Zatvor Penitentiary, outside of Eon City.
Carson Dale, making his rounds.
“I don’t know why I need to be here,” Dale said, his Scottish accent echoing in the hallway as he walked through the gates of Zatvor Penitentiary. “Zatvor has perfectly good doctors of their own. Haven’t you asked them about her yet?”
Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, smirked as he shook his head. “I trust you more than any of those quacks,” he said, clapping Dale on the back. “You know that.”
“Still,” Dale sighed, “Zatvor Penitentiary is nae place for someone like me. And that young lady is still dangerous even without her venom, ye know.”
“I doubt there’s a prisoner in here that’s more dangerous than you, doctor,” Mr. Hannah said, grinning as if he were joking. “Your intelligence is unmatched. You could be a supervillain if you put your mind to it.”
“Aye,” Dale said, starting to smile himself. “And dinnae forget it.”
Sean Hannah opened a small door in the hallway, gesturing for Dale to enter first. Inside was a small clinic room. Dale shook his head, looking around at the sparse and outdated equipment.
“Pitiful,” he said. “With this kind of equipment, they cannae possibly be getting the same care as outside.”
“They’re prisoners,” Mr. Hannah reminded him. “They’re all here because they made a choice and are now facing the consequences.”
“Tha dinnae mean we should treat them as less than human,” grumbled the doctor.
Mr. Hannah shrugged. “Most of them aren’t human,” he said. “Zatvor was specifically designed to house satyr and Third Gen criminals.”
“Ye know what I meant,” Dale said, glaring at the young CEO. “Dinnae pretend tah misunderstand.”
“Ah, well,” Mr. Hannah yawned, stretching and changing the subject. “We’re here about one patient in particular. If she’s recovered from her surgery, then we can tell the board that our donation was well spent. Check her out quickly, and we can get out of here.”
“Aye,” Dale said, unpacking his bag on the small desk in the corner of the room. “As ye wish. I’ll just have tah make do with what I brought.”
Mr. Hannah sighed. “Dale, I’d donate more if I could,” he said, reading between the doctor’s words. “The board agreed to help with this case due to its experimental nature, but there’s no way I could talk them into donating just for the sake of improving medical care for a bunch of criminals.”
“If ye say so,” Dale said, still pointedly unpacking. Mr. Hannah was saved from responding by a knock at the door. “Come in,” the doctor answered.
A prison guard opened the door, leading in a girl with bushy, unkempt hair. Katie Cruz, known on the streets by the moniker Skadi, used to keep her hair coiffed in a wide cobra hood to match her scaly, snake-like appearance, but she didn’t have either the time, product, or inclination to keep it up in prison. Her dark hair hung limp around her shoulders, giving her head a deflated look. She still reminded Dale of a cobra – just one with its hood down, waiting for a threat before it strikes.
“Prisoner two-one-seven-five,” the guard introduced. “Want me to shut the door?”
“On yer way out, please,” Dale said dismissively.
The guard shifted nervously. “I’m not supposed to let her out of my sight,” he said.
“Yes, well, I cannae work with too many people in this cramped room,” Dale said sternly, folding his arms over his chest. “I need the patient here, obviously, and Mr. Hannah is supposed tah observe tah make sure everything’s in order fer his Board of Directors. That leaves you, so shoo.”
“I can stand outside,” the guard capitulated, “but I need to leave the door open. You understand.”
“Fine, fine,” Dale said, waving his hand dismissively. “Now, Miss Cruz, if ye could please open yer mouth.”
Skadi narrowed her eyes at them suspiciously, biting her lip nervously with her long, pointed incisors. She was a snake-satyr, and one of the most accomplished thieves of her time, but she was still a teenager. Since being imprisoned in Zatvor more than half a year earlier, she had gotten the venom sacs with which she had been born – which had been killing her slowly since reaching puberty – removed. Pharos Industries had financed the operation, but Skadi had never learned why. Looking between the two men, she seemed to realize something; however, despite her age, she sat down on the table and opened her mouth obediently, not saying a word. Dale would have thought the teenager would say whatever was on her mind, but Skadi seemed mature for her age.
Dale looked into her mouth and prodded her scaly cheeks and neck a few times. He took out a stethoscope and checked her breathing and heartbeat. He asked a lot of probing questions about how she had been feeling since the operation. The full examination took less than fifteen minutes, after which he declared Skadi to be in good health, and fully recovered.
“The scars are healing nicely,” he reported, “and the lack of symptoms say that ye probably will nae have a relapse. I’ll just take some blood from ye, and we’ll let ye get back.”
“You’re the Scottish one, right?” Skadi asked. When Dale nodded, she smirked and continued, “They said you’re one of the best doctors in the country.”
“I dinnae like tah brag,” Dale said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head.
“And you’re Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries,” Skadi added, turning to Mr. Hannah.
“I am,” Mr. Hannah replied.
Skadi gave a short laugh but refused to say what she had found so funny. As the guard came back in to take her back to her cell, Skadi gave both men an ironic smile. “My brother will come for me any day now,” she told them. “Just so you know.”
Mr. Hannah smiled back politely. “If you say so,” he said nonchalantly, “but no one has ever escaped from Zatvor.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” Skadi replied sweetly. “I’ll see you around.”
As the guard led her away, Dale turned to Mr. Hannah. “That was creepy,” he admitted. “Is she right?”
“Time will tell,” Sean Hannah told him. “Come on, let’s get lunch. My treat.”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, Asylum Headquarters.
Kyle Warren, AKA Reiki.
“So, we’re going undercover?” Rina asked skeptically, sitting forward in her chair. “Why?” Reiki had seen her tense up when Agent had told them the plan, and couldn’t blame her. They had just finished watching the video of Skadi’s exam, and knew that she had told Dale and Mr. Hannah that she planned to escape from Zatvor, but Agent’s plan seemed like an enormously bad idea.
