Growing up with blue skin never made Rene "Flex" Duvall feel like at outcast. She learned early on to put people at ease with her wit and exuberant personality. So she's certainly not going to let her façade crack when she and her teammates suddenly face a new breed of genetically manipulated and brainwashed Metas: the well-trained teenage criminals known as the Recombinants.
When a desperate battle leaves one of their friends wounded, Renee and Ethan follow a clue to Manhattan Island, where the Banes have been imprisoned. There they find a Bane named Chimera, who refuses to cooperate despite possessing information that could help them stop the Recombinants. Chimera's emotional scars are as devastating as Renee's physical scars, and soon the two find common ground in shared pain. Against her better judgment, Renee forms an alliance with this Bane. They both can gain much from working together, so the only question is who has more to lose by cooperating…
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Tap. Tap. Tap.
â€œDo you have to do that?â€
â€œYes.â€ Tap. Tap. Tap.
â€œAre you certain?â€
â€œYes.â€ I twisted around in the vanâ€™s passenger seat and glared at the older woman in the backseat. I tapped my fingertips on the window glass three more times to emphasize my point.
Alexia Lowe wore what I call her Mom Faceâ€”a flat, disapproving stare that probably made five-year-olds nervous, but had no effect on me. I wasnâ€™t five, she wasnâ€™t my mom, and frankly, I could have done without her presence altogether in tonightâ€™s little operation.
Three months ago, if youâ€™d told me Iâ€™d be on a stakeout with a recently pardoned Bane as one of my two partners, Iâ€™d have told you to go fuck yourself. Maybe followed up by a swift punch in the mouth. Getting any of the Banes out of Manhattan Island Prison, much less working with one, was so far at the bottom of my priority list as to be the inner core to my exosphere.
Yes, I know the name for the outermost layer of the earthâ€™s atmosphere. You try being homeschooled from the age of twelve by two rigorous (but kindhearted) foster parents who firmly believed I deserved the best education possible, despite the double whammy of being a former Meta and blue. Of course I came out of it with the worldâ€™s most random comparisons. Plus, I liked geology.
Anyway, the Banes belong in their prison; end of discussion.
My, oh, my, how things change in a couple of months. Things have changed for pretty much everyone in my life. My thoughts on the matter, however? The same. Itâ€™s lucky for the Banes that my vote doesnâ€™t matter.
I didnâ€™t mind sitting on a stakeout in a nondescript black delivery van with Ethan. Iâ€™ve known him since we were kids. Heâ€™s one of my best friends, I love him to pieces, and I trust him with my life. The same could not be said for Alexia. Despite the fact that sheâ€™d been part of the Quake Relief effort last month and then cashed in that assistance for a full pardon for past crimes, she is and always will be a Bane. A villain. A bad guy.
Itâ€™s a good thing Teresa West is in charge of this entire operation, and not me. Iâ€™d have gotten us all killed a long time ago. Leader I was not. Balanced, either, if you want the Godâ€™s honest truth. I mean, how would you feel if youâ€™d been burned over 70 percent of your body by an insane genetic hybrid created for the sole purpose of . . . well, we still werenâ€™t sure of the exact purpose of the Recombinants. Just that theyâ€™ve been a huge fucking pain in the ass.
The warehouse Ethan, Alexia, and I were staking out tonight belonged to a chain of grocery stores that had swallowed up every other major chain grocer on the East Coast about six years ago. The main distribution center was in Tallahassee (one of the fastest-growing cities in the South right now), but they had other warehouses spread all over the place. In the last year or so, eight of them had been robbed and tractor-trailers full of food stolen. Considering the size of those distribution warehouses, a single tractor-trailer load wasnâ€™t a huge amount, but stealing is stealing.
The human police were stumped. No evidence, nothing caught on security cameras, no trace of the trucks ever found, which, to the geniuses in charge, suggested Meta involvement.
Which logically meant they got us involved.
We were in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, parked a block away from the warehouseâ€™s main gate, tracking all movement on a laptop. Thanks to Marcoâ€™s genius with computers, as well as some handy surveillance gadgets gifted to us by a friend in the FBI, we had sound and motion detectors set up around the entire perimeter gate. We didnâ€™t need to have actual eyes on the gate to know if someone showed up.
