Character Key:

Sean=Tactical Planning

Ike=Combat

Evan=Technology

Selena=Elemental Control

Amber=Telepathy

Sky=Senses where things are

Prologue

"Dr. Fausten, sir, it's ready." a man in a white lab coat babbled to a seemingly empty chair. Nothing happened for a few seconds. Then a pair of hands swooped out of the empty chair, and it was possible to see a man clothed in almost all black pressing his fingertips together, like spiders doing push-ups on each other's legs.

"You're sure?" the man in black replied, his voice barely more than a whisper. The man in the lab coat seemed to debate with himself for a few seconds before returning his attention to his boss.

"Very. All six chips are ready for use. We only have to find subjects young enough..." the man in the lab coat trailed off. Dr. Fausten leaned forward to reveal a pale face and neatly combed black hair. His nearly black eyes bore into him, the color accentuated by the blood lining the white surrounding the irises.

"What do you mean, 'We only have to find subjects young enough'?" he demanded, his whisper as transparent as his first reply. Dr. Fausten was making it apparent that his patience was being tried by his inferior's frustrating news.

"Ah- you see, due to an unforeseen scientific error, the chips can only be implanted in humans at a time intermediate in their maturity. Otherwise, the subjects will go insane from mentally growing so much when their brains formerly believed them to be mature."

"I see. So my chips can only be implanted in children. What about control?"

"One hundred percent."

Dr. Fausten fell back into the darkness. "I was intending to use them on myself and several people close to me. But I suppose the chips will serve other purposes. You, however, have fulfilled your purpose. This was the best you can do."

"Th-thank you, Doctor."

"Hand me the chips."

The man in the white lab coat pushed over a manila folder. A hand reached out from the darkness and grabbed it. The man in the coat turned to leave, but Dr. Fausten had different things on his mind.

"Stay a minute, doctor. I need some time to say goodbye." Dr. Fausten said, a hint of a smile playing around his voice. This was such an odd comment that the man in the lab coat made the mistake of turning around to face him.

Dr. Fausten was holding a modified laser gun. The regular model was designed to fry wherever the bolt landed. However, Dr. Fausten employed his scientific genius to change his so that when it came in contact with a human, the bolt would worm into their stomach and immolate the person from the inside.

The man in the lab coat turned to run, but Dr. Fausten had a fast trigger finger.

Fausten fired, and the man in the lab coat was reduced to ashes within second, leaving a slight burning scent lingering in the room.

"Well, well, well," said Fausten to no one in particular. "It looks like you've gathered the pieces and done my grunt work for me. I can finally make my personal alterations. Oh, and by the way..." At this point Fausten stood and walked into the doorway. "You're fired."

Chapter 1

6 Months Later

Ike was not having a good day. He hadn't had a good day ever since he was placed in the orphanage, after his house had burned down, killing his mother and sister. But today, the orphanage management (Ike hadn't cared to ever learn her name, although he suspected it was Ms. Pickett) had brought him bad news.

They'd found him a foster family.

For most people, that would have been wonderful news. But not to Ike. Although orphanage life was less than ideal, there was a diamond shining in the coal of his situation: he had friends for once. Back home, everybody had considered him violent. I'm not violent, he thought, just easily #!*% off. However, the other kids his age in the building didn't care about his sudden transformation into a boxing stance whenever he heard a slight creak on the floorboards. They didn't mind the fact that he yelled just to hear himself over the bleak memories that rattled around in his head. And after he told them about what had happened to his dad, they didn't blame him at all. Sean, Selena, Amber, Evan, and Sky were the friends he had spent his whole childhood wondering about while lying on his bed because his mother had confined him to his room after another face-off at school. Sean's parents had died to a contagious disease when he was young, and no foster family would take him, although doctors had repeatedly tested him negative for it. Selena... wouldn't talk about her parents. Amber was positive that her father had been killed by a burglar, but all that was known about the incident was that a body was found in her kitchen, which tested DNA positive for her father. Evan's parents had both died in their line of duty: US army. Sky's parents had died simultaneously in a car accident. Braving their checkered pasts, united the friends in their own odd way.

The night before he was to be taken away, Ike lay awake on his bed, wondering what would become of him. He'd be made to go to school, and wear 'proper clothing' instead of his father's old combat vest and boots.

He was wallowing in self pity when the wall next to his bed silently exploded. Ike yelled something profane and awoke Selena and Sean...the others were deep sleepers. But before they could do anything, security drones marched in through the smoke. Each one carried a Gecko Immolation Blaster, and each was silent. Ike wondered what the Gecko drones would want from six orphans, but before any other questions could wander through his head, a stunner bolt smacked him in the chest.

He woke up on a cold, metal table. He looked to his left and saw a rather large scalpel, and decided to attempt to go back to sleep again. He found he couldn't, so he looked to his right and saw a man in black sitting in a chair, watching him intently.

"Where am I?" Ike said, his loud voice surprising the man in the chair. His mouth still felt a relative numbness, bringing upon a slight slur to his speech.

"That's confidential information."

"Confidential information?! You storm an orphanage with Gecko drones, and then--"

Ike cut himself off as he realized something, and his eyes grew wide as plates. He would have jumped in surprise if he hadn't been chained to the table he was lying on.

"Yes?" said the man in black.

"Y-you're Vince Fausten," Ike stammered. "Founder of Gecko."

"Ah, yes," said Dr. Fausten. "But you may call me Dr. Fausten. My multibillion dollar computer corporation being the number one company in the world, this should be a great honor to you, Ike. What's your last name?"

Ike's brow furrowed: He didn't like that question. But he had the feeling that Dr. Fausten already knew the answer to it.

"I don't have one," he said finally. "And you know it. What do you want with a nobody?"

"Six nobodies, actually." the doctor sighed. "And being a nobody is the most important thing about you."

Ike scratched the top of his head, which was itching rather badly, and was surprised to feel stitches in his scalp.

"What're these?" he demanded. But the doctor had other ideas.

"All in good time, my friend. And now...I believe it's time for a little reunion."

Sean threw his watch at his cell door again, frustrated. He'd awoken on an operating table with stitches in his head and was unceremoniously thrown into a cell large enough for ten people to live in it, no problem. Since then, his friends had slowly trickled in, escorted by blank-looking security guards. Sky had been the first to arrive. She had complained to Sean that she felt like too much was going on in her brain. Sean had told her that she shouldn't worry about that, but instead worry about what Dr. Fausten wanted them for. It seemed strange to blow up an orphanage to take hostages, and then illegally operate on them.

Evan had arrived a half hour after Sean had been thrown into the cell. He and Sean discussed what a world industrial supergiant could possibly want with six teenage orphans, but came to no logical conclusion. Then Amber was pushed into the cell. She appeared to have attempted to get away, because one of the guards' arms was sticking out at a strange angle and she had a bloody nose. She silently sat down and refused to talk to anybody. They wondered were Ike and Selena were, but before they had sufficient time to worry Dr. Fausten appeared in their cell door.

"Hello, my pets," he said, and immediately all four kids' faces turned into snarls. "Now, now, be nice. I don't want to hurt you."

He showed them a Gecko Immolation Laser stowed in his belt, and the kids unhappily made their faces express neutrality.

"Now, I know you're worried about your other two friends...but we have to go to the conference room down the hall. They'll be there."

The hall was rather long, and several blank-faced security guards trudged past them. But just when it felt like the hall was far too long to traverse, they reached two oak-wood doors.

"Real oak," said Dr. Fausten. "Only grows in remote areas like the Rockies these days."

He pressed his hand on a panel to the right of the door and it swung open to reveal a typical conference room.

"You said that Ike and Selena would be here," Sean said. "But I don't see them."

"All in good time, children. Sit down!" Dr. Fausten gestured to the chairs in front of them. He sat at the head of the table, while the kids sat at the far end of the table. "Now, you must have questions. But I'm sure you're very hungry. Lunch, please."

As if he was speaking into a microphone, servants appeared on either side of the table and put down plates in front of Dr. Fausten and the kids. The servants also placed two extra plates near Dr. Fausten, which Sean took as a good sign. It meant that his friends were still alive. The five residents of the room ate in silence until their plates were clean.

"Where are Selena and Ike?" Sky demanded.

"Impatient as always," said Dr. Fausten. He clapped his hands, and the servants brought two unconscious forms into the room. "I'm afraid the surgery had some adverse effects on them. I'm not sure what they are, but they'll be fine."

