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EVOLUTION <:)))><

A SHORT STORY

BY:

J. BARRETT JANUARY 2010

BEGINNINGS

A sudden flapping of wings was the only sound in the isolated pre dawn desert sky as tiny night creatures hurried along making their way back to the dark recesses of a nearby cave. Their fast approach turned into a frenzied rush as the first rays of light began snaking ove r the painted mountains. Blending into the valley hills the opening was but a s mall darkness in the rock and indistinguishable from the hundreds of other rocky shadows in the area. But for these denize ns it was a place to hide; nothing s pectacular except for the series of long, dark tunnels that extended for miles in all directions. Another dry, uneventful day loome d ahead for the desert town of Horton, New Mexico. Horton was much like any other s mall town across America; homes with white picket fences, green parks with gaze bos, high steeple churches, Sunday afternoon concerts, picnics on the 4th of July, and Christmas carolers during the holidays. A perfect little community, a town that was 100 miles from its nearest neighbor; a positive feature, since it also housed a top secret governme nt installation two hundred-thirty feet underground. The massive installation housed 189 special agents whose only purpose was to pour over data relayed from overhead satellites. The super secret facility, whose main function was to observe and defuse any threat to the country, was the step child of, and run by, General Robert Byrd. To say that the general was a super patriot was an understatement. He believed the country had to remain vigilant against threats to their way of life; be they nuclear or biological. 'We must be prepared to take drastic steps to stop any attack against our country,' was his foremost belief. He was joined in his beliefs by his second in command, Lt. Colonel George Stanton. Stanton saw to it that his men we re the fittest and the most prepared in the military. He had the latest technology at his fingertips; the most delicate scanne rs and cameras, and an A.I. compute r that took in all the information and spit out any viable scenarios. His strike teams were on alert 24/7. In the seven years that he had run the 'Talon' squad, they had put down no less than 22 atte mpts of mass chaos against the country. Each had ended the same way-- no survivors. But even in this era of technological advances there was always a chance that someone a little smarter, someone a little sneakier, would slip thru the net. And there was always a chance that circumstances wo uld cause failure. And so, on a sunny summe r day in July, it happened; by the time the group spotted their oversight, it was too late.

At the same time, across the country, a discovery of dangerous proportions was made in a 'supe r' lab. A substance, accidentally created, proved to be too deadly to handle. It was decided that it would be best if it was separated and it and it's counte rpart loaded onto two specially equipped tankers and taken to a secret storage site. Once there each tanker would be coated with a silicone substance that in fact would seal the m tight. They would then be sealed again, this time in lead, and whe n the lead hardened and set, they would be moved five hundred feet below ground and e ntombed in a cement bunker. So in the predawn darkness, the two tankers moved out and began their 2 day journey of anonymity. Spotte r choppers would follow at a discreet distance all the way to their destination.

Abby Wilson informe d he r lover that she had decided to cut her visit short due to the approaching ice storm. If she waited till morning to hit the road she would run smack into the sleet that the storm was pushing before it. Home was only eight hours away and she could drive through the night without a problem. Her love r voiced his objection loudly; he worried about the coming storm; and her driving at night alone. He accepted that he couldnt win the argume nt; she was stubborn to the point of madness ; but he wanted his objections noted. She assured him that she had made the trip many times and would be just fine. Richard wasnt being insistent out of a desire to be overbearing, quite the contrary. He loved Abby, and he worried that at her age, her reflexes werent as fast as she thought. She in turn loved the idea of his wanting to protect her. Finding love at this time of her life was a surprise for Abbyand she was enjoying every minute of it. Abby was a tough old bird, independent and stubborn, born of many hard years of work. Finding love at 65yrs of age was something she had never envisioned. It had softened her a bit, but she was still a force to be reckoned with. She assured him she would be just fine, besides she had Max with her. Max was a mutt she had rescued one rainy night on her way home from work. She saw a truck in front of her hit the animal and drive off. Totally unlike her to act, she had felt compelled to turn around. She had stopped traffic while she picked up the whimpering animal and placed it in the rear of he r SUV. Surprised at how thin the animal was as she set him gently down, she thought he would surely die. But then s he had looked into the animal's eyes there was a connection somehow... he was in pain and she kne w it. Dialing her vet, Jim Swanson, she rushed home breaking many speed limits. She half expected Jim to tell her the animal would die, but the mangy curr was made of stronger stuff. He recovered, slowly at first, non responsive and listless. He seemed to improve each time Abby came to see him; the improve ment noted by her Vet, who was sure that the animal had bonded with her. At first Jim told her he thought the dog was a LabShepherd mix, but he had since changed his mind. As the dog gained more weight, his true linage began to emerge; he was more of a Shepherd-Wolf mix. The vet cautioned Abby that the animal could be dangerous; quite possibly fe ral. Abby had seen his eyes, and they told her othe rwise; she wasn't worried in the least. Two months, and twelve hundred dollars later, she took Max home with her and they had nt been separated since. When she had been attacked a year later by a drug-crazed teen, the dog had come to her rescue by attacking and keeping the cowered teen at bay until the police arrived. Max had enjoyed a rib-eye steak that night, proper re ward for a job well done. Abby felt there was something different about this dog; almost like he had been sent to her for some reason that she couldn't explain. She was sure he understood he r when she spoke to him. So she treated him like a friend; this set well with Max and he stayed to protect this human.

Abby became impatient with the long line of cars in front of her; she was making no time at all and her rear-vie w mirror told her the storm was moving in fast. They were being held up by two tanker trucks about five cars ahead. As they came over a hill she could see that there were no cars on the opposite side of the road coming her way. She pulled out, accelerated and sped by the other cars; two left the caravan and followe d four car lengths behind her. Twenty miles ahead the black chopper escort was thermal scanning the interstate. There appeared to be no heat signatures except for a fe w coyotes, and other indigenous desert life forms. The commander of the strike force knew he couldnt affo rd any mistakes; the cargo they carried was considered Level 5; extremely dangerous. He had every confidence in his men; he knew if there was an incident, they would not hesitate they would push the button and annihilate everything within a five mile radius. It was SOP, especially with something this dangerous. At just that moment, a disgruntled, sweaty, and nervous Jimmy Prescott took up his position and aimed his Winchester 70, extreme weather 30-06 rifle at the lead tanker. In his twisted mind he was stopping the military from shipping biological weapons to be used on the poor people of the world. Between the booze, and the drugs, and the careful manipulation of his ne w friend, Shamir, Jimmy was in a world far re moved from reality. Visions of greatness danced in his mind as he pulled the trigger of his rifle - and missed. The flash of his shot pinpointed his location and the strike team silently jumped within seconds and little Jimmy Prescott was no more. Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Prescott's aim was too low, yes, but the bullet hit the unde rbelly of the tanker and ricocheted off the metal, hitting the ground and bouncing upward under the second tank. A small crack formed; the heavy pressure of the liquid in the tanker pushed the crack open bit by bit and a s mall leak began to spray a faint mist. As Abby passed by the tanker at 80mph, the faint mist covered her windshield. She employed the wiper blades and pressed the button for the liquid cleane r. It seemed to make it worse as an oily sheen covered the windshield and she could barely see. After a continuous flow it finally cleared up and she speeded up to 90mph whizzing past both tankers. She was down the road, around the bend and out of sight by the time the chopper arrived on the scene. A proximity alert had gone off and the chopper was responding. Abby was now ten miles ahead in a deep valley. The first car behind the tanker s werved back and forth for a bit, then over corrected and careened off the road. It shot down an embankment, rolled over twice and exploded. The thing that e merged from the fiery vehicle was most definitely not human. It seemed to be an oozing mass of gelatinous material. When it s hot out an appendage of sorts it was obliterated by the chopper cre w. Now the second car came under scrutiny. They watched as it too began to swe rve back and forth, slide and skid, over compensate and hit a bridge embankment expelling the driver. As he rolled over and tried to get to his feet, his body began to physically change; the crew of the chopper filme d everything before turning the guns on him too. 5

Abby was now fifteen miles ahead, down in a valley, shielded by a large mountain. The chopper sanitized the area without hesitation; a ball of flame lashed out and licked across the entire area. The chopper then notified Stanton and he in turn pressed a button under a clear plastic casing. As soon as he did the red button lit up on both tanke rs. Having seen what was happening behind him in his rear vie w mirror, the driver wasn't too surprised. He took a deep breath and tearfully said a silent prayer as he reached for the shiny re d button. In an instant the sky lit up and caught fire; as the tanker disintegrated. The black chopper fle w over the area and deployed the napalm as instructed. Abby never saw the fire in the sky; she was busy belting out Janis Joplin's rendition of 'Me & Bobby McGee' along with the radio as she sped along. She was totally oblivious to what was taking place 25 miles behind her. The commander of the strike force watched the fire burn and reflected on the photos they had showe d him. He had questioned why they created something this deadly and had been told that for once, it really was accidental. A lab assistant had tripped and fa llen against a series of chemicals. The bottles had broken and contaminated the original formula. The blending had been instantaneous, and so had the effects. Not even the bio suits had protected the m. A flash burn had been initiated to keep the solution from spreading. One scientist had come out of it alive; and only because he was in the adjoining room, still in his bio suit. Hours later he began to exhibit symptoms and had to be put down. Then three assistants in the Lab down the hall began to show symptoms, several violently. In the end the military decided that the entire facility had to be sanitize d; they couldnt take a chance with a substance that deadly. So when the tanker exploded, the military took great pains to see that everyone within a five mile radius was eliminated too; every bird, mouse, dog, cat, man, woman or child. The entire area was flash burned... sanitized, just to be sure. A cover story would claim that underground gas pockets erupted and took out the area. But they too forgot about the wind. With any explosion you have an expanding field, an outward and upward burst of particles, and then the fire-burn. No one took into conside ration that the wind could grab a small sample of these particles and drag it towards the jet stream, and eventually send it around the world. But before it did that it would join another, more deadly virus; and in combining they would become something else altogether. This is what would be deposited on the mountains of Europe and Asia. Unaware of the tanker explosion, Abby had continued on her way. An hour from home she began to feel the beginnings of a massive 'hot flash'; or so she thought. She turned down the air conditioner in the car to its lowest setting but it did nothing to alleviate the heat she was feeling. She thought s he was having the longest 'hot flash' ever recorded. Finally arriving home she could barely make it up the stairs to he r apartment. Max dragged himself behind her in no better condition than his mistress.

Once inside, Abby turned down the air to its coldest setting. She then cons umed two large glasses of wate r; and fil led Maxs bowl twice as he was just as thirsty. Assuming she caught a 24/hr bug, she took two Tylenol and climbe d into bed. Max howled and joined her as he was suddenly cold. Abby pulled back the covers and Max crawled underneath curling up at her feet. Both slept for twelve hours straight waking only once to consume more wate r. During their sleep, each bonded with the chemical virus on a cellular level. One will never know what in their systems allowed this to take place, why they didnt mutate as the others had, why they reacted diffe rently. Perhaps because their dose was a pure r version; but more than likely it was a combination of things. Still, the virus did cause changes; they became more in every way. They would be fitte r in body; quicke r in thought and action; stronger than most. Their brains would be affected; they would be able to use 40% more of their brain power. They would read faster, understand more; their intellect would increase by leaps and bounds; the ne w evolved human. When Abby woke she rolled over, stretched, and threw off the covers. She lay the re for a mome nt, me ntally checking herself out. She definitely fe lt better, the achy feeling was gone. She got up and went into the bathroom. Max rose also; stretching he sat outside the doorway to the bathroom watching her. While brushing he r teeth she looked at him thinking to herself that he seemed different. An unbidden thought came into her mind; If you think I am different, you should look at yourself! Abby s hot a quick look at the dog. Go on, turn around and take a look. Abby slowly turned and looked in the mirror. Starring back at her was the girl she us ed to be forty years ago. Oh my God was the first thought that came to her mind. I doubt He had anything to do with this, answered the gruff voice. Abby s pun around and looked at the large dog. That was you Max, wasnt it? Yes Mistress, we are now able to communicate, replied the dog sitting in front of her. Abby dropped to he r knees and fell back against the wall. And that was just the beginning

Six days later, on a s unny morning, (as two Talon Strike Teams were racing to neutralize the problem), terrorists posing as window washers set off a low yield nuclear weapon from the top of the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan. In the blink of an eye four million souls we re vaporized; a smoking crater the only testament as their cries of surprise filled the ether. Hours late r, over three hundred thousand of the burned and injured joined the m. In the imme diate aftermath there was chaos in the surrounding areas. Manhattan prope r was obliterated; all that re mained was a wall of fire burning out of control. Wall Street, the financial cente r of the country was wiped from the earth. And twelve hundre d billion in gold bullion, stored in the secure cellars of JP Morgan Chase, was rendered useless. The Metropolitan Art Museum with its rare possessions; the Museum of Natural History with its priceless artifacts; both gone forever along with their treasures. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox, the ne ws centers of the world, simply went blank. The surrounding boroughs of New York City proper we re in flames, and the re was no way to put out the fires. All aid would have to be flown in from military bases in the surrounding area. The head of FEMA halted all rescue attempts until the radiation threat could be assessed. All the rescuers could do was deal with the outlying areas and hope for the best. Needless to say, the Governme nt went on high ale rt; the President and her children we re re moved from the White House and taken to a fortified bunker in an undisclosed area along with the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. The Cabinet and many Senators were flown to Artemis Mountain in Idaho. The Vice-President and his family had been in Ne w York planning to attend the opening of a play. Little old ladies across the country, watching their favorite soap operas, were suddenly left with blank screens. Fans of the morning ne ws shows were cut off without warning. All the feeds from the East Coast went down; phone services, texts, computer feeds, news services; all dead at the same time. It didn't take a genius to figure out that something had happened. Within an hour the ne ws began to reached the rest of the country. Reports started filtering in to Atlanta from people in the surrounding NYC area. Amateur cell phone camera s hots of what looked like a mushroom cloud hovering over what was once New York City left no doubt. The unthinkable had happened! An intrepid and brave young pilot confirme d it for everyone. Flying high, he circled the outer reaches of the city (in a stolen Beechcraft airplane), and captured on film a tangled mass of metal and concrete that spread for miles in all directions. Flames at the oute r reaches of the mass were consuming whatever was left. The footage was stark and horrifying. The brave pilot had flown along the coastline until he found an area with cell phone and inte rnet service; then he sent his footage to Fox News in Atlanta and called them with the report. Before signing off the good-looking young man sadly indicated that he was too hot to land and felt it would be best if he headed out to sea. With a brave smile he declared that he had always wanted to atte mpt a crossing of the Atlantic in a Beechcraft, and now seemed like a perfect time to try.

Wide-spread panic engulfed the country when the footage was aired. Fearing they were next, California closed off its borders and halted all flights to and from the state. Martial law was declared and people we re warned - anyone on the street after dark would be shot on sight - after five deaths the order was obeyed. All illegals were rounded up and deported; no quarter was given. California, the great bastion of the Liberals, became an armed and frightened society. Small towns across the country closed their borders to outsiders; many even went so far as to barricade the roads. Many people took to the mountains hoping to find some semblance of safety there. It was during this time of chaos that the terrorists unleashed their 2nd weapon; a biological one. Detonated exactly 1 day after the NYC bomb, from the top of the Arch in St. Louis, Mo. They had thought that this would finally destroy the West; but for all their careful planning they neglected to take into account the delivery method used. For you see the small amount of radiation that was released when the bomb detonated unexpectedly bonded with and mutated the biological virus before it was dispersed. This bonding created something totally different, something completely alien from what was intended. And before it could be diluted by weather patterns and moisture, the jet stream carried it away where it met up with a similar substance, and when they united, the real changes began.

