Weak. Vulnerable. Out of practice. I try not to think it but I know it’s true. That’s what I am. It won’t be long before Ava realizes I don’t know what I’m doing. Not long before her energy sizzles the life out of my hands and throws me down to my shaky knees.
   My blue high-energy beams fight to stay alive against Ava’s effortless, lightning-like waves. The pain isn’t that big of an issue as I can barely feel my hands, arms and shoulders. My head is a different story, throbbing with the pressing intensity of thousands of megawatts. The pulsating hammer in my brain blinds my eyes. I have to trust my energy field to find its way in the dark.
   From some hidden source, new energy bursts travel up through my body all the way to my hands just as I start to lose hope. I open my eyes just in time to watch Kroll run across the corn field to tackle Ava from behind.
   Ava loses her balance and her energy field dies out. “Grab her hands,” I yell at Kroll as I feel Damian’s arms around my shoulders. “You can’t let her bring her hands together,” I go on before I collapse onto my knees.
   Damian helps me up and locks eyes with me. “What the hell is going on?” he says with a strained voice.
   Spring Town is awake and rushing to the corn fields. The Dark Legion guards look to me for instructions and I look to Dom, the commanding Exodus officer on ground who has just arrived at the scene along with everyone else. Dom takes everything in and then nods, quickly understanding that I need him to take charge of the situation.
   “Take the kids back to their dorms,” he orders the guards. I’m glad he thinks of that because it’s of the utmost importance that the children don’t witness any more of Ava’s squirming and squealing while Kroll wraps her hands in the rubber gloves one of the guards has retrieved from the gardening shed. Kroll cuffs Ava’s hands behind her back. It’s a lot to process on a night when all any of us have thought about is how the drones could attack at any moment and destroy the shields protecting Spring Town.
   Damian loosens up his grip on me. He walks over to Kroll and helps to guide Ava out of the field by placing his hand on her shoulder.
   “It’s been her all along,” I say, barely able to breathe air into my lungs. “She’s the traitor.”
   Ava stares at me with pure hatred in her eyes. “You’re a fool if you think you can win,” she hisses at me.
   Kroll forces her to sit next to a tree. He ties her to the trunk with a thick rope that goes around her waist.
   “What exactly happened here tonight?” Damian says. “Why did the drones shut down?”
   I raise my hands under his eyes with my palms up. The skin has been torn off and the flesh underneath is raw and burned in several spots.
   “Freya, that’s nasty,” he says concerned. “Can you heal them?”
   “I don’t know.”
   I glance from Damian to Kroll to Dom and back to Damian. They’ve all seen how Ava and I were able to produce energy fields with our bare hands. Dom is the one who’s the most shocked as he’s never actually seen me handle a receptor. I’m sure he’s heard all the stories but hearing and seeing are two different things.
   “You can do with your hands what you once could only do with the help of a receptor,” Kroll explains what has been on everyone’s mind no doubt.
   “Not quite,” I say. “But pretty close.”
   “At great cost,” Damian says pointing at my hands.
   “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be able to do it again anytime soon unless I figure out how to buffer my skin.”
   “This could be huge news,” Dom says. He’s a short but impressively muscular man with extreme determination. His eyes glimmer as he imagines the possibilities that this could open up for us.
   I turn to him. “Relay the news to Exodus.”
   “Negative,” he says. “I would have to open the shields to do that.”
   “Open them,” I command him.
   Dom remains uncertain for a moment, weighing his options. In the end, he nods and heads for the HQ.
   “I trust you know what you’re doing,” Kroll says.
   “And I trust the aliens won’t want to destroy Ava just yet.”
   “Or you,” Damian says looking up at the dark sky.
   “I don’t know about that,” I say. “Ava should be enough for their plans.”
   “Are you saying she’s a host?”
   “What else could she be?”
   “I don’t know, Freya,” Damian says shaking his head. “If that’s the case, then why isn’t she locked up in a lab and made to carry alien embryos? What’s the holdup?”
   “I don’t know. Maybe she’s too young. Maybe there are more like her.”
   All three of us look at Ava. She seems even tinier than usual, fastened to the big tree trunk with her hands behind her back and her head hanging low.
   Almost pitiful, I think but quickly put the thought aside. I cannot afford to lose focus.
   “Have you heard of anything like that?” I ask Kroll. “When you were a resident of Plantation-15 and leading an army for the Empress?”
   He shakes his head. “First time I’ve seen anything like this.”
   My hands ache and itch now that the numbing effect created by the energy field starts to fade. I begin to regain feeling in my extremities. Medical attention should be in order but my mind wanders off to different matters. Like what the best course of action would be now that the tables seem to be turning.