"Okay, enough dancing around, Dr. Fausten. We want to know what exactly it is that you did to us." Amber spoke for the first time since she was kidnapped. Apparently she had sharp ears.

"Fine." The doctor looked unhappy that he hadn't been allowed to play with his 'pets' for much longer, but he obliged. The first thing he did was to pull out a remote and press two buttons on it. Ike's and Selena's eyes fluttered open.

"Where am I?" they said simultaneously.

"Relax, my pets. You're safe."

Sean could feel himself relaxing, now that he knew his friends were safe.

"Now, down to business."

"Yes, exactly. What did you bring us here for?" Amber demanded before anyone had a chance to breathe.

"Well, you've all been selected to test the Gecko Booster Program. I like to call it Program X, because X is a very common variable. And the Gecko Booster Program has many variables."

"But what does it do?" Selena inquired, her eyes narrow.

"Well, I suppose there's no hiding it from you any longer. The Program X chips installed in your brain boost your brainpower."

"You mean we're super-smart now?" Sean said, leaning forward.

"No," scowled the doctor. "The program only enhances certain small areas of your brain, but those areas can be exploited to give each and every one of you certain...abilities."

"You mean we're superheroes now?" said Evan, no longer able to contain himself.

"No, no. I mean each of you have enhanced abilities. For example, Evan, would you be able to craft a lockpick out of your utensils?"

"Easy," Evan said as he rolled his eyes as if it was the easiest thing to do. He then picked up his knife and fork and twisted them out of shape so that they resembled some small tool that could disable a lock. Then his eyes widened. "How'd I do that?"

"The computer chip installed in your brain," replied Dr. Fausten. He then turned to Sean. "I'll have a computer-powered chess set sent to you. See if you can beat it."

Sean squinted in confusion, then understood. Dr. Fausten was testing him to see whether or not the surgery had any affect. He proceeded to give the other teenagers in the room tests: He asked Sky to tell him if there were any security guards outside the doors, and if so, how many? He asked Amber to tell him something, but not to speak or move her mouth or act it out. In the end, his smile was so large that Sean thought his face would split in half.

But then he turned to Selena and Ike.

"Your tests are outside," Dr. Fausten said. "Follow me."

Ike was wondering what his new skill could possibly be when they approached a different door. This one was stainless steel. It slid open, and Ike found himself in a room with a boxing ring in the middle and assorted weaponry on the walls. You name it, they had it: guns, knives, maces, swords, Immolation Blasters, scimitars...

And there was also a very mean-looking guy holding a machete in the middle of the boxing ring.

"Hold on," Ike said to Dr. Fausten. "You can't make me fight this guy."

Dr. Fausten raised an eyebrow and smiled. "Can't I?"

You should fight, said a voice in Ike's mind. Ike agreed with it. He chose a dagger and rapier from the wall: they would be fighting melee, according to the knife that the man was holding. He then stepped towards the boxing ring, but had one last thought before he turned to Dr. Fausten.

"What happens if I lose?" Ike asked.

"You either die or you win. There's no losing." Dr. Fausten replied.

"Great," muttered Ike as he stepped into the ring.

The man charged him, and Ike, without planning anything, stepped out of the way and attempted to stab the man with his rapier, but the man sidestepped and turned to face him. The man lunged with his knife, but Ike parried with his dagger and disarmed the man with his rapier.

He had no idea how he'd done it.

Kill him, pressured the voice in Ike's mind.

"No," he whispered.

That was when the man pulled a Gecko Immolation Blaster out from his back pocket. He fired three times. Ike ducked, flipped and cartwheeled until all the shots were gone. Then he threw his rapier at the gun, which clattered to the floor, useless.

Kill him.

Ike charged and plunged the knife in the man's back. Vital fluid rapidly began to seep through his shirt, and it squirted askew as he landed to the floor of the ring with a clunk.

"Good, very good," chuckled Dr. Fausten. "Now I have to check on your little friend."

Selena was doing just fine, thank you very much, as she dodged the flaming arrows and random pieces of earth that seemed to want to throw her to the crocodiles below. Dr. Fausten appeared in the spectator stand.

"Is that all she can do? I guess you haven't figured it out, then, my pet."

Selena was so distracted listening to Dr. Fausten that she hadn't noticed a flaming arrow that was about to set her hair on fire. The only reaction she could muster in such a quick time was to throw her arm up against it.

And it clattered to the floor, smoking and harmless.

Selena was so surprised that she almost didn't notice the piece of rock that had just appeared in front of her, or the particularly hungry-looking crocodile that was riding on top of a very large wave coming right towards her.

Come on, Selena. You can do this. You saw what happened to the arrow.

She threw her arm forward, and the rock was pushed back several feet. The water also lurched backwards a little bit, but still continued its charge towards her. She decided to try a different arm motion, and threw her arm up as if she were showering dust all over herself. The rock rose to an alarming height, and the water collided head-on against it.

"Let her out. She passes," ordered Dr. Fausten.

Ike and Selena were led back to the cell, quite shaken after their tests, but both neither of them had spoken afterwards. They found Sean playing and winning his fourteenth chess game, Evan building a computer out of scrap parts, and Sky sitting in a meditative stance, her eyes closed.

Hello, Amber's voice appeared in their minds.

"What?" they said simultaneously.

"Oh, sorry," Amber said sheepishly. "It's hard to--"

--get this telepathy thing under control.

"Okay, that's really weird," commented Ike.

"So, what did Fausten test you on?" Sean asked without looking up from his chess game.

"Nothing important," said Selena, although her face made it clear that there was definitely something disturbing her. But then a voice in her mind suggested that she relax, and she complied with it.

The door silently swished open, and Dr. Fausten walked into their cell. He was dressed in a white lab coat this time, and a happy smile played around his face.

"You've all passed your first test," he announced. "Training begins tomorrow. Good night."

And with that, the lights went out.

Ike slept fitfully. His sleep was disturbed by many, many images of violence.

Training, as it turned out, wasn't so bad. All six of the kids got to be in the same room, but with different tasks. There was a line of computers along one wall, each of them loaded with real-time-strategy games. Sean played all of them on Very Hard difficulty, and he seldom lost. Sky was sitting in front of a computer screen which was giving her directions for who-knows-what. Amber was mindlessly chattering to a guard whose temple was about to explode. Evan was constructing even more computers to put along the wall, and Selena and Ike were sparring with each other.

Selena threw out her hand, and Ike was pushed back. Before Selena could recover from her attack, Ike somersaulted and was about to cut her leg when he stopped before inflicting any significant damage.

"Good fight," he said as he shook her hand. The 'real oak' doors slid open, and Dr. Fausten marched in.

"Hello, my pets," he said. "I see that you've completed warm-up. Are you ready for your real training?"

Amber's brow furrowed.

Real training? her voice echoed in his mind. Dr. Fausten displayed a mildly annoyed expression, but soon turned back to talking.

"Yes, real training, subject S-5. Each day the group of you will be put in a different situation, and you will use your abilities to solve it. Come with me to the holographic construct room."

The group of seven walked through the whitewashed maze of hallways. They turned left, right, left, left, right, right, left, right, left, until finally they found themselves in an incredibly large metal room.

"This," explained Dr. Fausten, "Is the holographic construct room. It is real in every way except for actually taking up the space inside. Today's program is similar to capture-the-flag, but you must dismantle the opponent's flag. Both flags are bombs. Your job is to make sure that your bomb isn't activated while activating the opponent's. The opponents are holographic constructs, so you won't need to worry about killing them."

With that, he left the room. As he did, he pulled a switch, and suddenly the kids found themselves in what seemed to be the remnants of a city. There was a metal casing with a bunch of wire inside it, and some other tools. Ike picked up a grappling gun, knife, and stun gun. Evan picked up a bunch of computer tools and wrenches. Selena, Amber, and Sky all chose stun guns as their weapons.

"Sky, can you tell me what else is out there?" Sean asked as he waved towards the city. Sky sat down and closed her eyes for a minute, then stood up and opened them.

"Six holograms, all on the other side."

"'Kay, thanks. Logically, they'll have the same weapons as us. Now, hands up: Who can defuse a bomb?" Sean asked the group. Evan put his hand up. Although he had no real practice, if he could put together a lockpick from forks, defusing a bomb could not take that much more skill. "Good. Now, we just have to figure out how to get into their base. Ike, you and Evan will sneak around the combat. Selena will draw in some of their soldiers, and Sky, Amber, and I will take care of them. Selena, you'll give us support. Ready?"