Ethan â€œTempestâ€ Swift sat in the driverâ€™s seat, his face illuminated by the pale glow of the laptop monitor. Heâ€™d spent most of the last few hours staring at it, as if he could use his brain to make something happen. Not that telekinesis is his superpower, in case youâ€™re just catching up. Ethanâ€™s power is controlling the wind. He can move it, funnel it, and even use it to fly, the lucky bastard. Itâ€™s an active power thatâ€™s saved our collective asses more than once, and Iâ€™d trade mine for his in a second. Not that Iâ€™d ever say that to his face.
Anyway, the laptop would ding and alert us if there was any movement, but I guess staring was better than making idle conversation. Not that Ethan and I ever had trouble idly conversing. I just preferred to not make nice with our third wheel.
Alexia is nice enough, I suppose, and she has an incredibly useful powerâ€”she can sense most metals, differentiate between various kinds, and telekinetically manipulate most of them. The ability helped us save a lot of lives during the Quake Relief. Her eight-year-old daughter, Muriel, still lived in Manhattan with her father, whose parole hearing was in about three weeks. If things went baby daddyâ€™s way, all three of them would be living with us at our new headquarters.
In case you were wondering, our little trio wasnâ€™t the only group spending their Friday night on a stakeout. The thieves were too random with their targets for us to determine exactly where theyâ€™d rob next. The only thing we knew for sure was that it would happen tonightâ€”every forty-four days the thieves hit another warehouse. The significance of forty-four was lost on me, though, and despite an abundance of useless knowledge imparted to me by my foster parents and their guerilla education tactics, I wasnâ€™t the brains of our operation.
I wasnâ€™t really much of a soldier lately, but I canâ€™t do much to help that. The burns, which have mostly healed, affected my Flex ability to bend and stretch my entire body into contortions epic enough to make a treble clef jealous. Nowadays Iâ€™d be lucky to impress a curlicue. My right arm isnâ€™t useful for anything except the occasional punch, or aiming a gun. My foster father Alfred taught me how to handle, clean, and shoot a variety of rifles and handguns, and Iâ€™m pretty damned good. I abhor actually doing it, and Iâ€™ve never aimed a gun at an actual person before, but itâ€™s nice to know I still have a useful skill under my belt, since I kind of suck at Flexing now. I can still bend and twist my torso, but I canâ€™t stretch it out anymore. The only parts of my body that still stretch to any unusual length are my legs and my left arm.
Losing so much of my Flex power was like being twelve years old again. Those first few months after all our powers were stolen away were the most difficult of my lifeâ€”no powers, no friends, no one to turn to except the uncaring doctors of the Mercy Childrenâ€™s Hospital Psychiatric Unit. Not until my foster parents took me in and saved my sanity. Having Teresa, Gage, Ethan, and Marco around while I adapted to my latest loss in powers was the only reason I hadnâ€™t completely lost my shit again.
Even if I am a bitch to be around a lot of the time. But I bet if Teresa really knew everything rolling around in my head, sheâ€™d say something along the lines of Better to have your foot in your mouth than your arms in a straitjacket. And Iâ€™d agree. Except Teresa doesnâ€™t know everything in my head. The only person who knew, the first person Iâ€™d confessed it all to, was William Hill, and all of those secrets died with him back in January.
I just canâ€™t be that vulnerable again. So I play the part of the confident, prickly uber-bitch.
Like right now with Alexia. She knew I didnâ€™t approve of her presence. I was, in fact, pretty well known around the new HQ as the only original ex-Ranger to still silently disapprove of everything Bane-related. Silentlyâ€”key word. Teresa is my best friend in the world, but Iâ€™m not stupid enough to actively oppose her decisions.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
â€œRenee,â€ Ethan said, exasperation clear in his tone. â€œIt really is annoying.â€
â€œSorry.â€ For him, I stopped tapping my fingers on the window.
In the backseat, Alexia sighed. I glanced at the clock on the laptop. Two in the morning, which was damn close to when the other robberies had taken place. If something was going to happen here, it would be soon. The other two stakeout teams were in different, later time zones, so they had us as an early warning system.
We sat and fidgeted in silence for a while. At about ten after two, the mute laptop made a noise. My heart leapt. Finally, some action. The noise wasnâ€™t the sharp alarm that announced human-sized movement by the fence, though. The birdlike chirp easily could have been just thatâ€”a bird flying too close to the fence, or a breeze blowing a piece of trash.
Ethan tapped a few keys. The laptop display shifted to video surveillance of the main gate, an overhead angle from the cameraâ€™s position on the telephone pole across the street. I leaned closer to the screen, but didnâ€™t see anything out of the ordinary.
â€œThere,â€ Alexia said. Sheâ€™d slid forward between the two front seats, and she touched the monitor at the gateâ€™s upper hinge.
