Motel in Eon City.
Poisonshot and Skadi, thieves.
“You ready for the heist?” Jorge Cruz, more commonly known by his moniker Poisonshot, asked his sister Skadi. Poisonshot loaded the mechanical base of his quiver with different kinds of arrowheads as Skadi practiced her fighting against a small dummy. The dingy motel room they used as a temporary base had only about two feet of room for her to move around, but Poisonshot knew that Skadi could strike men twice her size in seconds from ten times that distance.
“Of course,” Skadi hissed, punching the dummy in the side. As a snake-satyr, she had grown up with a slight speech impediment, caused mostly by her flat, forked tongue. Poisonshot smirked, watching his little sister as he prepared his quiver; Skadi’s yellow-green eyes were concentrated on her practice target. The flat nose in the middle of her face looked like it had been squashed, but Poisonshot knew that his sister could smell a flower perfectly from twenty feet away. Her hair was intentionally left bushy and large, giving her a striking resemblance to a cobra.
Skadi rested from her practice. “Why are we hitting up this bank, anyways?” she asked, “I mean, I know Claw told me to come down and cause some trouble with you, but I don’t get why we couldn’t pull a more high-profile target.”
“Claw got the same tip-off that I did,” Poisonshot told her. “We can’t tell anyone about it, but if we follow our instructions to the letter right now, then we’ll get all the help we need.” He kicked the other chair away from the small table, inviting her to sit down.
“And you’re sure you can trust this guy,” Skadi hissed skeptically, sliding the chair back into the table as she sat down.
“The tip-off or Claw?” Poisonshot asked, poking her in the ribs with a blunt arrow to lighten the mood.
“The tip-off,” Skadi said, reluctantly smiling as she batted the arrow away. “We already know that Claw is unreliable.”
Poisonshot raised an eyebrow. “That’s not a good thing to say about your boss,” he pointed out, pulling the arrow shaft back and fitting it into the high-tech quiver, “especially if he can rip you to pieces in seconds.”
Skadi shrugged. “It’s true,” she said, the smile fading from her face, “and all of the Fauns know it. Even the feral satyrs can see that Claw will sacrifice any of us on a whim if he thinks it would benefit him.”
“So why do you work for him?” Poisonshot asked her. He didn’t particularly think much of the cult leader one way or the other, but he did care about his sister.
Skadi ignored his last question; he already knew the answer. “Anyway,” she said, not meeting his eyes, “can you guys really trust this tip? What kind of help are we talking about?”
Poisonshot didn’t want to give in to Skadi’s evasion, but he knew pursuing the subject of Claw would only make matters worse. “I’m pretty sure we can trust him; if nothing else, it’s an easy job. Mostly, we’re just making noise to distract from what the client has planned.”
“Right.” Skadi didn’t sound convinced. “Because being the distraction isn’t dangerous at all.”
“It’ll be fine,” Poisonshot told her, pointing at her fangs as he added, “and the help we’ve been promised is well worth a little risk.” He picked up his now-finished quiver and showed her. “What do you think?” he asked, grinning in pride.
“I think it’s probably stupid,” his sister hissed, still talking about the plan and barely looking at the quiver, “but if you’re sure, then count me in. I’ve come all this way already, right?”
“What could go wrong?” Poisonshot asked her, testing the quiver. He pressed a small button on the strap and pulled an arrow out; instead of a point at the end, this one has a small metal fist as the arrowhead. Poisonshot aimed his composite bow for a small target on the wall ten feet away, a dime that he had taped up there for just this purpose. He released, and the wall caved outwards; the force of the arrow blew a hole in it about the size of a basketball.
Skadi surveyed the damage and sighed, retrieving the arrow for her brother. Bringing it back over to him, she said simply, “Heroes.”
“You mean those punks from the Asylum?” Poisonshot asked her, packing the shaft back into his quiver.
“If by ‘those punks’ you mean Earthborn and Shadow,” Skadi replied, sitting back down at the table, “then yes. I mean, the others are bad enough, but those two are like a machine.”
“They’re not invincible, though,” Poisonshot assured her, pulling a small crucible over to her side of the table. “All we have to do is get a little poison in them.” He grabbed his sister’s jaw, tilting her head forward. Holding her elongated teeth over the small bowl, Poisonshot waited as small drops of poison began filling it. It only took a few minutes for a half-cup of poison to come out. “An arrow for each of them,” he said, taking the bowl and filling a small container at the bottom of his quiver, “just in case.”
Skadi wiped her mouth, hating the aftertaste of the poison; it tasted like bile to her. “And the guards?” she asked.
“Regular arrows usually work for them,” Poisonshot said, “and if not, you can see to them personally.” He rinsed the bowl out thoroughly in the sink before putting it in the small dishwasher. “Big day tomorrow,” he said, yawning and stretching. “I’m gonna head out. You staying here tonight?”
Skadi nodded, and then hugged her brother. “Are you sure it’ll be alright, Jorge?” she asked. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Poisonshot looked at her face, remembering how she gave him the same face when she was ten, when he had convinced her to run away from their foster home. “It’ll be fine,” he repeated, pulling her away from him so that he could grab his keys. “After all,” he said, holding up his quiver again, “Who could possibly stop us?”
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, Monday morning.
Haley Prince, gawking outside.
Haley had hardly taken her eyes off of her shiny new Watcher’s license since it arrived in the mail Friday morning. Her family had taken her out to dinner to celebrate, and still she found herself glancing down at it every now and then. Even at her volunteer teaching job at the community center, Haley found herself pulling it out of her bag during breaks just to look at it, as if it would vanish if she left it hidden for too long.
