਀ ਀ ਀ A New Life਀ ਀ ਀
A New Life
਀ By Stephen Tsai
਀ ਀

਀ John Raintree emerged from the sealed room with a set of folders under one arm. Coming out of the basement of the Congress, the Special Intelligence Briefing room was one of the most electronically and physically protected locations in Washington DC against any form of eavesdropping. His expression was blank; one would never have known that he had just gotten bureaucratically ripped to shreds by the senators on the Metahuman Affairs Committee. Ignorant short-sighted bastards, he raged quietly to himself. They had no idea the potential they had in their hands, and they were throwing it away, all in the name of political expediency.

"Mr. Raintree," a voice called as he rounded the corner.

"What can I do for you Bob?" Raintree asked.

Senator Robert Arnold exited the sealed room along with the other senators of the committee. He and Raintree waited until the other senators had walked past them. "John, I want you to know that I don't entirely agree to the committee's decision."

Raintree scowled. "It's not so simple as that Bob. The longer we wait, the more practice F67 gets on her own, the harder our task is going to be. And make no mistake; we will eventually have to find a way to bring her in. Either that, or she'll be doing the same to us."

Arnold looked around to check that no one was hovering around. "Unfortunately, we aren't always the makers of policy in matters of this regard. The recent rash of school shootings has everyone tense about the topic. Even the President attended one of those public meet-and-greets assuring the public that the matter was a priority to him. The last thing we need is to look like the Gestapo rounding up a kid in public sight."

"If I'm right about F67's potential, we won't need to worry about what the public sees or doesn't see ever again," Raintree emphasized.

"I'm well aware of F67's potential," Arnold said as he shifted uncomfortably. "For myself, there are several...issues that are bothering me that someone like her could make go away."

"Then give me the authorization to get F67 back," Raintree stressed.

Arnold hedged. "According to our information, she was recently cleared of murder charges, pending confirmation of the confession from the real killers." He leaned forward. "I take it that Major Nichols won't be taking any advice to keep his mouth shut from our attorneys?"

"Funny how that works out," Raintree mused coldly. "But consider this; we've just proven that we now have the capacity to compel total obedience to anyone we need. If a strong-willed man like Robert Nichols can be persuaded to confessing to double murder one, how much does it take to persuade the average Joe six-pack out there to...see things a little differently for certain touchy political issues we both know are concerning various members of the committee."

"Be that as it may," Arnold warned. "We can't go sending in our direct assets into a school unprovoked. The last thing we need is another shootout at a public school; even worse, to have our own soldiers doing the shooting. You've already admitted that the assets necessary to bring F67 in involuntarily would amount to essentially waging a minor war."

"We are at war Senator," Raintree said firmly.

"And we can't be the ones seen to be starting it," Arnold replied then paused. "Now...if an incident were to break out on its own accord...perhaps if government assets were needed to defend the innocent civilians from a clear and direct threat? After all...what's more important to defend than the lives of our children?" Arnold added coyly.

"What indeed?" Raintree agreed understandingly.

Arnold looked at his watch, and then shrugged. "I have another matter that needs attending. But just so we understand each other...we can't have any unprovoked actions against F67, so long as she's on public school grounds. Are we clear?"

Raintree smiled and nodded; it was good to finally meet a politician who understood how things really worked. "Quite clear."

* * *

Angelina enjoyed her plate of eggs with gusto that surprised even her. Another annoying side effect the psychotropic suppression drugs had on her was killing her appetite by making everything taste like ash. On the other hand, the other big change now was being able to sense food molecules interacting with her own digestive system; and like sausage manufacturing, there was nothing like watching the process to kill the appetite.

"You want some more juice Angie?" Laura Packard asked.

"Yes Mrs. Packard," Angelina replied.

"It's just so tragic what happened to your parents," Laura said sympathetically. "We were just devastated when we heard the news. I hope those crooks get what's coming to them."

I'm sure they will, Angelina thought. Chances were, the Project people weren't just going to let that case go through the public court system. And despite her youth, she wasn't naïve enough to think that she wouldn't be hearing from them again. She had to keep her guard up as much as possible, both for her own safety, and the safety of those around her.

"Anyway," Laura continued, "I got a call from Child Protective Services. They say they're going to be sending someone out this afternoon to discuss your situation. But I want you to know that you're welcome to stay with us until they figure out what's going on."

Angelina nodded then winced slightly as Laura put the orange juice away. She could feel a tightness and pain in Laura's fingers and hands as she lifted the pitcher. "Mrs. Packard, I didn't know you had arthritis."

"What, this?" Laura asked as she glanced at her hands, and then shrugged resignedly. "Osteoarthritis runs in the family. Happens to all of us when we get older. It's not that bad."

Angelina picked up her plate and carried it to the sink. "Do you mind if I try something?" She lightly touched Laura's hand, and concentrated. Inside her skeletal structure, Angelina could feel tiny microscopic spurs of calcium on the surfaces of the joints in Laura's fingers, wrists and arms. She then examined her own skeletal structure as a reference and carefully restored the smooth structure that had been there years before. As she did so, she lightly touched Laura's temple and willed her mind to cease feeling pain and stiffness from those particular nerve endings. "How's that feel?"

"Better...much better..." Laura said hesitantly. She flexed her fingers and hands. "In fact, they feel wonderful," she said with surprise and wonder. "How on earth did you do that?"

"Oh...you know...Far East Zen acupressure mumbo-jumbo," Angelina said dismissively with a smile. "Anyway, I've got to get ready for school."

Laura Packard watched with stunned disbelief as Angelina disappeared up the stairs in the house. She flexed her fingers again. It wasn't just a momentary thing, she realized; her hands hadn't felt this good since her college days. She made a mental note to talk to her doctor about it the next time she had a physical.

* * *

Madelyn Packard silently congratulated herself as she put her sketchbook away. She didn't know if Angelina was actually going to follow through or not, but heck, she told herself, it didn't hurt to be prepared. And so what if the sketch was a little risqué; most superheroine outfits had a little sex appeal to them. It was part of their charm.

"Hey Maddie," Angelina said as she phased through Madelyn's bedroom door.

Madelyn yelped in surprise and fell out of her chair. "How did you do that?" she gasped.

"Molecules are mostly empty space," Angelina explained. "Mike also said there's probably a ton of other stuff I could do if I put my mind to it."

"Mike talks too much," Madelyn huffed as she picked herself up.

"Well, he did say I should practice my powers before I, in his words, 'go Chernobyl on everyone.' Speaking of which, what exactly do you think you're doing up here?"

"Nothing," Madelyn evaded before wilting to Angelina's gaze. "You know, that mind reading stuff takes all the mystery out of life."

Angelina made a gesture and Madelyn's notebook appeared in her hand. "Hey, that's mine!" Madelyn reached for the notebook, only to suddenly levitate into the air out of reach while Angelina leafed through the sheets of paper. "Oh my God...I'm going to blow up!"

"You're not going to blow up," Angelina deadpanned. "I told you, I've been practicing. Give me some credit." She flipped through a few sketches before stopping on an illustration of a skin-tight outfit with stiletto-heeled thigh boots and gloves and shook her head. "Where on earth did you think this up? A Victoria Secret's S&M catalog?"

"It's...supposed to be sexy," Madelyn shrugged as she floated in the air. "Can I come down now?" she beseeched.

Angelina glanced at Madelyn and willed her back to the ground. Madelyn immediately began to pat herself along her chest, arms and shoulders.

"What are you doing?" Angelina asked tiredly as she put the notebook away. "We're supposed to be getting ready for school."

"Just...making sure all my...Tinker toys are where they belong," Madelyn asked in a flustered manner before regaining her composure. "That felt so weird. It didn't feel like being lifted; it was like all my insides were floating too. About the costume, you know, I was gonna show you when I was done. Those are just preliminary."

"Maddie, I'm not a superhero," Angelina shook her head resignedly. "Think about it; if I start parading around publicly showing off, then the government's gonna come after me even more, and start threatening people like you and Pete and your folks. What's more, everyone in town's gonna know about me."

