Fort Bragg Military Base, CA, the Present:
“SEE WHAT you can do with this piece of hardware, James,” Dr. Elizabeth Albion said. From behind the tempered glass of the observation booth, she pointed to an open computer hard drive in front of the teenager. Dr. Albion pulled her long white hair back and tied it up on top of her head in a neat bun. “Can you look inside and see what files are on there?”
The curly-haired sixteen-year-old stared coldly at the white-coated doctor. James was strapped to a metal exam chair. He blinked his blue eyes, glanced at the device, then back to Dr. Albion. He made no attempt to do anything else as he glared at the doctor. “Come, now, James. You don’t want me to punish one of your friends, do you?” Dr. Albion said with a nasty grin. “Keira has been so cooperative, and I’d hate to have to do something terrible to your boyfriend, Paul.”
“I keep telling you, he’s not my boyfriend!” James shouted at the doctor. “You leave them both alone!”
“Then do as I say and no one gets hurt.”
James reached across the nylon restraints on his biceps and rubbed the silver cuffs on his wrists. He felt them deadening his power, sucking it away like two vampires, muting his full potential. “You need to turn these things off first,” James said as he held his wrists up a few inches.
“That’s not necessary,” the doctor replied. “You only need a small amount of your power to break into this hard drive. I wouldn’t dream of giving you the opportunity to use your full power against us. You’ve gotten away from us twice before, but that won’t happen again.”
James continued to glare at the doctor in the observation booth.
“Aren’t you curious what’s on the hard drive? We just received it from the North Koreans.”
“Why can’t you have a computer hacker break into it? What do you need me for?”
The doctor smiled. “Ahh, that’s a good question, James. I always liked that about you, your intelligence. This drive is protected by a small incendiary device. We can’t access it in any physical way. One wrong move and it detonates. Have you ever played the game Operation? It’s just like that, only you die if you touch the sides. We need someone who can get in without touching the drive and setting off the bomb. So, do be careful James. I’m safe in here, but you’ll get the full force of the blast if something goes wrong.”
A rage grew in his stomach. This was the same woman who tricked his mother into giving him to the Paragon Academy two years ago so they could experiment on him. The same woman who sent murderous clones and a bloodthirsty demon after him and his friends Keira, Lumen, Paul, and Tenzing just a few weeks ago. She also tried to remove their extraterrestrial powers with a deadly operation, but that thankfully had failed. And now she wanted his cooperation?
But what choice do I have? James thought.
“What if the files are all in Korean?” James asked. “You need Lumen here; she could read them. Too bad you still haven’t captured her.”
“We’re working on getting Ms. Kim back here ASAP,” Dr. Albion said into the microphone. “Don’t you worry about that.”
“You won’t catch her. She’s too smart.”
“We’ll just have to see who’s smarter, won’t we?” Dr. Albion said casually.
James resigned himself to the task at hand and began to focus his energy. Even with the osmium cuffs deadening his power, he was still at about 10 percent of his ability. Static electricity began to crackle and pop in the air in front of him. White sparks snapped and fizzed, those elusive sparks, dancing in midair. He let his mind drift out onto the electric charges, leaping from one spark to another like stones across a stream, until he was finally inside the busy hard drive. Zeros and ones buzzed past his consciousness like angry bees. He saw the files spinning away on the drive. Then he saw it: a file put there just for him to find. It read: Very good, James. I knew we’d be able to work together again. His mind recoiled and slipped back into his skull.
“What the fuck?” James shouted. “This was all a trick to see if I’d cooperate with you?”
“Yes, James,” the doctor confirmed. “And you passed with flying colors.”
“And the bomb?”
“Use your brains. You are far too valuable to us to risk losing you like that. Especially if what we know about the Nibiru object is correct. You’re more valuable to us now than ever before.”
“The what object?” James asked.
A red light began flashing in the observation booth, and a hidden speaker crackled into life.
“Dr. Albion, we need you at the North Gate immediately. Asmodeus is back with the package.”
“I’ll be along presently,” Dr. Albion answered. “Well, James, that concludes our tests for today. You’re free to go back to the dorms.” She pushed a button unlocking the restraints and released the teen, who stood up, rubbing his arms. “It looks like you’ll be eating your words about Ms. Kim, after all.” Dr. Albion quickly exited.