The Middle East, long in opposition to anything western, especially medicine, felt its effects first. Those secretly funding anti-western groups all the while conde mning those attacks, paid for their hypocrisy with their lives. It was ironic that the very people who unleashed death upon the western world were the first to feel its effects. Their populations were decimated within weeks; males dying twice as fast as females. The last report out of the area indicated that the women had risen up and taken control of the governme nt. The Imams and their gospels of hate were their first targets; no more of their children would be sacrificed on the altar of such ideology. So died the great Jihad. It soon appeared that only the Nomadic tribes roaming the deserts were spared. China was reduced from he r famous 200 hundred million to a mere four hundred thousand or so; mostly farme rs spread across mountainous regions throughout inland China. All that remained of her repressive governme nt we re a few military types who tried to take control, but they were largely ignored by most of the re maining population. The mighty dragon fell with a whimpe r. South Korea faired pretty well, her gentle people helped each other ove r the worst. Except for a few borde r guards asking for help, no word came out of North Korea. There was a great quiet from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and othe r Asian nations. Japan sealed it's borders and ordered it's population to don gas masks, (that had been handed out earlier), and hoped for the best. They faired pretty well, only losing about a third of their total population. Australia was hit hard, but they we re made of a sturdy people who looked at things realistically. Those in the know took to the Outback and heeded the advice of the little Bushmen, who had foreseen this event in their ancient prophecies. The primitive little men had survived for millennia in the harsh outback, never changing. Small groups of people who had made it out beyond the cities, banded with others, and found refuge with the little men in hidden underground caverns; a secret the Bushmen had kept for thousands of years. France was practically wiped out except for a fe w hundre d intrepid souls who managed to make it to the Lascaux caves and barricade themselves inside. Several of the other caves probably boasted the same, but without phone service or ham radios it was impossible to know for sure. The Grotto at Lourdes and the imme diate area around it was spared any contamination. Yet the Basilica in Rome was awash in bodies, as was most of Italy. England was wise enough to close themselves off and hunker down. They took to the subway unde rground system, as they did during WWII, and waited it out down there till the cloud system carrying the contamination passed. Princes William and Harry, ministered to many of the sick with their wives helping, setting an example for othe rs to follow. Neithe r brother was ever affected by the virus, perhaps a natural immunity; but secretly, many believed their mother, Lady Diana, protected them. The Queen and Prince Phillip, who insisted on staying, along with Charles and Camilla, we re not spared the horror of the virus. They were lost as was most of the staff at the palace.

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For some strange reason Austria and Switze rland we re barely affected by the virus. Perhaps the high altitudes and cold weather were a deterrent. Hearing this, what was left of the Russian government sent word that they we re headed for Sibe ria. They reasoned that it was too cold for the viruses to exist there. Their fate was as yet undetermined. America faire d quite well; her population was a melting pot, the fact of which may be why she did so well. She was a product of the blending of a variety of races for over two hundred years resulting in a very hardy group of people. People came down with the virus and got sick, yes, but after a week or so they were back on their feet again. Some we re lost, mainly the very old and infirm, but for the most part the people managed quite well.

The world press began to call it the 2018 Pande mic. Everyone had believed that sooner or later it was bound to happen, so there was no great outcry. It wasn't till almost three years later that word spread to the people that it was caused by a biological terrorist attack. The great outcry the governme nt was expecting never came. By then, no one really cared anymore, it was enough that they we re alive.

And through it all the small installation under the desert of New Mexico remained on line, monitoring the end of life as we kne w it. They were immune to the effects of the bios, snug in their self contained bunkers below the surface. Unfortunately, thru ove rhead satellites, they were silent witnesses to the results of the deadly attacks. Powerless to do anything to help; all they could do was watch. Many cracked under the pressure of what they saw; and after three suicides, anyone showing any sign of stress was imme diately sedated. For three years they watched and waited. And then the changelings began to appear.

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EMERGENCE

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Abby pressed herself against the wall of a burned out building in downtown Denver. She didnt like coming into the large cities, but the boy she was trying to save was hiding out somewhere deep inside. The Hunters were on his trail too, and they were very close. She had to get to him before they did. It was almost midnight and she knew he would make his move soon. Are you sure hes headed this way Max? She asked her alert companion. I told you I picked up his scent, Max snorted. Hes very close, and the Hunters are right behind him. He took a step forward and sat, scanning down the street. Abby leaned back and waited; Max would tell he r when it was safe to move.

She let her me mory slide back to that fateful morning that changed them forever. When she got over the shock, she figured out that something had happened to them on their journey home from Richards. She had gone over the ne wspapers with a fine toothed comb looking for anything, any clue as to what could have caused these changes in he r and Max. She finally found it in the Alston Gazette, a small town ne wspaper about 160 miles from her home. On the back of the sports section, in a one paragraph story it re ported that two tanker trucks exploded along the Inte rstate on the evening s he and Max had traveled. Wait a minute... when we passed the tanker something was leaking from it. It sprayed all over our windshield, I remember! It smelled like rotten eggs, and stunk up the car. Her new improved me mory supplied every detail clearly. The name on the side of the tanker she had passed was Carter Industries. She back-tracked that information only to find it belonged to a town that s uddenly didnt exist anymore . Carter, Ne w Mexico had been destroyed in a horrible accident as an underground gas pocket had exploded. And all this happened one day after the supposed tanker accident...coincidence (?) not likely! Further exploration on the inte rnet told her what Carter Industries dabbled in genetic exploration and experimentation. Looking further, she finally found enough information to surmise what happened; she and Max had been changed on a genetic level. During the next six weeks both their minds were raised to a ne w level of consciousness; something far outside the human experience. Abby read voraciously, and at a speed unheard of devouring everything s he could get he r hands on about genetics, mutating cells, and DNA. Max tagged along with he r and learned as she did exactly what had happened to the m, and eventually she was able to prove it. She and Max had bonded with some kind of virus on a genetic level, and somehow it changed them evolved them!

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Abby also guessed correctly that the wind most surely would have taken some of the virus to the heights. It would make its way to the general population eventually; true, a very watered down ve rsion, but it still would spread throughout the world. Max pointed out that with their new found status they would need to keep the mselves invisible; off the radar so to speak. Their abilities would make the m stand out and that was something that could be very dangerous. They did not want to draw attention to the mselves at this time. Conside ring what had happened to the plant and the town, Abby agreed with Max; they needed to disappear. It was then that Abby and Max both felt a strong pull to the mountains. Abby called Richard and we nt by to see him. His mouth dropped open when she and Max got out of her car. She explained in detail what had happened and what she had discovered. He never questioned her sanity; he totally accepted what she said as truth. It was almost as if he was expecting it. He suggested his cabin in Utah, in the mountains near Zion National Park. He told her it was the safest place for her and Max. There was also a series of underground caves nearby that only he kne w about. He would sho w her when he returned but first he had to get his son and his family to safety; the attacks had made a deep impression on Richard. He left for Idaho to bring them to the safety of the mountains; but Abby never heard from him again. As time went by, Abby found that her other senses were heightened also; she could s mell when something wasnt right ; and she could feel when danger was near. She could make things appear to be different, manipulating molecules at a subatomic level. Most profound and surprising, she found that she could teleport; as long as she knew where she was going. She also developed an uncanny ability to pinpoint areas whe re other gifted people were located. And whe n they emerged she found she kne w their names, sex, and age. She also found something else disturbing. Just as their ne w powe rs began to emerge, some children we re being snatched up by a s hadowy governme nt agency she called 'Hunters'. Where these childre n were taken was a mystery, but sufficed to say, they were never returned to their parents. Careful tracking led Abby to one conclusion; she and Max had to get to these childre n before these so called 'Hunters' did. Time would prove he r right; these men we re part of a conce rted effort to erase any link between the Government and the mystery virus. The Government scientists warned them that there was a 90% possibility that the toxin had gotten out ; and they we re sure that the very young in our population would be the first to show 'signs' of changes in their DNA. Within three years Abby and Max had built up a very secure base of operations and set about rescuing these childre n. They frustrated the Hunters efforts, and built up a pretty good record of retrieval. Thirty-two young souls had been saved to date, and under Abbys tutorage these children we re encouraged to explore their abilities. They had blossomed under her care; and Trent, her second in command, taught them what they needed to know to survive.

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So here she was, five years after 'The Change', trying one more time to save another innocent from the Hunte rs; a young boy of eight or nine, extre mely emotional and scared half to death. Hes beginning to move; Max rose, hes very close... the Hunters havent spotted him yet. Where is he? Abby exasperatingly asked, scanning the area. Im right behind you, answered a s mall voice. Are you the ones sent to help me? Hodamn, Abby jumpe d, spinning around; you scared me to death little one! She gave him a big s mile and he imme diately calme d down. My but you are good at hiding. Big smile on his face. She went down on one knee and hugged the boy. His arms flew around her neck and he held her tightly; Abby could feel the raw emotions the boy was experiencing. Yes Jerry, were here to help. She took his hand and went to the back of the alley. I want you to hold on to my hand Jerry, and do not let go, do you understand? The child nodded. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. A bright light formed about the small group and suddenly the vision blurred. The surrounding area seemed to fade away. The light blinked out and the alley was empty. Ten miles outside of Denver, in a picnic area off the highway there was a stirring as the wind began to kick up. Suddenly there was an electrical discharge and a quick flas h of light and there stood the woman, the boy, and the dog. Thats one of my gifts Jerry, Abby explained, do you know what yours are yet? Eyes wide the boy looked up at her. Thats the first time I heard them described as gifts. Im not sure exactly what they are; but I do know they have something to do with water. Good, good, Abby smiled, well help you discover the m Jerry, along with the othe r children. You mean there are others like me, the boy asked in wonder. Oh yes Jerry, there are many others and they are exploring and learning about their new found gifts just like you want to. Holding out he r hand Abby asked, Would you like to meet the m? Oh yes! Jerry exclaime d grabbing her hand and shutting his eyes tight.

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Abby s miled and winked at Max. She concentrated once gain and the small group next appeared at the base of a large mountain in a tall stand of Pine trees. A tall thin teenager stepped from the trees and called to the group. Momma Abby, I was beginning to get concerned. He walked up to the group and patted Max on the head, Hi ya Max. Max answered with a deep woof. Trent, Abby leaned over and kissed the young man on the cheek, yes it took longe r than expected; Jerry here is very good at hiding, Abby explained ruffling the young boys hair. Hes come to stay with us . Jerry this is Trent, hell show you around. Abby watched the boys take off up the mountain. Well, we managed to save another one Max. Indeed we did Mistress, but the Hunters were way too close. They are getting better and better at their job. Yes they are, Abby sighed, we will be forced to take action one of these times. And we both know what that means. Yes, Max growled, blood will be shed. Abby had thus far been able to avoid any contact with the 'Hunte rs'; but Max was right they were getting better and better at their job. So far they had no idea Abby or Tre nt existed, and she wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. But Stanton was getting too damn good at figuring out the whereabouts of 'gifted' children. Abby was beginning to wonde r about him. Well, no use guessing at things now. We'll face that can of worms when it comes. Both turned and headed up the mountain towards their encampme nt.

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Five hundred miles away, deep underground, the leader of the Hunters was dressing down a Lieutenant for loosing the boy. What do you mean he got away? We had him nailed down to one building ! How could a boy of eight slip thru your fingers? Colonel George Stanton shouted at the beleaguered man Sir, I dont know; one minute he was there, and all of a sudden," he explained, "he was gone!" Damn it to hell! Colonel Stanton slammed his fist down on the desk in front of him. How the hell do these kids keep slipping thru our fingers? They have to be getting help from some where. Its got to be someone who knows ; s omeone we havent picked up on yet. The lieutenant re mained at attention as the Colonel drummed a pencil on his desk. Go on, get out of he re, he finally shouted in anger. The young man all but ran from his office. Sir, I may have something, said his second in command. Captain Steven Hanson was just a fe w years younger than Stanton. Both men we re firm in their conviction that these kids we re abominations. They and their mutant abilities were a product of the virus and a threat to the country. Both me n kne w of the blast at Carter, (they had orde red it). Now, years later, the sudden emergence of children with unique abilities and strange 'powe rs' was just a little too convenient. Stantons own son had been infected and he had seen to it personally that he had been put down. There was a significant powe r surge in the alley behind the building next to where we believe the boy was located. Stanton looked up at his friend. I dont think that surge was from any electrical facility in the area. Aha! We finally have something! Stanton jumped to his feet. Do you think we can find a way to use this to our adva ntage? Let me get my boys on this George , see if we can find a way to track this. Steven smiled, Maybe we can track the m back to their base of operations and get the whole group at one time. You do that Steve and I will personally see that you get the Medal of Honor. Stanton slapped his friend on the back. Sir, excuse me sir, called a corporal from the front room, Thunde r Mountain is on the line.

17

Close the door Steve, Stanton said as he cleared his throat and picked up the phone. Col Stanton he re, he roared into the phone. Dont use that tone with me Stanton, boome d a voice at the other end. One word from me and your little personal vendetta will be over. Stanton lowe red his voice, Sorry sir, what can I do for you? Tell me you are having some success in your little round- up. The voice was gruff, demanding. It came from a man who was used to getting his own way. This fucking virus is world-wide now, Colonel; pressure will most surely start to mount. India, France, England, Ge rmany and the Soviet states as well; all have reported cases. And some of these so-called 'children' are starting to fight back. Europes looking for answe rs, they want someone to blame, he spat the words out. Were playing dumb just like everyone else. What about the Middle East, asked the Colonel? Not one word has come out of the region for the past three weeks , the senator harrumphed, I think that says it all. And the Chinese asked Stanton, any word on the m? The Chinese don't give out information to anyone. What's left of their government tracked four children to a town at the base of Hang Sing Mountains last night. The kids and one adult tried to get away, and the Chinese sent in troops and attempted to arrest the m. Well, they fought back, displaying their talents." Stanton noted the rise in the senator's voice. "The fucking Chinese leveled the entire area with a low-yield nuke. They have precious little people left, and yet they didn't hesitate for moment. Twenty-seven thousand people vaporize d. Good God! exclaime d a pale faced Stanton, thats pretty drastic, even for them. We both know how the Chinese view this - it's an abe rration. And anything out of the norm is not to be trusted. If they cant e xplain it - they eliminate it. They are de manding ans wers saying we were the first to report an anomaly, therefore we must know something. We re claiming ignorance but t hey will keep searching till they find something. The callers tone changed, And if they do, it wont take their scientists long to trace it back to us. I dont have to tell you the ramifications of that do I? They wont find anything, Stanton replied in a cold voice, I have personally seen to it. There is nothing out there to find. And every man that was in that chopper has been either eliminated, or works for me personally. The Chinese are the least of our proble ms. What do you mean by that remark? the General asked.

18

We have reason to believe the children here are getting help from some adults. Col Stanton continued, Its the only thing that explains why they are slipping thru our lines. And General, these adults may possibly have some talents of their own. Damn it all to hell! Do nt we get a break on this. this whole thing is turning into a frigging nightmare. The General was upset. Shit (big sigh). Okay, take care of it George; do whatever you have to, just get rid of the proble m. I intend to General, Stanton promised, and quickly. We are trying to re build our country and set up the governme nt again. The people have to have confidence in us. They have to believe that we can make things normal again. The general sighed, As if it can ever be normal again. We took a bad hit, yes, but we can come back from this...we can rebuild and begin again. Stanton noted that it sounded as if the general was trying to convince himself Yes sir, Stanton ans wered, we will do everything in our power to see that that happens. We won't let you down, sir.

19

2 Hows our ne w recruit doing Trent? Abby asked as she walked into the kitchen area and brewed he rself a cup of tea. Hey Abby, Trent looked up from his computer, hes looking good, thrilled that he isnt alone. Looks like manipulation of water molecules is his forte; but hes just a pup, just beginning to learn. Well know more in couple of weeks. And Natalie, how is she progressing? I haven't heard her complaining about the headaches in quite a while. Shes doing better; I showe d her how to keep the energy flowing and also instructed her on how to build up reserves. Shes starting to get the hang of it. Trent leaned back and closed his eyes and rubbed them. She really is coming along fine, Abby. Do you know she has the whole mountain wrapped in her grid?" Tre nt became animated, gesturing with his hands. "Nothing moves on this mountain that s he isnt aware of. He r power is increasing each day Abby; she can extend her shield to the surrounding area as well. I believe one day she will be able to shield anyone just by thinking about them. He stated the last with a hint of pride in her and her abilities. Wow, that is quite a gift! Abby comme nted. Trent rose and got himself a glass of water. He turned to Abby, s miled and said matter-offactly; Shes mine you know, she will mature physically and we will be as one, we both knew it whe n we met. I kind of figure d that out, Abby chuckled. But for now she is still just fourteen years old, so go slow, okay? Tre nt nodded, and Abby continued, Now, how about the others? All doing exceptionally well, but Bobby is going to blow you away literally. He has the ability to produce enormous amounts of energy which he rolls into balls and tosses; very explosive results. I think that will be our little surprise for the Hunte rs, should it come to that. Yes, about the m, Abby let the thought linger for a bit, it looks like were going to have a run-in with the m sooner than I like. I've managed to steer clear of them on purpose for a long time; but I don't think it can be avoided any longer. Stanton has become very bold in his attempts to gathe r any of the gifted; and I can no longer manipulate his mind as I once did. That kinda leaves only one explanation, "Oh let me guess..." said Trent sarcastically.

