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.

Brigandeers: Chapter 7: Cryptochrome

It’s nearly one o’clock by the time I crawl out of bed. So much for the eleven o’clock on the radio that I promised them.

I shuffle out to the kitchen to find the place empty, apart from Jacob. He is well set up on a bean bag, and playing some sort of shoot em up game on a tablet. He doesn’t even notice me, he’s so engrossed in his game.

Looks like we’ll be babysitting today. I don’t mind really, as Jacob isn’t a bad kid. It’s taken all of two weeks for him to fit right in here and learn to trust us all. He’s part of the family now, and it’s like he’s always been here.

As long as he’s fed and watered, and has plenty of books, toys and computer games to keep him happy, he’s generally no trouble at all. Occasionally his presence does mean we have to be careful about what movies we watch, but that’s not really a big deal.

To be honest, I don’t mind the kids cartoons he likes to watch – they’re better than most of the rubbish that’s on television these days.

As I fill the kettle and switch it on, I’m made dimly aware of loud, chainsaw-like snoring coming from John’s room. It sounds like he slept in even later than me.

Oh well. It’s Saturday morning . What else can they expect?, I muse. Further away and up over my head somewhere above, I can hear the muffled sound of a bedhead banging against a wall. I guess that means Ani and Cam are still here too. Some things never change about Ani.

I have no idea how everyone got out of the house as early as they did, especially considering that Marika was up as late as I was. She seemed to be in worse condition than me.

Maybe beer really is bad for you. Or maybe I just need to stop worrying and drink more of the stuff.

I make myself a cup of green tea, feeling virtuous. Then I turn on the stove top, and pop a skillet on and spray it.

A few minutes later, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, eating my eggs and relaxing to the sounds of Jacob’s game. It’s nice to have nobody here except the kid and me. It’s nice to be able to eat my breakfast without interruptions. I’m feeling all relaxed now, and very mellow.

All I need now is some sunshine on my back instead of the dim interior of our cellar flat. But then, we couldn’t be stealthy superheroes if we lived in the sunshine, could we?

Yeah, I could get used to this.

A few minutes later, the snoring stops. I hear footsteps down the corridor, and the bathroom door slams. Then a few minutes later, the toilet flushes, and the sink runs.

John is out of bed. He appears, bleary-eyed, in the kitchen, hanging on the frame of the doorway. Even when he’s sleepy and his hair is all messed up he still looks hot. Heck, I’d even cope with the snoring. I take a deep breath and act naturally.

“Good morning, John,” I say, trying to act cool.

“G’morning,” he replies. “Is the kettle still hot? I don’t suppose you made a cuppa for me?”

“No, you’ll have to flick it on again. And no, you were still asleep, you lazy bugger.” I’m casual as fuck, and impressed with my acting.

“Any idea what time they’ll be back or where they actually went?” He lifts the lid on the kettle, peers in to check the water level, then fills it and switches it back on again.

“I have no idea. I only got up half an hour ago, and haven’t even turned on the radio to catch what they’re up to. I’m sure it’s all fine.”

“We should probably turn the radio on at least,” he says. “Just in case.”

“I guess so,” I say. “I’ve just been enjoying the peace and quiet. Plus I really needed that sleep in.” He stretches, hands overhead, and I smile. “Obviously you needed a sleep in too.”

“Guilty, as charged,” he says, with a grin. The kettle has boiled, he fills his coffee cup, pops in a couple of sugarfree tabs (ugh!), and stirs.

Then he saunters over to the communications center by the side of the stairs. He sits down on the sofa, reaching across to turn the short wave on.

There’s nothing but static. That’s odd. Frowning, John turns the dial, trying to tune in to our standard frequency we use. He calls out, checking to see if Marika responds. She’s usually quick, a matter of moments, but five minutes pass and we hear nothing in return. Just white noise.

He then checks multiple frequencies, the regulars we’ve used in the past, and still nothing.

“That’s strange,” he mutters. Jacob stops playing his game, brown eyes wide open and watching. Then he gets up from his bean bag, to come over and find out what’s going on.

Over the next five minutes, John checks again and again, going over frequencies and call signs.

Nothing. Then, with a jolt, I notice something. Something I should have picked up on before.

“John,” I say quietly.

“Yes?”

“We’re not hearing anything on any of our channels, are we?”