James knew “the package” they were talking about had to be his telepathic friend Lumen Kim, the last of the Paragon runaways who hadn’t been captured yet. His heart sank that they had finally caught her, but he was happy they would be together again. Lumen would help him escape. Another thing made him sick to his stomach: Asmodeus, the demon, bringing her to Fort Bragg. He had sworn to sacrifice both Lumen and Keira to satisfy his bloodlust when he had the chance. Obviously, he didn’t have access to Keira anymore, and clearly he hadn’t had time to do anything to Lumen. But it made James nauseous to think about. Paragon had promised both girls to Asmodeus when they were done experimenting on them.
And Tenzing. What about Tenzing? Was he with them? What happened to him? I’m not going back to the dorms. Forget that!
James moved quickly from the examination room and out into the adjacent hallway. He caught a glimpse of Dr. Albion’s coat disappearing behind a closing door at the far end. James ran after her and opened the door carefully. He looked outside. No MPs were on patrol. For some strange reason, unlike at the Paragon Academy, James wasn’t supervised all the time here at Fort Bragg. None of them were. He had free run of the dorms, barracks, and base. But that was probably because no one could escape from Fort Bragg, aka, The Dome.
Only the underground levels were off-limits.
The doctor headed toward the wooden structure that served as the North Gate. Her high heels clicked loudly on the heat-treated tarmac. James still hadn’t gotten used to how weird the plasma dome made the sunlight look: like twisting rainbows wiggling around where it fell around his sneakers. Dr. Albion said the nanopartical dome made the whole place invisible to anyone outside, and it was impossible to get in or out without a special key. It protected Project Jedi completely. James passed through the dome only once when they brought him inside. It felt like walking into electrified Jell-O. With the cuffs now on his wrists, trying to pass through the dome in the other direction would be a death sentence. The cuffs were programmed to invert their wearer’s power if they met with the dome’s energy signature. If someone tried to pass through, they’d implode; all that would be left would be a pile of broken, bloody bones.
From behind a parked Jeep, James observed a tall black-and-white something, most likely Asmodeus, bringing a girl with long black hair through the dome portal.
Is that Lumen?
The dome distorted everything on the other side. As he got closer, James could see the demon’s whole body; it was covered with deep black burn marks that ran over his pasty skin. They crisscrossed like markings on a map.
Yep, that’s Asmodeus all right.
The girl struggled against the demon, but he pulled her inside the dome.
It is Lumen! James was sure.
Dr. Albion walked over and was saying something to them. Then James heard Asmodeus and the doctor laugh loudly at the same time. Lumen glared at Dr. Albion as several MPs milled around the trio.
James turned and saw Paul coming. He ran over and hunkered down, trying not to be noticed. He sidled up alongside James. Maybe it was because he was so muscular or his black flattop was so severe, but Paul looked older than James.
“They got Lumen!” James informed Paul as he brushed against him.
“I can see,” Paul said and shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “I was getting used to how nice and quiet it was without her.”
James glared at Paul who smirked back.
“And that asshole demon came here too,” James added.
“I don’t see Tenzing, do you?”
“No.” James craned his neck around the Jeep to look.
“But that’s a good thing, right?” Paul asked. “If they didn’t catch him, maybe he’s still on the outside and he’ll help us break out.”
James stared at Paul. “It’s so funny how one moment you don’t like Tenzing and you call him a parasite, and the next moment, because he can help us out, you like him.”
“Hey, I’m looking out for Number One, and that’s me. What can I say?”
“I hope you’re kidding,” James said doubtfully. “Maybe they’ve done something terrible to Tenzing.”
A struggle erupted between the black-and-white demon and the guards. Arms were flailing. Lumen jumped back but was grabbed before she could run away. Dr. Albion threw something in the air that exploded into a cloud of fine blue power. Asmodeus suddenly began to shrink as the guards slapped a pair of power-deadening cuffs on his wrists. When the smoke cleared, the demon was gone, and in his place stood a redheaded boy. There was something strange about the boy’s eyes, but it was hard to tell from this distance.
James stared in disbelief.
“That’s the same kid that slave trader, Holcomb, had with him when he tried to catch us!” Paul said. “His name is Alexander.”
“What’s he doing here with Lumen? Where’d Asmodeus go?” James asked quickly.
Both teenagers stood up and watched as the armed guards dragged Lumen and Alexander toward the center of the base, to the processing center for new recruits (and prisoners). As the guards got closer, James and Paul got down and hid behind the Jeep again. They waited a few minutes before running back to the test-subjects’ dorms. They were out of breath when they got inside. They went through the lobby and down the hallway to James’s room. Inside was a thin table, an armless chair, a green Army bunk, a bathroom, and a metallic arming hub in the corner to charge the power-deadening cuffs they all had to wear.
Paul drew up next to James. He grabbed him by the hand and turned him around and planted a wet kiss on his lips.
