Why are we sneaking out in the night?” Jack repeated.“I already explained,” Sam snapped. “If you don’t listen—”Taylor jumped in to say, “Because otherwise Astrid would find some way to stop him.” She mimicked Astrid’s voice, injecting it with steel and a tense, condescending tone. “Sam. I am the smartest, hottest girl in the world. So do what I tell you. Good boy. Down, boy. Down!”Sam remained silent, walking steadily just a few feet ahead.Taylor continued, “Oh, Sam, if only you could be as smart plus as totally goody-goody as I am. If only you could realize that you will never be good enough to have me, me, wonderful me, Astrid the Blond Genius.”“Sam, can I shoot her now?” Dekka asked. “Or is it too soon?”“Wait until we’re over the ridge,” Sam said. “It’ll muffle the sound.”“Sorry, Dekka,” Taylor said. “I know you don’t like talking about boy-girl things.”“Taylor,” Sam warned.“Yes, Sam?”“You might want to think about how hard it would be to walk if someone were to turn off gravity under your feet every now and then.”“I wonder who would do that?” Dekka said.Suddenly Taylor fell flat on her face.“You tripped me!” Taylor said, more shocked than angry.“Me?” Dekka spread her hands in a completely unconvincing gesture of innocence. “Hey, I’m all the way over here.”“I’m just saying: you can see where that could make a long walk just a lot longer,” Sam said.“You guys are so not fun,” Taylor grumped. She bounced instantaneously to just behind Sam. She grabbed his butt, he yelled, “Hey!” and she bounced away innocently.“To answer your question, Jack,” Sam said, “we are sneaking out at night so that everyone doesn’t know we’re gone and why. They’ll figure it out soon enough, but Edilio will have to have more of his guys on the streets if I’m not there playing the big, bad wolf. More stress for everyone.”“Oh,” Jack said.“The big, bad wolf,” Taylor said. She laughed. “So, when you play that fantasy in your head is Astrid Little Red Riding Hood or one of the Three Little Pigs?”“Dekka,” Sam said.“Hah! Too slow!

Sam, I know you’re upset over what happened with you and Drake,” Astrid began.“Upset?” Sam echoed the word with an ironic smirk.“But that’s no excuse for you keeping secrets from us.”“Yeah,” Howard said, “Don’t you know only Astrid is allowed to keep secrets?”“Shut up, Howard,” Astrid snapped.“Yeah, we get to lie because we’re the smart ones,” Howard said. “Not like all those idiots out there.”Astrid turned her attention back to Sam. “This is not okay, Sam. The council has the responsibility. Not you alone.”Sam looked like he could not care less about what she was saying. He looked almost beyond reach, indifferent to what was going on around him.“Hey,” Astrid said. “We’re talking to you.”That did it. His jaw clenched. His head snapped up. His eyes blazed. “Don’t push me. That wasn’t you with your skin whipped off and covered in blood. That was me. That was me who went down into that mine shaft to try to fight the gaiaphage.”Astrid blinked. “No one is minimizing what you’ve done, Sam. You’re a hero. But at the same time—”Sam was on his feet. “At the same time? At the same time you were here in town. Edilio had a bullet in his chest. Dekka was torn to pieces. I was trying not to scream from the…You and Albert and Howard, you weren’t there, were you?”“I was busy standing up to Zil, trying to save Hunter’s life,” Astrid yelled.“But it wasn’t you and your big words, was it? It was Orc who stopped Zil. And he was there because I sent him to rescue you. Me!” He stabbed a finger at his own chest, actually making what looked like painful impact. “Me! Me and Brianna and Dekka and Edilio! And poor Duck.

