of the view of the drone, but the cameras are excellent and something in my head tells me he didn’t arrive here by car. It’s as if he has appeared from thin air.

I have no idea how he has managed to sneak up on Nigel and Janice, and there was absolutely nobody about around here a few minutes ago, but he has arrived here undetected somehow. Now the question is, how on earth will they lose him?

The man moves closer, apparently not worried in the slightest by Nigel and Janice’s stiff, straight bodies, all stress and worry and tension.

“It’s nice to actually meet you, Janice,” he says, in a relaxed voice that is somehow even more menacing because it is so genial. “You too, Nigel. I’ve heard a lot about you. You’re a clever young man. I’m certain you’ll be very useful to us.”

“To us? Who is ‘us’? Who the hell are you?” says Janice, her eyes narrowing, once her shock has passed. I can see the appearance of this man from nowhere has really thrown her. Her fear is palpable, even from our vantage point three meters above, hovering over the small group, watching from the drone. “What do you want with us?”

“What do I want with you?” asks the man, thrusting his hand into his pocket, pulling out a pristine white handkerchief, and then pulling off his glasses and – eyeing them delicately – beginning to clean them of imaginary dirt. “Do you honestly think that I’m here because I don’t know the amazing feats of which the lovely Janice here is capable?”

He puts his glasses back on and narrows his eyes, focusing on Nigel. “I’m not a fool, Nigel. Don’t assume I am one.”

He gazes up, directly into the lens of our drone, hovering overhead. “And yes, I know all about you too, Ani, and you, Rose.” I startle at the sound of my own name. He knows about us. How does he know about us? “We’re all fully aware of you both and your…unique...talents. Be absolutely certain that we will find you in very short order and, when we do, I’m convinced you’ll be very happy to join our team. Whether you want to or not.”

And he disappears. Like, bodily. He is there, then he’s gone. Just…simply…not there.

“What?” says Nigel, his hands reaching out to grasp thin air. “How? Huh?” He shakes his head, and starts to pace. “Where did he go? Where is he? Impossible! People don’t just disappear!

“I don’t get it,” says Janice, confused. “He was a hologram then? But he looked completely real.”

“I…I don’t know,” says Nigel. “I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. I thought he was here…but then he wasn’t. I…” He shakes his head again, clearly completely at a loss. “I have no idea at all. I’m sorry. But we’ve got to get out of here. If he found us, we’re not safe.”

“But where did he go?” I ask Nigel, my voice booming from the drone’s speaker. “Was there actually a real guy there at all with you? He looked real from here, from what we could see.”

“He was real,” says Nigel. “Or if he wasn’t, that was the best damn hologram I’ve ever seen. Way better than anything I thought anyone was capable of creating. Not only that, the sound was coming from him. No, I have to believe he was here, and was a real person, and just disappeared, right in front of us. I don’t know how, but that’s what we all saw so that has to be what happened.”

“But that’s impossible, right?” says Marika, chipping in from behind me.

“It’s supposed to be,” says Nigel. “But then, so is Janice and what she can do. Maybe that guy has a Power too. Maybe he’s another Stealth? Odd, because from all the research I was doing it was looking like being a Stealth was definitely x-linked…”

“That’s what those guys in the flat said!” says Ani excitedly, and I wonder what ‘x-linked’ means. “That’s exactly the words they used – “x-linked”. I didn’t get what they meant. You know what they’re talking about?”

Okay, now I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t finish school, and is lost in this conversation.

“Yes, I know what they’re talking about” says Nigel. “But I’ll explain when we’re out of here. We’ve got to get going. If this guy can find us one time, he can find us again. We’ve got to lose him, lose his completely.”

“Where to then?” asks Janice, perplexed.

“Should we head back to Base 2?” says Nigel, addressing the drone, and us, via its onboard microphone.

“Do you think you can get here untracked?” asks John. “I mean, how did that guy find you up there at the Port? How on earth did he track you?”

