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Chapter 17

It was pitch black outside now. In the distance was the city of Sunset, still a messed up ruin since being attacked by the Eggman Empire. Below us was an expansive forest, and to the right of our current location was a building shaped like a tennis racket, with a long rectangular building going into a large circular one. Floodlights illuminated the entire area around it, and a large fence stopped anyone coming in from the forest. The helicopter spun round and floated towards the complex, and getting closer I could see there were multiple guards and several armoured cars inside the fence.

The helicopter came to a smooth landing directly outside the base. Once we landed and the rotors stopped spinning, a guard started to walk over too us, thinking Kable was on board.

"Do we have a plan?" I asked.

"No," Carl replied.

"Seriously?" Rugal said. "So the guard is just going to open the door expecting Kable and see a polar bear?"

"I could use my telepathy to make him think you were Kable," I pointed out.

"There's four of us," Carl replied.

"...With 3 guards?"

Before we could say anything, the door opened and the guard looked in, being met by a shocked Rugal instead of Kable as he was expecting. Even though his visor was blank, I could see he was surprised.

"Er...hi!" Rugal said, waving slowly.

"COCO POPS!" the guard shouted immediately. "COCO POPS! COCO POPS!...coco pops?"

The guard started to panic and ran off shouting coco pops at the top of his voice. I heard the clicking sound of multiple guns being loaded. Everyone in the helicopter looked at me. I shrugged.

"What did you expect me to do?" I replied.

Carl's hands glowed and one of the armoured cars drove into the way of the sudden bullet fire. We all dived out of the helicopter and took cover. As soon as I moved, the pain of the bullet in my leg lit up again. It wasn't as painful as before, but it was still smarting. Rugal punched the guard who was constantly shouting coco pops, knocking the confused guard out cold. I used my powers to make one of the other guards shoulder barge his colleges. The armoured car spun round and drove at the other guards, forcing them to scatter. Before they could refocus their attacks, Rugal was attacking the guards on the right, while Angel was quickly taking down the guards to the left. I tried to run after them, but I quickly fell over as my leg started hurting again. I had no idea if this would work, but I tried to use my powers on myself and disable my pain receptors. It worked: my leg felt as good as new. I jumped up and ran after Angel. I couldn't see Carl, but using my powers I discovered he'd jumped in the armoured car. Angel had already finished up her group of guards by the time I got there.

"Slowcoach," she said, smiling.

"Bullet to the leg," I explained. "Had to turn off my pain receptors. Turns out, my powers feel great."

I smiled at her as another guard who aimed his gun at us suddenly began hopping in the other direction.

"Reinforcements are coming," I shouted at Rugal. "We need to get inside and find where he's keeping the people with Power Genes."

Rugal nodded and the three of us walked up to the door, while I constantly checked for more guards. Some were running from the other side of the facility. No alarm had gone off: I guess it was just something to do with coms.

Carl saw what we were doing and jumped out of the armoured car, unlocking the door so we could enter the rectangular end of the building. We'd entered a huge, bare, silver hallway with a massive ceiling. At the other end of the room facing us was a long line of Kabletech guards, and in the centre of the group was a cyborg woman with a katana and...a bear?

"I am Bladedancer," the woman said. "This is Grizzly. We are members of the Cyborg Squadron. Kable has sent us to capture you."

"I'm glad you're more matter-of-fact than your superior," I replied. "We're here to save whoever you're holding here."

"We're not holding anyone here."

"I can read minds, you know. I know you're lying and I also know you're stalling."

Although I didn't stop looking forward, I heard guards rush in from behind and quickly get floored by Angel.

"You're more intelligent than I thought," Bladedancer said. "Let's get this over with."

The bear, Grizzly, rushed towards us. Rugal punched the bear in the face, following up with a fiery uppercut. Bullets started to fly and Carl and I ducked to avoid them, with Angel providing cover and knocking a few of the bullets out of the air. I used my powers on Bladedancer, trying to force her to drop the katana and run. However, she was actually fighting back against my control, trying to use her will to overpower my own. There was something else pushing her as well, some kind of hive mind she was communicating with. I pushed harder, fighting with all my will to control her while walking towards the guards as Angel covered Carl and me. Rugal was still fighting Grizzly, trying to keep him from attacking us from behind.

I'm not giving in. Bladedancer thought. I've been through hell and back to be where I am. I won't lose to you.

She dashed forward, covering a huge amount of ground in a matter of seconds. Angel was too busy blocking bullets too react too her. In a few moments, her blade was inches away from my neck and drawing closer. I was completely frozen. I thought this was it. I closed my eyes, bracing for the impact.

Then there was a sound of clashing metal and I realised my neck was intact.

I opened my eyes. Someone was standing in front of me. She was wearing silver plate armour over black, form fitting cloth. Her white hair was tied back in a ponytail. She had blocked Bladedancer's katana with her own sword.

"Wha-" Bladedancer shouted in surprise. "Who could have-"

"Don't worry, Natalie," Mum said, pulling the Cryosabre away from Bladedancer. "The calvary's here."

Chapter 18

I stared at her for a moment. Mum had changed so much I hadn't even recognised her when she saved me. I noticed the gunfire had stopped and everyone was looking at us now except for Rugal and Grizzly, who were still fighting.

"What do you think?" she asked, smiling, her back still turned to me.

"Are you kidding?" I exclaimed. "I thought your fashion sense was crap!"

"Just because I'm a single mum doesn't mean I'm not interesting."

"How did you get out of the ice?" I asked quickly.

