Authors: Luellen, Karen
Book 2 of Winter’s Saga
By Karen Luellen
Published by Karen Luellen
Copyright 2011 Karen Luellen
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An angry, guttural growl echoed from the darkened hospital room.
Glowing yellow eyes only a few yards away locked on Farrow Schone and in that instant, she knew it could smell her blood, hear her heart racing, and see the pulse in her exposed neck.
Farrow had never felt more like a piece of meat than she did right then.
Oh, crap!She thought and began backing slowly away from the opening of the door, but as she did, the creature crouched low and coiled its legs tightly under its muscular body, ready to spring.
Farrow could see now it was some kind of wild dog—a wolf or coyote, maybe.
…whatever it was, it was huge, and pissed-off.
Its piercing eyes were mesmerizing, hypnotic.
Its snarling muzzle exposed flesh-tearing teeth glistening wet with saliva.
There was no way she was going to be allowed anywhere near the people in that room.
Not wanting to cause a scene or get mauled, Farrow made a hasty exit.
Her orders were only to put eyes on the Winters and determine who was alive and who wasn’t. Dr. Williams was going to be livid to know they all survived. Farrow was also to collect Gavil and catch a flight back to Germany where she had no doubt all hell was going to break loose.
One week after the rescue of
Dr. Margo Winter
Dr. Kenneth Williams’ training camp called “The Facility” in Furth, Germany
Black laces, measured perfectly, slipped like silk through the metal holes of his military boots. Practiced fingers gripped each cross section and worked their way up the tongue until the top most position when both ends were tugged taught. He wrapped them once around, tied a quick double knotted bow and tucked the excess lace into the top of the boot.
Creed Young stood and swept his large hands over the wrinkles that had quickly formed in his freshly pressed military fatigues. His olive green T-shirt stretched tightly across his wide chest, barely containing his massive physique. His chiseled face was stoic, marble and expressionless as he reached to retrieve his beret.
This was the day for which he had been trained. This was the day of his Retribution. In all the years he lived at the Facility, he had watched many Retribution Matches. Watched the two metas sent into the arena together and ordered to “Kill, or be killed.” The battles were brutal. Even for the audience filled with hard-core metahumans trained to believe weakness needed to be stomped out. The Matches brought out the primal, vicious and evil. This wasn’t just a friendly competition to see who would come out on top. This was survival of the fittest in its most primitive sense. This was Darwinism deformed, but it was Creed’s way of life; all he’d ever known. And today was his day.
From outside he heard the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd. His opponent must be hearing this, too. He wondered who was chosen to enter the arena with him. What was he thinking? How did he feel about the terms of the battle? How determined was he to win? When it came down to it, Creed wondered if he would be able to kill his opponent, as required by the rules of the event.
In the mirror, the eighteen-year-old stared at his reflection and tightened his jaw. Creed struggled with this part of his discipline. He struggled simply obeying an order just because it had been handed down. Every other meta just did as they were told. They were unquestioning, unthinking and uninhibited by their thoughts.
Creed was different from the others, and he knew it. The hard part was making sure no one else knew it. He was skilled at disguising his thoughts and feelings with an expressionless face. He knew the consequences of being different. Over the years he witnessed several cases where perfectly viable metahumans were removed from the Facility for lesser infractions than individual mindedness. And they were never seen again.
But Creed made sure that didn’t happen to him. He kept his thoughts to himself. Outwardly, he looked like the perfect meta specimen. He stood six feet, two inches and weighed in at two hundred fifty pounds. He could bench press nine hundred fifty pounds. He was solid muscle, responsive, accurate and a highly trained martial artist and weapons expert. More than just physical agility, he also had mental agility. To call Creed “intelligent” would be an understatement. To call him “deadly” would be accurate.
The crowd’s roars echoed louder off the cement walls of the locker room in which Creed stood. It was time to begin; time for Retribution.
One deep breath was all he allowed himself before he turned toward the door and marched across the room, opened it and jogged down the hall.
Stepping into the arena was mind-blowing. This was the first time he had seen it from this point of view. Previously, he was in the stands where the rowdy crowd stood now. Life was very different from this vantage point. It was terrifying, surreal and eerily energizing. He stood bracing himself against the blaring lights, the deafening crowd and the vibrations of adrenaline cutting his body like ice.
Then he saw his opponent.
Oh no...no, no, nois all he kept thinking as realization sunk in. There, across the arena, stood his own flesh and blood. He had been pitted against his brother, Gavil.
Memories flooded Creed as he watched his brother’s mouth twitch slightly in what was most definitely a smile. Powerful memories of his brother’s numerous “lessons” that left Creed bloody and broken on the ground, ripped through his body. Time and again the two boys, who had been told they came from the same donor parents, had come to blows. Nothing Creed ever did was good enough for Gavil.
Then, as puberty sneaked up, it was Creed whose body transformed so dramatically. Creed, who had grown up as his older brother’s punching bag, was taller, stronger, faster and smarter than Gavil now.
Gavil would have none of it, though. He continued to torment Creed with vicious beatings until the day a year ago when Creed had enough. It was a taunting like any other. Gavil was snickering as he covered Creed’s dinner in sand and laughed and ridiculed him, just as he had countless times before. But something was different that night.
Something snapped inside Creed. He attacked Gavil and beat him to a whimpering, bloody pulp.
The boys had not spoken since and seemed to mutually work to avoid each other on the campus. Their paths didn’t usually cross because Gavil was two years older than Creed and slept in a different part of the men’s dormitory.
Creed felt avenged and empty at the same time. He knew nothing of his life outside The Facility. Gavil was his only connection to the world beyond the compound. He only knew they were born overseas, in the Americas. All Creed remembered, though, was life here in their German compound.
But Gavil was two years older and had more memories of when they were brought here. Creed always wanted to know what happened. Who were their parents? Why did they give the brothers up? Did they have a family somewhere? He wanted a brother to love, instead he had Gavil and he couldn’t stop himself from feeling only hatred for him.
These thoughts churned through Creed’s mind as he watched his brother casually stretch as if preparing himself for an easy run. A deep, bellowing horn blew, sucking all the noise from the crowd as if in a vacuum. Commander Oldham’s familiar voice echoed around the silent faces.
“Welcome! We’re here to witness the Retribution of two worthy metas. Twenty-year-old Gavil Young is defender and eighteen-year-old Creed Young is the new-comer. As some of you may know, this Retribution is especially interesting because not only are the two opponents similarly matched in abilities, but they are also blood brothers,” Commander Oldham’s voice rose appropriately for the juicy announcement and the audience responded. Screams of wild excitement crashed like waves over Creed.
“It’s time to begin. Retribution-ers, you know the rules. This is hand-to-hand combat only. No weapons, no reprieve, no mercy. To the death! Begin!”
Creed hadn’t taken his eyes off his brother since the moment he first saw him. So, it came as no surprise when Gavil ran to attack even before Commander Oldham’s order to “begin.” The younger brother stood in the ready position and calculated his response. One quick movement to the side and Creed stood watching his brother fly by, trying to stop his momentum, before crashing into the wall of the fighter’s pit.
Gavil face was pale with rage. He stopped for a moment and shook his hands, rolled his neck and sneered, “Hey there baby brother. I was kinda hoping it would be you in here with me. Seems like a good day for you to die,” Gavil curled his thin lips at his brother. “Well, as good as any other.”
“Gavil, we don’t have to do this. We could both concede and walk away with our lives.” Creed’s mind was racing with possible options.
“Concede!” Gavil spat the word like it was venom on his tongue. “You want me to concede to you? Maybe I hit you one too many times in the head, boy. Why don’t you just lay down right here on the ground? I’ll make this quick for you, for old time’s sake.” He was inching toward Creed. Slipping snake-like closer to his little brother until the Young men stood an arm’s length from each other. The crowd was shrieking wildly in anticipation. “You better take my offer. It’s the only mercy you’re gonna get.”
“Gavil, don’t do this,” urged Creed. “You know what happened last time we fought. We don’t have to…”
But he didn’t have time to finish his sentence before Gavil’s hand flashed up and under Creed’s jaw, stabbing his pressure points with deliberate skill and malice. Creed’s nerves shot pain into his ears and pierced his brain. Instinctively, he slapped his brother’s hand away and leaped back, recuperating from the excruciating jolt. Gavil smirked, loving how easy it was to trick his sucker of a brother.
“Are you ready to fight now, Bleedy Creedy?” Gavil sneered, throwing out that hurtful nickname he’d given his little brother for all the injuries he caused him throughout the years.
“So be it.” Creed locked his jaw and ran full-speed not at his brother, but at the arena wall beside him. Curiosity and surprise were the only two facial expressions Gavil had time to register before he realized what Creed was doing. He ran straight up the wall, used the momentum to flip backward and caught Gavil by the neck with his legs on his way down. Creed landed on top of his brother, knee at his throat.
The audience gasped in wild admiration.
Gavil glared up at his brother, spat phlegm into his face and rolled out from under his knee. He jumped to his feet and charged, head down shoving Creed against the wall and though it looked like a kind of brotherly embrace, there was nothing tender about this. Instead, there was something sinister about the way Gavil’s hand slipped to his boot.
Still locked together in a powerful struggle, Creed began punching his brother in the stomach. Each time, Gavil was lifted off the ground with the velocity of impact.
Audience members facing his back would later swear they saw it; just glints of light reflecting off a slice of metal that Gavil had retrieved from his boot. Angered murmurs rose in surprise and disapproval. Though they had been taught to feed off the weak, they had some semblance of warped integrity.
No one ever brought weapons to a Retribution Match. It was supposed to be hand-to-hand combat, to the death. Heck, even a monkey could be taught to use a weapon. Metas were different—above, more. And though bloody and vicious, their society was built on very strict rules of conduct.
Creed’s anger was ice as he punched his brother. Not even the sound of the crowd roaring with frenzied excitement reached Creed’s ears.
Then it happened.
Gavil pushed himself away from his brother just long enough to reposition the metal in his hand, and delivered a strategic and powerful punch into his brother’s kidney, burying the shard deep into the tender skin below the ribs.
Creed wailed in shock and anguish as Gavil continued to beat that same pierced spot with blow after blow. All the years of fury and hatred for his perfect little brother, his archrival, came spilling through clenched teeth as he hammered Creed cutting him deeper and deeper.
Creed slipped to the floor and curled into fetal position. Pain traced the lines of his face just as much from the metallic shard as from his brother’s vicious and absolute betrayal.
It was in that moment that everything became crisp and clear. The crowd roaring, the scent of his own blood—sweet and coppery, grainy dirt from the arena’s floor caking to his sweat soaked skin, a deep scuff on his brother’s black boot inches away from his face—everything. And in that moment Creed discovered something about himself.
He could separate himself from his pain.
As he lay there, he no longer felt the weapon embedded in his side. He didn’t feel winded or strained at all.
As though he found a light switch in the dark, Creed simply reached out and turned off the pain.
Gavil was more interested in the crowd’s cheers than his dying brother, so he stood with his back to Creed, arms raised in triumph. It was only the gasps of the audience that made him turn to see his opponent coolly stand, and assume the ready, fighting position.
What the hell? Gavil’s mind screamed.
His eyes shot a look at his brother’s shirt and confirmed what he already knew: He stabbed his brother and beat the weapon into his skin. Blood soaked the entire side of his fatigues and even was seeping down to the waistline of his pants.
What the hell was going on? I won this fight! He shouldn’t be standing! Hell, he shouldn’t even be breathing!
“You are no longer my brother, Gavil,” Creed growled softly enough to be heard only by his intended recipient.
Stunned silence was all Gavil could give in retort but it didn’t really matter, Creed was on him with the speed and determination of a panther on its prey.
The crowd seemed to have lost their thirst for blood as they sat in shocked silence watching the bloody figure of a meta delivering strike after furious strike.
Within seconds, Gavil was face down in the dirt, screaming as his arms were yanked impossibly back and behind him. Creed stood holding the helpless appendages and placed his foot strategically on his brother’s head. One stomp and Gavil’s neck would snap like a twig.
“Finish him!” boomed a voice over the loud speaker. It was Commander Oldham. He ran the Facility with an iron fist. His word was law.
A hushed rumble radiated from the awestruck metahumans watching the drama unfold.
Creed didn’t move.
“Creed Young, you know the rules. ‘Kill, or be killed!’ Finish him, now!”
With one quick motion, Creed let go of Gavil’s arms and stepped away.
“No, sir!” His voice had no hint of fear or pain. Instead, there was strength and absolution. “I will not kill him, and hecannotkill me.”
The anxious audience waited to see what would happen next. This had never happened. Never had someone refused to finalize victory.
“Guards, escort the Young brothers to detention immediately! They will be dealt with there.” Commander Oldham’s voice was full of anger. The spectators were very sure this was the last they would see of the two fighters.
Friendships were few and far between in the Facility, but Creed had a loyal following and many more who admired him from a distance. It was these metas who stood in the crowd and started clapping a slow and synchronized clap. Others joined in, until nearly the entire arena boomed in unison.
Six armed meta guards entered the arena. Two of them dragged Gavil’s limp, beaten body away, and the other four surrounded Creed motioning him to move. Creed glanced up at the crowd’s obvious display of support and allowed a quick smile. No matter what, he knew he’d done the right thing.
He fully expected to be killed for his disobedience.
But he wasn’t.
Instead, he was taken to the Facility’s surgeons who tended to his injuries; the most serious was the damage to his kidney.
He vaguely remembered lying on the operating table and hearing the weapon clink into a metallic specimen bowl after the surgeon removed it from his kidney. He remembered wondering why they were bothering fixing him up if they were just going to kill him anyway.
Even as he lay in recovery, staring at the sterile white curtain surrounding his bed, he wondered about his fate. Not that he was scared. Not at all. Instead, he felt numb and distant. This was all feeling like it was happening to someone else and he was just standing in the back of the room aware of the events, but unaffected by them.
He remembered wondering if they had a medic taking care of Gavil, too. And if so, was he in a room nearby?
Or, and this thought made him want to vomit, had Gavil been killed? An anguished ball of emotion churned in the pit of his stomach at the thought. Had they just killed Gavil? Was he completely alone in the world now? Having a brother who hated him was better than not having a brother at all, wasn’t it?
Halfway through the second day in recovery, the flimsy white curtain encircling his bed was yanked back sharply. The sudden movement jolted Creed from his disconnected daze. Commander Oldham himself stood there staring with unconcealed hatred creasing his leathery face. He was there to deliver a message, he said.
The Director of the Facility, Dr. Kenneth Williams, was visiting from the Americas. He witnessed the match and wanted to have words with Creed. He was ordered to report to the Director’s office at oh-eight-hundred tomorrow. A car and an escort would retrieve him for the meeting.
Creed tried to ask about Gavil’s condition, but Commander Oldham, obviously disgusted to be in his presence, turned and walked out of the room as soon as he finished his message.
The next morning, at oh-seven-forty-five, Creed was dressed and waiting for his escort. Thankfully, the three days of recovery and his rapid metahuman healing had afforded him the ability to walk, though gingerly. He would be damned to show up to this meeting in a wheelchair.
There was an abrupt knock at his hospital room door. He remembered looking up just in time to see the door swinging open, and that’s when he saw her.
“I’m Farrow Schone, Dr. Williams’ personal assistant. I’ve been ordered to escort you to headquarters for your meeting.”
“I won’t need that,” he said defiantly motioning toward the wheelchair she was pushing.
“As you wish,” she responded coolly pushing the chair aside. “The car is waiting. Follow me.”
She walked like a soldier, but even with all her training and the unflattering fatigues, she couldn’t hide her definite femininity. Her dark hair was cut boyishly short, but her full lips and smattering of freckles across her nose screamed of beauty. She looked to be a little younger than himself, but it was hard to tell—she had an agelessness about her. Creed couldn’t remember seeing before. Inwardly, he shrugged. As the Director’s personal assistant, she probably didn’t mix with regular metas like him.
Creed noticed she discreetly slowed her pace for him.
Unusual, he thought to himself.
Metas, were trained not to be concerned for the weak or injured any more than necessary to complete their objective. That is, unless they had been trained to work as a team. In which case, the objective was to use every member as efficiently as possible. He was noticing the concern she showed was the kind usually reserved for a team member.
Curiosity got the best of him so he asked, “Why did the Director choose you to escort me?”
She stiffened a bit then just as quickly relaxed her shoulders. “Why wouldn’t he?”
Creed and Farrow walked in silence until arriving at the black car waiting curbside. The driver was standing beside the open door. Farrow climbed in the back seat and slid over to make room. Another courtesy he noticed while wincing with the effort to lower himself to the seat. He had to hold the frame of the door to maintain his balance. She was watching him carefully enough to see the pain flash across his face.
“Recovery still takes time, even for a meta like you,” she whispered so the driver wouldn’t hear.
Still breathing hard from the pain, Creed shot back, “What do you mean, ‘like me?’”
Their eyes locked for a moment before the driver put the car in gear and began pulling away from the hospital. For the first time, he noticed her large doe eyes. The intensity of her observation made him feel a wave of dizziness he wanted to attribute to the overexertion. They turned away and stayed silent the rest of the short ride to headquarters.
The building, though only three stories tall, was meant to be impressive. Black granite with black windows and rounded edges gave a contrasting modern feel to the old European countryside on which it stood. Flags representing the country and the company whipped in the breeze to the right and left of the entrance.
A circled driveway left room for an artsy fountain in the center island. It showcased large, marbled, geometric shapes and coursing sheets of water slipping intentionally down at impossible angles until they disappeared under the pond at the base.
The driver pulled around the fountain and right up to the front. Farrow opened her door and walked around to help Creed out. Defiantly, he pushed opened the door himself and shot her a pale but determined glance as he slowly rose from the backseat. The driver nodded once to Farrow and pulled the car away from the building.
“This way, please,” she said turning to walk toward the doors.
If it weren’t for the pain, these events would feel dreadfully surreal, dreamlike. Creed followed his escort and wondered what lay behind the black doors ahead.
When Creed stepped off the elevator on the third floor, an older man wearing a three-piece suit came rushing forward all smiles and handshakes to greet them. Unsure of whom this man was, Creed played along and let the stranger have his theatrics.
“My dear boy, it is so good to see you up and around. I was just sure you wouldn’t be walking so soon after your injuries, but look at you! Here you are a striking example of what all metahumans should be! I’m impressed, Creed. Very impressed. And I’m not afraid to tell you I was very worried there for a while—the way that brother of yours attacked you with a weapon.”
The aging man shook his head and made tisk-ing sounds with his tongue as if reprimanding a child for getting caught with their hand in a cookie jar.
“There are strict rules in those Retribution Matches. It was very unsportsmanlike behavior to have done what he did to you. And that he’s your brother, too!” The gentleman was still holding Creed’s hand as he spoke while gently leading him down the hallway.
“Oh, my apologies, my dear Farrow,” he said looking back over his shoulder at the escort affectionately, “how rude of me. Thank you for retrieving our Creed. You’re free to go wait for us down in the lobby. I’ll have you called up when we’re done with our talk.” When he smiled, it looked like it hurt his face to make it twist up at the corners. Weird. Creed was getting a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach about this guy.
“As you wish, Dr. Williams.” And with that, Farrow bowed slightly and walked backward a few steps before turning toward the elevators.
This guy was Dr. Williams? This small, fragile, unassuming weakling of an old man in this tailored civilian suit was the Director of this military-run facility crawling with the most highly trained and deadly soldiers in the world?
“Oh, my dear boy, we have so much to discuss,” the man was gushing as he opened the mahogany doors to what was undoubtedly his office.
“First, have a seat. You must be exhausted. I mean, it wasn’t but a few days ago when you were forced to put on a very violent display of brotherly love. How are you feeling?” And for the first time, Dr. Williams stopped talking and waited for his guest to speak.
“I’m fine, thanks to the medical care, sir.” Creed chose his words carefully; still unsure of what was happening.
“Yes, well, when Commander Oldham and I saw what happened in the pit that day, I told him to have you brought immediately to my personal surgeon.” The yellow of the old man’s teeth stood in stark contrast to the glowing white that was the color palette of his office.
“He wasn’t very happy with my decision. He insisted that you both be terminated immediately, but I put him right in his place. I told him I had plans for such a strong-minded meta.”
Creed wondered if he was referring to himself or his brother. Some would have cause to believe strong-mindedness wasn’t necessarily a virtue. Gavil had a strong mind. Evil, but definitely strong.
“Sir, where is Gavil?” Creed asked the one question that was weighing more heavily on his mind than his own welfare.
“Gavil, your brother, is not of your concern any longer,” Dr. Williams said cryptically.
“Dead?” Creed asked.
“To you, he’s dead. Isn’t that what you said to him on the field of battle just before you overtook him?” A wicked grin slipped across his old face.
Creed was sure he had whispered those words on the battlefield. No one could have overheard them—so, Gavil must have been alive long enough to tell someone about their exchange.
“Enough about him; I want very much to talk about you. How did you do it, Creed Young?” The Director came and sat next to him on the white leather couch as though he were about to lean in to hear a secret of great importance.
“How did I do what, sir?” Creed asked confused and still thinking about his brother and that day at the match.
“You were down. Gavil beat you with that weapon into your side. You were on the ground, curled up and dying. I saw you with my own eyes. Then, suddenly you were standing, and not just standing, but charging and attacking with a fury I’ve never seen before! If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. So what I want to know, my boy, is how did you do that?”
Creed weighted the moment carefully. How should he respond to this question? If he told the old man he was able to turn off his pain like flipping off a light switch, would he believe him? Would he somehow use it against him? Does his life depend on how he answers what felt like a very loaded question?
“I remember the match, sir. I’ve been reliving it over and over, but I can’t tell you what happened to give me the ability to get up and fight at that point. I really don’t know how I did it.” Creed stared stone faced at the Director working hard to maintain his stoic expression so as not to give away his inner panic.
Dr. Williams’ eyes narrowed skeptically and he stayed quiet a little too long. “Maybe it’ll come to you, over time,” he finally said.
“Now, as I mentioned before, Commander Oldham is pretty upset that you disobeyed a direct order: To kill your brother, as the rules of the Retribution Match so clearly states. He insists you be made an example of for the other Metahumans so they see what would happen to them should they ever try to defy orders.
“He offered two suggestions that would, in his mind, make things right. One, you are to be publicly tortured in the same pit where the defiance took place. Or two, to be publicly hanged, again in the same pit where the defiance took place. He was fine with either one and wanted to leave the final choice up to me.”
Creed’s eyes widened and he swallowed hard. Pain or no pain…he didn’t want to die! In a colossal effort to maintain his composure Creed had to ask, “And what did you decide, sir?”
“I decided it was up to you what would happen, but that I would add one more option for you.” The Director stood from his place inches away from Creed and walked to his huge marble encrusted desk. He picked up what looked like a file and walked slowly back to where Creed sat as still as stone.