” I don’t know,” says Nigel. “That’s what’s got me stumped. I have no idea how he found us. Or how he disappeared. I don’t get any of this at all.”

“If he tracked you once, maybe he can do it again,” says Ani logically. “Maybe you should find somewhere else to hunker down for the night?”

Her statement makes sense. I’m still feeling on edge from hearing the guy mention my name, and suggest that he knows what I can do. I’m used to running below the radar, and feeling secure in my anonymity.

What else do they know about me? About us? And how do they know it? How long have they been watching us? We thought we were safe, and below the radar, hidden away, doing our thing, all unnoticed by anyone.

Have we been wrong all this time? And if so, for how long? And if so, why are they making their move just now? Why not before?

“Good point, Ani,” says Nigel. “Okay, cancel Base 2. I know…Ani, remember that house where we went for that Christmas party two years ago? That freezing cold place?  The one where you got me drunk, and…”

“And you fell down the stairs and landed on that guy’s lap?” finishes Ani. “How could I forget? That was out in the woop woop…” A realization crosses her face. “You’re going there?”

“Check,” he says, nodding. “I’m pretty sure the house is empty, because of that leaking roof the landlord never fixed. God, that place was a dump. Janice and I will stay the night there then, if all is well, we’ll make our way to Base 2 some time in the next 48 hours if we’re certain there’s no chance we’re being followed.”

“And if we don’t hear from you by Monday?” says John, practical as usual.

“Stay put, sit tight, and hope they don’t come for you next,” says Nigel grimly.

*******

While the rest of us settle back in the Hangar with next to nothing to do (I wish we had more games!), John pilots the drone back to us, taking care to use a roundabout flight path that is anything but direct, skimming over the hills and avoiding the major population centers.

It arrives nearly an hour later, zooming in through the open awning window, and dropping down to the floor neatly. John switches his controlling handset off, then rises from his chair and walks over the turn the drone’s cameras and microphones off on the machine itself.

He checks the drone over for any signs of damage, pulls the batteries out to be loaded up to the recharge station for next time, then settles down with me for a game of chess.

I’ll win. I always win at chess.

It’s nearly a full two days later, Monday evening just after dinner (which was canned and cold and unpleasant), and lots of boredom in between, before we hear a key at the door of the hangar, and someone punching in the code to the combination lock.

Nigel and Janice are back with us, and they look exhausted. Nigel makes a beeline for the food supply, grabs two packets of tim tams, and tosses one of the packs to Janice, then opens his own and starts wolfing them down hungrily, while filling two glasses with water.

Jacob runs across the hangar to his mother, who hugs him so hard that I begin to worry for her baby. She’s pretty big, after all.

“Not much food where you were staying?” asks Ani drily.

“Nothing,” says Nigel, in between mouthfuls of chocolate biscuit. “It’s been bloody awful, in fact. Two whole days of nothing to eat, and sleeping on a musty old carpet with no blankets or bedding or anything. At least there was plenty of water, although I could do with a beer.”

“I’m glad it’s summer, or we’d have frozen. The place was empty all right. Stripped bare. Not even anything worth burning in the fireplace, had we needed to set a fire. But it was obviously unwatched and safe, and that’s got to count for something.”

“It does,” I agree. “It really does. So you were definitely NOT followed here? The last thing we need is to have you two tracked and all of us caught by these guys. We still haven’t figured out how that guy found you at the Port.”

“We definitely weren’t followed,” says Nigel securely. “The roads are really busy – we chose rush hour, figuring there would be less likelihood that anyone could follow us through the traffic – and there was nothing on the road behind us at various points.”

“Sure enough,” he continues. “We can’t be certain that we weren’t caught on camera at some point between the port and here, as some of the CCTV cameras are certainly functioning. But we took enough of the back roads to make sure that anyone following us on camera at any time would have had a really difficult time figuring out where we were going to. Even a drone would have had a rough time following us: the roads are in pretty bad shape, with a lot of trees overhanging them that really need lopping.”