“Hey!” James shouted and pushed Paul away. “What are you doing? You know we can’t have Paragon find out!”
“I thought Albion already knew?”
“She suspects, but she doesn’t know. That’s the difference. They’re looking for any reason to separate us. And they could use our relationship against us and make us do things we don’t want to do.”
“I don’t think it makes any difference to them anyway,” Paul said glumly. “They don’t need a reason to shock us and lock us up in solitary. Or make us wear these ridiculous matching jumpsuits.” They both looked down at their tight-fitting all-white uniforms. All the test subjects at Project Jedi wore them so they could be easily identified in an emergency.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to end up in the Sculpture Garden,” James said, making an ugly face. “All drugged up and comatose like a zombie.”
“Like our clones?” Paul said.
“I know, right?” James agreed. “That could have been us.”
“Except we don’t malfunction; clones do. That’s why they’re there with all those other Paragon kids, their energy being sucked away like human batteries to power this place.”
“It freaks me out.”
“The clones aren’t people anyway. That’s what EBE said.”
“EBE said a lot of things,” James said, grinning.
“That’s because he’s an alien and has an opinion about everything.”
“Yeah, but he’s our alien,” James added. “And besides, he’s Zeta Reticulan, not alien. You know EBE doesn’t like being called ‘alien.’ It’s disrespectful.”
“Well, I was just kidding,” Paul said as he slipped his arm around James’s waist. “There’s no one watching us right now.”
“Are you nuts? There are cameras all over the base,” James said, pointing to a camera in the corner.
“We’ll just have to slip away to where there aren’t any…,” Paul said with a wicked grin and gleam in his eyes.
“Not now. I want to find out what they’re doing with Lumen,” James said, pushing Paul away again, annoyed.
“I don’t know why we put up with this from Project Jedi or Paragon,” Paul said sullenly.
“You know why. They’ll punish us if we don’t obey.”
“But we’re gods compared to them.”
“You’re still part human too, you know,” James said.
“But I’m invulnerable, and you’re a human lightning bolt. We should be ruling over this base, not the other way around,” Paul said and then thought about it a little bit more. “In fact we should be ruling over this planet!”
“That’s not the Zetan way, and you know it,” James said. “We weren’t given these powers so that we could rule over others or dominate them.”
“But why not?” Paul asked. “If we can do it, why shouldn’t we? Maybe Dr. Albion is right? Some of the things she’s been saying to me in the labs make sense.”
“We’re here to help, not hurt.”
“Aww, you’re a wet blanket.”
“That’s Mr. Wet Blanket, to you,” James said and punched Paul in the arm. “We should tell Keira that Lumen is here.”
“Do we have to?” Paul whined.
“Really?” James studied Paul’s expression. For a moment he was looking at a stranger, not his friend. James shook off that thought. “I think Keira would be really happy Lumen is here.”
“Do you even know where Keira is?”
“She said they’re making her fortify plutonium or something over in Lab B,” James said. “You don’t have to come with me. I can do it myself.”
“I’ll come. I’ve got nothing better to do.”
“Well, as long as your social calendar isn’t full…,” James said, half-joking, half-annoyed.
“Let’s sneak over there.”
“Okay, you’re the boss.”
JAMES AND Paul cut across the base, past the mess hall and over to the laboratory sector. They saw Keira emerging from Lab B. She spotted them and ran over.
“Lumen just contacted me when I was working with Dr. Midwich,” she said excitedly. “She sent me a thought-form. I couldn’t say anything, but she’s here at Project Jedi! I’m so relieved she’s okay. I thought something bad might have happened when Holcolm kidnapped her from our hideout.”
“We just saw them bring her in,” James answered.
“And that kid Alexander was with Lumen too.”
“That weird kid Holcomb had with him,” Paul said. “The one with swirling eyes.”
“They must have both escaped from him,” Keira said as she joined the boys walking next to the MPs barracks. “Did you see Tenzing? I kinda feel that he’s nearby.”
“I didn’t see him, but I hope you’re right,” James replied. “I really hope someone is outside the dome who can help us.”
A blood-curdling howl came from a large brick building to their far left across the sterile quad. They all called it the ‘Bloodwork’ building because that’s what they did in there. Surgeries were performed too. All the most painful things happened in the laboratories in that building.
Keira froze and grabbed at her chest. “Jesus, that scared the shit out of me!”
“What was that?” James asked.
“It sounded like a wild animal,” Keira added.