"That's what a superhero costume is for; to protect your secret identity," Madelyn defended. "Besides, you can't save the world wearing a tee shirt and tennis shoes. It's not fashionable."

"Who says the world needs saving?" Angelina said, and then did a double take. "Fashionable? Since when is that important?"

"Oh, look who's talking Miss 'can I borrow your jacket because my folks won't get me anything nice'," Madelyn replied smugly. As Angelina flushed with embarrassment, Madelyn continued, "I'll tell you what; you may be able to read minds, but you can't see the future." She paused. "Can you?"

"No," Angelina groaned as she rolled her eyes. She could literally see the logic forming in Madelyn's mind but decided to let her finish it.

"So I'll make you a bet: Pete says that there's been a rash of supervillain robberies and even a few where people are getting hurt. I say a month, tops, and something gonna happen where you're going to have to take some kind of action to save people. If I'm wrong and nothing significant happens in a month, then I'll toss the sketch and never bring the topic up again."

Angelina sighed. A month, she told herself. What could possibly happen in a month? "Government conspiracy guys don't count," she hedged.

Madelyn paused, and then nodded. "Deal. And if I'm right, you wear my sexy costume, no complaints. And since it's obvious you can fly if you do that levitate trick on yourself, we have to add a cape. All flying superheroes have capes."

Angelina blinked in disbelief. "No they don't," she insisted. "Red Nova's a flyer and he doesn't have one," she added.

Madelyn snorted. "Red Nova's outfit is, like, so yesterday. Besides, nothing's more superheroic than a long flowing cape."

Angelina rolled her eyes. It was going to be a long month.

* * *

Daniel Nunez checked the address on the mailbox as he pulled his car up to the curb. In the passenger seat, there were several folders containing files and pictures of the children he was supposed to check on that day. The new one that dropped on his desk this morning looked like a particularly tragic one. He shook his head sadly; poor kid. As a social worker for the Illinois Child Protective Services, he had seen his share of broken families and orphans, but you never got used to them.

Daniel got out of his small car and walked up on the sidewalk. He was a tall, dark, good looking young man, and at twenty-six, still young enough to relate to many of the kids he had to find alternative housing for. Because of that, he ended up with many of the orphans who needed foster care. Kids of divorcees and custody disputes usually got referred to his older more grizzled co-workers. He hoped that he could find an agreeable resolution for this new girl Angelina Clancy. Having your parents murdered, and then having those lazy investigators immediately try and pin the murder on you without any motive or forensic investigation was enough grief for any young life, he decided as he rung the doorbell.

"Can I help you?" Laura Packard asked as she looked through the door window.

"Hello? I'm Danny Nunez, Child Protective Services," Daniel offered and displayed his credentials.

"Just a moment," Laura said as she unlatched then opened the door. "We weren't expecting you until this afternoon, Mr. Nunez."

Daniel shrugged and smiled. "One of my early morning visits cancelled on me and I was in the area. Is Angelina Clancy around?"

Laura shook her head. "You just missed the girls. They left for school an hour ago. Won't you come in?" she offered.

Daniel walked in and his trained eye appraised the residence. Lots of pictures, family decorations, and clean surroundings told him that the Packards kept a fairly good environment for their child. The fact that Angelina was in several of the visible photos didn't elude him. "Looks like you've known Angelina for quite a while," he brought up.

Laura nodded and smiled. "Angie and Maddie have been friends for as far back as I can remember. They've spent a lot of time together. I know that we were shocked when we heard the news."

Daniel nodded sympathetically. "You never get used to hearing stuff like that. But the best thing we can do for Angelina is to try and get her circumstances set up the best we can, so she can go forward with her life."

Laura nodded. "If there's anything I can do to help..."

"Did you know the Clancys very well?"

Laura shook her head. "I met them a few times over the years, but they were very private people. They really didn't open up to other people in the community."

"Any family, relatives that maybe can step forward to help?"

"There were a few times during the afternoon that I saw other cars around their house. The people there though didn't look like relatives or family; they were more like government authorities or something. I remember asking myself at the time whether or not the Clancys were in any kind of trouble, but nothing ever came of it. Honestly, I was hoping that you would have some information that would help."

Daniel leafed through his folder. "Unfortunately, my investigations haven't uncovered much either. I haven't been able to find any next-of-kin, relatives or family. I also can't verify any job or insurance information from either John or Mary Clancy." He shook his head. "It's weird; it's like the Clancys didn't exist at all. Even their house is owned by some holding company I've never heard of. I mean, I've been doing these cases for a couple years and this is the first time I've ever seen anything like it. I keep expecting Rod Sterling to show up and reveal that the house is made of cardboard and stuff like that."

"Well, that doesn't sound very good at all."

"Anyway, maybe Angelina herself knew something about her parents that could help me out. Do you know what time she's going to be back from school?"

Laura thought about it. "I think she said this morning she was going to apply for a job at the BurgerMart on Walnut and Forest Lane near their school. If she doesn't get it, she'll probably be back around four o'clock. I think she probably will though; that place goes through kids like crazy, so they're always looking for people."

Daniel took down some notes and nodded. "I'll do the best I can. But in the meantime, would it be too much trouble if she stayed here for at least a few more days while I try and get this all sorted out?"

Laura shook her head. "I'm sure Maddie would love that. I'll have to check with my husband Roger; things are a little tight right now. I'm not sure we could afford to raise two children for the long term," she admitted.

"I understand Mrs. Packard. I'll try and get things moving as best I can. In the meanwhile, I'll call my supervisor and also try and look into any kind of financial assistance the CPS can provide to make things easier for your family."

* * *

Mark Weinstein walked through the offices of the Illinois Child Protective Services government building. As the supervisor for the district, it was his job to make sure that the wheels of government kept turning smoothly. How many kids actually got the help they needed, well, that was really not his business. In government work, it didn't pay to think too much about results, but to just concentrate on the process and hope that the results would come on their own. He walked into his office and paused before entering and closing the door.

"So how was Washington, Mr. Raintree? And what can I do to get you to leave my office?" Mark asked.

"Oh come now, Mr. Weinstein, is that any way to talk after all we've done together?" Raintree replied with a degree of sarcasm.

Mark sighed and shook his head. "What is it you want this time? Another Project kid blow up another car?"

Raintree shrugged. "Oh, nothing like that. Or at least, not yet anyway. No, for now, I just wanted to check on some of your personnel files. What can you tell me about Daniel Nunez?"

Mark shrugged. "He just joined CPS a couple years ago. Degree in accounting and custody law. Single, good kid; dedicated. Could use a little more seasoning, but the children really like him."

"So, you would call him a good man? Honest, trustworthy?"

Mark turned back towards Raintree; he could tell when he was being probed. "What exactly is this about?"

"I think he might be the perfect man to try and get Subject F67 back to us," Raintree offered with a smile.

"F67..." Mark searched his memory. "You've had so many test subjects come through our offices; which one was that?"

"Angelina McGee, later renamed Clancy, our single greatest success and failure."

Mark blanched. "That girl who blew up an entire tactical assault battalion?"

"Reports of that assault were a little exaggerated," Raintree offered. "It wasn't quite a battalion, and no one actually died."

Mark shook his head. "No way. Danny's not trained for that kind of mission. He's just a social worker; he's not qualified. If you want F67 back, then send in a specially trained squad to handle it."

"Trust me," Raintree replied gravely. "Angelina can not be 'handled'."

"So what's Danny supposed to do? Serve her a subpoena? If F67 is anywhere near as powerful as I've heard, she'll see right through him and rip him to shreds."

"Oh, I beg to differ..." Raintree insisted. "You see, if we sent in, as you put it, a specially trained squad to handle it, Angelina would see through them, and probably could rip them to shreds, as you so eloquently put it. So I believe this is a case where subtlety will have to succeed where our conventional methods can not. After all...it would seem that the easiest way to deceive a telepath is to make sure the person doing the lying doesn't himself know that he's lying."

Mark frowned in silence for a few minutes then nodded. "What do you want from me?"