“One more option, sir?” Creed’s voice wavered, but only slightly.
“Yes, one more. That is, if you’re interested,” he stopped, put the folder to his side and looked up expectantly at Creed.
“I—I am interested, sir,” Creed stammered.
The old man smiled ruefully and finished walking the distance back to the white sofa. As he sat, his wrinkled hand passed Creed the folder.
“This is your third option, Creed Young.”
“What is it, sir?”
“An old score that needs settling.”
“The woman in the picture there,” he said motioning to a slightly yellowing photograph, “stole three very precious assets from me. I want her dead, and I want the assets returned to me.”
“What did she steal, sir?”
“Turn the page, son.”
On the next page there were pictures of two small children and a baby. Beneath each picture was an M-Case number. Creed recognized the number immediately because all metahumans were given M-Case numbers. His own was M429. Only these numbers were much smaller: M57, M61 and M74. They must have been some of the first metas.
“These children are metas,” Creed said, thinking out loud.
“Yes, they are.” Dr. Williams was giving Creed time to scan the documents following the pictures.
“They were test subjects some twelve years ago at The Institute for Neurobiological Studies in the Americas? I wasn’t aware that there was another training facility, sir.”
“Why would you be aware? But no, it was not a training facility like this one. It was the birthplace of the metahuman. It was at that Institute that the first serums were tested on human subjects and the results, all these years later, are magnificent soldiers like you.” The director was smiling proudly at Creed.
“These meta children are the ‘assets’ this woman stole from you?” Creed was putting it together now.
“And you want these children back?”
“But they’re not children anymore. They must be teenagers by now.”
“Where are they?”
“In the Americas.”
“Are they still with the thief?”
“Will they come willingly?”
“No doubt that woman has worked to turn them against me; turn them away from who and what they truly are. They may need some convincing, but once the woman is killed, they’ll be much easier to manipulate.”
The doctor was watching Creed’s face carefully and loved what he saw. He knew he had chosen the right brother. Gavil was too evil, beautifully evil to be sure, but for this assignment he needed a strong-minded, gentle hand, and Creed fit the profile perfectly.
“Excuse me, sir. But may I ask if there is any way to ‘settle the score’ that doesn’t involve killing someone?”
Dr. Williams glared at Creed and said nothing to ease the silent anger that was clearly his response.
“It’s just that, I don’t feel right about killing anyone. Not my brother, nor a thief. Could I just bring her back with the children?” Creed asked hopefully.
“Let me make myself perfectly clear, son. The assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to terminate the woman and retrieve the three metas. Period. If you do not accept the terms of Option 3, there are still two other options you have from which to choose.” The venom in the doctor’s voice was potent. His three-piece suit looked even more intimidating than a five-star general. This man had power and he knew how to wield it.
With a slow deep breath in an obvious effort to calm himself, Dr. Williams continued, “However, I can appreciate a man of principles. I, myself, live by a strict code of conduct in my personal and business affairs. You do not feel comfortable taking a life. But sometimes we have to make a trade. Sometimes the ends do justify the means. So let me put one more thing on the table to help you make your decision. You have grown up here at the Facility, correct?”
“The only family you ever knew of was Gavil Young, and he wasn’t much of a family. Have I assessed that accurately?”
“Have you ever wondered where your parents were? What they were like? Maybe wondered why they gave you and your brother up to the Facility instead of keeping you with them?”
Creed had no idea where the old man was going with this line of questions, but he did know it was making his stomach feel like it contained boiling acid.
“What would you do to find them, given the chance? Or more pointedly, what wouldn’t you do?” If the devil himself had a face, it looked like Kenneth Williams’. He was nearly giggling with joy over the painful dilemma he saw in the young man sitting next to him.
“Sir, are you saying you know where my parents are?” Creed’s voice came out in a whisper.
“And you’ll tell me where to find them if I complete option three just as you say?”
“Now you’re getting the idea, my boy,” beamed Williams.
“And if I don’t agree to this assignment…”
“Then there are always the death options from which to choose. Oh, and you’d die never having known your family.”
Watching the conflict in Creed’s eyes was sheer pleasure to Williams. “Take a few moments to think about it, Creed Young. Weigh the rights and wrongs in your own mind. I’m going to step out and grab a cup of coffee. Would you care for a cup?”
“No, thank you, sir,” Creed mumbled deep in thought.
“All right, I’ll be back in a few minutes. And Creed, that’s all the think time you’re going to get, so use it wisely.”
The old doctor stood up with a grace he shouldn’t have been able to manage, and walked purposefully toward the large mahogany doors, opened them and closed them quietly behind himself.
Creed hadn’t moved the entire time he had been in Williams’ presence. What was he going to do? Could he live with himself if he killed this woman, no matter what her crimes? If he didn’t kill her, then he wouldn’t have long to regret it because Commander Oldham would have his head on a silver platter for all the Facility’s metas to see.
Look at what individuality and disobedience gets you, everyone! You get dead, that’s what you get.
So, he takes a rifle and tags the thief right between the eyes long range. He would make it a fast and clean kill. She wouldn’t feel pain, and he wouldn’t have to hear the thump of the bullet hitting her skull. He could completely distance himself from the whole thing.
Then all he’d have to do is coral the meta children and bring them here. Heck, he could shoot them with tranquilizers if he had to. That’s not a lot of work in comparison to the reward of finding his parents.
He’d been dreaming of them for the last fifteen years. What did they look like? Did one of them have his blue eyes? Did he look like his father? Was his mother beautiful? Did she cry for him often and wish things had turned out differently? Were they nice people? Artistic? Musical? Athletic? There were so many questions Creed was aching to have answered.
So all he had to do was this one little assignment and then the rest of his life could begin. Maybe the doctor was right. Sometimes the ends do justify the means.
Williams returned with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the other. “Well, son? What is your decision?”
“I’m in. What are the logistics of the assignment, sir?” Creed’s mouth formed the words and his mind tried to grasp the meaning of what he had just chosen. His heart tightened in his chest. He was trying to convince himself that this was justifiable homicide.
“Excellent choice, Creed.” The doctor was beaming with satisfaction. “But there is plenty of time to discuss logistics. You still need to rest. Recover completely before you take on this assignment. I’ve waited twelve years for payback, I can wait another week or so.”
The doctor walked to his desk and lifted the black phone to his ear. “Please send Miss Schone up to retrieve our guest.”
Creed’s body ached miserably. His supply of adrenaline that had run like a faucet moments before felt completely cut off now and it left him emotionally and physically drained. Now all he wanted to do was curl up under the covers of his hospital bed and forget everything he just agreed to do.
Farrow arrived with a quick knock at the door. To her credit, she had with her a wheelchair. Without a word she wheeled it to Creed and positioned it right beside the exhausted and pain-filled young man. She held it stable while he tried to ease himself up from the couch and then down into it. Creed felt a wave of gratitude for her thoughtfulness and discretion.
He wanted so badly to turn off his pain, but he didn’t dare do that in front of Dr. Williams. He needed to be believably hurt, and he didn’t know if he was that good an actor. So, he forced himself to suffer.
“We’ll be in touch, my boy. You just focus on recovery for now. Goodbye.” The doctor shook Creed’s hand and stared into his eyes.
“Thank you, sir,” the young meta mumbled and withdrew his hand instinctively, a bit sooner than was socially acceptable.
The doctor didn’t seem to notice.
And with that, Farrow wheeled him out into the hallway, down the elevators and up to the black car waiting to return him to the hospital.
Dr. Williams leaned against the edge of his custom made, hand-carved, mahogany desk and took a sip of his coffee as he watched Farrow wheel Creed Young out of his office. Once the doors shut behind them, he slowly set the mug down on a green marbled coaster, and reached unthinking into his front suit pocket. His fingers found the familiar metallic spheres.
The thought of what it would be like to have Margo Winter killed made him smile with anticipation. He nearly began salivating at the idea of having the three children back so he could continue his research using their blood. To recreate their unique abilities, those that were above and beyond even the most trained meta at the Facility, that was enough for him to walk away from the desk with a slight skip in his step.
The wind cut against his face, bitterly cold and constant. With each breath he felt the cold invade his lungs, splash against the heat his core created and come out as a cloud of hot vapors. His legs hit that rhythm easily. His feet were pounding the gravel as consistently as a metronome.
It had been one week since his Retribution Match and though he had been able to return to simple everyday physical tasks, his doctor refused to allow him to push himself to exercise until today. He had been cleared to “take a slow walk” around the pond, but his body was literally aching to get stretched and used.
Despite doctor’s orders, today he was determined to get out on the path and run at least one mile. That should be completely doable. Before the stabbing, running twelve miles in under an hour was no big deal at all. So, though he was still sporting a few dozen stitches internal and external, one mile should be fine. Besides, he was about to go crazy cooped up in that hospital room; today, he was getting some fresh air.
With temperatures hovering in the teens, most of the trail’s usual occupants had opted for warmer, indoor exercise instead. He ignored the handful of cadets he did see and chose instead to pull his hoodie up, obscuring their view of him. Never one to feel comfortable in the spotlight, the last thing Creed wanted was attention.
Lost in his own thoughts, Creed didn’t notice right away that there was someone running close behind him. Once he did realize it, he studied the sound of the gravel crunching under the other runner’s feet and decided it must be a female meta. Ordinarily, he would have picked up his pace to pull further away from her, but he knew he was already over doing it physically, so he opted to slow down to let her pass him.
She matched his stride and ran right beside him; their feet making unison crunching sounds into the path. Frustrated with the intrusion, Creed stopped running all together. He leaned over, and forced himself to breathe slow, deep breaths—not from over exertion, but because he had just felt the skin on his side pop open. Instinctively, he covered it with his hand.
The other runner stopped and watched him for a moment. “You okay?” He heard her say.
“Fine. Great. I just don’t need an audience.” Creed was talking through his clenched teeth a little afraid to look at the damage he was pretty sure he’d done to himself.
Ignoring that last statement, the girl kept talking, “I think you over did it.”
Creed spun around to silence the annoying meta when he realized who she was. “Oh, it’s you.”
Farrow smiled beautifully and said, “Nice to see you too, Creed Young.”
“Are you following me?” Creed asked, more to change the subject than anything.
“I’m following orders,” she said flatly. “Dr. Williams wanted me to see if you were fit for duty and judging by the blood on your shirt, I’m thinking, not.”
“I just popped a couple stitches. No big deal.” Creed tried to say casually. Inside he was fuming with embarrassment.
“I think it’s a big deal, especially since we’re going to be partners. I don’t want to have to carry your weight.” She parked her hands on her hips and glowered at his nonchalance.
“Wait, what? Hold on. Did you say ‘partners’?”
“Dr. Williams wants us to travel to the Americas, locate Dr. Winter, terminate her and retrieve the assets—you know, the assignment you agreed to?”
“He’s not known to be a patient man.”
“Right. Okay, let me just get this taken care of back at the hospital. When does he want us to leave?” Creed asked worried this was happening too fast and that he hadn’t had time to process everything.
“I’ll contact you tomorrow morning with specifics, but just in case, be ready to leave before lunch.” She looked again at the large blood red stain on the hoodie Creed was holding protectively and shook her head.
“You’d better not screw this up, Creed Young. I have a perfect record with Dr. Williams, and I’m not going to allow you to ruin my career with your macho-bullshit.” She turned and ran back down the trail toward headquarters.
“Oh, no. Of course not, your highness. I wouldn’t dare do anything to soil your pristine reputation as an ass-kisser!” Creed mumbled the thoughts to himself.
“Oh, hey, and don’t worry about me. You go on back to Daddy Williams. I have several other pints of blood I could lose before I pass out right here in the dirt,” he continued.
Truth be told, he wasn’t mad at Farrow. He was disgusted with himself for being Dr. Williams’ henchmen. No matter how he tried, he hated knowing he had sold his soul to that devil, but he couldn’t back out of it now. Morality had a new name and it was Justifiable.
With nowhere else to go, Creed limped slowly back toward the yellow lights of the medical building.
So much for doing the right thing, he sighed to himself.
Winters in Kansas
Two weeks after the rescue of Dr. Margo Winter
Dr. Theo Andrew’s hospital in Olathe, Kansas
4 The Sentries
Maze may be an exceptionally perceptive and highly intelligent coyote, but he still had to be walked once in a while. And even though it was 2:57 in the morning, he dutifully woke me with a slobbery lick to show me that his eyes were floating. The boy had to pee—and he meant now.
I yawned while putting on my warm boots and coat over pajamas. Maze whined impatiently at me so I didn’t even bother with my wildly curly hair. Grabbing his leash we shuffled through the hospital room door and softly closed it behind us.
He sneezed twice before sniffing and licking his nose clean. Maze wasn’t very fond of the hospital smells, but he put up with them without complaint. It was the collar and leash I was required to use that Maze barely tolerated.
“I know you hate this dumb ol’ leash, but rules are rules. Dr. Andrews was nice enough to allow you in the hospital under the pretext that you’re a guide dog, so we have to act the part.” I cooed at my best friend while scratching between his ears and neck where the collar was rubbing him the wrong way, literally.
Maze looked up at me with a sour expression on his sweet coyote face. “Don’t give me that look,” I gently scolded, “you’re the one who insists on staying with mom at the hospital. You could be sniffing out some yummy squirrels in the backyard at Dr. Andrews’ house, but no-o-o, you have to play sentry and guard mom like an overprotective mother hen.”
To be honest, we have all been very protective of our mom since rescuing her from Dr. Williams. We haven’t left her alone. Matter of fact, we’ve worked out a schedule so there are always two of us with her day and night. Tonight, Evan and I are on “Mom Watch” as we’ve come to call it, while Alik keeps an eye on things back at Dr. Andrews’ house. But Maze won’t leave any longer than it takes for him to go relieve himself outside. He may be a big ball of shedding fur, but he’s adevotedbig ball of shedding fur. I found myself smiling warmly at the sweet lug as I walked us into the elevator.
After growing up on a huge ranch in Texas with the handsome, wide blue skies and stretches of land for as far as the eye could see, being in a small hospital room for hours on end was enough to make me feel very claustrophobic. Once outside, I breathed deeply and allowed myself to listen to the night sounds: The building’s sliding glass doors whooshed closed behind me, Maze’s sniffing nose and padding feet in the Midwest grass, the cold breeze rustling through autumn leaves. It was a beautiful night.
Maze whined and tugged at the leash. “Okay, buddy. I’ll take the leash off so you can stretch your legs, but don’t be gone long. Some of us want to get back to sleep, you know.” He winked his intelligent yellow eyes at me and licked my hand as I unleashed him. Off he sprinted toward the nearest row of bushes. “Wily nut-ball,” I mumbled as I watched him start to chase some poor unsuspecting rodent.
“It’s a little late for a stroll, isn’t it?” a man’s voice asked from the shadows. At the sound, I whipped around, tense and ready for battle.
“Whoa, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said with a hint of a smile as he stepped into the light.
I didn’t respond, choosing instead to stay wary. He stood about ten feet away from me, probably sensing that if he came any closer I would feel even more threatened. He looked to be a little older than me, tall, dark hair, blue eyes and very muscular. He pulled his hands out from his coat pockets and held them, palms out, to his sides in a gesture to show that he meant no harm.
“I was just out here getting some fresh air after spending the entire day in there,” he gestured to the hospital. “So again, I’m sorry to have startled you. But it’s not every day a guy sees a girl talking to what looks like her pet coyote in the moonlight.”
I glanced over to where I last saw Maze. He was nowhere in sight now, but I wasn’t too worried. One whistle and he’d be at my side ready to fight.
I couldn’t decide if this guy was harmless or not. Because the events over the last few weeks were underscored by some scary stuff like being followed, shot at, attacked, tricked, hunted and maimed, I guess my knee jerk reactions were starting to lean toward paranoid.
“Right. Well, we were just stretching our legs, too,” I said in a voice intended to give off a tone of leave me alone, buddy. I turned slightly and started walking away, keeping the guy in my peripheral vision.
“Well, is he?” the guy called taking a few steps to follow me.
“Is he what?” I asked not even trying to hide the annoyance in my voice.
“A coyote,” he asked innocently.
“Yes,” I said not offering any more information.
“Wow, you know how unusual it is to see a tame coyote? They’re part of the canine family, but they’re not known to become domesticated at all,” he said all this while walking a few steps closer to me. “You’re not from around here are you?”
I ignored his questions and decided enough is enough. This guy wasn’t getting the hint and no matter how blue his eyes flashed in the moonlight, or how handsome his smile looked—I needed backup. My fingers flew up to my mouth and let out a sharp whistle.
Now it was his turn to look startled. Maze flashed over the bushes some fifteen yards away and bolted straight toward him. A low whistle from me had him change course and speed. He trotted right up to my side, licked my hand and glowered at the stranger.
“This is Maze. He doesn’t much like strangers and neither do I,” I said sternly, “Goodnight.” I turned and walked back toward to the hospital’s sliding glass doors with Maze right at my side and the stranger’s eyes boring a hole in the back of my head.
“Creed!” He yelled over to me.
Maze turned and growled. I stopped one last time, surprised my iciness didn’t scare him into the silence it should have.
“Did you just say, ‘Creed?’” I called back.
“Yeah, it’s my name. Creed Young. Now I’m not so much a stranger.” He smiled widely, waved and walked away.
“That was a little weird, wasn’t it?” I asked Maze as we rode the elevator back up to the seventh floor of the hospital. Maze looked up at me and cocked his head to the left like he was trying to understand what my problem was. “I know we could have taken him in a heartbeat so unless he had a gun in his back pocket, there was really no threat, but still. Something about that guy was scary—in a cool sort of way.” Maze was ignoring me now as he sniffed a meal tray one of the patients had left on the floor just outside their hospital room door.
“Come on, you. No digging through other people’s leftovers. It’s bad manners,” I said sleepily.
A few doors down, and we were back in mom’s room. I locked the door behind me and checked on mom. She was breathing softly and her monitors showed her heart rate, oxygen levels and blood pressure all normal. Evan hadn’t moved since I saw him last. I found my pile of blankets on my cot and flopped down. Maze curled up at my feet. The night was still, again.
Back down in the lobby, Creed watched the numbers light up above the elevator she had taken. It stopped on the seventh floor. He smiled to himself remembering their conversation and how guarded she was. He began whistling as he shuffled casually out of the building and back to his rental car waiting in the lamp-lit hospital parking lot. Something about that wild-haired beauty made Creed’s heart leap in his chest. Tomorrow he would have to find a way to bump into her again. Maybe this assignment wouldn’t be that bad after all.
Of course, there was the small issue of killing the woman. Creed shoved his hands into his pockets frowning now against the thought. He sat in his car and leaned his head back staring up through the sun roof. The stars were faint here compared to back at the Facility. Things seemed much less clear cut.
Sitting in Williams’ office, it didn’t seem too hard to agree to terms of this arrangement: one thief killed and three metas returned in exchange for information about his long lost parents. The ends justify the means, right? Williams gets back the metas that were rightfully his. Creed gets to be reunited with his kin. Thief gets her comeuppance.
He found the more he watched the Winter family and how they interacted, the more he liked them. They were good people. They were a family. And, now that he looked into the girl’s dark eyes and watched them flash with anger. Now that he heard her voice, angelic and soft even through her attempt at sounding irritated. Now that he could imagine her smile, her laugh. Now everything felt as hazy as this night sky looked.
In his pocket, his cell phone began to vibrate. One glance at the caller I.D. confirmed it; it was Dr. Williams. Creed touched the screen accepting the call.
“Surveillance still successful. First contact with M57 has been made.”
“Excellent. Your condition?
“Ninety percent recovered.”
“It’s been long enough. It’s time to complete your assignment.”
Creed sighed deeply, slipped his phone back into his pocket and started the car. He needed a little shut-eye before trying to figure out what to do next. Hopefully, Farrow would leave him alone when he got back to the hotel. He made sure she did not have a key to his room, but she was resourceful. If she wanted to, she could be sitting on the edge of his bed ready to pounce him for information when he got back.
He pushed Farrow out of his mind and focused instead on the girl—Meg. Creed had to think of a way to get the girl to trust him, and fast. She was the key to the brothers.
He yawned deeply.
How was he going to forge more of a friendship with the girl? Maybe he should keep a steak on him next time to see if that’ll win over the coyote. Or, would that seem overly anxious? It’s not like Creed had ever tried to woo a girl before. Sleep, he thought. He needed sleep and then things will seem clearer in the morning.
As Creed was pulling out of the parking lot, Meg rolled over in her cot, repositioned her pillow and draped her leg over Maze.
5 Fifteen-Year-Old with a Driver’s Permit
“Cole, you coming?” Alik yelled up the stairs. “Your dad’s already in the car.”
“Yeah, I just…darn it. Hey, have you seen my magic thumb?” Cole yelled back, sounding out of breath and frustrated.
“My thumb! I can’t find it anywhere and that’s one of their favorites,” Cole moaned.
“You can borrow mine. Come on. We’re gonna be late and you know how upset they get when we’re late. Remember last time,” Alik gave Cole a look as he met him at the bottom of the stairs, thumb-less.
“I know. They drew us pictures of frown-y faces. It was depressing as heck.”
The boys hurried out the front door, jumped down the steps and jogged to the car. Cole tapped on the driver’s side window.
“Dad, can I drive, please?” he yelled through the glass miming the request as if his dad didn’t already know what his son wanted.
Dr. Andrews rolled his eyes at his teenager. Ever since he got his driver’s permit three days ago, Cole had not let up about wanting “practice time” behind the wheel.
“Fine, but this time, please drive the speed limit. I don’t want to get pulled over for obstructing traffic because you’re going so blasted slow,” Dr. Andrews teased as he got out of the car and walked around to the passenger seat.
“Dad! What are you saying to me? You want me to speed? Do you know the statistics on speeding and fatalities? Safety first, old man,” Cole teased back.
“Good grief,” the doctor groaned.
Changing the subject to take his mind off of Cole’s one mile per hour attempt at reverse down the driveway, the doctor asked, “Alik, is it your turn for Mom Watch?”
“I relieve Evan at noon,” Alik responded cringing at the trash bin they were inches away from hitting.
“Hope everyone had a good night up at the hospital,” Cole mumbled.
“Less talking, more driving,” his dad said, only half teasing. “I’m sure everything’s fine up there. My staff has strict orders to contact me directly if there is any change in our patient.”
“Mom’s not recovering as fast as I thought she would,” Alik confided.
Dr. Andrews nodded softly, “She’s not a metahuman with rapid healing abilities like you, Alik. And she’s not as young as she used to be. Her body is doing the best it can to heal. She just needs time.”
“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, sir. I’m just worried. We’re sitting ducks right now. Williams could…yellow light.”
“Williams could what?” Cole asked
“Yellow light! RED!”Alik yelled, pushing himself back in his seat.
“STOP!”Dr. Andrews yelled to Cole.
