The Lost Files: The Fallen Legacies
(I Am Number Four)
Sometimes I wonder what they would think if they knew we were here. Right under their noses.
I’m sitting with my best friend, Ivan, on the grassy, crowded National Mall, the stupid stone obelisk of the Washington Monument looming above us. I’ve put my homework aside for the moment, and as I watch the tourists studying their maps, the lawyers and officials scurrying obliviously down Independence Avenue to their next meeting, I’m almost amused. They’re so caught up with silly fears about UV rays and chemicals in their vegetables and meaningless “terrorist threat levels” and whatever else it is that these people worry about, that it never occurs to them that two kids working on their homework in the grass are the real threat. They have no idea that there’s nothing they can do to protect themselves. The true enemy is already here.
“Hey!” I sometimes want to shout, waving my arms. “I’m your future evil dictator! Tremble before me, jerks!”
Of course I can’t do that. Not yet. That time will come. In the meantime, they can all stare right through me as if I’m just another normal face in the crowd. The truth is I’m anything but normal, even if I do my best to look it. On Earth, assimilation protocol demands that I be known as Adam, son of Andrew and Susannah Sutton, citizen of Washington DC. But that’s not who I am at all.
I am Adamus Sutekh, son of the great general Andrakkus Sutekh.
I am a Mogadorian. I am who they should be afraid of.
Unfortunately, for now, being an alien conqueror isn’t as exciting as it should be. At the moment I’m still stuck doing my homework. My father has promised me that this won’t last forever; when the Mogadorians ascend to power on this crappy little planet, I will control the capital city of the United States. Trust me, after spending the last four years in this place, I’ve got a pretty good idea of some changes I’ll make. The first thing I’ll do is rename all the streets. None of this Independence, Constitution stuff-this weak, stupid patriotism. When I’m in charge, no one will even be able to remember what the Constitution is. When I’m in charge, my avenues will carry titles of appropriate menace.
“Blood of Warriors Boulevard,” I murmur to myself, trying to decide if it has a good ring to it. Hard to say. “Broken Sword Way . . .”
“Huh?” Ivan asks, glancing up from his spot on the grass next to me. He’s lying on his stomach, a pencil held across his index finger like a makeshift blaster. While I dream of the day I’ll be the ruler of all I survey, Ivan imagines himself as a sniper, picking off Loric enemies as they leave the Lincoln Memorial. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” I reply.
Ivanick Shu-Ra, son of the great warrior Bolog Shu-Ra, shrugs his shoulders. Ivan has never been much for fantasies that don’t include some kind of bloody combat. His family claims a distant relation to our Beloved Leader, Setrakus Ra, and if Ivan’s size is any indication, I’m inclined to believe them. Ivan’s two years younger than me but is already bigger, broad shouldered and thick while I am lithe and agile. He already looks like a warrior and keeps his coarse black hair cropped close, eager for the day when he’ll be able to shave it off entirely and take on the ceremonial Mogadorian tattoos.
I still remember the night of the First Great Expansion, when my people conquered Lorien. I was eight years old that night, too old to be crying, but I cried anyway when I was told I’d be staying in orbit above Lorien with the women and children. My tears only lasted a few seconds until the General slapped some sense into me. Ivan watched my tantrum, dumbly sucking his thumb, maybe too young to realize what was happening. We watched the battle from our ship’s observatory with my mother and infant sister. We clapped as flames spread across the planet below us. After the fight was won and the Loric people were destroyed, the General returned to our ship covered in blood. Despite the triumph, his face was serious. Before saying anything to my mother or me, he knelt before Ivan and explained that his father had died in service to our race. A glorious death, befitting a true Mogadorian hero. He rubbed his thumb across Ivan’s forehead, leaving a trail of blood. A blessing.
As an afterthought, the General did the same to me.
After that, Ivan, whose mother had died during childbirth, came to live with us and was raised as my brother. My parents are considered lucky to have three trueborn children.
I’m not always sure that my father feels lucky to have me, though. Whenever my test scores or physical evaluations are less than satisfactory, the General jokes that he might have to transfer my inheritance to Ivan.
I’m mostly sure he’s joking.
My gaze drifts towards a family of sightseers as they cross the lawn, each of them taking in the world through digital cameras. The father pauses to snap a series of photos of the Monument, and I briefly reconsider my plans to demolish it. Instead, perhaps I could make it taller; maybe install a penthouse for myself in the uppermost floor. Ivan could have the room below mine.
The daughter of the tourist family is probably about thirteen, like me, and she’s cute in a shy way, with a mouth full of braces. I catch her looking at me and find myself unconsciously shifting into a more presentable position, sitting up straighter, tilting my chin down to hide the severe angle of my too-large nose. When the girl smiles at me, I look away. Why should I care what some human thinks of me?
We must always remember why we are here.
“Does it ever amaze you how easily they accept us as their own?” I ask Ivan.
“Never underestimate human stupidity,” he says, reaching over to tap the blank page of homework sitting next to me. “Are you going to finish this shit or what?”
The homework lying next to me isn’t mine-it’s Ivan’s. He’s waiting for me to do it for him. Written assignments have always given him problems, whereas the right answers come easily to me.
I glance down at the assignment. Ivan is supposed to write a short essay on a quote from the Great Book-the book of Mogadorian wisdom and ethics that all of our people must learn and live by-interpreting what Setrakus Ra’s writing means to him personally.
“‘We do not begrudge the beast for hunting,’” I read aloud, although like most of my people I know the passage by heart. “‘It is in the beast’s nature to hunt, just as it is in the Mogadorian’s nature to expand. Those that would resist the expansion of the Mogadorian Empire, therefore, stand in opposition to nature itself.’”
I look over at Ivan. He’s taken aim on the family I was watching before, making high-pitched laser beam noises through gritted teeth. The girl with the braces frowns at him and turns away.
“What does that mean to you?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he grunts. “That our race is the most badass, and everyone else should deal with it. Right?”
I shrug my shoulders, sighing. “Close enough.”
I pick up my pen and start to scribble something down, but am interrupted by the chime of my cell phone. I figure it’s a text message from my mother, asking me to pick up something from the store on my way home. She’s really taken to cooking over the last couple years, and, I’ll admit it, the food here on Earth blows away what we used to get on Mogadore. What they consider “processed” here would be treasured on my home planet, where food-among other things-is grown in subterranean vats.
The text isn’t from Mom, though. The message is from the General.
“Shit,” I say, dropping my pen as if the General had just caught me helping Ivan cheat.
My father never sends text messages. The act is beneath him. If the General wants something, we’re supposed to anticipate what it is before he even has to ask. Something really important must have happened.
“What is it?” asks Ivan.
The message reads simply: HOME NOW.
“We have to go.”
Ivan and I take the Metro out of DC, pick up our bikes at the train station and pedal into the suburbs as fast as we can. When we finally zip through the gated entrance of Ashwood Estates, I’ve fallen at least thirty yards behind him. I blame my sweat-dampened T-shirt on the unseasonable warmth and my feeling of nausea on the ominous text message from my father.
Ashwood Estates is identical to many of the wealthy gated communities outside of Washington-or at least it looks identical. But instead of being owned by politicians and their families, the mansions and immaculately maintained lawns behind the front gates are owned by my people, the Mogadorians, Earth’s soon-to-be conquerors. And the homes themselves are only a tiny part of the real Ashwood Estates. Underneath the houses is a huge maze of tunnels that connect the many Mogadorian facilities that are the true purpose of this place.
I’ve only been granted access to small parts of our underground headquarters. I have no idea how far they extend or how deep below the Earth they reach. But I know that this sprawling underground network houses many laboratories, weapons stores, training facilities and probably more secrets that I can’t yet begin to guess at. It’s also down there that the vat-born live.
If it wasn’t for our Beloved Leader, Setrakus Ra, the Mogadorian race would have never survived long enough to begin the Great Expansion. Over the last hundred years, for reasons that are still mostly unknown, it has become more and more difficult for Mogadorians to bear children. By the time Kelly was born, natural Mogadorian births were so rare that our ancient, proud species was in grave danger of dying out entirely. When children were able to be conceived, Mogadorian women, like Ivan’s mother, often died during childbirth. Because of this, Setrakus Ra and a team of scientists had been working to artificially breed a new generation of Mogadorians. Rather than being birthed in the usual way, our vat-born Mogadorian brothers and sisters are grown in giant chemical vats, from which they eventually emerge, fully grown and ready for battle. These vat-born not only ensure the continued existence of Mogadorian life but, with their heightened strength, speed and stamina, are also the backbone of our army.
Besides their increased physical prowess, the vat-born are different from trueborn Mogadorians like me in other ways too. They’ve been engineered to be physically suited for war, but to be soldiers rather than officers. In his wisdom, Setrakus Ra has created them to be more single-minded than trueborn Mogadorians-almost machine-like in their adherence to the tasks they’re assigned-and as natural warriors, what they have in the way of rational thought often gives way to rage and bloodlust. But the most important difference between the vat-born and the trueborn, at least here on Earth, is the fact that they look different from the rest of us. While the trueborn are able to pass amid humans, the vat-born are not. Their skin is ghostly pale from subterranean living, and their teeth are small and sharp for close combat rather than eating. This is why, until we are able to reveal ourselves, they are only rarely allowed to show their faces in daylight.
So when I see the vat-born openly celebrating on the lawns of Ashwood Estates alongside their trueborn betters, I know something huge is happening.
Ivan knows it too, and gives me a befuddled look as he skids to a stop in our cul-de-sac. I pull up beside him, catching my breath. All of the families of Ashwood Estates are in front of their homes, mingling with each other, raising toasts from freshly opened bottles of champagne. The vat-born, with their jarringly pale skin hidden beneath trench coats and hats, look both excited and disoriented to be out in the open. The air of jubilation is unusual in Mogadorian culture. Normally my people are not given to open displays of joy, especially with the General in the vicinity.
“What the hell is going on?” Ivan asks, as usual looking to me for answers. This time I just shrug back at him.
My mother is sitting on our front steps, watching with a small smile as Kelly dances wildly across the front yard. My sister, spinning maniacally, doesn’t even notice when Ivan and I arrive.
My mother looks relieved to see us approach. Though I don’t know what the celebration is for, I do know why she wouldn’t have joined the other revelers out on the lawns and street. Being the wife of the General makes it difficult for her to make friends, even with other trueborns. Their fear of my father extends to my mother.
“Boys,” she says as Ivan and I roll our bikes up the front walk. “He’s been looking for you. You know he doesn’t like to wait.”
“Why does he need to see us?” I ask.
Before my mother can answer, the General appears in the doorway behind her. My father is a large man, standing close to seven feet tall, muscular, with a regal posture that demands respect. His face is all sharp angles, a feature I’ve unfortunately inherited from him. Since coming to Earth, he’s grown his black hair out to hide the tattoos on his scalp, and he keeps it neatly slicked back, like some of the politicians I’ve seen striding across the National Mall.
“Adamus,” he says in a tone that brooks no questioning. “Come with me. You too, Ivanick.”
“Yes, sir,” Ivan and I reply in unison, exchanging a nervous glance with each other before stepping into the house. When my father uses that tone of voice, it means something serious is happening. As I pass, my mother gives my hand a gentle squeeze.
“Have fun in Malaysia!” shouts Kelly at our backs, having finally noticed us. “Kill that Garde as hard as you can!”
A few hours later, Ivan and I are headed for Malaysia on board a cold and uncomfortable plane that was purchased as surplus from some government that doesn’t ask a lot of questions. The passenger area doesn’t look all that different from the cargo hold below-just metal benches with worn seat belts, where Ivan and I sit, crammed among the warriors, some of them trueborn, most vat-born. Our ride isn’t glamorous, but I’m too nervous to worry about comfort. This is the first time I’ve been taken on a mission, even if my purpose is only to observe.
My father flies copilot. Whenever the plane’s course becomes momentarily shaky, I wonder if it’s a change in the atmospheric conditions or if it’s just that my father’s made the pilot nervous.
For many of the Mogadorians on the plane, this is their first action since the First Great Expansion. Some of them spend the flight reminiscing about the last time they fought, bragging about their many kills. Others, the older ones, stay quiet, completely focused on the mission, staring into space.
“Do you think we’ll get to shoot any guns?” Ivan asks me.
“I doubt it,” I reply. We’re along for this mission simply because I’m the General’s son and Ivan his ward. We’re too young to be of any real use to the strike team, but not too young to watch the execution of this Loric insurgent from a distance. My father wants us to learn from it. As our instructors always tell us, the combat simulations we run in battle preparedness class-where we do get to shoot guns-are no substitution for the real thing.
“That sucks,” grumbles Ivan.
“Whatever,” I say, shifting and trying to stretch my legs out. “I just can’t wait to get off this plane.”
Everything next happens in a blur. We land. We find the Garde and her Cepan. As instructed, Ivan and I hang back, watching with the General as the Mogadorian warriors go into battle. It’s an ugly thing, not at all like the battles described in the Great Book. Two dozen Mogadorians against an old woman and a teenage girl.
At first our goal is simply to capture and interrogate these two. There have been whispers since we came to Earth of some kind of Loric magic that protects the Garde, forcing us to kill them in order. There was talk of a battle in the Alps, where one of our warriors had a Garde cornered, only to have his killing blow somehow turned against him. The General hasn’t tolerated talk of this so-called Loric charm, but my people are still careful.
The old woman puts up more resistance than expected, yet she’s quickly overwhelmed. The Garde is tougher still-she has powers, the ground quaking beneath the feet of our warriors. I wonder what it would be like to have that kind of power. But if the trade-off is to be part of a dying race forced to cower in crappy huts on the banks of a river, I’ll pass.
The strategy to capture them changes once our warriors realize they can hurt the Garde. Either the rumors of the Loric charm are as false as my father believes, or this is Number One. The General might have wanted her taken alive; but when the warriors understand that they can kill her, bringing us closer to our goal, bloodlust overcomes orders.
It ends when one of the warriors puts his sword through Number One’s back, impaling her.
“That was awesome!” shouts Ivan. Even my father allows himself a thin smile of approval.
I know I should share in their elation, but my hands won’t stop shaking. I feel grateful that I only had to watch from a distance, that I wasn’t one of the Mogadorians now reduced to ash on a Malaysian riverbank. I’m also grateful not to be Loric, not to have to spend my life running in fear from impossible odds, only to be stabbed in the back.
It occurs to me that I’m feeling something close to empathy for the Garde. The Great Book warns against that, so I shut it away. I need to get beyond these childish feelings. The battle was less glorious than I expected, but still a great victory for Mogadorian progress. Only eight more loose ends remain and then Ra’s vision will be fulfilled; nothing will stand in the way of our expansion to Earth. Nine dead Garde are a small price to pay for my sweet penthouse at the top of the Washington Monument.
They shove Number One into a body bag and dump her in the plane with the rest of the cargo. The Loric Chest she had with her is taken as well, although even the strongest of our warriors can’t pry open the lock. One’s pendant is ripped off her body by my father, though I’m not sure what use he has for Loric jewelry.
Her Cepan’s body is left behind. She is of no importance to us now.
On the plane ride back, the benches are a lot less crowded. I stay quiet, but Ivan pesters the warriors from the front line for gory details until the General hisses at him to shut up. If they had been a football team, I’m sure the surviving warriors would be dousing each other with Gatorade the way that human athletes do after a win. But we’re not a football team. We’re Mogadorians. And my father doesn’t even know what Gatorade is. We travel the rest of the way in silence.
During the flight, the General comes to sit beside me.
“When we get back to Ashwood Estates,” he says, “I have an important task for you.”
I nod. “Yes. Of course, sir.”
My father looks down at my hands, still shaking no matter how hard I try to steady them.
“Stop that,” he growls before heading back to the cockpit.
Although I saw her in the battle, the girl on the metal slab isn’t what I was expecting.
Ever since the First Great Expansion, we’ve been taught that the Garde are the last true threat to our way of life. We’ve been taught that they are fierce warriors, lying in wait to one day take up arms against the engine of Mogadorian progress. Somehow I thought this threat to my people would look more fearsome.
In death, Number One doesn’t look like much at all. She looks to be around my age or just a bit older, and her skin, once tan, is now bloodlessly pale. Her lips are blue. Streaks of dried blood run through her blond hair. Her body is covered with a white sheet, but under the bright lights of the laboratory I can see the grisly shadow of the wound that blossoms across her midsection.
We are beneath Ashwood Estates, in the underground laboratory of Dr. Lockam Anu. I’ve never been allowed down here before, so I try to take in as many of the strange, blinking machines as possible without openly gawking. The General would not be kind if he thought I was distracted.
I stand next to my father, both of us silent, watching as Anu gently eases One’s head into a strange mechanical helmet. Anu is an old man, his spine hunched, his tattooed scalp disgustingly wrinkled. He circles around One, connecting loose wires to the open diodes that clutter the helmet.
“Should be ready,” mutters Anu, stepping back.
“Finally,” grunts my father.