20

Abby sat back and sighed, Yup, I think he may have been exposed himself. "Ha!" Trent leaned back in his chair and laughed; Now that's what I call irony. He gazed at Abby and sneered wickedly, You dont suppose he would 'do the right thing and off himself, do you? Trent! Abby jabbed Trents shoulder, Reme mber who and what you are ; no jokes about taking a life. Besides, he is still your father... "Merely the biological sperm donor..." he interrupted quickly, "and that is all." "Come on Tre nt, you're bigger than this... petty hatred is not you," Abby pointed out, "besides I think he is unaware of his abilities." If he begins to think he has been infected, hell hide it and use it to hunt us down. In the end Abby, I may have to do something. Trent leaned forward and took Abbys hand in his and looked he r in the eye; I know you dont want to hear it; but if I pick him up headed this way, I will cut him down without hesitation. I will not put the children in harms way. Lets hope it doesnt come to that, Abby replied softly.

21

Trent was the first child Abby rescued; they shared a special bond, as close to mother and son as one could get. Trent s mothe r had died in childbirth, and he had been raised by his military father in strict discipline; some military men are like that with their sons. He lived by his fathers rules; exercise, school, drill, study, exercise, bed. Tre nts grades we re always the highest in his class; he excelled at everything. He always believed the re was sincere love and great pride on his fathe rs part for his many accomplishme nts even though he didnt show it. He made excuses for his fathe rs distance saying his father didnt know how to show that affection. His world was a secluded one, but he idolized his father. So it came as a shock when he had confided in his father about some feelings he had been having. (He never made mention of his abilities, which saved his life.) Within hours of telling his father he was unceremoniously pick up; dragged out of bed by me n dressed in black fatigues and taken away. His father had stonily refused to speak to him during the entire trip. More strange men in black had ushered him into a room where he saw his father one last time. What was said Trent never revealed to Abby, but it was clear that it broke his heart and nearly destroyed him. Crying hysterically, he had begged his father to help him; his father had simply walked out of the room. Trent had collapsed in a heap sobbing his heart out; as any 14 year old would do if his entire world was suddenly ripped from him. He was dragged to a cell with one window and roughly shoved inside. He ran and climbed on the table in the room and peered out the window watching his fathers car drive off. The sight of his father leaving... abandoning him... caused a psychic break: something inside Trent snapped. He froze for several moments, as the anger, fear, and panic ebbed away. His mind awoke to something else. He calmly climbe d down off the table and went over and sat on the cot. The shock of the events leading up this point had a profound effect on Trents mi nd. Other than sending him into a catatonic seizure, (his brain had been changed by the virus), the shock triggered synapses in his brain, synapses that had never been used before, to fire in rapid succession. The result was that his mind began to expand and evolve. Everything he had ove rheard from his fathe rs short conversations on the phone; plus articles he had found on his fathers desk; plus emails he had seen on his fathers computer, suddenly added up. Trent's mind may have evolved, but re membe r, it was still housed in the body of an e motional 14 year old. In a blinding instant Tre nt understood everything. A high- pitched moan suddenly echoed throughout the facility Nooo! Windows rattled and walls began to crack and buckle. Those observing him noticed the change in his de meanor. Hadnt they been told that any change in the subject could cost them their lives? Something was definitely happening and the frightened me n tried to call to Stanton. They had just gotten thru when the call ended abruptly; Trent looked up at the monitoring came ra and the screen went black at their end. The men in the monitoring station began to bleed from their eyes, nose, and ears.

22

Colonel Stanton watched it all unfold as his car dove along. His men began dissolving before his eyes and he could nothing to help the m. Stanton stopped the car and hung his head. He kne w deep inside that it was his son causing this to happen. He guessed it was his actions that caused this change to take place; but he had no idea that his son was this powe rful. Perhaps if he had treated Trent differently, if he had tried to help the boy, maybe all this could have been avoided. He also kne w second-guessing was too late. Back at the compound walls began to s hatter and windows ble w out. A loud humming sound seemed to be emanating from everywhere. All of those still on the base began to bleed from their eyes and ears; most fell and dissolved within seconds. A fe w lasted a little longe r, but not by much. The entire base simply came apart and dissolved. Stanton orde red his driver to turn around and head back. As they came over a rise in the road there was a bright flash on the horizon. The driver slammed on the brakes throwing Stanton forward. The shockwave almost pushed the m off the canyon road and over the side. Stanton ordered the driver to continue on slowly. When they arrived at whe re the base should have been, there was nothing. Everything, and everyone were simply gone. The small piles of ash found about the camp late r turned out to be what was left of the people. The shock (and guilt) of that event propelled Stanton; unfortunately in the wrong direction. He forme d a special group and began to actively hunt down these children. Seeing what his son had done reinforced his fear of them; fear of what they would become.

23

Trent had left the compound in a daze , unaware that his mind was moving him to safety. He blindly walked out of the building he was in as it dissolved behind him. He kept going out of the camp, and out of the area; continuing on into the desert. He neithe r saw, nor heard anything as the entire camp dissolved behind him. Day and night blended into nothingness; he didnt eat or drink or stop for anything - he simply kept walking. During this time his mind sorted out the details and provided him with ans wers to his questions. It made sense of the situation in a way he could understand in his present condition. His emotional state had to catch up with his logical mind. Instead of hatred for his father, Trent felt only pity; the man he idolized did not exist. Stanton thre w away fourteen years of love without a second thought. He was a small man frightened of a young boy who was about to surpass him On the evening of the fourth day Trents body gave out; he dropped to his knees exhausted. He fell into a deep sleep where his body could rest - and slept for two days. He woke with a realization that he was thirsty, oh so thirsty. A scraping sound made him look up. In front of him about ten feet away was the biggest wolf he had ever seen. Oh my God, he thought to himself, this is just perfect. He began to laugh hysterically, tears streaming down his face... Im going to be eaten by a wolf. I dont eat little boys, came a strong male voice in his mind. Trents head shot up and he stared at the wolf. His surroundings suddenly came into vie w and Tre nt realized he was somewhere in the desert. He stared at the wolf and then noticed move ment beyond. A figure began to appear out of the morning mist; it was a woman, and she was smiling. Its alright Trent, he r voice was soft and gentle, Im he re to help. She came up to him and we nt down on one knee. Putting her arms around him she hugged him to her. The simple action caught Trent off-guard; his emotions, already at the edge, exploded and he began to sob. Abby held him and felt his anguish; it was raw and powe rful; she rocked him back and forth slowly rubbing his back in a series of circles. It's okay Trent, let it out; let it all out. Her voice was soothing to his ears. I know whats happened to you; and I want you to know that you're not alone. The same thing happened to me, Trent. I am here to take you away from this nightmare, to take you to your ne w home, with me and Max." Trent pushed away and looked up at Abby amid sobs. "How... how did... did you know?" "Like you, my mind expanded and gave me several ne w talents. One of them is to know when 'gifted' children e merge. And let me tell you, the re are a lot of other kids out the re going thru the same thing as you.

24

The boy looked up at her with his tear stained face and said in a small voice, We have to save them. Abby s miled, Yes Trent we do, and we will. But first we have to get you to safety. Here, have some water. She pulled a canteen out of he r coat pocket and handed it to him ; he drank greedily. And the wolf is with you? he asked already knowing the answe r. His name is Max, s he replied, and hes my friend. Trent turned to the large animal. Im sorry if I misjudged you. Apology accepted Master Trent. The large animal shifted his position. You are a very special human and it was very important to find you. Thank you Max, the boy lowered his head and extended his hand, may I pet you? I would be honored, came the reply as the large dog came over to the boy and sat. The boy leaned over and ran his hand thru the thick fur on the animals back. Oh yes, he said smiling. Wow, feel those muscles, you really are something. Of course I am. The boy chuckled and turned to Abby, You know my name but I don't know yours." Search your mind Tre nt, think and see if it comes to you. Abby watched as his mind we nt to work. Less than a minute later he said with ce rtainty, Its Abby! Very good Trent, I kne w you could do it. Now we have to get you to your ne w home. Do you think you can stand? The boy nodded wearily, he was beginning to s how signs of exhaustion. Take my hand Trent and close your eyes. He did as directed trusting completely in Abby. The re was a soft wind, a prickly feeling all over his body and then a quick sense of icy coldness. Ok, were he re Abby announced, You can open your eyes now. Trent did as he was told and found himself standing in the middle of a forest. Holy cow! Spinning about he added, Thats one of the things you can do! Abby found s he enjoyed his enthusiasm, Just one of the things , Trent. And you will be able to do the same in time. Now lets get you inside. 25

She started up the mountain with the boy behind he r. There was an opening about a third of the way up. It was well hidden behind a large boulder and it led to a huge cavern. She had turned it into a home; rugs on the sandy floor gave it a homey feel. The re we re tables and chairs; and bunk beds off to the side. She fixed him some soup and crackers, and told him he needed to rest as his body was winding down fast. A few minutes later he yawned loudly, and then he began to feel very sleepy. But better still, he felt safe, very safe here with Abby and Max. He let her lead him to one of the bunk beds and tuck him in. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow. He slept for two days, his ne w mind healing his body. After their initial meeting and debriefing, they never again discussed his father as such. He was simply referred to as Stanton, the leader of the Hunter group.

26

Abby could hear her name being called from a long way off. The sound was muffled but getting loude r. Conciseness returned slowly to an exhausted mind. Abby ! Abby its time to wake up! Natalie came rushing into Abbys cubicle. Abby bolted upright. Whatwhats happened? It was Natalie, their human watchdog, and she was highly excited. Nothing happened in their area that Natalie wasnt aware of nothing! Nat's gift appeared to be that she had two minds. She liked to call them he r everyday mind, and her information mind. She knew everything, everything! But Nat made no judgments; she saw it as information, nothing more. People are entitled to their privacy was how she put it. And all this was in the body of an e motional fourteen year old teenager. "News, Abby!" she grinned, I have so much to tell you! Natalie, slow down and take a breath, Abby tried to calm the girl. Natalie was high-spirited and a volatile at her best. Her curly red hair, freckles, and hazel eyes were very deceptive, and gave the appearance of a simple country girl. But this country girl could bore thru a person to their very soul; this made her quite unique. There was no lying to her; her talents allowed her to know, as she put it. She had spent the last two years refining these talents so she could keep her sanity. Trent had mentore d her and following his instructions she had succeeded in drowning out all the thoughts that came rushing into her minds. He taught her how to compartme ntalize the m. During that time she had discovered that she could protect their group by circling them all in a knowing net. It was her first creation and s he was very pleased with it. Now it appeared that she had succeeded in another breakthrough regarding he r talents. Abby took her hands in hers and said, Now tell me what you have sensed. "I can go around the country, Abs! I can 'see' into different areas; listen to what I found. There we re a bunch of army-types; they we re chasing a man. A man like no othe r Abby, very powe rful. Hes also a bit scary, he kne w on a subconscious level that I was there observing." Big breath, "He doesnt yet know what he is , but he is following his instincts... and heading our way. There is something very important about him. He's strength for us great protection...and t heres more Slow down Nat, take you time, Abby praised her; girl, you have really improved. Abby pulled out a pad & pencil and looked to the young girl, Ok Nat, Im ready, go!

27

Natalie grinned and began: Chicago; three kids theresome adults are hiding them from the Hunters. They have a total of fifteen kids hidden all over the city. Florida: a group of Hunters took a small girl. She fought them off in shear terror. Abby, they dont exist anymore. This kid is very powerful, totally off the charts. It took me awhile to find he r; shes unde rwate r Abby; she can breathe underwater! She needs to be taught to control this power. This man will calm her and teach her how. Utah; the Mormons are hiding a lot of their kids from the Hunters. Scranton is beginning to get an itch that they might be complicit. We have to help them or they will be cut down by Scranton and his team. He is no longer holding back Abby. Texas; a group of kids took down a Hunte r choppe r and rescued the kids in it. Leave it to the Texans to kick butt. They have one who can erase your me mory; Scranton will get no Intel from those guys. Theyre headed this way. Maine; Hunte rs got two brothe rs. This one hurts my head Abby, and makes me sick to my stomach. The boys jumped from the chopper into the frozen river below. Rather than kill their captors, they choose a diffe rent way out. Oh Natalie, Abby reached for her hand, stop for a minute ; take a breath baby. No, I want to finish, you must know what is going on all around us, Abby. Its important that you know what I know; I dont know whyjust that you must know too. Ok Nat, Abby smiled at the young girl, continue on. Alaska; they have taken measures into their own hands and have chosen to protect their children as national treasures. Twenty thousand native Inuits have told Stanton and his group that they are not welcome in the State of Alaska. At least someone got it right. Ok now lets see. Boise; 6 kids on the road headed he re. All boys; they are very good at what they do; ten, eleven, twelve, two fifteen year olds, and one 17 year old. They are asking for guidance. Talents range from invisibility, to chameleon-like hiding abilities. They we re hiding one among the m. It took me awhile to discover what they were doing. Using their powe rs they we re throwing me off the scent of another in their midst. But they didnt realize that with two minds I can dig and discover at the same time. Silly boys! What they we re protecti ng is a small girl, six or seven she can fly, Abby. Can you contact the m Nat? Yes, no proble m, Natalie smiled and she winked, what do want me to tell them?

28

Good girl; ask for a landmark whe re we can meet, get details Nat. Tell them Im co ming to get them. Abby smiled at the thought of the little girl. Tell the m Im bringing the m home. Abby got up and poured Natalie and herself a glass of wate r and returned to her seat. A fe w minutes later Natalie said, Done; oh they are so happy Abby. They have been on the road for a long time. They are very cold, and hungry, and quite dehydrated but, otherwise in good health. Great Nat, I felt compelled to get them so I know it must be important, Abby clarified. Now finish your re port please. Mexico: The people have been hiding their gifted in the mountainous regions all ove r Mexico. The y are not reporting the m to the Federales; they dont trust the m. The people have taken the m in and sheltered them believing they were sent by God to deliver the m. The childre n are practicing and learning how to use their powe rs. Iowa; s mall town of Storm Lake is hiding three sisters. Hunters are going house to house to find the m. The oldest of the sisters is keeping them hidden from view but she is tiring quickly. Send Tre nt imme diately, they must not fall into the Hunter's hands. On my way Abby, a shout from outside the cave informed them. Trent would find the girls and return within minutes. One last ite m Abby, Chanute, Kansassomething is go ing on there. Not sure what, but it makes my mind crawl. I get the impression that they are building something. Direct me please Nat, Abby asked. Natalie slowed one of he r minds down and allowed Abby to jump aboard. She then directed her to Kansas, and up to Chanute. Abby looked around, picked up the road cre w and traveled to the site. She then latched onto the carpenters as they came into vie w. Abby listened in for a few minutes. Shit! She exclaimed abruptly. Abby, what did you find? ask ed Natalie concerned. Theyre building a place to hold the kids , underground. Theyve developed a strong anesthetic that will knock out anyone within seconds. The y also have a special dart gun, similar to a rifle; hell, they could take out one of us before we sensed them. You better send out word to everyone and warn the m to be extra careful.

29

A fe w minutes later Natalie told Abby, Word sent and received with many thanks. OK, if thats it, I have a group of kids to pick up. See you at lunch Na t; and by the way, thanks for all your hard work. Abby gave Natalie a hug and kissed her fore head. Awe shucks Miss Abby Natalie joked, chuckling. Oh get out of here, you silly goose Abby laughed as she headed towards the galley. As smart and advanced as Natalie and Trent we re; it was the small things that Abby did that grounded the m. The simple appreciation for their efforts in keeping everyone safe; a smile here, a hug there; for the m, the physical contact meant everything. Abby checked the weather in Howell, Utah and grabbed her coat, a blanket, and three canteens of fresh water. As she was leaving the cave she spotted Trent coming up the hill with three scared, tired, and very happy young girls. Introductions were made all around and Abby took them inside and fed them some soup and crackers. She explained that they were safe, and right now needed several hours of complete and uninterrupted rest. She took the m to the women quarters and put the m all to bed. When she left the cave they were blissfully asleep. Sweet girls, she observed. Yes Mistress, Max stepped to her side, they play with the elements; fire, water, and earth. Max followed her down the mountain to the embarkation point. Do we now go to retrieve the little flyer? Yes Max, Abby replied smiling, its time to get Sophie.