   My touchpad glows red, skinning away the murkiness of night. I reach for it without thinking and get an unpleasant surprise when the skin – or rather what used to be skin – of my right palm touches the cold metallic device. The pain almost drops me to my knees again.
   Damian snatches the touchpad out of my hands and turns the speaker on. It’s Dom. “Freya, Commander Eldritch wishes to speak with you.”
   “The attack on Exodus has been suspended,” Commander Eldritch says. His voice comes through the speaker strained and rough. He hasn’t slept much lately, that much is obvious. “We have every reason to believe all the forces are moving your way, Freya.” He coughs and clears his throat. “After what Dom has told us, at least we know why.”
   It’s hardly a surprise but it sends electrifying waves of dread down my spine anyway. “Use the respite to better barricade Exodus,” I say.
   “What are you going to do?” the commander goes on. “Do you need me to find reinforcements?”
   I look to Damian for advice. He shakes his head. We’re of the same mind.
   “No,” I say. “It would be pointless. Just concentrate on keeping the station safe. You will need all your available resources.”
   “You haven’t told us what you’re going to do.”
   “There’s a good reason for that,” I say with a sigh. “We’re between plans right now.”
   Damian steps in to put Eldritch’s mind at rest. “We’ll figure it out, Sir,” he says. “We always do.”
   “We will?” I ask him as soon as the feed is cut off.
   “Let’s take care of your hands,” he says.
   “Dodging the question. Very reassuring.”
   “I’m not dodging the question. The answer could very well be in your hands.”
   “He’s right,” Kroll says.
   “Wow, you two agreeing on something. Now I’ve seen it all.”
   Dom arrives with a pair of Dark Legion guards in tow. “Now that we’ve all been briefed,” he says, “what exactly is our plan?”
   I turn and steal a glance at Ava. “Damian was right before,” I say.
   “Thank you for acknowledging it,” Damian says. Then, after a moment of hesitation he adds, “I’m sorry, what are you referring to?”
   “Ava. She can’t be like me. If she could breed, she wouldn’t be here. She can’t be a host. She’s… something else.”
   “Don’t fool yourself,” Ava says looking long and hard into my eyes. “They will come for me.”
   “And we will be ready for them,” I say.
   Ava laughs. “Yeah, I heard all about your plans.”
   I go to her and grab her by the arm. “Get up,” I say with clenched teeth. “You are going to heal me.”
   Damian turns on the lights in the examining room. A nurse joins us and quickly diagnoses me with deep second-degree burns on my palms.
   When I ask about recovery time, she shakes her head. “It could take weeks,” she says. “You’ll probably need skin grafts. There will be some pain management. The doctor will be along to answer your questions.”
   “There’s no time for that,” I say. “I will need my hands tonight.”
   “That’s out of the question,” the nurse says while sticking a needle loaded with painkillers in my forearm.
   Ava is listening to the conversation strapped down on an examining chair at the far end of the room. It’s hard to determine whether I feel sorry for her or I am furious at her. Either way she’s the key to my plan.
   Damian reads my mind. “Are you sure?” he says.
   It’s a question I can’t answer. I choose by instinct, not by what’s wise or recommended. Too bad nobody has written a manual on how to avoid being pulverized by alien missiles while trying to grow new skin.
   “That leaves you then,” I tell Ava. “You can make this easy on yourself and heal my hands voluntarily or I could give Kroll permission to do what’s necessary to ensure your cooperation. You’ve seen Kroll in action, right?”
   This gets her attention. “You’d release that beast upon a child?”
   “C’mon, Ava, you’re hardly a child. And isn’t that what your mistress does anyway? You know, the one you’re so loyal to?” I turn to Damian. “How many children do you think she has sacrificed for her own savage purposes?”
   “We personally know of at least a few thousand,” he says as if corroborating some new idea.
   I wink at Kroll who moves in, letting his full weight resonate hard with every footstep.
   “Even if I healed you,” Ava cries out terrified at the sight of the approaching giant, “you would never be able to understand or control the force of the raw energy field inside you. It would take months, maybe years of training. You’ll only burn yourself again or worse.”
   “You let me worry about that,” I say. “I’m a fast learner. You only have to do that one simple thing.”
   Kroll towers over Ava. When the sound of his weapons clinking against his armor quiets down, Ava tries frantically to shake her hands free from their straps.
   “What’s to stop me from using my energy against you once my hands are free?” she yells at me.
   “A gun at the back of your head,” I say.
   Ava laughs. “It’s not in your nature to kill, we both know that,” she says.
   “I didn’t say it would be my gun,” I say coldly as I place my hand on Kroll’s back.