"Your friends let me out," she said. "They said you could do with reinforcements. I haven't held this sword in 15 years, but I could still fight this sorry excuse for a warrior."

Bladedancer's eyes narrowed and she and mum locked eyes, swords out in front of them. I looked round to see Ice skating in, pursued by a still-blue John. Ice immediately attacked Grizzly, who was getting the upper hand on Rugal, and John ran forward to the rest of the group.

"You guys go on ahead," he said. "We'll hold off the guards. Go and fix this mess."

Rugal walked up to me panting. We all nodded at each other: me, Angel, Carl, Rugal. We knew what we had too do. We were going to finish this.

"Got it," I said. Then the battle resumed as quickly as it had stopped. The gunfire started again. I could hear Grizzly roaring, and hear the familiar sound of ice forming. I ran round mum and Bladedancer, followed by the rest of my team and John. Bladedancer tried to swing her katana at me, but mum got in the way again, blocking with her sword before the two engaged in a sword fight that looked more like a choreographed dance than a duel. Angel blocked the bullets from the guards and when we were close enough John blasted them all with electricity, knocking them down for a few seconds while we ran past.

"Good luck," John said as Carl opened the door and we walked inside.

"You too," I replied before the huge door slid shut. I looked round and gasped.

The room was a huge, circular room with an extremely high ceiling, higher than than one in the hallway. In the centre of the room was a circular computer terminal with a few office chairs tucked under it. What was on the walls was what really made me gasp, though.

There were loads of pods like the ones I had found the others in under Kabletech Tower. The pods ran along the walls right up until you hit the ceiling. I couldn't see into them, so I didn't know how many were filled. I used my telepathy to check if anyone was there, and I got hit by so many whispers I nearly fell to the floor.

"Good God," I muttered "There's loads of them."

"Can you unlock all these pods?" Angel asked Carl.

"I can try," Carl said, walking over too the terminal, his hand glowing. Before he could reach the terminal, something flew out of it, unleashing a laser blast at Carl from the palm of his hand. I recognised him at once. He was the one who put us through this crap, and had probably done it to countless others as well.

Wraith the Cyberhog.

I watched as the laser blast slammed into Carl's chest, our last hope disappearing. Then I realised it didn't hit Carl at all.

"RUGAL!" I screamed in horror, as the polar bear crumpled too the floor, a smoking hole burnt through his hoodie. Carl knelt down beside him.

"Why did you...?" he stuttered.

"Heh," Rugal muttered, cracking a slight smile. "I've gotta repay you for all the crap I put you through somehow, right?"

Rugal stood up, his legs shaking.

"Impossible," Wraith said, his previously emotionless voice showing a slight hint of surprise, and to a much lesser extent fear. "You could not have predicted my attack. There was no possibility that you could have stopped the laser blast."

"You need a new definition of possibilities." I said. I managed to get a latch on his mind, and although I felt slight resistance like I had with Bladedancer, I caught him by surprise. I forced him to crash into the ground.

"Now, Carl!" Angel said. "Shut him down!"

"I can't!" Carl shouted back in panic "If I disconnect from the system, I'll have to start again!"

"You're trying to access the system?" Wraith said as he stood up. "To bring the pods down and open them? Fool. We knew you were coming. We've activated the self-destruct system."

"What?!?" I said in shock.

"The whole facility will blow up, and so will you. The pods are designed to survive such a blast, and we can rebuild the facility. You will have achieved nothing. You will take 24 minutes to hack the systems and get everyone out, and the self-destruct timer is set for 10 minutes. You cannot possibly win."

"Not if I can't help it." Carl replied. I knew he was downright terrified, but something had changed in him as well.

Wraith aimed another laser beam, but I forced him too aim it upwards, hitting one of the pods which absorbed the blast like it was nothing. All three of us ran forward. Rugal swung a fiery fist at the robot's face, but Wraith simply phased through it again. Angel tried to follow up Rugal's attack with her own like she had before, but she came in a second to soon and the attacks go right through him. He spun round and fired another laser blast, but she dodges it relatively easily. Lacking any real combat knowledge, I tried and shoulder barged Wraith while he was focused on Angel and it worked: he fell to the floor and a second later Rugal is raining on the fiery punches as I stood up. Then there's a clang as Rugal's fist hits the floor and Wraith flies straight through him, becoming solid again and pushing Rugal's head to the ground with his foot. Angel rushes forward again, but this time Wraith was ready for it and blasts her away, sending her into the wall.

"ANGEL!" I shout in horror. I'm so focused on her I don't notice Wraith fly behind me before he hit me in the back with an energy blast too. My back felt like it was in the centre of the sun and I cry out, and a millisecond later I fly forward like a missile and crash into one of the pods, landing on the ground near Angel. I hear a cracking sound, from somewhere, and I realise it's coming from my ribs as one of them breaks. My head is spinning slightly from the impact. My whole body is burning with pain and my back is literally burnt, and I can't focus my powers enough to dim the pain. I'm dimly aware of Rugal fighting Wraith again, who is trying to go for Carl but can't get a decent shot in. I crawl over to Angel, who's on the floor as well, her eyes closed.

"Angel..." I mutter. "Angel...please...please tell me you're ok."

Angel groans and her eyes open. She tries to pull herself up.

"Damn," she said. "I thought this would be easy."

"We need to help Rugal," I said quickly. "He can't hold Wraith off on his own for much longer."

"Why am I even trying?" she asked me, looking me in the eye.

"Wha-what do you mean?"

"This...all of this...I never wanted these powers...I never wanted to be a hero...I sure as hell never wanted to risk my life for anyone. I just wanted to be normal. So why am I trying?"