* * *

Angelina stared at the finished quiz on her desk and did her best not to scream. She had concerns that it was going to be difficult to wean herself off the psychotropic suppression drugs, but the reality really began to hit her when she got close to the school. Having Mrs. Packard and her neighbors in her mind was tolerable; tuning out 1800 kids and teachers whispering all their thoughts was an exercise in futility. Only the overall mood of boredom among the students and faculty was keeping the emotional stress to a manageable level. It was taking all the concentration she could muster for her mind not to just shut down and veg out for the whole day. Of course, she knew she could make the pain go away by simply taking over a few people's minds and letting the resulting euphoria soothe the pain away, but she promised herself that she wasn't going to do that to people without a good reason.

Angelina looked back at her quiz. During the War of 1812, when was the Battle of the Thames? By the time she finished reading the question, October 5, 1813 had been shouted into her mind nearly twenty times, including her teacher. A few others were shouting March 27, 1814 but they were so much in the minority Angelina didn't even need to study her material to know they were probably wrong. It was like playing "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" with unlimited lifelines, and it was driving her crazy. The only thing missing was Regis Philbin asking if those were her final answers.

Just then, the overhead fluorescent lights began to flicker and the pencils and chalk near the teacher began to roll and vibrate. As students began to look around, Angelina buried her head in her desk and squeezed her eyes closed. She was getting bored of the easy quiz and frustrated at the non-stop voices in her head and her mind was beginning to wander. Concentrate she told herself. Focus on the inked paper in front of you. In her mind, she could feel the atoms all around the classroom and surrounding building. She couldn't simply order them to stop; Michael had warned her that atoms had to stay in constant random motion; it was the basis of energy and heat. Make them stop and everyone in school would be killed, she suddenly realized. Even a tiny slip and a lot of people were going to get hurt and the school would probably blow up or turn into tapioca pudding or something silly. Leave the other molecules alone...leave people's minds alone...make the ink atoms sticking on the paper do a little dance, she tried to tell herself.

"Time," Robert Parr called out, right as the overhead fluorescent tube popped and blew out. "What the...?" he said as the other students looked up in wonder. Angelina trembled and hurriedly packed her books as the class bell rang. As she tried to get up, Robert called. "Angelina, can you come to my desk a moment?"

Uh, oh... Robert's mind already told her what she forgot to fix. How to explain it though, she wondered as she came up to his desk.

"Angelina, what's this?" Robert asked as he showed Angelina her quiz. On the paper, the entire front of the page was decorated with an elaborate Spirograph design. "Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?"

"Um... no, I...got distracted and began doodling a little and got carried away." God, that sounds so lame...

"Angelina, I know you're going through a difficult time, with your parents' passing and all. If you need some time off to get through the process, I understand. But you have to work through the principal's office for that kind of exemption. I can't accept papers like this."

Angelina nodded shakily. "Yes Mr. Parr, I understand. It'll never happen again."

As she left the classroom, she could feel emotional conflicts increasing. God, what is it now, she wondered. A quick cursory glance at the thoughts in the area quickly told her that a fight was about to break out. Poor Willie...what was it, third time this week? She never really paid much attention before when she was in a perpetual drugged state, but now she couldn't help but feel every minute detail.

* * *

William Peterson grunted as he fell back against the lockers. A thin frail-looking freshman, he had somehow gotten on Howie Brown's bad side early on in the year and was paying for that almost every week. Then again, it didn't take much to get on Howie's shit-list, as the long line of persecuted geeks and nerds could attest to.

"Come on Willie," Howie goaded. "I'll even let you take the first punch."

"Leave me alone," William said as he tried to get away.

Howie grabbed William and roughly pushed him against the lockers again, causing William's books to go scattering on the floor. A semi-circle of students had begun to form around the confrontation as onlookers cheered and jeered for one side or the other.

"Wimp," Howie taunted as he slapped William across the face. It was more humiliating than painful, but it hurt all the same to Angelina as much as William's as his emotions threatened to boil over.

"Just you wait, you pecker," William said angrily as he lashed out clumsily.

Howie easily dodged the attack and pushed him back against the wall. "Ohh...!" he grinned evilly. "Geek's got spirit after all," he mocked as he egged the crowd to his side.

"Hey, leave him alone," Angelina softly ordered as she stepped in.

"Oh...Willie's got a girlfriend," Howie mocked. "Who's gonna make me?" he challenged.

Angelina trembled as the tempting answer I am, so bow down and beg forgiveness flitted briefly through her mind, along with a hundred other equally humiliating apologies before she quickly quashed them. She shook her head; He's not worth it; just leave him be. She turned around and helped William pick up his books. Behind her, Howie entertained thoughts of continuing the brawl, but decided that punching girls just didn't look like a popular thing to do.

"Here you go Willie," Angelina offered as she handed some of William's books back to him.

"Thanks," William muttered, and then looked up at Angelina and smiled a little. "Really, thanks. No one ever really stood up to Howie before."

Angelina nodded and trembled a little. With the emotional stress beginning to trickle back down, the pressure on her mind was starting to slack off. "You should report him to the teachers," she suggested.

"At this school?" William retorted. "Who'd care?"

"Well, I got to head to lunch," Angelina said, doing her best to hide her dread. The lunchroom cafeteria was the most crowded part of the school during the lunch rush.

"Wait," William urged. "Can I...like...see you...maybe...after school?"

"I...got someplace I have to be," Angelina hedged. "With my folks...well, you know..."

"Oh yeah, right..." William offered sympathetically. "But...you'll still be around in class, right?"

Angelina shrugged as she headed away. "Yeah...sure." There was a slow tingle of emotion in the back of her mind that was building up in William's thoughts. She briefly thought about probing deeper to figure out what he was thinking, but was interrupted by the growing tide of voices in the lunchroom. She began to pant and clutch her head. It was like the worst migraine headache in the world and it was getting worse. Students always got more excited during the lunch hour and the voices and emotions were beginning to drown her in a sea of thoughts. Her books dropped to the ground as she collapsed to her knees. A group of students look on with curiosity but then the carpet began to smoke as overhead lights in the area began flickering and sparking.

"What the hell...?" several students asked as they looked around.

"Someone get the nurse!" another student called.

As activity continued to build, hairline cracks began to form on the cinderblock walls. Amid the growing chaos, Madelyn came running from the crowd and forced her way to Angelina as she trembled on the ground. "Oh my God... Angie, pull yourself together!" she whispered fearfully.

Angelina managed to look at Madelyn and shook her head. She didn't know if she had it in her to recover.

"Listen to me!" Madelyn whispered rapidly and fearfully. "Mom packed carrots for lunch! I hate carrots! Make me eat my carrots!"

Angelina shook her head. "I can't..."

Angie, you need to! Madelyn thought as loudly as she could. I know you don't like playing with people's minds, but making me eat my vegetables is a lot better than turning the whole school into a crater!

Angelina trembled but then began to visibly calm down. As Madelyn helped her pick her books up, she glanced at her lunch bag. She was suddenly starving for her vegetables; something she never thought would have happened. The two of them managed to make their way to an empty lunch table as students continued to look at the burnt out lights and smoke.

As they sat down, Madelyn saw Peter coming up to them from the crowd surrounding the damaged lights. She anxiously dug through her lunch bag and took one bite of the orange stalks before rolling her eyes with pleasure. They still tasted like carrots, but now that was more succulent than the best chocolate truffle she ever had.

Angelina buried her head in her hands as Madelyn wolfed down the last stalks in her bag and looked for more. "I gotta find another way..." Angelina whispered in despair. "I just can't keep doing this. I feel like such a...vampire...sucking your brains like that."

"Zombies," Peter interjected playfully. "Zombies suck brains." He grinned until he saw Angelina's annoyed expression. "Sorry," then turned serious. "I take it the hallway melting down was Angie?"

"I think it's just shoddy maintenance, don't you?" Madelyn replied meaningfully. "Do you have any carrots?" she added hopefully.