Saturday morning’s mail brought with it her welcome packet from the Asylum, detailing her job expectations, compensation, benefits, and other paperwork. All weekend long, the only times Haley stopped staring at her Watcher’s license was to pour over the paperwork for her new job. She spent a few hours online filling out the forms necessary, but even while she did that the brand-new license was sitting next to her mouse hand, within easy reach.
Haley woke up before dawn on Monday morning, too excited for her first day of Watcher work to sleep much. She put on her usual cotton training outfit – her welcome packet said that she would be fitted for a proper uniform during orientation this week – and headed downtown to the Asylum headquarters just as dawn broke over Eon City’s skyline.
The first time she stopped staring at her new license was to stare at the tower.
Haley knew she looked like a tourist, but she couldn’t help herself. She had seen the Asylum tower from a distance before – who in Eon City hadn’t? – but this was the first time she would actually enter the building.
It took five minutes of staring up at the twenty-story tower for Haley to make her feet move. When she finally entered, she was caught up in just how busy the building was – there couldn’t be this many Watchers, could there?
“Excuse me,” she said to the man at the front desk. “I’m looking for…” she had to stop and check her folder for the details, which her brain didn’t seem to want to remember at the moment, “the Asylum offices?”
“You are going to have to be more specific,” the man said in a thick Nigerian accent. The twinkle in his eye showed that he was amused at the noob. “This entire building is full of Asylum offices.”
“Oh, um,” Haley stammered, trying to find the right page of the welcome packet. After a minute of searching, she gave up and said, “It’s my first day here. I’m supposed to meet a guy named Agent… something-or-other, but the packet doesn’t give me many details. Tall guy, brown hair and eyes, carries a large umbrella; could you please help me?”
“Agent Something-or-Other?” Something was really amusing the guard. “I think I can help you. Not many Agents are based here, you know. I know of only one who would be that enigmatic.”
“Oh, good,” Haley said, sighing in relief. “I’d hate to mess up the boss’ name on the first day. What should I call him?”
“What is your name, sweetheart?” the guard asked, ignoring her question.
“Um, Haley. Haley Prince,” she told him. “If you could just tell me where I’m going…”
“Haley Prince?” the guard asked her to clarify. “You mean the new Watcher?”
Haley knew she was stammering, but couldn’t help it with how quickly the conversation topics were changing. “Um, yes, mister…”
“Jaiyesimi,” the guard introduced. “No ‘mister’ about it. You can call me ‘Jay’ if the name is too long; everybody does.”
“Well, thank you for your help, Jaiyesimi,” Haley said, finding her voice. “Where can I find this Agent?”
Jay grinned at the proper pronunciation of his name. “I think I am going to like you, Miss Haley Prince,” he said. “Agent can be found in his office on the top floor, but I will call him down to you. You still need to be added to the security system.”
He typed in some notes on his computer and handed Haley a badge. “This will get you around the building, but you need an escort until the badge office can fit you in,” he explained. “Agent should be down shortly to get you started.” He gestured towards some seats in the waiting area. “Oh, and his name is ‘Agent’,” Jay added. “He doesn’t go by anything else around here.”
It took a few minutes for Agent to appear out of the elevator. When he did, he waved a quick hello to Jay before hurrying over to meet Haley. “Early on your first day,” he said, “I like to see that. Before we begin, do you have any questions?”
Haley had hundreds of questions, but she wasn’t sure which ones would be covered as they went along. She picked a safe one, just to start: “Are all of these people Watchers?”
Agent chuckled. “No; the Asylum is currently home to eight field Watchers, including yourself. Everybody else here is support.”
“That’s a lot of people,” Haley said, swiveling her head as she tried to take in everything at once.
“The Agency provides us with state-of-the-art equipment,” Agent explained as he led her into the elevator, “and a lot of it is personalized to each Watcher’s individual needs. That kind of tech requires a lot of tech support, and it’s easier if they’re on hand for repairs and such.”
The elevator had glass walls, so they could see each floor as they passed. Haley looked at the elevator buttons with wide eyes before turning to look at the paper-strewn offices that the elevator was passing. “This is a twenty-story building,” she said. “Surely eight Watchers don’t need hundreds of techs.”
“You’re right,” Agent said, “we don’t. Each floor has a purpose: the first five or so floors is our business development. These people handle the paperwork of our assignments, including legal issues, clean up, and media relations.”
The elevator took them past some more offices, but these were filled more with lab equipment and computers than paperwork. “The next few floors are for equipment development,” Agent explained. “The scientists here do some government contracting, as well as helping us. We have to pay for all of this somehow.”
The elevator stopped at a larger floor, and Agent gestured for Haley to step out. “This floor, the fourteenth, is where the Watcher tech is developed. We’re going to get you fitted for your uniform real quick.”
“Agent!” came a shout from across the room. The people in their immediate vicinity didn’t look as startled as Haley felt, so it must have been a common occurrence to hear shouting.
A young woman, younger even than Haley, marched up to them. “Good, you brought the noob,” she said, and then started walking away. When she realized that Agent and Haley weren’t following, she turned around and gestured impatiently. “I haven’t got all day, you know.”
“Haley, this is Quinn Kaine, our head of technical development,” Agent introduced as they stopped in front of what looked like an ERI machine. “Everybody usually calls her ‘Chip’. She was top of her class at MIT, and graduated with a doctorate in mechanics at eighteen years old.”
