Chapter 5: Choosing
I jerked, roused from sleep by the sound of dozens of footsteps approaching from a nearby passage. The tentacle-like sensation invaded my muscles causing my stomach to wrench. Heat seemed to emanate from my bones. Energy coursed through every inch of my being.
Something was very wrong.
I pushed off the ground and stood in the massive hall. What was I doing there? And where was there?
The place looked similar to the graveyard with the Ancient Hebrew symbols and elaborate etchings decorating the walls.
The muffled footsteps grew louder. Whoever it was didn’t want to be heard. Someone was coming for me. Lots of someones.
“Ian.” Abby’s voice came as a sharp whisper.
I turned to see her peeking out a door at me. Her eyes grew insistently large. “Come on. Quick.”
She’d chased me down, pretended to be friendly, then shot me with tranqs. But unfortunately, I didn’t have time to judge her trustworthiness at that moment.
I headed for the door quietly and slipped in. She shut it behind me. I spun to look out its window. She pushed against me, edging in for a look, causing goosebumps to spring up all over me. Apparently, my hormones didn’t care if she was trustworthy.
“What’s going on?” I whispered.
Her voice came back quiet. Dark. “Hunters.” She rotated the lock, securing the door. “They’ve found us.”
Down the hall, soldiers in black uniforms cautiously rounded a corner with guns trained our direction.
Abby dropped and grabbed the back of my shirt, yanking me down with her. “I’m sorry, Ian. We brought you here to keep you safe, but this is the worst place you could be right now.”
Gee, the place just kept getting better and better. “Why was I passed out in the hall?”
She sidestepped the door, placing herself behind its hinges. The walls, floor, and even ceiling were covered with blue mats. Why did they need mats on the ceiling?
I fell in behind her.
“I was taking you to the medical center when you fainted. Then I heard footsteps coming from the entry and ducked in here.”
“You left me in the hall?” I said with stifled outrage.
“Just until I could get help. What else was I supposed to do?”
My jaw dropped, eyes creasing with disbelief. “Uh, drag me out of the hall, maybe? What if they’d shot me?”
She shook her head. “That’s not their M.O. At worst, they would’ve collared you.”
I frowned. “Collared me?”
“Electro-shock collar. Tazes you if you try to use your powers. They’re pretty horrible.”
“Gee, thanks. I always wanted to be tazed.”
“Is your superpower fainting?” she said.
“What? No.” I bit off what I was about to say, letting it go. “Why don’t I remember what happened.”
“The tranqs we use have that effect. It’ll come back to you in a day or so.”
Footsteps crept by the door and Abby’s finger rose to her lips in warning.
If they looked in the door’s window, all they’d see is an empty room with some training dummies and a twenty-foot ceiling that a family of giants could live in comfortably.
The footsteps outside the room quieted as the soldiers moved farther away.
“What are Hunters?” I leaned out to peek up at the door’s small square window again and jerked back as a black-masked head popped up outside of it.
The Hunter shook the door for a moment, then gave up.
I let out a sigh.
A tiny metal sound came from the door’s lock. Crap. He was picking it. The lock clicked and the door eased open toward us.
My chest pounded like a rabid boxer. The tainted power laced through my muscle fibers, screaming to seek out a victim.
A black submachine gun barrel eased past the door.
Abby latched onto it. In one fluid motion, she pulled against the gun, launching herself all the way around the man to his back and yanked him over her back to the ground. It wasn’t superhuman strength she’d used—it was sheer momentum.
“Hunters!” Abby yelled down the hall, then hit the man’s throat and solar plexus. He grasped at his neck, trying to suck in air. She turned to me and pointed across to the door on the other side of the room. “Run!”
I set off that direction but stopped short. Abby hadn’t followed. She’d closed the door and run down the hall with a host of Hunters in pursuit. Though she barely knew me, she risked her life to lead them away from me.
An alarm sounded as I ran to help her, unwilling to leave her to die or be collared. When I reached the door, it slammed into me, knocking me to the ground.
