Shortly after noon, Logan pulled up to the side of the cabin with Tanner. Before he had even fully stopped, the fun began.
Tanner narrowly managed to dive off the snowmobile to avoid an incoming snowball. As he peeked his head up to see who had launched the icy projectile, another one caught him in the middle of the back.
The 13-year-old spun, grabbing a handful of snow as he did so and flung it in the general direction of where he thought the attack had come from, only to hear Garret's high-pitched giggle come out of the woods. "All right rookie, you're going to pay for that!"
"No powers Tanner." Josh shouted from somewhere deeper in the woods. "It's you, Logan, and Colt against Rex, me, and Garret. You have to start out at least 500 yards from the cabin, and if you get hit, retreat back out. First team to get all three into the cabin wins! We marked trees with pieces of red Christmas ribbon all the way around. Once you are past one, you know you are far enough away."
Tanner crouched down and moved away from the cabin. "What's the prize, Josh?"
"Losers cook and clean while winners get first crack at Garret's X-Box. We got the generator up and my old TV already set up."
"Awesome, but we should be able to use our abilities!"
"We'll do an augmented battle for dinner, but we'll need to pick teams and set rules before we do it so we don't really hurt anyone."
"Fine," Tanner signed as he ducked around some trees and made for the marked perimeter. Once he spotted a tree with a ribbon, he ducked around it and shouted out. "I'm outside the marked area, and for the record, I am going to nail you, rookie!"
"You have to find and catch me first." Came a distant shout through the trees, barely audible through the snow and wind.
Josh's telepathic voice suddenly entered all five of the other boys' heads, "OK guys, if any of you get hurt or lost, stay put and call out. Cause where I am looking from, I can't see the cabin through the snow or trees. No killing each other out here either; we are on activated alert, after all."
"Yeah, but they'll never pull the trigger to actually bump our status to mission active, Josh." Logan responded back with a thought.
"Probably not," Josh concurred, "but it is possible. I mean, we all heard how the BEARS 15 guys got pulled in after that avalanche hit the ski resort in Colorado a couple of years ago. It could happen."
"Only if we are lucky," Logan responded. "Really lucky. But since we both know it ain't going to happen, let's do this!"
Josh took a few seconds to focus on each kid, to make sure they were ready, knew what to do if there was an accident and they were outside the established circle before he simply sent a one-word command into everyone's brain, "GO!"
Rex was first to move; he clearly had the upper hand since he had lived in the tiny log cabin for the last three years and knew every stump, every inch of low ground, and every good hiding place. Since this was a team effort and the other two had to get in the cabin, he took a guard-the-door approach, not wanting anyone from the other team to be able to get close enough to hit Josh or Garret before they were able to duck in.
At the same time, he wished powers were on the table, because if they had been, Josh could coordinate all their movements with thought, giving his team the clear advantage. Of course Colt would then have the ability to simply fly to the front door, making it difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish what he was attempting to do now.
Rex ducked down as he noticed tracks in the snow. After a few seconds, he realized they were not heading toward the cabin, but away, so he once again darted from tree to low spot to tree. Just as the outline of the cabin came into view through the blowing snow, a snapping of a twig to his left caused him to pull back and grab a handful of snow. A moment later he spotted Tanner moving at close to a run to be the first to make it to the safety of the building.
With a grin he launched the frozen projectile and pumped his fist in victory as it hit his fellow BEARS member in the hip. Caught by total surprise, the 13-year-old stumbled and crashed into an already deep snow drift. Rex moved to get to some better cover. "You OK?"
Tanner jumped back up shaking snow out of his coat. "Nothing hurt but pride, Rex; nice shot!" As the boy dug some snow out of his ear, he called out loudly, "Rex is closing on the northwest side about 200 yards out! He nailed me; I am going to have to fall back for a second run!"
About two minutes later Josh's voice echoed over the forest, "Colt drilled me; he is about 300 yards out on the East side. I'm falling back!"
Only a few seconds later, Garret's voice came from fairly close to Rex's right, "Ouch!"
Logan's voice was full of humor as he let out a light, "Got ya!"