The team was scattered around the new tower’s new briefing room, getting their new assignment from Agent. The only member missing was Shadow, who was patrolling the city; Agent had promised to brief him later. At the moment, Reiki, Rina, Natalie, Haley, and David were looking at Agent with disbelief, while Granny seemed focused on her crocheting at the other end of the long meeting table. Eli was the only person in the room who looked amused at the mission announcement, and he was laughing from where he sat next to Haley. It was a testament to how shocked the team was that even Natalie wasn’t shooting him dirty looks across the table.
“What do you mean, ‘why’?” Agent asked. He sat at the head of the conference table, so that the team had to look over at him. “We got a tip that there will be a prison breakout, and we need to find out which of the prisoners in Zatvor know about it. We can’t just assume that Skadi and her brother are working alone, or that she’ll be the only one breaking out.”
“I know I’m new here,” Eli piped up, still chuckling ironically, “but I think Nightmare’s referring to the fact that the last time an Asylum Watcher went undercover, it didn’t end well for any of us.”
Agent glared at him, while Natalie gave him an impressed smirk. “The merc is right,” she said, turning back to glare at Agent. “Parker went undercover in the Fauns, and not only did he blow up our old tower, he’s now their leader and on the city’s Most Wanted list. What made you think this was a good idea?”
“This is different,” Agent told them. “I’ve learned from that mistake.”
“‘Mistake’, he calls it,” David said, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes, ‘mistake’,” Agent repeated impatiently. “For one, no one goes in alone. I’m sending Nightmare, Earthborn, Trick, and Outlier.”
“Hang on, did you say Outlier?” Haley asked, her eyes widening. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” Reiki looked over at her, and if he didn’t know better, he might think she was scared. But Haley was fearless; that was what made her a good Watcher.
Natalie was the one to address the elephant in the room, however. “Look kid,” she said, conveniently forgetting that Haley was only three years younger than herself, “I know you messed up last week with the gang fight, but frankly I don’t know if anyone else would have done better.” She shrugged, leaning back on the couch and putting her arms behind her head. “Besides, you won’t be in charge this time.”
“I know that,” Haley said, visibly annoyed. “What I don’t know is what good I can do on this mission.”
“Haley, you have plenty of skills,” Agent began, but Haley interrupted.
“Darn skippy I do,” she said, “but Zatvor is a prison for Third Gens and satyrs. I know Trick can pass as a Third Gen with her skillset, but I’m human through and through; there’s no getting around that.”
Agent raised an eyebrow. “I was planning on having Chip make you look like a satyr,” he said.
“Not a good plan,” Haley countered. “Makeup can get smudged, or washed off, and prosthetics can be lost. Not to mention my bleeding problem – one small papercut and a semi-vigilant villain would give me away as human. It would be better if you got an actual Third Gen or satyr to go in.” As an afterthought, she added, “Frankly, I don’t think any of us should go in. We’re all pretty high-profile – that was the point of the Asylum, wasn’t it? To have a team of celebrity superheroes that the people know and trust?”
“Sort of,” Agent admitted. “But Rina is a satyr already, and since her uniform covers her face no one knows what she looks like. David’s electricity means he’s never been photographed clearly, and earth manipulation is a common enough power that he can pass as a weaker Third Gen. Natalie is also good at disguise as part of her tricks.” He shook his head as he continued, “But yes, Reiki puts on shows in the park and Frank is a legacy. Eli has worked with enough of the villains in Zatvor that he’s too high-profile, and Granny’s powers are too unique. That leaves you and me, Haley – two decently strong humans who might be able to pass as Third Gens or Satyrs. I don’t usually go out in the field, and you’re still new enough that people won’t recognize you. Now, if I go in, then there’s no one watching the outside to let the team know if they need help, so that leaves you.”
“I’m a high-risk option,” Haley insisted. “If I go in, our chances of being caught skyrocket. Humans don’t go to Zatvor.” She looked over at Eli and added, “Why not Butterfly? Since the villains know him, it’d lend credibility to the others.”
“Not the right credibility,” Eli pointed out, shaking his head. “I’m a mercenary Watcher. I work with the villains on occasion, but I also helped put enough of them in Zatvor who would have a grudge against me, and the rest wouldn’t trust me due to my rep.”
“Aw, nobody trusts the big bad merc?” Natalie asked in a mocking, sing-song voice. “I wonder why.”
“You just won’t let that go, will you?” Eli asked, shaking his head.
“You shot me,” Natalie reminded him.
Eli threw his hands up helplessly. “I needed the money!” he cried.
“You were supposed to be working with us, and you shot me in the back,” Natalie said accusingly.
Eli looked guilty, at least. “It was a lot of money?” he said, wincing under her glare. “Anyways, it was over a year ago now. I haven’t done it since then.”
“I am not going undercover in Zatvor with the merc,” Natalie said, rounding on Agent while pointing rudely at Eli. “If he goes, I don’t.”
“You could always ask Holmes,” Reiki interjected, hoping to end the squabble. “Since she’s not officially on the team, she isn’t well-known. She’s good at disguise, too, and as a satyr she doesn’t have to worry about fitting in.”
Natalie sighed and put her arm down. “One problem,” she said. “Holmes has been MIA since the riots. Nobody knows where she is.”
“She’s also not technically a Watcher,” Eli added. When everyone turned to stare at him, he shrugged and added, “What? I pay attention sometimes. Holmes is a Private Eye – she doesn’t have a Watcher license.”
“That never stopped us from asking her before,” Haley said. “As for where she is, I’m sure that Agent can find her.” The team turned back to Agent with expectant gazes. Even Granny looked up from her crocheting with a raised eyebrow.
Agent sighed. “Fine,” he said finally, “I’ll ask Holmes. Haley, Eli, Reiki, you guys and Frank will be on double patrol shifts until the others get back, though.”
“Fair enough,” Haley said. Reiki looked at her sideways; she seemed almost relieved.
“As for the mission,” Agent continued, “I’m sending in Nightmare, Earthborn, Trick, and Holmes, I guess. You’ll be undercover as freshly-caught villains, and your job will be to cozy up to the Zatvor inmates and find out what they know. The warden will know who you are, but the guards will treat you like any other prisoner. With any luck, we’ll get the information we need within a few days, and you’ll all be back here safe and sound.”