All five of the others nodded.

"Let's go."

Ike turned to Evan and handed him a combat knife and tool belt. Evan nodded tacitly, and the pair scurried off to the far side of the room.

Sean turned to the remaining teens. "Now, stay here and wait for Selena's signal."

What's her signal? asked Amber. Sean grinned.

"You'll know it when you see it."

Selena was scurrying as fast as she could towards the other side of the room, not caring about who saw her. That was until a stun bolt went off next to her head. She shoved her hand in the direction that the stun bolt came from, and there came a thud and a great deal of swearing.

One down, four to go, Amber said to her. Incoming! Twelve o'clock!

Selena just had enough time to drop into an army crawl when a barrage of Immolation bolts hit the building behind her, reducing it to dust.

Dust, Selena thought. Earth!

With that, Selena raised her arm and the walls of the building around her formed a small bunker around her. It was slowly melting with the force of the immolation bolts, but she wasn't hit. Before the bunker could melt around her, she made a shoving motion towards herself with her hand and went flying backward, but not before pulling some of the holograms with her. They were now very, very close to the base.

An Immolation Bolt went flying past Selena's face and hit a hologram, which flickered and disappeared. Sky stepped out of a doorway next to Selena.

"In here!" she whispered urgently, and Selena followed. "I can't hold off all of them, so we have to get back to Sean and Sky."

"Alright."

Ike was having a rather hard time shaking off the two holograms on his trail, and Evan was lagging a few feet behind him. A stun bolt landed right in between Ike's feet. Without looking, he drew his stun gun and fired three times, hoping that he wouldn't hit his comrade.

"Evan!" he yelled as he raced across the rubble-covered floor.

"Yeah?" came a voice from a few feet behind him.

"Did I hit the hologram?"

"Yep!"

Ike nodded and put on an extra burst of speed before he realized that they had headed into a dead end.

Ike, the bomb is on the other side of that wall! Amber's voice said inside his head. Apparently she and Sky were concentrating on helping Ike and Evan. Ike was okay with that, but only before the knife sailed past him, cutting his arm.

"Agh!" he yelled more out of reflex than anything else.

"Ike! Another one coming in!" Evan yelled. He had fallen behind.

"I can see that!" Ike yelled back indignantly. "Think fast!"

Ike threw Evan a grappling gun and pointed over the wall. "That's where the bomb is! Go take it apart, and I'll hold the hologram!"

The hologram only had a blade and no guns, so Ike was about to blast it to pieces when his gun jammed. He swore, mainly because he knew that it was the doing of Dr. Fausten, in some far-off control room where he watched his subjects' every move. He drew his blade and sprinted towards the hologram. The final possible second before collision with his enemy's blade, he executed a nearly flawless baseball slide so that the hologram's sword clattered to the ground, harmless, as the it was sliced in half.

Ike took his grappling gun and shot it to the top of the wall. It caught, and Ike pressed a button and began the ascent.

Sean was having a difficult time defending the base. He hadn't been much for fighting, and hoped beyond hope that Ike and Evan had defused the bomb, because if they hadn't, he was dead. Selena had been knocked out by a stun gun, causing a big blow to their defense. Three holograms, armed to the teeth, versus three kids who had no combat training and stun guns.

Sean ducked an Immolation Bolt that melted the wall of the building next to him and fired in the direction that the bolt had come from.

"Sky?" he yelled. "Can I get a situation update?"

Hold on a second, Amber said. Amber and Sky were knife-fighting with a single hologram, and Amber took the fight upon herself to allow Sky to give him a report.

"Just this hologram left!" she yelled, and Sean smiled. "You took out one of the last ones with that stun b--"

She suddenly slumped to the ground, and Sean discovered the cause: the hologram had struck her with a stun bolt. He had no choice but to try to take on the fight himself. He charged the hologram, but it was quick and well-programmed. It grabbed his arm and attempted to slice his windpipe, but Sean limbo-ed and escaped the grip. He threw one of his knives at his adversary, but the hologram beat it away with a knife of his own. The hologram rushed toward him and attempted to stun him, but Sean ducked...again. The hologram wasn't making the same mistake a third time. It moved in close and grabbed Sean around the neck, choking him. Sean could almost feel his face change colors.

Then the hologram slumped to the floor. Sean looked up and saw Amber holding a smoking stun gun.

"Ace," she said, satisfied. Sean pointed over her shoulder, and she saw two figures emerging from the mist. Apparently Ike and Evan had succeeded.

"We did it!" yelled Evan. He jumped into Sean, wrapping an ecstatic embrace around his friend.

"Yep," said Ike with a small grin on his face. Then it faded. "Where are Sky and Selena? Those holograms had Immolation Blasters!"

"Relax, Ike," said Amber. "They've been--"

--hit with stun guns; nothing to worry about.

The buildings and rubble around them disappeared, and the four orphans found themselves in the metal room that they had started in.

"Fun," remarked Selena as she stood up, recovering from the stunner that had hit her.

"The holograms were equipped with what?" yelled a man in a black suit who was sitting across the table from Dr. Fausten. At least another dozen people were taking up the other seats at the long, narrow conference table.

"I said Immolation Blasters." Dr. Fausten replied calmly, unfazed by the surprise and anger emanating from the man in the suit.

"But they could have been-you know-uh..."

"Immolated?" suggested one of the other men.

"Yeah! That!" the man in the black suit yelled. "The Board of Directors will not stand for this! Those chips cost two billion dollars each, and they company's nearly bankrupt! These Spartans that you're raising are the company's only hope for survival!"

"Let the record show that Gecko had seventeen billion dollars in its possession beforehand, and currently holds eleven billion. I hardly call that bankrupt," said Dr. Fausten disparagingly.

"But they are the company's most important project, with red-light security! You can't seriously even be putting them in the same room as Immolation Blasters!" the man in the suit yelled.

"Mr. Abram, I believe that the Spartan Unit was more than capable of dispatching those holograms, whether or not they were armed with deadly weapons. They must learn to work for survival; they will not be allowed to sit by and let the chips do the work. Of course we will control them on field missions, but they do the hard work, and they need motivation. If they believe that they might die but also believe that they would live if they worked hard enough, ninety-nine percent of the time they would survive."

Mr. Abram scowled, but sat back down.

"Any other complaints?" asked Dr. Fausten. No hands were raised, at least partly because there was a rumor flying around that he was holding an Immolation Blaster under the table. "Good."

Chapter 2

After the excitement that unfolded in the run-down city, all six of the orphans were exhausted. When they reached their cell, they immediately went to sleep. Some of them, however, slept only fitfully. Sky's sleep was full of nightmares masquerading as dreams.

"Sky, honey," said a man in a brown trench coat. "Come here for a second, would you?"

A woman in a rather horrid pink dress let go of Sky's hand. "Go to your father, honey."

Sky scurried away from her mother and towards her father. He motioned for her to come closer, so she leaned in as much as she could to hear his whispering voice.

"Listen, honey. Daddy and Mommy are going on a trip very, very, soon. They might not be back for a while."

"But where will I go?" the four-year-old Sky asked.

"You'll stay here and be a good girl," her father said, not meeting her eyes. "Promise me that."

"I promise," four-year-old Sky said lightly, then attempted to flounce off to meet her mother. But her father grabbed her arm. He pulled her back towards him. Then he produced from his trench coat a small black rectangle.

"Hold on to this, Sky," he said.

Then Sky's mind was silent.

Ike was tossing and turning, muttering things about "heat" and "flames", remembering and mourning the death of his mother and sister in his sleep. Sean's dreams were filled with random equations and tactical plans that were probably put there by the Program X chip embedded in his brain. Amber was sending subconscious brainwaves out of her mind, harassing the security guards outside their cell when her voice randomly made remarks like Pass the handcuffs, please and Would you like your tea frozen or melted?. Selena's dreams were filled with earth, fire, water and air, and all seemed completely random. Evan's dreams were full of supercomputers that he could have designed.

The door of the cell swished open silently, and Dr. Fausten strutted in accompanied by some men from the Board of Directors. He pulled a remote out of his coat and pointed it in the general direction of the beds.

"This," he said, "is what controls the six most dangerous people on this planet."

"How?" Mr. Abram demanded. Dr. Fausten made a mental note to cut Mr. Abram's salary a tiny bit but still continued his speech.