"Guys!" Garret called out, "I have no clue where I am, but I can barely see the front door and I am off to the left of it by a good 150 yards. I gotta dig some snow out of my collar and fall back, but Logan hit me from above!"
Rex snickered slightly as he moved to close in on the area where he had heard Garret's voice. As he moved up, he saw both Colt and Logan climbing down from trees. He quickly grabbed a handful of snow, gave it one quick pack, and flung it, striking Logan square in the butt. The 12-year-old yelped and started to fall, only to end up stuck as the hood of his coat caught on an upper branch. The more he twisted, the more stuck his coat became.
Rex didn't take much notice of his friend's predicament. Instead he ducked behind a tree, grabbed another wad of snow, and spun, releasing it in the direction of a basically open target since Colt was busy trying to scramble down from another tree. He thought he had the 12-year-old, only to see his snowball impact on a tree branch and explode before it could reach the defenseless Colt.
Colt wasted no time dropping the last eight feet from the tree, letting the snow cushion his fall. He then came up throwing, narrowly missing Rex's head.
Both boys laughed as they continued to dart around tree after tree, snow flying almost as quickly as it was falling. Finally a pair of white projectiles crossed each smashing into their opponent's chest.
"Dual kill!" Colt shouted.
"Agreed!" Rex responded, then shouted out, "Colt and I gunched each other! We are falling back, and so will Logan once he finally gets down from the tree I pegged him in!"
Logan let out a bit of a curse, "I'm going to have to use a power or get some help; the back of my coat hood is caught on a branch and I can't get down without cutting it or ripping my coat. If I destroy one more coat, my mom is going to kill me!"
"Cut the branch and drop, no harm no foul. You have to pull back anyway!" Rex shouted back as he moved to find a marked tree so he could start another run.
"Thanks Rex!" Logan shouted in some relief. He took a moment to calm himself then concentrated for a moment on his right hand. Suddenly a shaft of darkness erupted and formed into the shape of a blade about the size and shape of a katana. With a bit of a snarl, he swung the mystically produced Gloom Blade, easily slicing the branch he was caught on, and twisted in an unnatural way to snag a limb below him and to the left. From there, he slammed his fingers deep into the bark of the tree to get a good hand hold before pushing off. He did a full 360° spin before landing on his feet about twenty feet down from where he had pushed off.
He stood, checked his hood, and let out a sigh of relief as he found his brand new coat had no rips or tears in it. Once satisfied he was not going to have to explain why yet another coat was trashed, he closed his eyes and shook his right hand, willing the pulsing black weapon to withdraw. Once it vanished, he straightened out his coat and headed back into the woods for another attempt at the cabin's front door.
Two full hours later Tanner finally pulled the door to the cabin open only to find he was the last one to do so. With a frown, he made his way over to the wood burning stove to help Colt and Logan fix the other three a meal.
Josh glanced back. "Nice of you to join us."
Tanner growled, "You could have told me I was last, so I didn't have to spend the last however long it was, out there trying to be sneaky."
Rex grinned, "Blame the rookie; it was his idea not to tell you."
"Hey!" Garret half shouted. "You all thought it was a great idea once I said something."
Josh glanced over and nudged the newest kid in the squadron, "Your idea, your fault."
Tanner glanced down at Garret and pointed at him. As he did so, he paused and with a bit of effort caused his fingertip to burst into flame. "When we do this again with power, you're mine!"
Garret took in a deep breath and clenched his teeth. The effort of him calling forth his own abilities showed as couple of beads of sweat popped up on his forehead, but finally a glimmering of light played along his right arm for a few seconds before a large round shield appeared. A few seconds later, a glowing pair of nunchaku formed in his right hand. He popped up and took a fighting crouch.
"Not bad!" Logan commented from over by the stove, "You're getting faster every time."
"Agreed," Tanner stated as he closed his hand into a fist, putting out the flame as he did so.
Garret shook his arm and hand, allowing both items to vanish, "Maybe, but it takes a lot out of me and I am still nowhere near as fast as you guys are with your gifts."
"Dude," Colt chided, "you'll get there. You only graduated to squadron level a couple of months ago, and Jade Witch told you right in front of us that your type of magical energy is one of the hardest to deal with since you can make almost anything out of magic. She also said you should be rated as at least a class 3, not a class 2."
