‘Number Four and Number Nine,’ Sanderson says, pointing a shaky finger at me and then Nine. He doesn’t seem offended at all by Nine’s grossed-out reaction, doesn’t even seem to have noticed. ‘Your pictures have been crossing my desk for years. Furtive shots from security cameras and the like. I practically watched you boys grow up.’

Sanderson sounds like a reminiscent, doddering grandfather. I’m completely taken aback. I’d been expecting a sellout politician to try hitting me with talking points on Mogadorian Progress. This guy barely looks capable of getting up from his bed, much less giving a speech in front of the UN.

‘And you …’ Sanderson tilts his head to get a look at Walker. ‘You’re one of mine, aren’t you?’

‘Special Agent Karen Walker,’ she replies, stepping into the doorway. ‘Not one of yours. I serve humanity now, sir.’

‘Well, that’s nice,’ Sanderson says dismissively. He doesn’t seem at all interested in her. The way his beady, black eyes settle on Nine and me, like we’re his long-lost relatives gathered around his deathbed, makes me seriously uncomfortable. Even Nine has slipped into an awkward silence.

I notice a small kit on the bed next to Sanderson. It contains a few sleek syringes filled with a dark liquid that reminds me vaguely of Piken blood.

I take a step towards him, my voice low. ‘What did they do to you?’

‘Nothing I didn’t ask for,’ Sanderson replies, sadly. ‘I wish you boys would have found me sooner. Now it’s too late.’

‘Like hell,’ Nine says.

‘Even if you kill me, it won’t make any difference,’ Sanderson rasps, resignedly.

‘We’re not here to kill you,’ I reply. ‘I don’t know what they’ve told you, what they’ve filled your mind and body with, but we’re not done fighting.’

‘Oh, but I am,’ Sanderson replies, and pulls a small handgun out of his robe’s front pocket. Before I can stop him, he holds the pistol next to his temple and pulls the trigger.


If I’d had time to think about it, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it.

There’s about a millimeter of space between Bud Sanderson’s temple and the barrel of his gun. It’s in that space that I manage to stop the bullet, holding it there with my telekinesis. The precision required makes me grunt from exertion. Every muscle in my body is tensed, my fists clenched and toes curled. It’s like I flung my entire body into stopping that bullet.

I can’t believe I just did that. I’ve never done anything so precise before.

A ring-shaped burn from the pistol’s barrel forms on Sanderson’s temple, but otherwise his head is totally intact.

It takes until the pistol’s report stops echoing for the secretary of defense to realize his suicide attempt didn’t work. He blinks his watery eyes at me¸ not quite understanding why he’s still alive.

‘How –?’

Before Sanderson can pull the trigger again, Nine lunges forward and slaps the gun out of his hand. I exhale very slowly and allow my body to uncoil.

‘That’s not right,’ Sanderson says to me accusingly, his lower lip shaking as he rubs his wrist where Nine struck him. ‘Just let me die.’

‘Seriously,’ Walker interjects, her hands tightening around her own gun. ‘Why’d you stop him? Could’ve solved all our problems right there.’

‘It wouldn’t have solved anything,’ I say, shooting her a look as I let the bullet drop harmlessly on to Sanderson’s unmade bed.

‘He’s right,’ Sanderson says to Walker, his shoulders slumping. ‘Killing me won’t change anything. But keeping me alive is simply cruel.’

‘You don’t get to decide when you check out, old man,’ I tell Sanderson. ‘When we win this war, we’ll let the people of Earth decide how they deal with traitors.’

Sanderson chuckles dryly. ‘The optimism of youth.’

I crouch down to look him in the face. ‘There’s still time to redeem yourself,’ I say. ‘To do something of value.’

Sanderson raises an eyebrow, and his eyes seem to focus up a bit. But then the right side of his mouth droops and he has to wipe away a blob of drool with the cuff of his robe. Looking utterly defeated, Sanderson averts his eyes.

‘No,’ he says quietly. ‘I think not.’

Nine sighs from boredom and picks up the kit of syringes laid out next to Sanderson. He studies the tar-colored sludge inside the injector for a moment, then waves it in Sanderson’s face.

‘What is this shit they’re giving you, huh?’ Nine asks. ‘This what you traded the planet for?’

Sanderson peers longingly at the vials but then weakly shoves them away.

‘They healed me,’ Sanderson explains. ‘More than that. They made me young again.’

‘And look at you now,’ Nine grunts. ‘Fresh as a daisy, right?’

‘You know their leader has lived for centuries,’ Sanderson counters, his eyes swinging wildly between me and Nine. ‘Of course you do. He promised us that. He promised immortality and power.’

‘He lied,’ I say.

Sanderson looks down at the floor. ‘Yes.’

‘Pathetic,’ Walker says, but the venom’s gone out of her. Like me, I don’t think Sanderson has turned out to be the villain Walker expected. Maybe he was once the puppet master of an international conspiracy in support of Mogs, but at this point he’s been entirely chewed up and spit out by Mogadorian Progress. This isn’t the game changer Walker was hoping for. I’m worried that we’ve wasted what precious little time we have left.