"It was a simple matter to add a control chip onto the Program X chip in their brain. This controller has a microphone on it. When somebody speaks into it, a message is delivered into each of the subjects' subconsciousness. For example..." Dr. Fausten pressed a red button labelled S-1 on the remote and spoke into it. "Think about hunting in the woods."

Nothing happened for a minute. Then Sean muttered something about a bow, arrow, and bloody rabbit. Dr. Fausten grinned at the other men.

"See?"

"Wake up!" A meaty slab of a hand roughly shook Sean awake. His gaze traveled up the gargantuan man's eyes, which were as blank as all of the guards' eyes had been since he'd come here. He was assuming that they were only paid to do their job, but even so, he couldn't like them.

"What?" Sean demanded irritably. He cast his eyes around and found that none of his friends were still in the cell.

"You overslept. I'm supposed to accompany you to the training room."

Sean idly wondered wether today's training would be mild or as exciting as yesterday's. He rather hoped that it would be more mild. His hope, however, was only somewhat accurate. As he stepped past the doors that were made of oak he found his five friends in a semicircle around Dr. Fausten. Their eyes all seemed to be shimmering with attention. Then Dr. Fausten turned around and saw Sean.

"Why hello! I was just telling your friends here about a field test that we'll be having today!" Dr. Fausten replied a little too quickly. Sean noticed him stow something into his back pocket, and also saw the shimmer in his friends' eyes disappear.

"What's the test?" Sean asked casually. He supposed that every day here would be like this. At least it was better than the monotony of the orphanage.

"It's simple, really. Just track down a target." Dr. Fausten pressed a button labelled S-1 on his remote.

Do not think about escaping, suggested a voice in Sean's head. He agreed with it, although he had no logical reason to.

"Follow me. We're going into a crowded street to challenge you a little bit. Pretend that your target has escaped from the grocery store."

Sean was blasted by the first real light he had seen in days as the group of orphans and Dr. Fausten walked out a back door and into a town. Sean couldn't tell what town they were in. The silence hanging between everyone was broken by Amber and her rampant telepathy.

Nice to see the sun again, isn't it?

Sean had to agree, but before he could, Dr. Fausten stopped them.

"You'll start here. You can only use small, legal, untraceable weapons."

He handed each of them a knife and tranquilizer gun. He also handed Ike a rather long blade that was encased in plastic. Dr. Fausten showed Ike how to remove it and handed it back to him.

"Have fun," he said as he disappeared into an alleyway.

Sean turned to the others and found them looking at him expectantly.

"Oookay. I guess he doesn't want us to kill them, hence the tranq guns," Sean started. "We should spread out and surround the grocery store. Evan and Ike, you head Northwest. Selena and Sky, head Northeast. Amber, come with me."

With that, the others took off. Ike had his always-present compass on his wrist, which gifted to him the ability of knowing in which direction to venture with Evan. They took off.

"Why'd you leave me with you?" asked Amber.

"You and I have to stick together during these tests so that you can relay my orders to the others over long distances," Sean replied. "We'd better start closing in on the grocery store."

Sean pulled his knife out of his belt and put it in a ready position with his right hand. With his left, he held his tranquilizer gun. Amber copied him and they slowly advanced towards the grocery store.

Selena had not been running for five minutes and was already confronting trouble. Sky was having trouble sensing things because of the large crowd of peoples' consciences she had to wade through, and it was already too late when she sensed the malice in the man walking towards them. They were in an alleyway, so no one would witness any crimes they might need to perpetrate to finish their mission. The man, however, seemed intent on catching them and also didn't seem to be under Dr. Fausten's huge thumb.

"You girls need to come with me," the man growled.

"No thanks," said Amber as she took a step back.

"I think so," said the man. Selena was frozen with worry, unable to shield them with barriers coming out of the earth. This was only increased when the man shoved her. As she fell back, he cut her arm with a knife. Selena cried out and fell into a crumpled heat. "Give me the flash drive, girl."

"What flash drive?" Sky asked, the fear on her face momentarily blotted out by confusion.

"The one that your parents gave you. Come on, girl, give me the flash drive."

"I don't have it!" Sky protested.

"Enough of your games," the man growled. He shoved her with a giant hand and Sky was pushed back against the wall.

Sky! Report! Amber's voice intruded.

This is no time for reporting, thought Sky. The man attempted to stick a knife in Sky, but she flinched to the side and it missed.

Use your weapon, she thought as she attempted to remember any advice that Ike had given her recently. She pulled out her tranquilizer gun and fired straight at the man's torso, but he was fast. He ducked and pinned Sky to the wall. He put a gun- a real gun -to her head. Sky could sense him about to pull the trigger when the man fell to his knees, unconscious. She looked up to see Ike on top of a building, grinning.

"The Rescue Squad is here," he said as he holstered his tranquilizer.

"Where's Evan?" Sky yelled back.

"He couldn't climb the wall, but he found something that he could craft into a forcefield generator. I left him to it."

"Wait a second-all the walls here are straight up with no footholds. You're not seriously telling me you ran up the wall?"

"Weeeeell, I-"

Ike was interrupted by Selena, who had recovered from both the shock of the attack and being attacked in itself.

"You broke formation? You shouldn't have- we'll fail the test!" she yelled as Ike rolled his eyes.

"Since when have you cared about pleasing Dr. Mad Scientist?" Ike asked as he rolled his eyes. "C'mon, we've got a target to capture."

Amber's voice entered their minds.

Ummm, guys...that guy was the target.

What? Ike thought back. He definitely wasn't working for Gecko.

Yeah, that's why I told you. I don't think this was really a test.

"Selena?" Sky asked. Selena stared back, her eyes churning with worry. "What's wrong?"

"That man killed my parents," she said as her knees trembled.

That night, back in the cell, Sean couldn't sleep. It wasn't a condition; Ike was the only one in the group with an insomnia problem. He wondered why he had allowed Dr. Fausten to escort him back to the prison that was the Gecko facility. He knew that he shouldn't think about it, but he thought about why he knew that he shouldn't think about it. According to human instinct, he should have done all that he could have done to escape from Gecko and Dr. Fausten. But he didn't, all because of a little voice in his head. Sean thought long and hard about the reasons why he shouldn't think of escaping, and after several hours and much loss of sleep, he figured it out.

It was because Dr. Fausten was planting 'suggestions' in their minds that essentially controlled them. It was probably the computer chip doing this. If only Sean could find the main server...

He knew he should tell the others, but he also knew that the cell was probably bugged.

But Amber's mind wasn't. If he could find a way to communicate with her either silently or out of the way of the bugs, she could tell the rest of the group without worrying about the bugs. Then they would all realize what to do. But if they were to escape, Sean needed to find the computer terminal that controlled them. He knew, judging from the length of some of the hallways, that this was probably the largest Gecko facility in the world; it was a stronghold. And if you were going to keep brain-controlling computers somewhere, you'd probably keep them in a stronghold.

A guard entered the cell to awaken the group, and Sean feigned sleep. When he was awoken by a rather profane shout, he got to his feet, almost ready to fall asleep standing up. He hoped that today would be mild training for once, although thinking that probably jinxed him.

He was lucky. They were led to the training room. Sean began with the RTS games, quickly building empires and destroying opponents. It wasn't too long before he waved Amber over to him.

"Do you have a pen and paper on you?" he asked.

I have a pen, and there's paper next to your computer.

Sean shook his head as he collected the required utensils. "You've got to get that telepathy thing under control."

Well, what is it that you want to tell me? I'm busy trying to figure out how to receive messages from other people's minds, but haven't had much luck so far.

Sean positioned the paper in a blind spot from the cameras. He wrote down what he had been thinking about all of last night, and instructions to Amber. At the very bottom, it said to destroy it as soon as she had it committed to memory.

Hey guys! Don't stop what you're doing, but listen to me, said Amber.

Ike resumed combat with the hologram he was fighting, although halfheartedly now. The fire that Selena had produced from thin air flickered a little bit. Evan even connected a wrong circuit. Sky's eyelids opened just a little bit.

Sean just told me that Dr. Fausten is controlling us with the implants in our brains. Have you noticed anything like that lately?

Obviously nobody replied, but Amber continued anyway.

Well, we don't like the looks of that. Why would he need a way to control us if we were just an experiment? He plans to use us for something twisted. We have to plan a getaway or something. Sean will do that. DO NOT TALK ABOUT THIS. SEAN WILL WRITE TO ME WHAT TO BROADCAST ON PAPER. THE BUILDING IS BUGGED.