"Because it's the right thing to do?"

"No," she muttered, looking at the floor. "That was never the reason." She looked me in the eye again. "When I met you, I didn't care about you much. I'd been through a similar thing with the whole "unable to use powers" thing, and I could definitely relate too you, but otherwise you were just a friend to me. But, over the months, meeting up in the club...something changed. I wanted to be at the Club more, and then suddenly I just wanted to see you more. When we met in the park...I know I squeezed your hand, but I couldn't stop myself. I don't know why, but I just couldn't. I didn't know what was happening to me. Then, the week we got captured, I realised what it was. The only reason I stayed to fight on against Kabletech was you. Natalie, I'm sorry if you don't feel the same way, but I...I...Natalie, I..."

Tears were rolling down her cheeks. She couldn't get the words out. But what she had said...it felt so familiar. I'd felt it too, or at least something similar. I read her mind, and what I got back from her wasn't the usual jumble of thoughts, but one, overriding command.

I love you.

I smiled and put my hand on her cheek.

"Don't worry," I whispered. "I know."

And then we kissed.

Chapter 19

We pulled back after a few seconds, even though it felt like forever.

"Wow," I muttered. "That was..."

"Yeah." Angel replied. "Yeah, it was."

"So, um..."

"Battle to save countless lives. Got it."

We helped each other get up and reality hit again. My entire body hurt like hell and my back still felt like it was burning, but I couldn't focus on that now. Rugal was still standing but was moving slower than before. Wraith was phasing through his attacks, but Rugal wasn't letting up and the cyborg couldn't get a decent shot in. Carl was still standing and sweating like mad. However, a quick mind read told me he still had a while to go before he unlocked the system.

"We need a plan," Angel said.

"I have an idea," I replied. "Remember when you hit Wraith in the club? And when I shoulder barged him a few minutes ago?"

"Yeah?"

"We both hit him while he was firing his laser. He can't phase while he's firing the laser."

"So hit him while he's firing his laser?"

"You hit him while he's firing the laser, and while he's stunned i'll go into his mind. I might be able to figure something out."

Angle nodded. "Well, we haven't got many other options. Good luck."

We both ran forward while Wraith's back was turned.

Time to tag out, Rugal, I told him with my powers. We'll take it from here.

Rugal stopped his constant barrage of punches and stepped back from Wraith, still in a guard stance. As I had predicted, Wraith raised his hand to fire a laser. Seconds later, Angel hit him with a flurry of punches, stunning him for a few seconds.

That was all I needed.

I grabbed the back of Wraith's head and pushed into his mind. I felt the tumbling sensation, my pain disappearing, and then-

>Wraith OS

>Property of

>++++++++++Kabletech Ltd+++++++++

>Username:

>...You've got too be kidding me. I'm not Carl, goddamnit.

>Username incorrect. Please re-enter

>No shit, Sherlock, of course it's incorrect. Just give me a mind to access...

I tried to find a way round the code, find the Mobian brain this machine was linked to in the first place. Suddenly I was in a dark room with seemingly no features. As my eyes (or whatever I had in this place) adjusted to the gloom, I realised the walls and the floor were covered in scrolling code, like they were made from a computer screen. I reached down and touched the floor and pulled my hand back in shock as it went through it. I looked round and also saw there was a door.

Good. Anything to get out of this creepy place.

I walked through the door and was blinded by a bright light. As my eyes adjusted yet again, I saw that I'd walked out into some kind of futuristic city, the sky a perfect blue despite lacking a sun. Silver-grey buildings lined the street I was on, some with neon signs, but they traveled up too the sky out of my field of vision and swayed from side to side. In front of me, at the end of the street I was on, I could see a park of some kind, but it was quite far away. Seeing it was the only thing in this place that wasn't metal, I decided to go there. Maybe I could get some answers.

I'd only walked a few meters before I heard a sound that seemed to come from everywhere.

"Virus detected. Anti-virus eliminate."

Some of the massive swaying buildings split apart into millions of cables and flew at me. I tried too control them in the same way I tried to control John's mind, but every time I tried the words "access denied" echoed through my mind. The cables wrapped around me, constricting me like a snake, pushing me to the ground till it felt like I had a building on top of me. I started to choke.

Then I realised. I couldn't control Wraith's mind, but I could control myself here.

A huge orb of fire surrounded me, burning the cables too a crisp. I stood up and ran towards the park as quickly as I could. More buildings split up and more cables flew at me, but I blasted them with fire before they could get close too me. Then the entire floor fell away and I was falling, the cables flying down to grab me. Suddenly I just felt gravity ignore me and I spun round, blasting the cables with fire before floating out of the hole. I was flying.

I floated there for a moment, enjoying the sensation. Free from gravity, from the bonds I'd been attached to all my life. Then I remembered what I was trying to do.

I flew away from the new wires that split apart, dodging and weaving and burning anything I couldn't dodge or weave past. I was nearly at the park, only a few metres away. Victory was so close...

And then a cable snagged my leg. I'd been so focused on getting there I'd forgotten about the cables. It dragged me down and I hit the floor, directly outside the entrance to the park. I tried to burn it with fire but cables coiled round my hands, stopping me from doing anything. They started to coil round my neck and my lungs, crushing me like before. I tried to walk forward but the cables were to strong, dragging me back. I couldn't breathe. My vision started to go black. I'd failed.

Then the wires retract and I fall forward onto what feels like grass. I lay there for a moment, barely conscious...hell, how do you define conscious when you're in someone's mind? Eventually, once I felt a little better, I stood up and was staring into the eyes of an old man.