“Dale!” Chip called, grabbing Haley by the shoulders and sitting her down on the machine’s bed. Haley was surprised to see that Chip had a robotic arm, though not more surprised than anything else that day.
Another man came over, whom Haley assumed was “Dale”, and Chip pointed at the machine’s console. “Are you wearing any metal? Underwire, or such?” Chip asked brusquely. Haley shook her head. “Good. Lay back here, and we’ll get you scanned. Dale?”
“Dinnae worry, lass,” Dale called in a Scottish accent over as the bed moved back into the machine. “We’re getting your measurements and your physical done all in one go. Chip’s just better with machines than people.”
“What’s wrong with my people skills?” Chip asked him.
“You’ve no bedside manner,” Dale answered bluntly. “Can ye nae see you’re making her nervous?”
A few flashes of light later, the bed moved back out of the machine. As Chip and Dale argued over Chip’s personality, Agent told Haley, “They’re pretty much always like this. That’s Carson Dale, our Chief Medical Doctor. His team is in charge of patching us up after missions.”
“Excuse me, Agent?” Dale said, interrupting Chip’s tirade. “Have you seen this?”
Chip looked over his shoulder, and Agent moved over to look as well. Haley recognized the look on Dale’s face: it was the same look every doctor had ever given her after doing her bloodwork. Her shoulders slumped in defeat – she knew it was too good to be true.
But Agent surprised her yet again. “Yes, I knew,” he said. “Her blood work is unusual, yes, but she’ll make a great Watcher.”
“I’m surprised she made it through the physical for her license,” Chip said. “Usually that’s grounds for termination in this line of work.”
“Yes, thank you Chip,” Agent said, waving a hand dismissively. “We know that there are… extenuating circumstances. Sorry Dale, but this one might keep you on your toes.” When Chip started to open her mouth again, Agent cut her off. “We’re keeping her as long as she can keep up. End of discussion.”
Haley’s eyes brightened. They knew about her blood problem – and they were going to take a chance on her anyways? In hindsight, Haley would remember that Agent was at her last failed Watcher exam, and that Natalie had mentioned it during their match the previous week, but at that moment Haley looked at Agent with newfound respect.
Leaving Chip and Dale to their work, Agent took Haley back to the elevator. “Dale’s office is on the fifteenth floor,” he told her. “You’ll have to see him after every mission, even if you didn’t get hurt. Agency policy. But here,” he said as the elevator stopped on the sixteenth floor, “these last five floors are home for the Watchers. Your new home.”
The elevator opened into a large living space. Haley could see a game room, a study corner for quiet reading, a kitchen, and a common room. The walls were a mix of glass, wood, and plaster. The floor seemed to be designed so that each area was relatively private from one another, but one person could see at a glance who was in each room as soon as they left the elevator. Unlike the carpeted offices or the tiled tech floors, this floor was wood with area rugs thrown down – it gave the place a more home-like feel than the offices below.
“I know it told you in the welcome packet, but I’ll reiterate it for you because this is important,” Agent told her. “The next two floors are living quarters, and this is the common area. You’ve been assigned a room here – you don’t have to live here, but most of us do. It really saves time on the commute.” Agent started walking toward the kitchen, where Haley could see a half-eaten plate of eggs with a sign saying Be right back hastily scrawled next to it. As he picked it up and started eating the cold eggs, Agent added, “At the very least I recommend leaving one of your uniforms and a set of toiletries here, because after some long patrols you’ll be grateful for the shower and bed. As with any dorm, we have a chore wheel set up that you’re expected to take part in. Part of the privacy we get in our living quarters is that the janitors aren’t allowed up this far – so we all have to pitch in.”
Finishing his breakfast – which Haley guiltily realized she had pulled him away from when she arrived early – Agent rinsed the plate and put the dishes in the dishwasher before calling out to the other rooms, “Hey guys, come meet the new girl.”
They walked over to the spacious common room, where four other people also gathered. Haley didn’t see Natalie – the only other Asylum Watcher she had met – but the others were just as unexpected as she had been.
First there was the old woman. Her hair was a steely gray, and was pulled back in a tight bun. From the wrinkles on her face, Haley guessed that this woman was in her seventies or eighties. She sat in a reclining chair with a cup of tea on the table next to her, and was calmly knitting with four silver needles – though Haley couldn’t see any yarn outside of what the needles had already knit.
Second in the room was a guy with gel-spiked hair and a nose ring. His sleeveless shirt was splashed with a half-sun/half-moon picture, and his jeans were tattered. He had tattoos up and down his arms, and one on the back of his neck of the word “Reiki” in decorative lettering.
Next was a girl only slightly older than Haley with shockingly white hair. At first glance Haley thought she also had tattoos, but no – the girl’s veins showed up black underneath her pale skin. She must have been wearing contacts, because her eyes glowed bright red. She could have been a satyr, but she was unlike anyone Haley had ever seen before. Other than that, though, she was dressed normally in bright pink pajamas, though she came from the direction of the game room. As she drew closer, Haley got a sense of unease, as if the girl were radiating mistrust.
Lastly, following the white-haired girl out of the game room, came a short kid with spiky black hair and thick-rimmed glasses. He was dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, seemingly the most normal of the bunch. “This had better be good,” he said, flopping down on the couch. “I was just about to beat Rina at Smash Brothers.”
“You were not,” the white-haired girl said, smirking. “I had you down to one life.”