Natalie sighed. “You know, I’ve had to say this to Haley a few times over the last few weeks, but I never thought I’d have to say it to you,” she said, shaking her head. “‘Luck’ is not a plan! How do you expect us to get close to these guys in just a few days? All psychological research shows that inmates have a hard time trusting new people.”
Agent didn’t answer, but turned to look at David. Everyone followed his gaze expectantly. David sighed and said, “I actually have the answer for that. I was an inmate there before joining the Asylum; the guys who’ve been in there for years think I broke out, and I should have a few friends on the inside who’ll vouch for me.”
“You were a Zatvor prisoner?” Haley asked curiously.
“Yeah,” said David. “When I first got my powers, I lost control and nearly destroyed the city. You remember the earthquakes about six or so years ago?”
“That was you?” Natalie cried. “Parker and I were doing our Watcher exam at the time; I nearly tripped on the obstacle course because of that!”
“Sorry,” David muttered, shrugging. “Anyways, I was in Zatvor for over a year figuring out my powers, and then broke out by tunneling under the walls. Long story short, Agent caught up with me, but instead of throwing me back in prison he offered me a job here.”
“How come you never told us this?” Rina asked.
David grinned at her. “You never asked,” he said, shrugging a shoulder and leaning back in his chair. “You’ve met my alter-ego, and you knew I used to be human. What do you think would have happened to someone who can level a city when they first got their powers?”
Reiki looked at Haley. He knew she was remembering one of her first patrol shifts, where they both had to subdue an elemental Third Gen who had lost control of his powers in the park. “They send people like that to Zatvor?” she asked. “Even if they did it by accident?”
“Not everyone in Zatvor is a criminal,” Agent said. “The prison is large, about the size of a small town. We’ll be focusing our efforts for this mission in the criminal quarters, with the worst offenders like Skadi, but Zatvor has another wing dedicated to helping inmates control their powers so that they can be safely released back into society.”
“’Safely’ being the key word in that sentence,” Natalie added. “Even if they can’t control their powers, not many inmates in Zatvor are there by choice.” She looked pointedly at David, who shrugged apologetically.
“I had my reasons for breaking out,” he said, and left it at that. Reiki gave Natalie a “just drop it” look. Out of all of the Asylum Watchers, David was the only one with a family of his own; he was very protective of them, only referring to his significant other as “Amy” (Reiki wasn’t even sure if they were married or not, or if she had taken his last name), and never calling his kid by name to keep the bad guys from targeting them. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he meant.
“Pharos Industries and King Enterprises both hold contracts for the work done there, and between the two of them they make sure Zatvor is escape-proof,” Agent told them. “David’s breakout is considered legendary there, so he should have an easy time getting close to the prisoners – especially those who are looking to get out themselves.”
“Well, that’s going to be fun,” Natalie said. “So what I’m hearing here is: we four will be thrown into a prison that’s the size of a small town with a bunch of criminals we helped put there, and have to figure out which villains to cozy up to so we can stop them from breaking out, but it’s okay because our local ex-con will make introductions to inmates who have been in there for years in the hopes that those inmates can – by chance – introduce us to the ones we’re looking for.” She folded her arms, looking expectantly at Agent. “Does that about sum it up?”
“Well, we know you can start with Skadi, since she’s the one who mentioned the possible breakout to Dale and Mr. Hannah,” Agent said, grinning playfully at her. “Otherwise, yes. Good summary.”
“Skadi,” Natalie scoffed. “The other issue. All we’re going on is her word that her brother will come for her ‘soon’ – nothing more concrete?”
“She was the snake-satyr girl you guys caught robbing that bank on my first day, right?” Haley asked.
Eli looked around the table. “You guys caught Skadi?” he asked.
“A while ago, merc,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes. “You really need to listen more often.”
“I do listen,” Eli said pointedly. “I listen when Poisonshot tells the underworld that he’s been working with a big player. I listen enough to know that Jorge and Katie Cruz never take jobs without each other, and I listen enough to know that they’re affiliated with the Fauns.” That got everyone’s attention. “Oh yeah,” Eli said, leaning back in his chair now that all eyes were on him. “Katie Cruz, also known as Skadi, is reportedly Claw’s girlfriend. Or, you know, the closest thing a psychopath like him can have.” Watching the shocked faces his new team made, he added, “But of course you big bad Watchers already knew that, right?”
“One of these days, merc,” Natalie promised, “I’m going to wipe that smug smile off your face.”
“You’re welcome to try,” Eli said, grinning at her.
“If that’s everything, I have some things to prepare,” Agent said. “Butterfly, could you brief the others on everything they’ll need to know when dealing with the inmates? Underworld gossip like that, for example?”
“Sure,” Eli said. “I do love me some gossip.”
Agent shook his head as he stood up. Grabbing his umbrella, he added, “Okay then; dismissed.”
* * * * * * * *
Zatvor Penitentiary, outside Eon City.
New prisoners have just arrived.
Zatvor Penitentiary was located on an island off Eon City’s coast. The only way on or off the island was by boat, and sharp rocks surrounded the facility itself. As the three undercover Watchers were ferried over to the prison, dressed in the standard orange jumpsuits of inmates, they sedated their growing nerves by catching up with their old ally, Holmes. Natalie in particular voiced her concerns loudly and often, as they wouldn’t have another chance to talk while in the prison.
“This is stupid,” Natalie said for the umpteenth time as they were led into the prison by the only guards that knew their true identities. “I don’t know what Agent is thinking.” She was uncomfortable without her custom-made black coat that held the majority of her tricks. She hadn’t even been allowed to put on her usual goth make-up that morning, and the occasional stares she got from her friends made her self-conscious. In Zatvor, she wouldn’t be allowed to dye her hair, either; soon she would look like a pop princess with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and pink lips. She was born with a cheerleader’s peppy looks, and soon her team would be made aware of that fact.
She was already hating this assignment.