We stood there for a moment, eyes locked. Then he started saying words I never expected him to say.

"Piss off."

Chapter 20

I looked at him for a moment, shocked. He walked past me, completely ignoring that I was there.

"What?" I asked.

"I told you to piss off." the old man said, looking over his shoulder. He was a Mobian Hedgehog with grey fur and hunched over a walking cane. "Didn't you hear me before?"

"Yeah, I did-"

"Then why did you ask what I had said?"

"I...dunno. I was just checking-"

"Did you or did you not hear what I said?"

"Of course I did."

"Then you shouldn't be asking."

He turned his head forward and continued to walk away. I walked up beside him.

"You're Wraith, aren't you?" I asked. "You're the guy in control?"

"Does it look like I'm in control?"

"I don't know, I haven't been inside a cyborg's brain before."

"Put it this way: if I was in control, I wouldn't be talking to you. And even now I don't want to talk to you anyway."

We continued on in silence for a few moments, while I thought up what I would say next. As I thought I looked around the park. It was a large rectangular park surrounded on all sides by the technological city that had just tried to kill me. I looked back and saw the cables that had caught me earlier hovering outside the park, unable to enter.

"How do you control the cables?" I asked.

"Even when I'm not in full control, I can still control some regions of my new body, including the brain."

"Why aren't you in full control?"

"There's 2, sometimes 3, separate minds controlling the Wraith unit. One of them's mine, the other is the computers designed to control Wraith's actions during battle, and the third one is Kable. The computers are controlling me now."

"I...I can't imagine what that's like. Having someone else controlling your body."

"You get used to it," he said, smiling a false smile. His speech was a little softer than before.

We came to a bench hovering a few centimetres in the air and we both sat down on it.

"I assume you're here for a reason," he said.

"You...Wraith...is trying to kill my friends," I replied. "I was trying to find a way of shutting it down."

"And kill me too?" He looked me in the eyes. "I've had situations like this before. Not when someone enters my brain, of course, but when people know there's a Hedgehog in there and they try to plead to my humanity. It won't work. Ever since I became this thing...I've had no humanity left."

"That's not true!"

"Like you'd know." He chuckled. "You're a kid who's never fought a battle in her life."

"I'm talking to you now," I continued. "That's enough to prove you're still there, isn't it?"

He was silent for a moment. "Do you know how I got this body? I was involved in a plane accident...G.U.N never released the details of how it happened...I lost my wife and I was on the brink of death in the middle of the ocean. Kable said it was a miracle I survived. I was kept in cryogenic stasis for years, according to Kable. He said G.U.N kept me there so I could be experimented on later, but Kable got me out. 30 years after the crash, he made me into Wraith. The ultimate cyborg designed to go anywhere and survive. I owed him, big time. So he gave me a job as a way of repaying him: work as the first member of the Cyborg Squadron. The things I've done...they were horrific. Kidnapping children to be experimented on is barely the tip of the iceberg. But it wasn't some computer that did it. It was me. It was all me."

We were quiet for a moment, listening to birdsong that seemingly came from nowhere.

"I never said you hadn't done anything," I replied. "I never said it was all Kable's fault. You've done some bad thing in the past, but so have we all. I didn't think you were perfect at all. I just want you to pull through when it counts. Redemption isn't as far away as you think."

I watched him for a moment in silence. He was thinking. Mulling over his options.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"Natalie Walker. Just a teenage girl roped up in a mad CEO's plot."

"I wasn't asking for effect. I wanted your name so I could put it into Kable Enforcement's surveillance database."

A screen appeared in the air and the old hedgehog typed my name into what I could only assume was the database.

"I'm getting no results," he replied. "Are you sure that's your name?"

"Not legally. My surname is my actually my father's. I just don't use it because mum looks at me funny."

"So...your actual surname...what is it?"

I paused for a moment.

"Angel. My name is Natalie Angel."

The old man typed the name in and the result came up. Looking at the images, Kable had been watching me for a while and had manage to track my root from home to the youth club. He scrolled down the page, eventually locating a section marked "parentage". It contained two pictures with a little bit of information under them. The first image was of my mum from her passport, looking slightly younger but still recognisable. The second was an image of a person I'd never seen before, and the picture was blurry and more than likely taken by a security camera, but I knew exactly who he was. He had my eyes. My golden-brown eyes. I looked at the name under the picture.

Vendeta Angel.

I looked at the face for a moment, studying it, trying to see my own reflection in the blurry image. Then the screen deactivated. The old man looked down for a moment.

"Well..." he muttered. "This is going to be annoying..."

"What is?" I asked. "And what do my parents have to do anything?"

"Because one of them's my son," he replied. "Natalie, I'm your grandfather."

Chapter 21

I stared at him for a few seconds in complete shock. I'd never met my father, so I hadn't been so surprised when I saw his picture. But I'd met Wraith before. And, unlike my father, he'd tried to kill me.

"Are you kidding?" I asked.

"I'm not. My wife was called Gabriela. We had two sons, Vendeta and Glass. The plane accident happened while they were being babysat. I...I had no idea what happened to them. When I asked Kable, he said that Vendeta had been popping up inconsistently on news stories and CCTV for years and Glass just disappeared 5 years ago. He said it was like they'd vanished off the face of the Earth. And I was told...when I woke up...I was told my wife had died."

A single tear ran down his cheek.

"I've met a woman called Gabriela Angel," I replied. "She knew my mum. But she looked like she was in her 20s...I have no idea if she was your wife or what. I thought it was a coincidence we had the same surname...Angel as a surname can't be that uncommon..."