Anu pauses over One’s left ankle, tracing the Loric charm scarred there. What the Loric charm looks like is one of the first things we were taught when we came to Earth. Scrutinizing every bare ankle for its presence became second nature for me long ago.
“Four years of searching for a child with this symbol,” muses Anu. “You certainly take your time, General.”
I can practically feel my father clench his fists. It’s like standing next to a gathering storm. Yet he makes no reply. Dr. Anu heads up the research and science team at Ashwood Estates and is entitled to certain benefits, like making a dig at the General without being immediately beaten.
Anu looks in my direction, his left eye involuntarily drooping and half lidded.
“Did your esteemed father explain why you are here, boy?”
I glance at the General. He nods, granting me permission to speak.
“Ah. ‘Sir.’ What a polite young man you’ve raised, General.” Anu gestures to a nearby metal chair, over which hangs an imposing piece of complicated technology. “Come, have a seat.”
I glance again at my father, but his face gives nothing away.
“You will do our family proud today, Adamus,” rumbles the General. I’m relieved that my hands have finally stopped shaking.
I sit down. Anu crouches before me, his old bones creaking in protest. He binds my wrists and ankles to the chair with rubber straps. I know that I should trust my father. I’m too important for him to let anything bad happen to me. Still, I can’t help but squirm a bit as I’m buckled in.
“Comfortable?” asks Dr. Anu, smirking at me.
“What is this?” I reply, forgetting the General’s rule against asking questions.
My father gazes at me with surprising patience. Maybe he’s as uncomfortable seeing his only son being strapped down as I am being strapped.
“Dr. Anu believes this machine will let us access the Loric girl’s memories,” explains my father.
“I know that it will,” corrects Anu. He rubs a warm liquid on my temples before connecting a pair of rubber electrodes. The electrode wires run to a monitor positioned next to Number One, which suddenly hums to life.
“Would you stake your life on this untested creation, Dr. Anu?” growls my father.
“Untested?” I start, jerking against my bonds. I immediately regret the note of panic in my voice; it causes the General to grimace. Dr. Anu flashes me a placating smile.
“We never had one of the Garde to experiment on before, so yes, untested.” He shrugs merrily, excited to test this contraption. “But the theory behind it is very strong. Of the trueborns here in Washington, you are closest in age to the girl, which should make the memory download go more smoothly. Your mind will interpret the Garde’s memories as visions rather than through her eyes. I’m sure your father wouldn’t suddenly want his only son in the body of a little girl, hmm?”
My father bristles. Dr. Anu glances over his shoulder. “Just kidding, General. You have a good, strong son here. Very brave.”
At the moment, I don’t feel very brave. I’d watched Number One get struck down-she was barely capable of defending herself in life; she is certainly harmless in death-yet being connected to her, it renews the feeling of unease I felt on the plane ride back from Malaysia. I almost start to volunteer Ivan to be Anu’s guinea pig but clamp my mouth shut just in time.
Ivan enjoyed watching One die; it’s all he’s been able to talk about. For me, even thinking about it makes my hands start to shake again. I steady myself-stop being such a coward, Adamus-this is a great honor, something I should be proud of.
I try not to look at the dead girl as Anu reaches above the chair and lowers a metal cylinder down from the ceiling, covered with circuitry that wouldn’t look out of place on the inside of a rocket. The vast majority of the wires connected to Number One connect to the cylinder. Anu pauses before the cylinder is in place over my head and peers down at me.
“You’ll feel a little shock,” he muses. “Maybe go to sleep for a few minutes. When you wake up, you’ll be able to tell us what this one knew about the other Garde.”
I realize Anu’s free hand is on my shoulder. His grip is tight.
A few days ago my biggest worry was dumbing down essay answers enough to pass my work off as Ivan’s. Since then I’ve seen firsthand the Mogadorian warrior I’m expected to grow into, and I’m not sure I’m up for it. Now I’m being ordered to temporarily share a brain with my mortal enemy. I know it’s my father’s will, and that if the machine works it will help our cause and bring honor to my family. Still. I don’t want to admit it, but I’m scared.
Anu lowers the cylinder over my head until it covers my face. He and my father disappear from view.
I hear Anu shuffle across the laboratory. His fingers click across a series of buttons, and the cylinder begins to vibrate.
“Here we go,” announces Anu.
The inside of the cylinder explodes with light-searing white light that burns my eyes, all the way through to the back of my head. I shut my eyes, but somehow the light still penetrates. I feel as if I’m coming apart, the light tearing through me, breaking me into tiny particles. This is what death must feel like.
I think I scream.
And then, everything is darkness.
It’s like I’m falling.
Bursts of color flash across my vision. There are shapes-indistinct faces, blurry scenery-but I can’t make any of it out. It’s like being stuck inside my TV while Kelly plays with the remote. Nothing makes any sense, and I start to get this panicky feeling, like sensory overload. I try to squeeze my eyes shut, but that’s useless; this is all happening inside my mind.
Just when I feel like my brain is about to be fried to a crisp by the bombardment of colors, everything snaps into focus.
Suddenly, I’m standing in a sunlit banquet hall. Light pours into the room via a skylight through which I can see trees unlike any I’ve ever seen before, red and orange flowered vines hanging off tangled branches.
Although I’ve never been there-have only looked down on it from orbit-somehow I know that this is Lorien. And then I realize that I know where I am because Number One knows.
This is one of her memories.
In the center of the room is a large table covered with strange yet delicious-looking foods. Seated all around the table are Loric, all of them wearing fancy dresses and suits. I flinch when I see them-I’m outnumbered and my first instinct is to run, yet I’m pinned to this spot. I couldn’t move if I tried, stuck in this memory.
The Loric are all smiling, singing. They don’t seem at all alarmed that a Mogadorian has just appeared at their party. That’s when I realize they can’t see me. Of course not, I’m just a tourist in Number One’s mind.
And there she is, seated at the head of the table. She’s so young, maybe five or six, her blond hair pulled into two braids that dangle down her back. When the adults finish singing, she claps her hands in excitement, and I realize this is her birthday celebration. We don’t celebrate such foolish occasions on Mogadore, although some great warriors are known to mark the anniversary of their first kill with a feast.
What a useless memory. The General won’t be impressed if all I come back with is intel on Loric birthday parties.
Just like that the world goes blurry again and I’m falling. Time passes in a rush and I’m swept along, feeling sickeningly out of control.
Another memory takes shape.
Number One wanders through an open field, her hands extended so that the tall grasses tickle her outstretched palms. She’s maybe a year older than at the birthday party, still just a child, happily wandering around her undestroyed planet.
One bends down and picks some flowers, twining the stalks together, then wrapping the flower chain around her wrist like a bracelet. How much of this am I going to have to sift through?
Maybe if I focus I can get some control of these memories. I need to see the other Garde, not this girly, happy Loric crap. I try to think about what I want to see-the faces of the Garde, their Cepans-and then the memory in the field flashes away and I am somewhere else.
It’s nighttime, although the darkness is lit by dozens of fires raging nearby. The two Loric moons hang on opposite sides of the horizon. The ground shakes beneath my feet, an explosion nearby.
Number One and eight other children rush across a secluded airstrip, headed for a ship. Their Cepans hurry them along, shouting orders. Some of the children are crying as their feet slap against the pavement. Number One is not; she stares over her shoulder as a Loric in a sleek bodysuit fires a cone of freezing cobalt energy into the face of a snarling piken. Number One’s eyes widen in admiration and fear.
This is it. The First Great Expansion. Exactly the memory I need to see.
“Run!” the Loric in the bodysuit shouts at the fleeing group of young Garde. His Legacies fully developed and powerful. Still, he’ll die on this night, just like all the others.
I sweep my eyes over the children, trying to take in as many details as I can. There’s a feral-looking boy with long black hair and another blond girl, younger than Number One, being carried by her Cepan. Number One is older than most of the other kids, a detail that I know will help my father construct profiles of the remaining Garde. I count how many of them are boys and how many are girls, and try to memorize their most distinguishing features.
“Who the fuck are you?”
The voice is clearer than the thunderous sounds of war from the memory, as if it’s being piped right into my brain.
I turn my head and realize Number One is standing right next to me. Not the child Number One of the memory-no, this is Number One as I last saw her: blond hair flowing down her back, shoulders squared defiantly. A ghost. She’s looking right at me, expecting an answer.
She can’t be here; that doesn’t make sense. I wave my hand in front of her face, figuring that this must be some kind of glitch in Anu’s machine. There’s no way she’s really seeing me.
Number One slaps my hand away. I’m surprised that she can touch me, but then I remember that we’re both ghosts here.
“Well?” she asks. “Who are you? You don’t belong here.”
“You’re dead,” are the only words I can muster.
One looks down at herself. For a moment, the massive wound on her abdomen flickers into being. Just as quickly, it’s gone.
“Not in here.” She shrugs. “These are my memories. So in here I guess you’re stuck with me.”
I shake my head. “It’s impossible. You can’t be talking to me.”
One squints at me, thinking. “Your name is Adam, right?”
“How do you know that?”
She smirks. “We’re sharing a brain, Mog-boy. Guess that means I know a thing or two about you, too.”
Around us, the fleeing Garde have all boarded their ship, the engines now rumbling to life. I should be scanning the ship for any helpful details, but I’m too distracted by the dead girl sneering at me.
“Your scary-ass pops is going to be so disappointed when you wake up with nothing juicy to tell him.” She grabs me by the elbow, and the feeling is so real that I have to remind myself that this is basically just a dream.
A dream that Number One is suddenly in control of.
“You want my memories?” she asks. “Come on. I’ll give you a guided tour.”
As the scene changes again, I start to understand what’s happened.
I’m trapped in here with my sworn enemy. And she seems to be in charge.
This time the memory shift is different. Before, I was falling through time, falling through memory. Now I feel still, and suddenly I’m standing outside a secluded ranch in Coahuila, Mexico. In this memory, One and her Cepan are carrying boxes into the house. It’s moving day. This is the first place One and her Cepan-Hilde, her Cepan’s name was Hilde-settled after the Garde landed on Earth and parted ways.
Wait-how do I know all this?
It’s strange. In addition to finding myself existing here, observing this particular moment in One’s life, I also have a general sense of her memories of the time. I know the things that she knows and remember what she remembers. The memories are so vivid, it’s like they’re my own.
It’s like I’m her.
Ghost-One appears next to me, watching with me as the younger version of herself and Hilde unpack dishes in the kitchen. It’s creepy to have her here, gives me a feeling like vertigo. I try to ignore her, but she just keeps talking to me.
“We stayed here for a while,” she says, sounding almost wistful. “Then Hilde thought she saw some of your peeps snooping around the city, so we had to leave.”
The Garde move a lot, city to city, country to country, their movements unpredictable. My father will want to know this. It’s completely the opposite of the way we Mogadorians have done it, consolidating our power in bases across the globe. That’s why they’re so difficult to track.
“She was sort of a drag sometimes,” says One, watching her Cepan. “Probably a lot like your dickbag dad. Except, you know, not eeee-vil.” She rubs her fingers together and cackles an eeee-vil cackle in punctuation.
“Shut up,” I spit, sounding angrier than I even realized I was. “You don’t know him.”
I find myself studying Hilde in spite of myself. She’s in her late fifties, and her face is wrinkled, both with the natural lines of age and the premature weathering of stress. Her gray hair tightly bound in a stern braid. Her eyes have a hardness to them; her voice is steely and measured, even when just telling One-the “real” One-which cupboard the plates belong in. Truth be told, she does remind me of the General.
“I loved her like a mom, though,” says ghost-One, sadness breaking her voice. My mind drifts to the dead old woman we left to rot in Malaysia, and I feel something like guilt but quickly push it away. She’s messing with your head, Adamus.
“I wish you’d stop talking to me,” I tell her.
“Yeah? Well I wish your people hadn’t killed me.”
After Mexico, One and Hilde move to Austin, Texas. I try to push my way out of these memories, to get back to that night on the Loric airstrip where I can actually find out something useful, but One won’t let me. Somehow she’s blocking me.
I may be an uninvited guest in her mind, but it’s still hers. She can’t kick me out entirely, but she does have some control over which rooms I’m allowed to visit.
Most of the time when I try to force my way through her memory, One makes me sit through one of her and Hilde’s training sessions.
“I used to hate these,” One says, grinning. “Hope you feel the same.”
Hilde is a master martial artist, though it’s a fighting style that would never make it into Mogadorian training, where brute force is prized above all else. Hilde’s is a defensive martial art, one that uses an attacker’s own momentum, focusing strikes on nerve centers that will temporarily incapacitate the enemy.
Stuck in these memories, when boredom sets in, I find myself aping Hilde’s movements, practicing alongside young One. I know that none of this is real, that it’s all in my mind. Or One’s mind. I’m not so sure there’s a difference.
My slight frame has never served me well in Mogadorian combat training, much to the disappointment of my father and the amusement of Ivan. But in One’s memories, I never get tired. Even if this training is basically imaginary, it feels good to finally move in a way that suits me.
Besides, I’m supposed to be gathering intelligence. How the Garde fight is essential information.
In the earlier training memories, One is an eager pupil. She practices with Hilde from dawn until sunset, listening rapt as Hilde tells stories of the Loric heroes she’s helped train. Hilde is full of tales of honorable competition, of noble battles fought on Lorien. They’re meant to inspire, to demonstrate to One the Loric spirit of perseverance. Compared to the stories in the Great Book, there is a surprising lack of bloody violence and decimation in them.
“One day,” says Hilde, “you will take your place among them as a great hero to our people. You will be known as the One who protected the Eight.”
I can feel the pride Number One takes in Hilde’s words, but also the doubt. There’s a part of her that wonders how she can possibly stand alone in opposition to the Mogadorians that conquered her entire planet in a single night.
“I always wondered why I couldn’t have gotten lucky and been number nine,” muses One as I practice forms next to her younger self. “But nooo. I have to go and be the first. Otherwise known as the most doomed of nine doomed assholes. The Elders really screwed me over.”
In Austin, Hilde lets One start attending school, all the better to fit in. I’m dragged along on these memories of her classes. School seems so pointless. The General would never even consider letting us freely socialize with the humans.
And yet, as the memories go by, I find myself being drawn into One’s life. She makes some friends, takes up skateboarding. It all starts to feel like something approaching a normal life. At the same time, her training slips. She starts blowing off sessions, even after her telekinesis develops, which is when she should’ve been working extra hard. For all her rigidity, Hilde couldn’t really do anything to One if she slipped out a window to go hang out with her friends. How do you ground the last hope for a dying race?
I don’t really care about One’s freaking social life. This girl is the enemy of my people. Her death is inevitable, has already happened. And yet … drifting through her memories, I can’t help but put myself in her situation. Even though she travels the Earth under the constant threat of execution, I realize that One has gotten to see more of this planet than I have. The General has never allowed us to travel out of Washington. Hilde might be a tough Cepan, but she still allows One to go to school, to make friends, to live a life not entirely dedicated to war.
I wonder what that’s like. I wonder what my life would be like without the need to serve Mogadorian expansion, without the drills and training, the supervised readings from Ra’s Great Book.
“This is, like, one of my all-time favorites,” says ghost-One, introducing the memory of her punching a cheerleader in the face. The cheerleader started it; she’d been picking on One since she started school in Austin. It’s weird, but I feel some of One’s sense of satisfaction.
Of course, the punch gets her kicked out of school, which is all the reason Hilde needs to relocate them again. They leave Austin in a beat-up station wagon, heading for California. One sulks in the passenger seat the whole ride, reclined all the way back, ignoring Hilde in favor of the three seashells she keeps levitated above her with her telekinesis.
We Mogadorians have been warned of the Garde’s deadly telekinesis. Watching One juggle the seashells, scrunching up her nose in concentration, it doesn’t seem all that deadly. More like mesmerizing. And it’s not just the telekinesis either. The way her blond hair is fanned beneath her …
I turn away. Was I just checking out the dead Garde whose memories I’ve stolen? I tell myself it was for research purposes, although a description of how the sun brings out the blonder streaks in One’s nice hair is likely not the intel my father expects of me.
When they arrive in California, Hilde tries to inspire One with some kind of Loric magic so that she’ll start taking her training more seriously.
“You’ll want to see this,” ghost-One tells me, appearing at my side to watch.
Using what appear at first to be plain glass orbs, Hilde creates a floating map of the Loric galaxy. The swirling cosmos, the bright orange sun, and the dead, gray planet Lorien.
“Do you see what the Mogadorians have done?” Hilde asks young Number One.
One nods, staring at the ruined planet. Hilde steps close to the floating Lorien orb and gently blows across its surface. When she does, the smog and fire clear from the planet’s surface. Lorien looks like it must have before the First Great Expansion: rich and lush, thriving. The change fades quickly, the planet going gray again.
“This is why we fight,” says Hilde quietly, her eyes watery. “Not just to avenge our planet and our people and to one day bring life back to Lorien, but to prevent this fate from befalling Earth. Do you understand why you are so important?”