“Guys,” Agent interrupted. “This is the new girl, Haley.”
The four Watchers looked towards her in unison. “New girl?” the punk-guy said. “Since when?”
“Since today,” Agent told them. “We scouted her out last week. I told you guys this last weekend about it.”
“Hi,” Haley said, hoping that she wasn’t going to start stuttering again. “I’m Haley Prince, and I look forward to working with you all.”
“She seems nice,” the white-haired girl said. “My name’s Rina, Sabrina Dawson. My call sign is Nightmare. That’s Reiki, Granny, and Shadow.” She pointed at the punk, the old lady, and the glasses guy in turn.
“You’ll get your own call sign when you start going on patrol,” Agent told her. Haley just nodded, trying to fix names with faces.
“You can call me Frank,” said the glasses guy, seeing the confusion on her face. “You’ll get used to the whole two-name thing in no time.”
“Thanks,” Haley said, finding her voice again. “It’s very nice to meet you all.” She moved over to where Rina stood and held out her hand to shake.
Rina raised her eyebrows, staring at the outstretched hand for a second before taking it. “She’s a brave one,” she said. “It usually takes people a few days of living here to adjust to me.”
“I’m sure you’re not that bad,” Haley laughed, though she felt like she was missing something.
Rina smiled at her. “I’m really not,” she said, “but usually people have to get to know me first. It’s my power, see – I can cause panic, hallucinations, mass hysteria, et cetera with a thought – but I can’t always control it. Most times, people get frightened or panicked just from being in the same room as me, until they get used to it.”
“Oh,” Haley said. “I guess I just put that down to nerves on my first day.”
Rina smiled brighter at her and let her hand go. “It really is nice to meet you,” she said, and it sounded much more genuine this time.
Haley shook Frank’s hand in turn, then moved to Reiki. He didn’t take her hand, and she let it drop awkwardly to her side. Since the punk was just staring at her in silence, Haley tried a joke to lighten the mood. “You must get along great with Natalie,” she said.
The rest of the room laughed, but Reiki just scowled. “Just stay out of my way, newbie,” he said. His shoulder bumped hers as he stormed out.
“Was it something I said?” Haley asked, puzzled. She hoped she hadn’t just made an enemy here on her first day.
“You’ll have to forgive him, dear,” Granny said, shaking her hand with a surprisingly firm grip for someone her age. “He’s always been a sourpuss.”
“If you play any role-playing games,” Rina told her, “he’s like the team’s barbarian. Not necessarily heroic, but the rest of us can point him in the right direction.”
“I’m sure he’s a good guy,” Haley said, not comfortable with talking about him behind his back. “He just doesn’t know me, that’s all.”
Sensing that she wanted to change the topic, Granny said, “Well, my name’s Brittany James, but everyone calls me Granny.”
“I’m not sure why,” Haley said, awkwardly. It seemed impolite to constantly remind the woman of her advanced age.
Granny just laughed. “I’m older than I look,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper, putting a finger to her nose.
“So now you’ve met the gang,” Agent said. “Well, except for Parker and David. Natalie and David are out on patrol, and Parker’s not here this morning. You’ll probably see him when he gets back, though.”
He dismissed the others back to whatever they were doing, and dragged Haley back to the elevator. It was nearly ten at this point, and they still hadn’t finished the tour.
Agent showed Haley to her quarters on the eighteenth floor. It looked like a college dorm room, with basic furniture, a bed with a mattress and white sheets, and an empty desk with a lamp. The adjoining bathroom was just as simple, with a small tub and shower head, a toilet, and a sink. “You can decorate it however you want,” Agent told her. “This is your space to rest after missions or patrol. We don’t charge rent, either, though you’ll have to pay for your own food. Again, janitors don’t come up this far so it’s up to you to clean your own room, whether you use it or not.”
“So what exactly do we do?” Haley asked. “I mean, you said there were eight of us, but I’m brand new, you’re showing me around, and the four of them just seem to be taking it easy. How do we earn our keep?”
Agent chuckled. “Take your breaks when you get them,” he said. “That’s what those four are doing. We have a rotating schedule of patrol, where at least one of us canvasses the city at all times. Natalie and David are on shift this morning, and Reiki will be going after lunch. They’re eight-hour shifts, with one to two people during the day – when police presence is heavier – and at least two at night. Also, I’m not a field Watcher – I’m directional support. I stay in the office and plan missions based on all of your abilities.” He gestured to the screens. “We’re also on-call twenty-four/seven as backup in case a major threat appears; though an all-hands call only happens maybe once or twice a year.”
* * * * * * * *
Rooftop, Eon City.
Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.
Patrol was usually boring. Most days, nothing happened – especially not in the early morning. Now it was nearly noon, and the city streets were getting packed with workers taking a lunch break; that made it hard to see things from the hustle and bustle on the ground.
Natalie perched on top of a building, listening to the police scanner as she surveyed the city. Her shift was almost done, and she was getting tired of walking around the streets with all of the people. Natalie liked her job as a protector of the city, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed interacting with the masses. Every hour or so of her shift, she took a few minutes to breathe by stepping back from the streets.
And it was that habit that allowed her to see the police lights before the scanner call. “All units, robbery in progress at Eon National Bank, address one-zero-five-niner; hostage situation…”
Natalie stood up and jumped down the fire escape, barely touching the stairs. A robbery was new; the Eon National Bank in Eon City was one of the largest and best-secured in the world. No one in their right mind would rob it.