I realised now wasn't the time to talk. I let him grieve as long as I dared, and then started talking again.

"Wraith, Grandad, whatever you want to be called, we need your help. If we fail, Kabletech will do God knows what to those children. If you can at least stop fighting..."

"And Kable removes me from this body? Do you think I never wanted to save those children before? I did. Badly. But the one time I complained about it Kable said he'd remove me from this body, and I was terrified by that. All the time I've been in this body, I've been scared of losing it. I don't want to die, Natalie, and self-preservation outweighs any love or compassion I might have."

"I was in the same position just a few hours ago. I'd just broken my friends out of Kable Enforcement and Ice and John were there, and we just decided to let them get on with it while we saved our skins. John told us...well, more commanded us to stay. A few of our group chose to stay, and then...I realised that if it was with them, I'd be willing to fight on to. The only real friends in this country I've ever had. Yes, you might die. But you're going to do it saving something you love, and if that's not worth saving...I don't know what is."

"...Goddamnit," he said after another few moments of silence. "When the hell did teenagers become so persuasive?"

"You'd be surprised how many people have been swayed by us," I said, standing up. "So...what are you going to do now?"

"I'm going to take control of the Wraith unit," he said. "There's a way I can take control but you can't help me get there. It doesn't matter, I don't really need your help in it, but you should leave so I don't get purged by the system on accident or something."

"Understandable," I replied. He stood up off the bench and walked towards the entrance to the park with me following him a few steps behind. The birdsong suddenly vanished and I realised this was the last chance I had to ask about my family. Honestly, though? There wasn’t much I wanted to ask. There was one thing, though.

"Grandad," I said at last as we stopped at the park’s exit. "Would my dad have been proud of me?"

"I never truly met your dad," he said. "I 'died' when he was 1 year old...but yes. I think he would have been proud of you. At least...I am."

He smiled for the first time since we’d met and we hugged each other.

"Good luck, Natalie," he whispered. "Ven would have been proud of you."

Then he walked out of the park and I returned to reality, my back searing hot and my ribs broken. I saw Angel pulling away from Wraith: I’d only been in his mind a few seconds in the real world. Rugal was on the ground, seemingly unconscious. I could hear Carl shouting, "I’ve done it! I’m in the system!"

I fell over backwards, hitting the hard ground on the brink of unconsciousness. Angel knelt down next to me.

"Natalie!" I could hear her shouting a million miles away "Natalie! Please tell me you're ok!"

I smiled. "Never been better," I muttered. There was a bright flash of light before I blacked out.

Chapter 22

The first thing I remember when waking up was the feel of the grass on my back. My jacket and my shirt had been burnt to shreds by Wraith’s blast, and my fur was probably burnt too. The grass was damp, like it had just been raining. Then my vision started to come back and I found out I was at the foot of a tree, the leaves wet and dripping slightly. It must have been around early morning, judging by the light. Angel was bending over me, looking overjoyed at my awakening. I smiled.

“Damn,” I said. “Why am I spending most of my life unconscious?”

“Hey, it has its advantages,” Angel replied. “Means you can dream about me, right?”

“Doesn’t beat the real thing.”

She pulled me up and we kissed. I was barely conscious before, but now I felt like I might as well just have fallen asleep again. I could barely focus o-

“Ahem.”

We both pulled away quickly, although I pulled back much faster. I glanced round to see mum standing nearby. Her armour was much less clean then when I’d last seen it and was covered in scratches from fighting Bladedancer. The Cryosabre was strapped onto her back.

“If you two have finished,” she said, “Me and Natalie need to talk. In private.”

Angel nodded, got up and walked away. Mum watched her go until she was out of sight.

“Huh,” Mum said. “So that’s why you turned down that guy who asked you to prom.”

“I like boys, mum,” I replied. “I just like girls more. I chose not to go out with that guy because he was a complete moron who thought more with his waist than his brain.”

“Fair enough. Why didn’t you tell me, though? About...you know...liking girls.”

“I never really had a problem with it. I just accepted being bisexual as part of who I was and moved on, and back at school I just talked to Marcee and Ollie if I ever had a problem with it.”

“Ok. Was Marcee…?”

“No, mum. She wasn’t.”

“Ah, ok.”

She fell quiet for a moment. I noticed her fingers were fidgeting: she wanted to use the Cryosabre again.

“I know why you’re here,” I said. “It’s because of dad, isn’t it?”

“I promised that if we ever got out of this alive, I’d tell you,” Mum said. “And we have. So I’ll te-”

“Stop stalling and tell me. Geez, mum, you’re worse than Kable.”

Mum raised an eyebrow before continuing.

“I don’t remember living on Earth when I was young. I was born here, you’ve seen my birth certificate, but I just remember living in space after that. I was raised by a group called the Assassins Guild, devoted to making the best fighters in the galaxy for the highest bidder. Turns out I was quite good at being an assassin. By the age of 16 I was fighting alongside some of the Guild’s finest members. I was an awful shot, but I was extremely good with a sword and I was quite stealthy, so I made for a good assassin. Anyway, as I’ve already told you, I received a bet from one of my friends in the guild. Basically, there was rumours of this legendary sword in the ice pits of Kardanon. He said that if I survived and bought the sword back, he’d pay me the equivalent of 2000 Rings. I concluded that it would just be as dangerous as any other job with the reward to balance it out, so I took it. It was a hard job, but I got through. And that was where I found this thing.”