He looks around. “It’s great to see you all. In person I mean. By the way, John, that was a stroke of genius to use the drone. Bloody brilliant.”

“Actually, it was Cam’s idea,” says John, giving a nod in Cam’s direction, while Cam, ignoring the conversation, is busy playing a computer game on one of the consoles.

“Oh. Okay. Well done Cam,” says Nigel, not skipping a beat. “But yeah, didn’t see anyone following us, so unless they’re damned clever, we’re safe.” He pulls up an empty chair, wheeling it across to join us in our little semi-circle we have left over from our dinner time, and motions for Janice to do likewise.

I watch him sit down painfully, wincing and obviously sore after sleeping rough a couple of nights. I think about how much I love our wheelie chairs, but after two days living in the hangar, I wish we’d made it more homelike.

The place could really do with a sofa or two. Sleeping bags and wheelie chairs are great in a pinch, but they’re not wonderful for living with day after day.

“So all good?” he asks. “Have you figured out who the guy is that visited us in hologram form? Because being out rough in an empty house, we haven’t been able to do anything.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I say. “We’re guessing the guy whose hologram you saw, if that was what it was, or who turned up and disappeared somehow – is this Torrance Rift we’ve been hearing about who is supposed to be down from Wellington and in charge of the operation regarding those agents I..um…offed.”

I swallow, and continue. “He wasn’t even supposed to be here until today. So he’s arrived here early, and that’s what threw us – we expected to b safe until today, and were sloppy and casual with our own safety and security. It’s our own damn fault, I guess.”

I go on. “But despite him being all high up and in charge of everything, we haven’t been able to find out a shred of information about him on the net – nothing beyond his name and title.”

I scratch my nose, pondering it all. “It’s like he didn’t even exist before a couple of years ago, and yet now he’s their top investigator, in charge of everything. That’s just so weird. I mean, everyone including their baby has an internet presence these days. I don’t get it.”

I chew my lip thoughtfully. “You said something about him being another Stealth maybe, didn’t you Nigel? Maybe his Power is appearing and disappearing? Is that even possible?” I’m frowning, contemplating my own suggestion. I don’t like the idea much – the thought of invisible people sneaking up on me behind my bad has all kinds of creepiness attached to it, and I just dont want to go there.

“He could be,” says Nigel, crunching away at his tim tams, then reaching for another chocolate biscuit – he’s already eaten most of the packet, and it didn’t take long. “But that’s what’s stumping me.”

He holds his next biscuit, considering, watching it melt between his thumb and forefinger. “I’ve been thinking about it, and while it’s the most likely option, I don’t see how it is possible. You see, everything I knew about your Powers up until now – everything I had figured out – was suggesting to me that it was x-linked, linked to the x-chromosome. So the possibility of a man having Powers was just incredibly unlikely. It’s just not going to happen.”

“I don’t get it,” I say. “Can you explain? I didn’t do that stuff at school. What does ‘x-linked’ mean?”

“Well,” begins Nigel, with the air one someone about to explain that the sky is blue to an upset child. “Women have two x chromosomes in their genetic makeup. Men only have one. Everything I’ve been studying about you an Ani suggests that Stealth Powers are a sex-linked characteristic – you need two x-chromosomes.”

He takes a bite of his rapidly melting tim tam, and chews away. “That is, you need to be a woman to be a Stealth. Men only have one x-chromosome. The other chromosome in their sex pair is what we call a ‘y-chromosome’ So while coming across another woman who is a Stealth was entirely possible – and we did, in Janice – the chances of finding a male Stealth were zero. Zip. Nada.”

“So women get a double dose of this chromosome thing, and that gives us the Powers we have?” says Janice.

“Kind of,” replies Nigel. “It doesn’t give you the powers you have, but the powers you have are on the x-chromosome, and you have to have a double dose to be a Stealth.”