Four seconds of squealing tires later, they were stopped a little too far into the intersection and car horns were already honking.
“Sorry, ‘bout that,” Cole blushed.
“Son,” Dr. Andrews said calmly.
“Slowly back the car up.”
“So, you were saying, Alik?” Dr. Andrews asked, trying to act calm about the whole teenager-behind-the-wheel thing.
“Um…I was just saying how worried I am about Williams sending a henchman or five to come finish what he started. This time, he may send another metasoldier like the one that got to Meg. Even with us standing guard, if he sent meta assassins, chances are very good they’ll accomplish their task. They may even come after you two.”
“Is that why Mom Watch schedules one of you kids to stay at the house with Cole and me every night? Because you are worried we’re in danger, too?” Dr. Andrews asked.
Alik just shrugged, trying not to worry the doctor. The truth was that was exactly why the kids had arranged the schedule the way they did. They didn’t want the doctor or Cole to be defenseless if the house was attacked. It was hard not to feel responsible for everyone’s safety.
“After what happened, your worries are valid. I’m just not sure what to do about it,” the doctor said thoughtfully. “Let me call Greg to see if he has any new information or suggestions. Maybe he knows something that will make our options more clear.”
Alik stayed silent, as was his way, brooding over all that could take place.
“Listen, I don’t want anything to happen to your mother either. I want us all safe, and I’ll do everything I can to keep it that way. We’ll figure this out. Somehow.”
And with that Cole pulled safely into his father’s reserved parking spot at the hospital. “Is the love-fest over? Can we go entertain the sick kids with our magic tricks now?” he chirped a little over anxiously.
Alik gave his friend a sideways look and thought, not for the first time, how difficult it must be for Cole knowing everyone else was expected to protect him because he would be helpless against a metahuman.
I guess if I were him, I’d change the subject, too, Alik thought to himself.
6 Cafeteria Food
Morning shook the fog from my mind. Did last night really happen? Did I take Maze for a walk and run into a guy outside last night? A guy who wouldn’t get the hint that I wanted nothing to do with him? A guy with handsome blue eyes and a wide, dreamy smile?
Yeah, that’s it. It had to be a dream.
Who in their right mind would go by the name ‘Creed?’ I thought to myself smugly. Good grief. That was a soap opera name, not a real guy’s name.
Still groggy, I let the morning sun from the hospital window warm my face. I slowly batted my eyes open and turned to watch my mother breathe. Her chest rose and fell faintly, but definitely.
“Evan, wake up,” I whispered so as not to disturb mom. Evan mumbled in response. “Evan, it’s seven o’clock, and I’m starved. Do you wanna go get breakfast, or do you want me to?” Her littlest brother mumbled more and rolled over on his way-too-small cot.
He sure was cute when he was sleeping. That sandy blond hair falling in wisps over his long eyelashes just made him look so sweet—like he used to when he was a little boy. His birthday was fast approaching, though. He was nearly thirteen-years-old. Where did my baby brother go? I reached out and touched his unruly hair away from his eyes. Maybe I should just let him sleep.
“Okay, kiddo. I’ll go fetch breakfast for us. You sleep,” I whispered to him.
“Maze, you coming?” I looked over at my loyal coyote fast asleep at the foot of my cot. He opened his eyes just a crack and blinked once before letting his sleepy lids fall back closed.
“Okay, you guys. I’ll bring back food. Just don’t complain if I didn’t grab your favorites,” I whispered to the room full of sleeping family.
After a quick kiss to my mom’s cheek, I turned and stepped out of the hospital room, and listened for the door to lock automatically behind me.
The hospital’s cafeteria was located in the basement. It usually had the standard stuff with one “daily special” posted on an old-fashioned green chalk board. Today’s turquoise chalk proudly announced, “Sausage and Eggs with Flour Tortillas, Beans and Salsa!”
Now, that sounds delicious! I thought to myself. I haven’t had good Mexican food since I left our Texas ranch. Not wanting to get my hopes too high, I placed my order. “Three daily specials, three milks and six biscuits to go, please.” I said to the cook behind the cafeteria-like counter.
“Ah, a girl after my own heart and a hearty appetite, too!” the cook chirped happily. I just smiled back, not wanting to explain that I’d just ordered for myself, my bottomless pit of a brother, and my sixty-pound coyote.
“Wow, you must be hungry,” a vaguely familiar voice laughed beside me.
I turned and saw the blue eyes from my dreams; only, this wasn’t a dream. We were standing side-by-side in the hospital cafeteria line under glaring florescent lights. He was real, and the immediate magnetism I felt was enough to knock me silent.
“I’ll have two orders of the special, please,” he called over to the cook. He glanced at me and added, “To go.”
“You seem to be making a habit of doing that,” I said trying to regain my composure.
“Sneaking up on me.”
“I almost didn’t recognize you without your fur coat,” he teased, referring to Maze no doubt.
“I almost didn’t recognize you in the light of day,” I tried to counter smartly, but came across smug instead.
“You never told me your name last night,” he said under his breath.
“I told you the name of my ferocious coyote. That should be enough.” I could feel his sleeve brush my arm, barely grazing the fine hair, sending sparks to my tummy. Self-consciously, I scooted my plastic orange tray further away from him.
“I only have a passing interest in your coyote; it’s you I want to know.” His voice was barely audible above the noise of the room. I had to force myself to concentrate on breathing because the room was getting very thick and my senses were feeling overwhelmed. The sounds of the clanking pots and pans, food sizzling in pats of butter, scraping of griddles by metal spatulas, voices murmuring, laughing, talking all around me.
“That’ll be $30.35, miss,” a female voice said. “Miss?”
I shook my head in a feeble attempt to clear it. “Oh, yes, of course,” I answered stupidly while shuffling through my small purse for mom’s credit card.
“Ours are together,” Creed responded smoothly and passed the somewhat impatient cashier a hundred dollar bill. The cashier looked over at Creed with a wide smile and even wider eyes.
A little breathless, she said, “Your change, sir.”
Well, good. At least it wasn’t just me. This guy was more than just a little attractive. Any girl with a pulse could see how handsome this guy looked. Something about his eyes was mesmerizing. Note to self, Meg: Try not to look into his eyes.
“That was very nice of you,” I said awkwardly.
“Don’t think anything of it. Hey, I know we ordered to go,” casually taking my bags of food from me, “but would you be willing to sit with me for a while?”
I stared at the cardboard drink holder in my hands, trying not to look up into his eyes. “I really have to get breakfast up to my family,” I said a little too hurriedly.
“Of course,” Creed’s voice dropped a pitch. I could hear his disappointment. “Will I see you again?”
“Well, my mom’s really sick. I don’t think we’ll be leaving the hospital any time soon,” I said. “What about you? Who are you visiting here?”
“I was visiting a friend who was in an accident, but he’s being discharged today. I don’t imagine I’ll be hanging out on the hospital’s front lawn at 3am anymore.” As he was speaking he’d been leading me away from the crowded dining room toward the elevators.
“I’m glad your friend is well enough to go home,” I said trying to think of a way to keep him with me for a few moments more. Something about the way he moved made me want to move right with him. I didn’t mean to. I felt him leading me, but I couldn’t resist.
He leaned up against the wall next to the elevator, still holding the bags of food all in one hand. I stood facing him foolishly holding the tray of milk. He didn’t speak for a moment, waiting instead for me to look up at him. I knew that’s what he was doing. I bit my lower lip, torn between my instincts and my urges. My eyes studied the steady pulse in his throat for a moment before I gave in and dove into his pools of blue.
“I need to see you again,” he simply said.
I tried to think clearly, but his scent was intoxicating. “Noon,” my mouth formed the words, but my head was screaming, slow down you dolt!
“Where?” he smiled.
“On the lawn,” my mouth was moving of its own volition.
“I’ll be there,” he said smiling that dazzling smile he showed me last night. He leaned over and pressed the up button for me. Immediately, the doors opened. He stepped in briefly to hand me my bags of breakfast, allowing our fingers to touch. I had to look away for a moment as he exited the small space. The doors began closing with a “ding” and there he was, lifting a huge masculine hand to gently wave goodbye.
It didn’t register till I got to my mom’s room and was unlocking the door by typing the code into the lock that I didn’t remember pushing the elevator button. It stopped on the floor I needed, the seventh, but I hadn’t pushed the button.
How would he have known what floor my family was on? Worry lines creased my forehead as I thought of the possibilities. No, I must have hit the button myself, and just don’t remember doing it. My mind was a little preoccupied just then, to put it mildly.It’s okay to like a nice guy, Meg.I told myself. Especially a hottie with dreamy eyes! Don’t be so paranoid!
7 Changing of the Guards
“Breakfast is served,” I called over to Evan who was carefully folding up the cots and blankets.
“Excellent, I’m famished, and it smells delicious.” He walked over to the makeshift breakfast table and sat down with me. Maze was licking his chops waiting for his plateful of food, too.
“Okay, Maze. Here go you buddy. Don’t eat too fast, or you’ll get hiccups like you did last time,” I teased my friend while placing his plate on the floor at my feet.
“Wow, this is awesome. I sure have been missing authentic Mexican food,” Evan said with his mouth full of eggs.
“Mmm,” I swallowed, “me, too.”
“Wish mom could eat with us. She’d love this,” Evan stopped and looked over lovingly at his mom who was still lying in bed. Her jaw was wired shut as it healed because it had been so horribly shattered.
“She’ll be eating with us soon enough,” I said trying to cheer up my little brother. “Then she’ll make you eat asparagus with breakfast.”
“Yeah, that never did make sense to me,” Evan smiled.
“Mom loves to force vegetables down our throats,” I smiled at the memory. “But I love her for always wanting us to be healthy.”
“Me, too,” Evan poked his fork into his rice and began pushing pieces around his plate.
In an effort to get his mind off of mom, I asked, “So, what are you going to do with yourself when Alik comes to relieve your duty?”
“I dunno. I’ve been really interested in the hospital’s library. Dr. Andrews has been allowing me special access to all the medical books and journals. I’ve been so fascinated with medicine; the more I read, the more I want to know,” Evan’s eyes lit up brightly as he spoke of study the way regular kids his age brightened at the thought of going to an amusement park.
“Very cool, Ev,” I said sincerely. “Maybe you could become a doctor someday?” I loved the thought of my brilliant little brother helping people.
Evan shrugged humbly, “I dunno. I really just want to figure out how to get mom better faster. And maybe, figure out what happened to us to make us so different from all the other metas.” He grinned adorably, “Strictly selfish reasons, really.”
“I think you’d make a wonderful doctor, Evan. Maybe we should look into getting you accepted to a university so you could begin pre-med classes?” I asked casually after finishing my last bite of rice.
“First thing first, Meggie,” he said in an absolutely serious tone, “we’ve got to take care of some unfinished business.”
“Right,” I said clearing my plate. “We need to talk with Alik and get a plan in motion. Sometimes, I feel like Williams could walk through that door any minute and put a bullet through mom’s head.” I shivered at the thought.
“Naw, he wouldn’t get his own hands dirty. That’s not his style. He’d send a meta to finish the job. That’s who we have to look out for: Some guy who looks completely out of place here; probably tall, muscular and extremely clever. He’s done with regular hired henchmen. He’d send a meta like the one who attacked you in his office,” Evan’s eyes were too busy watching Maze chase his now empty paper plate around the floor licking every last morsel off to see Meg’s face pale.
“Of course,” she whispered thoughtfully rubbing the scar on her thigh. “That’s exactly how he’d do it, isn’t it?”
“That’s how I would do it if I were him,” Evan leaned down and grabbed Maze’s empty plate before he started to rip it up and eat the pieces, as he’s been known to do. The old goat!
“Of course, there is still the matter of our blood. He wanted to study us to figure out what he stumbled upon that worked so well in the serum we were given. He probably still wants us. Blood samples only last for an hour or two before the fragile molecular compounds start to change and/or lose their blueprints,” Evan was thinking out loud now. He was casually discussing the ideas that had scared the apple fritters out of me ever since this whole thing came to light.
Ugh, again I’m amazed at how nonchalant he could be in the face of scary stuff like, oh I dunno, becoming lab rats again, mom getting off-ed right in front of us, watching a madman use us as his weapons of mass destruction by cloning us and turning the clones into mindless drones to do his bidding, you know…all the stuff that wicked, scary books and movies love to throw in their plots. How can Evan just casually speculate and project these very real scenarios and outcomes?
“Hum, but you know, he doesn’t need all three of us,” Evan stopped talking and looked pensively over at me. “Just one of us would probably suffice for his purposes.”
As if my face wasn’t pale enough, I felt myself go perfectly still at my brother’s words. I stared at him, unblinking for a full minute, feeling all the terror of the last few weeks wash over me with a completely different slant on what could have happened.
“Breathe, Meg,” Evan ordered. “Meg, come on. Don’t freak out on me. All of this is just me throwing around ideas—you know, hypotheticals. I could be completely wrong. Who knows what is logical in the mind of a madman?”
Just then, there was a knock at the door that scared the heck out of me. “Hello, there Winter family!” Dr. Andrews called through the closed door.
“You have got to stop drinking caffeinated coffee, Meg,” Evan teased as he walked to the door to let the doctor in.
“Good morning Meg, Evan. How’s the patient this morning?” He asked us, oblivious to the tension he just walked in on. Out came his little flash light as he leaned over mom’s closed eyes. He gently lifted one lid at a time to expose the pupil. Quick flashes of light across her eyes seemed to make the doctor happy. “Nice and reactive,” he mumbled and put his stethoscope to mom’s chest. After a few moments he said, “Good, good. Heart sounds good, lungs sound clear and pulse-ox good,” he said reading a print out from a machine beside mom’s bed. “Blood pressure, holding steady,” he said nodding to himself. “Excellent. Her jaw looks to be healing on schedule. I know it would be great to be able to talk, Margo,” he said to a sleeping patient.
“The kids would feel so much more assured if they could hear your voice,” the doctor’s hands gently touched mom’s face where bruises were beginning to fade. The tenderness was so clear I had to look away because watching seemed intrusive. You didn’t have to be an emotional superconductor like me to see he loved my mom deeply. Anyone with eyes could see she meant the world to him.
“Uneventful night?” he asked.
“Yep,” Evan answered for us.
“Good. Well, Alik and Cole are on the third floor doing their magic act for the kids. Do either of you want to go stand in the back of the room and make fun of them?” Dr. Andrews smiled mischievously.
“I’ll go. I’ve been cooped up since yesterday. Do you mind Meg?” Evan asked thoughtfully.
“Hum? Oh, no. I don’t mind at all, Ev. Have fun,” I said thinking I’d rather not see Cole right now. Good grief, I thought to myself. I know nothing about Creed, but here I am feeling guilty for having spoken with him. Well, that’s not exactly true. I feel guilty because of the attraction I have for him. Besides, I don’t even know if Creed is safe. What if he’s working for Williams? But, if he is, wouldn’t he have just kidnapped or killed me last night when he had the chance? I was completely unaware of him there in the shadows. He could have put a bullet right through me if he wanted to.
This is crazy,I thought to myself.Let it go, Meg. You have enough to worry about. No time for a love life. Leave that mushy stuff to the normal girls out there.
“Would you mind hanging out for five minutes so I can take a fast shower, Dr. Andrews?” I asked. “I don’t like leaving mom unattended.”
“No offense, Maze. I just need someone who can speak English, just in case. Then there’s that opposable thumb thing,” I teased while patting his ample flank.
“Oh, sure, Meg. I have a phone call to make anyway,” he graciously added, reaching for the hospital phone on Margo’s bedside table.
“Great, thanks. I won’t be long,” I said hurrying to gather a fresh change of clothes.
The moment I stepped under the streams of hot water, my mind wandered back in time. When I think back to that day at the Institute, I am still in awe we all survived. The media reported the event in all its television glory while the smoke was still billowing from the Institute. But once the ashes cooled, Dr. Andrews’ best friend and police detective, Greg Burns was able to keep all details out of the news.
Dr. Williams fled the country the same night his Institute burned, so the authorities had a lot of questions for him, as well. Once the fire investigators released their report noting the cause of the fire and subsequent explosions was caused by arson, even more people wanted to talk with Dr. Williams. However, he was nowhere to be found.
He was last seen boarding his personal jet, accompanied by a woman named Michelle Andrews. Their flight plan indicated a trip to the Cayman Islands, but there was no record they ever landed there and an escape to a completely different location is assumed.
Dr. Andrews, when he found out Michelle had left him, was quiet and solemn. He never went into the particulars with us kids, but he mentioned in a small voice once, how upset he was with himself for “allowing that rebound marriage.” Something about his failed attempt of recreating what he lost when Jenna, Cole’s mom, died.
Then when he found out Michelle was definitely conspiring with Dr. Williams, he blew his top. Who could blame him? Although I did try to warn him, I couldn’t bring myself to give him the infamous “I told you so” speech. Especially not when I could sense he was enraged to the point of popping a blood vessel!
It didn’t take him long to realize she had been the one to inform Dr. Williams of his plans to help me and my brothers. And that it was she who planted the GPS tracker and audio transmitter in the SUV before we left Kansas to travel to California. He wondered, though he wouldn’t say it out loud, how far back Dr. Williams’ influence went with Michelle. How much of his life had been reported back to the Institute by his own wife?
As I said, I knew something was wrong with that woman all along, but sometimes men need proof. He had his proof now. I also knew he’s been blaming himself for Alik, Evan and me being pulled out of hiding and back in Dr. Williams’ radar. He feels as though he should have been smart enough to catch on to Michelle’s deceit. Then she wouldn’t have been around the day I called asking for his help to find our mom.
I have wanted to talk with him, but it really isn’t my place. I have found the more I let on that I know what an adult is feeling, the less I should say about it. It seems to make them feel very uncomfortable around me. I can’t help knowing, but it is maddening knowing, and not being in the position to do anything about it.
Still deep in thought, I stepped out of the shower and dressed quickly. I was so engrossed in my internal commentary on life and the world we live in, that I couldn’t remember if I’d washed my hair. I was still arguing with myself even as I grab my towel. Crud. My hair smelled clean, but maybe I just used conditioner and skipped the shampoo entirely. Darn it! I threw the towel down, undressed again, and turned the shower back on.Focus, Meg,I reminded myself.
8 Sleeping Beauty
After hearing the shower turn on, Dr. Andrews pressed the ten digits he had memorized for a couple dozen years and waited patiently for the line to start ringing.
“Hey, Greg. Yeah, it’s me.” If anyone were listening to Dr. Andrews’ voice just then they would have noticed a big change from how he sounded just moments ago with the children in the room. Now, he sounded exhausted and sad.
“What’s up, big man? How is everyone doing?” the detective asked cryptically. He was always a cautious guy; one of those habits he picked up from his job.
“About the same. My patient is still slowly recovering. Her kids are keeping constant vigil more for her protection than anything. It’s been a long two weeks. Any news you can share?”
“There are a few pieces of information. Are you on a land-line?” he asked rhetorically.
“Yeah, I’m at the hospital.”
“Of course you are.”
“Well, if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black. When was the last time you took a day off?”
“Listen, when your girlfriend stops pissing off the wrong people, then I’ll take a break. But for now, I’m a little busy.”
“I know, man. Sorry. The kids and I are feeling like sitting ducks here.”
“Yeah, I bet you are. Here’s what I’ve learned. Williams has another place he works out of—in Germany. That’s where we think he’s holding up. Extradition isn’t working too well, this time. He has all the right people paid off.”
“When you say another place, what exactly do you mean?”
“From what I can gather, it looks like a compound. There’re half a dozen buildings on a huge bunch of acres out in the middle of nowhere-ville Germany. We’re talking twice as big as that place he had in California.”
“Wait. It gets better. The guy is not hurting for money at all. We haven’t even traced a quarter of his holdings. He has billions, Theo.”
Dr. Andrews was rubbing his eyes with his one free hand.
“You still there?” Greg asked after he only heard silence.
“Yeah,” Theo breathed.
“I wish I had better news for you.”
“Well, this is pretty much what I expected. Leave it to Margo to piss off the most evil and powerful mad scientist in the world. I’m not surprised,” Theo said, trying to laugh in the dark.
“You guys need to move, and soon. Don’t tell me where you’re going; I’d rather have believable deniability—just in case.”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“Good luck, Theo.”
“Thanks, man. I…well, thanks.” Dr. Andrews stood for a moment with his back to Margo holding the receiver like it was his life-line. He was trying not to get choked up. It was so overwhelming to feel responsible for the safety of all these children and his oldest and dearest friend, and probably the love of his life. She was so injured that it was still painful to look at her through the eyes of a man instead of a doctor.
“Mmmm,” Margo moaned softly.
Theo turned and hurried to her side. “Margo? It’s me, Theo. You’re at my hospital and you and the kids are safe. Margo?”
“Mmuph,” Margo’s eyes fluttered open. She tried to talk again, “Rrrugh mmuff”
“Try not to talk,” Dr. Andrews was doing his level best not to burst in to sobs of relief at seeing Margo awake. “Your jaw was…seriously injured. We had to wire it shut so it could heal properly.”
Margo’s eyes looked frantically around the room. Theo guessed she was looking for the children. “Meg, Evan and Alik are all here at the hospital, but they’re fine. Everyone has recovered from their injuries…well, except you. Meg’s in the bathroom getting dressed. Alik, Evan and Cole are on the third floor entertaining the sick children there—with magic tricks,” he added with a nervous laugh.
She motioned for something with which to write.
“Good idea,” the doctor smiled. “Let me find a pen and paper.”
Her wrists were still wrapped and one arm was in a sling because of the broken ribs and fractured collar bone. But even through all that, Margo grabbed the pen Theo gave her available hand and wrote two words: Thank You.
The doctor blushed deeply and shook his head. “Don’t thank me, it was your children who saved you.”
Margo tipped her head slightly to the right and gave him an inquisitive look, then immediately winced from the pain caused by the movement.
“Try not to move too much, Margo. You still have a lot of healing to do. Are you in a lot of pain? Do you want me to increase your painkillers right now?”
Margo moved the pen slowly across the paper and wrote: Williams?
“You must have a lot of questions, and to be honest, I am probably not the best one to try to answer them. As far as I know, Williams is out of the country right now, probably licking his wounds,” Theo’s face grew tight with anger.
Margo simply wrote: ?!
“It’s a long story, but first, let me get the kids for you,” he walked toward the bathroom door and knocked. “They’ll be so excited you’re awake; they’d be upset of they didn’t get to see you for themselves.”
I heard a sharp knock at my bathroom door just as I finished pulling one of my favorite white T-shirts on.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” I called, my mind just as foggy with thoughts as the bathroom was with steam.
“Meg, your mom’s awake! Hurry up!” Dr. Andrews’ excitement carried through the door.
“Mom’s awake?” I threw the door open and bolted past the doctor, nearly tackling him because he didn’t move fast enough out of my way. Rushing to my mom’s side I saw for myself. Her soft brown eyes glistened with happy tears. “Oh, mom. Thank God you’re awake! I love you so much!”