"Which means you haven't even gotten all your physical capabilities yet," Rex informed the disappointed boy. "No one, including me, knew I had heightened strength until I pulled the door off of Mr. Ericson's office last year."
Josh snickered, "Oh, man, I thought he was going to lose it when he told you to get to the office just as you were coming in late, only to watch the door get pulled right out of the steel frame as you yanked on it in anger. It also caused Mikey Upchurch to wet his pants for some reason."
"Dang! I wish I could have seen that," Colt sighed. "He is always such a jerk to me. He really pissed his pants?"
"Big time." Josh nodded while recalling the whole scene with a grin. "Mr. Ericson let him go home for the day cause he was soaked. He even called in the janitor to clean, since he left a puddle on his chair. He tried to find out why Mikey was so scared, but either no one knew, or they were smart enough to keep their mouths shut."
"Oh, I got to hear this!" Logan giggled, "What did you do to him, Rex?"
A bit of a smirk played over Rex's face as he pictured the whole thing in his mind. "Well, you have all dealt with him, so you know how he will do anything to us to make us late for class. The morning I found out I had extra strength, he happened to snag my backpack when I set it down to dig in my locker. He then tossed it out the window so I had to go down and get it. That's why I was late to begin with. Anyway, I grabbed him and told him if I was late, I'd stuff him in his locker. I guess he really was afraid I would find a way to make him fit in those half sized lockers after the way I yanked the door off the hinges, and pointed at him."
"It's still not as good as when Colt sent an electrical jolt through the whole bank of lockers just as he tried to dial his combination last week. Man, that blasted him back about a foot and a half and left his hair standing straight up."
"He sticks gum through the vent in my locker one more time and that will feel like a static shock," Colt snarled. "It'll be worth getting in trouble for."
Josh shook his head, "No, just ask him if he want to pee his pants in class again. Then let him know we'll make it happen. I am just as sick of him as the rest of you are."
Even though Garret was chuckling at the stories, he couldn't help but sigh. "I wish I was up in middle school with you guys. It sucks being the only boy in the grade school with enough control to be rated as squadron level. Back in Florida, there were about 30 kids in my school with enough firepower to fend off all the bullies who picked on us pre-squadron-level kids. "
"Small town, not many people, so there aren't many to draw from to get a lot of kids with special talents. There are amazingly few of us above level one classification in our age range too, just barely enough to rate a squadron of our own," Josh added as he patted Garret on the back.
"To be honest, we're thrilled your folks moved up here. At least there is now an 11-year-old to take over the boys' side once we all graduate to high school. At least there are three promising 10-year-olds and four other 9-year-olds who will probably develop above a class one, so in just a few years you will be the boys' squadron leader, and it will be bigger than it is now."
"Yeah, rookie," Tanner kind of teased. "You're like Josh, a guaranteed squadron leader. So we have to give you a hard time while we still can."
"I'm not that lucky," Garret fired back, "Some class three or four will move in just as I become the oldest in the squadron."
Logan turned serious as he started handing out plates of grilled cheese sandwiches. "If Jade Witch says you're at least a Class 3, then you are. None of us have ever heard her say someone was underrated before. I don't know what BEST guy tested and scored you, but he must have been a complete moron, cause each and every one of us have been told to keep our eyes peeled for you to accidentally do something destructive and be ready to help clean up the mess."
"The term she used with me was devastating," Colt snickered as he passed around a sack of apples and secured a plate for himself.
"Same here," Josh added.
Tanner also nodded. "Her words to me were utterly terrifying, but right on with the talk the rest of you got. To be honest, I got the feeling she is more worried about what you could be capable of than what Colt did."
Colt frowned. "I have not set two houses and the school bleachers on fire like you have, Tanner!"
"No, but you did take out the county electrical grid," Rex reminded the boy. "Not that it made any difference to me."
"Fried it, actually." Josh grinned. "They had to pull out the whole substation and replace it with a new one with overload safety converters, just in case you decided to fly into high tension lines again."
"The whole county?" Garret asked in disbelief.
Rex nodded, "That's why having a class 5 around is a good thing for the rest of us. Nothing we do can compare to the clean-up the government has to do when one of them goes off."