“Ah, we’ll be fine,” said Toby. Toby Watson, otherwise known as “Holmes”, was a dog-satyr. Unlike Parker, who looked mostly human, Toby had a dog’s nose and ears, and her face was covered in soft, tan fur. Her blue eyes were large and canine-like, and anyone who looked closely enough at her long, dirty-blonde hair could see the floppy ears poking out of her head. Her fingers ended in blunt claws instead of nails, and her lips were naturally black. It wasn’t obvious, especially since she wore boots and long pants to cover her legs, but she walked on the balls of her feet because her ankles and feet were shaped like a dog’s. Her gait was graceful, however – she didn’t have any trouble moving, and Natalie had seen her outrun Frank before (which was no easy feat).
“Easy for you to say,” Natalie said dryly. “You weren’t there when the tower fell on me.”
Toby shrugged, ignoring the unspoken question in the statement. “Are you planning on blowing up any buildings?” she asked.
“No,” Natalie admitted.
“Neither am I,” Toby said, “so I doubt we’ll have that problem this time.”
Rina spoke up from behind them. “We should still be careful,” she said. “We’re walking into the highest-security prison the world has ever seen, and we’ll be hard-pressed to use our powers.”
“Speak for yourself,” Natalie and Toby chorused. Natalie looked sharply over at the P.I. with a newfound respect. As a human, Natalie had spent her life trying to keep up with Third Gens, with varying levels of success. Even though she was a satyr, Toby had done much the same – unlike Rina and Parker, the two satyrs with whom Natalie was familiar, Toby didn’t have any Third Gen-like powers augmenting her natural senses. Sure, she had a dog’s sense of smell and hearing, but that wasn’t the same thing as Parker’s super-strength or Rina’s panic-inducing powers; Toby was also colorblind, and her heightened other senses barely made up for her poor eyesight. Toby had more in common with Natalie than with the other Asylum Watchers on their team.
The guards dropped them off in a barred cell, where normal prisoners would usually be checked for hidden drugs and weapons. Given their unusual situation, the guards skipped the check, instead allowing the Watchers to wait in the room until the new guards – ones who didn’t know their identity – came.
“Hey,” Natalie suddenly asked as they waited in an anteroom to be escorted into the main compound. “I’ve always wondered, Toby: why haven’t you gotten your Watcher license?” It was the closest she could come to asking where Toby had been since the riots. She had wanted to ask as soon as she saw the P.I., but Agent had cautioned her against it.
“Reasons,” Toby shrugged. “Biggest one being that I’m not comfortable with the Government keeping tabs on me. Watchers have to register their names and powers, and I do my work better when I’m not on a national registry for anyone to look up.”
David spoke up for the first time since they were brought in. “We’re all on the registry, and we still do undercover stuff,” he pointed out.
“Trust me,” Toby answered, “it’s best if no one knows my real name.”
“We know your real name, though,” Rina said. “Toby Watson, right?”
Toby paused for a second, before shrugging. “Yeah, you just think that,” she told them, and with that the conversation ended.
Six guards walked in the room and surrounded them, marching the quartet out. These guards didn’t know about the newcomers’ status as undercover Watchers, so the four teammates kept quiet as they marched. As they were led through a large courtyard, Natalie noted the reinforced titanium floors and the high, smooth walls that didn’t allow for climbing. The walkway was covered, which is why the midday sun wasn’t bothering Rina yet, but they could see a few dozen inmates working out and socializing. The inmates watched and cat-called them as they passed, with many of the criminals referring to the new inmates as “fresh meat”. Natalie could see barbed wire at the top of the courtyard walls, though, making her smile to herself.
“Two minutes,” she said confidently, earning herself a glare from one of their new guards and a questioning look from Toby, who was marching next to her. “If I wanted to,” she said carefully, “it would only take me two minutes to bust out of here.”
The guards who heard her laughed. “What’re you going to do, sweetheart?” one asked. “You’d have to make it past us, first. Besides, your hands are cuffed.”
Natalie just shrugged, grinning conspiratorially. A crowd of inmates were now looking at them, and Natalie was pleased to note that Skadi was among them. Showtime, she thought.
Turning to the guard who had spoken, she asked sweetly in her most carrying stage voice, “Are they?” She held up the cuffs with her right hand, jingling them like keys to prove her point. Instantly, the guards surrounded her, pointing their tasers and shouting, “Hands up! Don’t move!”
“Geez,” Natalie said, still grinning. “Learn to take a joke.” She twirled the cuffs around her hands, smoothly letting them lock back in place. “Does this make you feel better?” she asked, laughing at the guards’ obvious discomfiture. They all put their tasers away, telling her not to pull a stunt like that again.
Toby shook her head in mock disapproval. “Come on, sweetie,” she said. “You can’t do better than that?”
She held up her uncuffed hands, but her cuffs were nowhere in sight. As the guard nearest to her tried to reach for his taser again, he found his hands cuffed in front of him and his taser missing. Toby pointed at the guard’s back pocket, where the taser had miraculously moved from it’s holster on his front, and laughed as the other guards pointed their tasers at her in turn.
“If we were going to make a run for it,” she told them, “we’d have done it before you led us into the compound.” As the guards continued to hold her at taser-point, she yawned and put her hands over her head. “Oh fine,” she added. “If it’ll make you feel better, I’ll walk like this from now on.”
One of the guards nodded at another, who got their keys out to unlock their comrade. Putting the cuffs back on Toby, they quickened their pace across the compound to the processing office. “Impressive,” Natalie admitted to Toby. “I’d have gone for his wallet, though.”
Toby grinned at her, putting a finger to her lips, and Natalie laughed as her victim checked his pockets for his wallet. Annoyed when he couldn’t find it there, he patted Toby down, eventually locating it in her jumpsuit pockets. The inmates watching them laughed at the guards’ discomfiture, and Toby gave Natalie a satisfied wink.
The guards seemed relieved when they finally got to the processing office, turning the new prisoners over to the Warden and taking up positions outside the office. “Watch out for these two,” the leader of their guard group said, nodding towards Toby and Natalie. The Warden assured him that he would, and the last guard left.
“You know,” came a voice from across the room, “it’s against protocol for the guards to leave you alone with this many prisoners, Warden.” Agent stepped out of the shadowy corner of the office, grinning at his team.