Sure enough, the hinge was moving. Both the top and bottom hinges, as a matter of fact, and the locking mechanism on the opposite side, too. And not just moving. Melting. All of the police reports on the other robberies mentioned the front gate being completely removed, and blowtorches were the most common theory on how that was accomplished. But unless our thieves used invisible blowtorches (and were invisible themselves), this was some sort of Meta power at work.
I turned on my com and said, â€œAlpha team to Beta and Ceti, we have movement. Possible robbery suspects.â€
â€œAcknowledged, Alpha team,â€ Marco replied over the com. He was heading up Beta team, and his response was followed almost immediately by one from Ceti team.
A series of chirps erupted from the laptopâ€”more micro-movement inside or around the gate. Ethan changed the screen to show all eight camera angles at once. They were small, which made it harder to see details. Something tumbled to the ground on the west corner of the warehouse, probably a security camera.
â€œI think itâ€™s safe to assume one of our suspects is a metal manipulator,â€ Alexia said.
â€œHuman blowtorch,â€ Ethan said in a quippy tone that made me smile.
â€œSo the human blowtorch unlocks the gate and kills the cameras,â€ I said. â€œHow do they make the truck disappear?â€
â€œTime to meet the magicians and find out.â€
We climbed out of the van as a unit and met at the fender. Ethan and Alexia wore similar uniforms of black cargo pants and black jackets, each with pockets for accessories like coms, utility knives, and emergency cell phones. My uniform was a reproduction of my originalâ€”which had been burned beyond usability at the same time I wasâ€”made of a snakeskin-like material that stretched with my body. This one was still a unitard, but without the low, revealing back of the first, and with the addition of a belt that held my own extra items.
Under the glow of a nearby streetlight, my hands flashed a familiar azure shade, both comforting and annoying. Iâ€™d embraced my blue skin a long time ago, but sometimes it made stealth work tricky.
Ethan led. We stuck close to the building across the street from the warehouse fence, keeping to the shadows as we approached the main gate. There was no traffic here at this time of night, and weâ€™d checked the area an hour ago for any transients or hookers who might turn into accidental collateral damage. Should be just us and our thieves.
At the end of the block, we clustered under the overhang of the buildingâ€™s main entrance, boarded up and abandoned long ago, which afforded us protection from spying eyes. The main gate was across the street, less than thirty feet away, and just as we reached our hiding place the gate toppled over backward with a jarring clang of metal.
My body prickled with kinetic energy as it always did when my adrenaline was up. Muscles and bones thrummed with the power to change their shape, to release that adrenaline the best way they knew howâ€”except a large portion of my damaged skin no longer allowed such a release. Itâ€™s like walking a fine line between pain and pleasure, when the pain is just a little too intense and never reaches that peak that turns into the best orgasm youâ€™ve ever had. Release remains out of reach; pain and frustration is your constant reminder.
We remained in the shadows of our hiding place, watching and waiting for our thieves to show their faces. They didnâ€™t disappoint.
Two slim figures stole into the street from the construction lot on the next block, and for a split second I was confused. They appeared to be regular teenagers, dressed in jeans and sneakers. The boy was slightly taller, with average brown hair, and he wore a red T-shirt with the imprint of a white skull. The girl had close-cut fire-engine-red hair (natural or dyed, I wasnâ€™t sure) and wore several layers of tank tops in different colors. No ski masks, no backpacks of equipment. They couldnâ€™t be older than twenty.
Ethan glanced at me, his green eyes asking the same question as mine: These are our thieves?
Then again, last month weâ€™d come up against the twenty-year-old versions of our dead parents and mentors, thanks to the genetic manipulation of certain government-funded research companies. Weâ€™d had more bizarre opponents than a pair of punk teenagers.
Jack and Jillâ€”their new names until we caught their punk asses and identified them correctlyâ€”strolled right through the broken front gate. Targets acquired.
I unsnapped the safety strap on my modified Coltson .45, a semiautomatic pistol most popular about five years ago, when Colt bought the Glock and began manufacturing a new line of hybrid pistols. Dr. Abram Kinsey, our groupâ€™s resident scientist, doctor, and general inventor, had created and perfected special magazines of tranquilizer rounds for those Coltsons. Rounds we rarely used in the field, but could be useful in taking down uncooperative Metas and Recombinants without having to kill them. Tonight we were all armed, but as the weakest person in our little trio, I was the only one who actually retrieved my pistol.