I sprang to my feet as a masked man burst through, assault rifle in hand, black military suit tightly hugging his muscled figure. His cohort stormed in behind him. They leveled their guns in my direction.
The wicked power pulsed from my core, seizing my muscles, urging them to destroy something. The Hunters had unleashed this monster inside of me and there was no holding it back. One thing was certain.
I was about to unleash hell.
My foot slammed into the men’s guns, throwing them into the wall. I flat-handed the first man’s stomach, using Abby’s move. Breath rushed out of him as he hit the wall and slid down, gasping for air. I grabbed the other man by the straps across his chest and flung him against a weapons racks. The metallic clatter of steel swords and sais crashing to the floor reverberated through the room.
The far door flung open. Three men emerged, spraying bullets. I sprang toward the ceiling at an angle above the gunfire, twisting like an Olympic gymnast. Okay, maybe more like a clumsy gymnast with a clubbed foot. The awkward movements sent me flying through the air, then back into the line of fire. Bullets whizzed past, the crisp sound of breaking air beside my ears. I landed in a roll, spun, then launched myself into the air once more. I’d nearly covered the distance of the room when a bullet tore through my pants leg, burning my skin.
My lack of skill face planted me into the matted floor like a bad YouTube video. When I turned over, three men stood over me, guns trained on my head. One pulled his trigger. Click!
I shot the man a look of surprise right before I spun up from the floor to kick him full force in the stomach. He crashed into the door, unhinging it. I twisted again to kick the next assailant. He caught my foot, yanking me toward him. His elbow slammed into my stomach, but the adrenaline made it tolerable. I grabbed his left arm, wrapped my legs around it, then pulled, snapping it at the joint. He cried out just before I slammed a fist into his head, knocking him out. Thank you to the one episode of WWF Wrestling I’d watched a few years ago.
More people filtered into the room from the first door.
The remaining gunman locked an arm around my neck. I used his tugging to throw myself up over him. He backbent to the mats below, lost his footing, and collapsed. I stood, then dispatched him with a stiff kick that sent him barreling into the wall.
A man burst through the unhinged door beside me, launching kicks and punches in my direction. I blocked them as if this were one of the choreographed kung fu movies I’d seen. My moves weren’t quite as accurate, but his attacks glanced off my arms nonetheless. When I saw an opening, I grabbed his chest straps and slammed him to the floor. I yanked him up, spun, and threw him to the ceiling like a discus. He bounced off and fell to the ground.
So that’s what the padded ceiling was for.
Several men crossed the room, but a female broke through them into the lead. She stopped and raised her arms. Swords and other weaponry pulled from the walls, streaking my direction.
Oh, crap. The Hunters had people with powers, too.
I wouldn’t make it through this.
At that realization, I let out a roar from deep within. A shockwave exploded from me, plastering everyone and everything against the walls. Trails of electricity danced along the floor for a second before their crackling fizzled out.
The darkness inside me pulsed hard, trying to take over. A chill ran the length of my body as the cold, dark voice in my head whispered, “Kill them all.” Was I going insane?
I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the voice.
Another Hunter burst through the door. I scurried to the nearest rifle and snatched it from the floor. My finger hesitated against the trigger.
The man raised his hands in surrender. “Don’t shoot. Those are just hard-paint rounds.”
As the alarm fell silent, Abby walked through the door, hands in front of her to placate me. “This was just a test.”
All over the room, subtle blue paint markings dotted the blue mats. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or pissed off. They’d played me.
“A test?” I said under my breath. “I’ll show you a test.”
I fired a shot into her chest, watching the tiny blue paint round break apart against her skin. She cried out in pain as she spun to shield herself from more shots.
The Hunter-dressed female with powers seemed to react with wide eyes but did nothing.
“Son of a…” I threw the gun with a growl of frustration. My arms pulsated with unspent rage, still wanting to tear something apart.