I felt a wave of love wash over me from my mother’s heart. My connection with mom was stronger than with anyone, ever. I could feel her emotions so clearly, sometimes it was hard to distinguish which were hers and which were my own.
“I’m going to call down to the children’s ward. Let’s get the boys up here, too,” Dr. Andrews was nearly bubbling with joy. He reached for the telephone and pushed a few buttons, but I wasn’t paying attention to him. I was too enthralled by my mom’s emotional roller coaster. She was oscillating between feelings of thankfulness and those of terror.
“It’s okay, mom. You’re safe. We won’t let anyone hurt you ever again,” I looked into her still mangled face and felt her wave of worry heighten even more.
“You’re not worried about yourself, are you? You’re only worried about me and the boys getting hurt. Don’t be worried. We’ll get through this. All of us will,” I was holding my mother’s hand softly as I spoke. She squeezed it in response.
It must have been a total of two minutes from the time Dr. Andrews called the third floor until the time Alik and Evan were grinning at their mom from her bedside.
“Where’s Cole?” Dr. Andrews asked looking out the hospital room door and down the hall.
“Um,…sorry about that, sir. We heard mom was awake and we both ran full speed up the four flights of stairs, not wanting to bother with the elevator. I guess Cole had a hard time keeping up. I’m sure he’ll be along in a minute,” Alik was grinning adorably at his mom the whole time he spoke. Mom’s eyes kept staring at each of our faces in turn, welling up with tears so often I took to gently patting them dry with tissues.
“I’m so thankful you’re awake, mom. It’s been awful having all these questions rolling around in my head and knowing only you have the answers,” Evan smiled widely at his mom.
“You know, mom. Maze has refused to leave your side the entire time you’ve been in the hospital?” At the sound of his name, Maze walked up to mom’s bed and stood on his hind legs, balancing by gently placing his paws on the edge of her mattress. His sweet yellow eyes studied mom’s face. He cocked his head to the right, as he does when he’s trying to figure something out then let out a soft wine. I scratched between his ears and said, “He wanted to be sure you were safe.” Mom reached out with her one good hand and let Maze lick her fingers. Furry love; it’s a beautiful thing, I laughed to myself.
“Unnn an ur ach ish oph?” mom asked incoherently.
“She wants to know when they can take the wires out of her jaw so she can talk,” I translated to the room. Mom looked at me appreciatively.
“How on earth did you understand her?” Dr Andrews asked amazed.
I shrugged, “I dunno, I just can,” I answered trying not to sound like a super freak.
“Margo, I’ll get in touch with your maxiofacial surgeon and ask him to come examine you. He’s one of the best in the world. We’ll see what he says.” The doctor still had that sweet goofy grin every time he looked at his recovering patient. “For now, let’s just stick to having you write what you want to say, or letting Meg translate for you,” he said and gave me a wink.
Mom sighed deeply. All the excitement was tiring her out quickly and her pain was getting too intense. She was still trying to study our faces, so happy to see all of us safe, but her body was telling her she needed to rest.
“Dr. Andrews, I think mom needs some pain meds now. And she needs us to let her get some sleep, too,” I said watching her face. I felt mom wistfully wish she weren’t so weak because she didn’t want to sleep yet. “It’s okay, mom. We’ll be here when you wake up. Don’t worry. You just rest and keep healing.”
Dr. Andrews was adjusting the speed of mom’s I.V. drip. Evan was smoothing mom’s blankets, and Alik leaned down and whispered something in his mother’s ear. I looked away to give him is moment, but I knew exactly what he was saying to her. Alik may be the strong, silent type, but his emotions run almost as deep as mine. He was telling mom how much he loves her and how he will take care of everyone, just like she taught him. Then, and here’s where I had to bite my lip to keep from bursting into tears, then he told her how proud he was to be her son.
Evan was talking in hushed tones to Dr. Andrews—discussing mom’s current medicinal needs. That was his way of showing his love. He wanted to figure everything out for her. My sweet little brother, the problem solver.
Mom drifted off just when a knock came at the door. Evan opened the door to find Cole holding himself up against the door frame, panting. “What’d I miss?” he gasped.
I smiled up at Cole as he walked toward my sleeping mother and stood beside me. “She woke up, Cole, and she wore herself out from all the excitement. She’s sleeping now,” I studied the lines in my mother’s face still feeling love emanating from her.
“Darn it! I missed it!” he said sheepishly. “Did you profess your undying love for her, dad?” he winked over to his father who had been gazing with obvious affection at his patient.
“That’s enough out of you, Cole Andrews,” the doctor said, but blushed deeply.
“Let’s let the Winter family have a few moments alone,” he said, grabbing his son by the shoulders and directing him back to the door. “I’ll be in the ER if you need me,” Dr. Andrews called over his shoulder while Cole continued to protest gently. “And Cole will be back on the third floor waiting for you, Alik.”
The door closed behind them with a soft click. My brothers and I exchanged looks. We hadn’t discussed how much we had all been worried about mom not waking up, not getting better. Now that we saw mom’s condition change for the better, we all needed time to process our emotions. Some of us more than others.
“Thank God she woke up,” Evan said softly. My little brother was always good at stating the obvious.
Alik was sitting with his hands draped in his lap, fingers intertwined. Psychologically, one might say he was feeling helpless. I knew exactly how he felt. He cleared the emotions in his throat and said, “I talked with Theo about our need to come up with a plan. We’re vulnerable out in the open like this and Williams isn’t done with us.”
“Evan and I were just discussing the same thing this morning. We need to figure out a way to keep mom safe so she can finish recuperating. She’s been too fragile to go into hiding so far.” I found myself looking into Alik’s sky-blue eyes and comparing them to Creed’s. My brother’s eyes were always swimming with emotions right under the surface. The crystal blue was strikingly handsome against his darker skin. Creed’s eyes had a completely different feel. His were a darker blue and seemed cunning and mysterious. Both of them had wide-set, expressive eyes. And they both had annoyingly long eyelashes.
“…right, Meg?” my brothers were looking at me expectantly.
“Hum? What? I’m sorry, my mind was wandering,” I stammered.
“Keep up with us, Meggie. This is no time for day dreaming,” Alik gently scolded.
“I know. Must be a little sleep deprived.” Alik looked into my face and squinted slightly.
“No, there’s something else going on. What aren’t you telling us, Meg?” he asked with a scary amount of confidence.
“Nothing. I only know what you know,” I lied. Am I that obvious? Can’t I even think about a cute guy without my brothers giving me a hard time? It’s none of their business anyway.
Alik wasn’t going to let up that easily. “Meg, I can see it all over your face. Something has happened since I last saw you. Are you going to tell us, or do I have to beat it out of you?”
“For crying out loud, Alik! We have more important things to worry about, don’t you think? Enough with the inquisition!” Even to my ears, I sounded a little too squeaky.
“Well, it has been a while since we spared,” Evan said casually.
“Gotta keep up our skills,” Alik nodded in agreement, letting a wide grin spread across his face.
“We haven’t been able to spar because the only time the three of us are together these days is when we’re right here in mom’s hospital room,” I tried to sound logical, like Evan.
“She’s got a point, Al,” Evan agreed.
I didn’t care if they wanted to fight, as long as that got Alik off my back about the secret he was sure I was keeping. Heck, I wouldn’t mind discussing quantum physics if that got my brothers to leave me alone.
“I’m pretty sure we could step out for fifteen minutes. We can make sure Cole and Dr. Andrews know where we are if there’s an emergency. Now that mom has awakened, her condition isn’t nearly as delicate. And her call-button is right next to her. Matter of fact…I bet the children on the third floor would love to see a good match.” Alik smiled at his idea.
“Oh, that’s a great idea. I don’t think they were as much fascinated by Cole’s magic tricks as they were about laughing at him in general. Pretty sure they wouldn’t mind scooting to their windows and watching us on the hospital’s lawn from there,” Evan concluded.
“You’re serious about this?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” the boys said in unison.
“Maybe little Megglet has lost her edge, Evan,” Alik teased.
“She’s probably too worried about messing up her hair…” Evan added with a knowing nod.
“Or braking a nail,” Alik pretended to buff his nails on his jeans then held his hand up to his face in mock adoration.
My blood was boiling. I hated it when they teased me, and they knew it! Stupid brothers!
“Okay, baby brothers. You asked for it. Alik, you go arrange it with the head nurse on the third floor. Evan you tell hospital security that we’re just performing a martial arts ‘demonstration’ for the patients to watch from their windows and not actually trying to kill anyone. I’ll go let Dr. Andrews know where to find us. Meet me on the north lawn in ten minutes,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Excellent!” Alik smiled widely. “And after I kick your butt, you have to tell me whatever it is you’re keeping secret.”
“And ifIwin, you have to walk around for one full day with a sign on your back that reads ‘I wet the bed!’” I growled.
“I don’t wet the bed, Meg,” Alik laughed. “This secret must be juicy if you’re that mad at the idea of having to spill it.”
“Shut up!” I countered stupidly.
“What happens ifIwin?” Evan piped up from the corner of the room. He was tightening the laces on his sneakers.
Alik and I looked over at our little brother and laughed. “Thanks Evan, we needed a little comic relief just then,” Alik teased.
“I wasn’t trying to be funny, and Icouldwin.” Evan sounded like a little kid who wanted to keep up with his big siblings, but instead was left pouting and kicking at the dirt in frustration.
“You could win, Ev,” I said. “But today, I need to teach Alik a lesson.”
“Pft. Enough talk; let’s go!” Alik was already walking toward the door. Evan and I followed.
“Maze, you stay here and watch after mom, okay? We’ll be back in a few minutes, but don’t be surprised if some of us are limping when we return,” I narrowed my eyes at Alik.
Maze sat dutifully at mom’s bedside and sniffed loudly. He didn’t approve of us leaving, at all, and for a split second, I sensed this could be a bad idea. Everyone would see us outside putting on a superhuman display and anyone who knew anything about us could easily conclude that our sick mom was left alone.
“Hey guys,” I said. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. What if…”
“Are you backing out?” Alik taunted, raising one eyebrow.
“Come on, Meg-a-Chicken! We won’t hurt you too badly,” Evan chimed in.
I tightened my jaw knowing full well if I let the words I was thinking gush from my mouth, I’d sound worse than a drunken sailor! I closed mom’s door behind us and listened for the lock to click.
It was only then that I noticed the time. It was eleven thirty. I was supposed to meet Creed at noon. Darn it! Even if I finished kicking Alik’s butt by noon, I’d end up all sweaty and roughed-up looking when I met Creed on the hospital’s west lawn.Shoot!
10 Yelling at the Drive-Through
Creed happened to be sitting in his truck in the hospital parking lot trying to decide what to do next. He had a half hour to kill before meeting the girl. Maybe he should pick up some lunch for them. On second thought, that may look too desperate. Besides, it’s hard to talk with someone when we’re both chewing. He started the car, drove down the street and pulled into a fast-food drive-through.
“I’ll take your order whenever you’re ready,” the plastic menu said in a bored tone. Creed was still amazed at some things most Americans take for granted. There were no drive-through fast-food restaurants in or around the Facility back in Germany.
Still not sure how to do this, Creed yelled back to the voice. “Yeah, hi. I need to get two drinks.”
“Small, medium, large or extreme?” the voice droned.
“How big is ‘extreme’?” Creed couldn’t help asking.
“That’s sixty-four ounces.” Now the voice sounded less bored and a little more annoyed, as though the size of the drinks were common knowledge.
“Wow, that’s probably way too much,” Creed said to himself. “Just give me two medium drinks, please,” deciding that medium, by definition, seemed like a good amount.
“What kind of drink?” the voice asked.
“What kind? Um,…” he said trying frantically to find the list of drinks on the menu in front of him.
“We have every kind of soda, including the diet and caffeine free versions. Cherry, lime, grape, strawberry, lemon, orange, coconut and mint flavoring. Smoothed, creamed, iced, blended or layered,” the voice rambled through the possibilities so fast it was dizzying.
“Can I just have water?” Creed asked holding his head.
The voice sighed deeply, “What flavor?”
“Flavor? I just want water flavored water!” Creed was starting to get a headache.
“Tap, mountain river, running stream, oxygenated, carbonated or vitamins added?” The voice sounded like it wanted to reach through the plastic menu and slap him. The feeling was mutual.
By now there was a line of cars forming behind him, waiting to place their order. One car even honked at him.
“What…uh…what’s the most popular drink you serve?” he asked desperately of the plastic menu.
“We have a lot of popular drinks here,” it said, stupidly.
“Clearly. Just give me two medium drinks of whatever the last guy ordered,” Creed yelled.
When he pulled up to the next window, as instructed, he nearly threw the pimple-faced cashier a twenty dollar bill and stared menacingly at him.
“Here are your drinks, sir,” the fast food worker said, a little more politely now that he saw how hugely muscular Creed was. “They are mint flavored creamed smoothies…that’s what the last guy ordered.” His skinny shoulders shrugged innocently.
“Fine,” Creed said and drove away without waiting for his change. He was wondering how anyone would want to live with all these choices when he pulled into the hospital parking lot and saw a crowd forming on the hospital grounds.
11 Battle at Hospital Hill
I couldn’t believe the crowd that had already gathered both at the third floor window of the hospital and right here around my brothers and me as we took a few minutes to stretch. We hadn’t even begun the exhibition yet and we had an eager audience.
“What did you two do?” I asked motioning to the twenty or so people standing around us and the dozens of little faces pressed into the glass of the third-floor windows.
“Just what you asked us to do,” Evan said. “We let the third-floor and hospital security know about our ‘demonstration’ so I guess word spread.”
“Worried too many people will be around to see your butt-whoopin?” Alik grinned over at me.
“Pft. You babies ready to play?” I asked, and stood arms tight at my sides in the ready-to-begin stance.
“Sure thing,” Alik stopped stretching and took his position between Evan and me. All three of us stood side by side facing the hospital.
“Hep,” I barked sharply as was our way of synchronizing our starting bow. Demonstrating respect for our imagined opponent, we bowed deeply while maintaining eye contact. Slowly, we righted ourselves and began.
This kata was one of mom’s most basic. It was a training exercise promoting proper footing, form and technique. Each movement was to be executed with precision and synchronicity among the three of us. And after years of training, my brothers and I were so familiar with the movements we could do this kata blindfolded. Matter of fact, wehaddone it blindfolded.
Each maneuver was performed twice. The first time fast enough to have missed if you blinked, then again slowly so the audience could study how we did what we did.
We flew through a blurry-fast series of defensive hand-to-hand combat movements demonstrating exact form and footing then repeated ourselves in slow motion. We presented a series of kicks—front, side, rear, roundhouse—first fast, then repeated slowly.
As I moved to the well-known kata, my body seemed to awaken with joy. I was completely unconcerned with the eyes watching me. Instead, all I thought about was how happy it made me to let myself move freely and not hold back. Whipping through these familiar motions, punching, kicking, blocking; it almost brought a giggle to my throat.
My senses came alive during these moments, as though this is exactly what I was designed to do. I loved the tug of each muscle as I moved, the wind rushing past my skin as I struck empty air. Movement is joy to me.
When the kata ended, my brothers and I bowed to a cheering audience clapping happily for us. I glanced over at my brothers, whose faces looked just as content as I felt. We all loved this.
Mom taught us well. Knowing we would need to defend ourselves from Dr. Williams, she trained us to be warriors. Living back on the ranch with no other kids around, we didn’t know it was unusual to have the education we did from our mom. We thought lots of kids grew up with combat training. Like some kids went to soccer practice or took piano, I assumed some kids practiced and excelled in the art of guerilla warfare, like me. I was also unaware of our superior strength compared to an average human being. Only able to practice with my brothers and my mom, I thought everyone could do what I did.
Though mom was a regular human being, she had skills and training achieved through years of service as a special-forces soldier. She had trained her mind just as much as her body. She taught us how to push ourselves beyond what we thought we could do; and being metas, we could do a lot. She conditioned us to become extremely controlled, precise and if need be, lethal.
I was thinking about mom in the seconds that flashed just as we completed our kata. I felt a wave of gratefulness for everything she did for us; all the sacrifices she made to protect us. But my reverie was broken when I heard Alik call, “Ready, hep!” It was our transition signal to begin a different demonstration. I couldn’t help but smile in anticipation. All three siblings faced each other in a loose triangle.
Just as we were about to bow, indicating to those watching that we were about to begin battling each other, something caught my eye.
There, standing next to a tree in the grassy courtyard, was Creed. He was holding a couple drinks looking bug-eyed surprised. And if I were honest with myself, he also looked embarrassed.Oh, good grief!Of all the stupid things my brothers have gotten me into, this was the most humiliating! I glanced away quickly.C’mon Meg…focus.
By the time I glanced back, Creed was gone. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe that hadn’t been Creed and my eyes were playing tricks on me. I tried to convince myself that was the case so I could complete the task at hand. Namely kicking my brothers’ butt!
“I know you two want to jump right into it, but how about we set some rules?” Evan spoke over the crowd that was quickly growing around us.
“Half?” Alik called to me.
“Fine.” I smiled watching my brothers carefully. “Half” to us meant we would hit with only half our strength so as not to cause lasting damage.
We moved around watching each other carefully. Throughout the years, we practiced many two-against-one battles. So the fluidity of our movements probably made what we were doing look easy. Alik punched, I dodged and swept his leg. Alik jumped and spun into a kick to my chest and landed gracefully on his feet.
“Oh, come on! Quit dancing around you two,” Evan chided and made the first move to strike outside the predictable. His strategy was perfect. Alik had expected him to go after me, so the double punch to his side caught him completely off guard. Even as Alik worked to defend himself, my round house kick knocked him on his back.
The crowd cheered, but I was ignoring everyone except my brothers. I jumped toward Alik and whipped my hand right into his chest. Evan came up behind me and grabbed me around the neck. One quick shift of my hips and I flipped him onto his back, but apparently this was the plan, because even as Evan was flying, Alik knocked me down face first into the cold, damp autumn grass and ranked my elbow up and behind me. His knee was digging in my back painfully. The crowd gasped.
“Spill it,” Alik spoke softly to the back of my head.
“You’ve gained weight, little brother. Get off me!” I growled, red-faced.
“Not until you spill it,” Alik cooed.
“You two ganged up on me! Evan, how could you?” I called to him trying to guilt him into helping me.
Evan shrugged and smiled sweetly. “It’s for your own good.”
The crowd was murmuring—obviously concerned for the poor girl getting her face planted into the ground by the brothers.
“I could scream. That would make you look like bullies to all these people.” I tried to leverage.
“You wouldn’t dare because that would make you look like a weak little girl crying for help,” Alik chided using a voice that was supposed to sound like mine.
“Just spill it, so we can get this over with. Don’t you want to hurry back to mom?” Evan pleaded.
“Low blow, Ev,” I said seriously. “Fine, I’ll say it...,” and hesitated because I hated to give in to these oafs. They were not going to be okay with Creed.
“Any day now, Meg.” Alik shifted his weight a little more heavily onto my back.
“Uuhhggg…okay, okay…I met a guy. Now let me up,” I yelled.
“You what?” Evan looked completely shocked.
“We’re not done discussing this, Meg,” Alik growled into my ear. “But stand up and wave to the crowd so they don’t start panicking.”
He moved off my back and let go of my arm. I was glad I couldn’t see the look in Alik’s eyes. It was bad enough I could feel his disapproval.
Both boys added to the act by helping me to my feet. I dusted off the grass and leaves from my clothes and waved to the crowd to let them think I was fine, but I wasn’t fine. I was about to get the third degree from my stupid brothers about the dangers of talking with strangers—what with meta monsters hunting us and all.
12 Moment of Reckoning
He couldn’t believe his luck. This was it. The three metas were away from the target. Margo Winter was alone and unprotected. He scanned the area around the three metas. No coyote. That’s not a problem. He had figured he would have to take the wild dog out anyway and had already made arrangements for just such a job.
From the looks of the growing crowd, these three would be busy entertaining for a while. Creed’s mind was racing with possibilities, tactics and scenarios.
He was a soldier trained to use his brain as much as he was trained to use his body. He knew this chance probably would not come again. He knew what he had to do, but just as he was about to turn away, he unintentionally caught the girl’s eye. For a split second, he hesitated. He remembered her gentle touch and the scent of her hair. He remembered watching her smile up at him trusting him when she should have been running from him. How could a girl who has lived through all she has still have a naivety about her? How could she still walk around with hope and trust when her life was built on deception?
She looked surprised and embarrassed just before she looked away. Damn, I wish she hadn’t seen me.Creed thought to himself. If he were honest with himself, Creed would have wished he hadn’t seen her. He tried to push her from his mind and focus on his target objective. He bolted to the hospital, barely pausing to chunk the drinks into the first trash can he passed.
Just take things one step at a time, Creed. You know what you have to do. Play this by the book, and Williams will give you your freedom and possibly your family. You’ve wanted this forever, man. It’s right at the tip of your fingers. Just forget the girl. The ends justify the means. Move!
He kept this internal dialog going the entire run up the stairwell to the seventh floor and continued his silent pep talk even as he walked into the men’s restroom. He walked directly into the farther of the only two stalls and quickly pulled the tile away from the wall just behind the commode. He kept his vigil as he removed the plastic bag stuffed into the small hole he dug there days ago. Even as he removed the gun from the bag and slipped it up the sleeve of his right arm, he continued to chant,move, move, move, to himself.
Creed walked out the bathroom door, down the hallway, toward hospital room number 720. The nurses’ station was almost directly across from it, but the only two people there were deep in conversation. It was a nurse and a doctor flirting on the job. How cliché.
“Excuse me, nurse?” Creed flashed his two-hundred watt smile at her, and she immediately blushed.
“Hey Susan, I’ll catch up with you later,” the doctor said gruffly. He obviously didn’t like how his girl reacted to this guy.
“Okay, Jimmy…er, I mean, Dr. Reese,” the nurse stammered. She returned her full attention to the handsome stranger standing in front of her. His eyes were captivating; she couldn’t stop staring.
“Susan, was it?” Creed asked smoothly.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said coyly.
“Hey, listen, I was wondering if you could help me out? I’m a friend of the Winter family,” Creed said, casually pointing toward Margo’s room, “Alik, Evan and Meg are downstairs putting on a show for a pretty big crowd of people, and they asked me to come up here and check on their mom and Maze, their coyote, just until they get back,” Creed smiled widely and shrugged as though saying,Ah, shucks, ma’am. I’m a harmless guy with a bunch of paranoid friends and just trying to keep the peace.
“Oh, okay,” the nurse’s brow furrowed slightly as she tried to remember if she’d ever heard of a “friend of the family” that may come to visit. She couldn’t think of anyone, but then, she hadn’t been on duty for the last two days, so maybe there was a change in the orders.
