“We’ve done this a few times too often,” I said, realizing I was talking only as it came out of my mouth.
“You call, come up with some kind of ultimatum, compare me and everyone on the team to spoiled children, and then you attack us and get your ass handed to you. You should do something different and I don’t mean attacking us with even more people.
“If you want to do something that surprises me, be kind and respectful of others. Treat me and the whole group as if we’re capable of making reasonable choices and you’ll probably get reasonable choices out of us.”
Major Justice didn’t say anything.
Across the room, Haley and Izzy had turned to look in my direction—which didn’t surprise me. They both had hearing capable of hearing both sides of the conversation. In Izzy’s case, she might even hear directly through the soil above HQ if Major Justice were within a mile or two.
What tipped me off that I might be too loud was that it wasn’t just Izzy and Haley, but everyone.
Vaughn laughed—which was a clue maybe that I wasn’t making a great choice. Kals had laughed too, but by the time I’d noticed, her expression had changed to the sort of half-open mouth you might have if you wanted to tell someone to stop, but suspected it was too late.
My parents’ wide-eyed expressions had more in common with Kals’.
I felt a little sick. I hadn’t been trying to go off on the guy, but if I had to be honest, I didn’t feel bad about saying any specific thing.
“There’s no need to worry,” Major Justice said over the phone, “I’ve done all the talking I’m going to do—”
Part of my brain noted that wasn’t true. He’d already spoken at least a sentence or two and communicated almost nothing. Another, wiser, part of my brain stopped me from pointing that out.
“Now,” Major Justice continued, and I could almost hear a smile, “I have official backup to do it. I have the forces necessary to take you in so that so that you can be taught how to control yourself. Surrender now and we’ll be merciful. If you don’t surrender, you’ll find that we know as much about your base as you do. We know better than to go in, but you won’t be able to come out without being captured. Surrender and it will go better for you.”
“I doubt it,” I said. “I’m betting that you and some or all of the people working with you have been taken by the Nine. If I surrender to you, it’s most likely that I’ll have my brain redecorated. I can’t take that chance.”
Making a noise somewhere between a growl and a scream, Major Justice said, “That’s not true!”
Quashing an urge to suggest that if he searched his feelings, he’d know it was true, I only said, “You’re the one who should ask himself why he’s getting so upset about something that couldn’t possibly be true.”
With a snarl, he said, “You’ll wish that the Nine controlled me,” and hung up.
If he had still been on the phone, I might have been tempted to point out how unlikely it was that I’d ever wish someone was controlled by the Nine and by extension how little sense what he’d said made.
All the same, this conversation had felt different. I couldn’t put my finger on how except maybe that it was more focused. He’d gotten his marching orders. Now he had to fulfill them.
That’s when the messages started.
We started receiving texts through the message protocol supers used, all of them showing as official communications. Some came to our personal accounts, others to team accounts. Some were sent from small teams, some from large teams, some from obscure supers, others from well known, and others from people we knew, most of them Stapledon graduates.
Some of the messages were as short as, “Surrender!” Others were longer. For example, “Back when we were at Stapledon, I admired your technical talent and your willingness to go against Earthmover and the others when the dragon controlled them, but now is not the time to do that. You’ve been led down the wrong path. I don’t know whether it’s you or some corrupting influence, but you’re out of control. Surrender yourself to the authorities—Keon.”
Keon had been at Stapledon when we were. He’d been in Haley’s class if I remembered correctly. I didn’t know if we’d given him a buzzer, but if we hadn’t, he was being influenced by the Nine on some level.
Of course, knowing supers, it wasn’t impossible that someone might have figured out how to spoof the protocol and send all of these messages as if they were coming from people we knew.
Either way, we had a terrifying security breach.