The Warden cleared his throat nervously. “Well, I know who these prisoners are, and I have an Agent of the Task-Force guarding me right now,” he said. “I told the guards that you would be plenty of protection from these four; I don’t know if they believed me, but they don’t question my orders.”
“This room is secure, by the way,” Agent said, nodding at his team. “The only people watching us already know about the operation.”
“Yes, yes,” the Warden said, waving his hand before Agent could say any more, “but on an island like this you’d be surprised how quickly things can get around. Never assume that nobody is listening.”
Agent nodded, silently deferring to the Warden’s experience. “I heard a commotion outside,” he said carefully.
Natalie stayed in character, tossing her head and smiling prettily at them. “Oh, that was nothing,” she said. “I was just commenting to your guards on how easy this place would be to break out of. Isn’t that right, David?”
David grinned, shaking slightly as he tried not to laugh in the Warden’s face, as the Warden turned his attention to him. “Yes,” the Warden said, frowning at him. “Well, there will be no escaping this time. I’m personally going to see to it.”
“Are you really?” David asked flippantly, smirking at him. “I escaped before, after all.”
The Warden’s frown deepened, but Agent interjected before he could respond. “We do have a goal here,” he said. “It’s good you guys are staying in character, but I’d like an acknowledgement from all of you that you aren’t going to do anything unnecessarily risky.” He looked at Natalie as he said that.
“Me?” she said in mock surprise. “When have I ever done anything unnecessarily dangerous?” She could hear David and Rina stifling laughter from behind her, and even Toby smirked at the comment.
“Nat,” Agent said. He sounded stern but she could see the concern on his face. He looked almost like a puppy when he got like that.
“Fine,” she said, giving in with a sly grin. “No unnecessary stunts.”
“What about the handcuff thing you just pulled?” Rina asked sweetly, elbowing her.
Natalie turned and grinned at her. “That was necessary,” she said, matching Rina’s sweet tone.
“Yeah,” Toby added, more seriously. “We got the criminals’ attention with that stunt. Now they’ll all want to see how powerful we are, and any who are looking to escape might want to cozy up to the two new escape artists.”
“Maybe,” David said, though he had a skeptical look on his face.
“Definitely,” Toby said. “Rina and I’ll get in good with the satyrs, and David and Natalie can work on the Third Gens. Between us, we ought to find out something about this breakout scheme they’ve got.”
“I won’t be using my powers,” Rina added, “and David will down-play his abilities to reduce the chances of them recognizing us.”
“And I’m pretending to be a Third Gen,” Natalie added, fingering the flash paper-covered cards that she smuggled in her sleeves.
The Warden harrumphed. “I’ve put the story to the guards that the Agents of the Task-Force captured the notorious David Perry,” he said. “He was working with three other low-level thieves to evade capture. We’ll be using your real first names, though your last names are different on your paperwork – except for Mr. Perry, of course.”
“They’ve been briefed,” Agent assured him. “If it comes up, they’ll know their names.”
“Good,” the Warden said. “I doubt it’ll come up, though. The guards use numbers to identify prisoners, and the inmates tend to use street names.” He brushed his mustache with his fingers as he added, “Everyone in here refers to me as ‘Warden’, so you don’t need to know my name.”
“Question,” Rina asked, raising her hand. “If we have something to report, where do we go?”
“Dale will be stationed in the prison clinic for the time being,” Agent said. “If you have any news, go to him.”
“Anything we missed?” the Warden asked.
Agent took a deep breath before looking at the Watchers. “No,” he said hesitantly. “I think that’s it.” For the first time, Natalie could see his own doubt in his plan on his face. Not for the first time, she got the feeling that he wasn’t telling them something; he seemed worried, which took all the fun out of teasing him.
She put her still-handcuffed hand over his on his umbrella. “Hey,” she said softly. “It’ll be okay.” She noticed Toby’s raised eyebrows and added, “I mean, it’s a stupid plan, but it’s the only one we’ve got.”
Agent looked down, surprised at the contact, and blushed and stammered in response. “Just– Just don’t blow up any buildings,” he mumbled awkwardly.
Natalie raised an eyebrow. “No promises,” she said, grinning. If anyone else had said it that flippantly to her after what Parker had done, she would have punched them; but Agent just looked so cute when he was flustered. She would have to do this more often.
“If you two are done flirting?” Toby asked. Natalie saw Rina elbow her, but she and Agent broke apart hurriedly.
“Right,” Agent said, his face still red. “Well… good luck to you.” He strode to the door and got the guards that had taken up places outside to get the new inmates. As the guards took them away, Natalie turned back to look at Agent one more time, but his face had already been set back in the mask of indifference to the criminal inmates.
Looking ahead, Natalie steeled herself. You can do this, she thought, getting back into character.
There was no going back now.
* * * * * * * *
Kyle Warren, AKA Reiki.
“So, fearless leader,” Reiki asked Haley after finding her in the lounge. “What’s going on?” He sat down on one of the cushioned chairs across from her.
“What do you mean?” Haley asked. She was sipping a cup of tea, having just gotten back from a patrol shift. Reiki just stared at her until she started talking. “You mean about the mission?” she asked.
“What else?” he said. “I’ve never seen you turn down an assignment before; none of us have. What’s wrong?”
Haley shrugged. “It was a bad plan,” she said. “Natalie was right; I relied way too much on luck when I was leader, and it nearly got us all killed last week. I know that another undercover mission is our only plan for stopping this breakout, so I made a suggestion to help improve our chances.”
“And conveniently, that suggestion was for you to stay behind.” It wasn’t an accusation, but Haley bristled.
“So?” she asked. “It was a good call. The team’s still settling back to our old routine, and Agent suddenly asks us to do this – he has to know how little the team trusts him after he abandoned us like that.”
Reiki was stunned for a second after her outburst. “Haley, you were the one who kept telling all of us that he would be back if we just gave him time,” he reminded her. “Now you say that you don’t trust him?”