“Listen, I can tell that guy, Jimmy, really has a thing for you, but between you and me…you can do a lot better. Maybe we could grab something to eat later? When do you get off?” Creed leaned over the counter and let his eyes smolder at the impressionable young nurse. He may have only been eighteen, but he had an aura about him that was edgy, rough and experienced. He easily could pass for twenty-five. He didn’t have much more time to waste with the girl, so he was laying it on thick.
Her hesitation was gone as she rounded the desk with a flirtatious sway to her hips and made her way Margo’s room. Creed ran his fingers through his hair, flashing a crooked grin at the nurse. Her fingers quivered as she typed in the code that unlocked the door. After peaking in at the patient herself, she stepped back out to the hallway and whispered, “My shift is over at seven-thirty.”
Creed smiled widely at the girl and said, “I’ll see you then, Susan.”
He turned and closed the door softly behind him. That’s when he heard the growling start.
13 The Third Degree
I was hopping mad. By the time the crowd dispersed and we were out of ear-shot from passersby, I was ready to scream, but, so were the boys.
“What do you mean you met someone?” Alik dove right in.
“What part of that sentence are you too dumb to understand?” I growled back.
“Who is he, Meg?” Evan asked simply. His face was tight with worry.
“He’s just a guy I met here at the hospital. He was visiting a sick friend. We started talking. It’s not big a deal!” I shot back.
“Not a big deal?” Alik’s sky-blue eyes flashed with fury. “What if this guy is a spy sent by Williams?”
“Listen, you two. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. He’s just a nice guy. They do exist, you know.”
“How do youknowhe’s a nice guy?” Evan asked.
“How do youknowhe’s not?” I yelled a bit too loudly. Lowering my voice I added, “Isn’t it possible a nice, normal guy would think I’m cute and want to get to know me better?” I felt angry tears welling up in my eyes.
“Well, of course. Cole’s crazy about you,” Alik said softly.
I felt the bitter sting of guilt in the pit of my stomach at the mention of Cole. Then a flash of resentment welled up. “I will not be made to feel guilty for allowing myself to experience some modicum of normalcy.”
“Let me put it to you this way, Meg,” Evan said calmly. “How would you feel if you found out Alik was keeping secret a relationship with a girl he just met here?”
My mouth opened, but no sound came out. How would I feel? I would feel furious at him for not staying focused on our life-and-death situation. I’d feel scared for him that he was going to get hurt when he has already been so hurt by life. And I guess I’d be wary of any girl who put a wedge between me and my brother when I needed to be able to lean on him the most.
I looked over at Alik, understanding more clearly why he reacted this way. “Oh, I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I said softly, trying to figure out a way to make things right. “Would it help if you met him?” I asked my brothers. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. Did I just invite my brothers to come chaperone my twelve o’clock meeting with my dream guy?
“Yeah, actually. It would help,” Alik said smoothly.
Rolling my eyes in unrestrained frustration, I began walking and my brothers followed right behind me.
“Look, he’s just a regular guy; completely harmless. He’s been at the hospital visiting a friend who was in an accident,” I explained as we walked around the hospital to the front lawn where I was to meet Creed.
“Let us decide how harmless he is,” Evan muttered while chewing thoughtfully at the inside of his cheek.
14 The Scent of Death
The dim light from the window’s curtain only partially drawn was enough for him to see the coyote’s eyes and teeth. Maze was standing protectively at the foot of the woman’s bed, crouched and ready to attack. No amount of charm would affect this creature—Creed knew that. Animals were smarter than people in so many ways. He let the gun slip down to his hand and in the same fluid motion pulled the trigger. Maze yelped, jumped back and fell to the floor in a furry heap.
Excellent,he thought to himself.
He looked over at the bed and for the first time looked into the face of his target. Dr. Margo Winter lay motionless, save the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. She was completely asleep.This couldn’t be any easier,he thought to himself as he grabbed a pillow that had been lying on a neatly folded blanket in the chair beside the woman.
He lifted the pillow and caught a familiar scent. Pulling the pillow toward his face, he inhaled deeply. It smelled exactly like Meg. The scent of her shampoo was on this pillow. She laid on this—slept her peaceful, naïve sleep. Pressed her cheek into this pillow and closed her eyes. His imagination was crisp.
Creed shook his head, trying to snap himself out of it.Quit thinking of the girl, and finish the job. When you’re done with this target, you can think about her. Just finish what you started before you run out of time!He scolded himself back into reality. The idea of running out of time and being in this room when Meg came back was enough to make him feel a wave of panic. He took a step toward the woman, leaned over her, and slipped the pillow up to her face. It was then that she opened her eyes and looked with terror into the face of her executioner.
15 He Was Just Here
“Where’s he from?” Alik asked
“How old is he?” Evan asked before I could answer Alik.
“How did you meet him?”
“Who is his ‘friend’?”
“What does he know about you?”
“For Pete’s sake, you two! You don’t even stop asking questions long enough to let me answer!” I was getting more nervous with every step. Introducing my brothers to this handsome guy I barely knew was really sounding like a crazy-stupid idea.
“I don’t know where he’s from. He’s about eighteen-years-old. I met him while taking Maze for a walk. I don’t know his friend, and he doesn’t even know my name!” I felt myself very close to the edge of panic as I looked around the lawn. Creed wasn’t there.
“Well, where is this mystery guy of yours?” Alik asked scanning the area.
“Stop calling him that. He’s no mystery, just a guy,” I said trying to sound composed. “I saw him at a distance while we were sparing. I don’t know how much he saw, but maybe it freaked him out.” I swallowed hard. “You know, regular girls don’t fight for fun like me,” my voice trailed off. I was looking at my sneakers wondering what I must have looked like to him. I felt heat spread up my neck and burn my ears and was thankful for my long hair right about then. When you feel like a freak, it’s nice to have a built in veil that can hide your pain.
“Maybe he just had to run to the bathroom,” Evan offered, gently.
“Not everyone has a fascination with bathroom plumbing like you, Ev,” Alik said. “Listen, Meg. We’d better head back to mom’s room. We’ll meet him some other time. Okay?” I felt my brother’s arm drape over my shoulders in an uncharacteristically affectionate way. I couldn’t help it. Hot tears of humiliation brimmed in my eyes. I couldn’t look at my brothers. The first time I’m to introduce them to a boy I liked, and the idiot stands me up!
“Who are we going to meet some other time?” a familiar voice spoke from behind us. I turned to see Cole’s gentle, smiling face. His green eyes matched the evergreens behind him. His dirty blond hair was just getting long enough to be called scruffy, even in his halfhearted attempt at gelling it up and off his forehead. He wore a soft brown fleece hoodie and faded blue jeans. His large hands were shoved into his front pockets in an obvious attempt to keep them warm against the cold Kansas day. I loved the way his wide smile made his nose crinkle just a little at the bridge. I felt as safe with Cole as I did with my brothers. And as I stood surrounded by my boys, I couldn’t help but compare Cole to Creed.
“Um…Meg? You wanna answer him? Or should I?” Alik said in a flat attempt at being politically correct.
“Oh, no one important, Cole,” I said walking up to him and wrapping my arm through his. I immediately felt a calmness flood through me. It was crystal clear when I was around him: Cole’s love for me was genuine and unconditional. Why would I allow myself to get swept up by a tall, dark stranger when I know where I should be? Why was Creed’s mysteriousness so darn sexy to me?
“We were just heading back to mom’s room,” I said changing the subject. “So, did the kids like our exhibition?”
My brothers were uncharacteristically silent as they fell into step behind me and Cole. I could feel their disapproval of me. What did they want me to say?Yeah, um…Cole. See, I know you love me and have proven you would risk your life for me and my family, but I kinda met some other guy and totally get hot and bothered every time he comes around. You good with that?I had to work to push their judgmental feelings away from me.
“The kids were stoked! They were cheering so loudly, the nurses came in and teased them that they would have to send everyone back to bed if they didn’t calm down. You should have seen their faces. These little sick kids, some of them with no hair, skinny and pale, all of them wearing their hospital gowns and slippers…they looked like they could sprout wings and fly with excitement watching you three!” Cole’s face flushed with happiness as he talked. He really did have a heart of gold.
“I’m glad they enjoyed it,” I said genuinely.
“I’ve watched you three spar lots of times, but it still makes me stare in amazement to see you do what you can do when, just to look at you, no one would suspect you were so tough,” Cole awkwardly complimented.
I looked up at him, and realized, not for the first time, that he was a pretty tall guy who probably outweighed me by fifty pounds. I raised my brow at him mischievously.
“Um…what I mean is, that you’re a girl; a feminine and fragile-looking girl. So when you switch into meta-mode it’s just…”
I giggled to myself, completely forgetting about Creed and being stood up; basking instead in Cole’s adorable glow of admiration.
“Dude, you passed awkward a while back and are fast approaching sappy,” Alik teased.
“Oh, be quiet, Ali,” I said protectively. “I think Cole’s observations are sweet.” I hugged his arm gently while we waited for the elevator to take us back up to the seventh floor.
The elevator was already pretty full of people who were sure to be stopping at every floor between here and the seventh floor when I felt a burst of adrenaline fueled by terror.
“Oh, my God! Mom!” I whipped around toward my brothers relaying the urgency with my eyes as I felt more terror gushing toward me.
16 Eyes Wide Open
Evan grabbed the elevator doors and pushed them back open for us to run out. Alik was ahead of me and Evan was beside me. We ran, full-speed toward the exit sign above the doors leading to the hospital’s stairwell. We took the stairs two and three at a time, nearly flying, till we arrived at the seventh floor doors and slapped them open. We didn’t stop running until we got to mom’s hospital room door.
Two nurses were standing, stunned and confused in the hallway, as though they knew something just happened, but hadn’t had time to register what.
I heard a soft whimper coming from inside—her door left slightly ajar. Alik kicked it open with his foot. Evan and I were at his heels, ready for battle. There was mom, eyes wide with fear, tears spilling down. She was sitting up in her hospital bed, pointing to the corner of the room. My eyes scanned the room quickly to determine what she was so upset about when I saw it. There was a silver mound of fur in the corner of the room, half under a chair. It was Maze. He was panting softly, but otherwise not moving.
Alik and Evan rushed to mom checking her for any injuries, blood—anything to have explained what was happening. I rushed to my best friend’s side and gently held his face in my hands. He was fighting to keep his eyes open and let out a whimper just for me. It was all I could do to keep from screaming in pain and fury at whatever it was that hurt my Maze.
Even as I ran my hands over his fur gently, searching for a wound, blood or something, I was silently screaming at myself for having left mom and Maze alone. Damn it! If Maze is hurt, it is my fault. I’m such a hot-headed idiot! What the hell was I thinking, leaving him alone to protect mom? Damn it! I should know better!
Feeling and seeing nothing unusual on Maze’s right side, I slipped my hands under him to gently roll him over so I could examine the other side. My hands felt something immediately and upon me jarring the object, Maze whimpered painfully. Completing the roll, I could now see his left flank and there, right in the shoulder, was a syringe-like object still stuck in his muscle. I yanked it out and set it on the table beside me thinking I may need to have it studied to figure out what it was, but I was hoping it was just a tranquilizer.
Just! Just? Are you freakin’ kidding me? If Maze was shot by anything, Williams’ is in on it. If Williams is behind this, then mom probably stared into the face of death moments ago. He’s not letting up. Williams is ready to finish what he started, Meg.
“Mom, are you okay? What happened?” My voice cracked with emotion. I felt torn between fear and fury.
My mother’s eyes were streaming tears as she slowly shook her head. The boys stood on either side of her protectively. Both of them looked like they were ready to rip the head off the person or persons responsible for hurting our family. I was right there with them. The seething anger I felt boiling deep inside me was literally making me see red.
“That’s it. We’re leaving…now!” Alik’s voice was icy and absolute.
I nodded in agreement, afraid if I opened my mouth to speak, I’d burst into flames of rage. Instead, I turned to the small closet in mom’s hospital room and grabbed her suitcase. My hands began grabbing her things and throwing them in automatically. A ringing that existed only in my head muffled the voices in the room. Alik was taking charge, and I was eternally grateful to him for doing that. I couldn’t think straight through my rage. Mom was almost killed and Maze was hurt trying to defend her while I was unfocused and girly-stupid over some dork who...I shook my head hard.Stop it. Focus, Meg. Get mom to safety first then berate yourself over your stupidity.
“Evan, call the ER and get Dr. Andrews and Cole up here,” Alik said coolly.
“Where are we going, Alik?” Evan asked logically.
“We’ll decide when we’re en route.”
“I may have a suggestion,” Evan added as he picked up the hospital room phone.
“Don’t say anything while we’re in this room. We may have ears listening,” Alik and Evan nodded knowingly to one another.
Mom’s suitcase was stuffed, so I dove back into the closet looking for bags I could fill with the remaining items. Finding what I needed, I rushed into the bathroom to gather toiletries. I jumped when there was a knock at the door.
Alik was there in an instant. “Who’s there?” he barked in a voice I had never heard him use.
“Cole! It’s Cole,” our friend’s voice was tense and out of breath.
Alik opened the door just wide enough to let our friend in.
“Would you guys quit doing that? That’s the second time in one day you’ve bolted from me and left me coughing in your dust! You’re gonna give a guy a complex you…” Cole stopped in mid-sentence when he saw Maze on the ground.
“What happened?” Cole’s eyes widened looking around at the bags being packed. “What’s going on?”
“Williams sent someone to break into mom’s room while we were…,” my voice caught in my throat. “…while we were outside, and he shot Maze. Mom’s okay, but terrified. I don’t know what stopped him from finishing what he started, but fortunately, mom doesn’t seem hurt,” I managed to say with only a half-dozen huge tears falling off my pale skin.
Cole had already hurried to Margo to look her over himself. “I’m so sorry Dr. Winter,” he said while gently holding her hand. “You must have been terrified. Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay,” he said gently patting her tears dry with fresh tissues. “Dad’s going to be pretty upset when he finds out what happened. Between you and me, he’s pretty nuts about you, you know,” Cole spoke softly.
My brothers and I were rushing around, preparing for a hasty departure, but Cole was sitting very still beside my mom. He was just holding her hand and carefully fixing her blankets around the I.V. tube still dripping pain medicine into her vein.
Here I was worried about my own feelings, my coyote, my secret crush, and there was the sweetest boy I’d ever known who had nothing to gain from being around me or my family…and it was he who stopped to hold my mother’s hand. It was Cole’s appreciation of a human’s most basic needs that stopped me in my tracks. Was I really so selfish not to have seen my mother just needed to be held?
From the door we heard a series of beeps as Dr. Andrews entered the security code and burst through the door. “What happened? What’s going on?”
Five months after the Winter family went into hiding.
17 Casting Light
At 3:14am I woke from the same dream I’ve been having most nights and decided I needed to get up and brush my teeth. Not wanting to turn on the bathroom light, I stumbled to the sink, felt around until the familiar mushy toothpaste tube landed under my left hand, and the cylindrical shape of my automatic brush under my right.
Deciding I was still too lazy to flip on the light switch to see where the toothpaste was landing when I tried to squeeze it onto the bristles, I opted for tipping my head back and squirting some paste directly into my open mouth.
Ah yes, the cleansing beauty of toothpaste. I sighed deeply as I brushed my teeth. Feeling the bristles massage my gums helped me organize my thoughts. I know that probably seems weird to most people. But, that’s just it, isn’t it? I’m not like most people. Heck, according to my little brother’s research, I’m not even human.
We’ll get back to that later. I digress; I was going to tell you about my dreams. So, in this one I’m able to fly. I know, not unusual for a dream. But, I don’t just fly; I can also throw streams of light from my hands as I’m battling a faceless evil. The light doesn’t come from me, in my dreams, but through me. It’s like I am some sort of angel of God, and I’m battling against demons.
Tonight’s dream was especially vivid. In it, I knew there were children being held captive just below the surface of the earth, and I had to go rescue them. I prayed for strength as I leaped into the air and landed hard, punching the ground with my fist. A huge hole opened, and I dove down into it. There was blackness everywhere. The blackness singed my skin, but I kept flying. I passed droves of wicked creatures writhing in pain, but I wasn’t there for them. I was being directed where to go. I had to find the children.
The heat could have been suffocating, if it weren’t for the cool light I felt in me, protecting me. The stench from the wickedness surrounding me was horrible. I knew I was only able to survive this because of the light’s pure strength. It was as though I had a suit of armor made of the most beautiful iridescent light. It was both on me and inside me so I was aware of the pain going on outside this protection, but unaffected by it.
I rounded a corner and knew I had to punch through the wall in front of me to find the children. With a deep breath and intense focus, I punched the cement-like barricade and it shattered open. There were the children, cowering in the far corner. I rushed to them, gathered them and flew back through the wicked rooms of this hell.
When the shadows would try to attack me for taking these innocent, delicious souls away, I simply held out my hand, palm up, and a pillar of light would shoot from my wrist blasting all the darkness away from me and my precious cargo.
I flew the children back up through the hole I had punched in the earth’s surface and set their feet gently on the ground. A crowd had gathered. I handed the children to these good people telling them to take care of the children—I had to go back for more. I dove back down into the wretched, stench-filled, black hole and kept battling as I searched for more children I knew were still there.
Again and again, I repeated my mission. Each time I would find two or three of the innocent ones, gather them up, cast light to clear our paths and fly them back up to the surface.
Every time I had this dream, it was similar in that I was casting light against evil and rescuing children. Sometimes the location was different, but they had a common theme: Heat, fire, burning flesh, stench, screaming, pain and innocent souls.
The souls of the innocent were delicious to the demons. A delicacy. They craved them. The evil became stronger the more innocent souls they consumed.
Well, now you see why I felt the need to get up in the middle of the night and brush my teeth. Some nights, I’m dripping with sweat and have to take a shower, and change my sweat-soaked bedding. Some mornings, I wake and my jaw is hurting so badly I can’t even open my mouth to shove that proverbial toothbrush into it. Apparently, I clench my teeth during these dreams. I have a pretty high pain tolerance, but when I’ve been fighting in my sleep all night, evenIfeel the effects come morning.
I’m still trying to figure what it all means, but I can tell you one thing: Something huge is on the horizon, and I think I’m being prepared for it through my dreams.
18 The Life of the Hunted
If my family and I weren’t being hunted by a madman, our new life would be pretty great. We were staying with an old professor mom and Theo worked with some twenty-five years ago. This was the man who secured those fake IDs for mom when she first took me and my brothers away from Dr. Williams and the Facility as babies. This man had been a true friend to my mother all these years by keeping her secret while she tried to raise me and my brothers in seclusion on our Texas ranch.
It was he who Dr. Andrews called from a newly purchased cell phone even as we drove away from the Kansas hospital that day five months ago. His name is Dr. James St. Paul, but he insists everyone call him “Paulie.”
Paulie lives in Hawaii and he can usually be found in one of two places: his personal laboratory at one end of his house or out on the waves, surfing. Paulie is a bit excentric. He’s always wearing his swim trunks, even under his lab coat, making him look like he’s wearing a white dress with extremely hairy, tanned legs sticking out from beneath. He says you have to be ready in an instant to hop on your board if the waves are good.
The man is probably sixty-five, and besides surfing and winning awards for biogenetic engineering, he also plays a right-handed guitar upside down to accommodate his left-handedness and can catch a gecko without breaking its tail. Sounds like one very cool guy, right? He is. He’s like the grandfather we never had. Not having a family of his own, Paulie seemed to love the role.
Alik, Evan and Cole worship the ground he walks on. Paulie has taken them under his wing and taught them how to live like locals. They’ve done everything from cliff diving and parasailing to whittling and hiking.
That’s right, Cole and Theo came with us. Theo gave up his entire tenure and practice in Kansas to be with our mom. Cole, of course, came with his dad. What sixteen-year-old wouldn’t want to graduate from high school early and go live in Hawaii rent free?
It has been a season of rest and recuperation for mom, but for me and my brothers, it’s been a time of reflection and redirection. Once the novelty of Hawaii wore off, my brothers and I decided it was time to devise a plan of attack. We created goals together and divided the tasks. That was about four months ago.
Evan was to work with Dr. Andrews and Paulie on the study of our blood to try to determine what was going on with our metahuman abilities. If Williams wanted our blood so badly, we needed to figure out why.
Alik studied plans of attack both defensive and offensive. He studied information about Dr. Williams’ himself, including all his holdings, associates and projects. He worked on digging up anything he could about the doctor’s past. Who was this guy? Where did he come from? Who was his family? What made him tick?
My task was a very internal one. I worked on trying to control my ability to channel into someone’s emotions. I was getting better at it, but there was no way I could seek someone I only knew one-dimensionally from thousands of miles away and tune into to their feelings. That just wasn’t happening. Yet.
We were all beginning to feel very anxious that something big was going to happen soon. Williams would not just sit back forever while we tinkered with our meta abilities on the white sandy beaches of Hawaii. He had plans for us and revenge in his wicked heart.
19 The Family Meeting
“We need to have a family meeting. Dr. Andrews, Paulie and I need to discuss our laboratory findings,” Evan’s eyes reflected the gravity of his request. He had come into the living room and knelt beside our much recovered mother. She and Alik were reading thick books as they sat side by side on the sofa, just as they had done for as long as Evan could remember. Margo was such a devoted mother. It was obvious to everyone she was happiest when surrounded by her children.
Margo put down her book and looked deeply into her youngest son’s eyes. Seeing the profound seriousness and concern there, she whispered, “All right, Evan. Gather everyone here, and we’ll talk.”
Alik’s previously relaxed posture immediately responded to the tone of the room and he sat ridged, as if poised to leap into protective battle. Evan caught his eye before he stood to leave. Their exchange was solemn.
Fifteen minutes later, the entire household was present and accounted for. The usually cozy living room filled with local Hawaiian décor including small palms and wicker furniture felt decidedly tense.
Theo, Paulie and Evan stood fidgeting by the bay window and mom, Alik and I sat uncomfortably on the sofa. Maze whined softly beside me sensing there was something wrong. Without thinking, I reached to scratch my friend behind his alert ears. Cole paced nervously behind the couch.
Evan cleared his throat to begin. “We’ve checked and triple checked. We even tried changing the variables and looked for environmental factors that would contribute to or alter the results. Nothing. It’s fact. The mutations created in our bodies with the serum given to us as children did give us ultra abilities—more than any of the other metas Williams created—but at a price,” Evan’s voice cracked just enough to give his emotions away. Evan, the smartest of all of them, the baby, who was all logic and no emotion—Evan was trying not to cry.
“What Evan’s trying to say is that the data has indicated your life spans have been severely shortened because of the ‘metahuman’ demands placed on your bodies,” Paulie said with empathy in his voice.
Mom looked like she had just been punched in the stomach. She was sitting on the couch, surrounded by her children. Alik and I sat on either side of her protectively. “What do you mean ‘severely shortened!’” Mom’s usual calm was gone. Instead, her voice sounded frantic.