Peter shook his head. "Protein bar, granola, nuts, raisins, sandwich. And don't you usually try to pawn your vegetables off to someone else?"

"What can I say, tastes changes," Madelyn said. "You doing better now Angie?"

Angelina nodded. "Probably for another five to ten minutes before it wears off. I've gotta talk to Mike about it when he gets back. Maybe he can come up with a better solution."

"Yeah, where is Brainiac anyway?" Madelyn asked.

"Academic decathlon, remember?" Peter reminded her. "Tri-district tournament today and this weekend."

"Gah...that's right, it's Friday," Madelyn remembered. "So, getting ready for the big game tonight?" Madelyn asked Peter.

Peter shrugged. "What's to get ready for? Holding the clipboard all night? Oh, and Angie, thanks for..." he squirmed before continuing, "zapping my folks the other night. It sure made it a lot easier than having to explain to my old man where I was all night."

Angelina nodded reluctantly. "I'm already asking you to keep my secret, so I really can't go asking you to lie to your parents for me too."

"So what's this I hear about you joining BurgerMart?" Peter asked as he started eating his lunch.

Angelina shrugged. "Well, with my quote-unquote parents no longer around, I've got to find a way to support myself somehow."

"I heard from a number of kids who used to work there who say that place sucks to work for," Peter warned.

"You know Angie..." Madelyn said, "now that you're not constantly drugged, maybe you should join a club or something instead. Find something more fun than some dead-end job. You know my folks aren't going to kick you out just because you aren't tossing in minimum wage into the till."

"I know, but..." Angelina said remorsefully, "it wouldn't be right for me to just sponge off them without at least making an effort."

"Well, just between us, I think it's commendable that you're trying like that," Peter said. "I mean, most people... if they could do even a fraction of what you can do, they wouldn't think twice about robbing everyone in sight and screw what people thought about them."

* * *

Gadgeteer nodded confidently as his electronic devices gave the green light. "Good to go!"

Onyx shouted with glee as he smashed the safe door open. "That's what I'm talking about!" He looked inside and saw separate transparent domes containing the larger pieces of jewelry. They had been retracted from the upper floor where they were normally displayed. "Whisper, you're up!"

The shy quiet girl stepped forward as Gadgeteer checked on his security devices and Onyx took time to keep the hostages in line. An African-American former gang member, Onyx's meta human gene activated when he hit puberty, which increased his strength and stamina to superhuman levels. After dominating the streets as a teenager, he had since found more worthy teammates and graduated to bigger pursuits.

"Don't hurt us!" the jewelry shop owner begged.

"Stay cool and you stay safe," Gadgeteer coldly said. He was a poor young man in the projects who found out the hard way that only wealth and connections really meant anything in this world. A few early criminal spots on his record had long ago frozen him out of any legitimate careers that would properly reward his uncanny expertise in weapons and technology. Well, if society wanted him to be a criminal, then he'd show them what a really smart crook could do.

"Now!" Onyx ordered and roughly pushed Whisper forward. She looked at Onyx with an unfriendly glance, but then turned towards the reinforced transparent domes and opened her lips. The hostages cringed as the barely-audible whistle of sound issued forth. The domes began to vibrate and crack before finally shattering from the strain. As soon as the domes fell away, Onyx pushed past Whisper to greedily scoop the large pieces into his bags.

Bastard... Whisper thought to herself, but then fought to keep the emotions in check. Don't forget you're doing this for Becky, she reminded herself. Growing up on the streets, she and her little sister Becky had done their best to try and stay clean and grow up and hopefully earn their way out of poverty. But a chance encounter with a truck carrying radioactive isotopes had changed all that when a fragment broke free from the traffic accident and lodged in her throat. Weeks of expensive and uninsured hospitalization later, she found her voice had been augmented to the point where talking any higher than a whisper caused destruction and pain to those around her. A local loan shark saw potential in her and arranged to pay for her hospitalization and basic training, and then introduced her to Onyx. Only later did Whisper find out about the price for all the help when a note was left at their little apartment.

"You people in the store! You are completely surrounded," a voice suddenly interrupted on loudspeakers from outside the store.

Gadgeteer glanced outside before ducking back behind cover. "Looks like they brought out the big guns Onyx."

"Vortex, show'em what the sewers are for," Onyx said, as he got ready to charge out the door.

"Gotcha!" Vortex said with a thumbs-up. He concentrated and mentally reached out to all the water running through the pipes through the building and under the streets. A normal kid until a greedy chemical plant decided to save money disposing its waste by dumping the toxic byproducts by an open sewer where Vortex and several neighborhood kids used to play. After a bout of illness, he discovered a mental kinship with water in all its forms, along with the ability to ride it through the air. Unlike Whisper, he had no problems throwing in his lot with a winner like Onyx.

Outside, an assembled group of SWAT officers looked around nervously as the streets began to rumble. Before any of them could react, a powerful jet stream of sewage water burst from the manhole covers, covering the whole team with the stinky sludge. As the police officers recoiled in disgust and fell back from the oily water, Onyx burst from the front door of the jewelry shop. He bulldozed through the first SWAT van, destroying it in a single charge.

Behind Onyx, Whisper opened her lips and sent several officers recoiling to the ground, writhing in pain from the sonic whistle. She consoled herself in the thought that at least those men would live, as opposed to the ones Onyx decimated and left broken and bleeding on the streets.

Onyx then took the decimated van and tossed it into the phalanx of officers as some of them managed to fire a few sporadic shots, which bounced off Onyx's body. "Let's get outta here," Onyx ordered. Not that he really feared these chump cops, but he was anxious to fence the loot they had successfully stolen.

Vortex reached out again and mentally gathered the pools of water around the area and willed them to freeze solid. Gadgeteer, Onyx and Vortex each proceeded to get onto them as they lifted off like improvised flying carpets while Whisper propelled herself through the air with a powerful thrust of sound.

As they left, Gadgeteer shot a weapon several times, landing several pods onto the police cars. As the police got into their cars to give chase, the pods came to life and sent a powerful current into the car body, disrupting the distributor cap timers to the cars. Each car managed to lurch forward briefly before the engines seized up and died, as the officers all cursed and called vainly for help before losing sight of the villains, who managed to get away once again.

* * *

"Yo, Onyx, my man!" the loan shark congratulated as the foursome returned from their mission.

"Piece o' cake," Onyx said smugly as he gave the loan shark a rough high-five.

"Ow, shit man...!" the loan shark said as he shook his hand painfully. He knew though that Onyx was only kidding around being macho; if Onyx had really meant it, he could have reduced a normal man's hand to a messy dark red wet spot on the pavement.

"Tip was right on d' money!" Onyx said. "Stuff was all there inside the vault just as you said!"

"Would I ever steer you wrong?" the loan shark declared as the jewelry was passed to one of the loan shark's associate, who appraised the jewelry and nodded with satisfaction. "Yo man, I want you to meet someone!" the loan shark said as he led Onyx to the next room.

"Mr. Onyx?" a new man asked as he introduced himself.

"Who's the suit?" Onyx asked the loan shark with a derisive tone. The man had the stink of pig on him and Onyx distrusted anyone who looked like 'The Man'.

"This is Mr. Smith," the loan shark said. "He says he wants to help us branch out. Says there's a special opportunity. He's offering a hundred Gs up front to do this one for us, plus half the take."

"OK, I'm listening," Onyx said. Suit or no suit, that was serious cash even before the job.

"There's a big football game in one of the suburbs tonight," Smith said. "You know the type; rich, spoiled, snobby suburb kids, with rich parents and fat lazy cops who are more used to school crossings than serious enforcement." He made it a point to pour on the venom when describing the targets as he knew they all had reasons to dislike those they perceived to be part of 'the system'.

"We're gonna go after a school?" Whisper said softly but with shock. She had to control her volume, lest people here got hurt, and while she didn't really care what happened to Onyx, she didn't need to give these people an excuse to punish Becky.

"Hey, I'm with that," Vortex said. "They probably got sprinkler systems all over the place. Gives me plenty to work with."