The air was cold, and crisp. Thomas ability allowe d him to pick up every scent within a ten mile radius. He felt the Hunters almost imme diately; they we re close, very close. Thomas sent out a general warning and then tried to get hold of Natalie again. Trent picked up his distress and ans wered his call. Fearing for his rescuers safety, Thomas relayed his worries to Trent who said he would keep an eye on the area. Thomas hurried his charges along at a faster pace and hoped that they would be long gone before they had any kind of confrontation. He had seen what the Hunters could do and he feared for his young brothers' safety.

30

A little after 1:00pm, near some abandoned KOA camping grounds on the outskirts of Howell, UT, things began to stir. The wind picked up sending little dust devils in all directions. Clouds appeared overhead cutting off the bright sunshine. There was a flash of light and dust and debris swirled about. A fe w minutes later an old woman and a mangy dog waddled slowly into the park and sat at a picnic table. The woman looked about slowly and then produced a bottle from unde r her shirt. She downed the contents and wiped he r mouth with the back of her hand and leaned back. She took out a pack of cigarettes, lighting one up, she blew s moke circles into the air. They are watching us Mistress, they are very wary, the animal turned in a circle scanning the area; it has kept them one step ahead of their pursuers. This area is free of Hunters and their devices, but they are on their way. They waited five more minutes but still there was no contact. Suddenly Trent sent he r a warning to cut the actHuntersfive minutes at most. Abby stood up and opened her arms and turned in a circle; she thre w off her disguise and called to the young people. Im AbbyIve come to take you home . The Hunters are on their wayyour choice. A thin youth stepped out of nothingness, (good camouflage), and stood defiant before her. Abby s miled, Hello Thomas, (he started), you know who I am, so the others can come out too. Its time for us to go home. Is Sophie with you, Abby turned around, or hiding up on that tree behind me? Thomas smiled, Its her alright; everyone come out, we have to hurry. You are everything Ive heardand more . Thank you Abby, for coming for us. Thomas turned and called in a singsong voice , Sophie, Sophie I love you, you can come down now, love me true! At the proper signal the girl gently glided down to the group. Huge hazel eyes stared in awe at Abby from a honey colored face. She was absolute innocence to the uninitiated. But her eyes told Abby different. Her parents had heard of the gifted ones and kne w that their daughter would be safe with t he m. They died delaying the Hunters so Thomas and the group could get away; and Sophie was well aware of their sacrifice. Abby bent down and wrapped a blanket about the young girl. Max stepped forward and lowe red his head and growled at the ridgeline in the distance. ... thanks for the warning Max, Abby silently thanked him. The sound of a chopper became apparent to everyone.

31

Everyone gather around me, come on, big giant hug, she told the m, We have to get out of here now the Hunters are almost here . She picked up Sophie and said, Hold tight, close your eyes, and dont open them till I tell you. The childre n listened and did as she said. Just as the cold and static began she saw the Hunters chopper come over the ridge No! and just as suddenly it disappeared.

As far as the chopper was concerned, there was a flash of light and s uddenly they found the mselves in the middle of the Grand Canyon. Oh shit...not again! Lt Taft was dreading explaining this to the General.

Abby s miled to herself and concentrated, she kne w Trent had relocated the chopper. Seconds later they were at the tree line below the mountain. She told the children to open their eyes; they were home and safe. The re was a lot of shouting, hooping and hollering. Natalie and Tre nt stepped out of the trees and greeted them. Several cried in relief, and little Sophie hugged and kissed Max, and whispered thank -you to Abby. A concerned Tre nt told Abby, That was way too close to suit me ! Where did you send them? She asked. Grand Canyon; thought they might like the tour, Trent replied sarcastically. I also scrambled their came ras; we dont need any photos of us out there . Good thinking Trent, thanks for the save. Abby slipped her arm thru his and they headed up the mountain. You know she began. Dont go the re Abby, not yet; besides I got a heads up someone else is slated to face him. Hes on the road of temptation right now and as soon as he passes thru he will fully develop. Turning to Abby Trent gushed, Abby, hell be more powe rful than all of us combined. You scare me when you talk like that Trent; I cant think of anyone stronger than you. Suddenly she connected what Nat had told her, Say, he wouldnt be this mysterious man that Nat is all up in the air about, would he? Give the lady a kewpie doll, Trent laughed. Ok, we wait to engage the m head on; but I am still going to save as many as I can. "I wouldn't expect anything less Abby," he replied s miling. "By the way, this is the largest group you've moved at one time. Your powe rs are getting stronger also."

32

Abby stepped inside the cave and was immediately assaulted by the six boys asking all kinds of questions. She directed Trent to fill the m up with info while she went over to he r dear Richards granddaughter, Sophie . Hello Sophie, she smiled at the little girl. I used to know your G randpa. I know, she replied in a soft voice, hes the one who told me about you and Max." She took a long breath and shuddered involuntarily, then she continued. "He said that you would make sure those bad me n never got their hands on me. They killed him when he wouldnt tell the m where I was , you know. Tears streamed down he r face, And they did the same to my parents ; I was so scared... Thomas made me fly away. You dont have to be afraid any more Sophie. Abby hugged the little girl, Youre safe now, I won't let anyone hurt you. "I won't be safe until Uncle Rand arrives," insisted Sophie. "Uncle Rand...?" Abby asked questioningly. "Yes... he can do things... , he doesn't know it yet, but he can fly too!" she whispered.

33

Thirty-four miles away Rand Langley was at the bottom of a ravine attempting to cross a stream. He had been traveling for weeks towards a large mountain in the distance; and trying to evade some Hunters that were on his trail. He had barely escaped them the day before by blending in with the forest. Not a man of violence, he was trying to deal with the m in a non-violent way. Right now he was hot; hot inside and out, so much so that he thought he might burst into flames at any second. He stopped at the stream and took a dark blue bandana from his neck and dipped it into the stream. The wate r was icy cold and felt good on his hands. He wrung out the bandana and wiped his face, mmm it felt wonderful. Why dont I just call it quits and go back down to that town? Beckoned the 'voice' again. Cant be more than 10 miles behind me; I bet I could get a nice soft bed and a cold shower and some decent food there. I could spend a couple of days resting up. No need to hurry, no rush. It would be so much easier than trekking thru these damn woods. Deep within, Rand kne w he couldnt go back ; whatever the outcome, he had to keep going. For some crazy reason he had to make it to that mountain; it was vital that he not falte r, there was something he had to do. Get out of my head! Nothing is going to stop me from getting to that mountain, so give up already, 'Doubt'. I left you and your kind behind before I started on this path. I gave my word to see this thru to the end, no matter the outcome. So scram! As he walked along he let his mind wander and reme mbe red how everything had changed for him. It had started with him waking from a nightmareas least he thought it was a nightmare. Some children we re running away from some kind of monster. They were screaming in their minds and he could hear them. He had jumped up and gone to the m, (in his dream he thought), and he had sent the monsters away with a thought. Then he sent the children to a mountain, to be safe. He knew he couldnt go with them; he wasnt ready yet. In time he came to realize that they we rent dreams; he was doing everything he thought he was dreaming about it was really happening. Ever so slowly, bit by bit, Rand discovered that he had been changed. He could make things happen with a thought. If he was thirsty, he could make a glass of any kind of liquid appear. Same thing for food; but after six nights of rib-eyes and chocolate cake, he was cured of that excess. Being human he played with his ne w-found powe r for several months. He enjoyed the attentions of some very pretty ladies with excellent attributes; gently bending them to his sexual desires. It was enjoyable but, as with everything else, he soon tired of that too. His strong inner core told him this was not right; he couldn't force his will upon people. He had to have been given these gifts for a reason.

34

He began to track down anything in his background that could account for the change. Then he reme mbe red something; about six months back, he had camped out in the high mountains one weekend. He re membered because for once he didnt bring any of his gear; just a sleeping bag on the back of his bike. Some strange dusty mist had fallen from the sky during the night cove ring everything. He had thought at the time that it was a light rain; but it glistened on his skin; felt sort of oily. That must have been when he was changed! Backtracking led him to the tankers explosion, and they in turn led to Carte r Industries and its demise. He went to the site to find out the truth; walking the area where the plant once stood the entire scenario played like a movie across his mind: ...the young assistant tripped over his own feet, falling forward, propelling the beaker he was carrying up into the air over the specimen counter top; ...the sound of glass smashing as it came down and exploded on the counter top; ...the hissing as the che micals met and mixed before anyone could do anything; ...the look of horror on the assistants face at the realization of what was happening; ...the young man frantically scrambling for the door that had already been locked down. There was a technician already in the decontamination room whe n all this went down. They thought he was 'safe'...as if anything could be safe from that... several hours later he began to change. Ever so calmly the decision to flash burn the entire facility was made and imple mented. Rand felt it all... Oh those assholes and their secrets! Now, any other man might go a little crazy with things like this happening to him; but not Rand. No, he accepted the changes as tho they were a natural thing. He was one of those who believed we were all put on this earth for a specific purpose. He saw no reason to fret over what he couldnt change.

Rand gre w up with a religious mothe r and Bible-thumping father. He endured years of Wednesday night bible classes, and Sunday all day church events. His father constantly preached that man was a sinner and only thru baptis m could he be free of temptation. Man must follow God's laws and live a clean life. When he was thirteen he caught his father, with Mr. Dawson's wife, Rachael. They were in the baptismal pool and there was no doubt as to what they were doing as they were naked as jaybirds and in flagrant fucking mode. So ended his belief that 'man' could be a spiritual leade r. No, Rand made up his own mind regarding God and so-called religions. First of all, he believed that God sat back and laughed at mans atte mpt to define Him with religions and tenants and pompous rites. He believed God gave man rules to live by; and then gave him free will to choose to follow those rules or not. Man had the keys but as usual he fucked it up by giving in to a variety of the deadly seven. Pride and vanity headed the list, followe d up quickly by greed. Man was a creature ruled by e motions, and they could be manipulated by evil.

35

So Rand ignored religions and steered clear of churches; he kept council with God directly. He reasoned that prayer was simply talking with God; so he spoke to Him on a daily basis. Over the years he became comfortable with their relationship; God was like an old friend. heir conversations we re a bit one-sided, but Rand got ans wers nonetheless. When these changes began to happen to him, he just assumed that he was being pre pared for something and he would find out about it when he was supposed to. His reverie was suddenly broken by a deep growl coming from behind him; he turned and found himself facing a large brown bear. A nine hundre d pound - not too happy - brown bear to find him at his favorite watering hole. Oh shit was the first thing that came to Rands mind. (so much for the enlightened consciousness) The second thing was... run! Now Rand could have just as easily used his new found powe rs to harm the animal, but he didnt; to his way of thinking it would have been unfair to the bear. He looked around quickly and spied a tall oak tree up the embankme nt. He was aware of the warning, dont run, the bear will just chase you down... but his feet didnt listen. If he could get to the tree he could climb out of the bears range and wait it out in safety. The bear snorted and followe d, quickly gaining. He made it to the tree and unfurled his wings in an atte mpt to soar up whe n the bear took a s wipe at the back of his leg; the pain damn near stopped his heart. Rand s hut his eyes and steeled himself for the onslaught he was sure would follow, but a second later he felt a cool breeze blow ove r him and he open his eyes to find himself standing on the branch, holding fast to the tree. The bear below him was clawing at the tree and bellowing out its rage. Rand looked down and chuckled, Not today old boy, sorry. He waited on the branch until the bear finally gave up and sauntered back down the embankment. Drinking his full at the stream, the disgruntled brown bruiser gave one last look at the tree and then wandered off into the woods. Rand watched him go before taking a long deep breath. He lifted his leg and took a look; it was bleeding from a long jiggered gash, but surprisingly, it didn't hurt. Strange, he thought, oh well, I still have to bandage it up. Well Lord, you certainly make things interesting. Ok, so now I can teleport myself from one place to another. Why are you giving me all these powers! I mean come on Lord, just what the hell is going on here? At least give me a little something here, a little hint Rand heard a deep rumbling that seemed to come from everywhere , and looked up... That is not an answer! So he began to think over everything that led him to this point. He knew things before being told; he could manipulate people to do what he wanted; he could hide in plain sight and no one could see him, he could fly; and now, he could teleport from one place to another.

36

All those thoughts of doubt Ive been having. All those temptations to use this power for myself those were tests! Just now, I could have destroyed that animal with a thought, but I chose not to. Thats it, isn't it? Youve been testing me! Ha! I'm on to You now! With this kind of power I could rule the world; hell I could be a god. But that would be wrong, a misuse of these gifts..., right? Rand looked around as if searching for something. A blue/green iridescent humming bird unexpectedly paused in front of his eyes for a fe w seconds. Held motionless by the supe r speed of its tiny wings it allowe d Rand to marvel at the beauty of its shiny body. Big or small there is a divine design in every living thing. Ok, I got the message. The clouds parted, a beam of sunshine came down and bathed Rand in its brilliance. Something is going to happen; and we've been changed to prepare for it. He thought for a long time and then suddenly s miled. Those of us called changelings; we have something to do don't we? That's it! We've been changed to deal with what's coming. Oh man, I need to think about all this. Rand had good view of the mountain in the distance from his perch on the tree. There was a meadow, not far; it was high up and in an open area. If he could teleport there he could rest for a bit and tend to his leg. It was throbbing badly now. He studied the area thru his binoculars and picked a spot where he wanted to land. Then he checked to make sure the bear was nowhere around. Satisfied, he closed his eyes and concentrated on the area and visualize d exactly where he wanted to go. He felt the prickly sensation again, then the icy cold, and then he felt soft ground beneath his feet. He opened his eyes and looked around, he was in the field! Oh this is the way to travel! He looked around and then slid his backpack off. He sat down and took out the first aid kit and opened it up. He used his water bottle to clean the wound and then wrapped his leg up as best he could. He stood and walked over to the edge of the meadow and scanned the valley below with his binoculars. Nice lake, ho... there's the mountain! He smiled to himself, I'd recognize it anywhere, Ive dreamt about it for so long. He noted a large boulder rising above the lake. It was close enough that he could teleport to it. He gathered his gear and repeated the process and landed right whe re he pictured in his mind. The lake looked very inviting, so he stripped and dove in for a s wim; he immediately felt cool relief from the burning within and without. After drying himself off, he scanned the lake with his binoculars and saw he could follow the bank around to the base of the mountain with ease. He sat down and looked around; I think I'll rest here for awhile before I let them know I'm here. He leaned back and relaxed for the first time in days. Ah, so quiet, so peaceful... 37

The sky above was clear bright blue. He watched as a large hawk circled above, riding the thermals. His mind drifted off to other things and his body said 'enough is enough'- he was asleep before he realize d it. While asleep, Rand received information and instructions as to what was expected of him. Explanations in a limited form we re also supplied. His body was slightly altered and changed to better deal with his situation. Two hours later he awoke refreshed and with the ans wers to his questions. Well, well... Rand chuckled as his mind rushed ahead with possibilities. Looking above he thought, You certainly do make things interesting.

38

5 Alert! Alert! We have an intruder, I repeat, we have an intruder. Trents strong voice echoed in everyones mind. Everyone get back to the cave. Abby and Natalie came into the cave with the rest of the children running in. They went directly to Tre nt who was in the lookout room above. How could someone get this close without you or Natalie picking them up? Abby he just appeared out o f nowhere! The re was no one around, just a bear rumbling by and then boom... I felt him at the lake. Trent ran his fingers thru his hair, It was so fast! I dont look maybe were looking at this all wrong, maybe hes one of us. Sophie came over to Abby and took her hand. Its okay Aunt Abby; Grandpa said Uncle Rand would come to help us." Abby looked down at the little girl, Sophie? I dont feel any dange r Abby, Natalie assured he r. Oh my, hes been there at the lake for quite some time . Yeah," Trent echoed her, "t heres a shield about him; I cant get thru it. Nat is right, he's been there for awhile . Trent looked at Abby with glazed eyes, I dont sense any danger either. Im going down to the lake, Abby said. Mistress no, it could be a trap. Max interjected, let me go. No Max, Abby began to object. No, Abby, Max is right, Trent chimed in, he could nose around, and he wouldnt be out of place. Abby kne w Trent and Max we re right. Okay, but I wont be far behind. Il l stay a good distance back I promise, but I wont let you go down there without backup, Max.

A half hour later Abby and Max went down to the stand of trees and Abby transported the m to the far side of the lake. They were a good half mile from the lake and Abby scanned the area for othe r intruders as they went along. She picked up nothing, no sign of Hunters; everything was as it should be. Okay Max, do your thing.