“Margo, imagine it’s very similar to the cliché ‘burning the candle at both ends.’ The children’s bodies were human. Dr. Williams’ super cocktail forced their human bodies to go into hyper mode. Their performance levels doubled and tripled in some areas. Our data points to a sort of countdown. The children are at or near their peak level of performance right now,” Theo leaned in and held Margo’s hand as he spoke.
“How much time do we have?” I asked, my voice sounding very far away to my own ears.
“We’re just able to give an approximation, of course,” Evan took a deep breath, steadying himself. “And keep in mind, timelines will vary somewhat between each of us.” He breathed again.
“Evan, spit it out! How long?” I couldn’t stop the room from spinning, I was so scared.
“Inside eighteen months. Maybe even two years, if we’re lucky,” Evan looked from Alik to me with exhausted eyes.
“Who’s going to go first?” my voice had no affect as I spoke to the room.
Evan looked up at me almost pleadingly. He didn’t have to say a word. Everyone understood then—it was me. As the oldest, of course it would be me whose countdown was further along.
“I’m not giving up, Meggie,” Evan walked over and knelt beside me. “I, er…we,” he said waving his hands toward Paulie and Dr. Andrews, “we just knew it was definitive enough to talk with the family; to let everyone know what we have so far. Maybe there’s something I just haven’t thought of yet; a way to slow the process or replenish ourselves...”
“Stop, Ev. It’s okay. I know this isn’t your fault. It’s none of our fault. This is just the way it is,” even as I spoke, tears were beginning to stream down my face. “We have to think long-term, even if we’re not here to live it. We have to think of what kind of world we’re going to leave behind. We have to prioritize. If we only have—” I stopped to swallow a knot of emotion, “a year left, we need to get to work. We need to leave this world better than we entered it.” My voice was painfully steady. Maybe by pretending bravery, I gathered just a hint of the real thing. I sat up straight, brushed the nonexistent lint off my shorts and stood.
“We have a lot of work to do, boys. Let’s get started.” I began walking out of the living room and into the office where we had been collecting data on Williams.
“Meg, it’s okay to take a few minutes to let our heads wrap around this, you know,” said Alik who was looking very pale. This had all been news to him, too.
“What good does that do? We’re dying. Everyone dies! We just happen to know it’s going to be sooner than later for us.” My voice slipped, now edging toward shrill.
“Meg, calm down,” Cole tried to soothe. He looked on the verge of tears.
“I am ‘calm’ Cole Andrews. I’m probably the most calm I’ve been in a long time. Nothing like finding out you’re gonna die to add a kick-butt dose of clarity to a person’s life!”
“What can we do to help you?” Dr. Andrews offered.
“This isn’t just about me, you know. Please don’t think I’m so self-centered as to think this news flash only affects me. I already know there is nothing anyone can do to help me, but, by God, I can do something to help you! I can catch this asshole Williams and stop him from hurting any more kids. I can make this a better world for you to grow old in.” I waved my hands across the room at the regular humans who loved me; the humans who were staring at me with worry and fear in their eyes.
“I’ve got to get out of here for a while.” My words came out quivering, laced with emotion.
20 My Resolution
My heart was screaming in my throat, but I swallowed hard and forced it away. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Instead of heading to the study as I had planned, I made a direct path to my room and threw on a pair of running shoes. I couldn’t let myself listen to the emotions exploding inside me. And I couldn’t let myself feel the pain I just created in the other part of Paulie’s house. I just had to run. I had to get away.
Maze followed me to my room. He knew I was upset and was ready to be my trusty sidekick in whatever I was about to do. Ever since he was shot with a tranquilizer gun while protecting mom back in the Kansas hospital, he had been more protective of me than ever. He hardly let me out of his sight, but I really wanted to be alone.
I grabbed the door to my bedroom on my way out and abruptly turned back to order Maze to stay. He whined pitifully, but sat on his haunches and obeyed. I shut the door to my bedroom, trapping my best friend inside. I wasn’t any sort of good company, I told myself. He will enjoy a good nap while I go work out my issues running.
The screen door closed with a solid whack behind me as I tried to bolt from the trauma in my heart. This was just too much. I just found out I was dying. Everyone I love was in that room and they all know. I had no time to swallow what was being shoved at me so I did what I always do, I start yelling at the world in an emotional tirade. My efforts to seem completely in control are always sabotaged by my inability to breathe.
But in the end, this isn’t about me or how I feel. I’m just a means to an end now. At least I get to decide how I’m going to end it. I refuse to just let myself die. This is not going to go well for Williams. Not at all. Now I know I have nothing left to lose.
My feet hit the pavement with a rhythmic determination.
My little brothers have more time than me. Maybe they can find a cure before it’s too late for them. As for me, I have already made my decision.
Let me break it down: My objective is to terminate Williams and destroy his work. How can I make that happen? How can I use what resources I have to put this man out of commission? What does he value? Power? Money?
The salty, thick air washed over me as I ran following the curves and hills of the road. And with every beat of my pounding heart I wished I were just a normal sixteen-year-old girl walking the halls of a normal high school where all I had to worry about was final exams and who was going to take me to the prom. I wish I could listen to music and write in a diary and make plans for college. I wish I could dream of growing up and growing old with the love of my life, but none of that was in my future. No. Instead, my future was primed and ready to be filled with metabattles, blood, evil doctors bent on world domination and imminent death before I even make it to twenty-one.
I picked up my already breakneck speed, pushing away the self-pity and allowing myself to be enveloped in anger instead. Feeling my new determination wash over and empower me opened my mind to clarity. I knew what I had to do. I need to find Dr. Kenneth Williams, and God forgive me, I need to terminate him and his work.
21 It’s Not Just Nostalgia
The room was completely dark except for the images flashing on the large flat screen on the far side. In a supple, brushed, black leather recliner sat the aging Dr. Williams. His left hand was methodically rotating the metallic orbs—his self-soothing technique. The doctor’s face was only visible because of the reflection from the screen. He looked distinctly older than he had just two years before. Stress and revenge will do that to a man.
On the screen was the case study, M57, his first success. She was perched on her bed, her small, slender legs dangling several inches above the tiled flooring. In her dainty, three-year-old hands, she lovingly held a rag doll. The doll was nothing spectacular. To his memory, it was the only one he allowed her as he was more interested in honing her fighting skills, battle tactics, problem solving, and so on. He remembered being frustrated that the experiment continued to seek that one doll out instead of playing with the brain researched-based robotics, puzzles and mazes. There she was, singing to the faceless, yarn-haired, doll.
He scowled at the image wondering, not for the first time, why he even bothered with a female case study. Then, as though justifying himself, he made himself remember how much harder it was to come by the human samples on which he could carry out his research back then. Yes, times were tough, he thought.
On the screen, M57 looked up, as though she heard something, and scampered under the bed, bringing the ratty doll with her. The room looked empty for several minutes before the door opened and a lab worker who was there to collect a blood sample, walked in. He scanned the room looking confused.
Look under the bed, you idiot!thought Williams, not for the first time.
Instead, the white lab coat looked down at the chart in his hand and flipped a few pages up before stupidly scratching his head, turning and walking out of the room. The door closed with a loud, locking click behind him and moments later M57 crawled out from under the bed, looking quite pleased with herself. She smiled widely, held the doll up into the air, spun, then hugged it tightly.
What just happened? Williams was thinking. He knew she could sense the emotions of others. That was documented and factual. But this one scene, of all the hours of footage he had videotaped of her time at the Institute, this seemed different.
Did she sense the worker’s hesitation to do his job and collect data from what he saw as a little girl and use that against him? Or was it something else? She was always able to sense emotions but it looked like, in this scene, she was able to manipulate his emotions so he didn’t search for her. Instead, he looked full of doubt and walked out of the room without so much as seeing the subject. And if that were the case, why had she only displayed this ability this once?
Why, when she came to the Institute last year, did she not just manipulate me into freeing her mother and ending our conflict?He thought.
Dr. Williams grabbed the remote, clicked to rewind and began the scene for the umpteenth time. Though the event took place more than a decade before, something here was important to present events. The worry lines deepened in his brow. There was more to M57, and he needed to know what it was.
The cell phone in his upper breast pocket warbled announcing a call and interrupting his thoughts. Irritated, he answered, “What.”
“Dr. Williams. Creed here, calling with a status report.”
“Go on,” Williams barked, pressing pause on the video playback right where M57 looks up from her doll as though she heard something…or was it felt something?
“Your assistant, Farrow arrived with the ‘gift’ right on schedule. We are on target for secured delivery, sir.”
“Fifteen minutes. But sir, I should mention that there seemed to be a change in their behavior today.”
Dr. Williams sat quietly, staring at the image of the meta child on the screen, and he wondered aloud, “what do you think you’re doing?” He rewound the scene and watched it again from the beginning. There was something here, he could feel it.
“Nevermind. I know you have not initiated contact with them since you located their hideaway on the Big Island, correct? So, what brought on this change in their pattern of behavior?” Dr. Williams’ mind was racing on two planes of thought.
“I observed the metas conducting themselves as usual until today when all three of them changed their routines. The oldest male looked angry and spent the entire afternoon lifting weights behind the house in the bungalow. The younger male went into the laboratory about the same time and has not come out all day. And the girl,…” Creed’s voice wavered slightly.
“Yes, what of the girl?” Williams snapped impatiently.
“The girl ran out of the house at 11:12am and kept running. It wasn’t her normal jogging pace. It was obvious she was upset, sir.”
“Yes, well of course. Sheisthe emotional one,” Williams mused.
“If it were just her change in behavior, I wouldn’t have thought much about it; but the other two metas behaving the way they did—something happened to upset all three of them.”
“No matter. After Meg gets our little “gift,” they’ll have a new reason to be upset,” Dr. Williams said, smiling to himself.
“Sir, we could have just as much access to either of the male metas. Are you sure you want the “gift” given to the female?” Creed couldn’t completely put aside his feelings for Meg, however important it was that he did.
In the five months since he last saw her, all he could think about was her. He and Farrow tried to track them, but their trail ran cold. No one knew where they were. Not at the hospital, not the government, not the police…no one was talking. It was like they fell off the face of the earth. So Williams had ordered them to return to the Facility. He didn’t like having his meta operatives away from his influence for long. Creed was sure Williams worried that if left with too much freedom, he would lose them to the appeal of the American civilian lifestyle. It had taken months of private investigation from an outside source to locate the family that had gone so deeply underground. It was only because Williams had spared no expense in their hunt that they were found. Creed was sent ahead for surveillance and Farrow followed soon after with the special “gift” designed specifically for Meg.
“It absolutely needs to be given to her. She’s the leader. You forget, Mr. Young. Combined, these three are the most formidable metas I have ever created. Alik’s strength and memory, Evan’s genius and problem solving, and then there is my M57—Meg is what they call her, isn’t it? Not very original of Margo,…” Dr. Williams’ voice dropped off.
“Sir?” Creed wasn’t sure he was following the Director’s line of thought.
“Well, Margo ‘named’ her Meg. M57. M, then the fifth letter of the alphabet is “E” and the seventh is “G.” M-E-G. Not very original,” he said condescendingly.
Creed’s mind easily slipped back to the hospital corridor when he stood so close to her he could smell the strawberry scent of her hair and looked into her deep, dark brown eyes. He had to force himself back to the present. “And what of Meg’s heightened ability?”
“Now that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Williams half said to himself as he continued to stare at the image of the dark-eyed child on the screen. “She can channel into the emotions of those around her.” His voice sounded very far away to Creed.
“‘Channel into emotions.’ Sir, what does that mean?”
“It means she may be the most dangerous of them all. It is she who gives the other two directions; her personality is that of leader. Without her, the two males will flounder. It is she who intends to be my undoing,” he said with a strange smile in his voice that translated to Creed almost as pride.
He’s proud of her,Creed thought to himself.In a sick way, he is happy at the thought of Meg wanting to kill him. This guy is one seriously demented individual.
The director continued watching the image on his screen. “Such a delicious morsel. What a gift I gave her…”
“Sir?” Creed heard every word the old scientist muttered, but he wasn’t making sense. Not for the last time, Creed grimaced at the thought of all the power this man had at his fingertips, yet how near the edge of insanity he seemed to hover.
“Both you and Farrow have you’re your work cut out for you. Call to keep me posted,” he said with an air of effortlessness that left Creed feeling nauseous and uneasy.
Creed put his phone back in his pocket and picked up his binoculars. There she was. Her dark hair pulled back in a pony. Her long strides were graceful and poetic in their strength. She looked so hurt and angry. And then she wasn’t running anymore, she was spinning in the air and landing with a sick whack against a tree trunk.
“Farrow!” he yelled.
Farrow was positioned about ten meters to his right. She had been following Meg through a scope of a long-range, sniper rifle.
“Oh, calm down, lover boy,” she said snidely. “I just did you a favor by getting it over with.” She was already packing her gear.
Creed picked up his binoculars again and found Meg motionless on the ground. He was so struck by what just happened that he couldn’t breathe.
“I got her in the neck, so you may want to go remove the ‘gift’ before you knight-in-shining-armor her back to her precious family,” Farrow was already walking away, rifle disassembled and inconspicuously set inside her hiker’s backpack. “See you back at the hotel. Oh, and you’re welcome!”
Creed was torn between chasing Farrow down to have it out with her and running down to check on Meg and carry her to safety. Since he couldn’t take his eyes off her, he opted to go to Meg.
Back in Dr. Williams’ darkened video viewing room, the images on the screen came back to life and he watched with horrified amusement as the child disappears under the bed, the lab coat walks in and shakes his head confused at the seemingly empty room and walks out. Williams watched the child’s face carefully when she climbed out from under the bed. She looked pleased with herself and relieved. She hugged her rag doll tightly and commenced her imaginative play. But what happened with the lab worker wasn’t in her imagination, or was it?
The old man sat in his chair and rewound the scene. This time he not only rolled the metallic orbs in his hand, but he worked his lips tight then puckered, tight then puckered, over and over. This little quirk of his he only showed during his most pensive, stress-filled moments. Yes, he thought to himself, this meta may very well be the most dangerous of them all.
She is my masterpiece—simply magnificent,he thought, applauding himself.
22 Alik’s “Time Sense”
He was laying on his back, muscles taught and skin glistening with sweat. He was slowly lowering a bar to his chest with hundreds of pounds of weight draped on either side. His crisp blue eyes were steeped in worry and concentration, not for the eight-hundred pounds he shouldered, but for all the responsibility he felt for his family.
At fifteen, Alik looked more like an adult than he should. He had lost any hint of a baby face years ago and instead, wore his broodingly handsome worry lines casually, as though it had never occurred to him that life held anything less than one battle after another with brief interludes of reprieve between; a reprieve that was always more like the calm before another storm.
And though he loved life and felt an obligation to appreciate every moment of it, his intense ability to recollect even the smallest detail of every day since the beginning of his time had turned him in to a soul that knew how precious life was. Alik understood life was fleeting because he’d already lived through so much.
He had a “time sense” almost like a gymnast had “air sense.” His awareness of past and present moments were as clear to him as a gymnast was aware of ceiling and floor even as he spun in mid air. Life was pulsing ahead and he knew his reprieve was nearly over. A battle was fast approaching.
Alik was in Paulie’s gym, a smaller building separate from the house. He was pumping iron and pushing himself to feel his muscles strain so he could live in the moment, even if it was just for a few hours. He allowed himself to focus on the feel of the metal in his hands, the scent of salt from the ocean, the tightness in his muscles as they were forced to exert themselves against gravity.
And in his mind, he heard his brother’s voice explaining what he and Paulie and Theo had discovered through the research of their meta blood. He wished to God he could stop replaying the conversation, but there it was. Again and again, the strain in his brother’s voice carried through, crystal clear through Alik’s videographic memory.
Moving to the treadmill didn’t help matters. The pumping of his legs at the steepest incline couldn’t force away the memory of the look on his mother’s face as she listened to the prognosis for her three children.
He could not control his crisp mental image of Meg’s face when she realized it would be she who would pass away first. Her eyes gave away her feelings, and there was no doubt in Alik’s mind that she was flung into the Kubler-Ross stages of grief immediately. She flew past denial and was right in the middle of anger. Bargaining, depression and acceptance were the last three stages, according to the theory, but Alik was pretty sure Meg wasn’t leaving anger anytime soon. She ran out of the room with shadows of fury darting across her face.
Well, shit,Alik thought as he pushed himself faster and faster on the treadmill. I think we all have every right to be furious right now.
He allowed his pace to slow and the incline to drop so his muscles could begin to cool down. By the end of five minutes he was still steeped in thought, but finally ready to rest.
Alik lay still on the padded floor of the gym with his arm thrown over his eyes, his body only moderately spent after working out nonstop over the last two hours. Reliving the events of this morning was more exhausting than his entire workout combined.
With a muffled groan, he forced himself to a sitting, then standing position and slowly walked out of the gym ready to head back to the house and jump in the shower.
Just before he reached the screen door he heard someone call out, “Help! Hey, you! She needs help!”
Alik turned to see a guy, not much older than himself, carrying a girl. It only took half a second for him to realize, even from this distance, the girl was his sister.
“Oh, my God,MEG!” Alik ran full speed to the stranger who was carrying his limp sister. “What happened? Who are you? What did you do to her?” Alik yelled even as he ran so by the time he reached them, he looked like he was seconds away punching a whole through the guy’s neck.
“Wait, no…I just found her on the ground a dozen meters up that way.” The guy jerked his head back over his shoulder without letting his eyes leave Alik’s. “Honest, man. I didn’t do anything to her,” the stranger said wide-eyed as he gently passed the girl to Alik. Sensing the guy was no threat, Alik allowed himself to focus completely on his sister.
Meg was still dressed in the same running clothes and shoes she was wearing a couple hours before when she left the house. She felt heavy, like dead-weight. And even as that phrase jumped into Alik’s mind, he fought back panic.
“Meg?” Alik spoke her name sternly. “Meg. Wake up! Come on, Meg!” Alik was half running back up the path to the house, completely unconcerned that the strange guy who found his sister was right behind him. All he could think about was how much he wished his sister would snap out of it, push herself to her feet and start shouting and bossing everyone around like she usually did when she was upset. Instead, she didn’t make a sound, and she didn’t move.
Her head hung back and her long dark hair had come loose from the knot she tied it in to run. Her lean legs hung limp, as did her arms. She looked as alive as a rag doll, and she was burning up with fever. He could feel the heat searing through her thin clothing radiating off her like a bon fire.
“Oh, my God. Oh, God,”Alik kept pleading.“Oh, please, no. Not now. She is supposed to have more time! We’re all supposed to have more time!”Alik’s voice was creased with anguish even as he prayed.
Alik ran up the steps to Paulie’s house and began shouting, “Evan! Mom! Someone! Meg’s sick!Come quick!”
He opened the screen door, flew into the living room, and gently laid his sister down on the sofa, taking special care not to bump her head. The whole while, he kept alternating from yelling into the house for help and talking softly to his unconscious sister, trying to get her to respond.
“Meg, come on, kid. I need you. Mom and Evan need you. You can’t be sick, Meg. We have work to do. Remember? We can’t do this without you. Oh God, Meg, not yet.You can’t leave us yet!” Alik’s voice choked up completely so by the time he yelled into the house again, he was hoarse with tears.
“What’s wrong with her?” Evan had been on the other side of the house in the laboratory with Margo, Andrews and Paulie, but had stepped out to retrieve some notes from his room. It was a good thing he did too, because the lab was essentially soundproof. Evan was at his sister’s side immediately.
“I don’t know, Ev. A guy found her like this up the path and…she’s burning up with fever. She hasn’t said a word; hasn’t responded at all,” Alik was watching his little brother’s skilled hands as he started with Meg’s head and began examining her.
“What’s all the yelling about?” Cole hurried into the room and looked around trying to determine what he’d missed. His eyes found Meg lying so fragile and small on the sofa.
“Cole, Meg’s sick. Go get everyone from the lab. Run!” Alik ordered.
“Oh, God, Meg!” Cole took half a moment to study Meg’s face before he bolted from the room and down the hall toward the laboratory.
“Should I call 911?” the stranger asked from a few feet behind the sofa.
Both brothers turned quickly to glare at the guy they hadn’t even realized was in the room.
“We got it from here,” Evan responded cautiously.
Alik stood, hurried to the door and opened it saying, “Thanks for your help, man. Really, we appreciate it.”
“Right,” Creed nodded, getting the hint. “Don’t mention it.” Just as he slipped through the open doorway he turned and added, “Hey, I’d like to stop by tomorrow and check in on her, if that’s okay.”
Alik looked back at his sister lying on the sofa and really just wanted to get rid of this guy so he could go back figuring out what was happening to her. He turned to the stranger, shrugged noncommittally and said, “Aloha, man,” before letting the door shut firmly between them.
Creed didn’t move for a minute, thinking about what just happened. He took a deep breath before heading back down the steps toward the path. He was replaying the events of the last half hour and trying to be sure he hadn’t forgotten anything.
Farrow’s impulsive shot was right on target, and so far, the family seemed to be reacting to Meg’s “condition” as planned, but he had a nagging sensation that something was wrong.
“Itallfeels wrong, damn it,” he muttered to himself. He shoved his hands deeply in his pockets and bit his lip. He was going to have to do some serious thinking tonight. He had to go weigh his options and their consequences. If there was one thing he learned is that there were always consequences. He picked up his pace as he walked toward his rental parked down the road.
Now that the stranger was gone, the brothers returned to their examination of Meg.
Evan pulled a small flash light from his pocket, gently lifted Meg’s eyelids one at a time and flashed the light into them looking for pupil dilation. “Well, her pupils are responsive, but sluggish. Her heart rate is extremely fast. Breathing is shallow and her lips are purple. She doesn’t seem to have any bruising or lacerations I can find. Her fever is very high.” Internally, Evan’s mind was racing with logical possibilities, externally, his face looked almost as pale as Meg’s.
“Evan, we’ve never been sick; none of us. What’s wrong with her?” Alik was searching his brother’s eyes for an answer. Evan only shook his head slowly.
They heard the family running down the corridor and moments later burst into the room. Dr. Andrews was the first at Meg’s side, “The calculations were correct. This wasn’t supposed to even begin happening yet.”
“You knew this was how it was going to come on and you didn’t warn us?” Margo was seething with worry and anxiety.
“We need to get her back to the lab. We have to run tests on the status of her gama-globulin and electrolytes. Maybe something set off her countdown; something that triggered this early onset,” Paulie thought out loud while scratching his scruffy beard.
Alik carefully lifted his sister and hurried down the corridor to the laboratory. Everyone else was right on his heels.