Natalie smiled as she radioed Earthborn and HQ. She hopped on her motorcycle and sped across town to the scene as she reported to Agent.
This patrol was about to get interesting.
* * * * * * * *
Haley Prince, still in orientation.
Agent and Haley went up to the nineteenth floor, which was a double-sized training room complete with enclosed area for Third-Gen sparring matches. “We also require certain training,” Agent told her, leading her over to a holographic board. “This shows you the schedule. Team training includes everyone who isn’t out on patrol, and it happens at a different time every day. We also have doubles, triples, or individual training times, as needed – that’s determined by your performance on missions, by the way.” He showed her the weight training area, the punching bags, the target room, and the sparring area as they talked. “Remember, as soon as you put on the uniform, you will be watched at all times. We record how much training you get, how much rest, your patrol schedule, your mission schedule, your extra-curricular activities, everything. Even what and how much you eat.”
“That seems pretty invasive,” Haley said skeptically.
“The data is used to be sure you stay in peak condition,” Agent said. “This job relies heavily on us being at our best at all times. You’ve got nothing to worry about as long as you’re eating and training properly; Dale will let you know if he thinks you need to change something.”
“Great.” Haley grimaced as they got back into the elevator. She knew that she had signed up for this job – had wanted it most of her life, in fact – but it had never before occurred to her what that would mean.
Agent saw the look on her face. “You’re not a prisoner here,” he pointed out. “You’re free to leave at any time. You’re also a grown adult – free to make your own choices about pretty much everything, down to what you wear every day. Reiki and Natalie should have proven that.” That did make Haley feel a little better about it. “This job isn’t like others,” Agent continued. “We put our lives on the line fighting monsters that the regular police can’t handle. We track down robbers, thieves, and murderers, and we’re kept in the public eye so that we can’t abuse our power or privileges. You’ll find that the team goes to charity events and does volunteer work around the city, because studies have shown that the people trust public servants that they know over ones they don’t – and we need them to trust us in order to do our job. Even the anti-social ones like Natalie and Reiki smile for the public, because they know how important all of this is.
“You won’t be asked to give up your extra-curricular activities. In fact, we encourage things like your work teaching those self-defense classes at the community center. We’ll help you work around that schedule as best we can for the same reason we monitor everything else about you: as public servants we’re scrutinized the most, and we don’t want the people turning on you when you need their cooperation.” The elevator opened onto the final floor. “Do you understand?”
“Makes sense,” Haley told him, “as long as I can still binge on cookies every now and then.”
Agent chuckled, and showed her the top floor of the building. This was his office, and various screens around the room showed different parts of the city. “You won’t have to come here that often,” he said, “but I think it’s good for everyone to know how this works. We have programs up here recording everything around the city – all cameras, all police scanners, everything. This is how we hear about any major crimes committed. Most of this is automated, but I work up here sometimes, too. The algorithms are set to alert me if they hear certain words or phrases, or if the cameras pick up something particularly shady.” He held up his cell phone, adding, “I can access any of these cameras on here, and determine whether or not the threat requires the Watchers. Then I page anyone needed, and they drop whatever they’re doing and go to the scene. You’ll get a pager along with your uniform as soon as Chip’s done making them,” he added.
“So, was that enough information dumped on your head for the day?” Agent asked her. “It’s about lunch time now; I’ll give you the rest of the day off to process, and tomorrow we’ll pick up training.”
“I don’t have to go home, do I?” Haley asked. “I was hoping to try out some of the training equipment.”
“You don’t have to go home,” Agent said, “but I’d recommend you go back to the living area and socialize with your teammates. It isn’t just the public who falls under the ‘trust those you know’ umbrella. Reiki in particular needs time to get to know you, and you all have to trust each other in order to work together.”
“Got it,” Haley said, moving back toward the elevator. “You coming?”
“You go on ahead,” Agent said, noticing something on one of the screens. His phone buzzed in his pocket. “I’ll be right down.”
Haley stood over by the elevator and called it, but waited for Agent before getting on. She remembered the security protocol – that until she was cleared by security she had to be escorted – even if Agent forgot it for a moment.
Agent looked at the screen for less than a minute before joining Haley at the elevator. He typed something in on his phone as he walked, and Haley could hear the faint echo of an alarm from a few floors down.
“You’re in luck,” Agent told her as he pressed the button for the roof. “Your very first day, and we’ve got a call.”
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters Roof.
Haley Prince, still day 1.
On the roof of the tower stood an airship, fueled up and ready to go. Like everything else in the building, it seemed state-of-the-art: the circular wings indicated VTOL technology (or so Haley hoped, since the roof wasn’t long enough for a runway), and the mottled grey design would blend in against the sky. As Agent hopped into the pilot’s seat and turned on the ignition, the motor purred no louder than a car. He pointed Haley into the back, where ten seats faced each other in two rows. The space was cramped – the ship certainly wasn’t meant for long flights – but there was enough room for Haley to easily reach one of the seats near the cockpit.
There must have been another elevator, because the other Watchers joined them on the roof in less than two minutes, geared up and ready to go. “The quick-change is a crucial skill for a Watcher,” Frank told Haley with a wink as he buckled up across from her. “You’ll learn.”