39

She waited up on the ridge as Max nonchalantly made his way down to the lake. She studied the man thru her binoculars and found him ve ry pleasing to the eye. She guessed he was at least six feet tall. Sandy brown hair which he wore rather long; his face was turned away from her. He had a nice muscular build, at least from this partial vie w. His legs and arms were built up, his body looked as if he worked out a lot. Suddenly he moved and turned over onto his back. Then he suddenly turned his head and looked straight at her and smiled. Abby jumpe d and dropped the binoculars. She could s wear that he knew she was watching him!

Rand sat up rubbing his eyes and looked around. At that point Max made his entrance and casually walked over to the bank and took a drink. He then looked up and around as any animal might do. He took another drink just as the man stood up. Rand looked around and saw Max below him. He watched as the wolf turned and looked up at him. Rand felt the presence of intelligence in the wolf imme diately and nodded his head. Hello there my powerful friend. Max simply stared at him. Its okay Max, Rand s miled, I pose no threat to you or your mistress up there, he said nodding towards the ridgeline. That remains to be seen, mancub. Max slowly began to walk towards the man. He sniffed the air disseminating all the scents of the forest. To his surprise he found no danger around the man. Instead the re was a different scent, one he was very familiar with; Max suddenly stopped and leaned down on his front paws, Apologies mancub, I see you are one of us. Apology accepted mighty one, Rand bowed and with a s weep of his hand and continued, Would you be so kind as to advise your mistress that the coast is clear and I pose no threat. I am sure it would sit better with her if it came from you. Max turned and looked up towards the ridge. A second later Abby appeared on the boulder behind the man. She stood in the classic defensive pose. Without turning around Rand said, There 's no need for that Abby; I'm no threat to you or the children. Abby hesitated for a moment and then stood straight dropping her hands to her side. Who are you, she asked exasperated, why weren't we able to pick you up? The names Rand, Rand Langley; Ive been looking for you guys for a very long time. He turned and smiled at Abby, the look on his face took her by surprise and she stared at him openmouthed.

40

Would you please let Trent and Natalie know that everything is okay?" He chuckled, "they seem to be quite worried. He bent down, retrieved his water bottle, and jumped off the boulder. He went ove r to the lake and filled the bottle and took a long s wig. You know," he called to her, "with their powe rs they should already know that you and Max are safe with me. Hell, t heyve been expecting me for months . There's a shield around you," she explained, "They can't penetrate it." "Hey," Rand held his hands up, "that's the Big Guy's doing," he said pointing above with his thumb, "not mine." Abby looked at him quizzically, shook her head and murmured, "...Uncle Rand.. why have you come he re ? Near as I can tell Ive been sent to teach your group how to use your powers together. Sort of whip you all into shape as a team. Rand walked towards her. Abby frowned and said softly, "then the dreams of something coming are true?" "Afraid so dear lady, and we don't have much time eithe r," Rand answe red grimly. Suddenly a giggling childs voice echoed throughout the woods. Both looked up to see Sophie flying towards the man. He laughed and Abby saw a different side to this man, there was a softness she hadn't noticed before. He chuckled as he opened his arms and Sophie fle w right into the m. She put her little arms around his neck and gave him a kiss on the cheek, giggling all the while, she said, "Uncle Rand, Uncle Rand, you're here!" Whoa there Sophie! He exclaimed s miling as he gave her a hug and then s wung her around in a circle. Well, began Abby, that says it all for me. If Sophie finds you safe, then safe you must be. Come on, follow me and well all get acquainted. Abby grabbed Rand's backpack as his arms were full. The small group made their way around the lake and up to the mountain camp. Halfway there Sophie took to the air again just as Trent stepped from behind a tree. Hello Rand, my name is Trent, he said excitedly, extending his hand.

41

Shaking hands Rand replied s miling, Ive been looking forward to meeting you young man." He then pulled him into a bear hug and said, "Whe w, you have strong powe rs for one so young. Yeah, but I dont hold a candle to you, Trent ans wered good -naturedly. Unexpectedly, an icy cold breeze rambled thru the trees blowing leaves and pine cones before it. Everyone froze in mid-step; the scent of Hunters was strong on the wind. They all looked at each other in fear. Rands voice suddenly took on a different tone, the sound of one in charge. Into the cave, now! In the blink of an eye everyone was inside the cave. Abby and Trent looked at each othe r. Ah guys, I didnt transport us inside, Abby said in a shak y voice. "Yeah, ditto he re," answere d Trent, he did! he said pointing to Rand. Rand looked at the fear on the faces of the childre n and felt a protective anger. These guys are becoming bothersome; it is time to put an end to this. Trent turned quickly and saw the look on Rand's face; as he blinked Rand disappeared. "He's going to face Stanton," Trent announced excitedly. "I'd like to be a fly on the wall when that happens!" No you wouldn't Trent, not really, Rand's voice echoed in his mind as Trent's eyes flew wide in surprise.

42

Back at the stream whe re Rand had encountered the bear, four Hunte rs we re going over the area with scans. Rand watched from the top of a tree as they went about their business. They spoke into their headsets in hus hed voices. Rand knew who was on the other end and decided to pay him a visit. But first, he decided to deal with these men.

"Oh no," moaned Lieutenant Taft, who suddenly found himself at the bottom of the Grand Canyon...again. "Stanton is going to throw the book at me!"

Stanton was in his Com Center observing his men. He had hand picked and carefully trained them himself. He knew the man they were chasing had entered the forest three days ago. Now, for some reason they had lost all trace of him. Head up the embankment towards the meadow and check out that area, he ordered. Receiving no ans wer he called again, "Lt. Taft; do you hear me lieutenant...damn it!" He ripped off his headset and thre w it on his desk. They were gone, and he kne w what had happened to them. He flipped some dials but all he got was static. He cursed again knowing they had gotten too close. Suddenly it got icy cold in the room. Things began to blur into nothingness. Stanton realize d that one of the mutant's must be in the room with him. He slowly reached for the bowie knife attached to his belt. Hello Stanton, came a whispe r behind him. Stanton s pun around and viciously sliced thru empty air; no one was there. Ho...! Sorry, not today Rand chuckled in a disembodied voice. Stanton looked down and saw he was holding a banana; he tossed it across the room, What do you wantfreak!" He sneered as his eyes searched the room. A smiling Rand suddenly appeared out of nothing, Tsk...tsk, such an attitude!" For a split second Stanton started, but quickly got himself under control. "I think it's time you and I have little chat, Colonel Stanton." Stanton began edging towards a control panel. "You know, I've got to give you credit Stanton, you have balls of steel. You know I could kill you with a thought, yet you still defy what you have no control over." Stanton all but growled at Rand, "I need no lectures from you... or your kind!"

43

"Now, now, lets not get nasty," Rand snorted, "and don't even think about pressing that button." Stanton dove for the control button and abruptly found himself in a rowboat going ove r Niagara Falls. An unbidden scream escaped his mouth. He was half way down the falls before he found himself back in his office, sitting behind his desk ashen faced. "You've seen what Trent was capable of Stanton, well as strong as he is... he doesn't even come close to what I can do," Rand threatened icily. "And speaking of Trent, you s hould see your son now... he's off the charts; an amazing young man." "Trent... alive?" Stanton showe d genuine surprise, he was truly taken aback. "Yes, no thanks to you." Rand noticed the change in Stanton's demeanor. "He's a very well rounded young man; got a sense of right and wrong that is quite unique." Scranton half s miled and murmure d softly, "Trent...he's alive...he's really alive." "Yes," Rand felt a deep change in the general's de meanor. Apparently he had touched a nerve. He continued cautiously, "He's the one whos been frustrating your men; the one who's been saving the gifted children." Rand noted Stanton's reaction to this news, almost pride in his son's achievement. "He has a special fondness for the Grand Canyon; I believe your men are familiar with it." "Trent..." Scranton whispered again smiling. "He's dedicated himself to protecting these children; I wouldn't want to make him mad." Rand stepped back smiling, folded his arms and leaned against a non-existent wall. Stanton s uddenly realized that they we re floating in the air, at least 40 feet off the ground; the Grand Canyon ground! He could see his men below. "Son of a bitch!" He glared at Rand and demanded, "Put me down, I refuse to play your games. You hear me; you and your kind will not dictate to me..." In a blink Stanton was floating above the Lunar Base in the Sea of Tranquility. His throat began to close, his eyes began to bulge... then he was atop the Eiffel Towe r, looking over the Paris skyline. Two seconds later he was back behind his desk. "You bastard...quit fucking with me!" he hissed breathlessly. "Oh stuff it Stanton!" Rand rebuffed him. "You and your like enjoy playing god; you create monsters to use against each other; and then you get all high and mighty when called on the carpet to ans wer for it. You think your all above the law. You make me sick with your hypocrisy."

44

Suddenly Rand was an inch from Stanton's face, his voice cold and deadly. "You will stop all of your little round-ups." "Give me one good reason why..." Stanton retorted belligerently. "For the sake of your troops, who you are so found of calling 'my men'. These gifted have precious little time to prepare for what's coming, and can ill afford your hide and seek games." "Just who do you people think you are..." began Stanton arrogantly. "We are the direct result of your meddling with things that you should have left alone!" shouted Rand angrily. There was a deafening silence in the room. Rand continued, "But we got lucky; we became more the evolved human. We want nothing to do with you... just leave us alone." "How do we know you won't try to take over; with your powe rs your kind could do anything." A puffed up Stanton asked, "How do we know?" "You don't!" interrupted Rand. "Humph!" a frustrated Stanton bellowe d, "that's not good enough!" "Well, you're just going to have to take our word that we won't," Rand emphasized. "I need assurances, the Pentagon won't take your word;" Stanton explained, "they will want some kind of assurance." "Listen well Stanton, if you come afte r us - you will lose. Some of these kids have a hatred for you and your team that is off the charts. They know their parents died at the hands of your Hunters... died to give them time to get away. So if I was you, I wouldn't push the m... they just might push back. "You don't give me orders." Rand noted he dropped his arrogant tone. "Besides, you won't turn them loose; you're not that kind - you're not capable of outright murder." "Your s mall mind couldn't even begin to imagine what I am capable of, Stanton." Rand's voice took on a menacing tone, "Look into that hidden part of yourself where the nightmares live; you'll find me and Tre nt there looking back at you." "NOW, DO WE HAVE AN UNDERSTANDING?" The entire room trembled and vibrated.

45

"Ok, ok," Stanton started, "I'll ease off; but what do I get out of it?" "Well for one thing, your men, safe and sound. And for another... your world... intact." "What the hell is that suppose to mean?" "Have your people move the Hubble around out towards the Androme da Galaxy. Go beyond by a galaxy or two. Contrary to popular belief, the Earth is not the center of the universe. The re are others out there General; and some of them are not too friendly. Turn that big boy around and take a long hard look at what's coming our way." Rand took a long breath. "And when you do re member this; after you are finished playing solider and getting your asses kicked... we will be your only hope of dealing with that!" "What do you mean... what's out there?" Rand s howed him.

They found Stanton hours later, ashen faced and mumbling to himself. His desk strewn with crumpled up papers. He was intent on drawing something; he seemed a bit out of it. After composing himself, he made several calls and then flew directly to the Pentagon. He called for an eme rgency meeting in the wee hours of the morning and relayed everything Rand said. The Hubble telescope was moved around and what they saw sent a chill through the entire group. An armada was headed their way. Good God! uttered the President under his breath. How much time do we have? questioned the Secretary of Defense. "If we're lucky... he says two and a half years," replied Stanton. And you say he said they were the only ones capable of dealing with this, asked the head of the CIA. "Yes sir, and I must admit... I believe him." The head of the NSA solemnly said, "Gentle men, in light of this new information, I believe that we may have been too hard in dealing with these 'abnormalities' in our population."

46

ONCE MORE INTO THE FRAY

47

Returning to the cave, Rand informe d everyone that they would no longer have a problem with Hunters. He related his conversation with Stanton to Abby and Trent. He promised to inform everyone the next morning as to why they were changed, and what was expected of them. He pulled Trent aside and told him that in scanning Stanton he found that the old man felt enormous guilt inside over the 'death' of his son; and huge regret over the way he had handled the incident. He truly wished he could do the whole thing ove r. Learning Tre nt was alive sent a surge of hope thru his system. Trent replied that he was far beyond any parental ties, as far as Stanton was concerned. Rand understood where Trent was coming from, he had outgrown his need for acceptance from his 'fathe r'. He hoped that Trent had evolved far enough along to 'forgive' his father so as to give the man closure now that he had seen the error of his ways. But he also kne w that Stanton was no longer within the scope of Trent's consciousness as a person with any meaning. "I just thought you might want to see him one last time," Rand offered. Gathering Rand's meaning Trent muttered, "Maybe," before turning away.

Popping back into the cave Rand tickled Sophie, and played with some of the youngest ones. Then he announced loudly, "I'M FAMISHED," to get everyone's attention. He asked if there was any food and was inundated with replies. A feast was prepared, and there was much merriment in the preparation and consuming of the meal. Making bread from scratch, shucking ears of corn, removing peas from their pods; cooking a side of beef; all done with the mind. He made it a game, and that way Rand got a chance to observe each child using his or her abilities. For once the children we re using their gifts for fun. Less conscious of their uniqueness, they were singing and laughing. When they all gathe red at the table for the meal, Rand led a prayer that touched each one to their soul. During the meal he filled them with stories of the old west, and spoke of ancient times when air warriors we re called forth to do battle with demons. He had the m all mesmerized. Later in the evening he spoke to each one of the childre n individually, praising them and offering tips here and the re. The re were games after the meal, and songs and music. The spirits of all we re lifted and the day ended on a very good note.

48

After the young ones were all put to bed Abby we nt out and climbe d to the cliff as she normally did. She spied Rand on the ledge above her talking to someone. It wasnt until she came up behind him that she realized who, and was surprised to find another who spoke to God as she did. Turning around Rand s miled, "Don't be surprised Abby, we have a lot more in common." "Yes, I believe we do, Rand," she said breathlessly as her mind raced with thoughts she hadn't e ntertained in quite a number of years . Taking her hand in his Rand whispered softly, "Please, don't be frightened of me, Abby." At his touch Abby suddenly felt herself passionately entwined in a lovers embrace with Rand. The impression left almost as fast as it came. Composing he rself she said, "I'm not afraid, just unprepared. For the time being lets handle one thing at a time, ok? "Right," he replied sheepishly feeling guilty for her e mbarrassed red face. Abby sighed as she leaned on a large boulder, "I get the feeling that there's much to do in a very short time." "Yes there is, Abby," Rand said softly. Abby felt he was holding back, "You can tell me the truth Rand; I don't faint at the sight of blood." Rand laughed, "No...you definitely don't." He appeared to be thinking, "Come walk with me." They began walking down the mountain towards the meadow. "The re is an Armada headed this way; an alien race hell bent on killing the human race. Apparently from what I can gathe r, we were chosen... they weren't. There is longtime hatred boiling over there. We've done all this before, this time it's for all the marbles." "Sounds very nasty," Abby replied. "They are on the move as we speak," Rand continued. "After the military is finished playing war games with them; we'll be the ones who will have to stop the m. That is, if we can get the kids ready in time." "Just how much time do we have?" Abby asked. "If we're lucky, three years," Rand looked her in the eyes, "But I'm putting my money on two and a half at best."

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"Then you need to tell the m the truth about what's coming," she urged, "and what is expected of the m. They're very intelligent and understand more than you realize; they will handle it fine, Rand." "I fully intend to inform them about everything. Believe me, I do not unde restimate their intelligence or their abilities, Abby." Rand sighed and looked at Abby sadly, s haking his head, "... many are going to die. I'm trying to get around this and I'm finding it ve ry difficult." "Is this the burden you are bearing? I can feel the weight of it on you." Abby took Rand's hand in hers and held it to her breast. "You can share some of that burden with me, Rand. I'll help you however I can." Rand looked at Abby and this time he got a different read. He saw the 'real' Abby for a brief shining second and was intrigued. "They have a sense of the 'knowing', as do you Rand; so just tell them what's coming," Abby touched his arm and he felt a jolt of electricity course thru him. "Explain what will be expected of the m, and what could happen. You just might be surprised at their reaction." Rand s uddenly smiled. "I can see now why Richard loved you so. He used to talk about you all the time Abs; he loved your strength of character." Rand was unprepared for the sudden sadness in Abby's eyes. "He was certain that you had made it to his cabin before the nightmare began. Afte r he caught a brief glimpse of the real me, the re was no stopping him. He made me swear an oath that I would find you. You know he's at peace now?" "Yes I know, but sometimes," she replied softly, "...sometimes I miss him so." Abby's head suddenly s hot up; "Wait...what do you mean... the real you?" "The children are going to have to learn everything about their gifts Abby; what they can and cannot do." Rand walked over to the edge of the bank overlooking the lake. "It is vital that they know their limitations, so that they can learn how to work with the others as a team. When they accomplis h this, master their talent so to speak, they will mature into young adults." Rand began to unbutton his shirt. "We will know whe n they are ready," Rand dropped his shirt to the ground, "because they will have a pair of these." Rand stood on the bank and flexed his chest muscles and shoulde rs. His wings unfolded and fanned out behind him. They we re several shades of white and grayish silve r, and as the moon broke thru the clouds they began to glow, it looked like something from a Raphael painting.