I don’t pay attention to One’s muted reply. I’m too distracted by the vision of Lorien. Its surface is a hideously charred black, the planet’s ruined atmosphere leaking into the space around it. Seeing the planet like this, my people’s greatest victory, it doesn’t look like anything to be proud of.
“Is that what you want for the entire universe?” ghost-One asks me, gesturing to her destroyed home.
“I’ve never seen this before,” I reply, trying to keep my voice neutral. The sight of Lorien disturbs me. To think such thoughts is treason, but if our coming to Earth means even half the destruction brought down on Lorien, would it still be a place worth living in?
“Is that what Mogadorian progress looks like?” ghost-One presses.
“Please,” I say, shaking my head. “Stop talking to me.”
I just want her to go away. I don’t want her to see my doubt.
I’m standing on the beach. I can’t feel anything here in One’s memories, but if I concentrate hard, I can almost imagine what it must be like to have the Pacific Ocean lapping at my ankles and the wet sand squishing between my toes. I’ve never been in the ocean before. When I’m finally awake again, I’d like to try the real thing.
I take a second to imagine a trip to the ocean with the General. My father out of uniform, in a pair of flower-print swim trunks, pulling a cooler filled with cookout supplies out of the trunk of our family’s convertible. My mom and Kelly build a sand castle while Ivan and I see which one of us can swim out the farthest. He wins because even in my fantasy I’m a realist. I swim back to shore, and the General is waiting with a hamburger.
“Seriously?” asks ghost-One, standing on the beach beside me, and I realize I have a ridiculous, goofy grin on my face. I quickly let it fade. “You killed my entire race so you could enjoy a beach barbecue?”
“Stay out of my thoughts,” I say weakly, aware of the hypocrisy.
“Psh,” snorts One, rolling her eyes at me. “I wish that I could, dude.”
Arguing with One’s ghost certainly isn’t what my father would describe as productive reconnaissance, so I turn away, trying to ignore her.
In this memory, the real Number One has just finished up a day of surfing. Turns out she’s a natural, the only one of her crew of surfer buddies not to wipe out today. Between this and the skateboarding, she’s started to wonder if maybe enhanced balance isn’t going to be one of her Legacies. I’d never tell One this, but I’ve enjoyed the surfer memory. In fact, I’d never tell anyone that.
“Please stop checking out my past self,” ghost-One says at my side.
“I’m not,” I protest.
The memory keeps moving. One bounds out of the water, her surfboard passing right through me as she leaps into the waiting arms of a tanned and muscular young human.
One had rededicated herself to training after Hilde’s display of the solar system. At least, until she met Wade.
Wade is sixteen years old. He has shoulder-length brown hair, strands of which he keeps in grungy little braids. He owns a beat-up Volkswagen van that he sleeps in even though his wallet contains a couple credit cards paid for by his parents-a fact One discovered while she was snooping through Wade’s things to make sure he wasn’t a secret Mogadorian.
“I felt like my parents had my whole life planned out,” explained Wade on the night he and One first met, his arm slung around her shoulders, the two of them huddled in front of a bonfire on the beach. “Go to college, get my law degree, join Dad at his practice. Such a bourgeois life plan. It just wasn’t for me, you know?”
“I get it,” replied One, way more interested in Wade’s muscular arm than in whatever he was saying. I guess she liked him, or at least liked the rush of being with him, an added bonus being that it pissed off Hilde. I didn’t get the attraction. “So I left that whole scene behind, hopped in my van and decided to surf my way down the coast. No plan at all. I’m just going to, like, be for a while.” Wade paused. “Hey, has anyone ever told you how soulful your eyes are?”
Oh, come on, I think, and ghost-One appears at my side.
“Cut me some slack,” she says. “He’s hot, and I was stupid. I mean, I wasn’t that stupid. I knew he was full of it, obviously. But, look at him. He’s hot.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I say self-consciously.
That memory was a couple months before the one I slip into next. We’re still at the beach, and One wriggles out of her wet suit and settles on the sand next to Wade. She’s been regularly skipping training to come surfing with Wade. One and Hilde are barely speaking, except for when Hilde tries to chastise her.
I haven’t been enjoying these Wade memories. They’re of no relevance to the Mogadorian cause. Besides … I feel like One could be doing so much better.
“I was having fun,” says One, popping up to defend herself again. “I liked pretending I was normal.”
I don’t say anything.
“Didn’t you ever want to get away from it all?” asks One. She knows that I do. She’s been rummaging through my thoughts too. “You and that douche you hang out with spend a lot of time in DC, but you never talk to any other kids.”
“To interact directly could compromise operational integrity,” I reply, quoting from the Great Book.
“You sound like a robot,” she says. “They don’t want you to know the humans because then it’d be harder for you to kill them. Just like with me.”
“What do you mean, just like with you?”
“I mean that you kind of like me,” she says, looking at me in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable. “They didn’t know what they were doing sending you in here. If you knew all this about me before, would you still want to kill me?”
My head hurts thinking about it, and I wave One away. I am not ready to go back to the memory of the riverbank in Malaysia. Then I remind myself that Malaysia is in the future, not the past.
“Don’t feel too bad,” she says. “I don’t know if I’d want to kill you either.”
This is how my people find her. The General didn’t share these details with me, but I know them now:
Wade believes in taking a stand against capitalism. He does this by shoplifting at every opportunity he gets. He also talks, sometimes endlessly, about the amazing record collection he was forced to leave behind when he left his parents’ mansion.
This puts an idea in One’s head. She’s going to shoplift some records from a store by the beach for him. Part of her wants to impress Wade, another part of her just wants to experience the thrill that he’s talked about.
But One gets caught coasting out of the store with a backpack full of merchandise. The owner of the store is a take-no-prisoners type. He calls the cops.
“How was Wade even going to listen to those?” I ask. “Does his van have a record player?”
One laughs as we watch her former self being slapped into handcuffs. “I didn’t even think of that.”
Number One is taken to the police station. Her “grandmother” is contacted. The police are going to let her off with a warning, but a particularly overzealous detective notices the Loric charm on One’s ankle. He mistakes the charm for a brand and starts asking One about gang affiliation.
“Yeah,” sneers One, “I’m in a gang called the Space Invaders. We do surf-by shootings. No lifeguard can stop us.”
The detective doesn’t seem to think it’s a very funny joke.
He takes a picture of One. He takes a picture of the Loric charm. He uploads both images to a statewide database. As soon as the flash on the camera goes off, I know that this is how it happened.
My people have teams working around the clock patrolling the internet, even the internal government sites, for tips just like this. We have artificial intelligences set up that do nothing but scan image feeds for anything resembling the Loric charm.
After four years of searching, One is on our radar.
Hilde doesn’t lecture One when she picks her up from the police station. She doesn’t need words to express her disappointment. One knows what it means to have had her picture taken by the police.
For the first time, One’s rebellious streak gives way to fear. She packs a bag with shaking hands before Hilde even tells her to. I’m reminded of the way my hands shook after I saw her killed. It wasn’t until then that the war we’re fighting began to feel real. One must be feeling the same way now.
This time they travel light. Hilde thinks they need to get out of America. They rush to the airport and board the first international flight they can. Their destination is Malaysia.
One notices the two pale men in trench coats at the airport, but she doesn’t realize what they are. I do. I recognize my own.
For all their precautions, all their training, all their knowledge of their enemies, what’s so clear to me is completely unrecognized by Hilde and One. A Mogadorian scout team is on to them. I know the protocol in a situation like this. When my people have a lead on a Loric, vat-born scouts are dispatched to every conceivable place of departure. We cover them all: airports, train and bus stations, rental car huts. Their objective isn’t to engage. Their job is just to keep an eye on Number One.
“You need to lose them,” I find myself muttering. “You need to lose the scouts before you flee.”
“Oh, thanks for telling me, dude,” the One standing next to me says. She has a sad, rueful look on her face.
For some reason I’m positioning myself between the scouts and One. It makes no sense. I’m a ghost here; they see right through me. And besides, this has already happened. Nothing I can do can change it.
My stomach still drops when they board the flight to Malaysia. I can’t see the scouts anymore; they’ve disappeared into the crowd. I know what they’re doing, though. They’re radioing back to my father or some other superior, arranging to have a scout team waiting across the ocean when One’s flight touches down. My team.
I dread seeing what comes next.
Hilde and One hide out in an abandoned stilt house on the Rajang River, their closest neighbors the endlessly screeching monkeys that populate the jungle. Hilde is planning a trip into Kuala Lumpur, where she’ll take some money out of their bank account, enough to finance their next move. It’s peaceful, without any of the distractions of America. When the river is clear, One practices her telekinesis on its bank.
By the time our team arrives-after an endless flight through who knows how many time zones-I’ve completely lost track of what day it is. All I know is that the sun is beginning to rise.
Hilde hears the first wave coming. Our soldiers don’t make any effort to hide their approach; they have the house surrounded. Hilde shakes Number One awake just as the warriors kick in the door.
The Cepan moves fast for an old woman. It’s easy to see her as the great martial artist, trainer of young Garde, that she was on Lorien. She ducks effortlessly under a dagger strike, burying her fist in the throat of an off-balance warrior. Before the first Mogadorian even hits the ground, Hilde has wrapped her arms around the head of a second, snapping his neck. I catch myself cheering her on, then stop myself.
The next Mogadorian through the door dives for Hilde and places her in a headlock; but Hilde, in a movement so subtle I barely even see it, manages to turn his hold against him, flipping him onto his back even though he’s twice her size.
That’s when he whips his blaster from his holster, and-orders not to harm her suddenly forgotten in his humiliation-fires it right at her chest.
When Hilde hits the ground, One screams. The entire house wobbles, its stilts suddenly vibrating. Screaming out in grief and agony, One stomps the floor. A seismic wave erupts from her foot, tearing up the floorboards and sending the Mogadorians flying through the tightly woven sticks of the stilt house’s walls.
Her first Legacy has developed. Too late.
The little that’s left of the house is listing on its stilts. With the Mogadorians regrouping outside, One cradles Hilde in her arms. The wound is fatal. Hilde spits a bubble of blood when she tries to speak.
“It’s not too late for you,” Hilde manages to say. “You have to run.”
One is crying. She feels responsible; she feels helpless.
“I failed you,” sobs One.
“Not yet you haven’t,” replies Hilde. “Go. Now.”
I’m standing right next her, willing her to move, even though I know what’s waiting for her on the riverbank. The ghost-One, the dead girl who’s been my companion through all of these memories, has abandoned me now. She’s been gone since the airport.
One hesitates for an instant at Hilde’s order, and then, knowing it’s her only choice, flings herself through one of the windows just as the stilts buckle and the house finally collapses into the river. The Mogadorians meet her on the riverbank.
The house’s falling ceiling passes harmlessly through me. I watch as One produces another seismic burst, experimenting with her newfound power, and the wet ground of the riverbank opens up to swallow a pair of advancing Mogadorians.
I remember this. I peer down the riverbank, wondering if she could have seen me where I stood watching with Ivan and my father. No. I was too far away, her attention too focused on the battle around her.
I should be enjoying this, a chance to replay this great victory up close and personal. There’s nothing someone like Ivan wouldn’t give to be able to witness this again. It’s like a highlight reel of Mogadorian dominance. Yet I want to turn away. I was ashamed to admit it the first time, but not now. This battle-one unarmed teenager against two dozen highly trained Mogadorians-repulses me.
Of course, One isn’t completely defenseless. The ground around her continues to shake, leaving the Mogadorians stumbling and off balance. She picks up some sharp sections of the broken house with her telekinesis and lances them through the nearest Mogadorians. The hit warriors disintegrate into ash and are lost in the muddy river water.
I feel nothing for the dead soldiers. We are taught about acceptable losses. These strike teams are expendable.
One is pushing herself too hard. Her newly discovered Legacy is barely under control, her telekinesis sloppy from months of blowing off training. She is already close to exhaustion, and the Mogadorians just keep coming. Finally one of the largest vat-born warriors manages to evade her defensive attacks and grab her from behind, yanking both of her arms behind her back to restrain her. As he does it, One yelps in pain just before she manages to slip from his grasp.
It wasn’t a loud scream-probably more a cry of surprise than one of injury-but it’s enough for the Mogadorians to understand. They’ve hurt her. She can be hurt.
And then things change. I know the Mogadorian training well enough to see the soldiers’ strategy shift instantly. They know it’s her. The First. Number One. She can be killed. And every single one of them wants to be the one to do it.
One’s in such a panic, fighting blindly, that she never even notices the Mogadorian warrior who manages to grab that particular glory. I don’t know the warrior’s name; he’s just another faceless trooper under my father’s command. He approaches her from behind, his glowing sword drawn. He takes his time, plotting his steps carefully across the vibrating ground.
When he’s close enough, the warrior lunges, burying his sword in One’s back, the blade emerging from her abdomen. From this moment on, he will be a hero to my people.
Maybe the only good thing about death is that you never have to relive it. You never have to remember the pain. Except, One does. Though she’d been gone since the airport, ghost-One is suddenly next to me again. She’s hunched and sobbing, her mind crying out to mine through the link we share. She can feel herself dying.
Her mind throbs with pain and fear. As it does, I feel the mental block she’d been maintaining crumble and fall, just like the walls of the stilt house. She’s lost control over her memories.
Now is my chance to return to the Loric airstrip, to see the identities of the other Garde.
As Number One’s body slips lifeless to the ground, everything begins to blur again, like it did when I first entered One’s memories. Only now, I’m in control. I cycle backward through her memories, knowing exactly what I want to see.
I sit on the beach, waiting for One to emerge from the water. When she does, her wet suit dripping, surfboard slung under her arm, I stop the memory. Then I loop backward a bit further, watching her surf a wave and then return to the beach again.
This is the memory I chose to return to. I replay the scene over and over, unsure how many times I watch her come out of the water, until eventually ghost-One appears beside me. She looks surprised to see me here but sits down on the beach next to me. For a while, we don’t say anything; we just stare out at the ocean, watching Number One surf through one of her last happy days. Part of me wishes I could grab a board and go out there with her, but that’s not the way this works. This moment will have to do.
“I’m sorry you died,” I blurt out, meaning it.
“Yeah,” answers One. “That sucked.”
I think back to the floating vision of the solar system. What will happen when my people commence their invasion on Earth? Will this beach look like the ones on Lorien must now?
“I don’t understand why any of this has to happen,” I say.
“Maybe you should ask your pops. He’s got all the answers, right?”
I nod my head slowly, even though the thought of bringing these feelings to the General makes me feel nauseous. One is watching me, a small smile forming at the edges of her mouth.
“I’m going to,” I say, feeling suddenly resolute. “I want to know why.”
“Good,” replies One, and she squeezes my hand, even though I can sense that part of her is still sort of repulsed by me.
A shiver goes down my spine, and without quite knowing why, I quickly pull my hand away.
“What happens now?” I ask One.
“Now,” she says, “you wake up.”
I wake up in my bedroom. My bedroom, back at Ashwood Estates. I’m not in One’s life anymore.
It’s morning, and my eyes adjust slowly to the early light. It hurts to open them.
My entire body feels sore and weak. I can’t sit up, but I take a few deep breaths and focus on wiggling some feeling back into my toes.
I’m covered by two layers of blankets. One of my arms-pale, paler than usual-rests on top of the blankets, hooked up to a plastic tube that leads to a nutrient drip. Strange.
How long have I been out that they had to hook me up to an IV?
I hear a noise at my bedside and slowly, painfully turn my head. There’s a girl kneeling on the floor next to my bed, her back to me. She’s narrow and gawky in that almost-a-teenager sort of way. There’s something oddly familiar about her, and I struggle to place her from around the neighborhood. What’s she doing in my bedroom?
The girl has a Build-a-Piken set spread out on the floor before her. Resembling one of Earth’s toy chemistry sets, it’s one of the few “games” we Mogadorians are permitted. I’m too weak to speak, still working moisture back into my desert of a mouth, so I watch in silence as the girl drags a scalpel down the belly of a wriggling earthworm. Then she fills an eyedropper with a clear solution and dribbles it into the worm’s open wound.
The worm only writhes at first, but then its body begins to contort and change. Nubs of pliable flesh begin to protrude from the wound where the solution hit. The girl grabs a pair of tweezers and carefully stretches out the flesh, helping it to form into six spindly, spider-like legs. Haltingly, the tiny piken manages to get these legs under it, hefting the twisting remains of the worm’s body. It scuttles a few steps across the floor, then collapses.
The girl watches, her head cocked, as the piken-worm tries to regain its footing. It can’t, toppling onto what would be its back, legs kicking helplessly in the air. After a few moments of futile struggling, the piken’s legs stop moving and it disintegrates into ash. The girl wipes up the ash with a damp washcloth and produces a new worm from a nearby box.
Something about this makes me feel incredibly sad. Not for the worm but more for the girl. It’s disturbing to see how casually she alters and extinguishes the worm. It makes me uncomfortable to think how little my people value life. As soon as I have this thought, I get a strange, sick feeling in my stomach. It goes against everything written in the book; everything my people believe.
An image of One impaled on a Mogadorian blade springs to mind. I push it away.