"Indeed they do," Smith assured. "A real grass field. Like I said, too much money for their own good."

"So we robbing or kidnapping?" Gadgeteer asked. "I'll need to adjust my gear."

"Why not both?" Onyx said boastfully. "More money, less work!"

"We'll get caught!" Whisper urged. Despite her best efforts, her voice was beginning to rise to dangerous levels. "Rich people get rich cops and they'll send superheroes after us!"

"Hey, newsflash babe...!" Onyx leered confidently. "Ain't no one powerful enough to stop us in this town! Trust me; there ain't no superheroes within fifty miles of that place!"

* * *

"Welcome to BurgerMart, how can I help you?" Angelina asked with cheerfulness that she didn't really feel.

"Ah...I'll have a number one large combo, a Coke, and an apple pie," the customer ordered.

Angelina glanced down and sighed as the keyboard indicated that she had already telepathically read the customer's mind, and then telekinetically keyed the order in advance. She had to be more careful, lest someone saw her doing that. "That'll be $7.52," she replied.

The BurgerMart was only half full as the afternoon had just begun and the dinner rush hadn't started yet. It had been known to be a popular hangout for the students though due to its proximity to the school. Angelina had heard it was easy to get a job here, and it didn't take her long to figure out why the turnover was so high.

"So, how are you doing," Gary Cade said as he put his arm around Angelina's shoulder. He was the long-time manager at BurgerMart, and ran the place like his own little fiefdom. Even if she couldn't read his mind, Angelina probably would have disliked him on principle, but now she didn't have much choice. "Figuring things out? Learning the ropes?"

Angelina nodded. "Yes Mr. Cade, I think I'm getting it."

"Well, things will start picking up in about an hour, so use this slow time to figure out the way we do things," he said with just a touch of condescension that was much more obvious in his mind than his voice.

She nodded. "I'm sure I'll figure things out as they happen." After he left, Angelina turned her attention back to the cash register, and then groaned inwardly.

"Angie, hey...um...I wanted to say thanks again about today," William said as he came up to the order counter.

"Um... Willie, I'm working?" she quietly urged. "Can we talk later?"

"Oh right," he realized. "Um... I'll just be... over there..."

Oh boy... Angelina realized as she began to see what she had missed earlier when her telepathy was being overwhelmed by the lunch crowd. William's mind was already beginning to form fantasies about her. She hadn't really meant to lead him on; she just wanted the fight with Howie stopped, as much for her own peace of mind as William's dignity. Why not just...fix it... a nagging little voice inside her head whispered. Wouldn't that be so much easier, not to mention kinder than leading him on with ideas of a romance that just wasn't going to happen?

She trembled; that was a dangerous train of thought to be entertaining, she realized. Willie bothering you? Just make him go away. That twerp Howie thinks he's so big? Make him grovel and beg. Pete thinks of me as just a friend? Why not make him really love me? And what about Madelyn? What would she think? Who cares what she thinks... the same little voice urged. Just change what she thinks as easy as you changed her taste in carrots.

Oh my God... what am I doing even thinking thoughts like this...? she abruptly realized. She had to stop; idle thoughts, desires, even emotional whims like that were dangerous to everyone around her.

"Hey Angie," Maddie said as she came up to the order counter and began to giggle. "Oh my God... you look so cute in that orange uniform..." she said playfully. "I'm gonna have to add some to my sketch."

"No... orange..." Angelina replied adamantly. Skin-tight black leather's bad enough; I'm not wearing neon day-glow orange, she added telepathically.

Madelyn shrugged with disappointment and shrugged. "So how's the first day on the job?"

"Terrific," Angelina replied sarcastically. "I don't know what's worse... a boss who thinks that putting me up front for sex-appeal is good for business or that he might be right with all the boys undressing me in their minds."

"Angie, with your bod, guys probably have been thinking of undressing you in their dirty little minds way before you became...you know..."

"Well, at least before, I didn't have to see it."

"Oh, Angie... I need you to do something for me..."

Angelina blinked, and then blushed. "Oh my God...I'm sorry, I didn't realize..."

"I've been thinking of nothing but carrots all afternoon," Madelyn sheepishly admitted. "I'm practically drooling about having them sautéed for dinner."

Angelina made a subtle gesture. "It was supposed to be a one-time deal," she apologized contritely as she reached into Madelyn's mind a made a few adjustments. "How's that?"

Madelyn thought about it for a moment. "Can't tell. I'll let you know next time I see a carrot."

"Just a sec," Angelina said as she reached into the condiment drawer and fished out a packet of ketchup. She telepathically checked to make sure no one else was watching, and then concentrated on the packet in her hand, before handing a carrot to Madelyn.

"Oh my God... how did you do that...?" Madelyn asked with astonishment.

"I'm not really sure," Angelina admitted. "Sometimes, I can do things on instinct. It's like... I already know what a carrot looks like molecule-wise because I've seen and handled them before. I did it once before when I turned an ashtray into a ham sandwich."

Madelyn took the carrot, nibbled on it, and then spat it out into a napkin. "Yup, back to normal. So are you gonna come to the game tonight?"

"I can't," Angelina replied sadly. "For one, I'm probably going to be working through the dinner shift. And second, I...don't have anything to wear."

"Oh, no..." Madelyn wagged her finger. "You don't get to play that excuse any more Miss Molecule Girl. Besides, even if you couldn't turn tee shirts into silk gowns, it's a high-school football game. Who cares what you wear?"

"I...also don't think I could handle the crowds," Angelina admitted. "Unless you want to start eating turnips and beets that is," she added slyly, then paused. "My social worker's coming."

"Where?" Madelyn asked as she looked around.

Angelina closed her eyes briefly. "He's pulling up Josie and Walnut now."

"That's three blocks away," Madelyn said with amazement. "How far can you go these days anyway?"

"He's thinking specifically of me. That makes it easier," Angelina explained.

"Well, no surprise birthday parties for you, I see," Madelyn snorted.

They waited a few minutes as Angelina continued to take orders at a slow pace. After a dozen more customers had passed through, Angelina paused and stepped away from the keyboard. "I need to take a break Mr. Cade. My social worker's here."

Gary nodded. "Kim, can you take over station one?"

As the workers rotated, Daniel came into the restaurant. Madelyn glanced over to the entrance, guided by Angelina's cues. "Wow... what a hunk...

Easy Maddie, he's twenty-six, Angelina reminded her.

That's only twelve years difference, Madelyn playfully protested. I think I need a social worker too.

He's got a girlfriend already, Angelina sighed as she walked up to Daniel. "Hello Mr. Nunez, I'm Angelina."

"Oh hey," Daniel replied with a smile and a handshake. "How'd you recognize me anyway?" he added with a puzzled look.

"Oh, um...Mrs. Packard told me you were looking for me, and ... you are wearing a suit in a BurgerMart."

Daniel shook his head and chuckled. "A regular Nancy Drew, huh? Well, if you have some time, I'd like to go over your case."

* * *

Daniel finished his initial presentation of Angelina's situation, though she already heard it in his mind before he started. Great...not only were my folks government agents assigned to keep me drugged, they didn't leave me a dime to my name... At this point, she would be lucky to have the legal permission to even go back to the house to pack her clothes.

"...so anyway, I was hoping that you would know something that maybe didn't show up in the legal work," Daniel said as he summed up. "Did they tell you anything? A safety deposit box or an attorney to contact maybe?"

Angelina sighed and shook her head. "No, nothing like that I'm afraid. My parents and I...well, we didn't get along very well in the last few years. I really didn't know much about them..." That's for sure... she didn't add.

"Listen," Daniel said sympathetically. "You're not the first kid I've worked with who didn't have a life insurance policy. The government has safety net programs to help kids who need support. We're gonna find you a good home to help you get on with your life. If you like living with the Packards, we can provide enough financial support where you won't be a burden. Or if you prefer, I'll work on finding you another solution, whichever you want."