Yeah, let’s get John here. That way we can stall for a while longer. We can keep on doing nothing for just a little while longer.”Albert said, “Take it easy, Howard.”“Take it easy?” Howard jumped to his feet. “Yeah? Where were you last night, Albert? Huh? Because I didn’t see you out there on the street listening to kids screaming, seeing kids running around hurt and scared and choking, and Edilio and Orc struggling, and Dekka hacking up her lungs and Jack crying and…“You know who couldn’t even take it?” Howard raged. “You know who couldn’t even take what was happening? Orc. Orc, who’s not scared of anything. Orc, who everyone thinks is some kind of monster. He couldn’t take it. He couldn’t…but he did. And where were you, Albert? Counting your money? How about you, Astrid? Praying to Jesus?”Astrid’s throat tightened. She couldn’t breathe. For a moment panic threatened to overwhelm her. She wanted to run from the room, run away and never look back.Edilio got to his feet and put an arm around Howard. Howard allowed it, and then he did something Astrid never thought she would see. Howard buried his face in Edilio’s shoulder and cried, racking sobs.“We’re falling apart,” Astrid whispered for herself alone.But there was no easy escape. Everything Howard had said was true. She could see the truth reflected in Albert’s stunned expression. The two of them, the smart ones, the clever ones, the great defenders of truth and fairness and justice, had done nothing while others had worked themselves to exhaustion.

Drake’s whip hand spun Diana like a top.She cried out. That sound, her cry, pierced Caine like an arrow.Diana staggered and almost righted herself, but Drake was too quick, too ready.His second strike yanked her through the air. She flew and then fell.“Catch her!” Caine was yelling to himself. Seeing her arc as she fell. Seeing where she would hit. His hands came up, he could use his power, he could catch her, save her. But too slow.Diana fell. Her head smashed against a jutting point of rock. She made a sound like a dropped pumpkin.Caine froze.The fuel rod, forgotten, fell from the air with a shattering crash.It fell within ten feet of the mine shaft opening. It landed atop a boulder shaped like the prow of a ship.It bent, cracked, rolled off the boulder, and crashed heavily in the dirt.Drake ran straight at Caine, his whip snapping. But Jack stumbled in between them, yelling, “The uranium! The uranium!”The radiation meter in his pocket was counting clicks so fast, it became a scream.Drake piled into Jack, and the two of them went tumbling.Caine stood, staring in horror at Diana. Diana did not move. Did not move. No snarky remark. No smart-ass joke.“No!” Caine cried.“No!”Drake was up, disentangling himself with an angry curse from Jack.“Diana,” Caine sobbed.Drake didn’t rely on his whip hand now, too far away to use it before Caine could take him down. He raised his gun. The barrel shot flame and slugs, BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM.Inaccurate, but on full automatic, Drake had time. He swung the gun to his right and the bullets swooped toward where Caine stood like he was made of stone.Then the muzzle flash disappeared in an explosion of green-white light that turned night into day. The shaft of light missed its target. But it was close enough that the muzzle of Drake’s gun wilted and drooped and the rocks behind Drake cracked from the blast of heat.Drake dropped the gun. And now it was Drake’s turn to stare in stark amazement. “You!”Sam wobbled atop the rise. Quinn caught him as he staggered.Now Caine snapped back to the present, seeing his brother, seeing the killing light.“No,” Caine said. “No, Sam: He’s mine.”He raised a hand, and Sam went flying backward along with Quinn.“The fuel rod!” Jack was yelling, over and over. “It’s going to kill us all. Oh, God, we may already be dead!”Drake rushed at Caine. His eyes were wide with fear. Knowing he wouldn’t make it. Knowing he was not fast enough.Caine raised his hand, and the fuel rod seemed to jump off the ground.A javelin.A spear. He held it poised. Pointed straight at Drake.Caine reached with his other hand, extending the telekinetic power to hold Drake immobilized.Drake held up his human hand, a placating gesture. “Caine…you don’t want to…not over some girl. She was a witch, she was…”Drake, unable to run, a human target. The fuel rod aimed at him like a Spartan’s spear.Caine threw the fuel rod. Tons of steel and lead and uranium.Straight at Drake.