I try to shift in the bed a little bit more, and it makes a noise. The girl turns her head sharply, her eyes widening when she sees me watching her.
“You’re awake!” she shouts, excited.
Kelly. The girl is my sister. But … she’s grown up. When she springs to her feet, it’s clear that she’s almost a foot taller than when I last saw her, which should’ve been just yesterday afternoon, although it feels much longer. Was much longer, apparently.
“How-” I cough, my throat aching. “How long?” I manage.
Kelly has already sprung to the doorway, shouting downstairs for our mother. She rushes back to me.
“Three years,” she says. “By Ra, you’ve been sleeping for three years!”
I stare at myself in my bedroom mirror. I’m taller than I was. I’m skinnier, too, even though I didn’t think that was possible. Whatever my parents had me hooked up to during my coma, it certainly didn’t build any muscle. I suck in a deep breath and watch my rib cage protrude through my chest’s too-pale skin.
Even standing in front of the mirror, examining my three-years-older body, takes a physical toll. I must look wobbly, because my mother grabs me by the elbow and leads me back to bed. She’s been quiet since shooing Kelly and her rapid-fire questions from the room, giving me time to gather myself. I’m grateful for that. My mother has always been the gentle one in the family, often to the General’s chagrin.
I can tell by the way she looks at me that she didn’t expect me to wake up. She strokes my hair.
“How do you feel?” she asks.
“Strange,” I reply. It’s true; my body feels weak and foreign, having grown up without me. But it’s more than that. It feels strange to be back here with my own people, knowing what I do now. Even my mother, here stroking my hair, is a brutal warrior at heart, intent on killing the Garde.
I picture the Mogadorians swarming One, feel her fear and anger anew. I can’t help but see my mother’s face on one of the soldiers. As she gently takes my hand in hers, I’m imagining my mother plunging a sword into One’s back.
Suddenly I don’t trust my own family.
“I don’t remember anything,” I say, even though she didn’t ask. “The machine didn’t work.”
My mother nods. “Your father will be disappointed.”
I decided to lie when I was still living in One’s memories, when we were sitting on the beach together. I won’t be telling my people anything that I saw. Not that anything I learned would help Mogadore win its war anyway. What could I even say? That unlike Mogadorians, the Loric are allowed to develop individuality? That their freedom from doctrines like those in the Great Book is simultaneously their greatest strength and ultimate weakness? That I’ve seen what our people did to Lorien and that it looks like shit?
Yeah, that would go over big.
I’m grateful for the chance to practice this lie on my mother. When it comes time to tell the General, he won’t be so gentle.
“Dr. Anu will have to go back to the drawing board, I guess,” I say, probing a bit to see if she bought it.
“That won’t be happening,” replies my mother. “When you didn’t wake up …”
She hesitates, but I don’t need her to finish telling me. I can picture the General enraged, storming into Anu’s laboratory and drawing his sword.
“Your father never liked Anu. Honestly, the way that old man talked, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”
There are heavy footfalls on the staircase, approaching my room. So here comes the General at last. Here to debrief his only trueborn son, probably to rebuke me for not waking up sooner.
“What’s up, skinny?”
Ivan leans in the doorway, grinning. How old would he be now-fourteen? He looks like he could play linebacker for a college football team. Like me, Ivan has grown taller in the last three years, but he’s also grown wider in every conceivable way. I imagine all the strength and combat training he’s been doing without me, likely coached by the General himself. I wonder how his Mogadorian theory grades have fared without me around to coach him.
“Did you have a nice nap?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I mutter. “Thanks.”
“Awesome,” he says. “Anyway, Father wants to see you downstairs.”
I feel my mother grow tense beside me.
Since when did Ivan start calling the General “Father”?
“Adamus needs his rest,” says my mother.
Ivan snorts. “All he’s been doing is resting,” he says, then turns to me. “Come on, get dressed.”
There is a familiar note of authority in Ivan’s voice. He sounds very much like the General.
I’m expecting Ivan to lead me to my father’s office, but instead we take the elevator down into the tunnels beneath Ashwood Estates.
“You woke up just in time for some action,” he says.
“Great,” I reply, struggling not to sound halfhearted. “What’s happening?”
“You’ll see,” he says. “Big shit going down.”
When the elevator doors hiss open, Ivan slaps me hard on the back. In my weakened state, I stumble forward a few steps. I’d probably have fallen right to the floor if not for Ivan grabbing me. He pulls me into a brotherly embrace, but in addition to an intimidating amount of strength, I feel a kind of menace in the way Ivan pats me roughly on the back. My palms begin to sweat.
“Seriously,” he whispers. “So glad you’re awake. Father’s going to be pleased that his favorite son is finally up and about.”
Ivan leads me to the briefing room. There, two dozen Mogadorian warriors sit in a semicircle before the General. My father is as big as ever, his towering presence commanding the attention of everyone assembled, none of them even noticing when Ivan and I slip into the room.
Projected on the wall behind my father is the image of a red-haired man in his early forties. The picture is grainy; it looks as if it was culled from surveillance footage.
“This man,” my father intones, midbriefing, “calls himself Conrad Hoyle. We believe, based on several tips from sources as well as extensive surveillance, that he is a member of the Loric insurgency. A Cepan.”
My father clicks a button on the remote in his meaty hand. Conrad Hoyle’s face is replaced by an image of a burned-down cottage in some rural area.
“One of our scout teams had an altercation with Hoyle at this location in the Scottish Highlands. We sustained heavy losses. Hoyle was able to escape.”
Another image appears. Conrad Hoyle, seated on a train, his face intent on a laptop screen. Whoever took this picture clearly did so with a camera-phone hidden a few rows ahead of Hoyle.
“A secondary scout team was able to pick up Hoyle’s trail and has been following him ever since. We believe he and his charge, a priority Garde target we know to be roughly thirteen years old and female, have split up. It stands to reason that Hoyle and his Garde have a safe house where they plan to reunite.”
A city appears behind my father, and I recognize it from my studies of Earth’s prime urban targets.
“Conrad Hoyle is headed to London,” continues the General. “There, we believe he will reunite with his Garde and attempt to disappear.”
My gaze drifts over the warriors in the room. All of them are paying strict attention to my father, yet something is off.
“We will follow Hoyle to London and wait for him to lead us to the girl. And we will terminate or apprehend them both. Preferably terminate.”
As the General makes this pronouncement, I notice her. She’s sitting in the front row. Her blond hair stands out in this gathering of burly, dark-haired Mogadorians, but no one else notices her.
No one else can even see her.
Slowly, One turns around in her seat. She looks right at me.
“You have to stop them,” says One.
The briefing room has emptied out except for the General and Ivan. I’m seated at one of the desks previously occupied by a Mogadorian warrior. My head is swimming, just like it was when I first woke up.
My father looms over me, studying me. He sets a glass of water down on the desk and I drink greedily.
“What happened?” I ask.
“You fainted,” snickers Ivan.
My father spins on Ivan. “Boy,” he snarls. “Leave us.”
As Ivan sulks from the room, I think back to the briefing, to One appearing. Was I hallucinating? It felt so real, just like all those times when we spoke inside her memories. But all that was like a dream, a construction of my mind. She shouldn’t be able to appear to me now. It doesn’t make sense.
Yet somehow I know it wasn’t a hallucination. Somehow One is still inside my mind.
I realize that I’m shaking. I put my head in my hands, try to focus, to steady myself. The General won’t tolerate this kind of weakness.
My father’s large hand comes to rest on my shoulder. I look up, surprised to find him staring at me with something approaching concern.
“Are you well?” he asks.
I nod and try to steel myself for the lies that come next.
“I haven’t eaten,” I say.
My father shakes his head. “Ivanick,” he growls. “He was supposed to make sure you were ready before bringing you to me.”
The General lifts his hand from my shoulder, the brief moment of affection forgotten. I can tell by the return of rigidity to his spine that, just like that, he’s back to business. Mogadorian progress. First and foremost. No matter the cost.
“What did you learn from One’s memories?” he asks.
“Nothing,” I reply, meeting his hard eyes. “It didn’t work. I remember being strapped down, then darkness, and now this. Sir,” I quickly add.
My father mulls this over, appraising me. Then he nods.
“As I feared,” he says.
I realize that he never thought Dr. Anu’s machine would work. My father will believe my lie because he expected failure. Clearly he didn’t care what happened to me in the process.
I remember Dr. Anu’s gamble with my father, wagering his life that his untested technology would succeed. It did work, and Anu was still killed.
The Mogadorian way.
“Three years wasted,” broods my father. “Three years of you getting weaker, falling behind your peers. For what?”
My cheeks burn with humiliation. With frustration. With anger. But what would my father do if I told him Anu’s machine worked, that it gave me One’s memories and, with them, doubts.
Obviously, I hold my tongue.
“This folly reflects poorly on our bloodline. On me,” continues my father. “But it is not too late to remedy that.”
“How, sir?” I ask, knowing he expects me to respond eagerly to any opportunity to increase my honor.
“You will come with us to London,” he says. “And hunt this Garde.”
The next twelve hours are a blur. My father has me fitted for a new uniform; my mother feeds me mammoth meals, like the kind athletes eat before big games-if those athletes had the appetite of full-grown piken. I am allowed a few hours sleep in my own bed, and later on the flight across the Atlantic. I’m almost thankful for this blur of activity; it leaves me no time to think of the Loric stowaway in my brain, or about what my father expects me to do.
We arrive in London the next morning. The General has brought Ivan along, as well as two dozen handpicked warriors, most of them trueborn.
As a Prime Urban Target, London is already home to a Mogadorian presence. The London-based Mogadorians have commandeered five floors in a downtown skyscraper to serve as their base of operations. They run a tight ship, but they’ve never been visited by a trueborn as high ranking as my father. They snap to attention when the General passes through the halls, even eyeing Ivan and me respectfully as we follow on his heels.
None of these loyal warriors detects the uncertainty I’m feeling inside. To them, I appear as one of their own.
My father assumes command of the London nerve center. A wall of monitors manned by a pair of scouts provides a constant real-time feed of London’s camera network. Another set of terminals crawls the internet in search of suspicious activity and certain Loric-related keywords. Before heading out to track Conrad Hoyle, my father wants to get the lay of the land. He orders the scouts to flip through various video feeds, the General quietly appraising several locations around the city for strategic advantages.
“Our unit trailing Hoyle reports he’s on a bus nearing the city center, sir,” declares one of the scouts, relaying this information from his earpiece.
“Good,” intones my father. “Then it’s time for us to go.”
While my father was studying video and plotting bloodshed, I was collapsing into a nearby chair, still feeling light-headed. Ivan stands next to me, his arms folded sternly across his chest, looking more like a young version of the General than ever. When my father turns to face us, Ivan shoots me a sidelong glance.
“Forgive me for speaking out of turn, sir,” begins Ivan, “but I’m not sure your son is up to this.”
My father’s fist coils into a ball. His first instinct is to strike Ivan for his impudence. But then he looks at me, one eyebrow arched.
“Is that true?” he asks.
I know what Ivan’s doing. He’s spent the last three years worming his way into the General’s good graces, calling him “Father,” assuming my rightful place as his son. Figuring I was gone, Ivan’s only concern has been his own advancement. Before, I never would have given him an opportunity to make me look bad. Before, I’m not sure he would have tried. The thing is, I don’t know how much I care about fighting back. During all that time spent in One’s memories, and even now that I’ve woken up, I haven’t once fantasized about my promised inheritance of Washington DC. How could I, now that I know the price that would be paid?
Ivan can have it.
“Perhaps he’s right,” I say, meeting my father’s steely glare. “In my weakened state, I could be a liability to Mogadorian victory.”
Liability. Mogadorian victory. I know all the buzzwords to use on my father. Those haven’t changed. He takes one last look at me, a hint of disgust in his face, before turning to Ivan.
“Come, Ivanick,” he says, sweeping from the room.
I’m left alone with the two techs. They ignore me, glued to their bank of monitors, watching as the bus containing Conrad Hoyle trundles through the city. I realize this is the first moment of peace I’ve had since waking up from my coma. I close my eyes and lower my head into my hands, trying to keep my mind blank, pushing away the conflicting feelings I’ve been having about my people. I’m relieved that I don’t have to go on this operation. I don’t know what I’d do if faced with the task of actually killing a Garde. But then, who am I? I was raised as a ruthless hunter.
“So that’s your plan?” asks a familiar voice. “To just sit here and do nothing?”
I look up to find One sitting next to me. I jerk back in my chair, nearly toppling over, eyes wide.
“Booga booga,” she says, wiggling her fingers at me. “Seriously, dude. Get off your ass and do something.”
“Do what?” I snap. “You think they’d hesitate to kill me too?”
One of the techs glances over his shoulder, frowning at me.
“Did you say something?” he asks.
I give him a blank look, then slowly shake my head. He turns back to his monitors. When I look over to where One was sitting, the chair is empty.
Great. Now I’m crazy.
“Look,” says one of the techs, “something is happening.”
I turn my attention to the screen, where Hoyle’s bus has jerked to a sudden stop. The doors fly open, and panicked passengers begin streaming off.
One of the rear windows explodes outward, a man flying through it. Before he can hit the ground, his body disintegrates into ash.
“He’s onto us,” observes the other tech, both of them leaning forward to watch the action.
Bright flashes of gunfire pop across the screen, and then the back of the bus goes up in flames. As it does, I watch Conrad Hoyle emerge from the front doors. He’s much larger than his picture indicated.
Hoyle holds a submachine gun in each hand.
“By Ra,” says the tech, sounding almost giddy, “he’s going to be a tough one.”
“We should be out there!” grumbles the other.
Most of the pedestrians are fleeing the scene of the flaming bus, like any sane person would. Except there are others that move towards the wreck: men in dark trench coats, shoving their way through the frightened crowd. The Mogadorian strike team has arrived. They’re greeted by a hail of gunfire from Hoyle, and they quickly take cover before shooting back.
If my father and Ivan aren’t out there yet, enduring Hoyle’s fire, they will be soon. I should take pleasure in this noble combat, like the techs are, but I don’t. I don’t want to see Hoyle, a Loric enemy whom I’ve never even met, be murdered. Yet despite my conflicted feelings about the mission, I also don’t want to see my father turned into a pile of ash.
My only choice is to turn away.
The techs are so absorbed by the action, they don’t hear when the station monitoring internet activity chimes. I inch my chair over to the screen, squinting at a red-flagged blog posting.
It reads: Nine, now eight. Are the rest of you out there?
It takes only a few keystrokes to isolate the blog posting’s IP address-it’s here in London. The techs aren’t paying any attention to me, especially now that calls for tactical support are coming in. Hoyle is proving to be one hell of a distraction.
A few keystrokes more and I’ve pinpointed the location to an address only a few blocks from the Mogadorian base.
I’ve discovered the location of a fugitive Garde. Not the General, not Ivan. Me. For a moment, I feel a swelling of pride. Take that, Ivan. I guess growing big and strong doesn’t count for everything after all.
Now, what do I do with this information?
I should turn the Garde’s location over to the techs, have them call my father back from battle. It would mean major glory for myself and my family, and another step for Mogadorian progress.
It’s what I was raised to do. And I almost do it. But as soon as the thrill of discovery passes, I realize I don’t want that at all.
I want to help this Garde. Maybe I can prevent another scene like Malaysia.
Wait. Is that what I want, or is that one of One’s suggestions, a thought left over from traveling through her memories? If I’m hallucinating her, is there even a difference between One’s thoughts and my own anymore?
“Deep stuff,” says One, peering at the computer screen over my shoulder. “Maybe sort out your philosophical questions after we’ve saved this one’s life, hmm?”
That settles it. I minimize the report before the techs have a chance to see it and slip out of the room. I run down hallways now empty of personnel, all of them having joined the ambush on Hoyle. The way I figure it, I’ve got only as long as Hoyle can keep fighting. After that, the techs will most certainly discover the blog post and relay the details to the strike team.
I’m already winded when I reach the street. I have to push myself. My leg muscles feel about ready to snap after years of disuse; my lungs are on fire, gray spots floating in and out of my vision.
Still, I strip off my coat, which marks me as a Mogadorian, and begin to run. Sirens sound in the distance, the local authorities on their way to the site of the battle.
It takes me ten minutes to get to the quiet backstreet where the building is. I can’t believe the Garde safe house was right under our noses. If we had waited, Conrad Hoyle would have come to us, and all the mayhem on the streets could have been avoided. Of course, it’s lucky for me that things played out like they did.
I’m gasping for breath as I stand at the doorway to the building. It’s an old redbrick town house, now home to three apartments, according to the buzzers outside. Luckily, an old woman is just leaving to walk her white, puffy dog, and I’m able to catch the front door before it closes. I race to the second-floor apartment, the only one not to have a name stickered to the buzzer downstairs.
I pound on the apartment door, probably too hard. If I was a fugitive Garde, that kind of loud knocking would send me running for the fire escape. I hear startled movement inside the apartment, a TV being muted, and then silence.