“No, not a damn thing. I don’t know what’s going on!”

“What about all the other channels?” I ask softly.

“I don’t get it either,” he says. “There should be all the regulars broadcasting this morning. Yet I’m not even getting the emergency services. There’s no-one. It’s complete silence.”

Except for us,” I say, a chill running up my spine.

“Except for us,” he repeats slowly, then: “Shit! No! Really?”

He slams the handset down, and turns the short wave off. He sits absolutely still. He’s breathing heavily, panicked all of a sudden.

“How long have we been broadcasting for?” he says breathlessly.

“Can’t have been more than fifteen minutes all up,” I say, guessing wildly, fear rising in me.

“Now what?” He’s looking at me, as if expecting me to know what to do.

I don’t know – I have no idea – but I know what this might mean.

“I don’t know,” I say. “But if we haven’t been quick enough, they could be on to us any moment. And Marika and Janice…” My voice trails away, and we stare at each other, both thinking the same thing.

They’ve been caught.

“They might now be, it could be…” John says slowly. “Maybe they realised what was going on, and are maintaining radio silence. Maybe…”

I shake my head. “How would they know? It’s only because they’re not answering us that we’ve even clued on!”

I swallow nervously, not knowing what to do or say next.

Jacob’s small voice breaks the silence. He says, “Is my mum safe? Is she coming home tonight?”

I’m at a loss for what to say to him.

“I don’t know if she’s coming home tonight,” I reply honestly. “But we’ll absolutely do our best to make sure she’s safe. Just as soon as we can. I promise.”

I turn to John. “Can you get Ani and Cam up out of bed? Like, right now?”

He nods, grimacing. “We’d better get out of here real fast, just in case.”

“Yep,” I say. “I don’t think they’ll be on to us that quickly. But I’d rather be safe.” I frown. “I just don’t know why this would have happened. The northerners aren’t due down until Monday, that much was clear.”

“Maybe they arrived early,” he replies, with a grim expression.

While John goes to wake up Ani and Cam, I help Jacob get dressed and ready. I’d never done this before he moved in, but already I’m a dab hand at it. At five, he’s capable of getting his clothes on, he just needs a bit of prompting and encouragement, and he can’t turn clothing back the right way when it’s inside out yet. But all in all, he’s pretty independent for a little guy.

Ten more minutes, and John locks the door behind us. We’re out of the main center of the city on the dirt bikes.

Ani and Cam are on one, and John, me and Jacob are on the other. Ours is a tight fit, as neither John nor I are small people, and Jacob is squished up in front of me, right up near the handlebars.

I’m reminded of the films I remember seeing in school of China back in the 1970s – whole families on one bicycle, with a pig slung over the back. Except this time it’s us, and John, pressing behind me, is the pig. I laugh quietly to myself at the thought of John with a curly piggy tail, as I ride through the streets, leaning into the corners.

We’re off to our hangar down in the warehouse district, down by the waterfront, where our drones are kept, plus our dingy and an assortment of other equipment. It’s our second base, our “Base 2”, fully equipped in case of emergency – in case of situations like this one when we might have to leave The Bastard real quickly and with no warning.

It was John’s idea, of course. Being a “prepper” and all, he’s planned for every emergency you could think of, starting with Avalanche and working right through the alphabet to Zombies. The hangar is equipped with sleeping bags and mats for all of us, a communications setup that we can contact everything from Russia to Antarctica with, and enough food to stock an army. Yeah, it’s sorted. All we have to do is reach it, and hope it’s never discovered. Because if Base 2 fails, we’re screwed.

Ani and Cam are following us via a different route two minutes later, to attract less attention and make being spotted less likely. Ani has a key as have both John and I, so even if they make it ahead of us – or even if we don’t make it – they can get in. The locks on the doors are deadlocks, with combinations as well as keys, and the CCTV cameras in this part of town are checked regularly by John to ensure they’re especially faulty. As long as we’re not followed, we should be absolutely safe once we arrive.

Right now, thinking about those cameras, I’m really thankful that we disconnected them throughout the streets of the city a long time ago, and that the city council, strapped for funds, has never bothered to fix them.

Without our concerted effort to break the cameras over the past couple of years, one after the other, especially in areas of interest to us, all our actions would have been fed back into central city computers, and from there on to the police or other authorities, depending on who requested the footage. As we zoom along the quiet city streets, John is keeping a look out to make certain we’re not followed.