Help me,” the girl pleaded softly.Sam knelt beside her. He recoiled in shock. “Bette?”The left side of Bouncing Bette’s face was covered in blood. There was a gash above her temple. She was panting, gasping, like she had collapsed after a marathon and was trying with her last ounce of energy to crawl across the finish line.“Bette, what happened?”“They’re trying to get me,” Bette cried, and clutched at Sam’s arm.The three dark figures advanced to the edge of the circle of light. One was clearly Orc. No one else was that big. Edilio and Quinn moved into the garage doorway.Sam disengaged from Bette and took up a position beside Edilio.“You want me to beat on you guys, I will!” Orc yelled.“What’s going on here?” Sam demanded. He narrowed his eyes and recognized the other two boys, a kid named Karl, a seventh grader from school, and Chaz, one of the Coates eighth graders. All three were armed with aluminum bats.“This isn’t your business,” Chaz said. “We’re dealing with something here.”“Dealing with what? Orc, did you hit Bette?”“She was breaking the rules,” Orc said.“You hit a girl, man?” Edilio said, outraged.“Shut up, wetback,” Orc said.“Where’s Howard?” Sam asked, just to stall while he tried to figure out what to do. He’d lost one fight to Orc already.Orc took the question as an insult. “I don’t need Howard to handle you, Sam.”Orc marched right up to Sam, stopped a foot away, and put his bat on his shoulder like he was ready to swing for a home run. Like a batter ready for the next fastball. Only this was closer to T-ball: Sam’s head was impossible to miss.“Move, Sam,” Orc ordered.“Okay, I’m not doing this again,” Quinn said. “Let him have her, Sam.”“Ain’t no ‘let me,’” Orc said. “I do what I want.”Sam noticed movement behind Orc. There were people coming down the street, twenty or more kids. Orc noticed it too, and glanced behind him.“They aren’t going to save you,” Orc said, and swung the bat hard.Sam ducked. The bat whooshed past his head, and Orc rotated halfway around, carried forward by the momentum.Sam was thrown off balance, but Edilio was ready. He let loose a roar and plowed headfirst into Orc. Edilio was maybe half Orc’s size, but Orc was knocked off his feet. He sprawled out on the concrete.Chaz went after Edilio, trying to pull him off Orc.The crowd of kids who had come running down the street surged forward. There were angry voices and threats, all aimed at Orc.They yelled, Sam noted, but no one exactly jumped into the unequal fight.

Mother Mary wants to draft two more kids,” Astrid told Sam.“Okay. Approved.”“Dahra says we’re running low on kids’ Tylenol and kids’ Advil, she wants to make sure it’s okay to start giving them split adult pills.”Sam spread his hands in a helpless gesture. “What?”“We’re running low on kid pills, Dahra wants to split adult pills.”Sam rocked back in the leather chair designed for a grown man. “Okay. Whatever. Approved.” He took a sip of water from a bottle. The wrapper on the bottle said “Dasani” but it was tap water. The dishes from dinner—horrible homemade split-pea soup that smelled burned, and a quarter cabbage each—had been pushed aside onto the sideboard where in the old days the mayor of Perdido Beach had kept framed pictures of his family. It was one of the better meals Sam had had lately. The fresh cabbage tasted surprisingly good.There was little more than smears on the plates: the era of kids not eating everything was over.Astrid puffed out her cheeks and sighed. “Kids are asking why Lana isn’t around when they need her.”“I can only ask Lana to heal big things. I can’t demand she be around 24/7 to handle every boo-boo.”Astrid looked at the list she had compiled on her laptop. “Actually, I think this involved a stubbed toe that ‘hurted.’”“How much more is on the list?” Sam asked.“Three hundred and five items,” Astrid said. When Sam’s face went pale, she relented. “Okay, it’s actually just thirty-two. Now, don’t you feel relieved it’s not really three hundred?”“This is crazy,” Sam said.“Next up: the Judsons and the McHanrahans are fighting because they share a dog, so both families are feeding her—they still have a big bag of dry dog food—but the Judsons are calling her Sweetie and the McHanrahans are calling her BooBoo.”“You’re kidding.”“I’m not kidding,” Astrid said.“What is that noise?” Sam demanded.Astrid shrugged. “I guess someone has their stereo cranked up.”“This is not going to work, Astrid.”“The music?”“This. This thing where every day I have a hundred stupid questions I have to decide. Like I’m everyone’s parent now. I’m sitting here listening to how little kids are complaining because their older sisters make them take a bath, and stepping into fights over who owns which Build-A-Bear outfit, and now over dog names. Dog names?”“They’re all still just little kids,” Astrid said.“Some of these kids are developing powers that scare me,” Sam grumbled. “But they can’t decide who gets to have which special towel? Or whether to watch The Little Mermaid or Shrek Three?”“No,” Astrid said. “They can’t. They need a parent. That’s you.