He gulps down his biscuit. “And therefore Rift, being a male with only one x-chromosome, can’t be a Stealth. If he has Powers at all, and it’s not just advanced technology involved, enabling him to do what he dis, he must be something completely different. Either that, or what we saw really was a hologram. But I don’t think so. There’s something Stealth-like going on here. Which is why I’m so damn confused, and really frustrated by the fact I’ve been unable to do any research the past few days, holed up on the run in a grotty, empty house!”

“What worries me more than all this,” says Marika, speaking up in her soft, low voice. “Is why he wants to track us down. Now who he is or what he can do, but why he wants us.”

She looks around at all of us. “From what he said up on the hill overlooking the Port, he’s not really interested in what happened with those agents at all. He never mentioned them. That doesn’t seem to matter much, although it’s the premise under which he’s managed to wrangle a trip to come down here. What he mentioned at the Port – what he talked about exclusively – was who we are, what he knows about us, and what we can do.”

She ends with: “He wants to catch you for your Powers. He wants to use you somehow. I’m certain of it. And that terrifies me.”

She regards me and Ani seriously. My sister and I are sitting next to each other in our chairs. I have a terrible feeling that what Marika is saying is absolutely right. I don’t think this is about the agents I killed. I think this is about the three of us – Ani, Janice and me.

“Now I have no idea what he wants to use you for,” says Marika. “But my guess is it isn’t good. When the old superheroes were working, they were individuals. They did their own thing. They helped people, stopped crime, were their own bosses. Now the government didn’t like that very much and, to be honest, the police and the military fricking hated it.”

She looks at Janice, huge and heavy and pregnant, sitting in a chair with Jacob on her knee. “You know, they really hated all these independent, self-styled heroes. They hated that the superheroes were way more powerful than anything they themselves, the supposed authorities, could muster.”

Her voice has a chill in it. “They’d have done anything to control them. I’m sure of that too. I remember thinking at the time, even though I was just a kid, what the world would be like if the government could control the superheroes. And the thought was terrifying.”

She continues, and we listen, all of us with the same expression on our faces that I am sure is on mine. “And I always wondered who was behind some of the killings of some of them, when things went pear-shaped. I always suspected it might have been the authorities, desperate to regain control of their own little piece of turf. Because, with the super heroes running the world – and they really did run the world – the authorities never really appeared like they were the ones in control. Because they weren’t.”

“So I can’t help thinking,” she continues. “That if they figure that they have a chance to get hold of you, control you, subdue you, and make you work for them – willing or not – then they’ll be in an enviable position. There was no way any of the old superheroes would have worked for them, and taken orders. It was never going to happen. It was an unequal relationship of unequal power and strength. The authorities couldn’t compete.”

“But if they manage to trap you and control you – maybe with blackmail about hurting your loved ones, your children – ” she eyes Jacob carefully, and her expression is not lost on Janice. “-then they can get you do what they want. They’ll have their own little cadre of super soldiers. Their own Stealth Soldiers, more powerful than anything they’ve controlled before. Real weapons of mass destruction.”

Nigel rubs his nose, thinking. “She’s right,” he says slowly. “The three of you could be a real game-changer. Between you, you have the power to control everything on the planet that lives. Everything. I’m not kidding. I mean, we’ve only just begun to explore your Powers – Ani, Rose. And we only figured out what Janice’s Power is all about a couple of days ago. In fact, I’m still figuring it out: we did more testing up at the house these last couple of days, which I want to share with you.”

He takes a sip of water. “But the three of you,you’re all incredibly powerful.”

Ani chokes back a laugh. “I think you’re overestimating us, Nigel! I can control small furry animals. Big deal. And Rose is great with fungus. Colour me impressed.”

Nigel smiles placidly, and what he says shocks Ani. “You’re not thinking it all through, Ani. Haven’t you thought about where your Power is leading? Think about it: this time last year you were controllng insects. Now you’re managing sheep, cats and dogs. That’s a pretty big jump up.”