We get to the hangar via several backtracks, loops and detours, with no problems at all. Ani and Cam are there already, ahead of us, helmets off and dismounted from their bike which they’ve already dragged inside.

They’ve opened up the hangar, and both are sitting at the communications bench in two of our fabulous wheeled chairs we scored from the auctioneers – they were leftovers from an office that went under a few years ago, and are super comfortable and great to shoot about in on the concrete floor of the old warehouse. Cam has already logged on to the computer.

“Is that wise to log on?” says John, a concerned expression on his face. “We’re already guessing that they’re monitoring the short waves, and I’m guessing they’re probably monitoring the citizen band widths as well.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s okay,” says Cam. “I think they’re probably just taking wild guesses at the moment, if they even really do know about us. I’m pretty certain that nobody knows about our computer accounts, or has any idea who any of us are. I’m not worried.”

“What about the CB channels?” I suggest. “You’ve checked the short wave, but nobody can wash out the CB channels. They’re too busy I’d think.”

John walks over to the main communications console, and switches on the CB, motioning to us to remain silent in the background. “I just want to check that it’s still the same, with nothing happening,” he says.

A wash of static hits the hangar, but no voices. Nothing. He flicks the dial, turning it around, checking channel after channel, and gets nothing.

“I guess that solves that question,” says Ani drily. “We’re still all alone.”

“Jesus H Christ!” says John, then adds a whole lot of extra, more colourful words. Then: “Crap. I didn’t think they’d be checking everything!”

He turns to face us all. “I just had a thought. Guys, don’t use your phones. If they’re watching the radio channels, they’re almost certainly monitoring the phone lines.”

“We already figured that out,” says Ani. “Waaaay ahead of you there, bro.”

“I guess we’re on our own,” I say. “And no way to contact the others.” I shake my head. “I can’t think of any way of getting in touch with them without using our phones, our radios, or the CB. Anyone got any other ideas? We could try Skype, but I’m figuring that they’re probably monitoring that too.”

I sit down on one of our wheelie chairs we use for monitoring the consoles, and rock it backwards and forward, fidgeting.

“Drones,” says Cam quietly.

“What?”

“The drones,” he repeats, pointing at Drone 1 and Drone 2, which are parked over in a corner of the hanger, still there from when we last used them a few weeks back. “We can fly the drones out across towards the Port. You know that’s where Nigel always goes for field testing – he likes to look at the big tourist liners that come in every so often, and kill two birds with one stone – he can check out the liners and do field testing at the same time.”

John sits down on a second wheelie chair next to me. “He’s such a geek! But that’s not a bad idea,” he says thoughtfully, a smile slowly spreading across his face. “Nobody can track the Drones, and they send back their data on a completely different channel to anything they’d be expecting. Plus, they’re not going to be monitoring us down here at the hangar – if they’re going to look for us, it’ll be back up at The Bastard Arms. It might just work.”

He turns the main console of the computer guidance system for the drones on. It responds immediately. Within a minute or two he’s logged in and into the Drone Management System (DNS), ready to pilot a new course out of the hangar, towards the oval up on the hilltop overlooking the Port where we’re hoping Nigel and Janice will be.

“I’ll put sound on this time too,” he says, and nods to me. “That way, with the microphone and speaker system on the drone, we’ll be able to have a conversation with Nigel and Janice, without using any of the standard channels that we think are being watched. It’s a neat little work-around.”

“Which one?” I ask. “Which drone do you want to use?” John is our main drone pilot, so there’s no much doubt in my mind that he’s going to be the one to fly the thing. Sure, Cam or Ani or I could fly the thing at a pinch. But we’d also run a much higher risk of running the thing into a brick wall, or the sea, or the ground. And those drone are pretty expensive and more delicate than you’d think.

“Try Drone 2,” he says. I go over to the small white machine, all wings and stabilisers and propellers and tiny cameras, and turn on the tiny microphones and speaker systems that are attached just under the main body of the machine – both are add-ons that didn’t come attached to the drone when we bought it, and that Nigel added, just in case we ever needed them.

Turned out we did, I guess.

Instantly I hear a low hum emanating from the thing, letting me know that the speakers are in action. There’s a flashing green light on the thing that indicates that the microphones are working too, but I bend down and breathe into the closest microphone on the side of the Drone near me as a check, just in case. I hear my own breath funneled back to me and amplified, from the other side of the hangar, from one of the speakers at the main console.