Most of the Asylum Watchers looked very different than they had earlier morning; Haley actually recognized some of them from the news now that they were in uniform. Frank, as Shadow, had traded his sweats and t-shirt for cargo pants and a hoodie. His boots were high-tech, with buttons on the heels and tubes on the sides. The clothes had extra padding around the knees and elbows, presumably to cushion him if he fell. The striking part of his outfit, however, was that he had replaced his glasses with a pair of goggles that looked as though they came from a steampunk video. He still seemed able to see, so Haley assumed they were prescription.
The others all wore different outfits; they kept referring to “uniforms”, but there wasn’t much uniform in the Watcher’s outfits. Reiki had neon-green trim over his black body armor – he was much better protected than Frank, but he couldn’t move as freely. Rina, as Nightmare, wore white with a spider-web pattern, covering every inch of her skin. A hood protected her head, and a cloth came over her face; her red eyes were only visible through a sheer cloth that covered the rest of her face – Haley started to think that maybe the red glow wasn’t from contact lenses. Even her hands had gloves on them, like she didn’t want anybody seeing her skin.
Granny was wearing pale brown robes that looked even older than her. She was faster than she looked, and had no trouble keeping up with the younger Watchers. Her mind didn’t seem all there, though – she muttered to herself, and she still had her silver knitting needles in her hands.
“Trick will meet us there,” Agent called back over the intercom. “ETA two minutes.”
Haley’s stomach lurched as the airship took off. She leaned over to ask Frank, “Who’s Trick?”
“You met Natalie, right?” he asked back. “Trick is her call-sign. We all have one; you will too once we start working together.”
“What’s yours?” Haley asked, curious.
“I’m ‘Shadow’,” Frank replied, reminding her of what they had told her before. “Rina’s called ‘Nightmare’, David is ‘Earthborn’, and Parker is ‘Blackbird’. The others go by their call-signs instead of their real names, even at HQ.” He grinned at her. “Like I said earlier, you get used to the double-name thing.”
“So what would you call me?” Haley asked.
Reiki, sitting next to Frank, answered for him. “I’d say ‘Outlier’,” he told her, “because you defy expectations.”
“Is that a good thing?” Haley thought he might be warming up to her, but Reiki still looked as if he’d eaten something bitter. He didn’t answer.
The ship arrived at the scene in just a few minutes, as promised. The Asylum Watchers filed out quickly, leaving Haley a few paces behind. Despite Agent’s claim that all-hands calls only happened once per year, they all knew exactly where to go without discussing it.
“We run drills for this sort of thing pretty often,” Agent said, coming up behind her. He must have seen how lost she was, because she was the only one who got orders. “Stay close to me. Today you’re just observing; you’ll see action once we have a better idea of how you mesh with the team.”
Haley was okay with that. She had always wanted to be a Watcher, and had spent most of her life training to get her license – but she had no idea how much work, planning, and training the team seemed to do to work as well as they did. The Asylum had only been around for a few years, but they worked together like a well-oiled machine.
For one thing, Agent didn’t need to direct them. He and Haley moved behind the police line, where Agent began coordinating with the Captain. Frank/Shadow took a position where he could see into a lobby window, and Reiki joined the police line front-and-center. Rina/Nightmare and Granny both moved to crowd control, directing the onlookers to a safe distance.
“What’s the situation?” Agent asked as he approached the Police captain. Natalie/Trick was already there, but she broke off the conversation and turned to him.
“Two robbers, apparently armed. They have twenty hostages in the building. At least one of the robbers isn’t human – there have been acid-based projectiles firing from the inside.” Natalie’s uniform included a long black overcoat, fingerless gloves, as well as combat boots, and her dyed-black hair was pulled back into a braided ponytail. She had a few handkerchiefs sticking out of her pockets, which Haley knew from experience probably had some nasty surprises in them for the bad guys.
“Acid-based?” Agent asked her, bringing Haley back to the present.
“See the holes on the ground?” Trick asked him. “The stuff they’ve been spitting at us caused that.”
“Earthborn and Shadow should go inside, then,” Agent said. “Trick, you get Reiki and Nightmare and station yourselves at the exits. The rest of us will coordinate with the police for evacuation of the hostages and possible negotiation for release. Is Earthborn on site yet?”
Haley stumbled, surprised to see the ground moving. Trick grinned under her mask as the Earth shook beneath them. “Oh, I think he’s on his way.”
* * * * * * * *
En Route to the Bank.
David Perry, running.
If he concentrated hard enough, David Perry could move the Earth.
Not the entire thing at once, but he could change the terrain to something that suited him better. For instance, if Dave wanted to get to the bank robbery currently going on, he could just run there; each step would carry him an eighth-mile, and he didn’t have to fight traffic on the bridge. It also saved him time getting dressed; as the hero Earthborn, he just pulled up a suit of rock armor to cover his identity.
He made the air crackle with electricity as he ran up to the scene. Dave had gotten into that habit a few years back, shortly after becoming a superhero. He had realized that it was easier for him to call lightning when the air was already dry, rather than trying to summon the electricity mid-battle.
Prepped and ready to go, he raced for the bank. “What’s happening?” he asked Agent once he made it to the scene. The rocks he kept in front of his face only had two slits – one for his eyes and one for his mouth.
There was a girl standing next to and slightly behind Agent, wearing a cotton training outfit instead of a real uniform. “Who’s the new girl?” David asked, before Agent could speak.
“This is Haley – the new recruit,” Agent introduced. “Haley, this is David Perry, codename Earthborn. You guys can get acquainted later.” Agent filled him in on everything Trick had just told him.
“Spitting acid?” Dave asked. “Sounds familiar.”