He puts the empty packet of tim tams down on the floor, all gone. “Your brain is still growing. You’ve still got another five years or so until your brain reaches full development. My guess is you’ll reach the ability to control the thoughts of other, less intelligent humans some time in the next six months. You’re that close. Really intelligent humans? Give it a year, tops. Your power could be horrific to those in charge.”

He stands up, stretches, and goes to refill his glass, and put the empty biscuit packet in the bin. The rest of us are completely silent, mulling it all over. I mean, I’m Ani’s sister and I can’t think of anything to say. I’ve laughed all my life about her controlling spiders and bugs and bees. I never really thought much about it when she moved up to rats, or even bigger, smarter animals. I never thought about it at all.

Nigel comes back from the sink, takes a sip of his water, sits down in his chair very slowly, and continues. “Imagine a world where you, Ani, are controlling what the President of the United States chooses to say when she’s on the Podium, making her speeches? Imagine you choosing her words for her. Imagine you deciding whether she will opt for peace. Or for war.”

The air suddenly feels cold around me. Ani breathes in sharply, but says nothing. I wish she would say something, but she doesn’t.

“And Rose,” he goes on. I sit still as can be, unable to move. I’m not sure I want to hear what he has to say about me, but in a way I want to hear everything. Everything. “Rose controls everything in the plant and bacterial kinkgdoms. She controls not just all the trees and plants and life beneath the earth, but bacteria. Disease. She renders chemical warfare practically useless. Who needs it,when one person can make a whole population sicken and die at will?

“I’d never, never do that!” I say forcefully, angrily. I feel violated, sickened.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” says John, supporting me immediately. “How can you even suggest such a thing? Nigel, you’re out of line!”

“I’m not suggesting she would ever do that at will,” says Nigel quickly, looking pressured. “But who knows what we’re capable of if we’re controlled by someone else? Or if we’re blackmailed and forced to do what we detest, under threats to people we love or care about?”

He reaches out to touch my hand, and I flinch, feeling ill. “I don’t know what these horrible, terrible people have in mind for you,” he says softly. “But I absolutely know that we don’t want you to get caught. I’m trying not to imagine they might want to experiment on you, dissect you.”

“NOT HELPING!” shouts Ani, shuddering. My stomach is churning.

“It’s a possibility,” says Nigel, quietly. “It helps if you know what could happen.”

“No, it really doesn’t!” says Ani angrily.

“And you’ve led me right to all of you,” says that friendly, cheerful voice that gives me chills.

The door to the hangar is open, and Rift is standing there, silhouetted against the setting sun. He hasn’t come alone – there are two more men behind him, their rifles raised, and I can see the outline of a military Jeep behind them, pulled up to the door, with a shadow inside it, sitting still, waiting.

“I really have to thank you for that, young Nigel.” He enters the hangar, his men behind him – I recognize the two men in berets from the cellar flat – and he saunters towards us, relaxed and friendly-looking, no rifle or even a pistol on him. He doesn’t need one, I guess, not with his minions behind him, guarding the door.

“For an incredibly smart young man, you can be very dumb sometimes. Very, very dumb.” He seems to delight in making Nigel feel incompetent, and I wonder just how long this guy has been watching us, since he knows which buttons to press to get a reaction, when it comes to Nigel at least.

“What? How?” Nigel stammers, going bright red with anger and confusion, as the two men behind the silhouetted man move into the hangar behind him, and take up their obviously pre-assigned positions on either side of the doorway, standing stock still, weapons at the ready.

We’re trapped – the only way out of the hangar, when the main warehouse door is shut, is through the door they’ve effectively barred. Apart from that, there’s only one exit, and that’s through the awning window we use for the drone – at the back of the hangar that leads directly out to the water, with nothing but a straight drop nearly ten meters down to the water.

“You still have your mobile phone in your pocket,” says Rift quietly, a smile playing across his lips. “It’s amazing how everyday devices can become so commonplace we forget they’re with us, isn’t it? Even though it is turned off, it’s still transmitting. A lovely little homing device, leading me straight to you every time. So easy, so simple, so straightforward.”