Ike resumed fighting the hologram. He was using his favorite weapon: a three-foot-long thin blade that looked a lot like a sword but generated an electric current that would absorb energy blasts. The hologram, however, was using a holographic Immolation Blaster. Ike would twisted, dodged, and even deflected Immolation Bolts before slicing the hologram to pieces.

The fire that Selena was creating roared and set her hair on fire. She panicked a little bit, then made some water float over to her and put out the fire. She decided to pursue something less dangerous.

Evan realized his previous mistake with the wires, and reconnected them so that the force field generator would absorb Immolation Bolts. He tossed it to Ike, who quickly attached it to his wrist and used it to shove the hologram he was fighting with to the ground.

Sky's eyes flashed open, then closed. She was sensing something sinister going on nearby and attempted to figure out what it was. Amber tried to tell what she was sensing by reading her mind. Sean continued to play a variety of RTS games, although he was more concerned with an escape plan. He even almost lost once.

Things continued like this for a long time until Ike suggested that they all take a quick combat lesson from him in case things got heated during 'training'. Sky was the first to go up. She was quick to dodge his blows; apparently she sensed them seconds before they happened. However, Ike caught on to this and realized that his attacks had to be unplanned or deceitful. He decided to go for deceitful. With his blunt practice sword he feinted to her left and cut her on the right. He nodded and called for the next person to come up. This time it was Amber. When he attacked her, he seemed to hesitate before doing so. Amber attempted to read his thoughts and see his plans, sometimes his attacks to fail. But most of the time Amber couldn't read his thoughts and had to rely on herself and not the implant in her brain. She tried to get in close, but Ike was better and eventually bested her. The next up was Evan. He had designed some very interesting weapons for himself, among them being a second forcefield shield generator that fit on his wrist like a watch but expanded into a Roman-shield-size force field when activated. Apparently he had already made one and given it to Ike, because Ike had activated his. Evan also had some very interesting eyewear that didn't seem to do much for him in combat, but were obviously useful in some other facet. Evan picked another blunt sword from the wall. When he stepped into the ring with Ike, there wouldn't have been much of a contest if it weren't for the supreme use of the forcefield generators on Evan's part. But Ike was better.

That left Sean and Selena. Apparently Ike wanted Sean to work on his escape plan, because he asked Selena to come up first. It was quite a fight, Ike just barely deflecting the rocks and debris that Selena flew at him with his forcefield generator. When he got in close, Selena pushed him back using a gust of wind. She nearly set the ring on fire once, but doused it before the flames could spread. But she was getting tired, whereas Ike wasn't even breaking a sweat. It was a full hour before Selena fell to her knees, unconscious and exhausted. Ike, by then, was sweating profusely.

Then it was Sean's turn. Sean stepped into the ring with nothing more than a knife and tranquilizer gun, attempting to keep the blade contact and actual fighting at a minimum. He danced around, hoping to unbalance Ike. Ike, however, caught on to Sean's tactics immediately and began doing the same to him. Sean's balance was worse than Ike's and he lost.

"Well then," announced Ike. "You've all improved since our time in the orphanage. Remember when I-"

He was cut short by Sean. "Save the reminiscence for later, Ike. We've got company."

Sean jerked his thumb in the direction of the door. Eight men in black suits had emerged from it and were walking towards them, each toting a tranquilizer gun. When Ike saw this, he retrieved his favorite weapon, putting the training sword away.

"What do you want?" called Sean. The kids had formed a line across from the adults.

The men didn't reply, but pulled out their tranquilizers. Selena realized what was about to happen just in time to throw up a barrier of stone to deflect the darts.

"We said, what do you want?" yelled Sean. The men only advanced towards them. They shot Immolation Bolts at the barrier in front of the six orphans, slowly melting it. Selena was too weak to put up another barrier, so it was up to Ike to save them. He pulled out his favorite toy and charged the men, deflecting and melting several tranquilizer darts with his blade. He finally reached one of the men, pausing his deflections just long enough to cut the man on the arm. When he did, he hit metal.

"Sean!" he called out. "They're drones!"

"Then decapitate them!" Evan called back. Ike did exactly this, and the 'man' before him fell to its knees, short-circuited by the electric charge in the blade. Ike's break from defending the group ultimately resulted in one-on-one combat spread all over the room. Sky was fighting two at once, predicting what their moves would be and moving out of the way before they happened. Ike charged one from behind and destroyed it with his electric blade. He tossed Sky a small knife before speeding away to help some of the others.

Amber was having trouble. She had been pierced by one tranquilizer dart and was struggling to stay awake and moving. Ike passed her one of Evan's forcefield generators as he ran to join Sean and Evan himself, who were fighting four drones at once. Sean and Evan were surrounded, enabling Ike to hack at the drones from behind. When the one Sky was fighting shot at him from across the room, he ducked and continued running, but not before catching the dart mid-flight and throwing it into the hopeless tangle of computer wires. He cut one of the drones surrounding his friends in half before the other three realized that Ike was behind them. It was then the drones who were forced to fight back to back, surrounded. Evan threw a little device the size and shape of a beetle at a drone. It clipped onto the drone's back and began beeping. Ike and Sean had activated their forcefield shields: the drones had brought out blades as long as Ike's sword. Ike slammed one to the ground with his shield while Sean mercilessly shot its head with a laser. That left two more for the threesome to take care of.

And that was also when Evan's little invention activated.

The entire training room was blown apart, sending the orphans flying into the walls. The two drones that had been fighting Sean, Evan, and Ike were reduced to dust while the boys were saved by their forcefield shields. Fortunately, the girls had been far enough away from the explosion for the effects to be minimal. They were thrown into walls, and the drones too badly smashed to ever become anything besides scrap metal.

The oaken doors slid open, and Dr. Fausten hustled in surrounded by a veritable platoon of Gecko security guards.

"My God, what happened?" he exclaimed as he poked through the wreckage. Ike coughed some plaster out of his mouth and began to answer.

"We were attacked by drones," he explained. "Evan saved us."

"Saved you? It looks like subject S-3 killed you all!"

Ike's brow furrowed. "Subject S-3?"

Dr. Fausten opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again. He shook his head. "Sorry, I was discombobulated a little there. I meant to say Evan."

Sean, Sky, and Amber were also slowly recovering from the shock of the explosion. They stood up, and as they did so Sean asked why they were attacked: it didn't seem like another test, especially not with Dr. Fausten's reaction.

"Spybots," Dr. Fausten explained. "From other companies, possibly Microsoft or Apple. They've been wanting to steal secrets for years. If the Spybots hacked our main security system, they would have known about the Program X project and come in here to take you back to their employers."

As they were led back to the cell, Amber had a strange, slight inkling that Dr. Fausten wasn't telling the truth. But all debate on that was banished by a suggestion that was planted in her subconsciousness.

He is telling the truth.

The next day, they were taken to an improvised training room. Dr. Fausten assured the orphans that Gecko employees were renovating the training room as they spoke. They had since then resumed normal activities. Sean looked for a blind spot from the security cameras before pulling out a piece of paper and beckoning for Amber to come closer. He scribbled something down and Amber nodded.

Evan, she said. I need you over here for a second.

Evan displayed a look of slight confusion, but came over as soon as he could.

"Hey guys," he said as he came over. "Check out this baby."

He held up a flash drive he had constructed, but Sean wrote something down and Evan bent closer. The paper told him not to talk about anything, but asked him if he could hack into the central system of the facility from that computer. Evan wrote, asking why. Sean wrote a doctrine back explaining the mind control thing. Amber broadcasted it to the group, but warned them to continue what they were doing. It turned out that the flash drive Evan had just created would come in handy for hacking the main system. As Sean had previously discovered while poking around on the Gecko-brand computer, these computers, unlike the ones in the destroyed training facility, were connected to the main Gecko servers. Evan could engineer all sorts of chaos that would enable them to escape from the facility.

Amber and Sean made sure to cover the computer screen from the view of the security cameras. Evan plugged in his flash drive, which automatically connected to the main system and gave him "alpha green" access to any commands.

Amber quickly broadcasted their escape plan. Then Evan wrote something that would change their lives forever.

PQ11XEMERGENCY

There were suddenly many flashing strobe lights and alarms. The kids could hear the sounds of guards running in the hallways. No doubt Dr. Fausten was hurrying towards them, hoping that they hadn't been attacked again. Evan had to act quickly.