“Let’s go see,” Paul said as the three of them headed over to one of the large side windows. Inside they discovered a creature none of them had ever seen before. It was strapped to a metal examination table, it must have been seven or eight feet tall, and it was completely covered with beautiful golden hair. Its face was relatively hairless except for a perfectly curled handlebar mustache and shaggy blond beard. Its skin was also a golden color. Two doctors guided a knife and forceps to its extended right arm. It shook and squirmed and then let out another earsplitting howl of pain, its humanlike face contorted in anguish.
“He looks like a Wookie,” Paul said.
“I wonder if that’s a real live sasquatch?” James asked.
“Check out that ridiculous mustache!” Paul said, laughing and pointing. “Is Bigfoot a hipster?”
“What are they doing to him?” Keira asked with great concern. “It’s horrible. They shouldn’t torture him like that.”
“They do the same things to us,” James said matter-of-factly.
“But he’s like a great big teddy bear. It’s so mean to treat him like that,” Keira said and then rubbed the metal cuffs on her wrists. “If I wasn’t wearing these, I’d go in and turn those doctors to stone.”
“Okay, Medusa,” Paul said and laughed. “Whatever.”
“You know I would,” Keira answered Paul’s teasing.
“Are you the PETA police on this base now, or something?” Paul asked again, trying to get a reaction from Keira. “Are you going to save Bigfoot in there from more animal experimenting? Maybe they’ll be testing lipstick and eyeliner on him next?”
“Just ignore him when he’s like this,” James said to Keira. “Why are you acting like such a dick right now? Do you get off on animal torture, or what?”
“Jeez,” Paul replied. “I’m just kidding. You both need to chill out.”
James took Keira’s arm and began to lead her away. Just as they turned away from Paul, the golden creature looked up from the exam table and made eye contact with James. A plaintive emotion emanated from the being that penetrated right into James’s soul. A deep connection opened like a river of feelings between them. James stopped in his tracks. Something moved between them beyond words, something achingly beautiful. He felt like crying. Then James saw a mental image of the handsome creature being captured by the Army; he was snarled within metal nets and chains. Many soldiers subdued him. James felt his terror and sadness. James closed his eyes and put his hands on his head.
Paul walked up to James. “Not you too?” he asked with a frown. “There’s nothing we can do for Mr. Golden Retriever in there.”
“He needs our help,” James said. “We have to do something.”
“But Albion will kill us if we mess around in there, and I don’t want to go into solitary again,” Paul replied.
“So, what?” Keira said. “We should still help him. Look at him. He’s so sad.”
“We may be prisoners at Project Jedi, forced to do things against our will, but we can still make their jobs here more difficult,” James said. “It can be our little revenge. Let’s turn this guy loose on the base and see what mayhem he causes.”
Paul seemed to perk up at the suggestion. “A little mischief never hurt anyone.”
“I have an idea,” James said and waved the two of them over to join him as he crept around the side of the brick building. He located a long black cable emerging from the back wall. “I’m going to see if I can make the lights short out inside. Then I’ll sneak in and zap the creature’s restraints. I don’t have much of a charge left, but I bet if I loosened the restraints enough, he could rip them off. Then he’ll run wild all over the base.”
“That would be awesome!” Paul said.
“We’ll stand guard outside and let you know if anyone is coming,” Keira said, nudging Paul and pointing. “One here and one on the other side of the building.”
“Good idea,” James said and grabbed the dangling cable in both hands. He closed his eyes and forced a little bit of electricity down into the wire, trying to overload it. His hands began to glow with green energy. And then the wire snapped in two. “Whoa—not what I wanted to happen, but that’ll do,” he said, dropping the two ends. “Stay back here and keep an eye out.”
“Will do,” Paul said, saluting James.
James went around to the front of the building. The lights were off in the lobby and the hallways when he entered. Doctors, orderlies, and MPs were wandering around with flashlights trying to figure out what happened. He saw his chance. James hurried down to the last room on the right. The door was open, and the two doctors were gone. James moved slowly over to the metal exam table. The hairy creature turned his head and then looked James up and down. He gave James the most glorious, manly smile. The creature’s eyes sparkled gleefully, and a slight blush came upon his golden cheeks. For such a hairy man-creature, there was something genuinely handsome about him. In a way, he looked like one of those rugged models who sold beard grooming products. He definitely was more of a young man than a monster.
“I’m your friend. I won’t hurt you,” James said as he drew closer to the golden being. He pointed to himself. “Friend. I am your friend. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do,” the creature replied in a deep, welcoming voice.
“You speak?” James asked and stopped in his tracks.
“Of course, I do. I am a person just like you.”
“I’m sorry. I’m a little surprised. You look like…,” James said, then paused, choosing his words carefully. “I didn’t think you’d speak English.”