I reach down, and I feel in my own pocket for the bump that is my own phone, and wince. Nigel isn’t the only one who has been incredibly dumb. I look at my friends, to see several of them reaching down for their pockets too, as their faces express shame and humiliation.

“Oh fuck,” I hear Ani curse under her breath. I’d laugh, if I weren’t so horrified.

“Now my friends,” continues Rift. “I should probably introduce myself, although I’m already quite certain you know who I am. But, you know, manners are a lovely thing, a fading thing, and they’re something I think we all need to invest in if we’re all going to behave in a civilized manner, don’t you?”

He drifts into the hangar further, wanders over to the communications console, and leans against the long desk so casually.

“I’m Mr Torrence Rift, Head of Special Operations at the Department for Unnatural Forces. Which means, in essence, that I’m in charge of everything to do with you. Yes, you have a whole Department dedicated to studying you. You should feel honoured really. Think of me as your new boss, if you will from now on, and I’m sure we’ll all get along just fine in no time at all.”

He taps a few keys on the nearest computer aimlessly with one hand, and the computer screen explodes in a massively loud splash of fireworks and light, sparks flying outwards and upwards several feet. They bounce around him, and he seems undisturbed, almost bored, by the event.

All the other computer nearby go dead simultaneously, and he turns back to us, continuing his speech with a bored expression, as if nothing has just happened. A strong smell of melted plastic wafts over to us.

“I work out of Wellington, but saw fit to come down and meet you personally, when you finally became aware of each other and met up a couple of weeks ago.” He smiles at me sadly.

“Oh Rose,” he adds. “I’m sorry about your little mishap with our men back at Janice’s house. But no worries! We’ve cleaned that mess up, found a convenient scapegoat, and it’ll all be sorted in no time at all. The new culprit – a young man who has been in all manner of trouble since his late childhood, so convenient, yes – will be revealed on the early morning news. I’m sure the populace will jump to the conclusion that he is inevitably guilty, and he’ll be sentenced quickly and efficiently.”

He beams around at all of us. “I do like to see these things kept neatly and tidily, don’t you?”

“What!” I exclaim, forgetting myself for the moment. “You’re setting up an innocent man? You think that’s acceptable? How could you do such a thing?

“I’d hasten you to remember that you…ah…sentenced four innocent men without even thinking a few days ago. I might ask you, how could you do such a thing?”

He grins at me, a fatherly expression on his face that is somehow even more evil for its geniality. “Would you prefer to take the credit for your… er… actions?” he asks me mildly. I crumble, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. “I’m sure none of us would want that now, would we?” he says gently. “Especially considering you had no choice. No choice at all.”

You put Rose in that position!” states John suddenly, realization spreading across his face. “You set us up! You put us all in that position!”

“Why, yes, I did, as a matter of fact,” he says, a playful grin on his face. “Of course I did. It was too magnificent an opportunity to pass up. I wanted to see what Rose here is capable of. And she performed remarkably.”

I want to throw up.

He leaves the console, and leers over me, looming like some giant nightmarish shadow. “You know, I hear that there’s been talk about bringing the death penalty back to New Zealand.” I can feel his breath on my face. “Hmmmm… now let’s see: four men, two of whom were ripped to pieces, hurled against a wall, their brains smashed in, their bodies beaten beyond recognition then hastily buried in a shallow grave. The other two men strangled, beaten and buried ten metres deep…And the reason? They were innocent government agents, checking on a small stash of marijuana reputed to be growing in a greenhouse out the back of the property.”

His eyes bore into mine. I don’t look away, but I feel my eyes watering, and his voice is deeper, evil, suddenly menacing and full of an unearthly hatred that seems to empty the room and suck the air from the hanger like a vacuum in dead space.

“I don’t think ordinary people would hesitate to give you a lethal injection, Rose,” he says quietly, intensely. “They might even cheer at your funeral. They’ll be glad to see the end of you, you piece of trash.”