GH97UPSCHEM

A map of the facility popped onto the screen. He produced a mini camera from his jacket and snapped a picture.

"We have to destroy the main terminal: it controls us. We should go as a whole group, but we'll need to do it stealthily."

The other five nodded at Sean in respect. Ike held out his hand and Evan tossed him something. He clipped it to his belt, and the group of six hurried out of the room. They were immediately met by guards.

"Stay where you are," said a rather muscular man holding an automatic machine gun. Ike carried out the swift motion of grabbing the man's wrist, elbowing him in the stomach, and dislodging his weapons, it ringing with a clatter on the floor. Ike then topped it off by punching him in the face, after which he fell to the floor, unconscious. The other guards opened fire with tranquilizers, but Evan and Sean activated forcefields while Selena destroyed the wall to their left for a quick escape route. The six kids closed formation and moved through the hole in the wall. Ike blocked it with a shot (or two, or three, or four) from his ever-constant laser blaster that caused the ceiling to cave in, filling the hole.

"More guards! They've been alerted!" yelled Sky. "They're down that hallway!"

She pointed to her right, but the main terminals were to the left. Dr. Fausten must have thought that the emergency wasn't them, so he wasn't bothering to use mind control.

After a few shots over Ike's shoulder and some blocking with forcefield shields, they made it to the main computer terminal. Evan immediately set upon hacking it, but Sean shook his head.

"It has to be destroyed," he explained. "We should all step outside...Selena, will you do the honors?"

"With pleasure," she replied, an evil smirk playing around her face. As the other five stepped out of the room, she used blasts of air so powerful that the ceiling caved in on top of the main computer. And just for good measure... she threw in one of Evan's homemade bombs. Although they were stuck in the middle of a dire situation, overkill was never something to tire of.

She ran out of the room just in time to see her friends fighting off at least twenty guards at once. The room completely collapsed behind her, sending her flying. She counterbalanced this by allowing some wind to push her back, and even so she just barely achieved balance. Amber crumpled to the floor in the middle of the forcefield barrier that the boys had created.

"We have to get outta here!" Sean yelled to Selena as he held his forcefield up to block a deadly Immolation Bolt. Selena understood, but another explosion went off before she could do anything. This time it was Ike: he had thrown one of Evan's tiny devices into the crowd of guards. It had stuck, and now at least half of the men were dead.

Ike's eyes grew wide, but Sean came up to him first. "We have to get out of here, Ike. That's the most important thi- duck!" They both ducked another Immolation Bolt, and Sean half-stabilized, half-carried Ike back to the forcefield barrier. "Selena, NOW!"

With her last remnants of strength, Selena opened another hole in the wall: this one led outside, to an open field...with no cover.

Well, thought Sean, at least we've got a challenge.

"Evan!" he called. "Do you have three more wristwatch forcefield generators?"

In answer, Evan tossed him five more. Sean, while firing over his shoulder and protecting his back with his own forcefield shield, distributed them to the girls. They accepted graciously, and followed Sean without doubt into the open field. He instructed them to use their forcefields to cover their backs as they raced across the open plain. Ike, however, was still off-kilter from killing ten fully-grown men and was nearly fried by a laser before he realized that his own survival was more important than the past.

Eventually they approached a reinforced electric fence. Sean swore. He hadn't counted on this.

"Ev-" he stopped short when he saw what Evan was doing: putting a metal wrench to the fence. However, he really didn't have anything to worry about: the fence was non-electric and almost completely melted within seconds.

"That is so cool," Ike whispered in wonder as they retreated into the relative cover and safety of the city.

A man who looked as if he was homeless slid a file across the table. The man across from him was dressed in a business suit with a pin bearing the former presidential seal of the United States of America.

"The drones succeeded as a distraction. I was able to infiltrate Gecko Headquarters and retrieve their hard copy of the Program X file. I think it will prove useful," said the supposedly homeless man.

"Thank you, Duane. You may leave now."

"Yes, Mr. President." the homeless man gibbered as he bowed his head and left the room.

Then it was just the President of the Underground United States of America, a desk, and a file occupying the room.

The President opened the file. Inside were several accounts of treason, first-degree murder, embezzlement, and child abuse.

But what interested him most were the updates during the time of the fall of the United States of America.

Jun 15, 2089:

Agent X12 has successfully penetrated CIA operations and is currently locating flash drive said to have Program X on it.

Jun 16, 2089:

Access to National Power Grid granted to Gecko corporation. Fixed all bugs, but planted devices that will allow use to shut down main grid when time comes.

Jun 17, 2089:

Drones failed to capture flash drive. However, Agents X12 and x13 have successfully silenced the Assistant Head Programmer of the Program X project. They failed to kill the Creators of the project, who will have to be dealt with using computer-programmed lethal bacteria.

Jun 18, 2089:

Power grid has been 'upgraded' to allow Dr. Fausten alpha alpha red status. Fausten busying himself for the destruction.

Jun 19, 2089:

Flash drive located by spybots. It is currently in the care of a girl named Sky Alan. Her parents are believed to be CIA operatives.

Jun 20, 2089:

Killed Sky Alan's parents and retrieved flash drive. Arranged for Sky to be placed in orphanage near Gecko HQ.

Jun 21, 2089:

Attempted assassination of Homeland Secretary failed. Nation on guard. They will be useless without power.

Jun 22, 2089:

Assassination of Vice President succeeded. International flights have been stopped. Dr. Fausten is out of country, may be several weeks before his return.

Jun 23, 2089:

Drones killed three more workers on the Program X project. District of Columbia shut down except for government operations.

Jun 24, 2089:

President's daughter's birthday. How ironic.

Jun 25, 2089:

Planned a 'terrorist' bombing on Times Square, to be executed tomorrow.

Jun 26, 2089:

Bombing succeeded, New York in ruins. This has been a large blow to the greatest metropolitan center of the world. Gecko is currently feeding the city false information about the bombing through double agents.

Jun 27, 2089:

Hired organized terrorist group for planned assassination of US leadership.

Jun 28, 2089:

Capitol building in shambles. Terrorist group has been more blatant than they should have been; they will be terminated.

Jun 29, 2089:

Gecko cuts off country's electricity. Fires, airplane crashes, floods and more have rocked the country, creating new geographical landmarks. District of Columbia in complete lockdown; drones have bombed all important existing government buildings and monuments. White House destroyed, National Treasury destroyed, Washington Monument destroyed. There is no government left because this country cannot survive without electricity. Once it has split into smaller companies Gecko will be able to run it from behind the scenes. New York has crumbled and fallen into the Atlantic Ocean. Cities have gone up in flames due to crashes and gas leaks.

Jun 30, 2089:

Chaos. There will be no more updates until new governments have been formed instead of a gigantic area that holds what used to be a country.

Feb 2, 2090:

New countries formed. One includes all of New England, another contains Texas, the Four Corners, California, Oregon, Washington, Montana... Another is the former Midwest. The final one is the Confederate South, which has taken its name as the Confederate States of America (However, it leaves out Texas). Canada has seized control of Great Lakes area.

Apr 27, 2090:

Program X project underway.

There was nothing below this for a decade or so, but the last entry the President found most interesting.

Aug 12, 2105:

Program X project fully developed. Have retrieved targets.

Then his suspicions were confirmed. Those six children had far, far more resting on their shoulders than they currently thought. But first, he'd need to locate them. He had been surveilling the Gecko facility, and saw their escape. Marvelous, but they could exploit the computer chips in their brains far more now that they knew their power.

The President leaned over and pressed a button on the table.

"Find them," he commanded.

At the moment, 'they' were busy getting as far away from the Gecko facility as they could. They went everywhere in the maze of streets, hoping to find some form of transport that would take them out of the city before Gecko drones found them.

Sky, at the moment, was exploiting the computer chip in her brain to locate any Gecko drones. When she couldn't find any, she was disturbed. She asked Sean about this, and he nodded in agreement.

"Alright, guys listen up," he announced once they were safe in an alleyway. "There aren't any Gecko drones or employees in the city. Before you begin celebrating, though, we need to think. Why wouldn't they send drones after us in the city? Possibly they are blocking all possible routes out of it, or putting bounties on our heads. But there are two directions that they can't block: up and down. And since we'd be crushed, and probably asphyxiate, if we chose down, we have to go up. Evan, if you could build us a helicopter or something..."

Evan thought about this a minute before answering. "I'd need hovercar parts first," he said thoughtfully. "And some tools. But if we can stay undetected for long enough..."