I knock again, gentler this time, and press my ear to the door.
Muffled footsteps pad closer to the other side of the door, but the girl says nothing.
“Open the door,” I whisper, trying to keep my voice gentle and urgent. “You’re in danger.”
“Your Cepan sent me,” I try. “You need to get out of here.”
There’s a lengthy pause, and then a small voice answers. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
Good question, but I don’t have time for this. By now Conrad Hoyle has probably been overcome by the Mogadorian strike team. I could tell this girl that her Cepan is as good as dead, that my people will be here soon. I could try breaking down the door, but I doubt I have the strength.
Just like that, One is standing next to me in the hallway. Her face is somber and distant.
“Tell her about the night they came,” says One. “The night your people came.”
I think back to One’s memory of the airstrip, the frightened faces around her, the mad dash towards the ship.
“I remember the night they came,” I begin, uncertainly at first but gaining confidence as I go. “There were nine of us and our Cepans, all running panicked. We saw a Garde fight off a piken. I don’t think he survived. Then they pushed us onto the ship and …”
I trail off, recounting the last night of Lorien making me feel strangely sad. I glance to where One was standing, but she’s disappeared back into my head.
A half dozen deadbolt locks are unlatched, and the apartment door swings open.
Her alias is Maggie Hoyle.
From what little I saw of Conrad Hoyle, I’m expecting Maggie to be a minimilitant in training. Instead, she is the polar opposite of her Cepan. Maggie can’t be more than twelve years old; and she’s small for her age, mousey, with a mane of reddish-brown curls hanging on either side of a pair of thick glasses. The only sign of Hoyle’s influence is the small handgun she’s holding when I walk in, the kind of polite-looking weapon a rich lady might carry with her in a bad neighborhood. Maggie looks relieved to set the gun down as soon as the door is locked behind me.
“Is Conrad all right?” she asks me.
The muted TV in the corner of the small flat is tuned to a news report, a helicopter filming the burning wreckage of Hoyle’s bus. It looks like the fight is over. We have to move quickly.
“I don’t know,” I tell her, not wanting to say that I doubt her Cepan survived. We need to get moving, and I don’t want to upset her. There’s no time for grieving right now.
Not only is she way younger than I expected, Maggie doesn’t possess any of the bravado I thought came prepackaged with the Garde after spending years in One’s memories. She’s fidgety and nervous, not cool and confident, and not at all ready to fight.
So that makes two of us.
I take in the rest of the apartment. It doesn’t look lived in. Maggie probably moved in within the last week. A layer of dust still covers the empty mantel and countertops. There’s a small suitcase open next to a half-deflated air mattress, with piles of clothes spilling out onto the floor around it, and a desk with a bowl of cereal on it, a couple of marshmallows still floating in the pink-tinted milk. I scan around the room, looking for the Chest that we’ve been taught all the Garde have, but I don’t see it anywhere. Either she doesn’t have it or she’s found a good place to hide it.
Next to the cereal bowl is the laptop that brought me here. The computer is still open to the blog post, scrolled down to the bottom of the page where comments would go. The poor kid has just been sitting here waiting for someone to reply, and I’m the one who showed up.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I say, nodding to the laptop.
Maggie looks guilty, rushing over to the laptop to shut it.
“I know. Conrad would be mad,” she says, glancing over at the scene on TV. “I was just worried he wouldn’t come back and …”
Maggie stops herself, looking embarrassed. She doesn’t have to finish; I know what she was going to say. That she was afraid she’d be alone.
Fear. Loneliness. It was a similar blend of feelings that caused One to take up with brain-dead surfers and start shoplifting. I don’t really want to admit it, but they’re the same feelings I’ve been having since waking up.
“What number are you?” she says.
“It doesn’t matter now,” I say. I think back to my course on Legacy preparedness. Our instructors warned us about so many different powers the Garde might possess, and I try to think of one that might be helpful now. “Is it too much to hope that you can teleport?”
“What?” she asks, not understanding.
“Your Legacies,” I explain.
“Oh.” She shakes her head. “No. Conrad says I’m a couple years from developing those.”
Maggie studies me as I walk across the room, kneeling down in front of her suitcase. “Why?” she asks. “What can you do?”
I don’t answer. Next to her suitcase is a small backpack that I unzip to find filled with books, novels by human authors who I’ve never heard of. I dump out the books and begin stuffing handfuls of Maggie’s clothing into the backpack. We’ll need to travel light. I don’t pay attention to what I’m packing, only that it won’t be enough to slow her down if we need to run.
“What’re you doing?” she asks, still rooted to the spot next to the laptop.
“Packing,” I reply. “Grab only what you need. Definitely leave the computer.”
Maggie doesn’t make any move to help. I can feel her watching me, trying to figure out what’s happening.
“I want to wait for Conrad,” she says, her voice small but firm.
“He won’t be coming,” I reply, trying not to snap at her. She needs to start moving-now. I zip the backpack shut and stand. “You have to trust me.”
“Winston trusted Julia and look how that turned out.”
Winston? Julia? I try to remember what little I can of Loric culture, thinking that this is some kind of Loric saying I’m unfamiliar with, or maybe they’re some other members of the Garde I should know; but I come up with nothing. I decide to guess.
“I haven’t seen them since we landed on Earth,” I say.
“Um, they’re from Earth,” says Maggie. “Also, they’re not real.”
I stare at her, confused.
“1984,” says Maggie, seeing my confusion. “George Orwell?”
One of the books from her backpack. I shake my head. “Never read it.”
“Who did you think I was talking about?”
“You aren’t Loric,” she says, examining my gaunt face, my pale skin.
“No,” I reply.
“And you aren’t human either.” This sounds more like an accusation.
When I shake my head, Maggie inches towards where she set down her little gun. I don’t make any move to stop her. She’s perceptive. I can see the wheels turning in her head, analyzing her situation. She knows there’s trouble, but she’s not sure if it’s on its way or if it’s already here.
“If you’re one of them, why haven’t you tried to kill me yet?” she asks. She reminds me of myself a little bit: small, intelligent and holding on to a belief that she can think her way out of problems.
“I don’t know what I am,” I manage, realizing as I say this that it’s the truth. “But I’m not here to hurt you.”
I toss her the backpack.
“You need to run. It doesn’t matter if it’s with me or from me. Just run.”
Suddenly there’s a sharp, breaking sound, the apartment’s front door splintering as it is torn off its hinges.
Too late. Too late to run.
“Adamus,” snarls Ivan as he strides into the room. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Streaming into the room behind Ivan are half a dozen Mogadorian warriors. Two of them stay posted at the door; the others fan out, covering the windows, cutting off any possible escape route. They’re a well-oiled machine, the protocol in this situation clear. Contain the Garde at all costs.
I’m frozen in place. I’m not armed, having forgotten to grab so much as a dagger on my way out of the Mogadorian headquarters. Even if I did try to fight-against my own people, a concept I still haven’t come to terms with-I wouldn’t stand a chance. At least that’s how I justify my cowardice.
Maggie doesn’t suffer from any of my uncertainties. She might have given me the benefit of the doubt, but not Ivan and his strike team. She knows she’s in danger.
She executes a gymnast-caliber somersault towards the table where she set down her gun. Maggie moves more quickly than I expected, her fingers nearly closing around the weapon.
But Ivan is quicker.
Before Maggie can grab the gun, he boots the table towards her. The edge hits her right in the stomach, audibly knocking the wind out of her. Maggie, the gun and the table all go crashing to the floor.
Maggie recovers quickly, already desperately scrambling for the weapon when Ivan kicks it out of her reach. It skitters to a stop just inches from my feet.
Ivan steps on the back of Maggie’s neck, grinding her face into the dusty floor. He must outweigh her by more than a hundred pounds. Maggie thrashes, screaming in frustration and pain, but Ivan keeps her pinned as he lifts up his shirt, examining his rib cage.
At first I don’t understand what he’s doing. But then I realize he’s looking for bruises. If Maggie was still protected by the Loric charm, then the damage from when Ivan kicked the table into her would have been done to him. Unless she’s next in line.
Ivan just confirmed that Maggie is Number Two.
“Number Two,” he says, a note of gruesome satisfaction in his voice. “My lucky day.”
While Ivan has his shirt up, I notice a wound on his side. It looks like a bullet graze. Blood runs down his body, collecting in the waistband of his pants. He sees me looking and smiles proudly.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” Ivan says. “You should see the other guy.” He winks.
That’s when it hits me. Ivan doesn’t know what I was doing here. All he cares about is that the protocol of his mission has just changed from apprehend to eliminate.
Understanding that Ivan was referring to her Cepan, Maggie begins struggling with renewed vigor. She manages to slip from under Ivan’s boot, but only gets a hard kick in the chest for her trouble. The way Ivan kicks Maggie is as casual as the way I watched my sister build and snuff out a piken.
Maggie’s down again, and this time Ivan presses a foot onto her back. She coughs raggedly, then cranes her neck up to look at me. One of the lenses of her glasses is shattered.
“You said you’d help me,” she gasps.
Ivan laughs. Some of the other Mogadorians in the room crack smiles.
“Is that what he told you?” exclaims Ivan, amused. “Crafty Adamus! You always were the smart one. Come rushing over here all by yourself to claim all the glory, while the rest of us are out fighting.”
Ivan waves his hand at the gun at my feet.
“Go ahead,” he says. “Help her.” Sarcasm drips from his words.
I pick up the gun in a shaky hand and hold it loosely at my side. None of the Mogadorians in the room have weapons drawn. They really have no idea what I was doing here. Of course they don’t believe Number Two. Why would they trust her over one of their own?
I glance around the room and force a smile. Ivan thinks he’s just handed me a gift, and I know I need to play along. But what I’m really trying to figure out is how many I’d be able to kill before they returned fire? Two? Maybe three?
I’d start with Ivan, that much I’m sure of.
The small gun feels impossibly heavy. It’s now or never.
But I can’t do it. I can’t kill my own people any more than I could kill Maggie. I meet her eyes, large and pleading. I wish I could at least tell her how sorry I am, but the words won’t come. I’m too afraid to even speak.
I drop the gun and look away.
“Don’t have the stomach for it?” sneers Ivan, unsheathing his dagger. “Whatever. You did your part.”
Ivan reaches down and grabs a handful of Maggie’s hair, jerking her head back to expose her throat. I see a metallic glint around her neck: her pendant. A grin spreads across Ivan’s face as he sees it too. He raises his dagger, and I can feel him staring at me. Does he think I’m a coward, or worse, a traitor?
“For Mogadorian progress,” Ivan shouts.
There are hundreds of pictures of the Irish countryside in Two’s “Photos!” folder. Even when it’s rainy, the landscape is beautiful: lush and green, hills sprawling, mist sometimes rolling in. I click through until I reach a set of pictures dedicated to a goat, a scrawny little mongrel with brown patches of fur appearing like mud stains on his otherwise white coat. The pet Number Two had to leave behind when she and Conrad fled Ireland.
Here’s a picture with her arms flung around the goat’s neck. I wonder what the animal’s name was.
I glance at the drying bloodstain on the apartment’s floor, as if for an answer.
The other Mogadorians have left, some to celebrate, others to have their wounds treated from the battle with Conrad. I’ve been left alone here to go through Number Two’s laptop. There won’t be any memory download this time; rummaging through Two’s private files will be as close as I get to knowing her.
There are few pictures of Conrad in Two’s albums. Most of the time her Cepan smiles indulgently, but other times the photographs are candid: Conrad reading a book next to a fire, Conrad chopping wood. I get the impression that they led a quiet life together, much less contentious than One and Hilde.
Besides the pictures, there are a few documents on the laptop. Two never kept a proper journal, but she wrote plenty. There is a long list of “Books to Read.” There are frequently updated rankings of her favorite novels, and more specific lists like “Strong Female Characters” and “Villains Cooler Than the Heroes.” I read through these lists, although I hardly understand any of the references. I make some mental notes of books that I’d like to read. I think maybe Two would be happy that someone, even a Mogadorian, took some of her recommendations.
And then I think of the horror in Two’s eyes as Ivan brought his dagger down, how I stood by and did nothing. What am I thinking? That I’ll somehow make good on that by reading every title on the “Books That Inspired Me” list? How stupid and hollow.
My father stands in the doorway. He made it out of the Conrad Hoyle fight unscathed.
“No,” I reply, closing Two’s laptop.
The truth is, I’ve already deleted the only interesting thing on Two’s computer. A reply to her ill-advised blog post. I deleted the comment along with the original posting, although I’m sure the techs back at headquarters already flagged it.
The General looms over me. Normally, we’re supposed to snap to attention when he enters a room, but I can’t work up the energy to go through the motions. I stay slouched in the chair, looking up at him.
“Ivanick tells me that you couldn’t kill the Garde,” he says, disappointment and rebuke mixing in his voice.
“I could have killed her,” I clarify. “Any of us could have killed her. She was a child.”
My father’s face darkens. “Your tone disagrees with me, boy.”
“Yeah?” I snap, suddenly reminded of the way One argued with Hilde. I want to say more, but then I think better of it. After all, look what happened to One. “Sorry, Father,” I say in as even a tone as I can muster. “It won’t happen again.”
“That child would have killed you if the tables were turned,” my father says, and I can tell by the way the vein along his temple throbs that this effort to engage me in civilized conversation is requiring great self-control. “She would see your entire people wiped out.”
That’s what we’ve been taught. What Setrakus Ra has told us. But Two knew what I was, and she wasn’t going to shoot me. Also, nowhere on her laptop files was there a list of “Preferred Genocide Methods.” Once again my head starts to spin as everything I’ve been raised to believe is called into question.
“Father, I don’t think that’s true,” I say quietly.
“You doubt what I’ve taught you, boy? What we learn from the Great Book?”
I look up at the General. Meeting his gaze takes some effort, his eyes burning with his barely contained temper.
“Yes,” I whisper.
My father punches me in the face.
His fist is as heavy as a brick, even though I’m sure he pulled the punch somewhat or I’d be unconscious instead of merely toppling backwards out of the chair, my bottom lip split open. I feel blood trickling down my chin, taste it on my tongue. I know the smart thing would be to curl up, to avoid any further punishment; but instead I climb to my knees, chin raised, waiting for the next strike.
It doesn’t come. My father stands over me, his fists clenched, staring into my eyes. I feel a heat that I haven’t felt before-anger, righteous anger-and that emotion must reach my eyes, because my father’s initial look of disgust suddenly betrays something else. A look I’m unfamiliar with.
It’s respect. Not for my argument against killing Two-certainly not for that-but for being willing to take another punch.
“Finally,” growls the General. “You’ve got some blood on you.”
I look down at my hands. They’re pale, soft, and clean. I think of watching Number Two die. My hands should be covered in blood. And just like that, the anger leaks out of me and is replaced by something else, something worse.
“I’m sorry for defying you,” I say, keeping my eyes downcast. “You’re right, of course.”
I can feel the General watching me for a moment longer, as if considering what to do with me. Then, without another word, he stalks out of the apartment, heedlessly walking through the spot where Ivan let Number Two bleed out.
I sink onto my hands and knees, feeling suddenly breathless. How long can I keep going like this, living among a people that I no longer understand?
Back at Ashwood Estates, they hold a banquet for Ivan.
All these planned suburban developments come equipped with community halls for neighborhood parties. It’s been three years since One was killed, and our community hall hasn’t seen use since then. People from the neighborhood spend a weekend cleaning out the dust, moving in a large table, and preparing food.
I wasn’t awake for the last celebration. I wish I could sleep through this one.
The General gives a speech describing Ivan’s valor in the field. Then he pins a medal shaped like a Mogadorian sword to Ivan’s chest, Ivan grinning stupidly as my neighbors rapturously applaud. There’s no mention made of my early arrival at Two’s safe house, nor does my father spend even a moment memorializing the warriors that didn’t return home, gunned down by Conrad Hoyle in the streets of London. No time spent on the weak.
I slip out, leaving behind a half-finished dinner, and I return to my house, enjoying the quiet darkness of my room. With the withering looks my father’s been giving me since London, I’m sure he’s glad I left early. Without me there, he can pretend Ivan is his trueborn son. They’ll both love that.
It’s a pleasant, breezy night, but I close my window, wanting to seal out the noise from the banquet. I gaze through narrowed eyes at the lights from the community hall, my neighbors enjoying their biggest celebration since coming to Earth thanks to the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed child.
When I turn away from the window, One is standing in the middle of my room. It’s the first time that she’s appeared to me since London. Her look is cold and accusing, far worse than the disdainful stares I’ve been receiving from my father.
“You watched her die,” she says.
I push my knuckles into my temples and squeeze my eyes shut, trying to will her away. When I open my eyes, One hasn’t budged.
“Whatever part of my brain you’re hiding out in,” I snarl, “go back there and leave me alone.”
“You could’ve at least kicked the gun to her,” she says, ignoring me. “Given her a fighting chance.”
