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.

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