Agent nodded his agreement. “We have a few old enemies that fit the description,” he admitted to the girl standing next to him. “Poisonshot and Skadi being at the top of the list.” He pulled out his data pad, pulling up profiles to show her. “Jorge and Katie Cruz, otherwise known as Poisonshot and Skadi. A brother-sister pair of thieves. He’s good with a bow; she’s a snake-satyr.”
“Why are they going after a bank?” Dave looked around, thinking that he might have missed something. “Seems like kind of a small-time bit for them, doesn’t it? They’re usually gemstone-and-art people.”
Agent shrugged, putting a hand on his ever-present umbrella. “Beats me. But whatever it is they’re after, they’ve got hostages. Twenty people are in there, and the siblings haven’t made any demands yet. I’m sending you and Shadow in to smoke them out. You go through the front; Shadow will meet you around back. The others have the other exits covered.”
“Got it,” Dave said, stepping forward. His rock armor made a crunching sound with every step, reassuring Dave that there were no weak spots in it. He turned and walked into the bank.
It was a large building, with a high ceiling and tile floors. Dave knew that he was tracking gravel into a classy establishment, but it didn’t look as though the manager minded right now.
Sure enough, the two villains were none other than the siblings. Poisonshot must have known David was coming to just let him walk in the front door without a challenge. He stood next to one of the hostages with a cold, calculating look on his face. Skadi crouched on the far side of the room, but David knew she could cross the distance in a heartbeat if needed.
Poisonshot lazily held an arrow to his bow; it seemed to have a small capsule at the tip, designed to burst on impact. Dave hated to think what might be in that capsule – having faced them before, he knew from experience that Poisonshot never had anything pleasant in his quiver.
“See,” Skadi hissed as they watched Earthborn walk through the doors, “I told you they’d be here.”
“Relax,” Poisonshot told her, not even trying to keep his voice down, “It’s only the Rock. There’s not much he can do in here.” He gestured around them, talking directly to Dave. “If you rip up the floors here, you might accidentally hurt a hostage. Same thing if you throw that lightning around.”
Dave swore to himself as he realized that Poisonshot was right. The siblings had laid all of the hostages around the floor, some lying down, some sitting, and some standing, to keep him from using his advantages. The only rocks he would have available to him were the ones he was using as armor; against the acid in Poisonshot’s arrows, he didn’t want to expose any more of himself than he had to. Lightning was also out of the question; the hostages around the wall were tied gripping a metal railing. It would only take a small spark from Earthborn to electrocute them all.
“On the other hand,” Poisonshot said, bringing the arrow to bear on Earthborn, “I don’t have that problem.”
He fired, and Dave automatically brought up his arms to block, taking the force on the rock instead of on his skin. The force of the arrow made him take a step back, but he held his ground. “You think an arrow can stop me?” Dave asked him.
“Maybe not one,” Poisonshot admitted, pointing to Dave’s hands, “But soon enough you’ll have no armor left.”
Dave looked down at his wrist and swore again. The liquid in the capsule was, in fact, acid; the rock armor, usually a few inches thick, was only a thin layer where the arrow had struck. He had walked straight into Poisonshot’s trap – he couldn’t fight, and now he couldn’t even put up a good defense.
“Holding up a bank hardly seems like your usual target,” Dave said, hoping to keep them talking.
“You’re telling me,” Skadi rolled her eyes, earning her a sharp glare from her brother.
Poisonshot drew another arrow. “We have our reasons,” he said, drawing it back. “If nothing else, you shouldn’t be a thorn in our side anymore.”
Dave jumped out of the way as the arrow flew to him. He punched his fist towards Poisonshot, allowing the rock that surrounded his hand to rocket towards the archer. Having punched the target in the cheekbone, the rock-fist flew back to Dave. “I’m not quite out of tricks yet,” he said, raising his fists again.
“Neither am I,” Poisonshot said, pressing a button on his quiver’s strap. Drawing another arrow, Dave saw that this one didn’t have the vial of acid on it; rather, it had a small metallic device that glinted with a blinking red light. “This is a new one for me,” Poisonshot declared, as Skadi moved behind him. “The device on the end is a small bomb, capable of bringing down any of these pillars.”
He demonstrated, shooting an arrow towards a marble pillar in the back of the room. On impact, the pillar became a pile of rubble. Dave had to concentrate to keep the falling marble from hitting the captives tied near it. The explosive wasn’t very powerful, but it could do a lot of damage if fired into a crowd of people.
For instance, a crowd such as the hostages in the room.
Poisonshot drew another arrow. “Now where should I fire this, hm?” he asked, nocking it to the bowstring. He pointed it first at Dave, then at a cluster of people to his right, then to the left.
“Stop messing around, Jorge,” Skadi said, “The police and the Asylum have us surrounded; how are we gonna escape?”
Poisonshot lowered the bow. “Good point,” he said to his sister. Skadi held a large sack of money, while Poisonshot looked towards the door.
Dave took advantage of the momentary distraction. He concentrated on the pile of rubble behind him that had once been a pillar for the building. Reaching out with his senses, he found a large chunk of marble and hurled it straight at Skadi.
The snake-satyr bared her fangs as she saw the rock flying at her, but she wasn’t fast enough to move out of the way. It hit her squarely in the jaw, and she collapsed. Poisonshot drew back his arrow, but Dave was already coming with more rubble to hold his sister.
“Let her go,” Poisonshot growled, aiming the explosive arrow at Dave.