Sky laughed. "It'll be hard to stay undetected if we have to steal a hovercar."

Ike nodded solemnly, but then his eyes brightened again.

"I have an idea," he announced as he fingered the electric blade that was in its sheath on his belt. "We can fake a hovercar accident if Amber can hold on to one of the driver's minds long enough for him or her to crash into another one. We'll salvage the parts that Evan needs; we can steal the smaller bits."

Most of the orphans had been stealing for at least half of their life, so none of them had any qualms about their plan. Amber, however, was unsure of her power: so far she had been able only to read minds and send people mental messages. Maybe, though, just maybe the stress of all that had happened in the past week would push her brain to unusually high levels.

Sean lead the others through the network of streets and alleyways until they were in a sparsely populated area that teenager-driven hovercrafts generally frequented. Several zipped by, causing Amber to flinch in alarm.

"C'mon, Amber, you can do this. They're only teenagers."

Amber concentrated on a hovercraft that looked like it was attempting to do doughnut turns in midair and not going anywhere. She groped around inside the vehicle with her mind until she found something.

Another mind.

Whoa! I didn't know I could do that!

Amber's voice accidentally contacted the teenager's mind. She could feel his surprise. Then Amber had a very, very, good idea.

Did you hear about the new Gecko product? I was like, OMG, I hav 2 get tht b4 any1 else, rt?

The teenager became so distracted listening to Amber's speech-text-talk mental babble that he wasn't watching where he was going. The hovercraft hit a building, and the teenager was ejected by the safety system several seconds before impact. He was thrown far enough away to not be a problem for the kids.

Evan set to work.

"They escaped?!" yelled Mr. Abram for the umpteenth time.

"Yes, they escaped." Dr. Fausten rolled his eyes. "We'll have to carry on with our plan anyway. Everything but the Program X Enforcement project is in place, and it's now or never."

"But-but..." Mr. Abram stuttered.

"But nothing," said Dr. Fausten. "We've barricaded the city and had the police set up roadblocks and wanted ads. They cannot escape. You assured us when you finished the programming that they would come when called, but the computer system has been destroyed. We must capture them with more archaic methods."

With that, two burly security guards entered the room.

Dr. Fausten uttered only two words to the security. "Get them."

Evan immediately began working, sifting through the hovercar's damaged parts. "Hey, guys," he beckoned, "help me find this stuff." He proceeded to rattle off fifteen or so items he required to construct their getaway vessel. None of his companions, however, understood any of his technological mumbo-jumbo.

"Hold on," said Amber. She shut her eyes as if trying to concentrate.

Her voice popped into Evan's head. Relax, Evan. I'm just in here to figure out what you need.

"Huh?" Evan wondered aloud.

I got it. she informed the group. I'm gonna send you some images of what Evan needs. Pictures proceeded to fly about in their heads, one by one. An alternator, a spark plug, pistons, and various other hovercar parts zipped around in their brains.

The orphans grouped around the car, and began to sift through the wreckage. They began to yank out Evan's various required items, and threw them into a separate pile. Evan already began attaching them against one another. He hammered away with his makeshift hammer, a piece of the hovercar's frame that had torn off during the vehicle's unfortunate collision with the building. He tightened bolts with his wrench, and soon enough, his project had assumed the actual aesthetic of a hovercraft engine.

The orphans continued to make steady progress with finding the essential parts to construct their escape craft. In addition to the engine, Evan began attempting to reassemble the rest of the hovercar's needed components, which was significantly more difficult for him; he was a master of engineering, not of repairing something for them to sit on as they rode away with it.

Suddenly, one of the orphan's cries rang through the air. "Get down!" Sky shouted to her comrades.

The orphans instantly assumed cover behind anything they could find in the relatively vacant area. Some hid behind the rubble, others below sheets of the hovercar's ruined body. Hiding a significant portion of their bodies behind the dilapidated buildings, a platoon of Gecko guards had their tranquilizer guns transfixed on the fugitives.

The Tranquilizer Bolts soared over the orphans' heads, or crashed into the ground in front of them, due to their fortunate advantage of having the high ground on their attackers.
After a sustained bombardment of ineffective projectiles, the guards sprinted from the cover provided by the fallen-in buildings, to confront their targets at a closer range. They withdrew their melee weapons, and charged the orphans.

Ike, in a very sudden change, became a force to be reckoned with. He activated his forcefield generator, creating a Spartan-size shield that would block everything from Immolation Bolts to knives. He also drew from his belt what looked like the handle of a broadsword, but he pushed a button and a blade slid out to make it into a little dagger. He pushed another button, and it unfolded into a full-length sword. He pushed a third button, and electricity crackled along its length.

Sean and Evan also activated their forcefields. Selena had completely forgotten about weapons; she was attempting to bring some of the destroyed buildings down on the platoon. Amber and Sky had drawn stolen laser guns and were taking potshots from behind their improvised bunkers.

Sean nodded to Evan and Ike, and all three of them stood so that they made a wall of forcefields.

"Three-" said Ike.

"Two-" said Evan.

"One." finished Sean. "Charge!"

They broke through the ranks of the guards surprisingly easily, but soon they realized they had made a huge tactical mistake: they were behind enemy lines and separated from their allies.

Ike didn't really have a problem with that.

He charged again, this time hacking away with his electric sword, not caring whom or what he hit, just knowing that he had to get back to the girls. Sean followed close behind, using his Immolation Blaster to fry many of the guards.

Look out, guys! Amber 'yelled'. Sean looked up just in time to see that the building they were fighting next to was slowly falling to the ground. But before he could even open his mouth to scream, Ike whipped past him, pulling him along and thus saving him. The building crushed even more guards, but there seemed to be a gigantic reservoir of dispensable Gecko security guards.

And Evan was on the other side.

And unbeknownst to the others, he was activating another one of his tiny, magnetic, flying bombs. He threw it as hard as he could towards the crashed building.

Beep...beep...beep..beep...beepbeepbeepBOOOM!

The building exploded, and with great force, Evan, Sean, and Ike were knocked to the ground. Sean was knocked out. Ike had a nasty gash on his arm that he began to bandage with a torn pant leg, and Evan felt as if he had just been thrown to the other side of the world.

Sean lay on the ground, motionless.

"Honey, you're gonna be okay," a woman whispered comfortingly into his ear as he wept.

"No! No! Why did they have to--" a three year old version of Sean cried.

"Shh," said the nanny. "It'll be all right. Pray for your parents, okay? Pray that their deaths will help doctors to figure out where this disease is coming from so that they can stop it."

The scene faded to black, and Sean was awoken by Amber lurking in his mind.

He's alive, her voice confirmed to the group.

"Yes, I bloody well am," he said as he attempted to sit up. There was a scorching pain in his right side, and he decided to lay down again. "What happened? Where are we?"

"First things first, we're in the warehouse next to the hovercar wreckage. Evan finished it. We had to wait for you to recover, though," answered Selena.

"As for what happened, Evan over here threw one of his homemade bombs into that building. You're lucky that you had that forcefield generator on you, or you would have been blown to bits like the Gecko guards. Selena nearly passed out from destroying that building," Ike added.

"When do we leave, then?" Sean asked in a weak voice.

"As soon as I think that you're ready," said Evan. "And you need to have that gash down your side treated-"

Ike interrupted. "I've told you, I think Fausten programmed the chip so that I would know some first aid for combat wounds. Evan's just paranoid. Sky, hand me the bandages."

Somewhat reluctantly, Sky passed over some gauze and antiseptic to Ike.

"Now, this might hurt a little bit," Ike warned.

Two days later, Sean was feeling like a new man. The stitches in his side seemed to be a high-tech invention of Evan's; they dissolved after he healed in less than four hours. The bandages were still there, but they wouldn't hamper him. While he was recovering inside, Ike went to stand guard outside of the warehouse. During that time period, frequent explosions were considered perfectly normal.

But now they had the hovercar on the roof, and they were ready to go.

They ascended up the stairs, and boarded the hovercar. It was cramped for six people, but they would need to make due. Evan took the front seat, and moved the gearshift up until it settled on the F, which apparently stood for 'fly'.