“It’s my second language, but I’m going to be an English major,” the creature said. “I’m already enrolled at Harvard for the next term.”
“You’re going to Harvard?” James asked with some surprise.
“As my father did and his father before him. I’m only seventeen, the youngest of my family ever to be admitted. Only my great-grand uncle, Prakaash, broke the lineage and became a Yaley,” the man-creature said. “Could you help me get off this table?”
James instinctively went over and placed his hands on the metal restraints. “I think I can weaken the restraints enough for you to pull them off.”
“That would be awesome.”
James concentrated all his power into the metal band across the creature’s chest. He felt it heating up, getting softer. “Try pulling on it now.”
The creature flexed his biceps and snapped the restraint clean off. Then the strange being ripped off the two leg restraints and stood up. He had a bandage on his right wrist, which looked new. There was still a little blood on it. With his two enormous hands, he dusted off his golden hair from top to bottom, grooming and styling it. He stood towering over James. “Thank you!” he said and then paused. “Where are my manners? I’m Prince Tutata Taara of the Saesq’ec People, but you may call me Falling Star,” the prince said as he gave a humble bow. “And who are you?”
“I’m James Kerr.”
“Nice to meet you, James Kerr.”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” James said awkwardly. “I’m not royalty or anything. The nickname they have for me around the base is Lightning Bug.”
“Why is that?”
“I can control electricity. Well, any form of energy really,” James said. There was something about Falling Star that made him shy and self-conscious. Maybe it was the way he kept smiling at him. “See?” James said as he held up his hand, and tiny green arcs of electricity shot out from his fingertips and dissipated into the air. Falling Star watched with great attention. He seemed completely enthralled.
“Truly amazing,” Falling Star said. He was quiet for a moment, contemplating. “It is as it was foretold to me when I was young. You are remarkable, James Kerr. I imagine it will be quite something to get to know you.” The prince smiled at him again, and James suddenly felt like swooning. He quickly came back to his senses.
“Listen, this has been great and everything. You seem really cool, but we both need to get out of here before those doctors come back with the MPs,” James said as he looked over his shoulder at the doorway. “I’m going to get in so much trouble if they catch me in here with you.”
“You’re right,” Falling Star said. “And I don’t want to be on that exam table again.”
The sounds of heavy boots echoed up the hallway followed by a pair of voices.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” James said.
“Okay, but I won’t forget your kindness, James Kerr. And I certainly won’t forget you.” The hairy prince reached out and took up James’s right hand and quickly kissed the back of it. His mustache tickled James’s skin.
James felt his face flush. But before he could reply, the prince bolted out of the room and disappeared down the hallway. Cries of surprise came through the doorway. James stood motionless, lost in thought. He heard growls and the sounds of furniture and glass breaking and then footsteps running away. James came out of his trance. He ran from the examination room, down the now-empty hallway, and out behind the building where Paul and Keira were waiting for him.
“Took you long enough,” Paul said.
“What was all that noise?” Keira asked.
“Things didn’t go quite as I planned,” James said, wanting to hide his blushing.
“Did you set him free?”
“I did. He’s some kind of prince. He told me his name, Tattoo Tonto or something like that. He’s seventeen, and he’s going to go to Harvard in the fall.”
“What?” Paul asked. “It can talk?”
“Yeah. He has a really nice voice,” James said. “It’s very deep and masculine.”
“And that thing is going to go to Harvard?”
“I swear. That’s what he told me,” James said emphatically. “He said next semester.”
“So, wait—that shaggy mutt in there said he’s going to Harvard, as in Harvard University?”
“He said I could call him Falling Star,” James said dreamily.
Keira started laughing. “Looks like you’ve got some competition, Paul.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Paul asked and then observed James’s expression. “There’s no comparison,” Paul said smugly.
“I thought he looked adorable,” Keira shot back. “I wouldn’t blame James for having a crush on him.”
Paul and Keira looked at James simultaneously.
“What? I don’t have a crush!” James sputtered. “I just met him. He seems nice for a really hairy guy. I mean, if you liked really hairy guys.”
“Besides, James has better taste than that shaggy mop, anyway,” Paul said, putting his arm around James’s shoulders and drawing him near. “Don’t you, James?”
Unconsciously, James felt the spot on the back of his hand where Falling Star kissed him. It was soft and warm as if the kiss were still there waiting for James. “That’s right. Paul and I are together.”
“Well, at least you stopped them experimenting on him, whatever his name is,” Keira said at last. “That’s one for us and zero of Project Jedi.”