Then he straightens up, leans back, all smiles again. ‘Ha ha, yes, well,” he says. “Of course, though, that won’t happen will it? Because you’re all going to come with me now, aren’t you? You know what’s best for you. Nobody wants trouble. Nobody wants anyone to come to any harm.”

He straightens up. “You all want to serve your country. What a fine thing to do! I’m sure you’ll be… compliant. If not, I’m sure we can make you compliant easily enough.”

Rift takes a phone out of his pocket, and dials a three digit number. Within seconds, we hear a car door slap outside, and a young woman with bright red hair tied up neatly in a bun enters the hangar. She’s clearly been waiting outside all this time in the Jeep, simply waiting for the command.

She’s holding a small transportable cold storage medical box, of the type you keep medical supplies in when on the move. She’s wearing a white lab coat, and her bright red heels click neatly across the concrete floor of the hangar as she walks across to us.

She places the cold storage box down on the communications bench, next to the exploded computers, and opens it.

Then I see what she takes out – a pack of disposable syringes, some needles, swabs, some alcohol wipes, and a small glass vial of pale amber liquid.

My blood runs cold.

As if responding to my reaction, the two men guarding the door – our only way out, our only escape – raise their weapons, and move towards us.

“This is my colleague, Doctor Papadopoulos,” says Rift cheerfully, indicating the lady in the white coat. She nods briefly in response, and then she carefully loads up the syringes from the vial, one clearly meant for each of us, tapping them gently to remove air bubbles, then switching to finer gauge needles, ready to go.

“She’s a well-respected member of our Department,” adds Rift. “You’re in good hands with her. A wonderful, wonderful researcher. Terrific at compliance. Head of our small but very capable Dissection Team too, by the way.”

I can feel my face draining of blood.

“She’s going to give you all a mild sedative now, to make you all more…compliant…then in no time we’ll all be back in Wellington, ready for some real testing to begin.”

Rift plays with the back of Ani’s wingback chair, rubbing his long fingers along the rear edge, clearly unnerving her as she sits there, stock still, her face pale; death-like.

“And yes, John,” he adds, seeing John opening his mouth in protest and pre-empting him. “Even though you, Nigel, Jacob and Marika have no…ah…special talents, you’ll all be coming with us too. I’m sure we’ll find a use for you up north, and we need your reminiscences on the development of the women over the past few years.”

John’s body language is tense, a coiled spring, ready to take action the moment there’s a chance. There’s no way John will come peacefully, and I wonder if Rift knows that. We don’t know what Rift is capable of, but we have no choice – it’s now or nothing. I shake my head at John slowly, trying not to be seen.

“And I wouldn’t try anything if I were you, John,” says Rift carelessly. “You’re no use to anyone with bullet holes in your head. My good men here have their rifles trained on you, as the most likely trouble-maker. One false move, and you’ll be Swiss cheese.”

For the first time in my life, I feel the lightest whisper of a voice in my head. Someone is inside my brain. In my mind. It’s Ani, I know it’s her, trying to speak to me, like she does to her animals. And it’s working. I feel violated and safe and secure and abused and controlled all at once.

Then I feel trust. I trust my sister.

I reach out with my mind, trying to sense what she intends. Nothing. I’m getting a blank, damp sponge of emptiness. I reach out again.

Distract him,” comes the quietest whisper of thought. “Distract Rift. And get ready…find something beneath us if you can. Attack the men, the woman.

I know I have to trust my sister, if we’re going to get out of this. I reach out with my own mind quicker and more forcefully than I ever have before, and sense immediately that there are massive, ancient roots from an old, long forgotten mangrove way below us, beneath the concrete, beneath our feet, dead a long, long time ago.

They’ll respond to my summons, as all plant matter will. I control all green, living things – and all green things that once lived. Age has no meaning to my Power, which I feel coursing through me, turning me into a goddess of the earth, connected to everything.