“Yikes, those microphones are sensitive!” I say, laughing, and John wheels his chair back in alarm as my voice booms out to him from the speakers at the console, fifty times louder than I said it.

John grins back at me. “You betcha!” he says. “We’ll be able to pick up anything Nigel says to the Drone, once we find him.”

He grabs a joystick, gets out of his chair, and goes over to the drone, which is still sitting quietly in the middle of the floor. “Nigel will be able to hear anything we need to say to him too. We’ll be able to carry on full conversations, completely under the radar of anyone monitoring standard communication channels. Plus full visuals. Got to love this technology. Nigel did a great job of souping it up. We should get great sound and visuals. Once we find him, that is…”

Then he switches the drone engines on, from a minute, almost invisible switch on its underside, and switches the joystick on in his hand. A tiny flashing light flicks on and off, on and off on the drone, matched by an identical tiny light on his joystick handset.

He presses a button on the handset, and the propellers on the drone begin to whir lightly, faster than my eye can see them right from the very start.

The drone begins to lift off from the floor, and hover a meter or so above John, spiraling around him in a crazy aerial ballet.

“There’s no time like now,” he says. “We could wait, and do a few tests, but I’d rather get to them as soon as possible and warn them, in case they’re being tracked and followed. Rose, can you let it out?”

I give a thumbs up sign, get out of my chair, and walk over to open the far high window at the back of the hangar. It’s a lever window that leads right out over the water, as our hangar is right at the water’s edge.

I feel secure, knowing that the only way it would ever be tracked back to us is if someone happens to be watching from the water itself, or from a small jetty dead opposite. Or watching us with high powered lenses from across the bay.

I figure we’re safe. As safe as we can be, anyway, whatever that means.

John pilots the drone up through the open window and out in to the open air. I watch it disappear like a tiny electronic bee, zipping across the sky. Within seconds I can no longer hear its characteristic high pitched whirring, nor can I see it. It’s on its way, off to go find Nigel and hopefully reconnect us all.

John plonks himself down in his wheelie chair in front of the communications console. I sit back down beside him in my own chair, bringing up the feedback information from the drone.

Within seconds we can see what it sees, but in black and white – a endless stretch of choppy water stirred by a light wind as it soars over the bay, just meters above the water, skimming lightly across the surface of the waves, barely high enough to avoid contact with foam and sea.

I lean back, breathing a sigh of relief. John is great at piloting the drone, and for the first time since we found the airwaves silent this morning I’m feeling safe again.

Ani’s phone beers suddenly. Alerted, she sits down beside me on her tall, studded leather wingback chair – trust her to have a wingback chair here, but she does! I think hers must have belonged to a crime boss in a former life, or a psycho organist who likes to wear capes and masks.

“What’s that beep for?” I ask, curious about the noise.

“There’s someone at The Bastard who shouldn’t be there,” she says simply and quietly. “The alarm system has been triggered.”

“Alarm? I didn’t know we had an alarm,” I say.

“No,” she says. “It’s just something Nigel and I set up a couple of years ago when I was going out with the dick Peter. You know, the stalker – the creepy guy?”

I nod, remembering. She turns on her own console, and begins tapping away, bringing up a view from a camera that is very familiar. It’s the kitchen in the cellar flat of The Bastard Arms.

“Huh?” I say. “How?”

“You didn’t think I don’t have hidden cameras of my own, did you?” she says smugly.

“What? When?” I stammer.

“I put them in about a year ago. Maybe more. Maybe more like eighteen months ago, actually,” she says, a slow smile spreading across her face. “When we began that drive to get rid of all the CCTV cameras in the city limits, it occurred to me that it would probably be a good idea if we did some monitoring of our own that wasn’t just from our rooftop.”

“But when?” I ask finally, feebly.

“This one went in around midwinter last year,” she says cheerily. “When you all went on that trip up to Auckland and it was just me and Nigel at home for a few days? Well, I put the first couple in, in our bedrooms and in the stairwell, and then this one followed a few days later, when I’d confirmed the first two were working well.”

She’s watching the camera feed intently, clearly not wanting to look at me. “You know that guy Peter? Yeah, well, when he started stalking me, I asked Nigel if he could help me put in a security system, so I could keep track of things if anyone ever broke in. Or if anything ever happened to me with someone inside the flat.”