“Are you going to come quietly?” Dave asked him, still holding the rubble around his prisoner. It was always tough, trying to talk while holding his concentration somewhere else, but years of practice made it doable.
Poisonshot glanced sidelong at his sister. She seemed a little dazed from the blow, but was rendered immobile from the pile of rock she was buried under. He glared menacingly at Dave, but lowered his bow.
Suddenly, he whipped the bow around and fired at the cluster of people to his left. Dave’s eyes widened, his grip slipping on Skadi as he watched the arrow soar across the room towards the people. Unconsciously, his hand reached out to try and deflect it with some rock, but he was too far away.
In a blur of movement, the arrow fell harmlessly to the ground. A black-clad figure stood where it had been about to land. He had on a utility belt, where he kept items that he could use in a pinch, and a small backpack that Dave knew held his more bulky equipment. A black hood was covering the figure’s head, but Dave saw the familiar glint of goggles around his eyes.
Shadow stood with his staff behind him, posing for his audience. Dave had always thought him to be a bit too flashy for a superhero, especially one called “Shadow”, but the kid loved the limelight. Shadow gave a small smirk towards the villains, saying, “Well, that wasn’t nice.” He twirled his staff until it stood next to him. Leaning on it like a walking stick, he added, “Next time, make sure that the digital release on those things is a bit less obvious.”
Sure enough, looking at the arrow that lay harmlessly off to the side, Dave saw that Shadow had perfectly destroyed the detonator on the bomb without hitting the explosive itself. That kind of precision came from two years of nearly nonstop training, which his young crime-fighting coworker had thrown himself into with gusto.
“You’re late,” Dave called to Shadow, pulling his concentration back to the rock surrounding Skadi.
“Eh, you know me,” Shadow replied, shrugging, “I’ve got to make an entrance.”
Poisonshot pressed the button again, and drew out an arrow that looked normal – at least, the arrowhead was the proper size and shape for one, and there were no extraneous attachments. Leveling it at Shadow, he said, “Let my sister go or your buddy here will get one in the face.”
Shadow calmly pulled his staff apart, breaking it down into two nightsticks that began to hum with energy. Dave knew from experience that they were both electric shock prods designed especially for Shadow himself, lighter and more efficient than those used by the police. The charge was turned off when he used it as a staff, but as soon as he separated them, they became highly effective stunning tools.
Dave watched helplessly as Shadow engaged Poisonshot. He couldn’t properly lend a hand without freeing Skadi, and she could make all the difference in a fight like this. Dave kept his grip on her while Shadow ran forward towards the enemy.
Poisonshot fired his current arrow, but Shadow deflected it easily with his nightsticks. He dashed towards the archer, bringing his right prod down before Poisonshot could nock another arrow. Poisonshot used his bow to block Shadow’s swing, but Shadow kept coming to keep the archer off-balance.
One lucky strike was all it took. Poisonshot held his bow in one arm, blocking Shadow’s strike, and with the other arm stabbed Shadow in his unprotected side with an arrow. Shadow flinched backward, refraining from clutching his side while he still held the electric nightsticks. Dave’s concentration broke, releasing Skadi as he hurled fist-sized rocks towards Poisonshot.
The archer leapt away, grabbing his sister by the arm and dragging her to her feet. He shot an arrow towards the ceiling, this one a grappling hook attached to a line that pulled them both up to the roof.
Dave managed to hit Poisonshot’s arm with a rock, the one holding Skadi up. As the line retracted, pulling the archer towards the daylight outside, he unintentionally let his sister drop to the ground, where Dave grabbed her again with the rubble. “I’ll be back for her,” Poisonshot promised as the line sped him up towards the ceiling, “Count on it!!”
He escaped, but Dave had a more pressing problem. He used the rocks to pick Skadi up and drag her outside to where the police waited. The hostages that had been too scared to move during the battle all clamored out the door. Once Skadi was safely in handcuffs, with a gag fitted around her mouth to keep her from biting anyone, Dave turned to Agent.
“Poisonshot escaped through the roof,” he reported. “And Shadow’s down.”
Agent swore. “Granny?” he said over comms, “the archer escaped through the roof. You’re up.”
A large dragon appeared out of nowhere, flying up to the roof. Haley barely had time to gape at the little old lady riding on its back before Agent moved again. “Reiki, Trick, Nightmare: move in and release the hostages.” He pressed another button on his data pad to call Headquarters. “Dale – incoming. We’ve got wounded; Shadow’s been hit.”
As Agent called Dale, he indicated for Haley to follow Earthborn inside. David pointed to the hostages, and Haley ran over to help get them free.
Shadow still knelt on the ground, his nightsticks turned off and sitting beside him. The arrow was still sticking out from his side, and his hands were clamped over the wound to try and staunch the bleeding.
“Hang in there,” Dave told him, “Agent’s calling Dale – we’ll get you back to HQ in no time. Can you walk?”
“Not sure,” Shadow said, wincing in pain. Dave could see the young hero’s foot twitch, and realized that Shadow was staying still through sheer force of will. “I think it might have been poisoned,” he admitted.
“It’ll be okay,” Dave said, grimacing at the wound. The dark bloodstain was spreading down the side of Shadow’s hoodie. “We just need to get you out of here. Where’s that medical team?”
Dave couldn’t use the rough rocks to move his friend, for fear of aggravating the wound. They needed the ambulance team’s stretcher to get Shadow out, but the team was nowhere to be seen. “Hey!!” Dave called towards the open door, “We need help in here!!”
* * * * * * * *