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"Oh... my... God!" Abby was mesmerized by their beauty; hesitantly she stepped forward, hand outstretched, "...so beautiful!" She stood transfixed for maybe a minute or so, staring in awe. Torn between wanting to touch the m and daring not to. And then ever so softly she asked, "Rand, are we turning into angels?" "I wish I could ans wer that, but I don't really know. I thought about it for a long time and came up with a possible scenario." He folded his wings behind him and co ntinued. "I know for certain that this conflict has happen before, in the past. Maybe long ago people saw us fighting with these guys and related what they saw. Since stories were passed down by word of mouth, maybe over the years they were embellished by each teller. In time we all became these spiritual beings sent by God to conquer evil." "You have quite an imagination there," Abby chuckled. "Well it's that, or we're all angels and our me mories have been wiped clean." He held his hands, palms up, in the classic I-don't-know pose, and shrugged his shoulders. "I just don't have an ans wer for you." "Oh this is all too much!" Abby suddenly felt very alone, very vulnerable. She hunched her shoulders and held her arms and shive red. She looked towards Rand and their eyes met. They held that pose for some time as 'something' passed between them. Whatever it was, it seemed to seal their relationship into a viable thing. "I don't want to be alone tonight. Do you... well... will you stay with me tonight. No pressure... just two friends helping each othe r thru the night?" Rand nodded and held out his hand. Abby reached out hesitantly at first, then took his hand in hers and held it to her breast. She looked up at Rand and blurted out, "I suddenly find that I'm not s ure I can face what's coming alone; I want someone by my side." "I will always be by your side, Abs," Rand replied, "and when you're ready, you'll know." Rand held her to him in a hug and Abby found she liked the feeling. They slowly rose above the meadow to the heights. A nest of sorts had been prepared in the upper most branches of the massive tree. "I find it relaxing up here," he said softly, "less noise and distraction." Yes, replied Abby as she laid down on the blanket, very relaxing. They spent several hours lying together and just talking. A bond forme d between them on an unspoken level. They fell asleep with Abby's head on Rand's chest, his arms holding he r to him.

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Everyone was gathered in the cave one morning for breakfast. When Trent entered suddenly there was a hushed silence. There was a remarkable change in Trent's appearance that he was unaware of just yet. He appeared to have matured ove rnight; a man of pe rhaps twenty, twe nty-two, stood there. Abby re membered what Rand had said; they would mature as they mastered their gifts. Rand called them to attention. The re are about thirty of your brothers and sisters that we have to pick up. Stanton has let the m all go this morning; theyre waiting at his base camp for us. Tre nt and I will leave after breakfast and go get the m. Be patient just a little longer, explanations will be coming, okay? Natalie came up to Abby grinning like the Cheshire cat, And whe re we re you the last couple of nights ? You know perfectly well whe re I was, Abby replied impatiently. Oops overstepped my bounds ," Nat dropped her voice, "s orry Abs. Its okay Nat; nothings happened, we just kept each othe r company, thats all. Abby observed Rand and Trent leaving the cave. I suppose you noticed the change in Trent, " Natalie asked. Yes Nat, I did and I sus pect you are next. Now I guess we better get ready to feed thirty more kids. Abby took Natalies hand, Come on, I can use some help in the kitchen. Both wome n headed towards the Kitchen area.

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Rand and Trent walked down to the meadow to pre pare for the journey. It was a beautiful sunny morning. The trees were alive with singing birds flittering from tree to tree. There we re several rabbits in the meadow who watched the two humans rather than scamper away. The meadow was a safe place and the animal population kne w it. Trent, Stanton may be there with the children, Rand began, Will that be a problem? Not in the least Rand, Trent replied honestly, Ive evolved beyond all that. All right then - follow my lead, Rand ordered. As a soft breeze wafted thru the trees there was a sizzling sound and a quick iciness to the air. Then just as suddenly the meadow was silent again. Birds chirped, little rodents scurried about, and all was peaceful.

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One hundred fifty miles away at the Army base, Rand and Trent watched silently from the top of a nearby building. The children we re all out in the open with three men nearby, Stanton and two of his Hunters. Not picking up on any deception and deciding it was safe, Rand approached the men, suddenly appearing out of nothingness. Trent re mained on the roof. Good morning gentlemen, he greeted the m cordially, Thank you Col. Stanton for seeing the truth and releasing the children; we ve come to take the m home . Stanton came forward, Yes, I expected you would, he said stiffly. Stanton looked like all the stuffing had been kicked out of him. No longer the pretentious arrogant bastard he had once been. The truth can sometimes have that effect on a person. Do we have a problem? Rand asked. No not at all. Stanton re plied quickly. Rand could see that Stanton appeared to want to say something more so he gave him time to get his thoughts together. We , ah... we would like to make a request, he finally said stiffly. You would like to send one of your men along as a sort of, liaison officer. Rand replied taking Stanton by surprise. Recovering quickly Stanton continued, Captain Henson here is up to date on everything. He would keep you informed as to our plans. Rand's eyes narrowed, If one of your men is to come back with me to our camp, I would prefer it be Lt. Taft, Noting their surprise he continued. His personality is much more in-tune with the children. And, he has never killed any of their pare nts; unlike Captain Henson. Stanton thought it over for a few seconds and understood whe re Rand was coming from. Very well, he turned around, Captain, get Taft briefed and out here on the double. Captain Henson left the group headed for the headquarters building double-time. If you have no objection well start taking the children home. Trent appeared out of the nothingness and stared at Stanton for perhaps thirty seconds. During that time he saw thru the man to his very soul. What Rand said was true, Stanton truly regretted what he had done and the guilt was killing him. Stanton appeared ove rcome with e motion at the sight of him. Trent whispered on the air.

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Trent counted out ten children and in the blink of an eye was simply gone. Rand felt sorry for the old man; he seemed a pale version of the man he had first encountered. Stanton had realized his mistake and was sorry, but it was too late to take back what he had done. It would be up to Trent as to the outcome of their relations hip. He appears so much older, Stanton croakily blurted out. Thats because he has mastered his abilities, Rand informe d him. When they master their gifts they will all mature to adulthood; then their real training will begin. I didnt know mutte red Stanton. The headquarters building door burst open and Lt. Taft came running out dragging his duffle bag along with him. He appeared very nervous, almost scared. Lt. Taft reporting sir! he saluted Stanton. Captain Henson briefed you, son? Stanton asked. Sir, yes sir! Taft replied nervously as he looked towards Rand and the children. You have nothing to fear from us Taft, Rand assured him. Trent reappeared and took ten more children with him into the nothingness. Taft jumped when they disappeared so quickly. Easy Taft, Rand reassured him, It doesnt hurt, I promise . Trent reappeared and walked to Rands side. Stanton seemed overcome with e motion. Unde rstanding his fathe rs' pain, Trent reached out and touched his shoulder. Ease your conscience father, he said softly, I hold no anger towards you. Tears began streaming down Stantons face, SonII am so sorry. Its all right; it had to be done that way. To ease the old mans suffering he further explained, I never would have evolved if it had happened any different. Oh Trent ! Stanton exclaime d wrapping his arms around his son. Trent allowe d his father to hold him; even put his own arms around him, patting him gently. It seemed to ease the old man's guilt, and after a fe w minutes Trent stepped away.

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We have to get going, father." Trent explained. " We dont have much time to prepare for whats coming. Every minute counts from now on. " Yes, of course, good bye son, Stanton said gaining control again, Gods speed. "Good bye father, and thank you for releasing the children. Trent we nt over to the re maining children and they simply faded into nothingness. Rand reached down and lifted Lt. Tafts duffle bag effortlessly and took hold of his arm. Okay Lt. Taft, your turn. This is how it goes; just close your eyes and go with the flow. Dont open the m until I tell you to. You'll feel a funny sensation and some cold. He nodded at the General, "Thank you Stanton, for releasing them. We will be in touch."

John Taft shut his eyes and almost imme diately felt a prickling sensation, then icy cold and then he heard Rands voice telling him to open his eyes. He found himself standing in the middle of the Grand Canyon... again. "Not again..." yelled a very exasperated young man, "I didn't do anything!" "No you didn't.... someone else did. Sit down and give me your right foot," Rand ordered. Taft did as instructed. Rand took hold of his boot and pulled on the heel and then turned it clockwise, the boot opened to reveal a small trans mitter which he pulled out. "You see, some people," he held up the devise, "just don't follow instructions." He smiled, and raising his eyebrows said, "be right back, don't go anywhe re." And with that he was gone.

Stanton was sitting behind his desk when Rand suddenly appeared slamming the device on his desktop. "I really didn't think you would be so stupid...do we have a proble m?" "I didn't order this," Stanton declared and then said, "but I'll bet you a beer I know who did." He turned and pushed a button. "Get Henson in here on the double." Turning to Rand he continued, "I'll take care of this, it won't happen again." "Thank you!" Rand believed him knowing that he wouldnt be so stupid to pull such a juvenile a trick. He gave Stanton the leeway to correct the error - or commit another one. There was a knock and Henson came in and saw the device on Stanton's desk. "What the hell we re you thinking man? I told you the re would be no games." Stanton shook his head, "I guess I really can't blame you, you didn't know." "Sir!" sputtered Hanson standing at attention.

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Stanton sighed deeply, "Hanson, I think it's time you see what only a fe w of us have seen. I'm going to need your full cooperation in the coming months and you might as well see why." Stanton filled Henson in on what was coming and then s howed him the Hubble photos, and explained why the childre n were so important. It was a very somber Henson who e merged from Stanton's office fully dedicated to see that there were no more problems.

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"Lucy, I'm home!" Rand called as he popped in and couldn't help but chuckle as Taft jumped. "Sir...could you kind of take it a little slow with that in and out stuff - it's a bit rattling." "I'm sorry John; I sometimes forget that this is rather ne rve wracking to the uninitiated. But you will just have to start to get used to things like this." "And you know my name...!" John Taft nervously ran his fingers thru his hair; "See... stuff like that! It's just plain spooky." "I know many things John; and so do most of the children. I'm sorry if it is unsettling; but you really are going to have to get used to it. You are part of us now, so ease up a little and go with the flow. Now, I have a question, how well do you know this area? "Pretty damn well, considering that I've spent a lot of my time visiting," John said in a deadpan voice. Then he chuckled, "seriously, I could draw you a map if you'd like." "I'm thinking that this would be a perfect place for some of the kids to practice and get a handle on their abilities. There's enough room, wide open spaces to be exact; though I realize that those with water abilities will want to re main at the lake area." "The re is an area around the bend back there," he offered pointing, "that has many caves. The kids could use them as dwellings if they wanted." "Thanks John, we'll let the m decide. Now shall we go home?" Rand stretched out his hand, "Take my hand and we shall be there in a second." John Taft reached out and took Rand's hand and no soone r had they touched then he felt the same prickly sensation as before followe d by the icy cold. But this time he smelled pine trees. "Open your eyes John, we're here." He was standing in a meadow in the middle of a Pine forest. Up ahead he could see the children going up the mountain. There were many more high above waiting for the m. And could s wear he saw a little girl flying. Rand began to climb the mountain, come on, he waved. Sir, a minute please, Taft halted, why me sir? I prefer a truthful man to a military robot, Rand ans were d. And the children will be at ease around you; you have a good heart.

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Really you think they will like me? He asked as Sophie hovered behind him. Rand looked Taft intensely in the eye and said, Secretly, deep inside yourself, you really like the idea of kids having these powers. You wish you we re one of the m. How could you knowII never told a soul? Taft stuttered. The Man knows, Rand pointed above as Sophie landed beside him, and He tells me if I nee d to know. John Taft stared at Rand with wide eyes, Really!? Rand laughed, Come on John, come meet your new family. By the way, this is Sophie; she is our resident flyer. Sophie giggled and soared above. Taft followed her with his eyes and a broad grin. As they walked up the hill he took in everything and everyone. He was astonished at the wonders he saw the children performing. He secretly realized he was very glad that Rand had insisted he come. They are magnificent, he thought to himself. I knew Henson didn't tell me everything. They must have something very special to do. As they walked along John found himself smiling at everyone and waving. He heard Sophie giggling and turned around just as she flew past him. He called to her laughing and made a silly face. Well, s he couldn't let that go so she turned around and dove on him. They went down in a tumble laughing and giggling; from then on John was a favorite target; he couldn't have been happie r. He followe d Rand up the mountain and into the cave. Rand was glad to see that he took everything in without a proble m. His open smile and gregarious personality we re a perfect blend for the children.

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Once inside the main cave Rand brought everyone to attention and officially introduce d John and the ne w children. He ordered drinks and snacks for the new arrivals and then called for everyone's attention. "All right people, let's settle down." Rand could feel everyone's excitement, "Sophie, leave John alone; come on guys, listen up, this is important." A chastised Sophie let John up and took a seat beside him. Both gave their attention to Rand. Everyone settled in and waited. Trent entered the cave with the stragglers, this was the first that any of the others had seen of him since the night before. His appearance had taken on an even more matured look. "I know you have all been waiting for this so lets get right to it. I want all of you to take a good look at Trent," heads turned and 'Ah's', echoed about the room. "He has mastered his abilities and in doing so has matured to adulthood. The same will happen to you when you have mastered yours. Each of you must explore your talents, your gifts; find out what you can and cannot do; learn your limitations. When you have done all this and are comfortable with your abilities you will mature like Trent did." Rand stepped forward, looked at Abby and smiled, he began to unbutton his shirt. She knew what was coming and held her breath. "After that you will pair with another, you will automatically seek each other out. You'll work as a team; learning to use your abilities together. And whe n you have both mastered that and are comfortable with each other, you will receive a pair of these." Rand dropped his shirt and flexed his chest and shoulder muscles; his wings unfolded and spread out behind him. John's eyes went wide and he slapped his knee and smiled like a little kid. There was stunned silence in the room for all of thirty seconds; and then pandemonium broke out. Rand rose up in the air and called for order; afte r about five minutes they settled down. "I know you have all been wondering about these powers that you have. Remember those stories I told you about air warriors?" Rand looked around the room, "Well, they weren't just stories - they we re true, they actually happened. It's been more than five thousand years since the last battle took place against these creatures. Now it looks like they want another try - they are on the move again." "Who are they," yelled a voice around the room, "and what do they want with us?"

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"We call the m aliens, better name is demons, for demons they are. Pure evil, hell-bent on destroying all human life on Earth. They hate humans with a passion." "Like horrible-from-the-Bible-demons?" a voice called out. A crescendo of questions echoed across the cave. "Yes..." Rand raised his voice, "Okay settle down; (he raised his arms), settle down guys. Yes, these aliens are the stuff that nightmares are made of. They are big, and ugly, and real mean S-O-B's. And reme mber, they are relentless in their hatred for humans." "What are they... really," asked another. "Exactly what I said Thomas, de mons; they come in a variety of forms and I can assure you that all of them are scary to our eyes. They will try to frighten you with their appearance first, and then they will scream, and screech, and try to scare you with that. They want to throw you off balance... then they will attack." "They...they sound horrid!" a frightened girl stuttered. "Yes, they are horrid. You are going to have to pre pare your minds for the most frightening creatures your mind can possibly imagine. The worst blood dripping monster you can conjure up. And to help you out with this, we figure the best way is for all of you to get at least 2 hours a day on some very specific video games for the next two years. Shouts of 'alright!' we nt up about the room. "What kind of games?" "Easy, everyone... that's better. What we are going to do is de-sensitize you to the most hideous creatures in our imagination so you will not be surprised by the m when you actually see them." Rand laughed wickedly, "Oh these games will make 'War Quest', and 'Abominable', and 'Rift' look tame by comparison. "Where are they now," shouted a voice from the rear, "the alien monsters?" "They are on their way here from deep space; they just ente red the Androme da Galaxy; any more questions?" Many hands went up and Rand spent the next hour ans wering all of them. He was patient, and each ans wer was concise and to the point. He was very please d with the way they were receiving the ne ws. "How long before they get here?" asked a voice at the back of the cave. "I figure two and a half years, possibly more, but not by much." he ans wered truthfully.