Before I call to them, I answer my sister’s need. Still high on my connection to the mangroves, I take a gamble, and push hard with my feet against the floor. Somehow – I don’t know how – my connection to my Power gives me extra strength and speed, sending my wheelie chair skidding across the concrete, towards the Doctor, where she carefully holds a syringe up to the light, distracted by her work.

My sudden movement takes her by surprise, and I knock the needle out of her grasp, sending it flying across the floor, the vial she was holding smashing into tiny pieces all over the ground.

“Oops!” I say, laughing. A manic fever has taken hold of me. I feel invulnerable, immense, bulletproof. If I’m going to get shot, I’d rather get shot defending my friends, and attempting to escape in a completely ridiculous manner. Then I kick out sharply as I leap out of the chair at lightning speed, catching the doctor with my foot and knocking her over, onto the floor.

The two goons guarding the door see what’s happening and, without further provocation, come running, their aim on John lost completely as they run to assist the Doctor.

I reach out with my mind again. Within seconds the aged roots, deep deep down under meters of concrete and pipes and dirt, force their way upwards with a strength only the earth itself can hold, and burst up and outwards through the concrete, right below Rift, sending chips of man-made stone and dirt and rock flying in all directions.

They grasp hold of the two men with rifles, and hurl them expertly, neat as threading a needle, out the door of the hangar and against the metal door of a warehouse across the road, as a spray of bullets from one of the men’s rifles hits the ceiling of the hangar, blowing out the lights. We hear the sickening crack of bones breaking against steel, then a thunk as the bodies of the men collapse onto the concrete pavement, broken.

Another tree root shoots up through the ground, grasps the Doctor around the legs, and drags her down into the depths of the earth, screaming. The noise ends abruptly, cut off swiftly, as the roots pull dirt back over themselves and re-bury themselves, taking their prey with them.

“I don’t suppose you could have taken the rifles away?” says Rift, casually. He’s as relaxed as if he he’s just been watching a tennis match, with the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips.

“It’s over, Rift,” says John. “Your men out there…” He waves with one hand. “…Are probably dead. Your doctor is gone, I don’t know how deep. You send more people, more people are going to get hurt. There is no way any of us will ever work for you.”

“I’m never going to be your little stooge,” says Janice, pushing Jacob off her lap, and standing up heavily and awkwardly. “Never. That is not in my future, and I’m guessing it’s not in Ani or Rose’s either.”

“Nup, not going to happen,” I agree. “Forget it. Just leave.”

“So why don’t you just take all your little minions with you back up to Wellington with you,” says John. “Take them all back, say it was clearly a case of double agents out at Janice’s house. Just like some of the papers suggested. Say they’ve left and gone to China. Or Belgium.”

He stifles a grin. “Or maybe Guatemala. I don’t know where Guatemala is, but it sounds far enough away that your problem will be solved.” He moves over in front of me, a protective gesture that I really don’t need – not at all, if anything it should be the other way around. But I appreciate it just the same. Then he waits for Rift to respond.

“It certainly does look like it’s over from your naive and narrow perspective, doesn’t it, young John?” says Rift, in a low voice. “But you’ve left one thing out of the equation.”

There’s a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know what he’s going to say.

“Me,” says Rift, simply. He frowns, his face transformed into a mass of wrinkles, deep in concentration.

Our whole world shifts and shakes, and is transformed. I hear John scream out “Rose!” I feel his hand reach out for me, and it is torn away from me, his fingers slipping out of mine, with nothing I can do to hold on to him. Everything blurs and shifts, and he is gone in a whirlwind of confusion.

It’s just me, and Ani, and Janice.

We’re somewhere else. We’re standing in a small, empty white room. There are bars on the windows, and one wall is iron bars, from floor to ceiling like the jails you’d see in old Western movies, stretching right across from one side to the other.

We’re in a cell.

Right outside of the cell, on the other side of the wall of metal bars, stands Rift, grinning at us.

Checkmate,” he says.