One of the black-suited soldiers looked at the paint marks on Abby’s chest with wide eyes, then back to me. “Breathe…slow and deep.” He pushed himself off the ground, raising a calming hand. “Nothing exists but you and the air. Just breathe it.”
The rage would explode out of me in another shockwave soon and the man knew it. I pulled air deep into my lungs. With each exhale, my heartbeat slowed, tension subsiding.
I wanted Abby to be furious, but she merely wore a wounded grimace as if she empathized with my frustration but couldn’t believe I’d shot her.
The soldiers around the room got to their feet, stretching their muscles to feel for minor injuries. The woman with powers knelt to tend to the groaning man with the broken arm. When she pulled her mask and helmet off, she resembled Abby, but about twenty years older with dark hair instead of blonde.
The man I’d bounced off the ceiling grunted, biting down hard as one of the others checked his shoulder.
“Sorry for the scare,” said the man who’d helped me calm my rage. “Without genuine fear and anger, we can’t fully test the limits of someone’s powers.” He removed his helmet revealing short, gray hair, a trimmed beard, and a ridged stance you’d expect from ex-military. “Sorry about your leg. We try to miss if we can. Those rounds hurt when they hit.”
I ran a finger across the tear in my pants and the burning skin beneath it.
The man frowned. “Where’d you learn to fight like that?”
“Well, that explains the sloppiness, but it doesn’t explain where you learned to do all of that.” He reached out a hand as he stepped closer. “I’m Joseph Adams, governor of the city.”
I hesitated. “You set me up and attacked me and you just expect to be friends now?”
The woman with powers came up beside Joseph like a stern teacher about to set a student straight. But her caring, motherly vibe seemed to overpower it to some degree. “Actually, we saved your life. You probably pulled every Hunter in Denver with the pulse you were putting out on your little run.”
Definitely Abby’s mother. She’d been blurry to me before, but her British accent was a dead giveaway.
I gave her a confused, questioning look.
“When we use our powers, it puts out a pulse through the quantum field.” She extended her hand toward one of the men who’d just gotten to his feet. “Watchers like Mathis here can feel that pulse. The Hunters use Watchers to track down people with powers. If not for Mathis and Abby, you’d be dead. They tracked you in Denver and brought you here.”
I gave Mathis a hard look, unsure if I could trust anything they were telling me. He was tall with gray-hair, probably in his fifties.
Joseph looked to Mathis then back to me. “Mathis says you came in at quite some speed. Fastest he’s ever seen.”
“Before he took a nose dive,” Mathis said, letting out a snorted chuckle.
A few of the other guys snickered with him.
Abby had a regretful smile on her face as she came up. “Sorry we had to trick you.”
How could such a beautiful, innocent-looking girl be so twisted? Part of me wanted to meet her under different circumstances.
I gave her a tight-lipped stare before I locked in on Joseph again. “I was having trouble walking when I woke up before, but I feel fine now. How long was I out?”
Abby’s mother answered. “It would’ve been only two days if you hadn’t run from us when you woke up.” She hesitated. “Now it’s been four.”
I threw my hands up. “What the hell, Abby’s mom—”
“Asa,” she said.
“What the hell, Asa. I’ve gotta check on my parents. On Sam.” I let out a sigh, shaking my head. “Wait, isn’t Asa a male name?”
She rolled her eyes. “My parents had a strange sense of humor.”
“Oh…okay.” I frowned. “Well, my parents will have no sense of humor if I don’t check on them soon, because they’ll probably be dead.”
“Now hold on.” Joseph cocked his head slightly. “You don’t wanna go doing anything rash.”
“A couple of men in suits came for me back in Bennett,” I said. “One of them had powers. That’s why I ran.”
“You ran from Bennett?” Asa looked from me to Joseph with a frown of disbelief. “That’s a good fifty miles. How are you not dead?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I didn’t even know I ran that fast.”
Asa arched an eyebrow. “You haven’t used your powers at all most of your life, have you?”