Mum drew the Cryosabre of her back, holding it aloft in the air. I knew she was trying to show me it, but we both knew the actual reason: she just wanted to hold it again.

“The Cryosabre. Turns out the guy who made this one made a lot of swords like it. One of them was the Chronosabre. And that’s where your father came in.”

She put the sword away as slowly as she dared.

“Your father was called Vendeta. He was a member of the Guardians of the Chronosabre, a group devoted to guarding the sword in question. The Guardians had found out about the Cryosabre and wanted to get a hold of it so others couldn’t use it, which was understandable. Ven was a relatively new member of the guardians. He was 18 at the time, a year younger than me. He was sent to infiltrate the Guild and bring me and the sword in. I was told to teach him the ways of the assassin, although whether it was by coincidence or the Guardians were pulling strings in the Guild I don’t know. He wasn't the most patient of students, but I knew from the way he used his powers he had some experience in using them, which made me a little suspicious. However, overtime, we started to bond. It wasn’t true love at first like you’ve just been hit by. We just kept getting...closer, somehow. I can’t explain it.”

She looked away from me and smiled, remembering something.

“Then, maybe 6 months in, we were both sent to attack a missile base on an ocean planet with 10 other Guild members. The raid was crazy, like some kind of heist movie. The end result was a big battle on a burning tower with our dropship floating above us dodging bullets. We were both wounded badly. Neither of us thought we’d survive. And he said that...before we both died...he said he wanted me to know that he loved me. I can barely remember anything afterwards and I was bleeding everywhere. The one thing I remembered after waking up in the Guild’s hospital was the taste of his lips.”

She looked at me again.

“After this, we started going out. Sleeping together. Things lovers do. About 2 months after we started going out, he admitted his job with the Guardians. He knew he was meant to bring me in, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it and the Guardians were starting to push him to finish the job. Things weren’t great for me in the Guild proper, either. I had several debts to pay off from a short term gambling addiction and the Cryosabre’s power was controlling me to the point I was gripping onto it in my sleep and not having it made me fall apart completely. So we decided to disappear. Go back home to Earth. I don’t know how he convinced the Guardians to let him stay on Earth with the assassin he was meant to be bringing in, or even if he convinced them of anything at all. We lived in Iravia for a while. Neither of us had jobs, but we were able to convert the money we had and use it for a bit. We both got relatively low paying jobs seeing neither of us had any sort of qualifications, but we had each other and we got by. I started to get over the Cryosabre’s addiction and tried to get the qualifications I needed for a decent job. He didn’t bother, as he was still flying into space whenever the Guardians needed him. But we were happy together. About a year after we settled down, you were born.”

“I didn’t know he was there when I was born.”

“He was, you were just too young to remember. And he loved you, Natalie. You were everything to him. But when you were 4 he just…left. He said he needed to do a job with the Guardians and just didn’t come back. I thought he was dead. But then...around 3 years later...I saw him again.”

She went completely silent and looked horrified.

“Would it be easier if I took a look?” I asked.

Mum nodded and I walked up to her. I touched her on the side of her head and entered her memories. I was in the back of mum’s old car, the one we had in Iravia. It was late, and I wasn’t in the car: mum often worked late and had to get a babysitter to look after me. The road was one of Iravia’s few main ones, and so was relatively straight. Mum looked a lot younger as well: no stress marks under her eyes, and her long hair straighter than it was now.

I was so focused on studying my surroundings I didn’t see the green light falling until it hit the ground in front of the car. Mum swerved round, but I just floated out of the car seeing I wasn’t really there. The light had left a crater in the road and the car had skidded to a halt just in front of it. Two figures flew out of the crater, both covered in green light. One of them was an alien of some kind, a bug creature with four arms. The other one was dad.

The two grappled in mid air, punching and kicking each other as they flew upwards. They were both talking to each other in an alien language. Mum stumbled out of the car, seemingly fine, and watched the two duel, horrified.

Green darts of energy generated around dad and they flew into the alien, cutting him multiple times as he tried to defend himself. While he was focused on the darts, dad flew forward and slammed the alien into a nearby wall, still speaking in an alien language. Then the alien released a blast of green energy and knocked dad away, the hedgehog being stunned by the blast and giving the alien enough time to follow up with an uppercut. Dad said something in that alien language.

“DAMN IT, VENDETA!” the alien shouted in perfect English. “I’M ON YOUR SIDE!”

The alien got Vendeta in a chokehold in mid air.

“You...chose...the wrong...side.” dad spluttered. He put his hand to the alien’s chest and a blast of energy radiated from it, blasting the alien away and releasing him from the chokehold. As dad tried to catch his breath, the alien flew in to ram him into the other wall, but dad was faking weakness: he casually floated to the side and blasted the alien with another blast of energy. The alien was then locked in the air for a few seconds and flew back to Vendeta. The hedgehog grabbed the alien’s head in his hand and smashed it into the crater. Both me and mum looked over the edge of the crater.

“Tel-Eth is evil, Krath,” dad said, without a hint of emotion in his voice. “He will destroy us all.”

“Nethilis is worse...” Krath replied. “He'll lead the Gurdians to destruction. Tel-Eth just wants the best for the universe.”

“Tel-Eth is a monster.”

“If he’s a monster...then what are you?”

“A hero,” Vendeta said. I looked away as dad broke Krath’s neck.

I looked at Mum. She was on her knees and had broken into tears. Dad must have heard something, because he looked up from Krath’s broken body, still breathing heavily from the battle. I didn’t need telepathy to know what he was thinking: I could see it in his eyes, and mum could see it too.

He didn’t recognise her.