Haley pursed her lips, clamming up again. “It’s not that I don’t trust him,” she back-pedaled. “I just wonder sometimes what took him so long, is all.”
Reiki just looked at her for a minute, noticing not for the first time how much she had changed in the last few months since the riots. She looked tired all the time, as if she wasn’t sleeping properly, and she had lost a fair amount of weight from not eating. Her hair, usually kept trimmed in a neat pixie cut, was shaggy and had grown past her ears. She used to change into civilian clothes after a patrol, but she was sitting in the lounge still in her uniform as she drank her tea.
The tea itself was unusual, as well. At this time of day, Haley used to have tea with Granny in the older woman’s room before going to the city’s community center to teach a self defense class in the evening. As he thought of it, Reiki realized that he hadn’t seen her teach that class in a while.
“Hey,” he said, concerned for his friend. “You know that if you ever need to talk about something, I’m here, right?”
Haley gave him a tired smile that didn’t quite meet her eyes. “I know,” she said. “Thanks, Reiki. I’m fine, really.”
Anyone who knew her could tell that Haley was far from fine, but Reiki let the matter drop.
* * * * * * * *
Sabrina “Rina” Dawson, AKA Nightmare
“So,” came a voice from behind Rina, “you’re the new meat.”
The four undercover teammates were taken to their cells after their meeting with Agent and the Warden. The girls’ cells were on the same block, but they couldn’t talk to each other without their jailers shouting at them. Nor would they have had much to say in front of the other inmates, anyways. They had to keep their cover.
As the other inmates were brought back in from the yard, Rina found that her cellmate was none other than Skadi. Aside from her initial comment upon entering the tiny cell, the snake-satyr didn’t have anything to say to her; she came in and lay down on her bunk, staring at the ceiling.
If she was going to get any information, the Rina was going to have to initiate conversation. “Hey,” she said shyly. “My name’s – ”
“Don’t care,” Skadi said abruptly. “In a few days it’s not going to matter.”
“Meaning?” Rina asked, taking the opening.
“Meaning if you don’t shut your trap and let me sleep, I’ll rip your throat out.” Skadi made the threat nonchalantly, not really trying to intimidate Rina, but as if it were simply a fact.
Rina took a deep breath, knowing how risky her next words would be. They would never get anywhere by playing it safe, however. “I’d like to see you try,” she said, doing her best to match Skadi’s tone of voice. For the first time, Rina was glad that her powers weren’t working properly – the tension in the small, cramped cell was palpable, and her brand of panic-inducing fear would have instantly started a fight. Skadi was about a decade younger, but Rina had seen her fight before and was in no hurry to face off with the thief.
The silence stretched on, while Rina anticipated every possible move Skadi could make. After what felt like an eternity, she heard a soft sigh coming from Skadi’s direction. It took another minute for Rina to realize that the snake-girl had fallen asleep.
“What did you think would happen?” Toby asked her the next day at breakfast when Rina relayed the conversation. “Fighting isn’t allowed in here.” They were eating alone at their end of the table, as Natalie and David had joined some of his old acquaintances among the Third Gens.
“I don’t know,” Rina said, still confused. “This has never happened to me before. Usually people get so nervous around me that they can hardly speak, much less fall asleep.”
“Agent wouldn’t have sent you if he didn’t think you could control your powers, right?” Toby asked, dropping her voice so the other inmates wouldn’t hear.
“He didn’t send me as a Fourth Gen,” Rina whispered back. “He sent me as a satyr. I – ”
“You,” came a voice from behind her. Rina whipped her head around, trying to see who was speaking. A pale young man with white hair and red eyes was smiling at her. “You’re Nine, aren’t you? Rina?”
Rina’s eyes widened as she recognized the man. “Finn?” she asked in disbelief. “No way! What are you doing here?”
“Rina,” Toby asked, a warning note creeping into her voice, “you know this guy?”
“Toby,” Rina introduced, noticing how many eyes were now looking at them. “This is Finn. He’s a Fourth Gen, like me. I didn’t know any of the Fourth Gens were in Zatvor,” she added, turning back to Finn. It suddenly occurred to her that her cover was blown, and her eyes widened slightly as she kept the smile plastered to her face.
Finn smiled as he sat with them. “I’m the only one I’ve seen. Most of the others are still with the Fauns around the country.”
“I thought I was the only one who stayed in Eon City,” Rina said, shaking her head. “What are you doing here, Finn? I haven’t seen you since…”
“Since we broke out of the experiment?” Finn finished as Rina trailed off. “Yeah. What have you been up to?” He furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. “I thought you became a Watcher.”
Toby gave Rina a brief alarmed look, before feigning disinterest again. Rina thought fast, coming up with a story and hoping Toby would go along with it. “I got my Watcher license,” she admitted, “mainly because there wasn’t any other way for me to make money. I even tried joining a team for a while,” she added, remembering her run-in with Leech earlier that year and wondering how much Finn knew. She would have to stay as close to the truth as possible. “That life wasn’t really for me. The night of the riots… well, some stuff happened, and I lost control of my powers. I was kicked to the curb, until I met Toby here.” Toby nodded as if she already knew the story. “We lived on the streets for a bit, until we were picked up last week for expired licenses.”
The “expired license” story was one they had agreed on beforehand, believing that it would lend them some sympathy from Fauns like Skadi. Satyrs were all required to carry a special license that proved they were registered with the government, and allowing that license to expire was punishable with up to a year in prison. Rina’s Watcher license usually served as her proof of registration, but it too had to be updated regularly.
Finn nodded, seeming to buy the tale as he began telling his own story. “Well, as you know I’m not really a satyr,” he said. “The stupid experiment gave me the red eyes and black blood, though, so I can’t pass for human, either. I went ahead and got a satyr license to keep the cops off my back, but, well – like you said, there’s not much work that’ll take someone like us.”
“If you’re not a satyr, then you must be a Third Gen,” Toby said, acting as though she didn’t know much about the Fourth Gen experiment.
“You didn’t tell her?” Finn asked Rina, who shrugged. “We’re called ‘Fourth Gens’,” he explained. “We were part of an illegal experiment when we were kids that gave us more advanced powers than the Third Gens. Rina here can regrow any of her limbs.”