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There was a low mumble from the entire group; (you have to reme mber these were still just kids), Abby felt their fear and looked to Rand, he nodded in unde rs tanding. "Okay, that was the bad news..." Rand waved his arms around, "now you want to hear the good news?" A deafening "...yes!" filled the cave and blasted ear drums. "We can defeat them...!" The childre n erupted in wild shouts and it took some time for them to settle down. "Defeat them - yes - if we can get ready in time." Rand looked over the crowd of children and saw hope on their faces. "If we work hard and hone our skills, we can knock them back to whe re they came from." Shouts and clapping hands, and stomping feet filled the cave. "Now...I won't lie to you; you're all old enough to know the truth. Many of you will die in the process; but your deaths will be magnificent! They will fuel the resolve of the rest of us. And we have an ace in the hole to use against the m. When they launch their final assault against us; we will unleash our secret weapon and destroy them for good." "What secret weapon?" asked several kids all at once.. "Is it one of us?" "I can't ans wer those questions, honest; I haven't been told that yet." "Who gives you your instructions? Do you talk directly to God." a voice shouted. Rand looked around the room and saw eager faces watching his every move. Apparently the kids thought he was some kind of super-being. With the wings and all, I can't blame them. "Guys, it's not that way. Look, I can't explain it to you; it just happens. I believe I'm getting my info from the Man in charge. Whether or not that is God... I don't know for certain." He could see that they wanted more; and quickly changed the subject. "Anyway, for now, let's just concentrate on our abilities. We are going to move some of you to the Grand Canyon; to give you a wide open s pace to practice your talents. And John will get the Army to supply us with tents and anything else we need; won't you John?" John stood up, "Whatever you want Rand, whatever the children need. I will see to it that they get everything."

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"Yeah!" shouted the group loudly, "alright John!" "OK...heads up guys, you all have the next week free. You can go anywhe re you want, as long as you let Abby know whe re you are." Rand called to Tre nt and John and Natalie to join him. As they walked over Natalie suddenly burst out laughing. "They all want to go to Disney in Orlando," she looked at Abby and then Rand, "...well, they are kids after all. They want to ride all the rides and see everything." She saw the look on their faces and squinted, "They're serious, that's what they want to do." "Can that be arranged John?" Abby asked. "They say if some of them are going to die to save this world," Nat continued somberly, "then this world can accommodate them for a few days." "I will arrange it for them," John declared and then asked, "and if you don't mind, I'd like to go with them to see that they are treated right." "All right John, if you want to go with the m it's fine with me." Rand said and continued, "Just let me know whe n you have everything ready, I'll pop all of you over to the park as a group." "You can do that?" John asked incredulous, "I mean, such a large group like that?" "The re is no limit to what Rand can do," Trent ans wered quickly. "See... its things like that," John pointed, "Trent saying that... man it spooks me out!" Trent laughed, "Sorry John... you just have to start thinking on a different level."

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A week and a half later, a very tired John returned with the children; both laden with all kinds of treasures from the Orlando theme park. A very sleepy Sophie, decked out in a Cinderella costume complete with glass slippe rs, was draped across John's shoulder. What was supposed to be two days turned into a week and a half of fun, games, and rides for the children. There we re dinners with Cinde rella, and the Princesses; and of course breakfast with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Buzz Lightyear. As they paraded by, Rand and Abby couldn't help but laugh. "At least they all had a good time," chuckled Abby. "Yes, they deserved to enjoy and indulge themselves as children." Rand s miled at the group and continued, "The road ahead is going to be a rough one, and many of them won't make it to the end by the time it's all over." He smiled at several and winked at John as he walked by; turning to Abby he continued with a wry smile. "I couldn't deny the m their wishes Abby, whe n John asked for more time, I made it happen for the m. Extravagant I know, but what's the sense of having all these powers if you can't use them for mischief every once in a while." "Well you old softy, you!" she exclaimed jokingly punching his arm.

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True to his word, John had field tents flown out to the Canyon and set the m up in the largest of the caves. With Rand's okay, he also had a mess tents brought in with three volunteer cooks to boot. During this time he was promoted to Captain, which seemed to mean little to the dedicated young man. As he continued, me n began coming to him in ones and two's asking to be of help. John knew most of them personally so he agreed. He warned them that they would see some very strange things taking place; and that whether or not they were allowe d to stay would depend entirely on the 'children'. Then he gave the m a quick idea of what to expect; not one backed down. One of the men was the Company's chief cook, Master Sgt Tyrone Damon. He was a barrel of a man; six feet tall, with huge massive arms, and a giant's frame. With a large black bald head and piercing hazel eyes, he could scare the bejesus' out of anyone easily with just one look. For all his sternness, (and imposing girth), his passion was food... he loved to cook. He savored the aromas of different spices, the fun of experime nting with ne w dishes. He had heard the men talking about these 'children'; had listened to the men who worked with them describe some of the things they saw; and he wanted to get a first hand look for himself. So he had volunteered to be their cook. It was Sophie who saw thru him right away. When she first saw him arrive with the tents and equipment, she was fascinated by the giant-man. She decided to follow him around from above. Remembering Lt John's detailed instructions and descriptions, and catching on quickly, Master Sgt Damon bided his time. Then one day he looked up and quickly winked at her. Sophie took the bait and dove on him before he had a chance to move. They went down in a tumble with Sophie giggling loudly. Not missing a beat and correctly assessing that this was indeed a 'game', Sgt Damon began to tickle her and throw her up in the air. The other children quickly came over and seeing what was going on, laughingly lifted him into the air while Sophie fle w around him. Master Sgt Damon laughed loudly with his deep voice delighting the children. John sternly re minded the m that they we re to be practicing and asked the m to put the nice man down. Reluctantly they complied and we nt back to work. Master Sgt Damon joked with John and comme nted that he didn't go far eno ugh in explaining the 'strange things' going on here. Then he laughed loudly and said he was going to enjoy cooking for these young 'warriors.' The children took to him quickly, and Master Sgt Damon was never happier.

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Weeks went by and, in turn, months, and suddenly the 'children' were no more; they were replaced by young adults in their early twe nties. These bright young people were starting on the most perilous journey they could possibly imagine. Pairings began to take place and as Abby and Rand expected, Trent and Natalie were the first to 'earn' their wings, much to the amaze ment of the others. One bright morning they nonchalantly ente red the large mess tent with wings neatly folded behind the m; as though nothing was diffe rent. The room broke out into instant applause for the young couple. It didn't take long for the next couple to follow in their footsteps. An adult Sophie appeared one morning, and John almost dropped his coffee all over himself. The change was re markable; the silly young girl had been replaced by a poised and beautiful young lady. Her dark hair a mass of curls, her honey colored face beautiful to behold. But it was her hazel eyes that captivated John instantly, and it was obvious to everyone that he was thunderstruck.

One afternoon, a couple of weeks later, Sophie fle w over to Rand and asked to speak privately with him. He was pretty sure he knew what she was about to say, but he held back and let her speak. "Uncle Rand, I've been thinking," she began, "I have no wings; everyone else does, but not me. Why?" "You can already fly, you don't need the m," he ans wered truthfully. "Look, I think in the coming fight... I'm... I'm not going to make it." Her face was earnest and open. Im going to be one of the first to die, right? "Right my s weet," he caressed the side of her face, "you are." "I kne w it! Something told me; I could feel it." She looked at him and sighed, "You know, s omehow Im not afraid." "You won't feel any pain baby, it will be very quick. But your death will unite us all as nothing else could, and more important, it will awaken our ultimate weapon." "Thank you Uncle Rand, for being honest with me. Now that I know for s ure I don't want to wait any longer." She blushed deeply. Rand pretended curiosity, "What do you mean?" "I like John, I mean, really like him." He r face turned beet-red, "Do you know if he likes me; has he said anything?" she asked quickly.

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"I happen to know that he's nuts about you," Rand s miled, "why do you ask?" he feigned ignorance unconvincingly. "Take a guess smarty pants!" Sophie retorted quickly, and added, "Uncle Rand, seriously, I don't want to waste any time I have left. I want to be with John." "Then go to him and tell him," Rand advised. Sophie thought for a mome nt, then she smiled at Rand and took off heading for the Grand Canyon. Rand gave her a 'boost' and blinked her there imme diately; Sophie smiled and sent a silent thank-you back to him. She spotted John as she came around the cliff by a large truck directing me n unloading supplies. Sophie flew down to the mess tent and entered by the back. Sgt Damon spotted he r and she confided in him. He chuckled and told her he would call John for her. He went to the front of the Mess tent and called out, "Captain Taft, we need you in here for a mome nt." Then he winked at Sophie and made himself scarce. John came into the mess hall and looked about s potting Sophie. He seemed surprised to see her the re and asked if he could help her. "Sophie, what a nice surprise; can I be of service?" "You bet you can!" she replied as she walked up to him, put he r arms around his neck, and kissed him full on the lips. As they parted s he added in a breathless whisper, "I like you John, I like you a lot! And I didn't want to wait any longer to tell you." "Oh Sophie," ans wered a surprised John. Grinning, he swung her around and bent her over backwards and kissed her passionately. "I've wanted to do that for the longest time." He kissed her again and this time it was Sophie who said, "Oh John!" Outside, Sgt Damon could be heard muttering; "...it's about damn time!"

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By the time a year had passed all were paired and training with Rand. He was merciless in his de mands of perfection. Their enemy was going to be an undisciplined army of butche rs. They had to be ready in an instant to change tactics in order to take the beasts down. Abby could see the toll it was taking on Rand and worried about him constantly. He reassured her that it was necessary; their ene my had no conscience and would be me rciless when they attacked. They could not hope to win if they hesitated even for a second; they had to fight to win. John and Sophie spent all their off-time with each other. It was plainly obvious to everyone that they we re passionately in love. The young couple were very engaging and beloved by all. During this time Rand sought out Abby's advice in many things. Her calm, evenhandedness helped him see things in other ways. He also sought her arms for relief from the burden he carried. Their relationship deepened and their love gre w stronger with each day.

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Rand began to feel an undercurre nt starting, and by years' end there was a definite force in the ether. John came to Rand early one morning with a message from Stanton; he wanted to meet with him. John said he would say no more, only that he had a proposal for him. He asked if Rand would meet him in his office at 1:00pm that afternoon. Stanton was in his office at the appointed time and braced himself for the sudden unorthodox entrance that Rand always used. Unexpectedly, there was knocking at his door and he gruffly shouted, Whos there? I said I didnt want to be disturbed. The door opened and Rand stepped thru smiling at a startled Stanton. Now that were friends and all, I thought Id use the door. Yes, well Stanton quickly recovered, ...very descent of you. So what is it that you want? Rand asked. Yes, well, since all this started word has spread quickly through the ranks. Over the past year I have been besieged with requests for transfers to my unit. I now have a battalion out there , he pointed to the window and beyond, of me n who have requested to fight along side you and your super army. They are all good men, and they are earnest in their belief that this is going to be the mother of all battles. I see murmured Rand. Just for the record, do they realize that in all probability they will be killed like sheep as the beasts attack? They believe that if they can train with your people, they will be able to distract the enemy long enough to give your teams an extra edge. They can buy time for your teams to do whatever it is they do, to des troy the m, ans wered Stanton grimly. Rand was silent for a bit as he thought ove r Stanton's request. He believed that the men's request was born out of need to be part of this, to help in some way. I am impressed by their self sacrifice, their willingness to lay it all on the line, so to speak. Rand thought for a moment more, and then asked Stanton, Would they be willing to meet with us and discuss the realties of what they ask? I can give you a definite yes on that. Stanton hesitated for a mo me nt and then continued. Look, I admit I was a fool and reacted badly in the past. Give me a chance to prove to you, and the children, that I am a changed man; I really would like to help. Rand understood that Stanton was trying to atone for his past actions.

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All right, if you... and they, are that adamant about this, well meet with you. Tomorrow afternoon, say 4:00pm," Rand pointed out the window, there on the open field. And just so you know Stanton, they are no longer children. They have all evolved this past year into young men and women with amazing abilities. Prepare yourself and your me n for a sight that fe w have seen. With that Rand popped out and Stanton sat down and took a long deep breath. Well, that went better than I thought, he said to no one.

When Rand returned to the mountain he called everyone together and relayed his conversation with Stanton. Natalie was the first to speak up. I get no negative vibe from him Rand: I believe he is telling the truth. She searched among the men he described and said, And the men believe just as he said. They believe they would be fighting for the entire human race. All agreed that they would go and meet with them and hear the m out. But they would go as themselves. They would fly in as a group and let these would be fighters know exactly what they would be dealing with.

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Stanton relayed his meeting with Rand to his men and was met with cheers and shouts. The next day everyone was gathe red on the parade field, and at the appointed time, out towards the west there appeared to be a flock of large birds headed their way. It didnt take long for everyone to realize that that was no flock of birds. Silence fell on the group of men as Rand and his army flew to the field and landed. Stanton was amazed at the change in the children. To his eyes they were a magnificent sight. Three hundre d and twenty of the most beautiful beings he had ever seen. He searched quickly thru the group for Trent. His pride was appare nt when he finally spotted his son. Rand stepped forward and looked to Stanton for permission to address the men. Stanton nodded and stepped back to allow Rand use of the microphone. Rand quickly shouted out, I understand you me n have a desire to work with us. He was ans wered with loud shouts of yes sir! and you bet! and anything to help! "Well now, before you make any decisions let me fill you in on what you will be facing. You have never seen the likes of these creatures. They are loud, vicious, and very, ve ry scary." He turned and nodded to Trent. Trent s miled, closed his eyes and concentrated.

Unexpectedly from around the corner of the hanger nearest the field they heard a dreadful scream, quickly followed by a heart-wre nching howl. The most repugnant and hideous beast they could possibly imagine came running towards them. This thing was at least ten feet tall, huge bulbous body, salvia dripping from it's misshapen mouth. All but about thirty men took off running away from the creature, yelling and shouting. The thirty stood their ground and raised their weapons and began to fire. The image suddenly disappeared and the men looked about in be wilderment. Rand called all thirty forward. "You there! Yes, you brave men, come he re. Gathe r about," he shouted, "come on, I don't bite. That's right, gather around. Sorry to fool you like that; Tre nt gets carried away sometimes." He then proceeded to call the others to regroup on the field. "Okay gentlemen, that was just a brief glimpse of our ene my; they are really a lot scarier than you can imagine. You all reacted the same; you ran screaming from the beast; many of you wetting your pants. Please take no offense, none is intended; this is just useful criticis m." He pointed to the thirty me n "...they didn't run! They stood their ground... why?" He looked at each of them as he walked up and down the ranks of men.

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"Oh come on guys, these men appear to be, pardon me gentle men," Rand leaned back as he apologized to them, "paper pushing, number crunching, nerds." Chuckles from the men. "While you, well now, you're all the jocks of this outfit, the go-to guys; men's men." He stepped away for a mome nt and then spun around. "Yet you ran screaming, and they didn't... I ask again, why?" One of the thirty raised his hand. "Yes, you have an answe r," Rand called on him eyeing his name tag, "Benson, is it?" "Sir, yes sir; because we play computer games sir!" "Correct-a-mundo!" Rand shouted making his way to the stage, "give that man a gold star!" Rand stood there with his hands on his hips looking at the men. "So, why would that make a difference?" No one answered, finally Benson's hand shot up again. "Benson!" "Sir! Because we've seen that and worse for years on the games we play. We've gotten used to sights like that, and worse." "The kid gets a kewpie doll!" Trent said alighting beside Rand. "They play these games so often, that they have been de-sensitized to such sights," Trent explained. "This, and worse is what your going to face... you men still want to help?" There we re resounding shouts of "yes, yes! and hu-rahs" from the men. "I want you all to know, anyone who wants to back out - do so now; no one will think any bad of you." No one moved to leave. "Excellent, I applaud you all. Now gentlemen, if you will please raise your eyes upwards I will attempt to show you what you will be supporting." Rand turned and orde red his army into the air. They performe d a series of maneuvers and displayed their talents as the soldiers below stared openmouthed. After a half hour they landed one at a time giving the troops a chance to see each one. "Okay now, still inte rested?" Rand asked as he landed and tucked his wings behind him. "Sir, yes sir!" came the riotous reply. "Ok, good." Rand s miled and turned to his group and winked.