I left the memory and returned to the real world. Mum was breathing heavily, like Rugal had been when I did it too him.

“My God...” I said. “I can’t imagine how hard it was for you...damn, I’ve never met my father, and it hurt me.”

“He’s dead, Natalie,” mum said. “Vendeta Angel is dead. I don’t know what stands in his place, but it’s not my husband.”

Chapter 23

After she’d recovered a little, mum told me what had happened after I blacked out. Carl had outdone Wraith’s predictions and hacked the system well before the self-destruct went off. Rugal had blacked out not long after me. The flash of light I saw before I blacked out was John blasting down the door with a huge blast of lightning. After that, what was left of us and of the Power Gene-wielders who we’d let out of the pods had helped us fight our way out of the complex. They had walked all night, seeing as most of them were well rested after being in the pods for so long. Ice had used his massive bulk to carry me and Rugal. Rugal had woken up some time in the night, and I had started to stir when they had stopped to rest in the morning.

The group was trying to get to Sunset. Once we got there, we could call for help, and as it was in plain view of the public, there was little that Kable could do about it. Mum had predicted that we’d be there by midday, and if anyone felt thirsty, we had an infinite water supply in the form of Ice.

When I left mum, the first person I met was Rugal. His fur was covered in dust, and—like me—his hoodie had been ripped apart from behind, his fur there singed badly.

“Hey, Natalie,” Rugal said. “You’re awake.”

“Captain perceptive, as always,” I replied. “How are you doing?”

“Not great, honestly. Fighting Wraith after being shot in the back really tired me out. I can’t imagine you’re any better.”

“I probably have a broken rib and my back’s probably worse than yours, but I’ll live.”

“Well, yeah, you and Angel had time to start kissing while I was trying to hold the line, so I guess you’re ok.”

“Wait...you saw that?”

Rugal started laughing.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“No reason,” Rugal said. “It’s just...the expression on your face when I said that! It’s like Kable had suddenly appeared!”

He continued laughing and I punched him in the gut.

“Well, you and Angel definitely think the same,” he muttered.

Carl walked over.

“And here is the man who saved the day!” Rugal said, putting his arm round Carl’s shoulder.

“I didn’t really save the day,” Carl said, hurriedly. “I mean, Natalie was the one who took out Wraith, and you and Angel helped her do it. I just stood there and did nothing.”

“Nothing?” I said. “Carl, you hacked the system to free the people we came to save in the first place. If we didn’t have you, we’d probably be charred skeletons.”

“You did well, buddy,” Rugal said. “You did well.”

“Couldn’t have done it without you guys,” Carl replied, “and Rugal taking the blast for me…”

“I owe you a lot, kid. It was the least I could do.”

“Have any of you seen Angel?” I said. “I want to-“

“Make out with her?” Rugal interrupted. “Yeah, sure, I saw her over by one of the trees over there.” He pointed to one of the trees behind him.

“I don’t want to make out with her!” I fumed. “I just want to talk to her!”

“Yeah. And then make out.”

“Wait, you were making out?” Carl asked. “How come I didn’t notice?”

“Maybe it’s because you were actually focusing on the task at hand,” I said narrowing my eyes at Rugal. He grinned in response and I walked past both of them. Despite this, I smiled to myself. Rugal would always have a massive ego, but at least now he was starting to warm up to people. And realise that he isn’t everything.

The people we’d rescued from the compound were relatively widely spread over this area of the forest, probably waiting for us to get moving again. Most were teenagers, but there were some children and a few adults as well. I walked through the trees, scanning minds, until I found the one I wanted.

Angel was right on the edge of our group, sitting down with her back resting against a tree, looking away from everyone. She must have heard me coming, as she looked over her shoulder as I approached.

“Hey,” she said. “What did your mum want to tell you about?”

“That’s between us,” I said, smiling. “I’ve got other things on my mind.”

Angel turned away from me, returning to looking out at the forest. It was only now I realised how beautiful the place was: the dewey leaves, the birdsong, the sun cutting through the trees; all of it was simply astonishing. None of it could hold a candle to Angel, though.

“You know, I didn’t know I was lesbian before I met you,” she said. “I always thought I was straight. That this was what every other girl felt. I even had a boyfriend once because I thought I loved him. But then I realised I’d fallen in love with you, and...it hit me hard. Just another thing to make me less normal.”

“Liking girls isn’t a bad thing,” I replied, sitting down next to her. “You’ll get used to it. You’ll just accept it as who you are before long.”

“I...I don’t think I’ll ever feel that way. Everything has been piling up on me for so long...my grades at school, my athletics, then my powers manifested, now this...everything is just breaking me down. I’m not sure how much I can take.”

We were both silent.

“Yesterday...” I continued, “in the elevator...you were having a panic attack, weren’t you? You suffer from anxiety.”

“My parents think it’s just a normal part of growing up.” She smiled a fake smile. “Funny. They’re very understanding people. They accept every problem I have...any that won’t make me stop rushing forwards..”

I rested my head against her shoulder.

“We’ll find a way, Angel,” I said. “Together.”

“But, Natalie...what if you’re part of the problem?”

“You love me, don’t you? Isn’t that enough to tell you what to do?”

“I..I just want to be normal,” she whispered. “Is that so much to ask?”

As she said it, I realised something. I could read minds and enter people’s memories. My mother was an assassin from space. My father could fly and fire energy. My girlfriend could punch faster than lightning. My best friends could turn their fists into fire and disable computers with a flick of the wrist. I came to the Powers Club just wanting to be normal, for all this bullshit to disappear. It didn’t. It became something more.