It’s a scenario I’ve agonized over: Two’s silly little gun lying at my feet, her only a short distance away. I’ve played out the possibilities in my head and managed to rationalize the fear I was feeling at the time as strategic self-preservation. There was no way Two was getting out of that room alive, whether I helped her or not. But knowing that doesn’t make me feel any less a coward.
“They still would have killed her,” I say, voice shaking. “And then they would’ve killed me.”
“Which is what you’re really worried about,” replies One, rolling her eyes. “Saving your own skin.”
“If I die, what happens to you?” I ask, my voice rising. I want One to understand.
“I’m already dead, dummy.”
“Are you? Because it sure seems like you’re here now, making me feel worse than I already do. I’m sorry I couldn’t save Two, but-”
I’m interrupted by a soft knock on my bedroom door. I was so distracted by One I didn’t even hear footsteps coming up the stairs. Without waiting for me to invite her, my mother slowly opens my door, looking concerned. I wonder how much of my conversation with my imaginary friend she overheard.
“Who are you talking to?” she asks.
I shoot a surreptitious glance to where One was standing a moment ago. She’s gone now, retreated back into my brain.
“No one,” I snap, sitting down on the foot of my bed. “What do you want?”
“I wanted to check on you,” she says, and gently takes my chin in her hands. She examines the yellowing bruise on my jaw, the scabbed-over spot on my bottom lip. “He should not have done this.”
“I was being insubordinate,” I say, the token reply to one of the General’s rebukes coming easily.
My mother sits down on the bed next to me. I get the feeling that she wants to say more but is having trouble finding the words.
“He told me what happened,” she begins, hesitating. “With you and the Garde child. He wanted to send you to West Virginia, but I talked him out of it.”
There’s a mountain base in West Virginia where intensive training classes take place. I’ve heard the “training” is really endless hours of laboring in underground tunnels. For a trueborn like me to be sent there would be the equivalent of a human teenager being sent to military school.
“Thanks,” I reply, not entirely sure why my mother is telling me this.
She stands up and goes to my window, looking out at the lights of the banquet.
“Get back to your studies,” she says quietly. “Grow stronger. And the next time you have a chance to take down a Garde, do it.”
My mother kneels in front of me, cupping my bruised face in her hands. She stares into my eyes, her look beseeching.
I stare back at her in disappointment, sensing that there’s something more she wants to say.
“Yes, Mother,” I reply. She opens her mouth to speak, but closes it without saying a word.
I am a model young Mogadorian.
I am dedicated to my studies. My understanding of Ra’s Great Book is lauded by my instructors, my dedication to Mogadorian progress unquestioned. I finish top of my class in Advanced Tactical Planning, my final essay on how a Mogadorian guerrilla force could overwhelm a well-defended human city with a minimum of Mogadorian casualties trumpeted as something my father might have written in his younger days.
“Your son makes me certain that our military will continue to flourish well into the next generation,” I overhear one of my instructors tell the General. My father replies with only a grim nod. We have not spoken since London. It has been two years.
I keep my other tactical plans to myself. Secreted away in my room, I scribble out a plan for how a human army with proper strategic intelligence could repel a Mogadorian force. When I’m satisfied with the plan, I burn the pages in the bathroom sink and rinse away the ash.
Hand-to-hand combat is still not my strong suit. Ivan always chooses me as his partner for drills. Afterward, I’m always bruised and sore, and Ivan has barely broken a sweat. He is bigger and stronger than any of the other students, and when we spar I see an emptiness in his eyes. It’s the same dark look he gave me when standing over Number Two’s body in London. It’s like he thinks we’re still in competition for the General’s favor, even though I’ve long dropped out of that race. He’s won, but he’s too dense to realize it, still viewing me as a rival. When we train with blades, he “accidentally” cuts my arm, the wound requiring three sutures.
“I’ll toughen you up yet, Adamus,” he sneers, standing over me, blood squeezing through my fingers as I hold my arm. “Make your father proud.”
“Thank you, Brother,” I reply.
What little free time I have, I spend in the capital. I don’t bring Ivan along on these trips anymore, and I no longer waste time human-watching at the National Mall. I find a quiet bookstore where I entertain myself for hours reading what titles I can remember from Two’s favorite books lists. I begin with George Orwell.
“Why did I have to get stuck in the brain of the universe’s most boring Mogadorian?” complains One during a weekend trip to the bookstore. She visits me often, sometimes more than once a day. In a way, she’s sort of my only friend. She teases me, but I know she doesn’t mind these quiet periods of reading something other than the Great Book. During my Mogadorian classes, I can feel her mind growing restless inside me. Sometimes she manifests, commenting on how heinously pale my instructors are, or when I’m sparring with Ivan, how the discovery of deodorant would be a great step in Mogadorian progress. I’ve learned not to acknowledge her in public, to limit our conversations to the night, when everyone else is asleep.
It’s then that we plan. I lie in bed, thinking. One paces around the room, anxious and bored.
“We should escape tomorrow,” she says. “We could tell the president that there are a bunch of gross aliens planning war right in his backyard.”
“Not yet,” I reply, shaking my head. “We’ll know when the time is right.”
“What if the time is never right?”
I’ve spent two years like that, acting the part, waiting for an opportunity to make a difference. Even with their vast resources, my people are slow in finding the other Garde. There are successful operations from other cells: a mission in upstate New York yields a captive Garde. More often there are missions that never get off the ground because the target disappears, or the scout team does. I’m not sure how long the Garde can keep this up. I hope they manage to get organized soon, but I worry that One is right, that I’m biding my time for an opportunity that will never come.
And then, finally, word comes to us about Africa.
For the first time in years I’m invited into the General’s briefing room.
“We have reliable intelligence that a member of the Garde might be hiding in Kenya,” says my father, handing out a printout of an article from a travel magazine. The article is a few months old, and considering its vague content, it is no wonder it took our techs so long to unearth it. In the article, while gushing about a small marketplace in Kenya, the writer describes a kid with a strange ankle branding that’s unlike anything he’s seen on other local tribespeople. The description bears a striking resemblance to the Loric charm.
“Has this been confirmed?” I ask, getting in my question before Ivan is even finished dragging his finger along the article’s middle sentences.
“Obtaining confirmation using normal methods has proven an obstacle.”
“We can’t exactly blend in with this kind of community,” I say, earning a sharp look of annoyance from my father, even though he knows I’m right.
“What’s that mean?” asks Ivan, slow on the uptake as usual.
It is just the two of us being briefed by the General. Whatever my father has planned in Kenya, it will be the first time Ivan and I will be out on our own. We both know what a prestigious and dangerous mission this is. I’m a little surprised the General chose me for this assignment-for any assignment, really. Could it be that he doesn’t worry about placing me in harm’s way anymore? I decide now is a good time to play the apt pupil, to demonstrate my commitment to Mogadorian progress.
“Assuming they’re in an African village environment,” I explain to Ivan, keeping my words insultingly slow, “it would make slipping in a scout team extremely difficult. They’d know we weren’t locals, and we’d risk tipping our hand to the Loric prematurely. It’s smart planning on the Garde’s part. Isn’t that right, Father?”
“Yes,” my father concedes, “that is correct.”
“Why don’t we just go wipe out this village?” asks Ivan. “Who cares about blending in?”
I snort. “How many incidents like London do you think we can have before the humans start asking questions?”
“So what if they ask questions?”
“You’d endanger the security of the entire war effort to massacre one village, then?”
“Adamus,” says the General, his voice a menacing rumble, “would you like to run this briefing?”
“No, sir,” I reply. Ivan smirks.
“As for your question, Ivanick, subtlety is the correct course of action here.”
I feel Ivan deflate a little next to me. Subtlety is not something I’m sure Ivan even knows the meaning of.
“We have managed to secure you cover identities that will not unduly disturb the locals,” continues my father. “You two will infiltrate this village and determine whether there is indeed a Garde presence. I will have a strike team mobilized in the jungle should you obtain confirmation.”
My father gives me a long look, sizing me up. Then he turns to Ivan.
“Ivanick, you will be in charge. You will report back to me directly.”
Ivan nods eagerly. “Yes, sir. Of course.”
The General turns back to me.
“Adamus,” he says, “do not disappoint me.”
“No, sir,” I reply.
Ivan watches the mosquito bite his forearm, shakily take flight and then plummet dead onto the hut’s wooden floor. Our blood is apparently poisonous to the insects, although that doesn’t stop them from trying. Ivan glowers at the swollen bites reddening his arms.
“We should’ve just wiped this place out,” he grumbles.
The three tanned Italian aid-workers in the hut with us pretend not to have heard him. I don’t know who they think we are, what story they were told to convince them to let us pose as fellow volunteers, but I can tell they’re afraid. I imagine they all have relatives locked in a place like West Virginia, that their complicity is part of some screwed-up deal my people forced on them. I wish I could tell them they weren’t in danger, that this would all be over soon, but that would be a lie.
We arrived in the village yesterday, in a Jeep driven by one of the sullen aid-workers. The place is small, carved out of the encroaching jungle. It’s comprised of huts around a single well and a modest outdoor marketplace. The village is on the road to Nairobi, so its marketplace attracts people from smaller nearby villages, here to trade with each other or sell goods to the tourists that pass by on buses twice a day. There is a small basketball court next to the hut the aid-workers live in, built by their predecessors to help them connect with the locals. Children sprint across the flattened soil, tossing a ragged, dark-brown basketball at the netless hoop.
Ivan and I are the perfect choices to be posing as aid-workers. We’re the right age for it: idealistic teenagers come to volunteer their time between high school and college. It’s the kind of activity that would look great on a kid’s college application. Of course, for Mogadorians, assisting the less fortunate would be viewed as a waste of time.
“Humanitarian aid,” spits One, appearing at my side. “Your people have a sick sense of humor.”
I shake my head. She’s right, but I doubt the General realizes the grotesque irony of our cover. To my people, these aid-workers and the villagers are mere tactical assets, pawns to help us smoke out the Garde that might be hiding in the jungle.
Today the aid-workers have circulated word that they have a new shipment of vaccine for the village youths, something to fight against malaria. One by one the local children line up to grit their teeth and receive a shot.
When the children stop by our tent, Ivan and I study them. Most of them arrive barefoot or in sandals, but the ones wearing sneakers or socks are ordered by Ivan to take off their shoes and socks. None of them finds this strange. Humans are too trusting. There are many kids the age of the one we’re looking for, but none of them bears the Loric scar. Every smooth ankle is a relief to me.
One of the kids receiving his injection stares at Ivan, then says something in Swahili. The other children in line laugh.
“What did he say?” I ask.
The aid-worker with the needle pauses, giving me a nervous look. Then, in shaky English, replies, “He says your friend looks like pale hippo.”
Ivan takes a step towards the boy, but I stop him with a hand on his shoulder.
“The boy’s right,” I tell the aid-worker, “he does look like a hippo.” I flash the boy a thumbs-up, and the children laugh again.
“This is a waste of time,” seethes Ivan, and he stomps into the hut’s backroom, where we’ve stored our equipment. I assume he’s going to report to my father: no Loric found yet; Kenyan children hurt my feelings.
I step outside the hut, watching as the villagers go about a normal day. I can’t help but indulge in a fantasy like I used to when observing Washington DC, about what kind of improvements could be made to this place. This time it’s not a fantasy of conquest; it’s one of assistance. With the technological advancements the Mogadorians are capable of, we could vastly improve these people’s lives.
“Their lives would be most improved,” says One, “if you just left their planet the hell alone.”
“You’re right,” I whisper back, feeling stupid.
On the basketball court, teams are beginning to form up. A boy about fourteen years old sees me watching and waves. When I wave back, he jogs over and says something in what I think is Italian.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I don’t understand.”
“Ah,” says the boy, and I see the wheels turning as he tries to place my language. “English? American?”
I nod. The boy is fit, tall for his age. He is dark skinned, yet a few shades lighter than many of the other villagers, a smattering of sun-born freckles across his cheeks and nose. He looks somehow exotic. He is wearing a tank top and mesh shorts, a pair of worn basketball high-tops and striped high socks. High socks. My stomach drops as I realize who he is.
“Sorry,” he says in slow but perfect English. “The other aid-workers speak Italian. My English is a little rusty.”
“No,” I say, swallowing hard. “It’s very good.”
He steps forward to shake my hand. “I’m Hannu.”
“Like the first man. That’s good, but right now we need a tenth man for even teams.” He gestures over his shoulder at the other kids waiting on the basketball court. “You want to play?”
What I want is to scream at Hannu to run. I glance over my shoulder, wondering where Ivan is. I can’t make this too obvious, can’t make a scene. If Ivan detects anything unusual, he’ll radio in to my father right away. Hannu’s only advantage right now is that my people don’t know who he is. There’s still a chance for him and whoever his Cepan is to slip away undetected.
I need to get him away from the aid-worker’s hut.
“Sure,” I say, although I’ve never so much as touched a basketball. “I’ll play.”
We haven’t gone three steps before Ivan is jogging to catch up to us. The only way to describe his grin is shit eating.
“Adam,” he says, talking to me while sizing up Hannu. “Who’s your new friend?”
“Hannu,” replies the Garde, shaking Ivan’s hand. I can tell by the way Hannu grimaces that Ivan’s grip is vice-like. “Another American. Cool.”
Everything about Hannu is easygoing, even the leisurely way he walks us over to the basketball court. He looks at home here, comfortable. Too comfortable. I wonder how long he’s lived here-how often he’s come to this court to shoot hoops. I think about the paranoid behavior of the other Cepans, the nomadic life that One was forced to endure, the shut-in existence of Two. It seems like Hannu has had such a peaceful time on Earth that he’s forgotten there’s a war on.
Some of the younger children beam at Hannu as he passes by. He pats them on their heads, smiling back, joking with them in Swahili. I wonder how many languages he knows.
“Did you get vaccinated?” Ivan asks, blunt as ever. “I don’t remember you coming by.”
Hannu waves this away with a serene smile. “Me? I’m strong like an ox. Save that for the kids that really need it.”
One of the other kids passes Hannu the ball, and he floats up a shot on a lazy arc. It drops through the basket without even brushing the rim.
“Have you lived here long?” I venture.
“All my life,” he replies. The kids pass the ball back to Hannu, and he flips it over to Ivan. “Take a shot, big man.”
Ivan squeezes the ball so tightly that for a moment I’m afraid it will pop. Then he hurls it towards the basket in an ugly imitation of Hannu’s stroke, the ball clanging wildly off the side of the backboard. Some of the kids, including the one who called Ivan a hippo, laugh.
“Good try,” says Hannu cheerily, winking at the laughing kids.
Ivan’s expression darkens. I jump in, trying to direct the conversation in a way that will raise Hannu’s dormant danger alarms without tipping off Ivan.
“Is it weird to have strangers just showing up at your village?” I ask.
Hannu shrugs. “We get tourists on the bus sometimes.” He glances over at Ivan. “I hope you guys packed sunscreen. Your friend is turning red.”
Ivan grabs my arm before I can form another awkward question. “Come on, Adam. We have work to do.”
Hannu looks disappointed as Ivan drags me away. “Maybe we’ll play later, yeah?”
“I hope so,” I tell him.
As soon as we’re out of earshot, Ivan hisses to me, “That was him!” He looks thrilled. “You might be worthless in a fight, but you can sniff out a Garde better than any of our scouts.”
I glance over my shoulder. Hannu has already put us out of his mind, helping some of the younger kids practice their form.
“We can’t confirm that’s him,” I say.
“Oh, come on, Adamus,” groans Ivan. “I should’ve choked him right out there.”
“You don’t want to waste the General’s time until we can be sure,” I say, trying to buy time. “Plus, even if that is our Garde, you don’t know he’s Number Three.”
Ivan sneers at me, and I can tell his mind is made up. When we get back into the hut, he grabs the nearest aid-worker by the shirt and pulls him over to the window.
“That kid,” he says, pointing at Hannu. “Where does he live?”
The aid-worker hesitates, but I can see the fear in his eyes.
“Not sure,” he mumbles. “Outside the village, I think. Near the ravine.”
“Good enough,” says Ivan, shoving the aid-worker away. He glances at me before disappearing into the backroom. “I’ll tell Father you say hi.”
So that’s it. Soon the strike team will be here. I return to the doorway, watching Hannu dribble past a defender and flip a layup into the basket.
“He’s dense,” observes One, suddenly standing next to me, looking at Hannu. “You have to tell him.”
I nod. No more waiting around, no more planning, no more subtlety. There will never be a more perfect opportunity to defect. I’ve already watched one Loric die because of my uncertainty, because I failed to act in time. I won’t let this one be captured, or worse.
“You’re right,” I whisper back. “Tonight, we escape.”
Night has fallen. The jungle around me is alive with strange noises. I should be worried about what kinds of animals are out there, snapping branches as they stalk me, hissing around my ankles. But there are other, more dangerous predators in the jungle tonight. Ones that I need to stop.
I run through the jungle with only a vague idea of where I’m going. Maybe running isn’t exactly accurate-more like stumbling; it seems like every vine on the jungle floor has a mind to trip me. It’s so dark out here, I’m practically blind. My knees and elbows are scraped from falls, my face cut from the branches slapping against it. Still, I press on toward the ravine.