She looks at me. “It wasn’t very difficult,” she adds airily. “You buy the whole kit online, and there are full instructions. The kits didn’t cost much either. Any nob can do it. It took me a couple of hours for the first one, then the others were about half an hour apiece. The most difficult thing…” Her eyes narrow. “Was hiding the cameras from you all. John especially, as he’s trained to look for all this sort of stuff.”

“You did pretty well,” says John, admitting he’s impressed. “I never knew they were there.”

“With this system, if someone breaks in, I get an alarm and so does Nigel,” she says. “And the sound starts recording, as well as the footage, with a feed back to here. That’s how I set it up. So we should be hearing things…”

Then, as we look on in horror, two men cross the screen. As they cross the room, the sound kicks in, and Ani takes a second to adjust the feed, so we can hear what they’re saying. We can’t hear anything yet, but Ani keeps fiddling about in the hopes we can hear the conversation soon. All five of us – even Jacob – are stock still, listening, watching.

Impressive, and freaky, to see strangers in our beloved cellar flat.

They’re both tall, and blond, and wearing combat fatigues and berets that might be blue. One of the men is tiny, weedy, maybe five feet five in his boots with horn rimmed glasses behind which piercing eyes take in everything, everything in our private home.

The second man is imposing, in height, the width of shoulders and in sheer mass. He’s huge, and I can see the camera lens shaking when he walks. As he turns to look at the communications console against the stairs, his eyes are caught in full frame by the hidden camera. They’re the eyes of a killer, pale and empty.

Neither man appears rushed or concerned – they take their time walking through our home, rifling through our belongings. The small man even reaches inside the fridge and grabs himself one of John’s beloved iced coffees. I hear John curse under his breath as he watches in suspense, next to me, as the guy down it in a few short gulps then toss the empty carton carelessly on the floor.

We can see the two men speaking, and John whispers to Ani, “Do we have ears on yet? Any luck?”

In response, she nods, then inputs a few more strokes into her keyboard. At that moment, the larger man’s voice comes over the speaker system at the hangar.

He’s surprisingly soft-spoken for his size. And American. I think I would have found his voice less chilling had it been big and booming, not soft and smooth and amiable-sounding.

They’re talking about us, and in agreement that we haven’t been long since we left The Bastard.

“Not more than a couple of hours, by the look of things,” says the little guy. “Do you think they got wind of the radio silence and that tipped them off?”

“Undoubtedly,” says the huge man, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I’d have been disappointed if they hadn’t. And you have absolutely no idea where they’ve gone?”

“No sir,” says the little guy. “When Rift put the command for radio silence through, they did exactly what we thought they’d do, which is lead us here. Not too clever. I’m guessing they’re just kids.”

He looks around. “This is clearly their main base of communications, and has been so for quite some time. Now, that fat old barmaid up top says she doesn’t know them, and maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. Or maybe she knows them real well and is covering for them. Either way, we’ll figure it out. But they’ve only been gone here a short while so they can’t have gone far and must be in the vicinity. We’re watching the airport, and we don’t think they’d have access to private planes or boats.”

“So they’re here in town still,” says the big guy, moving closer to the communications console. Closer to our hidden camera. He’s flicking through computer games and DVDs now, checking labels, pulling them off the shelf, checking them one by one in case anything is hidden inside the plastic covers, tossing them casually aside when he finds they’re not hiding anything special.

“So they’re here in town still,” confirms the little guy, picking up the local paper which is strewn across the coffee table, and flicking through it, clearly searching for any of our papers that might have been lying underneath. “We will catch them. They’re too valuable to let this pass. Wellington thinks we’ve got another Rift on our hands. Or maybe something better. They could be very useful. And Rift wants them.”

“Another Rift?” says the big guy thoughtfully, pausing for a moment, barely a few centimeters away from our camera. “I’m not sure we want that! Wellington can barely control him as it is! Then again, some competition could keep him in check. He’s getting way too close in with the higher-ups.” He turns around, away from the lens. “Maybe we should make a greater effort to find these people.”