   Do what you have to do,” I tell him. I can only trust he can read my mind like he’s claimed to so many times and that he knows I don’t really want Ava harmed in any way. I want her humbled and obedient but that’s it.
   Kroll presses his thumb against Ava’s throat. Surprisingly, it’s all it takes. I had expected a little more resistance than that. Her eyes get teary, her cheeks flustered. She has not been prepared for this. Whatever she is, she’s not a fighter. When I look at her terrified eyes, all I see is a little girl who has no idea how to get out of the mess she’s created.
   I lean in and gently remove Kroll’s hand from her throat. “I think she’s ready,” I say.
   Kroll backs away, barely changing the vicious expression he has employed for the occasion.
   “Redeem yourself, Ava,” I tell her. “Help us save Earth and our kind. You’re young and you made a mistake. Don’t let it define who you are.”
   She remains silent, stubbornly looking away from me.
   “Okay,” I say. “You don’t have to like it.”
   Damian removes the straps from her arms while Kroll, Dom and the guards all form a circle training their guns on her.
   “I wouldn’t try anything funny,” Damian advises her. “I know you’re a good kid, Ava. You don’t want anybody killed.”
   She remains silent, uninterested in all we have to say.
   “Let’s hope she’s nowhere near as skilled with her energy fields as you were with the receptor,” Damian whispers in my ear, planting a rather uncomfortable image in my head of Ava creating fast swirls of energy that will blast away the entire building in a second.
   “Thanks for that,” I whisper back as I step in front of her. “A little white light is all I need,” I tell her. “Then I will leave you alone.”
   Ava shakes her head. “I don’t know how to do that.”
   “I think you do,” I say. “Just think of something nice and it will come to you.”
   “Does she know how to think of something nice?” Kroll says.
   I roll my eyes at him frustrated at the interruption.
   “What?” he says. “I know I can’t.”
   Ava resigns to her fate finally. She brings her hands together and rubs them gently.
   “Don’t overdo it,” I tell her. “I’m watching you.”
   “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “You don’t have the time or the knowledge to control this power. Even with healed hands, it will be useless to you. You’ll just get yourself and others killed.”
   The white light covers up my palms without any visible effect. Ava keeps the energy steady but can’t make it do its job. I feel nothing.
   “Have you tried this before?” I ask her.
   She shakes her head.
   “You have to find a focus point inside you and use it as an axis for the energy,” I urge her.
   She looks at me with quizzical eyes.
   “Like a lever,” I explain. “A tool to help direct the energy where you want it to go.”
   Ava closes her eyes and after a short while the white energy starts to sizzle across my palms closing up the wounds and replacing the pink flesh with healthy, new skin.
   “I’ll be damned,” Dom mutters. It’s his first time with the white light and it will stay with him forever. Both Damian and I know that all too well.
   The skin feels soft and delicate to the touch but there’s no pain when I apply pressure. It would probably be a foolish idea to expose it to the kind of energy that destroyed it in the first place but that’s exactly what I plan to do. I’ll have to start practicing immediately and it’s more than likely that I will have no option but to fry my hands once again in battle without having Ava handy to heal them.
   “Do you think they know you’ve discovered your new powers? I mean, the alien bugs?” Dom says.
   “They aren’t exactly new, are they?” Kroll says. “She just didn’t know she possessed them.”
   “Who can tell what they know or suspect at this point?” I say. Then a sudden thought enters my brain. I turn to Damian. “Who’s with Tobi?”
   “He’s fine,” he says. “I left a couple of the older girls with him.”
   My desire to see Tobi suddenly overwhelms me.
   “What are we going to do with her?” Damian whispers pointing at Ava. “She’s a killing machine. She could probably escape any prison if she set her mind to it.”
   “Maybe,” I say. “But somehow I don’t think she knows her capabilities. She wouldn’t be terrified of Kroll otherwise.”
   “She managed to switch Torik,” Damian reminds me.
   “Following strict orders she did not fully understand,” I say, uncertain. I’d like for my assertion to be true but there’s no way to be sure. “Anyway, I don’t think that Kroll could be switched at this point.”
   “We’ll keep her sedated for now,” Dom cuts in.
   His pronouncement takes me by surprise. “I don’t like that,” I say.
   “There’s no other way, Freya,” Dom insists. “We need to keep her safe and protected. We will need answers from her eventually.”
   Damian nods in agreement. I look to Kroll for a different suggestion but all he does is shrug.
   “Okay,” I tell Dom. “Do what you have to do. But remember that Ava is just a child who was manipulated and brainwashed. We cannot condemn her.”
   “Understood,” Dom says.
   Damian and I leave the Medical Facilities to go check on Tobi before we head for the HQ. With an aerial attack looming, there’s not a moment to spare.

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