The communicator on my hip buzzes with static. I swiped it before sneaking out of the aid-worker hut. My plan is simple, the best I can do under such circumstances. Get to Hannu and his Cepan, tell them what’s happening and use the communicator to monitor my people’s movements. Hopefully, with Hannu’s knowledge of the jungle, we’ll be able to stay one step ahead of the soon-to-be-arriving strike team. It won’t be easy-because of the remote location, my father has authorized a larger unit than normal, including a piken-but I know how my people think, how they attack. I can do this.
All I have to do is get to Hannu first. A task this thick jungle isn’t making very easy.
When the jungle begins to thin out before me, moonlight shining through the canopy overhead, I know that I’m close. I can hear rushing water in the distance, the river coursing through the nearby ravine.
And then I see it. A single, solidly built hut. The jungle around it has been painstakingly cleared, leaving a flat expanse that’s littered with angular mahogany equipment. As my eyes adjust, I realize the objects are some kind of homemade obstacle course. So Hannu does more training than just pickup basketball games in the village. That’s good. He’ll need to be agile for what’s to come.
I approach the hut cautiously. The last thing I need is to spook Hannu and his Cepan. If he’s anything like Conrad Hoyle, Hannu’s Cepan might emerge from that hut with guns blazing.
I stop, stiffening, the hair on the back of my neck rising. Footsteps are crashing through the jungle behind me. I break out in a cold sweat despite the African heat.
I turn to see Ivan emerging from the jungle. In the moonlight, I see a trickle of sweat roll down his cheek, his face contorted in a humorless smile.
“Clever Adamus,” he sneers, “thought you’d get away with this.”
He’s on to me.
“With what?” I ask, stalling.
I glance over my shoulder at the hut. There’s no movement inside, the sounds Ivan and I are making drowned out by the jungle. I’ll stop Ivan if I have to, but I hope it won’t come to that. Maybe I can still talk my way out of this.
I walk back towards the edge of the clearing, standing inches away from Ivan.
“Get out of here, Ivan,” I say, trying to sound as intimidating as possible.
He snorts, disbelieving. “What? And let you try to steal all the glory? You’ll probably freeze up again.”
And then I realize what dim-witted Ivan thinks I’m doing out here. He doesn’t think I’ve come to warn Hannu; such treason isn’t even a possibility to him. Ivan thinks I’ve come to capture or kill Hannu myself, just like he assumed I did with Number Two.
“You didn’t even bring any weapons,” Ivan observes mockingly. “Are you going to talk the Loric to death?”
He’s right. I came unarmed, hoping it would help convince Hannu to trust me. Also, I never intended to actually fight my people, only evade them. I hoped that violence could be avoided.
With speed that surprises Ivan, I snake my hand forward and rip the dagger off his belt. His jaw drops when I hurl the weapon into the jungle.
“Adamus,” he exclaims, sounding hurt, like a kid who’s had his favorite toy broken. “What the hell? You better help me look for that.”
I grab Ivan by the front of his shirt and put my face in his. He’s surprised again, not used to being manhandled. I stare into his eyes, trying to reach him. I know it’s crazy, but Ivan used to be my best friend, despite everything. I have to believe that he’ll still listen to me.
“Why do this?” I ask. “Killing them won’t heal our planet. It won’t lead to Mogadorian progress. It’ll only lead to more killing. More life wasted. Is that what you want?”
“What the hell are you talking about, Adamus?”
He stares at me, dumbfounded. I shake him.
“We don’t always get along,” I continue, “but you’re like a brother to me. You trust me, don’t you?”
Mutely, Ivan nods his head.
“Then trust me when I tell you that everything we’ve been told is wrong,” I say desperately. “Our cause is unjust, Ivan. We can change that. You can help me work towards-toward real Mogadorian progress.”
I can see him trying to make sense of my words, confusion on his face. He looks away from me, over my shoulder, to the hut where Hannu and his Cepan sleep. For a moment I allow myself to think that I’ve gotten through to him.
Then he shoves me away. He’s finally realized what I’m up to, and it disgusts him.
“I always knew you were weak, Adamus,” hisses Ivan, “but not a traitor too.”
That settles it.
I unclip the communicator from my belt and slam it into the side of Ivan’s face.
I had hoped the blow would knock Ivan out. I should’ve known better.
Ivan is back on his feet before I can create some distance between us. He doesn’t even register the trickle of blood from the cut I made above his eyebrow. That dead look I’ve seen in his eyes during a dozen training sessions comes on, and he’s barreling towards me.
Ivan drives his shoulder into my stomach and lifts me, hurling me into a tree. The air explodes out of my lungs in a wet cough. Ivan grabs a handful of my hair and slams my head into the tree. Stars flash across my vision; I struggle to stay conscious.
Desperately, I kick at Ivan, my shin connecting solidly with his groin. He doubles over, retching, and drops me.
I stumble backward, into the jungle, shaking the cobwebs out of my head. Ivan is on me again before I have a chance to regroup, delivering a two-punch combination to my chest, followed by an uppercut that sends me tumbling over a fallen tree trunk. I scuttle backwards on my hands, running my tongue over the gap where my tooth used to be.
“You can do better than that,” says One, sitting cross-legged on the tree trunk.
“Shut up,” I mutter.
Ivan leaps onto the tree trunk, standing above me. He points over his shoulder, a wild look in his eyes.
“You want to fight me for them?” he snarls. “For some Loric trash? You’re choosing them over us?”
“Then you can die with them!”
Ivan jumps off the log, intending to stomp my face. I roll away at the last moment, kicking him in the side of the knee as he lands. I hear something snap inside Ivan’s leg, and he howls with pain.
I scramble to my feet. Center myself, regain my balance. Ivan lunges towards me, now limping slightly, but this time I’m ready for him. I deflect his punches-all straight ahead, angrily telegraphed-using his own momentum and speed against him. It’s something I never tried in our sparring sessions, but it’s exactly what Hilde had been teaching Number One.
Ivan comes at me again, frustrated, his blows more furious than ever. I duck under them and when he’s off balance, drive the heel of my hand into his nose. His feet go out from under him.
I step down on Ivan’s throat, thinking of Number Two and the way he stepped on her neck. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a flicker of light coming from the direction of Hannu’s hut. But maybe it’s just my imagination.
“Not so easy when someone hits back, huh?” I say.
Ivan shoves my foot away, but I catch his wrist in both of my hands. He pulls me to the ground and tries to climb on top of me. He punches wildly at me with his free hand, but I’m in control. I whip my legs up and slip one leg under his chin, the other behind his head, then pull down on his head with both of my hands, choking him.
It takes a full minute for Ivan to lose consciousness, punching me in the ribs the whole time with decreasing force. When it’s over, I shove his body away, lying on my back. I’m hurting all over, but I’m alive.
Around me, the jungle has grown eerily quiet.
But then I hear the hiss of orders broadcast across the half-broken communicator discarded in the dirt a few feet away, and I know what’s coming.
I’m too late.
I manage to get to my feet and stagger towards the hut. I notice shadows lurking in the jungle around me, the scouts maintaining a perimeter.
In the hut’s doorway, the crumpled body of a fifty-year-old man bleeds from a vicious sword wound. Hannu’s Cepan. Dead like the other Cepans. Which means they must have discovered the boy is Number Three.
I feel like sinking to my knees, like giving up. I’ve thrown my entire life away tonight-I can never go home again; they’ll know me as a traitor. I’ll be spending the rest of my life running and hiding, hunted, just like the Garde. And for what? I didn’t even manage to help Hannu. I was too late, took too long fighting with Ivan. I’ve accomplished nothing.
Suddenly the back wall of the hut explodes outward, splinters cascading in all directions. There is Hannu, alive, running-and running fast. Faster than humanly possible. He takes off before my people have a chance to close in, speeding towards the ravine.
There’s still a chance.
There’s no way that I can keep up with Hannu, but I run as fast as my body will allow, breath whistling painfully through my lungs. There are other pursuers nearby; I can hear them crashing through the jungle. Even with all the other scents in the jungle, I can still smell the acidic tang of piken breath as one charges towards the ravine. If I can only find a way to get to Hannu first, maybe I can still help him.
The sound of rushing water grows louder. I don’t know how Hannu plans to cross the ravine. Maybe he’s strong enough to jump it. Maybe he knows some secret way down. It doesn’t matter, as long as he gets away. If he does, there is hope.
I see Hannu’s silhouette nearing the edge of the ravine, maybe thirty yards from where I’m standing. There is a piken close on his heels. I’m afraid for him-he doesn’t have anywhere to go-but when Hannu reaches the edge of the ravine he jumps, landing safely on the other side. It’s a jump I could never make, and neither can the piken.
Except: My father is waiting for him on the other side of the ravine. There is nothing more Hannu can do. The General grabs the boy and lifts him easily. He cuts a striking image, like a Mogadorian hero culled right from the Great Book.
He hesitates for a moment, observing his prize, then tears what I know is the pendant from Hannu’s neck and stuffs it into his cloak.
There’s no way across the ravine. I can only watch as my father laughs, then pulls his sword from its scabbard. Its glowing shaft pierces the night before he plunges it through Hannu’s chest and then drops him callously to the ground. He’s dead.
One is screaming inside my head. Or is that me?
The General stares across the ravine. For a moment, our eyes lock.
I hear haggard footsteps approaching me from behind. I know what they mean, but I don’t turn to face them.
My brief rebellion is at an end.
“Good-bye, Adamus,” hisses Ivan as he slams both his hands into my back, shoving me over the edge of the ravine, towards the rocks and water below.
The sun is warm on my face, in wonderful contrast to the cool saltiness of the ocean breeze. I relax back on my elbows and close my eyes. I turn my face up towards the sun, soaking in the California rays.
When I open my eyes, One is sitting on the sand next to me. She is so beautiful. Her blond hair is loose, brushing lightly across her bare shoulders. This is wonderful. Such a pleasant sensation. I can’t ever remember feeling so content.
Why does she look so stricken?
“Adam,” she says, “you have to wake up.”
“Wake up from what?” I ask, feeling not a care in the world.
I reach out and take her hand. One doesn’t pull away; she just stares into my eyes with a pleading look.
“You have to wake up,” she repeats.
I feel a sudden chill. Somehow, my body is in two places at once. The other place is wet and cold. Painful. My body is tossed across rocks, buffeted endlessly by a forceful current. I can feel that some of my bones are broken, sharp pains slicing up and down my body.
I push that reality aside. I try to focus on California.
“Please, wake up,” One pleads.
“But it’s so nice here.”
“If you stay here, you’ll die.”
When I open my mouth to respond, muddy river water spills out. I gasp for breath, choking, struggling. The current is strong, pulling me downward.
But that doesn’t make sense. I’m on a beach in California. All the pain is somewhere else, happening to someone else. One looks so sad and desperate, I have to turn away.
The sun is just beginning to set over the ocean, the sky turning orange and purple. Soon it will be dark, and I’ll be able to rest.
“Wake up and fight,” begs One. “Please, Adam.”
I don’t know if I can.
Don’t miss Book Three in the New York Times bestselling I Am Number Four series.
6A. Seriously? I look at the boarding pass in my hand, its large type announcing my seat assignment, and wonder if Crayton chose this seat on purpose. It could be a coincidence, but the way things have gone recently, I am not a big believer in coincidences. I wouldn’t be surprised if Marina sat down behind me in row seven, and Ella made her way back to row ten. But, no, the two girls drop down beside me without saying a word, and join me in studying each person boarding the plane. Being hunted, you are constantly on guard. Who knows when the Mogadorians might appear.
Crayton will board last, after he’s watched to see who else gets on the plane, and only once he feels the flight is absolutely secure.
I raise the window shade and watch the ground crew hustle back and forth under the plane. The city of Barcelona is a faint outline in the distance.
Marina’s knee bounces furiously up and down next to mine. The battle against an army of Mogadorians yesterday at the lake, the death of her Cepan, finding her Chest-and now, it’s the first time in almost ten years that she’s left the town where she spent her childhood. She’s nervous.
“Everything okay?” I ask. My newly blond hair falls into my face and startles me. I forgot I dyed it this morning. It’s just one of many changes in the last forty-eight hours.
“Everyone looks normal,” Marina whispers, keeping her eyes on the crowded aisle. “We’re safe, as far as I can tell.”
“Good, but that’s not what I meant.” I gently set my foot on hers and she stops bouncing her knee. She offers me a quick apologetic smile before returning to her close watch of each boarding passenger. A few seconds later, her knee starts bouncing again. I just shake my head.
I feel sorry for Marina. She was locked up in an isolated orphanage with a Cepan who refused to train her. Her Cepan had lost sight of why we are here on Earth in the first place. I’m doing my best to help her, to fill in the gaps. I can train her to learn how to control her strength and when to use her developing Legacies. But first I’m trying to show her that it’s okay to trust me.
The Mogadorians will pay for what they’ve done. For taking so many who we’ve loved, here on Earth and on Lorien. It’s my personal mission to destroy every last one of them, and I’ll be sure Marina gets her revenge too. Not only did she just lose her best friend, Hector, back at the lake, but, like me, her Cepan was killed right in front of her. We will both carry that with us forever.
“How is it down there, Six?” Ella asks, leaning over Marina.
I turn back towards the window. The men below the plane begin to clear away their equipment, conducting a few last-minute checks. “So far, so good.”
My seat is directly over the wing, which is comforting to me. On more than one occasion I’ve had to use my Legacies to help a pilot out of a jam. Once, over southern Mexico, I used my telekinesis to push the plane a dozen degrees to the right, only seconds before crashing into the side of a mountain. Last year I got 124 passengers safely through a vicious thunderstorm over Kansas by surrounding the plane with an impervious cloud of cool air. We shot through the storm like a bullet through a balloon.
When the ground crew moves on to the next plane, I follow Ella’s gaze towards the front of the aisle. We’re both impatient for Crayton to board. That will mean everything is okay, at least for now. Every seat is full but the one behind Ella. Where is he? I glance out at the wing again, scanning the area for anything out of the ordinary.
I lean down and shove my backpack under my seat. It’s practically empty, so it folds down easily. Crayton bought it for me at the airport. The three of us need to look like normal teenagers, he says, like high school students on a field trip. That’s why there’s a biology textbook on Ella’s lap.
“Six?” Marina asks. I hear her buckle and unbuckle her seat belt nervously.
“Yeah?” I respond.
“You’ve flown before, right?”
Marina is only a year older than I am. But with her solemn, thoughtful eyes and her new, sophisticated haircut that falls just below her shoulders, she can easily pass for an adult. Right now, however, she bites her nails and pulls her knees up to her chest like a scared child.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s not so bad. In fact, once you relax, it’s kind of awesome.”
Sitting there on the plane, my thoughts turn in the direction of my own Cepan, Katarina. Not that I ever flew with her. But when I was nine years old, we had a close call in a Cleveland alley with a Mogadorian that left us both shaken and covered in a thick layer of ash. Katarina moved us to Southern California after that. Our crumbling, two-story bungalow was near the beach, practically in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport. A hundred planes roared overhead every hour, always interrupting Katarina’s teaching as well as the little free time I had to spend with my only friend, a skinny girl next door named Ashley.
I lived under those airplanes for seven months. They were my alarm clock in the morning, screaming directly over my bed as the sun rose. At night they were ominous ghosts telling me to stay awake, to be prepared to rip off my sheets and jump in the car in a matter of seconds. Since Katarina didn’t let me stray far from the house, the airplanes were also the sound track of my afternoons.
On one of those afternoons, as the vibrations from an enormous plane overhead shook the lemonade in our plastic cups, Ashley said, “Me and my mom are going to visit my grandparents next month. I can’t wait! Have you ever been on a plane?” Ashley was always talking about all the places she went and things she did with her family. She knew Katarina and I stayed close to home and she liked to brag.
“Not really,” I said.
“What do you mean, ‘Not really’? You’ve either been on a plane, or you haven’t. Just admit it. You haven’t.”
I remember feeling my face burn with embarrassment. Her challenge hit its mark. I finally said, “No, I’ve never been on an airplane.” I wanted to tell her I’ve been on something much bigger, something much more impressive than a little airplane. I wanted her to know I came to Earth on a ship from another planet called Lorien and the trip had covered more than one hundred million miles. I didn’t, though, because I knew I had to keep Lorien secret.
Ashley laughed at me. Without saying good-bye, she left to wait for her dad to come home from work.
“Why haven’t we ever been on a plane?” I asked Katarina that night as she peered out the blinds of my bedroom window.
“Six,” she said, turning to me before correcting herself. “I mean, Veronica. It’s too dangerous for us to travel by plane. We’d be trapped up there. You know what could happen if we were thousands of miles in the air and then found out Mogs had followed us on board?”