Margo took the lead in removing her daughter’s clothing so she could dress her in a hospital gown. As they worked, she only allowed herself to think as a doctor. She saw no cuts or bruises anywhere on her daughter’s body. Her coloring was unusual, though. She had taken on a yellowish hue to her skin and her lips were somewhat purple. That, combined with her high fever, made for very strange symptoms. Margo fought back panic because she couldn’t think of any reason for her daughter to be in the condition she was in.
“Okay, we’re ready,” Margo called to the other side of the privacy curtain.
Evan came in with a syringe and several empty vials to collect blood samples. Dr. Andrews began setting up an I.V. so he could hydrate Meg with fluids and so there was a path already established should medications need to be administered quickly. Margo took on her motherly role and simply worked to position a surgical cap on Meg’s head so she could tuck in all her daughter’s dark curls, minimizing possible contamination to the sterile room.
Alik left the room quickly to clean up and returned fifteen minutes later to the laboratory hoping he could be of some help. He walked into the room filled with people he loved and respected rushing around his sister who laid still as stone on a white-sheeted gurney.
Cole was standing in the corner looking like he was trying to stay out of the way. The boys exchanged helpless glances. Everyone else in the room was a doctor, except Evan, but he was only lacking the papers. Over the last five months, Evan had educated himself and was as versed as anyone who had gone through four years of medical school. That’s how smart Evan is. Matter of fact, he was specialized in the one area Meg needed most: Metahuman-ology.
“Alik, was it you who found Meg?” Dr. Andrews asked.
“No, sir,” Alik responded a little too quickly. “I mean, I wish I had. But this guy said he just found her on the jogging path and carried her to the nearest house for help. Luckily, ours was the nearest house.”
“Did she collapse?” Dr. Paulie asked.
“I don’t know. The guy just said,” Alik replayed the conversation in his mind and quoted, “‘I just found her on the ground a dozen meters up that way.’”
“Who was he? Did you get his name?” Margo asked.
“No, mom. He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. I was too worried about Meg,” he said feeling upset with himself for not having more information to give to the doctors trying to help his sister.
“But he did say he would come back tomorrow to check on her,” Alik added, brightening at the memory. “Maybe we can ask him some questions then and get a better idea of what happened.”
“Right, let’s plan on that.” Margo smiled softly at her oldest son, sensing his feelings of guilt and helplessness.
Dr. Paulie spoke up, “I’d like to rule out anything ordinary before we jump right into her meta physical status. Does anyone remember anything unusual about Meg? Did she eat or drink something different? Was she behaving differently? Dizzy spells? Mood changes?” he said as though he were gathering a typical medical history on a patient. The whole room stopped and looked over at Dr. Paulie, “I meanunusualmood changes?”
“Nothing I can think of,” Evan said returning to his microscope.
“I can’t think of any change in her behavior either,” Margo added.
“She was typical Meg until the family meeting this morning,” Cole answered thoughtfully.
“Yeah this morning was rough on everyone,” Dr. Andrews said even as he swabbed a Petri dish with a blood sample.
“Hum,” Alik mused. “I wonder if that was the ‘trigger’.”
“What do you mean?” Cole asked.
“Well, Meg is an emotional superconductor, right? She can sense the feeling of those around her. In a word, her skill is her empathy,” Alik continued.
“So maybe she overloaded?” Cole concluded.
“Something like that. What do you think, Mom?” Alik looked to his mother who was carefully checking the I.V. bag and adjusting the pace at which the fluids were dripping.
“I think it is a possibility. She must have been experiencing so much of her own worries and sadness, but then to be bombarded with the emotions all the rest of us were feeling…” her voice trailed off.
“Yes, I agree,” Evan’s face was tight with worry. “It would be a logical conclusion.”
“Maybe this doesn’t have anything to do with the countdown. Maybe this is something else entirely,” Dr. Paulie offered. “The possibilities are innumerable.”
25 Choosing Sides
The next morning, the family was exhausted with both mental and physical fatigue. No one had slept. Though they tried to set up shifts to monitor Meg’s condition to allow everyone time to rest, no one was willing to leave the lab for longer than it took to grab some food and use the restroom. Everyone was keeping vigil.
Even Maze howled his distress though he couldn’t understand exactly what was going on. He didn’t know why he was wasn’t allowed to see his Meg, and he wanted the world to understand how scared and furious he was about it.
Maze announced Creed’s arrival. Alik was taking his break when he heard Maze’s growling change to alarmed barking. “What’s going on boy?” he said to the coyote as he walked to the kitchen window. He saw the same guy who had found his sister yesterday walking up the path, just as he had promised he would. Alik grabbed Maze by the collar and walked him to Meg’s room.
“You’re gonna scare the crap out of him, Maze. Stay here for now, and I’ll come back to let you out in a while. Try to calm down, okay?” he lectured the coyote.
Alik hurried to the front door and had it pulled open even before the stranger had a chance to knock.
“Hey, man,” Alik said with relief in his voice. “Thanks for coming by this morning. We were wondering if we could ask you some questions about yesterday.”
“How’s the girl?” the stranger asked seeming genuinely worried.
“Not good,” Alik opened the door wider and motioned for the guest to come into the house. “She’s really sick.”
Creed stepped into the house and walked toward the living room. A mournful howling came from down the hall that stopped him in his tracks.
“Oh, don’t worry about him. Maze isn’t too happy with me for shutting him in Meg’s room,” Alik waved dismissively toward the sound. “We’ve got to tell everyone you’re here.”
“Sure. I’ll wait here,” Creed said.
“No, you won’t. You have to come with me. No one’s going to want to leave Meg, and they’ll all want to hear what you have to say. We’ll just get you scrubbed in,” Alik spoke while leading the way down the corridor toward the lab.
“Scrubbed in? Like at a hospital?” Creed asked, pretending he had no idea there was a lab onsite.
“Well, yeah. We’re pretty well set up back here in the lab. And to be sure no containments are brought into the sterile room, you’ll have to get scrubbed in,” Alik said matter-of-factly, as though it were completely normal to have a hospital-like clean room in an estate on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
“If you say so,” was all Creed could think to say. He was trying to brace himself for what was about to happen.
Creed stood to the side and watched as Alik slipped a blue gown over his clothing and tied the paper-like belt to secure it. Then he ripped open a package, and took out a premoistened, blue, plastic scrubbing brush. He began working vigorously on his hands, focusing especially under his fingernails and continuing up his forearms. Creed mimicked everything Alik did. Finally, they put on light blue masks that covered their noses and mouths and were held in place by wrapping small elastic loops around their ears.
Creed was feeling queasier now than ever before, which was saying a lot considering how many times he had been put in situations of extreme stress.
But this was different.
He was about to see the sweet-faced girl who made his heart leap inside his chest. He was about to meet her family, and he was about to confess who he was. Nothing about the next hour was going to be easy.
The first of the double doors to the lab slid open automatically, and closed behind Alik and Creed. Then the second set of doors opened.
The room was large and immaculate. All the equipment looked shiny, new and expertly maintained. Half a dozen people were in the room, all dressed in the same sterile surgical gowns he wore himself. Even though each person in the room was completely covered in blue, including their faces, Creed could tell immediately who was who. His eyes stopped scanning the moment he found Meg.
She looked so much worse than she did last he saw her. Alik was right; she wasn’t doing well at all. Though he could only see the eyes of those who spoke, he could read them clearly. Everyone in this room was terrified and exhausted, but they all looked at Creed with a glint of hope as though he would have some magic answer to their questions. Creed knew he wasn’t going to be able to be their solution. At least, not the way they were hoping he would be.
“Everyone, this is the guy who found Meg yesterday,” Alik announced to the room.
The room murmured “welcomes” and “thanks for coming backs.”
“You’ll have to forgive us if we seem rude, but we’re desperately trying to determine what is wrong with our Meg. So, we’re going to skip introductions and jump right in with some questions, okay?” Margo began.
“Yes, ma’am,” Creed responded formally.
“Tell us what you saw when you found Meg,” Dr. Paulie began.
“She was jogging. She stopped, looking like she was dizzy, and held on to a tree to steady herself. Then I saw her slump to the ground holding her head. By the time I reached her, she was completely out,” Creed replayed the scene in his mind trying to stick as close to the truth as possible.
“Wait a minute,” Alik said. “Yesterday you said you just ‘found her’ on the ground. Now you’re telling us you saw her before she passed out?”
“Yesterday, you looked like you were about to rip my head off for touching her. I was trying to save my own skin!” Creed said, only half lying.
“Regardless. So you say she collapsed holding her head,” Dr. Paulie redirected the conversation.
“Yes, sir. Like she had a migraine that came on fast,” Creed answered.
“Did she say anything to you when you approached her?” Margo asked.
“No, ma’am. She was completely out,” Creed responded.
“How long from the time you saw her jogging until she was on the ground unconscious?” Dr. Andrews asked.
“Seconds, sir. It all happened fast. I’d say maybe fifteen seconds,” Creed estimated.
“Was anyone else around to see what you saw?” Margo asked.
“Not that I know of, ma’am,” Creed lied. These people were not to know about Farrow. That wasn’t part of the plan.
“What were you doing on the path when you saw her?” Evan asked.
“Excuse me?” Creed asked, stalling.
“You were on the path where Meg was jogging. How did you happen to be there?” Evan pressed.
“I…well, I was….” Creed stammered, unable to meet the intense gaze of those in the room. And just like that, Creed lost all pretenses.
“It’s not a difficult question,” Evan was walking toward the stranger. Alik, completely aware of the change in the temperature of the conversation positioned himself beside his brother facing the interloper.
“Who are you?” Alik asked the stranger point blank.
“I’m...um,” the stranger hesitated, “I’m not sure now’s the time to get into that.” Worry lines etched across his tanned face.
Alik and Evan exchanged glances and without saying a word they moved themselves between the stranger and their family. “Maybe you’d better start talking right now,” Alik warned.
“Listen, if I wanted to hurt her, I could have done it out there on the path when I first saw her collapse and neither of you could have stopped me.” His unfamiliar eyes were both pleading and heated at the brothers’ mistrust. “I know who you are and where you come from, but I don’t know why she’s sick,” the stranger said and anxiously ran his fingers through is hair.
“What do you mean you know who we are?” Alik’s eyes formed into angry slits. From behind the brothers, Margo eased her way to her daughter and put one hand protectively on her feverish arm. Her other hand was clinched into a fist.
“You’re metahumans, like me,” he said simply.
The words felt like ice down Alik’s back. He was stunned into momentary silence. Evan felt punched in the stomach, so he wasn’t talking much either.
The stranger continued speaking. “Ten years ago, you were involved in the research conducted by Dr. Kenneth Williams and were stolen by a woman who worked for his company, Dr. Margo Pullman, now going by the name Dr. Margo Winter…”
Dr. Andrews was at Margo’s side in an instant, ready to lay down his life to protect her.
“Stop right there. You obviously work for Williams. Did he send you to kill my mother?” Alik’s face could not have been redder, seething with fury. He could barely contain himself. But the logical part of him was forcing restraint knowing he needed to gather more information before he broke this guy’s neck.
“Yes,” the man said simply. “That was my original objective, but things have—changed.”
“If you came to hurt anyone in my family, you will not walk out of this room alive. Clear?” Alik’s vein in his forehead was pulsing deep purple with absolute ferocity.
“Crystal.” The stranger met Alik’s glare unflinching.
“We obviously have a lot to talk about. Are you willing?” Margo asked the outsider.
Evan couldn’t stop staring at the stranger as though through new eyes. Of course, he was a meta. His physique was perfect. He looked like he may even be stronger than Alik. Here was the man who had been sent by their enemy to hunt them down. Instead, he just brought Meg to them, ill, but alive. Now he stood in front of them confessing his plot. This was all too surreal.
“So let me get this straight,” Cole spoke up. “This is the guy who found Meg and brought her home yesterday, unconscious, but he works for that whack-job Williams who is bent on killing pretty much everyone in this room just so he can have their blood,” he was so horrified at Creed’s presence in the lab, his outburst left him breathless. He forced a gasp before he continued his angry tirade, “And now we’re welcoming him into the house and sharing a heart-to-heart talk about good versus evil over a cup of coffee?” Cole’s voice teetered on frantic. “And no one else sees this as a bad idea?” Cole blurted looking around the room at the faces of the people he cared for so deeply.
“If he wanted to do us harm, he would have started with Meg,” Evan responded rationally.
“Well, if you haven’t noticed, she’s not doing so great,” Cole quipped.
Margo walked to the stranger and watched his eyes as she responded to Cole. “There was no tactical advantage for him to expose himself as he has, Cole. He gave up his anonymity and blown his own cover. He’s completely aware of how outnumbered he is with all of us and especially outmatched between Alik and Evan. He had no reason to do any of this, yet he did. He’s trusted us enough to offer his vulnerability. We will trust him enough to listen,” Margo’s voice was steady and assured. Creed appreciated her ability to quickly piece together the gravity of the situation and act in a calm, rational manner. He liked her instantly.
She looked deep into his strangely familiar eyes and asked simply, “What is your name?”
“Creed, ma’am.” He stood at attention the moment Margo spoke to him. “My name is Creed Young,” he responded to her questioning as a soldier would a commanding officer.
“Well, Mr. Young, it looks as though we have a lot to talk about,” Margo smiled graciously. “Please wait for us back in the living room. Okay?”
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” Creed nearly saluted. He turned and walked out the lab’s double doors with Alik and Evan on his heels. They removed their surgical scrubs and masks and continued walking toward the living room.
Margo turned to the others who were left standing still and stunned in the room. “I don’t know if we can trust him, but I’m going to have to go with my gut feeling this time. Meg needs help, desperately. This meta soldier could be an unexpected answer to our prayers.”
“Her stats are definitely getting scarier by the hour. Nothing we’ve tried has helped or even stabilized her. We need to think outside the box, and that kid is definitely outside the box,” Theo said with worried tone.
“You know, he’s been following us for a while now,” Margo said aloud what she’d been thinking since the moment she saw Creed’s eyes.
“How do you know?” Theo asked.
“How about I let him tell you,” Margo began taking off her scrubs. “Are you okay staying here to keep watch over Meg, Paulie?”
“As much as I’m anxious to know what’s going on, I’m sure I’ll get the abridged version later. Meg can’t be left unattended. You go on, and I’ll be right here,” he said affectionately looking over at his patient like a grandfather would his own granddaughter.
“Thanks, Paulie. Please call us if there’s a change in her condition,” Margo said pulling her cell phone out of her pocket and checking the battery.
“Will do,” the old scientist said and returned to his microscope and note taking.
Cole fell into step behind Theo and Margo as they exited the lab, still believing in his heart that Creed was beyond dangerous and not to be trusted. This was his family and he was going to do whatever it took to protect them any way he could.
He scowled to himself as he realized even with all his protective bravado, he was just a normal human and the meta soldier could squish him as easily as squeezing the creamy, jelly-like guts out of a cockroach. He crammed his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans and let his hair fall into his eyes as he watched his feet walk. If he were in a cartoon, he thought to himself, he would have a huge sign hanging around his neck that read, “Useless Wimp” and a cone-shaped “Dunce” hat on his head.
26 Creed’s Confessions
“I appreciate your willingness to talk, Creed. I can only imagine the conflict you must feel to have taken this step,” Margo began. She was praying for the right words to say to this young man so she could determine his motives and possibly even sway him to becoming an ally.
“Yes, ma’am,” Creed, for the first time in his life, felt very unsure. Here was this tiny framed woman, a woman who he was moments away from killing with his own huge hands five months before, talking to him about his feelings. This was way too much.
“Are you hungry?” Margo asked with a smile.
“Yes, Creed. You do eat, don’t you?” she stood and waited for her guest to do the same.
“Yes, ma’am,” Creed said with a half smile.
“Well, I’m starved. We’ve been keeping watch over Meg all night and haven’t had time to stop and eat,” Margo kept talking even as she led the bunch of men into the kitchen. “I know we have some sandwich meat and baby carrots with ranch dip,” she said rummaging through the open fridge. “Everyone wash up and let’s just start ‘piecing’ as my mother used to say.”
Creed walked to the sink to wash his hands as he’d been told. “What does she mean by ‘piecing’?” he asked Evan as they dried their hands with soft paper towels.
“Oh, that’s mom’s way of saying everyone grabs a bunch of food and comes to the table and we all kind of eat whatever we want to put on our plates; it’s all very informal,” Evan explained.
“Oh.” Creed didn’t know what to think of all this. It was all so unfamiliar. Growing up at the Facility, chow time was informal, but not like this. Food was scooped onto the treys and the soldiers sat at long tables. Dinner conversations were usually about someone fighting someone else, who won and how. No one worried about napkins or even utensils. There were no manners. It was fend for yourself. Sharing food or pleasantries was—well it was unheard of at the Facility.
Creed watched what the other men did and tried to follow their lead.
“Anyone else want some left over pizza?” Dr. Andrews asked the room, appreciating the break and truly just wanting to help the atmosphere stay relaxed.
“Sounds great,” Margo responded. “Could you grab the parmesan cheese while you’re in there?” she asked him.
“Yep, gotta love stinky cheese,” he said to her making a face.
“You’re not supposed to smell it; just eat it!” she teased back.
“How can you eat it without smelling it?” he countered.
This was the playful banter Theo and Margo had with each other. If Meg were in the room, she would be blushing with happiness at how sweet the lovebirds were with one another.
“I like parmesan cheese, too,” Creed chimed in.
Everyone stopped and looked over at the previously silent guest at the table.
“Ha! See! This boy has taste!” Margo grinned and winked at Creed.
“I suppose you like sauerkraut and sardines, too?” Theo smiled at Creed.
“Sauerkraut is kind of a staple back in Germany,” Creed said shrugging sheepishly. “Sardines, not so much.”
Using that as a gentle segue, Margo asked, “Tell us about life in Germany.”
Creed swallowed a huge bite of turkey sandwich and washed it down with a gulp of apple juice before he spoke. “It’s nothing like life in the States, at least, not where I lived.”
“Do you have family back there?” Margo asked.
Creed’s blue eyes immediately clouded over with sadness. “I did. An older brother. He was a meta too. We both lived at the Facility.”
“What happened to him?” Alik spoke up. Before now, he had still been trying to wrap his head around this whole surreal conversation over sandwiches with his enemy.
“I don’t know, exactly,” Creed hesitated, but then sighed deeply and went into the entire story of the Retribution Match against his brother, Gavil. He tried to explain how life was at the Facility. The chain of command respected only physical and mental training for combat purposes. A soldier who followed orders with precision was held up as an example for the others. Anything less than perfection was deemed a liability in combat and therefore expendable. Friendships and alliances between metas were highly discouraged.
Alik spoke up, “Did you say your brother’s name is Gavil?”
“That was the name of the meta who fought Meg at the Institute. The one who hurt her with the letter opener,” Alik said with certainty.
“I can’t say I’m surprised. Williams took Gavil with him when he traveled as a sort of bodyguard.”
“Meg described him to me as a ‘militant, testosterone-encased, Neanderthal,’ among other descriptive words,” Alik said, remembering how colorful his sister was as she told him the story of that encounter.
“Yeah, well, that sure sounds like him.”
“But, none of you were at the Facility by choice, right?” Margo asked, trying to redirect the conversation.
“No, ma’am. We were all acquired by the Director somehow, but we were all too young to have chosen that life.” Creed felt exhausted and relieved at the same time to be able to talk about his experiences.
“The Director—Is that Dr. Williams?” Evan asked.
“Yes,” Creed answered.
“And who was Commander Oldham? You mentioned him before,” Theo asked between bites of pizza.
“His name is Rudolph Oldham, but he insists on being called ‘Commander.’ He’s one mean son of a gun,” he added.
“They all sound mean. How did you survive all those years?” Margo asked, sounding more and more like a mother.
“I kept my head down, tried not to make myself stand out at all besides my combat abilities. For the most part, I was left alone, except for my brother. Nothing I did ever made Gavil like me,” Creed sounded like a little kid for a brief moment. Realizing it himself, he cleared his throat and said, “Well, I need to tell you what I know about Williams. Then you can decide what you want to do about Meg,” he began.
“Williams has amassed this army of metas, but rumor has it he wasn’t gathering us for himself. There were outside parties interested in buying us,” Creed explained.
“I always assumed he wanted to make metas for himself; that he was bent on world domination or something and needed the metas to do his bidding so he could make it happen,” Alik confessed.
“Yeah, well, that’s what a lot of people thought. But it turns out, Williams has a whole other motive behind his methods,” Creed’s voice dropped before he continued as though worried someone would overhear.
“Rumor is he was married once, long ago and had a child with that woman; a daughter. The girl was born with a disability of some kind. Williams’ research had everything to do with trying to cure his child.” The room hung on Creed’s every word.
“Well, what happened to the child?” Margo asked.
“Like I said, this is all rumors. But the word was that the girl had a bad reaction to a treatment serum Williams tried on her. I mean really bad. They say she was kinda normal before he tampered with her, but afterward…,” Creed let his voice trail off. “Well, supposedly she turned into a vegetable.”
“Oh, no.” Margo was starting to put some pieces of the puzzle together based on what she knew and heard of Kenneth Williams herself. Things were beginning to make some sense.
“Yeah, but that’s not the worse part. The story goes his wife was so distraught about what Williams had done to their only child, she intentionally overdosed. Apparently, she left a diary filled with entries blaming Williams for everything.” Creed stopped talking and took a sip of his drink.
“That’s messed up,” Cole said. He hadn’t joined them at the table to eat. Instead, he remained leaning at the counter, away from the meta. He still didn’t like the guy, but he had to admit, that was one heck of a story he just spun.
“Whatever happened to the girl?” Theo asked.
Creed shrugged and said, “That’s where the rumors get really sketchy. Some say he kept her locked in a part of the Facility where no one goes but him. Some say he continued experimenting on her looking for a cure until she died of it all and now her spirit haunts him. Some say he extracted her DNA and has tried to perfect her cloning, making her a meta,” Creed shrugged again. “I really don’t know what to believe about all that. But I do believe he was married and had a child,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Why do you say that?” Theo asked.
“When he called me to his office a few days after the Retribution Match, I saw family pictures on his desk. It was definitely him, though much younger and a pretty, dark-eyed lady standing beside him. In her arms was a little girl, maybe one or two-years-old,” Creed looked exhausted when he finished speaking. And it occurred to Margo this was probably one of the longest conversations this young man had ever been allowed to have. She thought to herself how insightful he was for someone who wasn’t allowed to have insight before now. He was only allowed to follow orders, not problem solve on his own.
“So he’s been searching for a way to make right his personal wrongs all these years?” Evan asked.
Creed nodded, “That’s the way the rumors go, anyway.”
“Why sell the meta soldiers once he’s made them?” Cole asked, redirecting the conversation.
“I think I can answer that one,” Margo said. “Williams was a wealthy man with friends in scary high places, but after all these years, the more experimenting he needed to do, the more costly, the more he needed outside funding. Does that sound right to you, Creed?” Margo asked.
“Makes sense,” he said with a shrug.