Rina looked around, suddenly conscious of the fact that they were the center of attention now. “Not that I particularly enjoy losing my arms or legs,” she said nervously.
Finn waved a hand impatiently. “Yeah, but your powers were so cool! You were almost as strong as Ryan and Katie when we finally broke out of there.”
“My fear powers are hard to control,” Rina told him carefully. She didn’t want to admit that she couldn’t use them – they had not worked reliably since the night of the riots – and so didn’t want him just shouting about it to the entire cafeteria. As a Watcher, she had put more than her share of villains behind bars in Zatvor, and she didn’t want everyone here to put it together that she was the hero Nightmare – especially when she lacked her usual intimidation.
“Don’t I know it,” Finn was saying, not taking the hint. “You hit all of us along with the scientists. I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest!”
Rina laughed nervously. “Well, it’s good to see you, Finn,” she said, hinting that he should leave.
Finn had never been good at picking up on hints. “So have you seen any of the others?” he asked. “Leah and Mikey tracked me down earlier this year, saying something about having found the lead scientist on the Fourth Gen experiments. They wanted me to go with them to kill him, but I’ve never been into that. Forgiveness is better than hate, after all.”
“Yeah, they found me too,” Rina told him, relaxing a little as they turned away from discussing her powers. “I also heard that the lead scientist is in jail now.”
“He’s not a Third Gen, I don’t think,” Finn said, shrugging, “and he sure as hell ain’t a satyr, so he’s not in here and that’s all I know. If I never see him again, it’ll be too soon.”
As Rina replied, “True,” Toby stood up.
“I’ve got a bit of a stomachache, Rina,” she said, giving her a significant look. “I think I’m going to see the medic.”
“Sorry, Finn,” Rina said, “Talk to you later?”
“Sure,” Finn said, starting to eat now that they were done talking. “I’ll probably see you during the free hour, since we can’t go outside.”
“Right,” Rina said, smiling at him. “It really is good to see you again,” she added, before following Toby to put their trays away.
As they walked down the hallway to the infirmary, Toby looked around to make sure they were alone before asking carefully, “What the hell was that?”
“Finn’s a Fourth Gen, like me,” Rina said, not bothering to whisper. There was no point in pretending that she was a normal satyr now. “He’s a technopath; he can assemble or disassemble any piece of technology he comes across and can make it work with a thought.”
“Cool, cool,” Toby said, nodding. Then she added sharply, “He knew you. He outed your powers.”
“Yeah,” Rina said. “That’s going to be a problem, isn’t it?”
“Only if you’re recognized,” Toby hissed, “by any of the plethora of bad guys you helped put in here!”
Rina was saved a response by someone shouting, “Hey! New Meat!” from behind them.
“Great,” Toby sighed before turning to face them. “What?”
Skadi came marching up the hallway with three other satyr prisoners. From the description she had received before the mission, Rina recognized Erinyes, the bat-satyr Faun Lieutenant whom Natalie and David took down the night of the riots, on Skadi’s left. This just keeps getting better, Rina thought, schooling her face to keep her internal cringe from showing.
“You,” Skadi demanded, pointing rudely at Rina. “Is it true you’re a Fourth Gen?”
“These eyes aren’t just for decoration,” Rina said, trying to come across as tough and nonchalant. Her best hope now that Finn had outed her powers was to bluff it out.
“You’re also a satyr, right?” Skadi continued. “The Fauns could use someone as powerful as you.”
Rina raised an eyebrow. “Why would I need the Fauns?” she asked.
Skadi scoffed. “Why wouldn’t you need the Fauns?” she retorted. “You worked as a Watcher, right? You probably helped put a bunch of people in here. The Fauns can watch your back, if you help us with a little… side project we’ve got going.”
“’Side project’?” Rina asked, trying not to glance at Toby.
Skadi folded her arms in front of her. “My brother and some friends of ours are going to bust us out,” she said bluntly. “You in?”
“Whoa,” Toby said, putting up a hand. “Your brother? Who is that?”
“Poisonshot,” Skadi told her, rolling her eyes. “Duh. But I won’t give you any more details right now. Meet me tomorrow in the yard at the picnic benches.” She looked around and added, “Fewer ears there.”
Rina nodded, and Skadi and her posse moved off. She blinked a few times as she watched them go, unable to say anything.
“Okay, how the hell did you do that?” Toby asked her, awed. “I’ve never been able to get information that fast, much less a confession.”
“Is it just me, or did that seem fishy?” Rina asked, still looking at the spot where Skadi turned the corner.
“Oh, it was definitely fishy,” Toby said, “but if she really just took the bait that easily, then this mission’ll be a piece of cake. Maybe it was a good thing that Finn outed you.”
“We’ll see,” Rina said, shaking her head and looking back at Toby. “Either way, we need to see Dale.”
* * * * * * * *
Zatvor Penitentiary, across the cafeteria.
Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.
“So, where do we start?” Natalie asked. David was scanning the room as they grabbed their food trays.
“Over there,” he grunted. He was getting into his role of being the big, tough prisoner. Natalie followed as David led her to an empty table that was sitting near a group of rowdy inmates. Given the lack of markings, they were probably Third Gens.
“Oh ho ho,” laughed one as he saw David and Natalie approach. “If it isn’t the big, bad David Perry!”
The inmate was a large man, tattooed and bald. He winked at Natalie as they approached. “Well, hello sweetheart,” he said. “What’s a pretty thing like yourself doing following a great big oaf like him?”
“Sweetheart?” she asked. “I’ll give you ‘sweetheart’.” With that, she stomped as hard as she could on the big guy’s foot. As petite as Natalie looked, years of fighting training had given her powerful leg muscles – she probably had broken at least one of the big guy’s toes.
The big man howled in pain, much more loudly than Natalie would have expected. “Wh… what did you do that for?” he sobbed, crossing his leg over his knee to cradle the injured foot. “I *hic* I was only being friendly!”