I knew exactly what could happen. I could picture the chaos, the other passengers screaming and ducking under their seats as a couple of huge alien soldiers barreled down the aisle with swords. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to do something so normal, so human, as to fly on a plane from one city to the next. I’d spent all my time on Earth unable to do the things other kids my age took for granted. We rarely even stayed in one place long enough for me to meet other kids, let alone make friends-Ashley was the first girl Katarina even allowed over to our house. Sometimes, like in California, I didn’t even attend school, if Katarina thought it was safer.
I knew why all this was necessary, of course. Usually, I didn’t let it bother me. But Katarina could tell that Ashley’s superior attitude had gotten under my skin. My silence the following days must have cut through her, because to my surprise she bought us two round-trip airline tickets to Denver. The destination didn’t matter-she knew I just wanted the experience.
I couldn’t wait to tell Ashley.
But on the day of the trip, standing outside the airport, Katarina hesitated. She seemed nervous. She ran her hand through her short black hair. She had dyed and cut it the night before, just before making herself a new ID. A family of five walked around us on the curb, dragging heavy luggage, and to my left a tearful mother said good-bye to her two young daughters. I wanted nothing more than to join in, to be a part of this everyday scene. Katarina watched everyone around us while I fidgeted impatiently by her side.
“No,” Katarina finally said. “We’re not going. I’m sorry, Veronica, but it’s not worth it.”
We drove home in silence, letting the screaming engines of the planes passing overhead speak for us. When we got out of the car on our street, I saw Ashley sitting on her front steps. She looked at me walking towards our house and mouthed the word liar. The humiliation was almost too much to bear.
But, really, I was a liar. It’s ironic. Lying was all I had done since I’d arrived on Earth. My name, where I was from, where my father was, why I couldn’t stay the night at another girl’s house-lying was all I knew and it was what kept me alive. But when Ashley called me a liar the one time I was telling someone the truth, I was unspeakably angry. I stormed up to my room, slammed the door, and punched the wall.
To my surprise, my fist went straight through.
Katarina slammed my door open, wielding a kitchen knife and ready to strike. She thought the noise she’d heard must be Mogs. When she saw what I had done to the wall, she realized that something had changed with me. She lowered the blade and smiled. “Today’s not the day you get on a plane, but it is the day you’re going to start your training.”
Seven years later, sitting on this plane with Marina and Ella, I hear Katarina’s voice in my head. “We’d be trapped up there.” But I’m ready for that possibility now, in ways that Katarina and I weren’t.
I’ve since flown dozens of times, and everything has gone fine. However, this is the first time I’ve done it without using my invisibility Legacy to sneak on board. I know I’m much stronger now. And I’m getting stronger by the day. If a couple of Mog soldiers charged at me from the front of the plane, they wouldn’t be dealing with a meek young girl. I know what I’m capable of; I am a soldier now, a warrior. I am someone to fear, not hunt.
Marina lets go of her knees and sits up straight, releasing a long breath. In a barely audible voice, she says, “I’m scared. I just want to get in the air.”
“You’ll be fine,” I say in a low voice.
She smiles, and I smile back at her. Marina proved herself to be a strong ally with amazing Legacies on the battlefield yesterday. She can breathe underwater, see in the dark and heal the sick and wounded. Like all Garde, she also has telekinesis. And because we’re so close in order-I’m Number Six and she’s Number Seven-our bond is special. When the charm still held and we had to be killed in order, the Mogadorians would have had to get through me before they could get to her. And they never would have gotten through me.
Ella sits silently on the other side of Marina. As we continue to wait for Crayton, she opens the biology book on her lap and stares at the pages. Our charade does not demand this level of concentration and I’m about to lean over and tell her, but then I see she isn’t reading at all. She is trying to turn the page with her mind, trying to use telekinesis, but nothing’s happening.
Ella is what Crayton calls an Aeternus, someone born with the ability to move back and forth between ages. But she’s still young and her Legacies have not yet developed. They will come in their own time, no matter how impatiently she wills them to develop now.
Ella came to Earth on another ship, one I didn’t know existed until John Smith, Number Four, told me he saw it in his visions. She was just a baby, which means she’s almost twelve now. Crayton says he is her unofficial Cepan, since there wasn’t time for him to be officially appointed to her. He, like all of our Cepans, has a duty to help Ella develop her Legacies. He told us that there was also a small herd of Chim?ra on their ship, Loric animals capable of shifting forms and battling alongside us.
I’m happy she’s here. After Numbers One, Two, and Three died, only six of us remained. With Ella, we number seven. Lucky number seven, if you believe in luck. I don’t, though. I believe in strength.
Finally, Crayton squeezes down the aisle, carrying a black briefcase. He’s wearing eyeglasses and a brown suit that looks too big for him. Under his strong chin is a blue bow tie. He’s supposed to be our teacher.
“Hello, girls,” he says, stopping next to us.
“Hi, Mr. Collins,” Ella responds.
“It’s a full flight,” Marina says. That’s code for everyone on board looks okay. To tell him everything on the ground appears normal, I say, “I’m going to try to sleep.”
He nods and takes his seat directly behind Ella. Leaning forward between Marina and Ella, he says, “Use your time on the plane wisely, please. Study hard.”
That means, don’t let your guard down.
I didn’t know what to think of Crayton when we first met. He’s stern and quick tempered, but his heart seems to be in the right place and his knowledge of the world and current events is incredible. Official or not, he has taken his Cepan role seriously. He says he would die for any one of us. He will do anything to defeat the Mogadorians; anything to exact our revenge. I believe him on all counts.
However, it’s with reluctance that I’m on this plane headed to India at all. I wanted to get back to the United States as soon as possible, to get back to John and Sam. But yesterday, standing on top of the dam overlooking the carnage at the lake, Crayton told us that Setrakus Ra, the powerful Mogadorian leader, would be on Earth soon, if he wasn’t here already. That Setrakus Ra’s arrival was a sign that the Mogadorians understood we were a threat, and we should expect them to step up their campaign to kill us. Setrakus Ra is more or less invincible. Only Pittacus Lore, the most powerful of all the Lorien Elders, would have been able to defeat him. We were horrified. What did that mean for the rest of us then, if he was invincible? When Marina asked this, asked how any of us could possibly stand a chance of defeating him, Crayton told us even more shocking news, knowledge that all the Cepans had been entrusted with. One of the Garde-one of us-was supposed to hold the same powers as Pittacus. One of us was supposed to grow as strong as he had been, and would be able to beat Setrakus Ra. We just had to hope that that Garde wasn’t One, Two, or Three, that it was one of the ones still alive. If so, we had a chance. We just had to wait and see who it was, and hope that these powers showed themselves soon.
Crayton thinks he’s found him-the Garde who holds Pittacus’ powers.
“I’ve read about a boy who seems to have extraordinary powers in India,” he told us then. “He lives high up in the Himalayas. Some believe him to be the Hindu god Vishnu reincarnated; others believe the boy is an alien imposter with the power to physically alter his form.”
“Like me, Papa?” Ella had asked. Their father-daughter relationship took me by surprise. I couldn’t help but feel a touch of jealousy-jealousy that she still had her Cepan, someone to turn to for guidance.
“He’s not changing ages, Ella. He’s changing into beasts and other beings. The more I read about him, the more I believe he is a member of the Garde, and the more I believe he may be the one to possess all of the Legacies, the one who can fight and kill Setrakus Ra. We need to find him as soon as possible.”
I don’t want to be on a wild goose chase for another member of the Garde right now. I know where John is, or where he is supposed to be. I can hear Katarina’s voice, urging me to follow my instincts, which are telling me we should connect with John first before anything else. It’s the least risky move. Certainly less risky than flying around the world based on Crayton’s hunch and rumors on the internet.
“It could be a trap,” I said. “What if those stories were planted for us to find so we would do exactly this?”
“I understand your concern, Six, but, trust me, I’m the master of planting stories on the internet. This is no plant. There are far too many sources pointing to this boy in India. He hasn’t been running. He hasn’t been hiding. He’s just being, and he appears to be very powerful. If he is one of you, then we must get to him before the Mogadorians do. We’ll go to America to meet up with Number Four as soon as this trip is over,” Crayton said.
Marina looked at me. She wanted to find John almost as much as I did-she’d been following the news of his exploits online and she’d had a similar feeling in her gut that he was one of us, a feeling I had confirmed for her. “Promise?” she asked Crayton. He nodded.
The captain’s voice breaks through my reverie. We’re about to take off. I want so badly to redirect the plane to point it towards West Virginia. Towards John and Sam. I hope they’re okay. Images of John being held in a prison cell keep entering my mind. I never should have told him about the Mog base in the mountain, but John wanted to get his Chest back and there was no way I could convince him to leave it behind.
The plane taxis down the runway and Marina grabs my wrist. “I really wish Hector was here. He’d have something smart to say right now to make me feel better.”
“It’s okay,” Ella says, holding Marina’s other hand. “You have us.”
“And I’ll work on something smart to say,” I offer.
“Thanks,” Marina says, though it sounds like something between a hiccup and a gulp. I let her nails dig into my wrist. I give her a supportive smile, and a minute later we’re airborne.
I’ve been in and out of consciousness for the past two days, rolling back and forth in a hallucinating sickness. The effects from the blue force field outside the Mogadorians’ mountain have lingered far longer than Nine told me they would, both mentally and physically. Every few minutes, my muscles seize and sear with pain.
I try to distract myself from the agony by looking around the tiny bedroom of this decaying, abandoned house. Nine couldn’t have picked a more disgusting place for us to hide. I can’t trust my eyes. I watch the pattern on the yellow wallpaper come to life, the design marching like ants over patches of mold. The cracked ceiling appears to breathe, rising and falling at frightening speeds. There’s a large jagged hole in the wall that separates the bedroom and living room, as if someone tossed a sledgehammer through it. Smashed beer cans are strewn around the room, and the baseboards have been torn to shreds by animals. I’ve been hearing things rustling in the trees outside the house, but I’m too weak to be alarmed. Last night I woke to find a cockroach on my cheek. I barely had the energy to swat it off.
“Hey, Four?” I hear through the hole in the wall. “You awake or what? It’s time for lunch and your food’s getting cold.”
I heave myself to my feet. My head spins as I stumble through the doorway into what used to be the living room, and I collapse on the dingy gray carpet. I know Nine’s in here, but I can’t keep my eyes open long enough to find him. All I want is to lay my head in Sarah’s lap. Or in Six’s. Either one. I can’t think straight.
Something warm hits my shoulder. I roll over to see Nine sitting on the ceiling above me, his long black hair hanging down into the room. He’s gnawing on something and his hands are greasy.
“Where are we again?” I ask. The sunlight coming through the windows is too much and I close my eyes. I need more sleep. I need something, anything, to clear my head and regain my strength. My fingers fumble over my blue pendant, hoping to somehow gather energy through it, but it remains cold against my chest.
“The northern part of West Virginia,” Nine says between bites. “Ran out of gas, remember?”
“Barely,” I whisper. “Where’s Bernie Kosar?”
“Outside. That one is always on patrol. He is one cool animal. Tell me, Four, how did you of all the Garde end up with him?”
I crawl into the corner of the room and push my back up against a wall. “BK was with me on Lorien. His name was Hadley back then. I guess Henri thought it would be good to bring him along for the trip.”
Nine throws a tiny bone across the ceiling. “I had a couple of Chim?ras as a kid too. Don’t remember their names, but I can still see them running around our house tearing stuff up. They died in the war, protecting my family.” Nine is silent for a moment, clenching his jaw. This is the first time I’ve seen him act anything other than tough. It’s nice to see, even if it’s short lived. “At least, that’s what my Cepan told me.”
I stare at my bare feet. “What was your Cepan’s name?”
“Sandor,” he says, standing up on the ceiling. He’s wearing my shoes. “It’s weird. I literally can’t remember the last time I said his name out loud. Some days, I can barely picture his face.” Nine’s voice hardens, and he closes his eyes. “But that’s how it goes, I guess. Whatever. They’re the expendable ones.”
His last sentence sends shockwaves through me. “Henri was not expendable, and neither was Sandor! No Loric was ever expendable. And give me back my shoes!”
Nine kicks my shoes into the middle of the floor, then takes his time walking first along the ceiling and then down the back wall. “All right, all right. I know he wasn’t expendable, man. Sometimes it’s just easier to think of him that way, you know? Truth is, Sandor was an amazing Cepan.” Nine reaches the floor and towers over me. I forgot how tall he is. Intimidating. He shoves a handful of what he’s been eating in my face. “You want some of this or not? Because I’m about to finish it off.”
The sight of it makes my stomach churn. “What is it?”
“Barbecued rabbit. Nature’s finest.”
I don’t dare open my mouth to respond, afraid that I might get sick. Instead, I stumble back towards the bedroom, ignoring the laughter that follows me. The bedroom door is so warped it’s nearly impossible to close, but I wedge it into the doorframe as tightly as I can. I lie down on the floor, using my sweatshirt as a pillow, and think about how I ended up here, ended up like this. Without Henri. Without Sam. Sam is my best friend, and I can’t believe we left him behind. As thoughtful and loyal and supportive as Sam is-traveling and fighting alongside me for the last several months-Nine is so very not. He’s reckless, arrogant, selfish and just flat-out rude. I picture Sam, back in the Mog cave, a gun rocking against his shoulder as a dozen Mogadorian soldiers swarmed him. I couldn’t get to him. I couldn’t save him. I should have fought harder, run faster. I should have ignored Nine and gone back to Sam. He would have done that for me. The immense amount of guilt I feel paralyzes me, until I finally fall asleep.
It’s dark. I’m no longer in a house in the mountains with Nine. I no longer feel the painful effects of the blue force field. My head is finally clear, although I don’t know where I am, or how I got here. When I shout for help, I can’t hear my voice even though I feel my lips moving. I shuffle ahead, hands out in front of me. My palms suddenly start to glow with my Lumen. The light is dim at first but quickly grows into two powerful beams.
“John.” A hoarse whisper says my name.
I whip my hands around to see where I am, but the light reveals only empty darkness. I’m entering a vision. I angle my palms towards the ground so my Lumen will light my way, and start towards the voice. The hoarse whisper keeps repeating my name over and over. It sounds young and full of fear. Then comes another voice, gruff and staccato, barking orders.
The voices become clearer. It’s Sam, my lost friend, and Setrakus Ra, my worst enemy. I can tell I’m nearing the Mogadorian base. I can see the blue force field, the source of so much pain. For some reason, I know it won’t hurt me now, and I don’t hesitate to pass through it. When I do, it’s not my screams I hear, but Sam’s. His tortured voice fills my head as I enter the mountain and move through its mazelike tunnels. I see the charred remains of our recent battle, from when I tossed a ball of green lava at the gas tanks at the mountain’s bottom, sending a sea of fire raging upwards. I move through the main cavernous hall and its spiraling ledges. I step onto the arched stone bridge Sam and I so recently crossed under the cloak of invisibility. I keep going, passing through tributaries and corridors, all while being forced to listen to my best friend’s crippling howls.
I know where I’m going before I get there. The steady incline of the floor lands me in the wide room lined with prison cells.
There they are. Setrakus Ra is standing in the middle of the room. He is huge and truly revolting looking. And there’s Sam. He’s suspended inside a small spherical cage next to him. His own private torture bubble. Sam’s arms are stretched high above his head and his legs are splayed, held in place with chains. A series of pipes are dripping steaming liquid onto various parts of Sam’s body. Blood has pooled and dried under the cage.
I stop ten feet away from them. Setrakus Ra senses my presence and turns around, the three Loric pendants from other Garde children he has killed dangling from his massive neck. The scar circling his throat pulses with a dark energy.
“We missed each other,” Setrakus Ra growls.
I open my mouth but nothing comes out. Sam’s blue eyes turn in my direction, but I can’t tell if he sees me.
More hot liquid drips from the pipes, hitting Sam in the wrists, chest, knees and feet. A thick stream flows onto his cheek and rolls down his neck. Seeing Sam tortured finally gives me a voice.
“Let him go!” I shout.
Setrakus Ra’s eyes harden. The pendants around his neck glow and mine responds, lighting up as well. The blue Loralite gem is hot against my skin, and then it suddenly bursts into flames, my Legacy taking over. I allow the fire to crawl along my shoulders.
“I’ll let him go,” he says, “if you come back to the mountain and fight me.”
I glance quickly over at Sam and see that he has lost his battle with the pain and has blacked out, chin resting on his chest.
Setrakus Ra points to Sam’s withered body and says, “You must decide. If you don’t come, I’ll kill him and then I’ll kill the rest of them. If you do, I’ll let them all live.”
I hear a voice yelling my name, telling me I have to move. Nine. I sit up with a gasp and my eyes snap open. I’m covered in a thin layer of sweat. I stare through the jagged hole of broken drywall and it takes me a few seconds to get my bearings.
“Dude! Get up!” Nine yells from the other side of the door. “There’s a ton of stuff we need to do!”
I get to my knees and fumble around my neck for my pendant. I squeeze it as hard as I can, trying to get Sam’s screams out of my head. The bedroom door swings open. Nine stands in the doorway, wiping his face with the back of his hand. “Seriously, bro. Get your shit together. We need to get out of here.”