"And we have two in our squadron," Josh stated with a great deal of pride, "Only one of three in the whole country."
Garret couldn't help himself. "What did you do to kill off a power grid?"
Colt kind of shrugged. "I didn't know I could fly until that day. Hitting the power lines was an act of desperation on my part, cause I was trying to figure out how to get back down. It took me over an hour to gain some limited control and I was exhausted, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out how to pull up and land, so I headed right into the superstructure holding up the lines. I figured I would just climb down. It never occurred to me, I could actually absorb that kind of power. Then when I accidentally did, I had to release it cause I started feeling really jittery. I sent it all back in to the lines. The surge rolled down to the substation and blew every transformer in the place, and started a fire to boot. Fortunately, it had just rained, or I'm sure I would have been credited with a forest fire too."
Colt paused and grinned, clearly wanting to take attention away from his worst ability moment. "But mine is still nothing when compared with Skye's magma ball last March."
The other four all burst out laughing.
Colt grinned at Garret, seeing the bewildered stare begging for someone to fill him in. "Last March, over spring break, we were on a joint outing with the girls. Arctic Trooper was really testing us, seeing how far we could be pushed before we were too exhausted to so much as spit, let alone tap into our abilities. Rex, here doesn't seem to have a limit, which was really annoying the rest of us, so we all kept at it. I could barely make a spark, and Tanner had used up so much he was actually shivering slightly.
"But Jade Witch was not satisfied with Skye, saying she wasn't even trying. She really poured on the pressure, not just at Skye, but most of it was. Then, out of the blue, Skye got mad, really mad, and slammed her fist into the rocky outcropping we were all standing on. She started shaking and tried several times but couldn't pull her fist out. Suddenly the ground around us shifted enough to knock most of us on our butts and her eyes lit up with a crimson color. She screamed something like, "This ain't good!"
"I glanced over just as Jade Witch surrounded all of us with a magic dome-like thing and yelled at us to dive for cover. A moment later Skye's geode skin turned dark black with red hot lines where the cracks are when she makes her stone skin armor. She yanked her hand out of the ground, causing enough of a tremor to register all the way back at USDT 19 HQ, as she did so.
"On the end of her hand was a glob of molten lava. She totally freaked out and shook her arm violently. The fiery ball launched like it had been catapulted. The last any of us saw was it disappearing over the hill to our west. Most of us were a bit freaked out since she fell to the ground, too weak to stand, but she was too hot for any of us except Tanner to get close to, and even he said her skin was pretty hot."
"She was, and it felt really good, cause I was totally wasted at that point," Tanner managed to say in between bursts of laughter.
Colt couldn't help but laugh. "We all were, except Rex, who had run to the top of the hill just to see where it had gone."
Josh held his stomach to fight off laughter pains. "Man, the look on Rex's face when he came back to tell Arctic Trooper…" He rolled over and started laughing again.
Rex shook his head, "I am darn glad none a you all had a camera, cause I was terrified to tell him."
"Oh, Come on! Where'd it go?" Garret pleaded.
Rex couldn't help it as he started laughing again, "Right into Arctic Trooper's brand new RV."
Rex nodded and managed to complete the story, "It was a dead center hit. Busted it in half and set the whole thing on fire. Jade Witch had to call in a couple of water drops from the forest service to kill the grass fire, since it had gotten too big for Tanner to snuff out by the time we all got down there. Next spring, we'll have to do a hike and take you up to see the skeleton of the RV, since the BEST agents decided to just leave it."
Tanner shook his head, "Worst of all, he had told us he purposefully parked as far away as he did just so we wouldn't mess up his new ride during training."
Colt pounded the cabin floor with his hand, "He refuses to take anything but squadron vehicles out with us now. He won't even let us touch the RV he got as a replacement."
Logan had to wipe tears of laughter off his cheeks as he smiled at Garret. "If you ever want to see our commander turn pale, ask him to let you see his RV."
"Somehow, I don't think that sounds like a great idea," Garret managed to snicker.
"No, you'll pay for it, but the look will make it worth the chores he finds for you to do," Josh managed to spit out.