I want my mom,” a little boy cried out suddenly.Every voice fell silent. The boy had said what they were all feeling.Caine hopped down from the car and went to the boy. He knelt down and took the boy’s hands in his own. He asked the boy’s name, and reintroduced himself. “We all want our parents back,” he said gently, but loudly enough to be overheard clearly by those nearest. “We all want that. And I believe that will happen. I believe we will see all our moms and dads, and older brothers and sisters, and even our teachers again. I believe that. Do you believe it, too?”“Yes.” The little boy sobbed.Caine wrapped him in a hug and said, “Be strong. Be your mommy’s strong little boy.”“He’s good,” Astrid said. “He’s beyond good.”Then Caine stood up. People had formed a circle around him, close but respectful. “We all have to be strong. We all have to get through this. If we work together to choose good leaders and do the right thing, we will make it.”The entire crowd of kids seemed to stand a little taller. There were determined looks on faces that had been weary and frightened.Sam was mesmerized by the performance. In just a few minutes’ time, Caine had infused hope into a very frightened, dispirited bunch of kids.Astrid seemed mesmerized too, though Sam thought he detected the cool glint of skepticism in her eyes.Sam was skeptical himself. He distrusted rehearsed displays. He distrusted charm. But it was hard not to think that Caine was at least trying to reach out to the Perdido Beach kids. It was hard not to believe in him, at least a little. And if Caine really did have a plan, wouldn’t that be a good thing? No one else seemed to have a clue.

What’s up, Albert?”“Well, I’ve done inventory at Ralph’s, and I think if I had a lot of help, I could put together an okay Thanksgiving dinner.”Sam stared at him. He blinked. “What?”“Thanksgiving. It’s next week.”“Uh-huh.”“There are ovens at Ralph’s, big ones. And no one has taken the frozen turkeys. Figure two hundred and fifty kids if pretty much everyone from Perdido Beach shows up, right? One turkey will feed maybe eight people, so we need thirty-one, thirty-two turkeys. No problem there, because there are forty-six turkeys at Ralph’s.”“Thirty-one turkeys?”“Cranberry sauce will be no problem, stuffing is no problem, no one has taken much stuffing yet, although I’ll have to figure out how to mix, like, seven different brands and styles together, see how it tastes.”“Stuffing,” Sam echoed solemnly.“We don’t have enough canned yams, we’ll have to do fresh along with some baked potatoes. The big problem is going to be whipped cream and ice cream for the pies.”Sam wanted to burst out laughing, but at the same time he found it touching and reassuring that Albert had put so much thought into the question.“I imagine the ice cream is pretty much gone,” Sam said.“Yeah. We’re very low on ice cream. And kids have been taking the canned whipped cream, too.”“But we can have pie?”“We have some frozen. And we have some pie shells we can bake up ourselves.”“That would be nice,” Sam said.“I’ll need to start three days before. I’ll need, like, at least ten people to help. I can haul the tables out of the church basement and set up in the plaza. I think I can do it.”“I’ll bet you can, Albert,” Sam said with feeling.“Mother Mary’s going to have the prees make centerpieces.”“Listen, Albert…”Albert raised a hand, cutting Sam off. “I know. I mean, I know we may have some great big fight before that. And I heard you have your fifteenth coming up. All kinds of bad stuff may happen. But, Sam—”This time, Sam cut him off. “Albert? Get moving on planning the big meal.”“Yeah?”“Yeah. It will give people something to look forward to.