No, I’m not normal, nor are my friends, nor are my family. But we’re people. We laugh. We love. And we can do things people wouldn’t believe until they saw us. And maybe, if we stick together, we can find something better: a different kind of normal.

Epilogue

“YOU. BLOODY. IDIOTS!!”

I looked the guard in his masked face. Even though being Mobian meant I was smaller than him, he was still scared.

“But sir!” he said.

“DON’T SAY BUT, YOU IDIOT!” I shouted. “I spent my money on this complex! I spent valuable time organising the kidnapping of those people! AND YOU FUCKED IT ALL UP IN ONE FELL SWOOP!”

“Sir, it was an accident!”

“AN ACCIDENT?!?! HOW IS TURNING THE SELF DESTRUCT ON AN ACCIDENT? IT NEEDS TWO KEYS TO ACTIVATE!!!”

I glanced round at the ruined building as it was hosed down. How did a bunch of kids manage to break everyone out? Even if the guards weren't here, the Cyborg Squadron was still around. I’d have to question them later.

“We activated it as a backup measure!” the guard stuttered. “In case Wraith failed!”

“The backup measure shouldn’t be to blow up the complex! THE BACKUP MEASURE SHOULD BE TO BLOODY SHOOT THEM!”

“We were occupied by the others that came in! Ice was-”

“I know Ice and John were here! I saw the report! What I don’t understand is HOW YOU DIDN’T HIT THEM!”

“The...Cyborg Squadron were in the wa-”

“YOU’RE KABLE ENFORCEMENT, NOT THE GALACTIC EMPIRE! YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO HIT SOMETHING THAT’S RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU WITHOUT HITTING SOMETHING ELSE!”

“But sir…”

I took a few deep breaths.

“You know, I would put a bullet in your pathetic excuse for a brain,” I said, “but I would have to fill out the paperwork, so maybe I’ll let you live. Now get out of my sight.”

I walked past him.

“Th-thank you, Mr.Kable, sir!” the guard said.

“I said I wasn’t going to kill you,” I said, without looking behind me. “I never said no one was.”

I heard the sound of gunfire behind me as I entered the remains of the complex. I had been called to the ruins at 5 in the morning, with the attack apparently having happened at 9 in the evening. Do the guards value my beauty sleep or something?

Grizzly and Bladedancer were waiting in what was once the hallway. Bladedancer had multiple cuts along her body, wires and even occasional bone showing from under the armour. Grizzly’s armour was burnt and parts of his fur were still smouldering.

“Well, guys…” I said, “What happened?”

“We knew that Ice and John were coming when we headed here,” Bladedancer replied, “but they bought another with them...a woman with a sword.”

“And you and she dueled?”

“She looked like she was in her 30s, but she was as good as I was. I barely managed to keep up.”

“Well, we didn’t expect this. You did well for what you had. If this new asset is as good as you say she is, we’ll have to keep it in mind. I’ll forgive you this time, but next time, you will defeat her. Is that clear?”

Bladedancer nodded.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” I said, “I need to talk to Wraith...in private.”

Bladedancer and Grizzly left and I walked into what was once the holding room for all the Power Gene carriers I had collected. Now it was just a pile of steaming rubble and flickering wire. Floating in the centre of the room, just above ground level, was Wraith the Cyberhog.

“Wraith, Wraith, Wraith,” I said. “Wraith, Wraith, Wraith...what are we going to do with you?”

“I apologise for my failure.” Wraith replied.

“I’m not interested in the fact that you failed. I’m interested in why. The girl got inside your head, didn’t she?”

“...No.”

“Liar. You found out who she was, didn’t you? You found out she was your granddaughter.”

“...Yes.”

“So you spared her out of love, right? Like any decent Mobian would.”

“Of course.”

I pulled out my pistol and shot Wraith in the chest. The battle computer was designed so any attack from me wasn’t considered a threat. Wraith was helpless against my attacks. He clutched at his chest.

“Wake up, sunshine. You’re not Mobian anymore. You’re a cold hearted machine. Nathan Angel is dead. He died on that plane. You are Wraith the Cyberhog. And she is not your granddaughter.”

He fell silent as he looked at the sparking bullet hole in his chest.

“So,” I continued, “Who are you?”

“I am...Nathan Angel.”

I fired another shot, tearing through another place on his chest.

“Again. Who are you?”

“I...am...Wraith the Cyberhog.”

I fired another shot.

“You’re reluctant to accept it. Who are you?”

“...Wraith the Cyberhog.”

Another shot.

“Who are you?”

“Wraith the Cyberhog.”

“Good. Who are your sons?”

“...I don’t have any.”

Another shot.

“Who are your sons?”

“I don’t have any.”

“Who is your granddaughter?”

“I...don’t have one.”

I fired another shot to his chest. The LED lights in cracks on his body flickered and his anti-grav systems failed. He fell to the ground at my feet

“Who is your granddaughter?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Good. Very good.”

I turned round and started to walk away, but just as I got to what used to be the door, I stopped.

“Wraith,” I said, “If this happens again, I will be putting more bullets through your chest. I will keep putting bullets through your chest 'til Nathan is dead and Wraith is all that’s left. And if you don’t forget...you die. Is that understood?”

“...Yes.”

I turned round and fired another shot into his chest.

“You will understand,” I said. “If you don’t, you lose your second chance.”

I walked out, leaving the machine sparking from its chest.

“I will find you, Natalie,” I said. “I will discover the secrets of the Power Gene even if it kills me. And the man who saved you before...is gone.”

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