“So who’s buying the metas?” Alik asked.
“Now that, I don’t know. Once a section is deployed, they never come back.”
“How many metas have been deployed?” Alik asked.
Creed shrugged again, “I’d just be guessing. Something like four infantries. Each infantry consisted of a chief and eight soldiers. So, around fifty, that I know of.”
“Fifty highly trained metas?” Theo whistled. “As trained as you, Creed?”
“Yes, sir. I suppose so.”
“That is one formidable army,” Theo sat thinking.
“Yes, sir. Assuming they’re all on the same team.”
“Oh, wow. That’s right. What if Williams was selling to more than one group?” Theo realized.
“This could get very messy, very fast,” Alik realized.
“You know what I don’t understand,” Creed began. “Well, he knows each of you three has at least one area in your meta abilities where you are even more advanced. He told me that much. But why does he want you back? He has to know you would not be willing to work for him. What can he get out of you?” Creed asked.
“He wants our blood,” Alik responded.
“He wants to recreate the formula he gave to us. Mom destroyed all the records before she rescued us from him all those years ago, but the data still exists in our DNA,” Evan explained.
“So, he thinks the specific formula given to you created the heightened meta ability.” Creed was beginning to understand.
“I wonder if he believes your formula to be the key to ‘fixing’ his daughter,” Margo said thoughtfully.
From her jacket pocket the room heard a sharp ringing. She sound startled her from her thoughts.
“Yes?” She said into the cell phone. Her brows wrinkled with worry.
“We’ll be right there. Thanks, Paulie,” she said.
Everyone, getting the gist of the conversation, began quickly cleaning up their plates.
“What’s happening?” Theo asked.
“Meg’s temperature has spiked and she’s seizing,” Margo said whisking away the tears that had already begun to fall.
“Oh, no,” Evan moaned.
Eyes wide with fear, Margo, Theo, Alik, Evan, Creed and Cole ran down the hallway toward the laboratory.
27 Brainstorming Session
Scrubbing in took a few minutes, but as soon as everyone was inside the double doors, they got to work on Meg.
“Her fever was hovering around 100, but spiked to 104.8. The febrile seizure lasted for about forty-five seconds before stopping. Fortunately, the side rails were up on her bed so she didn’t fall to the ground. She does look to have bitten her tongue pretty badly, though,” Paulie was trying to maintain his physician’s objectivity, but he wasn’t doing a great job of it. This little girl had been through so much already. It was breaking his heart to watch her suffer any longer.
Dr. Andrews had retrieved a bulb syringe and started trying to extract the blood pooling in Meg’s mouth from her self-inflicted bite wound. He looked on the verge of tears himself.
“Her temperature is back to 100.3 now. I’ll have to reset her I.V. She yanked it out during the episode,” Evan said to the room. He carefully began pulling the tape off his sister’s arm and with expert movements cleaned the site with gauze and rubbing alcohol, sterilizing it. An angry purplish-blue color quickly formed where the I.V. had been pulled partially out of place. Her face was pale except for the trickle of blood that had slipped down from the corner of her mouth. This was all nearly too much for Evan. His blue mask was doing a poor job collecting the tears he cried.
Everyone’s nerves were shot. They all loved Meg in their own way and were so scared for her. She was always so spunky and energetic; she could get a room full of people moving faster than anyone. She was bossy and controlling with the strength of spirit to back it all up. Watching her lie on that white-sheeted gurney small, frail and broken was pushing everyone to the brink of hopelessness.
“Let’s brainstorm,” Margo said to everyone. “What do we know?”
“Good idea, Margo. We need to run this like we would any patient’s diagnosis,” Theo brightened a little at the idea of doing something productive.
“Right, I’ll scribe,” Paulie said walking to the whiteboard in the corner of the room and grabbing a dry erase marker.
“Um, no offense Paulie, but I couldn’t read your writing when you were my professor,” Margo gently teased as she held her hand out for the marker. Paulie grinned sheepishly and passed it over.
“Okay, we know she’s been unconscious for,” Margo paused to look up at the wall clock, “nineteen hours after collapsing during a run.”
“Her lab work indicates an increase in white blood cells—which usually means infection,” Evan supposed.
“Her red blood cell count was low indicating possible anemia,” Paulie added.
“Well, the anemia could have caused the headache and fainting,” Theo thought, “A bleeding ulcer could cause the anemia and high white blood count,” he offered.
“But we already performed a sonogram looking at all her internal organs, and there was no sign of bleeding,” Paulie added with a sigh.
“Maybe we missed something,” said Theo.
“We’re missing something, that’s for sure. But what?” Margo stared at the notes she had written in black ink on the board. “There was the fever and seizure too,” she continued.
“Infection could cause the fever,” Paulie said.
“Right, but that takes us back to the question, what is causing the infection? We started her on the antibiotics how long ago?” Margo asked.
Evan looked at his chart. “We began a full scope antibiotic intravenously at 11:18 last night. So she’s been on them for twelve hours,” he concluded.
“That should have been enough time for us to see improvement. Instead, she seems to be getting worse. That fever is scary,” Paulie said.
“A regular human being experiencing high fevers for days on end will suffer brain damage,” Alik said, as though reading from a book. This was the first he said during the entire discussion. Not having the scientific background his younger brother and mother had left him feeling inadequate. But Alik’s memory was unmatched, and he was racking his brain trying to remember anything he’d ever read that could be of help to the conversation right now. So, his mind raced back to an afternoon at the ranch when he was bored enough to read an entire stack of his mom’s scientific magazines.
“Right, Alik. I’m just hoping we can figure this out before too much time passes,” Theo said.
“There’s another option,” Creed said softly. He was staring at Meg and thinking about how beautiful she looked, even in her current condition.
“What was that, Creed?” Alik asked.
This time, Creed cleared the emotion from his throat before speaking, “I said there’s another option we haven’t discussed.”
“What option?” Cole asked skeptically.
“A whole group of specialists are out there who may be able to help her,” he said letting the words sink into the room.
“What kind of ‘specialists’?” Theo asked.
“Scientists who focus solely on metahumans,” Creed said cryptically.
“If you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about, the answer is absolutely not!” Margo’s voice was raspy with emotion.
“What’s he talking about?” Cole asked, hating again how it felt to be the only one in the room not knowing what was going on.
“He’s talking about the doctors who work for Kenneth Williams,” Evan said evenly.
“What the heck? You think Williams would help Meg get better? Did he grow a heart while I wasn’t looking?” Cole yelled.
“It’s just an option I wanted to be sure everyone realized,” Creed said, carefully back-peddling. “I’m not the doctor here, so I’m not the one to decide how desperate Meg’s condition really is. You are her family,” he said almost wistfully. “Since she’s unable to make decisions for herself right now, it’s your call.”
Except for the beeping of Meg’s monitor, the room went quiet. Creed’s words were sinking in.
“Cole’s right, though,” Alik said. “Even if Meg’s condition were desperate, why would Williams be willing to help? What would stop him from taking Meg and dissecting her for his evil plans? Or use her as leverage to get me and Evan to turn ourselves in to him? Or cure her but alter her mental status and turn her against us? Anyway I think about it, the outcome would be bad.”
“Like I said, Meg is unconscious. As her family, you have to make decisions for her—however tough they are. I just wanted to mention the Facility as an option. That’s all,” Creed said diplomatically.
“I don’t know how much longer we’ll have to debate the issue. Meg’s organs are going to start shutting down because of the low levels of oxygen carrying red blood cells. Without oxygen, the organ tissues will begin to fail,” Paulie said softly.
“What do you think about giving her a blood transfusion?” Alik asked the room.
“Hum. Now there’s an idea. She can’t have regular blood, so that would leave Alik and Evan as the only donors,” Theo said, thoughtfully.
“And me,” Creed said openly anxious to be of some kind of help.
“We would have to test your blood—to be sure it would be a suitable match; but yes, theoretically, as a metahuman, you could donate, too,” Margo added cautiously.
“The blood donations could help give us more time before her condition gets much worse,” Evan said, hesitantly optimistic. “On the other hand, nothing about her illness has been predictable, so it’s hard to say. I don’t think it could hurt,” he added with a hopeful shrug.
“I’ll go first,” Alik said walking toward a chair, pulling up the sleeve of the sterile scrubs he wore and extending his arm.
“Okay, let’s give it a try,” Paulie said as he shuffled through a drawer to retrieve the blood drawing supplies.
“Creed, let me go ahead and draw a test sample from you so we can be working on that, too,” Margo said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Creed answered. He walked over to the small doctor and pushed up his sleeve exposing taut mounds of muscle.
Margo had to ask, “How many meta soldiers like you does Williams have at the Facility?” She began sterilizing the biggest, juiciest looking vein right in the crook of his arm.
“How many is that?”
“I don’t mean to sound secretive, I just—I just mean even I’m not sure of the number. If I had to guess, there are probably about a hundred meta men and women at different stages of training currently at the Facility.”
Margo’s eyes widened. “That many?”
She was trying not to let her panic show in unsteady hands as she wrapped the rubber tourniquet around his upper arm. She had to stretch it hard to reach around his huge biceps.
“What about those who have already been sent on assignment? Do you know where they might be? Or what they are doing?”
“I don’t know. We’re trained to work under any condition in any circumstance by ourselves or in teams. There’s no telling where meta operatives are once they leave the Facility.” Margo watched Creed’s deep blue eyes as he spoke, trying to determine his true motives.
Unaware of the scrutiny, Creed continued. “Once soldiers leave the Facility, they don’t come back, remember?” He shrugged softly. “I doubt even the Commander has access to that information.”
Not for the first time, or the last, Margo thought back to Kenneth Williams and remembered feeling his demented evil. She was letting the idea soak in. Metas could be anywhere. Metas could be in our human military, in politics, in positions of power—all over the world. And this meta, right under her hands, could be one of the most deadly to have been the one Williams chose to send after them.
“Why did Williams choose you specifically to come after us?” she couldn’t help but ask.
Creed took a deep breath before answering. “Two reasons I know of: One, after the Retribution Match, he knew what I was capable of and two, he has no idea how well-trained those three are,” Creed nodded to the other metas in the room. “If he’d known, he would have sent an entire section after them.”
Margo asked feeling a wave of nausea crash over her. “How do you know they’re trained?”
Creed felt his face flush deeply. Deciding he needed to come clean he confessed, “I saw them spar, once.”
Margo looked deeply into his eyes. “Back in Kansas, at the hospital?”
Creed’s silence was his answer.
“That was you, wasn’t it?” Her face was pale, but her expression was resolved.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.” His eyes dropped and watched her still steady hands working on his arm with skill and precision.
“What made you stop? You could have finished me right then?” Margo asked the question she had been wondering about for months.
“The pillow—the pillow had Meg’s scent on it. Something about that was like a slap across my face. It woke me up. I couldn’t kill my brother and I—Dr. Winter, I’m not a killer.” Creed’s blue eyes glistened with sincerity and pleaded with her to believe what he was saying. “No matter what Williams’ orders, I am not a monster.”
Creed’s gripping stare unlocked as he looked back down at his arm, veins bulging. “Why didn’t you just run after the hospital—to get away from Dr. Williams?”
“I thought about it, ma’am. I really did. But then I knew he wasn’t done with you. I figured, if I stayed the course and played along, I would have the chance again to—I don’t know, make things right; to see Meg, and help you all. If it wasn’t me, he would have sent someone else, and trust me when I say, the Facility is full of soldiers who would kill without a second thought.”
“So you made sure you were chosen to come after us once we were found?” Margo sat knee to knee with the meta now that she’d finished taking his blood samples. Her hand was methodically rocking the corked vials back and forth keeping the blood inside from coagulating.
Margo stared at the young meta. She knew there was more to the story, but Creed’s body language was ridged now, as though he was unsure whether he had just said too much. And Margo was just as tense, unsure whether to believe him or fear him or both.
28 Margo’s Plan
The blood transfusion went fine, and seemed to be helping Meg’s organs to function, if only temporarily. Alik, being tall and weighing a considerable amount, could give a double-red donation, which basically meant he donated twice the amount of a regular donation. It also meant he wasn’t going to be able to donate again for six weeks.
“Thank God. That bought us some time,” Evan said to himself after checking his sister stats that evening.
Only Margo and Evan were in the lab with Meg. Everyone else was trying to catch up on some sleep. The combination of stress and exhaustion was making everyone feel edgy and raw.
Creed had returned to his hotel to get his things. The grown-ups insisted he come stay in the guest house. The others were behaving as though Creed was accepted as a friend, but Margo was too smart for that. She just believed in the old saying, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Considering she still wasn’t sure which label fit Creed, staying at the guest house on the grounds made logical sense to her.
Margo had been thinking about Meg’s medical options, as any mother would. She knew she couldn’t just trust Williams to do the right thing, no matter what. She had to think of a way to force him to help without giving up her children.
“Evan, let me ask you something,” Margo said to him in hushed tones, obviously wanting to keep her conversation private. “How far into dissecting your meta blood samples have you gotten?”
“We’ve done a lot of research on it already, mom, but what exactly are you asking?” Evan matched his mother’s hushed volume, although there was no one anywhere within ear-shot of their conversation.
“What I want to know is: How far away are you from decoding the original serum that was given to you three as babies, from the blood?” Her eyes flashed brightly as she spoke.
“We’ve already done that, for the most part, though you know we were working past that and delving into the how and why of the deterioration factor we discovered,” Evan said.
“Well, back up. Do you have the data you need to recreate the serum given to you three?”
“You want me tocreatethe formula?” Evan’s eyes were wide with uncertainty. “Why, mom? How would that help Meg?”
“It wouldn’t help Meg directly, but it would give us bargaining leverage with Williams,” Margo said. “We have the formula to offer in exchange for Meg’s medical assistance. See?” She looked into her youngest son’s eyes pleadingly.
“Yes, I see,” Evan rubbed his brows with his gloved hands in worried frustration. Realizing he was still wearing his gloves, he pulled them off, one folded into the other, just the way his mother taught him to do all those years ago in her lab on the ranch. That life felt very far away now; so innocent.
“I would need about five hours,” Evan said looking up at the wall clock and estimated the necessary samples, procedures and calculations to make the serum from scratch. “The product should be exactly what was given to us since I’m using our own blueprint to recreate it, though you have to appreciate that I wouldn’t have time to test it,” his voice slipped. “And we don’t have room for any errors.”
“Your calculations are always right, Ev. I’ll help you,” Margo stepped closer to her son and gave him a big hug. “Meggie needs us to come up with something. And though those doctors who work for Williams are on the wrong team, Creed is right. They are the greatest scientific minds specialized in metahumans on Earth, and your sister is running out of time.”
“I know mom. I’ll get you that serum,” Evan said before squeezing her gently once and letting her give him a mom-kiss on the cheek.
“Have I ever told you how proud of you I am?” Margo smiled up at her little boy.
Evan smiled back and said, “All the time, lady.”
He was exhausted, but he would find the energy it took to keep his promise to his mother.
29 The Spider and the Fly
“Tell me you’ve made contact,” the Director’s voice was tight with anger.
“I have done much more than that, sir,” Creed smiled into the phone, imagining the old man’s pleased facial expression.
“What do you mean?”
“The female has been given the ‘gift’ as planned, and I hand-delivered her to her family. I’ve gained their trust; I even sat at their kitchen table and ate a turkey sandwich with them! They think I’ve turned against you, just as we planned. The female meta’s condition is worsening, and they’re getting desperate,” Creed surmised.
“Excellent. Yes, you have done well. Your family will be proud to hear how resourceful and successful you’ve become,” Dr. Williams said, dangling that carrot in front of the young meta soldier. “Have you proposed they seek help from me?” Williams asked loving the anguish that suggestion must have caused his old friend Margo Winter.
“Yes sir, and though they summarily dismissed the option at first, I know they’re thinking about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if by morning they have a change of heart,” Creed’s voice was intentionally devoid of feeling. “By the way, they’ve invited me to stay at the guest house on their estate.”
“My, you have been welcomed into the fold!” Williams laughed.
“Yes, I have. Sir, the female meta, Meg—her condition does look very precarious. The ‘gift’ we gave her, it isn’t going to do lasting damage, is it?” Creed asked, aware his feelings for the girl were at direct odds with his directive and may be showing right through.
“Lasting damage? Well, if you consider death, lasting damage, then yes. I’d say she is in very real peril,” Williams snickered into the phone.
Alarmed at how quickly Williams could knock the air out of his lungs with just these few words, Creed blurted, “Sir, that wasn’t the agreement. You told me the illness was only for show and she could be cured quickly and easily.”
“Shecanbe cured quickly and easily—once you bring her here, Mr. Young.” Any pleasantries the doctor’s voice hinted to before were gone now. “Bring the metahumans to me and kill Margo Winter. That’s all you have to do, and everything will fall into place,” he summarized.
Creed clenched his jaw. He hated working for this snake and was counting the seconds until he would be free of him. “Yes, sir.”
Creed was just hoping the work Williams was requiring of him before he was given the information to find his biological family wouldn’t leave him permanently scarred and jaded.
“Call me when the family is ready to make negotiations,” Williams said curtly and hung up.
Creed mumbled into the disconnected phone words that made him feel better for saying, but had no bearing on his current situation. He was still at the mercy of Williams if he wanted a chance to lead a normal life.
He sat heavily on the edge of the hotel room bed. The tacky, green, floral print on polyester bedspread stared back at him with mutual contempt. This all felt so wrong. Now that he’d stepped across that line by allowing Farrow to dose Meg with an obviously deadly unknown toxin, the reality of his actions was stinging hornets to his heart. Nothing about what Williams was telling him to do felt like it was going to be worth it.
And what assurances did he have that Williams was going to follow through with his end of the bargain? Even if he did know his parent’s contact information, why would Williams give it to him? Or was he just going to keep stringing him along, always with one more loathsome task for Creed to complete?
This deal was feeling more and more shaky. Maybe Williams didn’t really know anything about his biological parents and was just pulling on Creed’s heart strings to get him to jump through hoops.
After all,Creed thought,Williams has done nothing to earn trust. I don’t know if Gavil’s alive or dead. I was promised more time to heal before being put on this assignment. I was told Dr. Winter was a thief when it’s pretty clear the woman was just trying to protect the meta children. He told me the ‘gift’ was ‘just for show’ and now Meg’s life is hanging in the balance,Creed thought furiously to himself.
He felt sick to his stomach. Nothing about this was feeling right at all. The eighteen-year-old soldier continued to mumble to himself furiously the entire time it took him to pack his hotel room. And by the time he was ready to leave, he still hadn’t decided what to do. There had to be a way to do the right thing, but he was very worried it was too late for him to wind up a good guy.
30 June in the Month of March
“Hello, dear. How are we feeling today?” Dr. Kenneth Williams leaned down and kissed the papery dry cheek of the young woman lying on the hospital bed. He didn’t expect an answer after fourteen years of silence. He was just accustomed to speaking with his daughter like this in some vain hope that someday she might hear and know he loved her.
He visited June often, though not often enough, his guilt-ridden conscience told him. He made sure she had the best of care in the basement of this hospital building he designed specifically around her needs. Out of habit, he checked her chart clipped to the foot of her bed. No change.
Long ago, he assigned a trusted meta female named Esther to oversee his June’s every daily need. The meta stood discreetly outside the doors now, allowing the doctor time alone with his daughter.
“Well, I’m working on your cure, my dear. I’ve sent two of my top soldiers to retrieve the serum I just know will get you feeling better,” he said as he absently adjusted her sheets up around her shoulders.
“You remember Farrow. She is working with a meta named Creed to make it all happen. We’re just days away from your cure, then we’ll get to enjoy walks in the garden and shopping at only the most exclusive shops; just as I used to do with your mother.”
“You have your whole life before you, my sweet June. You’ll see. Daddy will fix everything for you.” He smiled as warmly as his leathery face would allow at his pride and joy.
June lay as still as a stone. No matter what he did, Dr. Williams felt her accusatory silence pierce his soul, but not for much longer. Farrow and Creed would bring back the cure. They had to.
Chirping came from his breast pocket. A phone call.
“Reporting in, sir,” Farrow said obediently.
“Status?” Williams said, still staring at his baby girl lying helpless in the hospital room bed.
“Creed has followed directives thus far, and we’re on schedule,” she informed robotically.
“Well done, Farrow,” Williams smiled at his daughter feeling more confident than ever things would be different soon.
“What are your feelings about Creed? Is he going to follow through? Or has he gotten too close to the subjects? Do I need to send you reinforcements?”
“So far, he seems on target. I’ll keep a watchful eye and let you know. But sir, no reinforcements will be necessary. I’ll take care of things myself if need be,” Farrow concluded as any soldier would.
“I am confident in your abilities. Keep me informed.”
“As you wish, sir.” Her voice was like syrup on the phone, but that was exactly why he had chosen her to aid in this most important assignment. She was a valuable weapon, as he had determined female metas could be. Farrow was beautiful and voluptuous but as deadly as a viper. Yes, women had their secret weapons no man could duplicate.
“If you find it helpful, feel free to befriend the male metas,” Dr. Williams added knowingly.
“I will do whatever is necessary to complete the objectives, sir.” Her voice was like butter on a piece of hot bread.
“I know you will,” Williams smiled into the phone. “If Creed becomes a liability, I know you’ll take care of him, too.”
“As you wish, Director,” Farrow smiled widely.
31 Professional Courtesy
“Leaving so soon, Creed?” a sultry voice whispered from behind him at the hotel’s checkout desk. He didn’t even turn around. He knew who she was. He could smell her perfume.
The guest relations guy, who had been helping with the checkout, stopped to look up at the exchange. He couldn’t help but stare. The girl was gorgeous. Creed ignored his envious ogling and finished signing the receipt in front of him. He grabbed his large suitcase easily, turned and started walking away.
“You can stop following me, Farrow,” Creed growled once they were out of eavesdropping range.
“Oh, but I can’t. I have my orders, too, you know,” she said with a smile on her beautiful lips.
“Your orders are to follow me?”
“My orders are to be sure your objectives are achieved.” Her voice was crisp.
“What are you supposed to do if I don’t achieve objective?”
“I finish where you left off,” she smiled innocently at her fellow meta.
They had stopped walking and were staring at each other in the sunny hotel parking lot.
“And what happens to me?”
Farrow’s deceptively slender shoulders shrugged noncommittally. “I hope we don’t have to cross that bridge, Creed.” She reached out and touched the collar of his shirt, as though straightening it. Creed reflexively jerked away from her.
Since he first met her some six months ago, she had tried to use her charms on him. She came across, at first, as a thoughtful, intelligent woman, but he learned those were just her weapons. She was poisonous. Fortunately, he hadn’t opened up to her at all. If there was one thing he had learned about himself it was that he hated deceit. That’s probably why Meg’s naïveté struck him as so refreshing and sexy. Meg Winter was the polar opposite of Farrow Schone.