Angelina nodded and smiled. She was greatly relieved to find no sign of a hidden agenda in Daniel's mind. She had gotten so used to thinking of the government as her enemy, it was a refreshing change to find an honest civil servant. "Thanks Mr. Nunez. And I'd like to stay with the Packards for as long as they'll have me."

"Call me Danny. Everyone else does," Daniel said with a smile, then handed Angelina a card. "I'll get things rolling from the government's side. Meanwhile, if you have any questions, I want you to call me, day or night."

* * *

Farmer Village High stadium was surprisingly large for a high school stadium. There was comfortable seating for 15,000; it was also a popular venue for other local events like band, cheerleader, and flag corps competitions. Madelyn waved as she saw Pamela at the concession stands.

"Maddie, I haven't seen you for a few days. Where'd you guys all go?" Pamela asked.

"Well, some things have happened," Madelyn said.

"Yeah, I was wanting to ask you, what the hell was going on? Angie's a suspect for murder?" Pamela asked incredulously.

"No, she was cleared," Madelyn insisted. She thought carefully about how to phrase her words. The last thing she needed was a gossip like Pamela to know about Angelina's secret. "It turns out some gang of robbers broke in and shot Angie's folks."

"Oh gee, what a bummer," Pamela said. "So where's she staying anyway? With you?"

Madelyn nodded. "Yeah, at least until they figure out if she has any other family around."

"Oh, hey, can you, like, not tell her I said she was a suspect? I don't want her to think I was saying bad stuff about her."

Madelyn shrugged and nodded, but did her best not to snort. Don't tell Angie...yeah right...good luck with that... BurgerMart was only four streets away; good money said Angelina already heard Pamela's little indiscretion. "Listen, I gotta go get ready."

"Good luck band girl," Pamela said playfully.

Madelyn smiled and headed back to the growing crowd of colorfully uniformed members of the marching band. On the way there, she passed by a maintenance man, who was working on the stadium lights breaker box. She idly wondered what it would be like to have those big lights fail in the middle of the halftime show but put it out of her mind. Those kinds of things never really happened.

* * *

"Packages are in place," Gadgeteer said quietly into his communicator as he finished working on the stadium breaker box. He pulled out a remote control and pressed a button and was rewarded with a blinking green light. "I've got control of the stadium infrastructure."

"We're ready," Onyx replied from behind the concession stands as he finished loading food from the carts to the stands. "We go right at halftime." The field would have the most people on it at that time and he didn't want to miss any late stragglers who were still arriving during the first quarter.

* * *

Peter stood and listened as the coach talked to the starting quarterback Wade Johnson about the next set of plays as time ran down before the half. The visiting team had pushed them hard and held onto a three-point lead, but the home team had a chance to score before the half, taking much-need momentum into the locker room. As the backup quarterback, it was Peter's job to help keep a running log of plays both their team and the opposing defense was running in the hopes of discerning what combinations were working. It was also his responsibility to be physically and mentally ready to go into the game should the need arise.

The whistle blew and the referees signaled to start the clock as Wade headed back onto the field. Peter nodded as Wade pulled the team out of the huddle into a shotgun spread formation. The visiting team's star defensive end was a ferociously powerful rusher who nonetheless had a weakness of biting on a fake and get out of position, and Wade was an exceptional runner for a quarterback.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, Madelyn and the rest of the marching band, flag corps and drill teams were already standing by the sidelines, getting into position for the halftime show. The drum major paced the lines of the formation, extolling the band to do their best. The cheerleaders jumped and led the crowd to cheer the home team on. On the field, all eyes were on Wade as he checked off and began the snap count.

Suddenly the skylights turned off and the sprinkler systems began spraying the field with water. Isolated screams and various shouts and murmurs cut through the night. A second later, a bright flash emanated from the skylight towers and formed the top of a glowing translucent dome that quickly flowed to the ground level, sealing the stadium and surrounding grounds from the rest of the school.

"What was going on...?" the whole stadium wondered all at once. There was isolated cursing and shouting, but the murmurs began to steady as various adults did what they could to organize their respective groups. In the press box, control personnel were anxiously working the switchboard in a vain attempt to restore power.

Then without warning, a powerful sonic whistle pierced the air, causing everyone in the stadium to crumble to the ground in pain. Windows and glasses began shattering and the ground began to rumble. After a minute of agony, the whistle stopped and a booming voice issued forth from the stadium speakers. "That got your attention? Good!" Onyx then stepped forward and advanced to the middle of the field, flanked by Vortex and Gadgeteer. "You suckers have had it good for too long! Now it's time to share the wealth!"

Suddenly, a group of football players surged forward, charging Onyx and his partners. Gadgeteer went down almost immediately, but Onyx quickly grabbed the players and tossed them aside like rag dolls. "You stupid bastards...!" he snarled angrily. "Vortex, show'em the penalty for fucking with us!"

Vortex gestured and a large blob of water rose up from the super-saturated grass field and engulfed the first few players in a bubble of water. The players thrashed and choked as everyone else looked on in horror. After several seconds seemed to stretch to eternity, Vortex gestured again and the water receded back into the grass.

"That was a warning!" Onyx said harshly. "Next chumps who try anything won't be so lucky!"

Gadgeteer picked himself up, gave some of the downed players a swift kick, and then took the microphone. "Here's our list of demands...!"

* * *

"Two number one large combos, number three combo medium, BLT sandwich, three Cokes, apple pie, and two cones, that'll be $16.42," Angelina said tersely as she keyed the order into the touch pad. Behind her, the kitchen was alive with activity preparing food for four separate checkout counters and the drive-through. Even Gary Cade was actively working the floor, keeping an eye on supplies and occasionally taking an order.

The customer stood aside to wait for his order as the next customer came up to the front of the line. Angelina started to ask him for his order when she suddenly began to hear screaming. She shook her head and looked around. No panic in the restaurant; the only reason to scream here was the sub-standard food. Telepathic screams, she realized. Her mind was alive with flashes of fear, anger and panic. Oh my God, she realized, the school stadium...Maddie and Pete are at that game...!

...and don't no more of you fools get any stupid ideas about bein' a hero! Angelina could hear a tall powerful-looking man say menacingly to the crowd. In her mind, she could see four of them, all of them using meta powers. What's more, they seemed to have the whole stadium surrounded by a powerful force wall. Angelina could sense police already en route, but none of them were meta-human equipped.

"Excuse me Miss, we're ready to order?" the customer interrupted, jerking Angelina mentally back to the restaurant.

"I have to go," Angelina whispered and left the counter. She headed to the back of the restaurant as the rest of her co-workers and some customers wondered where she was going.

"Hey Angelina," Gary Cade said with surprise as he followed her to the back of the restaurant. "Where are you going? Now's not the time to take a break," he said firmly.

"I'm sorry about this Mr. Cade," Angelina said as she mentally reached into his mind, but I have to leave. You're going to accept that and cover for me.

"I understand," Gary nodded obediently as he walked calmly back to the front of the restaurant. "I'll have someone cover for you."

Angelina sighed as Gary walked away. It's an emergency, she told herself; it's not the same thing as abusing people's minds, her conscience insisted, before turning her attention to other matters. Maddie, I guess you win the bet... she thought before she phased through the back wall of the restaurant.

In the alleyway behind the restaurant building, Angelina looked around visually and telepathically to make sure she wasn't being watched. "Oh my God...I can't believe I'm doing this..." she muttered as she focused her concentration on the molecules of her clothes. Instantly, they began to flow and reshape themselves into a skin-tight shiny black and silver outfit that hugged every curve on her body. Her body began to lift off the ground as the flowing black cape swirled behind her. Maddie wasn't kidding; it does make my insides feel funny when I fly... She took a moment to look at the results. Wow, she thought. She almost hated to admit it, but Maddie was right; it was sexy. It felt almost sensual against her body. Of course, the drawback was this outfit didn't hide a single pound. If she was really going to be wearing this, then she may as well kiss donuts goodbye forever.

OK, take it easy, one step at a time, Angelina told herself. Her telepathy was keeping her apprised of the events at the stadium and surrounding area in real time. The euphoric buzz she got from zapping Mr. Cade would keep her head clear for at least a little while. Her molecular powers projected a force field around her that should protect her from anything those metas could throw, based on their thoughts and memories of their own powers. Now she just had to figure out how to...