“It’s only the girls we’re interested in,” says the smaller man. “You know the deal…x-linked…makes it so much easier when we know our quarry…”

“Mmmmm, yes,” says the large man. “Shame about that. It’s always ugly to see a pretty girl get the Treatment. And Rift will never forgive them. He won’t make it pleasant.” They both chuckle at some in joke that I don’t understand. Then: “Come on. There’s nothing here. They’re long gone. Perhaps the other team down at the Port are having better luck.”

The Port!

“We’d better warn them!” I say to Ani, and we both turn back to John, who is still busy next to us, intently piloting the drone across the bay. “Are you catching any of this, John?” I motion to the monitor we’re watching, but the men are leaving the room, and it’s clear they’re finished at the cellar flat. I watch them disappear up the steairs of the flat, and they’re gone.

“Most of it,” he replies, trying not to be distracted, paying attention to his own task. “I’m doing what I can to get the drone to Nigel as fast as I can and warn him, but the drone can only go a certain speed. Beyond that, it just takes time. The drone will be there with Nigel in a few minutes. But I’m guessing that the authorities won’t get there any faster than we can. Which gives Nigel and Janice a little time at least, I hope.”

We watch the feed from the drone as it approaches the Port. There’s a huge cruise liner in town at the moment, and the tiny drone zooms right up close – within meters – of the liner, over the top of it, past the swimming pool and dual water slides that decorate the top most decks.

“Can’t help myself,” says John, grinning. “I’d love a closer look.”

“Not now,” I admonish him. “You and Nigel are a pair – you’re as bad as each other. But for now – Nigel and Janice, remember?”

The drone skirts past the liner and up over the hillside behind the Port, to a level paddock high up on the cliff top where we’ve known Nigel to do field tests before. It’s an out-of-the-way place, quiet and secluded, with only one road leading past it, and a view for miles in all directions. No chance to be caught unawares, and plenty of room to do any tests without being observed by anyone.

And he’s there. Nigel is there. And Janice. We can see the truck, pulled up and hidden mostly out of sight behind an old, dilapidated barn, certainly out of view from the road – you’d have to look carefully at exactly the right time to see the truck nestled there, hidden away.

As the drone flies in closer, Nigel and Janice become aware of its presence – Nigel looks up, and waves, a grin on his face. He’s pleased to see the drone. It’s clear that there’s been no trouble whatsoever, and the tests are going well.

John lands the drone carefully, only meters from where Nigel and Janice are standing, and Nigel walks over. He can see from the blinking light that tells him we can see and hear him, and says curiously: “Hey, what’s going on? Some reason why you couldn’t use the radio?”

John speaks into the built-in microphone in his handset, an urgent tone in his voice: “Don’t use the radios! We’re being monitored, and this guy called Rift and his cronies are trying to track us down. We’ve already had to abandon The Bastard, and we’re on the run. All safe for now, out at Base 2.”

It had always been agreed that, if we were any of us in trouble, we’d refer to the hangar as “Base 2”. Because “Base 2” could be, well, anywhere.

“Really bad, huh?” says Nigel, his head to one side, thinking. “We’ve seen nothing. But bad enough for this?”

“You’re not wrong,” I reply, over John’s shoulder. “We can’t figure out how exactly, but they must have tracked us down when we tried to contact you over the radios this morning. I don’t see how they could have found out where we were any other way. We’ve been really strict with our protocols, and Janice and Jacob have stayed put the whole time. So they can’t have been seen by anyone who could have recognized them from the “New Zealand’s Most Wanted” lists. We’ve never been discovered up until now, and nothing else has changed.”

“Ah, that may have been my fault,” says Nigel. “I was doing some tests on the radio last night, just signal strength tests and such, relaying back to Janice, checking from a few different points around the city.”

He stutters. “I…I thought there was something wrong with our communications equipment…it kept whiting out. Just static. I couldn’t figure out why. In the end, I packed it in, and headed back to The Bastard.” He scratches his head. “But I never gave our position or said anything about any of your Powers. Nothing that would have made anyone suspect anything out of the ordinary.”

“Yes you did,” says Janice slowly, speaking up. “I remember you wondering, when we couldn’t get clear reception from the top of Lookout Point, whether my Geomagnetic Powers were influencing the radios and their signal strength. You…you said we’d check it out in the morning.”

Nigel’s face is bright red. “Shit.”

“What?” says John. “So you actually used the term ‘geomagnetic powers'”?

“Shit,” says Nigel. “I think I may have. I’m really sorry.”