I shook my head.
“You built up a heavy charge,” she said. “It’s nearly impossible to snap the joint of someone with powers. We’ve never seen that before.” She gave me an appraising look. “You’ll never run that far or that fast again, most likely. The charge built up in childhood is extremely powerful. But once it’s spent, you’ll be more like the rest of us. You probably spent most of it with that run.”
I pursed my lips. “Were those Hunters that came for me in Bennett? Are my parents in danger?”
Joseph shook his head. “There’s no way to know. Their job is to keep our existence hidden.”
“And wipe all of us out,” Asa said.
“Conspiracy? Seriously?” I didn’t expect my tone to sound so condescending. “That seems a little farfetched, don’t you think? Can the governments of the world really keep such a huge secret from everyone?”
“Teenagers…” She sighed. “You all think you have the world figured out, don’t you?”
“No, seriously. How is that even possible?”
“Mankind is capable of a great many things in their lust for power and control.” Darkness tainted her gaze as it fell toward the ground then rose again to meet my eyes. Her voice was softer now. “There are very rich and powerful people in this world who have great influence wherever they choose and who operate outside the constraints of common law—a shadow government. They are more organized than you can imagine. They control governments, law enforcement, media, and things you’d never even think of controlling.” Her expression sank to sadness. “Nearly anyone can be controlled if they’re bought off or threatened.”
I was beginning to think this lady was a few tacos short of a combination plate. “So, you believe it’s possible to pull the wool over the eyes of the world?”
She laughed. “People believe what they want to believe to feel safe.”
I frowned. “Why would anyone be that stupid?”
She gave me a flat stare. “When the body has to deal with something traumatic, what does it do?”
I thought for a second. “It goes into shock.”
She nodded. “Do you know why?”
“Because it can’t handle what it’s feeling. It’s a defense mechanism.”
“Correct.” For a second, the edge of her lip curved up in approval…or smugness. “The mind and body disconnect from reality in exchange for a delusional state that isn’t as frightening. And people do the same thing when emotions arise that they do not like. They explain things away and believe what they must so they don’t feel so scared or depressed. You’d be surprised how easy it is to pull the wool over people’s eyes when they act like that so naturally. And when someone breaks the mold, claiming there are people with powers, he’s branded a lunatic. People don’t want to believe this truth.”
“Huh…I never really thought about it like that.”
She raised her chin confidently. “You would do well to keep an open mind. Things are not always what they seem.” Her eyes were dark, almost ominous. “Besides, there aren’t many of us from what we can tell, so the Hunter’s job may not be as hard as you’d think.”
My heart flipped in my chest. To what lengths would they go to keep the world from finding out I and others have powers? My parents were right—if the government knew what I could do, they’d use me or kill me.
I gestured at Mathis, then looked back to Asa. “So you and Mathis aren’t the only ones here with powers.”
“We all have powers.” Joseph held his palms about a foot apart. A second later, bolts of electricity leapt between them, popping, then died down.
“Except me.” Abby sounded okay with it on the surface, but there was a subtle bittersweet undertone present.
I cocked my head at her. “Then why are you here?”
“I was born here,” she said.
“Abby’s the only child who’s been born here.” Asa’s words were proud. Or maybe that’s just how her British accent made them sound. “And we’re quite pleased that she is without powers.”
“Can’t blame you for that.” My shoulders sank. “My parents wouldn’t be in danger right now if I didn’t have these powers. If I just could’ve controlled them…”
“Stay and train with us, Mr. Sharp,” Asa said. “We can teach you to control your powers. Without control, they’ll age you or drive you mad. They can even kill you.”
A sick feeling slithered through my gut causing my words to come out shaky. “Mad? Like…insane?”
Asa got that dark look in her eyes again. “Ah, so you’ve felt it.”
I nodded as the sick feeling wound out of my gut, sending a shiver through my bones.