The boys calmed some, but continued to talk about training, their mistakes with their abilities, and enjoy each other's company. Before any of them knew it, the short days of early winter had given way to night. Josh handed over the X-Box controller to Logan and made his way over to the window, "Man, it is still really coming down. Do you think we should clear the snow off the roof?"
Rex shook his head, not turning away from the game "No, Uncle Kevin built this place to handle way worse than this. If it is still snowing in the morning we probably should, though, just to be on the safe side." As his character on the screen died he tossed the controller to Colt. "We ought to bring in some more wood and set out our sleeping areas, though, cause if we don't we'll suddenly all find it is midnight and none of us will want to."
He then pointed at Tanner. "And Uncle Kevin gave me an ultimatum. You have to put down the fire proofing stuff on the floor before you set up your mat and bag or I am going to have to fix the floor with him next time you burn it."
Tanner hung his head. "I'll do that now. You know, one of these days I am going to have a night without the nightmares. I really will."
Logan looked over. "I just wish you could tell us what they were so we could help."
"I wish I could remember even part of one, so I know why I wake up screaming a couple of times every night." Tanner glanced over to Garret, "When I start thrashing stay back, because most of the time parts of my powers go active when I am in the middle of a nightmare and I don't want to burn anyone else. I got Colt really bad last year, and burned a section of the floor here a few months ago."
Garret frowned. "So what are we supposed to do?"
"Stay back and make sure I stay in my fireproof bag. If I start to get out, hit me with one of those one shot fire extinguishers in my pack. " He pointed to a half dozen small canisters hanging off his BEARS issued backpack. "Point the bottom at me and pull the pin. They'll make me a bit sick for a few hours cause it rapidly cools down my skin, but at least I'll wake up and not burn anything or anyone. I might act mad at you when I first wake up, but I really won't hold it against you. Everyone else in this cabin has had to nail me with one a couple of times, and Logan stays over so often, he has almost caught up to my mom for number of put outs."
Logan nodded rather sadly. "The nice thing is the gas in them is so cold, it prevents him from a powered reaction when he first wakes. It's a good 10 to 20 seconds before he can heat up anything and a good minute before he can make anything burn."
Garret glanced around with puzzlement. "Can't Arctic Trooper do something to help?"
"He tried last summer, but I burned up the special pads they put up to my head to monitor brain activity. I guess I actually go hotter during a nightmare than I do even in heat-activated flight. The guy at the USDT hospital said I was hot enough during my sleep to be a high class 4 or a low class 5, but I have tried everything I can think of to duplicate what I do when asleep while awake, and so have Jade Witch and Arctic Trooper. So far nothing."
Garret scratched his nose for a few seconds then glanced over to Josh. "Can you read his thoughts when he is dreaming?"
Josh frowned. "I don't think so. I need open access, permission, to transmit or receive thoughts without doing damage to me and the person I am interacting with."
Rex glanced over. "Have you tired with someone who is sleeping?"
"No. I don't think Jade Witch would find such an action legal…"
"What if I give you permission to try, Josh?" Tanner asked with a degree of hope.
Logan nodded. "It's worth a shot, Josh."
Josh thought it over for a few seconds before reluctantly agreeing, "OK, but I want a couple others awake and ready, just in case something goes screwy. I'll radio Arctic Trooper to get permission as well." He turned to Garret, "And they say I am the one with the increased intelligence. "
"Like the BEST instructor I had back at the junior level used to say." Garret grinned at the compliment, "Sometimes it takes a new perspective to find an answer."
Josh grabbed his radio made his way outside. A few minutes later he came in and nodded at Garret. "I got the go ahead. A.T.'s exact words back to you are. 'Well, we should have all thought about that by now, but we didn't. Good idea, rookie.' And getting a compliment from A.T. is a rare thing, so enjoy it."
Josh then looked over the whole group. "He also said USDT 19 is about to bump our alert status. In just a few minutes our radios are going to blink, telling us we are off passive activation and up to standby, so he wants us to get a good night's sleep. The girls are all at Eldora's house and are being told the same thing. A.T. also wants us to head out and grab both hovercrafts parked inside the FEMA bunker below the ranger station just west of here. Sounds like the girls are also going to pick a couple from the Flathead County's Eastern FEMA bunker."