“So they’ve had all night to track us down?” I say incredulously. “You’re an idiot, Nigel. We’re damn lucky we haven’t been picked up by the authorities yet.”

“Did you mention the Port at all?” asks John, a hint of anger in his otherwise usually placid voice.

“Shit,” says Nigel again. “Maybe. Maybe I have. Look, I’m sorry guys. I guess I haven’t been that smart.”

“Damn right you haven’t – ” I begin angrily.

John cuts me off. “It’s okay. We’re safe – for now. So have you had a chance to actually do any testing on Janice this morning? Because I’d suggest that if you haven’t done it by now, you get a move on real fast. The guys we saw in The Bastard were talking about a gang of their mates out at the Port, so they could be here any second.”

“Oh yes, yes!” says Nigel excitedly. “We have done some tests. They’ve been amazing. Smashing, yes! We’ve had some absolutely smashing results. She’s one incredibly powerful woman.”

He gets this huge, wide, almost insane smile on his face. “Geomagnetism – who’d have thought it? So incredibly interesting…so, so interesting! We started testing when we arrived here early this morning, before the sun was even up, and by the time a half an hour had passed, it was quite clear to me that we were on to something completely unique, something I’ve never seen before. I can’t wait to watch Janice as she learns how to harness and channel her full capabilities.”

“What can she do?” I ask, curious in spite of myself, and my awareness that we need them to move, fast.

“There’s a police car coming up from the Port real fast,” says Janice suddenly, interrupting. “Listen.” In the distance, I could hear a siren wailing.

“They wouldn’t use sirens if they were trying to sneak up on you and catch you,” says Ani sensibly, peering over my shoulder at the screen.

“Nigel, stand back so John can get the drone up in the air, just in case,” I say. “Then move behind the shed, and we’ll hover there.” Nigel does so, and John expertly pilots the drone up and behind the shed where it hovers, whirring away quietly, while Nigel and Janice move behind the shed and out of view from the road.

The police car hurtles past the barn, sirens on and horns blaring, then disappears up the hill, the noise fading away into the distance.

“Not us,” says Nigel, and John drops the drone to the ground again.

“What can she do?” I repeat.

“Well,” says Nigel, his geeky soul bursting with the thrill of it all, barely able to contain his excitement. “She can control the navigation of not just animals, but aircraft, planes, and even modern cars that have onboard navigation systems that rely on information about the earth’s magnetic field. Theoretically, she could probably control rockets, missiles, and various UAVs that rely on geomagnetic information.”

“So I can see why the military and the authorities in general might be interested in her!” says John, leaning forward, intrigued.

“Hell yes!” says Nigel. “But it gets better.”

“It does?” I ask, puzzled. How could it possibly get better for the military than the ability to control their own missiles? “Is she the same as us, with no distance issues? Like, is she able to control stuff, no matter how far away it is?”

“Pretty much, from what I can tell,” says Nigel, nodding. “But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is what she can do to humans. To people.”

“What do you mean?” asks Ani. “What can she do to us? We don’t navigate using geomagnetism.”

“That’s just it,” says Nigel. “We do. We human animals – oh, how I love using that term, because it’s so completely appropriate – we  human animals have a kind of magnetoreceptor protein in our eyes. It’s called cryptochrome.”

He grins delightedly. “It’s fascinating stuff. These proteins help us navigate, they help keep ourselves upright, help us find to our way around, even help us do stuff as basic as put one foot in front of the other.”

He rubs his hands together, and continues. “In other words, we’re totally, completely dependent on the earth’s magnetic field when it comes to getting around. Just as dependent as homing pigeons, although we’re not nearly as good at it.”

He takes a deep breath. “When things go wrong – when these proteins are disrupted – we can’t navigate. We can’t even walk straight. We’re literally unable to move, fixed in one place. If we try to move, we stagger around like drunks, falling over if we try to take so much as a single step. It’s hilarious. You should have seen me in the tests this morning. And Janice here, she can control these forces, this magnetism, these proteins.”

He looks directly at the tiny camera lens on the drone, and it is as if he’s in the room with us, staring right at us. “Janice can control us all, every movement we make. If she learns to control her Power, she can move us about like puppets. She can pull the strings on any human in the world, at any time. You, Rose, can control the plants. And you, Ani, can control the animals but Janice here – she controls us.”

“She just needs time to learn how.”