“If you go to your parents now, you risk going mad and killing them and others,” Asa said. “But if you stay with us, you at least may have a chance to save your parents and your friend, assuming they aren’t already dead.”
Wow, she really knew how to make a guy feel good.
“So you all have powers?” I looked around at everyone. “What kind of powers?”
Asa was quick to answer. “Everyone with powers has increased strength, speed, and healing.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I suppose so, if they were real. But they couldn’t do this.” A rifle lifted from the ground seemingly by itself and came to rest in her hands. “Most of us also have a special ability.”
“Yes. We think everyone probably has a special ability, but some have never been able to access it or simply don’t know how to use it.” She held out the rifle and Joseph took it. “We’re not sure why.”
“I’ve had the special ability since I was five,” I said. “Why did the base powers just manifest a few days ago?”
“They typically come with age,” she said, “but the special ability comes randomly. Puberty could trigger it, buried emotions could trigger it. It depends. But usually, if you don’t see any powers manifest before age seventeen, you don’t have powers at all.”
The man with the broken arm pushed past her. “You son of a—” He threw a punch at me with his good arm.
My powers didn’t trigger, but I managed to throw up an arm to block. His fist took down my arm as if it weren’t there and connected with my jaw like a super-human battering ram. I flew across the floor, head first. Yeah...they had powers, alright. And they hadn’t been using them on me before. I wasn’t the only one with super-strength. They all had it.
Another guy with short black hair restrained the man. “Braden, he’s not worth it.”
“He broke my arm,” he said with a growl.
Joseph grabbed ahold of his broken arm and Braden cried out, yanking away. “Stand down,” he said with a hard look in his eyes.
Swords lifted from the mats, flying toward Braden. They stopped inches in front of him creating a barrier. “Leave him be, child,” Asa said, her tone harsh. “You know the risks. You know this is the only way to protect our community.”
“Yeah, and this freak is too dangerous to be here. No one’s ever broken a joint like that or taken out a whole room of us with one…whatever that was.” Braden heaved angry breaths my direction.
“We heal crazy fast, man.” Braden’s friend said, letting him go. “Your arm’ll be healed in a few days. We can deal with him later.”
Asa scowled at the man. “There will be no dealing with him later, Jesse.”
Jesse was a stocky guy in his mid-twenties with blond surfer hair and a gym-rat look about him. Braden was a couple of inches taller, like most of the guys here, and probably the same age, but more clean cut, with short black hair. Everyone looked like they’d just walked out of the gym—even Asa.
I picked myself up from the floor, painfully moving my jaw back and forth as I walked away. Nothing had ever hit me that hard before. “What’s wrong with you people.” I headed out the door. “I’m gonna go find my parents.”
I was a few steps down the hall when Abby came out the door. “If you wanna leave, we take you out with a hood over your head and drop you far away from here. You can never come back.”
I turned around to face her. “Like I’d wanna come back.”
“Ian, please don’t go.” She came close, her voice laced with concern. “They’ll kill you and your family. They leave no trace of people with powers.” Tears pooled at the corners of her piercing blue eyes. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry I tranqed you. I’m sorry I tricked you into the test. I’m sorry about all of it. No matter how much I dislike it, it’s how we have to do things. But that’s all over now. No more tricks. No more tests.” She looked away for a second, sighing. “You’re walking to your death if you go.”
No matter what she’d done to me, something in me couldn’t stand to see her cry. I didn’t know why, but it was torture. And if what she’d said were true, I was signing my own death warrant, not to mention my parents’ and Sam’s.
“Just give us a chance,” she said. “Train with us. Learn how to control your powers. At least you’ll have a fighting chance against the Hunters if you decide to go find your parents.”
I couldn’t believe she wasn’t angry with me for shooting her or that she blamed herself for the test. Clearly, she wasn’t like most girls.
Jesse and Braden came out of the training room, brows furrowed in warning, then headed down the hall.
If I decided to stay here, I was going to have problems. Big ones.