"Fasten your seatbelts," he instructed them. The belts settled in with a click, and they slowly rose from the roof. Without a specific destination in mind, Evan propelled the hovercar through the sky at a smooth 150 kilometers per hour, and 750 meters above the ground that passed beneath them. The broken city disappeared in the distance as they drove, and was replaced by yellow pastureland. The land's death was most likely attributed to Gecko, similar to a good portion of the United States. Gecko siphoned off water from farms, and kept it exclusively for the use of Gecko employees and those who could afford it. Three dollars to a gallon caused agriculture to shrivel up and die, and in turn, the farmland.
Although the land they passed over was not a significant improvement over the city in which they took refuge previously, the orphans had regained a certain sense of empowerment that being Gecko test subjects had stripped them of. No matter how dire the orphans' situation was, they took enjoyment from whooshing away from the asylum in which they had been captive.

"Woooooooooo!" Ike screamed as he stuck his head out the window, like a dog. He flailed around for a few seconds as he felt the wind whistle against his face. He then abruptly withdrew his head from outside, and spit a black speck into his hand. It twitched repeatedly, and Ike grimaced. "A bug got stuck in my mouth."

The hovercar erupted with laughter, and after their fit subsided, Selena grinned and gave him some advice that proved to be much more useful than it seemed at the time. "Then don't stick your head out the freakin' window!"

Night set over as the pastures below them disappeared as they once again flew over what seemed to be a city, although this one seemed more familiar than the previous one. The buildings were not as tall, but doubly wide, and seemed, overall, in even worse tact. There was a toppled obelisk-like structure lying in an evaporated rectangular pond behind a Parthenon-like structure.

"Oh...my...God."

Washington, D.C. had never looked as awful as it did that day.

The hovercar lurched forward, and the nose dipped slightly towards the ground. "Crap!" exclaimed Evan. He glanced at the dashboard, and was greeted with unpleasant news. "We're gonna have to stop here. We're out of gas." This was the worst place possible to make this proclamation, for Gecko maintained a stranglehold on all of its conquered cities. There were probably drones scampering this way and that, waiting for intruders.

They descended toward the rubble, and a dull thud rang out as the hovercar collided with the stone.

"Let's sleep here for the night. At least the monument covers us." They tacitly agreed, and nestled up on the hard rock, waiting for morning to come.

As they slumbered, six light-footed men approached them. They were all clad in formal black clothing, albeit tattered. One by one, they knelt next to the children, and pricked a needle into their jugular veins. Tranquilizer at its finest. That should keep them sleeping for a while. The men each picked one of the unconscious children and rushed as silently as possible back to headquarters.

"They're alive?" asked one of the men in the room. His face displayed an expression of great awe.

"Yes. And it's lucky that they're only injured. The psychological damage, however, cannot be replaced," replied the man who had carried Sky back to headquarters.

"Psychological damage?" said the other man. "What do you mean?"

"Well, Mr. President, when Gecko put computer chips in their brains, they altered their brains. The removal of one of those chips would mean insanity, and eventually death."

"So we'll have to us the kids?" asked the President. He rested his chin on his fist. "Hmm. I rather wish this mission had gone differently."

"Don't we all, sir. Don't we all."

"Very well. Did any Gecko drones see you or your men as you went through the city?"

"No sir. We've also fed all the cameras loops, so we're good. They don't know about us."

"Good. And the Monument, Mr. Torres?" inquired the President.

"They suspect nothing," answered Mr. Torres.

"Good. Go say hello to the children."

The children, at the moment, were trying as hard as they could to break out of the room that they were in. It was padded by several feet of rubber, and from the way Selena couldn't even move the walls, they were deep, deep underground. They all were missing their weapons, even the forcefield generators.

Sean swore again.

"I can't believe Gecko got us back. We were sleeping, and they just had to prick a needle into our necks and we're their prisoners-no, property- again. I HATE THEM!" He yelled as he kicked the rubber.

Just then the door swung open to reveal a pale man in a tattered black suit.

"Don't worry, I'm not from Gecko," he greeted them.

"You'd better hope that you're not," growled Ike.

"I'm the Secretary of Defense of the Underground United States of America. And before you ask that tiresome question, yes, it is literally underground."

All six of the children gave him strange looks, but Amber had used the silence as an opportunity to rummage through the man's mind.

He's not lying, she said to the other five, but making sure to keep the message away from the man.

"I knew it!" yelled Selena. "I knew it! I knew that there was a resistance!" She pumped her fist into the air. Sean glared at her, but the others just stared on, awed by this unexpected reaction. "Ever since-"

Selena realized the others were staring at her, and she silenced herself. The Secretary of Defense continued his pretty little speech.

"My name is Mr. Torres. And you are known to this country as S-1, S-2, S-3, S-4, S-5, and S-6." In turn, he pointed at Sean, Ike, Evan, Selena, Amber, and Sky correspondingly. "The President wished to operate and remove those damn chips from your skull, but one of our best...ah...researchers has discovered that such an operation will make you go insane and eventually kill you. So we aren't going to operate. But for a price."

Sky was outraged. "A price to keep our sanity? You're insane."

Mr. Torres sighed. "Do you like how Gecko treats you, as orphans? You have no government funding, and are just left at the mercy of those precious few humans with good hearts. I daresay you're all extremely lucky to even be alive."

Ike rolled his eyes. "Tell me about it."

"Even so, I should ask you something first. This is standard protocol for new recruits. Do you wish to join the resistance against Gecko?"

"You have to ask?" answered Selena. Mr. Torres sighed.

"I told you it was standard protocol. Now, come with me: we have to meet the President of the UUSA."

And with that, he led them out of the rubber room and through many, many tunnels and elevators. Every here and there were people scurrying about. A quarter of them were dressed in ruined business suits, about half dressed like soldiers. The final quarter looked just like people that you saw in the street every day: filthy, homeless and desperate. But they didn't have to worry about homelessness underground, Mr. Torres explained, because the government (Not Gecko, the real government) supplied them with apartments. When the seven people finally reached the bottom level of the underground city, they were met by a huge cavern. Inside was a rebuilt White House, with a giant American flag waving from the rooftop in artificial wind.

"That's what the flag looks like?" asked Amber, her telepathy surprisingly under control. "The one I'm used to seeing has a silver sickle on a black background."

"Well, that's what the Stars and Stripes really looks like," replied Mr. Torres. He led them across the cavern and to the building. He pressed his hand against the front door and said "Andy Torres, accompanied by six."

The doors slid open and the group walked in. In the building, most of the people were wearing formal black clothing, and none of them seemed to pay the children any attention. When the group of seven reached the final door, Mr. Torres put his hand on it and said "TRJJ98UI."

The door opened, and the six children found themselves in what seemed to be a circular room.

"The Oval Office," breathed Selena.

"Of course, it's not the original," said a voice whose mouth could be found on the body in the chair behind the desk. "The original is buried in rubble. Gecko satellites took it out, however, they attributed it to a gas leak."

Selena's eyes were so wide that one might have been able to paint on them. She looked like she wanted to say something, but she was kept quiet by a little motion from the President: a wink.

"So there really is a UUSA?" asked Sean as he gazed around the office. "I feel faint."

"Typical reaction," said the President with a wave of his hand. "I assure you that the UUSA will be gone very soon indeed if you do not help us."

"With what?" Ike asked defiantly.

"Gecko abducted you as test products. Do you know what you were really intended to be? Those chips are the only six in creation, and there are not enough resources left on this planet to make another one, thank God. What Gecko really wanted you for...was law enforcement."

Evan laughed maniacally. "Gecko doesn't need law enforcement. They keep us under their thumb by threatening to turn off the electrical grid like they did in 2089. And drones destroy the new ones we try to build."

"You're wrong," replied the President. "Gecko very much needs you. Do you know what they want?"

"To control us?" guessed Sky.

"Wrong again," said the President. "To control everybody."

Ike's brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"To go with a cliche, Gecko wants to take over the world. Using you six to get what they want."

"But why?" Sean asked. "What's the point in controlling the world? If you've got no competition, what do they want it for?"

The President was silent for a little while, then he slid a file across the desk in Sean's direction. Sean opened it and paled.

What is it? Amber asked.

"The Final Frontier," explained the President. "Gecko wants the world so that it can conquer other worlds. Gecko wants to become great. They believe that if they have the resources of the entire planet, they can build spaceships."

"But why would they want to conquer everything?" asked Ike. "It seems pointless."

"It is human nature," replied the President. "I have a question to ask you all: will you help us destroy this company, even if it kills you?"

"Yes," said Sean.

"Yes," said Ike.

"Even if it kills me," said Evan as he nodded solemnly.

Yes, said Amber.

"For freedom," said Sky.

"Yes, father," said Selena.