Ethan turned to face me and Alexia. He pointed at himself, then the sky, with a single finger. At his eyes with two fingers. Translation: Iâ€™m going up to see whatâ€™s going on.
I nodded. He slipped around to the other side of the building, the wind rippled a bit, and then silence. I waited for a signal, whether from him or from inside the fence. We had to catch the thieves in the act, or all we had on them was unlawful entry, but patience wasnâ€™t my strong suit.
â€œIâ€™ve got a line on them,â€ Ethan said moments later, his voice a little hard to hear over the windy com. â€œThe girl is melting a door off a delivery platform while the boyâ€™s backing up a tractor-trailer.â€
Well, now we had them on destruction of property. â€œCopy that,â€ I said. â€œHow do you want to do this?â€
â€œWe need to stop them before they finish loading the truck. One of them definitely manipulates metal, and once theyâ€™re inside the truck, they have a two-ton weapon at their disposal.â€
â€œI can get us inside through another entrance,â€ Alexia said. â€œOnce theyâ€™re busy loading food, they probably wonâ€™t notice us until itâ€™s too late.â€
â€œOkay, thereâ€™s an employee door on the north side of the warehouse, about twenty yards from the gate. Hold on.â€
I counted to seven before he ended the pause.
â€œTheyâ€™re inside. Go now.â€
Alexia and I ran across the street, right through the nonexistent gate. Our shoes were quiet on the blacktop, and Ethan was waiting for us at our entry point. Two blue metal doors had NO ADMITTANCE painted in white letters, like a dare.
Alexia pressed her palms against the door, doing whatever it was she did when she â€œreadâ€ metal. She could identify types of metals, even from a distance, and the more natural a metalâ€™s state, the easier it was for her to move or break it.
â€œHinges and locks,â€ she said. â€œI can break through them with little damage.â€
â€œPerfect,â€ Ethan said.
â€œDo you think theyâ€™ll bill us for this?â€ I asked, and he snickered. One of our workplace rules was to cause as little property damage as possible.
We did our best.
Alexia used her Meta power to tear apart the metal in the left doorâ€™s hinge and lock, and as a unit we quietly moved the heavy door out of the way. No alarms sounded, which did not surprise me, since (as with the blowtorched gates) all of the police reports said that alarm systems were tampered with.
We entered a short lobby that led into a long hallway. Weâ€™d all studied the specs of the warehouse beforehand, so getting through the management section of the building was easy. Then down a long, drab corridor that ended at a pair of swinging double doors. Opaque glass squares didnâ€™t give us much of a view into the main warehouse, but the lights were on. I heard the gentle hum of voicesâ€”nothing else to indicate they were moving pallets yet.
Ethan shifted to my right, ready to shove open the door. I thumbed the safety off my Coltson. My heart pounded. My body thrummed with anticipation.
Both doors swung inward on a pop of kinetic energy and slammed flat against the wall on either side. I stepped backward, stunned by the sudden action. Jack and Jill stood less than ten feet away, side by side, feet spread and hands out to their sides like passengers steadying themselves on a rocking boat. Only they werenâ€™t unbalanced. They were ready to fight.
â€œDidnâ€™t your parents tell you it isnâ€™t polite to crash other peopleâ€™s parties uninvited?â€ Jack said in a familiar, petulant teenager tone.
I bristled. Oh, I didnâ€™t like this kid. â€œDidnâ€™t your parents tell you itâ€™s even less polite to break-and-enter other peopleâ€™s property?â€ I asked, and raised my right hand. Over the sight of the pistol, I stared down our teenage thieves.
As a trio, we moved a few steps forward, into the frame of the doorway.
â€œSince when do Rangers carry guns?â€ Jill asked.
â€œNews flash, kiddo,â€ I said. â€œWe arenâ€™t the Rangers anymore. Now, why donâ€™t you both put your superpowered hands behind your backs and come with us quietly?â€
â€œWeâ€™re busy,â€ Jack said with a snarl in his voice. He snapped his right hand in our direction.
Energy crackled, and before we could react to defend ourselves, the double doors came slamming right back at us. Like an unexpected tackle from a defensive lineman, the blow sent all three of us tumbling backward in a messy, painful heap. Light exploded behind my eyes as my head cracked off the cement floor. Ethanâ€™s elbow hit my gut. Alexia was somewhere under my left shoulder.
â€œOkay,â€ Ethan said as he rolled off to the right. â€œNow Iâ€™m pissed.â€
â€œNo more easy way, right?â€ I said.
â€œNo more easy way.â€
Fan-fucking-tastic. Time to take down some teenagers.