The food is ready,” Zil announced to loud cheers.“But we have something more important to do, first, before we can eat.”Groans.“We have to carry out some justice.”That earned a silent stare until Turk and Hank started raising their hands and yelling, showing the crowd how to act.“This mutant, this nonhuman scum here, this freak Hunter…” Zil pointed, arm stretched out, at his captive. “This chud deliberately murdered my best friend, Harry.”“Na troo,” Hunter said. His mouth still didn’t work right. Brain damage, Zil supposed, from the little knock on his head. Half of Hunter’s face drooped like it wasn’t quite attached right. It made it easier for the crowd of kids to sneer at him, and Hunter, yelling in his drooling retard voice, wasn’t helping his case.“He’s a killer!” Zil cried suddenly, smacking his fist into his palm.“A freak! A mutant!” he cried. “And we know what they’re like, right? They always have enough food. They run everything. They’re in charge and we’re all starving. Is that some kind of coincidence? No way.”“Na troo,” Hunter moaned again.“Take him!” Zil cried to Antoine and Hank. “Take him, the murdering mutant scum!”They seized Hunter by the arms. He could walk, but only by dragging one leg. They half carried, half marched him across the plaza. They dragged him up the church steps.“Now,” Zil said, “here is how we’re going to do this.” He waved his hand toward the rope that Lance was unspooling back through the plaza.An expectant pause. A dangerous, giddy feeling. The smell of the meat had them all crazy. Zil could feel it.“You all want some of this delicious venison?”They roared their assent.“Then you’ll all grab on to the rope.

I’m trying to make a profit. I’m using batteries, toilet paper, and paper towels as currency. Each is something that will eventually be in short supply.”“You’re trying to get all the toilet paper in town?” Astrid shrilled. “Are you kidding?”“No, Astrid, I’m not kidding,” Albert said. “Look, right now, kids are playing with the stuff. I saw little kids throwing rolls of it around on their lawns like it was a toy. So—”“So your solution is to try and take it all away from people?”“You’d rather see it wasted?”“Yeah, actually,” Astrid huffed. “Rather than you getting it all for yourself. You’re acting like a jerk.”Albert’s eyes flared. “Look, Astrid, now kids know they can buy their way into the club with it. So they’re not going to waste it anymore.”“No, they’re going to give it all to you,” she shot back. “And what happens when they need some?”“Then there will still be some left because I made it valuable.”“Valuable to you.”“Valuable to everyone, Astrid.”“It’s you taking advantage of kids dumb enough not to know any better. Sam, you have to put a stop to this.”Sam had drifted away from the conversation, his head full of the music. He snapped back. “She’s right, Albert, this isn’t okay. You didn’t get permission—”“I didn’t think I needed permission to give kids what they want. I mean, I’m not threatening anyone, saying, ‘Give me your toilet paper, give me your batteries.’ I’m just playing some music and saying, ‘If you want to come in and dance, then it’ll cost you.’”“Dude, I respect you being ambitious and all,” Sam said. “But I have to shut this down. You never got permission, even, let alone asked us if it was okay to charge people.”Albert said, “Sam, I respect you more than I can even say. And Astrid, you are way smarter than me. But I don’t see how you have the right to shut me down.”That was it for Sam. “Okay, I tried to be nice. But I am the mayor. I was elected, as you probably remember, since I think you voted for me.”“I did. I’d do it again, man. But Sam, Astrid, you guys are wrong here. This club is about all these kids have that can get them together for a good time. They’re sitting in their homes starving and feeling sad and scared. When they’re dancing, they forget how hungry and sad they are. This is a good thing I’m doing.”Sam stared hard at Albert, a stare that kids in Perdido Beach took seriously. But Albert did not back down.“Sam, how many cantaloupes did Edilio manage to bring back with kids who were rounded up and forced to work?” Albert asked.“Not many,” Sam admitted.“Orc picked a whole truckload of cabbage. Before the zekes figured out how to get at him. Because we paid Orc to work.”“He did it because he’s the world’s youngest alcoholic and you paid him with beer,” Astrid snapped. “I know what you want, Albert. You want to get everything for yourself and be this big, important guy. But you know what? This is a whole new world. We have a chance to make it a better world. It doesn’t have to be about some people getting over on everyone else. It can be fair to everyone.”Albert laughed. “Everyone can be equally hungry. In a week or so, everyone can starve.