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"Well, first off, with your permission Gene ral Stanton," Rand nodded, "everyone gets three hours a day on some very special games I'm going to lend you. If you have a proble m...ask one of the Thirty for help. The sooner you are used to the sights and sounds, the easier it will be whe n we actually go into battle." He stepped aside and called, "Now, I would like to speak with the tank cre ws; gathe r over here please. Artille ry over there by Trent, he will be your coordinator. General Stanton, sir, will you join me for a moment. I will give you an idea of what I have in mind and maybe you can come up with a plan." Two hours later and Rand and Trent were satisfied with the results of their trip to Camp Buckley. A bold plan had been proposed by Stanton, and his men we re sure it could be imple mented before the arrival of the beasts. Rand made a special request of Stanton. "I would appreciate it if your radar and sonar men paid special attention to any anomalous 'blips' on their screens. I'm expecting a scouting party to arrive within the next couple of months. They will try to keep themselves out of the way, but they will attack if anyone gets close to where they are hiding." Stanton assigned a cre w of six men to the radar room. There would be round the clock surveillance on the many radar and sonar screens in the room. Several months later one of them thought he saw something. The young solide r re membered Rand's warning - it might just be a slight blip, a hiccup on the screen. It was just that, so he decided to say something to John.

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Abby was in the observatory they set up on the mountaintop, her right eye glued to the lens of the giant telescope. She was taking a reading on the incoming fleet of ships; after some calculations she figured they were still at least six months away. More than enough timewell be ready for them. How close are they, Mistress, asked Max curious. We have time Max; theyre still a half a year away. She scratched his head and patted him on the back. Come on, lets go tell Rand. They made their way out and down the mountain to the stand of tall pines where they saw Rand coming up the path. Abby couldn't help but s mile in admiration; he is a mighty pleasant sight for these sore eyes. Hey there beautiful, he called out when he spotted Abby, long time no see !" He bent down and patted Max on the head, "Max, how ya doing, boy? I was thinking the same thing, stranger, Abby called out. Im sorry Abs , he ans wered contritely, every time I try to get away something always comes up. Oh I was just pulling your chain Rand; I know how busy you are. Well, for the next 24 hours I am all yours. He moved closer and took her hand, Ive missed you Abby, missed our talks, you allowing me to vent. You always give me ne w insight into all this. Why you old romantic, youtrying to turn my head, are you? She laughed jokingly. Nothing would give me more pleasure, he said pulling her into his arms. He stroked the side of her face and leaned in to kiss her. She smiled and murmure d about time With the kiss came a sudden explosion of pent-up passion that s urprised them both. Rand took her above to his nest in the treetops and they s tole an hour making love. During this time Rand expressed his strong love for he r and asked he r to be with him. It seemed so right to Abby that she agreed, and they made love again. Afterwards, as she lay contently in his arms, Abby felt completely at peace. Mmm...I had no idea it could be like this , she whispe red breathlessly, "you make it so right." 74

You make me so right, Rand answe red tenderly kissing her on her nose. You know, Ive been wondering about something ," Abby began. "Ive given it a lot of thought, and have to admit that I am stumped. What is it Abs? he asked as he sat up. Well, every one of the children has specific powers, gifts, and they have improved on the m and matured. Whe re do I fit in to that equation? I mean, I've tried to be more, but as you can seeno wings! Am I not a part of all this? Oh no... no, no, my s weet; you are so much more than that. Rand took he r hands in his. You gave them their foundation, their sense of right and wrong. You saved them, and showed them that they were not freaks. You encouraged them to use their gifts, to explore the m. Abby, without your guidance they never would be what they are today. But why dont I have wings too? I dont know baby, I really dont know. Maybe the res something different down the road for you to do. Rand could see she was second guessing her value to them. Don't doubt your value to all of us. They all think of you in the highest terms... almost a reverence. You are their Mother, Abs. Abby blushed red, feeling rather sheepish for ever mentioning how she felt. She could see that Rand was sincere in his belief of her value to the group. Im sorry for being so small-minded to think such thoughts. Abby, youre human, its only natural to second guess yourselfbut dont. You are a lot more important than you think. Rand kissed her on the forehead, stood up, and his stomach suddenly growled loudly. He chuckled and grinned, You know, Im famis hed; lets go get something to eat. "I could use something to nibble on right about now," Abby answe red as she took his hand. Rand landed them both on the trail and they headed up the mountain to the cave. "Hey you two," John called out unexpectedly as Sophie placed him down by the lake, "wait just a second, Stanton sent a message." He hurried up the pathway as Rand came down to meet him. "Contact?" asked Rand. "Not sure, but the Tech swears he saw something 'hic-cup' on the screen night before last." "Thanks John, we'll keep our eyes open."

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Rand turned around and started back up the hill; at the same time something caught John's eye in the center of a stand of trees and he headed towards it. What followe d was as if in a slow-motion dream. Without warning the ground suddenly e rupted and a hideous creature burst forth shrieking and howling. It appeared to be dark purple in color and as she watched it uncoiled several tentacles from it's back. John stopped in his tracks and pivoted to turn and run. The creature lashed out with one of these tentacles, grabbed him and das hed him against a large tree. He was killed instantly. (Two, maybe three seconds had passed.) Sophie let out an agonizing wail and dove on the beast before Rand could stop her. Though s he got some good hits in; she was no match for the beast on her own. She was sent sprawling by an open-handed slap from the creature that slammed her into a tree head first, and landed her near John's body. Blood pouring from her eyes from a large wound on her forehead, she crawled and pulled herself to John's side and there she died with her head on his chest. (A total of maybe 10 seconds had passed by now.) Rand engaged the creature just as the rest of the group popped in. Abby watched in horror as he r 'children' joined-in and battled something other-worldly. Loud explosions and the crackle of electricity filled the air. Rand's horror stories of these monstrous beasts didn't even come close. She watched as the man she loved was battling to the death with a monster from hell. John and Sophie had died at it's hands; and in all probability more would follow. Rand was hit time and again, and so were some of her children. The beast was hit many times and the re was blood everywhere. Suddenly it all came to a head for Abby. Backing up and shaking her head she screamed loudly, "No, no!" Holding her head in he r hands she swayed back and forth and moaned... and all felt it. "No-no-no-no... stop this!" (she sobbed) Her head felt like it would burst; she cradled it in her hands as she sank to the ground. Tears streaming down her face she howled her pain, and the woods echoed her anguish. Her whole body trembled and shook, and the ground followed s uit. After several seconds she raised her head and looked up at the creature. Her eyes were glowing. For the first time Abby was filled with uncontrollable rage and unde rstood the lure to hurt something. She suddenly rose up and exploded into a ball of light. When eyes were able to see again Abby was high above on silve r wings. Rand's eyes went wide in astonished surprise. "Abby...?"

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"You!" Abby bellowed and the ground s hook, followed by a gust of screaming wind. Everything stopped and the creature turned to her in confusion. "Yes you..." Abby raised her hand and made a move ment as if to s weep the creature away, "go back where you came from!" And with that, it simply vanished. Heads turned and stared at Abby in disbelief. With a crash and growl another creature burst up out of the earth on her left. It made for the childre n, growling and lashing its tentacles about. Abby turned her gaze on it and s hrieked, a sound not unlike some kind of primeval banshee. The creature howled loudly, fell to its knees holding its ears, and then it too vanished. All heads, with mouths agape, turned towards the creature, then to Abby, and finally to Rand in confusion. Rand couldn't believe what he had just seen; he always thought that it was John. It was obvious now that Abby was the Holder of the Power. His shock and momentary conte mplation was broken as Abby sank back down to her knees sobbing hysterically. "Oh Sophie, John..." Rand came to her side and knelt and put his arm around her, "Easy, easy girl." Trent and Natalie knelt beside her, and the other children joined until she was surrounded by the m all. "I didn't know it was you, Abs," Rand explained, "I always thought it was John. I am so sorry, I never prepared you for a powe r like this." "R...Rand... I wanted to kill them all...and I kne w I could!" She shook uncontrollably in his arms, shock setting in. "Even as I was seeing them disappear in my minds' eye; part of me wanted to follow them back to their base and destroy the m all." She shivered and shook in his arms. "Oh don't worry, I knew not to do it; but the thought did cross my mind," she sighed. "Such power Rand... (and then softly) ...it almost had a will of its own!" "I know Abby; to wield it is to be like a god." Rand sighed, "He must have a lot of faith in you to give you the honor of Holder." "Oh...," she looked thru the forest to where John and Sophie's bodies lay.

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"I would be lying if I said I didn't think for a moment to end all this now;" She shook her head back and forth, "but... I know it is not to be that way. There are othe r, greater forces in play now, and it must be allowe d to go it's full run." Abby took a deep breath, "Trent, Natalie... please, don't leave Sophie and John there. Move them to the mountain whe re we can bury them together." "Don't worry Abby, I'll see that it is done," Trent ans wered rising. "Come Natalie, our brother and sister need our help one last time."

A shroud of sadness covered the mountain. Everyone was affected by the deaths of John and Sophie. But instead of casting fear and defeat, it only reinforced a resolve among the young warriors to send these creatures packing. Trent took it upon himself to inform General Stanton of John's death. He asked for military permission to bury him on the mountain with Sophie. The General said he would take care of the paperwork. He also expressed his condolences for the death of Sophie. They decided to hold a short ce remony at dusk. Master Sgt. Damon sent out a strong message to Trent telling him he wanted to attend the service. He stood the re, with tears streaming down his large face, holding a bouquet of Indian Paintbrus h, (Sophie's favorite), while Rand spoke of life and death and what is beyond. As Rand spoke, a yellow hummingbird with an iridescent sapphire breast flew about and landed on the large mans shoulde r, staying for the ceremony. Sgt Damon was convinced that it was a message from Sophie letting him know she was all right.

Two days later there was an incursion in China; and a day later another in the colony in Siberia. They were testing us, probing, trying to find any weakness. Rand sent out a warning to all the other camps to be ready. They were all tested, each in their own way. Stanton sent word thru Sgt Damon, who replaced John, that their base had been attacked also. Stanton said it was more like a hit and run than anything else. It appeared that they we re testing their abilities, their weapons, and their resolve. He was proud to say, 'they stood their ground' to the last man. And then suddenly there was nothing. Two days, two weeks, two months... nothing.

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Rand called for a meeting to go ove r intelligence reports. Everyone met at the airplane hanger on the base. Stanton and many of his top soldiers were there along with Rand and Abby, Trent and Ashley, and a host of othe rs. Stanton introduced the Secretary of Defense, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State. Stanton explained that they wanted to sit-in on the meeting; Rand had no objections. Rand's Force gathe red together and he informed them of the two incursions at their camp, and several around the world. And then nothing; for three months the re was nothing. The Intel showe d that their armada was still two months away. "Something just doesn't feel right. They are crafty devils..." Rand looked around the room, "General, is it possible that your satellites were messed with?" "I am finding lately that anything is possible," replied a grim faced Stanton, "so I'll say yes, it could have happened."

Trent and Rand suddenly looked at each other and shouted, "Sgt Damon!" Before they could finis h the sentence Sgt Damon was standing beside Rand. "Damn, you people are quick!" He bellowe d loudly, obviously rattled. "What's happened?" Trent asked the same time as Rand. "Your beasties are here, on the planet. They have been hiding in China all along. One of your gifted youngsters popped into my Mess Hall and scared the 'bejesus' out of me! He was hurt, but he'll recover. He said that the monsters have a base in the Tihaung Mountain range and have had it for sometime. They are on the move as we speak." "Okay, so they've learned to shield themselves from us, somehow." Rand turned to Natalie, "Nat, go down, deep, real deep, and tell me what you 'see-feel'."

Both Secretaries looked to Stanton for explanation. "She can sense things, pick up changes in the ether." "The ether?" asked the Vice-president. "A disturbance in the force...ever hear of that?" He nodded. "Well, whatever is out 'there'... she has a talent for picking it up. She is very, very good," Stanton praised her and noticed it brought a slight s mile to Trent's face. All heads turned to Natalie and waited.

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"Probing...probing, underground...reeks of blood-s mell; coppery. Base... huge...Oh my word! It's their whole base!" Nat's eyes were bigger than saucers and she looked to Trent and then to Rand. "They have a huge base inside the mountain chain in that valley. All their equipment, vehicles, sub-human fighters, it's all there Rand." Nat was visibly upset. "I am so sorry that I never picked them up. I don't know how I could of missed them." "Nat, don't blame yourself, they were deep, real deep." Trent tried to reassure her. "They move about underground to keep off our radar. Warn the India and Tibet camps that they are on the way to them." "Done!" exclaimed Trent. "Just like that?" asked the Secretary of State; Stanton nodded sole mnly. Natalie continue d with tears in her eyes, "They've taken out the Russian camps, Rand, all three of the m. Our friends are all gone." Trent came to her side and took her hand. "They tried to set up a base in the States, in the Appalachian Mountains a while back but failed. Seems the 'hill people' out the re wouldn't allow it: they set them and their intended base on fire. They don't know what to make of them; call them 'crazies'. Anyway, it dre w too much unwanted attention in their direction so they abandoned the idea. They made China their main base; less resistance." "Let's inform the Chinese and let the m nuke the whole area," offered the Secretary of Defense. "Mr. Secretary, you could bomb the area all you want," Natalie began, "but to be honest, I don't think your bombs would have any impact on the m. They are deep... real deep." She suddenly spun around and faced Trent. "Trent, they're afraid... of us!" All heads turned towards Abby as Natalie repeated herself, "they are really, really afraid. If they have to they will destroy the planet itself to get rid of us." Rand sile ntly put out a call for all troops to meet up in the hanger. The Secretaries of Defense and State we re amazed at the steady stream of people blinking into the hanger. Young warriors of every description and size and color took their place among their 'brothers'. "My God..." whispe red the Secretary of State to no one in particular, "I had no idea there we re so many." "They are the next step in our evolution," Stanton replied with some pride.

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"Brothers and sisters," Rand began, "it looks like our battle has come sooner than expected!" Rand turned towards Abby and took her hand. "The beasts have been here all along without our knowing. We will have to go on the offensive if we hope to save our home. This is all or nothing folks, everything is on the line. Once we begin the re is no let up until it is finis hed. How say you all?" "We are with you!" came the thunde rous reply. A thin beam of light descended on Rand and he suddenly began giving orde rs and laying out plans. He was a man possessed as he laid out the battle plan and directed the troops to their positions. Everything was taken into consideration, nothing left to chance. When finished he looked to Abby. "You know what is expected of you..." there was conce rn in his eyes as he spoke. "It's ok Rand, I'll be fine," Abby ans wered softly and kissed him on the cheek, "I understand now."

The morning light rose and covered the valley floor illuminating what had crept in overnight. Row upon row of vehicles, troops, and beastie's. Three miles in front of the m, laid out in what appeared a haphazard fashion, we re Stanton's forces. Half his tanks had dug in and we re just out of sight; a s urprise for the inhuman troops when they begin to move. And above them all, lining the mountain top was Rand and his forces. As the sun rose higher they we re all illuminated. They appeared to be, to the untrained eye, Angels, warriors of God. At the sound of a horn, they began to move in unison down the mountain. They were magnificent!

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PROLOGUE:

History would record that the battle lasted 3 days, 4 hours. There were pitched battles in all areas of the Earth. Great damage was inflicted on both parties. The Military stood its ground to the last man, and if truth be told they helped the 'flyers' gain the advantage. General Stanton died protecting a downed flier whose wing was burned. He held back the monster long enough for another flier to s woop down and pick her up. It was Natalie he protected, and Trent was very proud of his fathe r that day. In the end the final battle was fought and won by Rand and his 'super warriors'. Yet, still the creatures would not give up; they split up into groups and continued to hunt and kill as many humans as possible. They scattered the mselves about the earth causing as much destruction as possible. About a third of the world population was lost.

It was Abby who finally ended it by following them back to their ships. Once there she discovered a second wave on it's way to Earth. She immediately destroyed it and then followe d it's trail back to their home planet. There she found the 'Fallen Ones', filled with murderous hatred that mankind was chosen over the m; they passed this hatred on to the young ones. Abby reasoned that if she got rid of the cause, maybe their planet would evolve on a diffe rent path this time - it was worth a shot. So, she removed them, and then decided to teach them a stronger lesson. She re moved all arms and weapons of any kind from the planet surface. She then sent out a planet wide EMP burst and rendered their entire powe r grid inope rative. In essence she returned the m to the stone age, technologically speaking. When she returned to Earth she took out their base ship orbiting the planet, along with any still on the surface. Mankind survived; just barely. He would, in time, repopulate the earth and life would continue. But this time there would be a jump in the evolutionary status of most humans.

And that... is another story.

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