"Waaah....!" she shouted with fear and ecstasy as she rocketed up into the air at unbelievable speed. In a blink of an eye, she was already far above and outside the city limits. By the time she managed to gasp a breath, she was already leaving the atmosphere. Stop, stop! she urged herself as she finally slowed to a hover. OK, molecules, let's try that again at not quite maximum speed then, she thought. She was lucky that she had total control of her body's molecules and the air pocket around her or the acceleration and deceleration would have probably smeared her into red mist or the vacuum would have killed her from suffocation and decompression.

She looked down and almost lost herself in the view of the planet below her. For the first time ever, she didn't think of her powers as a curse. The view was so breathtaking, she began to understand Peter's and Madelyn's obsession with superheroes. I'm going to have to come back up here when time isn't of the essence, she told herself, then turned her attention back to the matter at hand.

OK, back down now, she willed. She couldn't go too fast or she'd end up plowing herself into the ground, and she wasn't completely sure if her powers would protect her from that. But she didn't have time to go slowly now; her initial jolt into space meant she would have to fly swiftly to get back to the stadium in time to matter. She fixed her attention to her hometown and headed down. Slowly at first, then picking up speed as she gained more confidence. OK world... get ready for... She paused. Oh my God... I don't even have a superhero name...how lame is that? She sighed...maybe she'd come up with one after she saved her friends.

* * *

Outside the stadium, a ring of police, SWAT and emergency vehicles were establishing a perimeter. "It's no good sir," the lead police reported back to the commander. "It's some kind of high-energy force field. The tech guys say it's tapping directly into the city's electrical grid that powers the stadium and it's powerful enough to repel anything we've got."

"The negotiator's online with them. They're asking for $100,000 per kid in there. They say the money's to be wired to an off-shore account in two hours or they start randomly executing them one by one every five minutes. They also say that if we try to cut the city grid, they'll kill everyone they can and take off."

"Any word from those helicopters?" the chief of police asked.

"The choppers have ID'd the four perps. It looks like the same super powered gang who's been hitting banks and jewelry stores downtown the last few months," the squad commander reported.

"Looks like they've decided to upgrade," the SWAT commander growled.

"We're flying in some personnel from the downtown precincts to hopefully get some expertise, but this gang's never been close to being caught. We've managed to contact the Dark Saviors and they're enroute now, but they won't be here for at least an hour, maybe more." The squad commander shook his head and sighed. "It doesn't look good."

Parents are going to be going crazy... the chief of police realized to himself. And you're the lucky bastard who's going to have to go in front of those cameras to tell the world that 15,000 kids and school teachers are going to die.

* * *

Onyx watched with leering satisfaction as bags were being passed throughout the crowd, ordering everyone to drop their wallets, purses, jewelry, and other valuables for collection. Gadgeteer had deployed some mobile-armed drones to help with enforcement, and so far, their demonstration had borne fruit. There were no more foolish displays of bravado. In fact they were so successful in keeping the crowd cowed, Onyx was getting bored.

"Hey sweet thing!" Onyx said as he grabbed the nearest cheerleader. "I'll be your parents would pay extra to get you back!"

The cheerleader screamed as Onyx tore her blouse open.

"Stop it!" Peter said.

"Enough!" Whisper hissed. "We're getting the money and this isn't helping!"

"You mind your place!" Onyx snarled to Whisper as he loosened his grip on the cheerleader.

Peter suddenly charged forward and managed to tackle the cheerleader out of Onyx's loosened grip. But before he could pull her back, Onyx roughly grabbed him from behind. "Ohh...now that's more like it," he said with satisfaction.

"I always hated jocks when I was a kid," Gadgeteer said menacingly as he pointed a gun at Peter's head.

"I'll bet I could have made a good jock," Onyx sneered as Peter struggle in vain against Onyx's grip. "Watch me make this forward pass!" With one powerful swing, Onyx hurled Peter into the air as other students around them gasped and cried. "Well, damn," he laughed, "I guess we won't be getting our money for that guy!"

* * *

Peter tumbled through the air as the field receded below him. He quickly came to the realization that the clichés were all true; his life really was flashing right before his eyes. At 100 feet, he could see all the childhood memories of throwing that little Nerf football with the neighborhood kids. At 200 feet, he was twelve, on his first hunting trip with his father. 300 feet; his first, and so far only, football victory just last year and the subsequent pride his parents yelling his name in the stands.

The force wall was close now; he wondered if death was going to be instant or would he feel the crunching of his bones against the glowing surface. He kept his eyes open; he wouldn't give those creeps down there the satisfaction that he couldn't face death with his eyes open. Seconds seemed to drift and lengthen. What the hell, he thought; did he misjudge the distance? The wall was still there, but it seemed to be slowing...slowing... His body began to feel weightless. Was he at the apex of the throw already? Did that creep misjudge his throw and now he'd just die on the ground instead of slamming into the wall?

Finally, he blinked; this close to the wall, it was hard to see. A silhouette bathed in a white light seemed to be approaching from the outside. Before he knew what was happening, the shape slipped through the wall and drifted towards Peter as he finally came to a complete mid-air stop.

"Hi Pete," Angelina said and smiled. "Sorry I'm late."

* * *

"Who the hell is that?" the helicopter pilot said, as his co-pilot tried to get a better look with binoculars. "Base, this is Eagle-Eye One, we have another possible perp just flew into the target area at high speed. Target is air-mobile and has penetrated the force wall surrounding the combat zone."

* * *

Peter gasped as he was gently turned around in mid air. "Angie..." he breathed, and then managed to weakly croak, "...nice costume..."

"That was really brave," Angelina said with admiration.

Peter shook his head and almost laughed as the adrenaline in his system began to taper off. "You can say stupid if you want." He then turned serious. "There's four of them. The big guy's really strong..."

"Shh...I know," Angelina said with assurance.

"Right," Peter nodded. "Mind reader, I forgot..."

"I'm gonna put you with the cops, OK? Take care of yourself," Angelina said and gestured, and phased Peter through the force wall, and then levitated him gently to the police perimeter.

"Kick ass, Angie," Peter replied as he phased through the wall.

* * *

"Someone's up there!" Gadgeteer shouted.

Onyx looked up; it was hard to see against the white glowing force field. He half-expected to see the red splatter against the wall, but that's not what Gadgeteer was pointing at. "Whisper, go check it out!"

Whisper flew up towards the force wall and saw Angelina almost immediately. A superhero, I knew it, she thought and opened up a sonic attack. The sonic bolt lanced out, only to dissipate when it came close to Angelina's force field.

"What...?" Whisper uttered with surprise.

Thanks Mike, Angelina thought as she mentally grabbed Whisper's mind and body. Nothing easier than repeating successful tricks.

"Get them both down!" Onyx ordered Gadgeteer as he saw Whisper go limp. Dumb bitch must have dropped her guard and got caught like an amateur.

Poor girl, Angelina thought. She doesn't want to be here either. She's just doing this to protect her sister... Her thoughts were interrupted by a hail of bullets came flying up towards them both before freezing in mid-air.

"Holy..." Gadgeteer exclaimed. "Did you see that?"

Onyx fumed with frustration. And it was going so well. "Drown her!" he ordered Vortex, and then turned back towards Gadgeteer. "Start strafing the crowd! We'll make a few examples out of them to punish her for interfering!"

Vortex raised both arms as a wave of water rose up from the soaked field and surrounded Angelina in mid-air. He then furrowed his brow and gritted his teeth. "Come on... drown, damn you!"

Angelina looked at the water as it tried to close in on her. She could feel the psychic pressure on the water molecules, but holding them back was a trivial mental effort. Hopefully she could defeat them before someone got hurt.

"Units 1 through 3, open fire," Gadgeteer ordered the drones, which proceeded to line up their weapons and power up.

Uh oh. Angelina thought and willed the bullets to stop in mid-flight. Better wrap this up quick.