Hey, Sam,” Drake shouted. “I thought you’d like to know this isn’t my whole army.”Sam didn’t doubt it.“Your girl Brianna tried to stop us.” Drake waved a bowie knife in the air. “I took this from her. I whipped her, Sam.” He snapped his whip hand. The crack was like a pistol shot. “I broke her legs so she couldn’t run. Then . . .”Dekka was halfway over the side, ready to swim ashore. Jack grabbed her and held her.“Let me go!” Dekka yelled.“Hold her,” Sam ordered Jack. “Don’t be stupid, Dekka. He wants us to come rushing at him.”“I can beat him,” Jack said. “Dekka and me together, we can kill him.”Sam registered the fact that Jack was actually making a physical threat. He didn’t remember ever hearing that kind of thing from Jack. But Dekka was Sam’s greater concern.“I’m going to kill him,” Dekka said in a voice so deep in her throat she sounded like an animal. “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him.” Then she shouted, “I’m going to kill you, Drake. I’m going to kill you!”Drake grinned. “I think she liked it. She was screaming, but she liked it.”“He’s lying,” Toto said.“Who?” Sam snapped.“Him.” He pointed at Drake. “He hasn’t killed that girl or hurt her.”Dekka relaxed and Sam and Jack let go of her.“Truth-teller Toto,” Sam whispered. “He can tell when people are lying.”“I just decided I like you,” Dekka said to Toto. “You might be useful.”Toto frowned. “It’s true: you just decided you like me.

Here’s the thing, people: We have some serious problems. The lights are off. And it seems like that’s affecting the water flow in part of town. So, no baths or showers, okay? But the situation is that we think Caine is short of food, which means he’s not going to be able to hold out very long at the power plant.”“How long?” someone yelled.Sam shook his head. “I don’t know.”“Why can’t you get him to leave?”“Because I can’t, that’s why,” Sam snapped, letting some of his anger show. “Because I’m not Superman, all right? Look, he’s inside the plant. The walls are thick. He has guns, he has Jack, he has Drake, and he has his own powers. I can’t get him out of there without getting some of our people killed. Anybody want to volunteer for that?”Silence.“Yeah, I thought so. I can’t get you people to show up and pick melons, let alone throw down with Drake.”“That’s your job,” Zil said.“Oh, I see,” Sam said. The resentment he’d held in now came boiling to the surface. “It’s my job to pick the fruit, and collect the trash, and ration the food, and catch Hunter, and stop Caine, and settle every stupid little fight, and make sure kids get a visit from the Tooth Fairy. What’s your job, Zil? Oh, right: you spray hateful graffiti. Thanks for taking care of that, I don’t know how we’d ever manage without you.”“Sam…,” Astrid said, just loud enough for him to hear. A warning.Too late. He was going to say what needed saying.“And the rest of you. How many of you have done a single, lousy thing in the last two weeks aside from sitting around playing Xbox or watching movies?“Let me explain something to you people. I’m not your parents. I’m a fifteen-year-old kid. I’m a kid, just like all of you. I don’t happen to have any magic ability to make food suddenly appear. I can’t just snap my fingers and make all your problems go away. I’m just a kid.”As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Sam knew he had crossed the line. He had said the fateful words so many had used as an excuse before him. How many hundreds of times had he heard, “I’m just a kid.”But now he seemed unable to stop the words from tumbling out. “Look, I have an eighth-grade education. Just because I have powers doesn’t mean I’m Dumbledore or George Washington or Martin Luther King. Until all this happened I was just a B student. All I wanted to do was surf. I wanted to grow up to be Dru Adler or Kelly Slater, just, you know, a really good surfer.”The crowd was dead quiet now. Of course they were quiet, some still-functioning part of his mind thought bitterly, it’s entertaining watching someone melt down in public.“I’m doing the best I can,” Sam said.“I lost people today…I…I screwed up. I should have figured out Caine might go after the power plant.”Silence.“I’m doing the best I can.”No one said a word.Sam refused to meet Astrid’s eyes. If he saw pity there, he would fall apart completely.“I’m sorry,” he said.“I’m sorry.