Garret looked a little puzzled. "Are we allowed to drive them?"
Rex shrugged, "There are only three of us here certified to pilot them: me, Josh and Logan. I guess if USDT Command gives us the green light, then none of the local cops are going to be able to say no."
"From what A.T. says, the local guys are going to be out. This is being done just in case we need to help transport people to hospitals, since there is little chance ambulance or fire services are going anywhere. It's already a foot and a half at least and near-white-out conditions. We'll need the infrared and radar just to be able to see. And like it or not, Rex, we should get the snow off the roof; you are getting quite a drift up there."
Tanner stood, "I'll hover up there and melt it off while you guy grab the hovers. Is Arctic Trooper going to meet us here for this?"
"Nope." Josh stated showing he was a bit nervous. "We are pretty much on our own for the next 24 hours, if not more. He is still up in Lincoln County, and Jade Witch is down on the south side of Flathead Lake. The storm stalled just like he said it would, so USDT Command is also bumping BEARS 95, 96, and 98 all up to standby, and are going to send a remote unlock to FEMA bunkers in our areas. I guess they don't want a repeat of the poor response they gave when the hurricane tore into Louisiana a few years ago."
Just as he finished all their radios burst to life with a series of beeps in the pattern of an S.O.S. A few seconds later a metallic sounding voice came over. "All BEARS 97 cadets, this a class two activation alert. Please respond to United States Defender Team Command and activate your GPS locaters so we can confirm your current location. If your battery packs are below half power, replace them now. This is not a drill. I say again; this is not a drill. This message will repeat every two minutes on your radio until you check in."
"Awesome! True activation!" Logan jumped up and snagged his radio, "Command, this is BEARS 97 cadet 8, transmitting my position now."
He then pointed to Garret, "Go for it." Garret grabbed his radio and nervously pushed the transmit button. "Command, this is BEARS 97 … Um… cadet 10. Transmitting now."
Rex patted him on the back. "I'm sure they got it, but you are supposed to say 'transmitting my position now'."
Garret gulped. "Oh, crud!"
Josh snickered, "You'll get used to it; we get about three practice calls a month." He then keyed his own radio, "Command, this is BEARS 97 cadet 1, transmitting my position now."
"I love it when they do it while we are in class. It makes everyone so nervous to hear a BEARS alert of any kind go off." Rex snickered before pulling his own radio up to his mouth, "Command, this is BEARS 97 cadet 4, transmitting my position now."
Tanner glanced around, only to get his radio tossed to him by Colt. "Thanks."
"No prob, mister forgetful." Colt grinned while responding to the USDT alert, "Command, this is BEARS 97 cadet 7, transmitting my position now."
Finally, Tanner pulled the radio up to his mouth, "Command, this is BEARS 97 cadet 3, transmitting my position now."
Logan glanced over to Josh. "We should get going. I'll take you and Rex on the snowmobile while the others take care of things around here."
Rex stood. "Good idea. While we're gone, load up on wood and refill the generator. Also get our gear fully packed. Garret, we'll grab all the winter gear A.T had ready for you, so help the others ready their winter stuff so you know what you are going to have."
Colt grabbed Garret, "Already on it."
Josh pulled up his parka, "Anyone need anything else?"
Tanner glanced down at his radio, "Yeah, an extra battery pack."
"Where are your spares?"
"Sitting in my dresser."
"Great place for them." Rex groaned. "I keep a whole box of extras because I don't have power to do a recharge on mine here. Take one and let Colt recharge the one in your radio… You know, I am still trying to figure out why A.T. made you number 3 and me number 4."
Tanner shrugged and put on a goofy grin as he pulled a new battery and tossed the mostly used one to Colt. "Me too."
Rex let out a short laugh and tossed a pillow at him. "OK, hot head, go clear the roof or something." He paused, "And it would be nice if you melted a decent perimeter around the whole cabin so it doesn't get so stupidly deep we have to tunnel our way to the wood pile. Just make sure you don't let any ice build up on the well pump and don't singe any shingles, cause if I have to work on the roof I'll hunt you down and make you help."
Tanner gave an 'OK' gesture with his hand before stepping out the front door and going airborne.