The guns began firing and the bullets froze in mid-air. But as the guns fired, the crowd began to panic and run. Angelina winced and crumbled as she grabbed her temples. Around her, the water began to vaporize into its component gases and the stadium stands began to crack.

"Not so tough now, are you?" Onyx said menacingly as he leaped up and grappled Angelina. He tried to squeeze, but growled as he found his efforts foiled by the field of static molecules surrounding Angelina.

Around the stadium, the crumbling stands caused more panic as students, parents and teachers tried to run for the exits. Angelina cried out as the pain from the overwhelming emotions and panicked thoughts threatened to overwhelm her. The mental support she got from tapping Gary Cade's mind had worn off. She needed to grip someone else's mind or she wouldn't be any good to anyone.

"You see that?" Onyx snarled. "Once we take care of you, we'll finish off all these losers!"

Fine, you'll do nicely, Angelina thought as she reached into Onyx's mind. Release me!

Onyx suddenly dropped Angelina and fell back to the ground as his arms went limp. "What the...?"

On the ground and go to sleep, all of you! Angelina mentally ordered Onyx, Gadgeteer and Vortex as she reached out to the students as they struggled from the crumbling stands. As her mind began to clear, she then mentally reached out to the crowd and projected a soothing calm into their minds to restore order and quell the panic.

As the students began to lift off the ground to safety from the crumbling stands, unnoticed by everyone, the hydrogen gas drifted up into the shattered skylights. Before anyone could react, the lights began to spark.

Instantly, the hydrogen ignited. The flash caught everyone's attention and Angelina quickly willed a barrier to form around the students she levitated to the field as the stadium stands finally collapsed. The fire spread to the surrounding structure in the press box and scoreboards. Fueled by the excess oxygen in the air, the flames began to spread like wildfires.

Oh no, what now...? Angelina thought with despair as she reached out to the air molecules around the growing fire. Slower...slower... She knew she couldn't just stop them completely, or she'd end up freezing people to death. As the fires finally began to die down, she looked around with dejection. Oh my God... what a mess I made...

* * *

"The force field's down!" the front-line police reported.

"All units move in!" the SWAT commander ordered.

There was a hard push to rush in. Everyone had seen the pyrotechnics inside and parents feared the worst. Inside the stadium, the spectators looked around and several pointed up to the floating figure above them. Angelina could sense the confusion of their thoughts that was still there despite her telepathic soothing. Further out, she could sense the impending hostility from the approaching police and fire fighters. And why wouldn't they be hostile? They think you just blew up the stadium on purpose. She shook her head; what could she even say to them? She did her best and this was the result? Some hero I turned out to be, she thought sadly and flew off at high speed. She just wasn't ready to face an audience for this debacle.

* * *

Raintree watched the footage from the grainy shaky cameras. Unfortunately, being only a high-school game, professional media wasn't available. Behind him, Jeffery Smith shook his head.

"Honestly, I thought they'd do better than that."

"Against F67?" Raintree scoffed. "They're lucky to be alive."

"Not that I'm questioning your actions sir," Smith said, "but weren't we going to send in some forces to try and acquire F67 since she could have visibly have been perceived to be a direct threat to others?"

"I had thought about it," Raintree said. "But realistically right now, we can't deploy sufficient forces to have much of a chance, given our restrictive rules of engagement and limited resources. I had hoped that she would have accidentally killed someone, but things don't always work out that way. Fortunately, she did enough collateral damage that I'm sure we can spin that to our advantage. Once our media agents get word out how dangerous she was to the innocent children, I'm sure that we will have no problems getting the resources necessary to bring her in once and for all."

* * *

The black ship landed; it was as bigger than a fighter jet and looked more like a science fiction shuttle. There were no markings on it anywhere. A doorway appears on one side and a humanoid stepped out onto the asphalt. The press began to take pictures and try and get his attention. The black hilted sword over his right shoulder added to his mystery; as far as anyone knew, he had never used it. Several police officers walked over to him.

"Red Nova?" one of them asked?

The figure nodded, then spoke. The silvery mask distorted his voice and the glowing purple eyes gave him the appearance of some kind of insect. "I got here as soon as I could. The rest will be here if needed. Who's in charge?" he asked.

The officers took him to where the four Meta humans were laid out. Without skipping a beat, he pulled out a device as purple energy washed over each of them. "You want me to take custody?" he asked.

"We have a team en route to take custody. We're still looking for the fifth Meta," the police officer said.

Red Nova ignored him and examined some of the electronics that were being removed from the lighting system. He then went out into the field and began looking around. He picked up several items from the field and brought them back to one of the officers. "Something...not sure what...have your people examine it and forward a copy to the East Coast Meta human database." He dropped several pieces of what looked like crystal into a bag. Upon closer inspection, they were bugs made of some kind of glass or crystal. "Once your people get here, I'm going to look around the city, if that's OK?" It was more of a statement than a question.

One of the officers said, "Sir, can you move your ship?" he said pointing to the ship parked in the middle of the street.

"Not a problem." The ship's door closed and without making a sound took off straight up.

The Central MTF arrived on scene and several local Metas took over the investigation as well as custody of Onyx and his crew. They seemed to ignore Red Nova. The media however was clamoring to get his attention. "I'm going to make that run over Chicago, then head home." Without any further preamble, he took off into the air; a glowing field of energy enveloped him.

* * *

"Hey, aren't you..."

No, I'm not, Angelina willed. Just continue on your way and forget you ever saw me, she commanded.

The traveler nodded and continued to his train. It was the twentieth person she had mentally zapped in the last half-hour. She was still wearing her costume, which had prompted the questioning, but she was too depressed to change into normal civilian clothes. Each time she did it, she got an uplifting little jolt of euphoria, along with a healthy dose of shame.

Chicago Union Station was one of the oldest train stations in the country still operating. Fortunately, at this late hour, there weren't that many people around. Angelina had flown into downtown in a vain attempt to try and find Michael, but she had no idea where the Decathlon was, and even she couldn't search a whole city by herself. Well, it could have been worse, she told herself. Villains were caught, no one died, only...what... 20 million in property damages? she added sarcastically.

In the bar, she heard a television reporting the evening news. With morbid curiosity, she telekinetically increased the volume so she could hear the report.

"...and police have emphasized that the crisis does appear to be resolved. Once again, four meta-villains who were holding the Farmer's Village High stadium hostage have been captured and no civilian casualties have been reported. Police are still looking for the fifth meta-villain, who witnesses say appeared to be the ringleader, though reports are conflicted at this time..."

Great...now I'm the ringleader... she moaned. The television then burst into sparks and died. Around the bar, the few patrons groaned at the loss of the picture. The bartender cursed and shook his head.

"What happened to the picture?" one of the customers asked.

"TV shorted out," another patron muttered.

So what do I do now, she asked herself. From what she could tell, none of the video got a good look at her face. She was high enough up and the stadium was dark enough where it was unlikely that anyone at the stadium would have recognized her, other than Madelyn and Peter, and she had everyone in the train station under her mental thrall so they wouldn't remember her.

"Tough night out?" an old man next to her asked, then glanced at her. "Nice outfit."

Angelina looked at him, but then did a double take. Something was different about him, she suddenly realized. "I can't read you," she whispered.

"It's a blessing Angie, trust me," the old man said wearily. "My head's not a nice place to be."

Angelina instantly tensed up and looked around. Her telepathy wasn't picking up anything, but the old man in front of her just proved that didn't necessarily mean she was safe.

"Relax Angie, I'm alone," the man said as he finished his beer.

"You know who I am? Then you know what I can do?"

"Kill me with a thought? Blow up half the city? Yeah, I got that part," he said nonchalantly.

"How did you know where to find me?" she asked warily.

The old man looked around casually. "This is where it happens. This is where we were supposed to meet."

"You're a part of the Project," Angelina realized. "Who are you?"

The old man nodded sadly. "That was a long time ago. The Project called me 'Subject M43'. Your parents knew me as Dennis Halbert."਀