“I’m not some pushover little girl that you can just…” Natalie started to tell him off, but trailed off when she saw the looks on the other Third Gens’ faces. They seemed concerned about the big guy, and shot glares at Natalie as they tried to console him.
David shook his head. “Sorry, Blitz,” he said, sounding sincerely apologetic. “Natalie’s new here, and she’s a bit jumpy. She thought you were hitting on her.” Natalie couldn’t believe it.
The one called “Blitz” was sobbing as he cradled his foot. The other Third Gens in the group looked expectantly at Natalie, frowning as they did. They obviously expected her to apologize to the hulking figure, and since she was outnumbered, Natalie decided to comply.
“Oh, um, yeah,” she said awkwardly. “I thought you were disrespecting me, and, um, I’m… sorry?”
Blitz sniffed, wiping the tears out of his eyes as he mumbled, “S’okay.” The other Third Gens clapped him comfortingly on the back, still shooting Natalie dirty looks.
David turned to her and explained. “I’m sorry, I should have warned you. Blitz here is a big softy, who likes taking care of newcomers. His Third Gen power is that he can make people feel cozy with a touch, so everyone here likes him.”
“Cozy?” Natalie asked skeptically.
“Like… like that feeling you get when you’re wrapped in a big, fuzzy blanket and have a cup of cocoa on a cold night,” said one of the other prisoners, who was still glaring at Natalie. “It’s the best feeling in the world, and Blitz is the only way we can get it in here when we have a bad day. And you hurt him!”
“Blitz calls everybody ‘sweetheart’,” added another. “He’s mildly autistic, and it’s part of his therapy to try and connect to others.”
“Oh,” Natalie said. “I’m so sorry,” she added, more sincerely now that she knew the big guy hadn’t meant anything by the comments.
“It’s… it’s okay,” Blitz said, sniffling one more time. He seemed to have stopped crying, at least. “It didn’t hurt much, really. I just didn’t expect it, is all.”
“Can you walk?” David asked.
Blitz tested his foot out, and nodded. Natalie breathed a sigh of relief. If they were trying to get in good with the Third Gens of the prison, she did not get them off to a good start.
“Don’t mind them, Blitz,” came a voice from the back of the group. As Third Gens shifted to look at the new speaker, Natalie found herself able to see a blonde girl laying down on the table behind them. She flinched as she recognized the villainess. “I know Miss Natalie,” Hatter said, grinning over at them from her prone position on the table. “She’s not a bad person – just takes a little getting used to.”
“You know her, Hatter?” asked another of the inmates. If she had nothing else to think about, Natalie might have recognized that one from the gang fight earlier that month – as it was, however, she only had eyes for Hatter.
“You’re here,” Natalie said, her voice cracking from the tension. Hatter had obviously recognized her, even without her usual makeup and outfit.
David looked between the two, noticing Natalie’s alarmed expression as the girls faced off. “Oh yes,” Hatter said, sitting up and spinning around daintily. “I’m here. Where else would I be after robbing a museum?”
“I don’t know,” Natalie said carefully, wondering if her cover was about to be blown. “I guess I never thought someone like you could be locked up.”
“Strictly speaking, I can’t be,” Hatter crossed her legs, still smiling that manic grin. “I’m only in here because here is where I want to be. And you can stop describing my smile,” she added, talking to the air.
The audience should note that you’re smiling, and it’s very off-putting to our heroes.
“Yes, well, it’s supposed to be,” Hatter grumbled, “but your narration is getting distracting.”
David looked confused, but Natalie had seen this before. “Still talking to the voice in your head, I see,” she said.
“Oh, the narrator’s not in my head,” Hatter replied, steadfastly ignoring the narration as she spoke to the heroes. “Anyways, yes, I’m here. The real question is why are you?”
“Got into some trouble,” Natalie said evasively.
“I can see that,” Hatter said dryly. “Does this ‘trouble’ wear a three-piece suit and carry an over-compensating umbrella?”
“Anyways…” David segued, awkwardly trying to bring the conversation back around to his original purpose before Natalie took Hatter’s bait. “Blitz, we’re looking for something. Can you help us?”
“Depends,” Blitz shrugged. He didn’t seem to be holding a grudge against Natalie for hurting his foot. “What do you need?”
“I’ve been gone for a while, as you know,” David said, “so we’re looking for some updated information around here. What’s the pecking order like these days?”
Blitz shrugged. “Not much change,” he said. “Fauns still keep to themselves, though they seem to be looking to the snake-girl now. Skels added to their numbers last week, but the new guys don’t seem to belong here. My crew keeps to ourselves; we don’t want trouble, and the gangs tend to bring it with them.”
“Are the Fauns and Skels still fighting?” David asked.
Hatter suddenly jumped off the table, landing lightly in front of him. “No,” she said. “Curiously enough, they’re not. I wonder why that is.” She turned and walked away from the group, whistling as she left.
“She’s kind of weird,” David said.
“Oh, Hatter’s harmless,” Blitz told them.
“Harmless?” Natalie repeated. “Last time I saw her, she made me switch bodies with someone!”
David looked surprised. “Wait, that was her?” he asked, looking back at Hatter.
“Her Third Gen power is unique,” Blitz said. “She has what she calls ‘limited powers of narration.’ If she uses a special voice, anything she says comes true.” He shook his head. “Crazy bird, though. Constantly talks to herself.”
“Anything she says?” David asked, disbelieving.
“Anything,” Natalie nodded. “She made a stuffed buffalo come to life and ride a skateboard.”
“And she’s locked up in Zatvor,” David said, folding his arms. “Why hasn’t she broken out before?”
Natalie tapped him on the shoulder, and David thanked Blitz and said his goodbyes. They moved off a safe distance and sat at another empty table to eat, and Natalie said, “I think we need to talk to Dale.”
“You mean about Hatter?” David asked. “Is she a problem?”
“Well, she definitely recognized me,” Natalie said. “Damn. Haley was right; this is too dangerous. I bet most everyone in here knows who we are by now!”
“We don’t know that,” David reminded her. “She didn’t tell Blitz who you were. Trust me,” he added, glancing back over at the hulking teddy bear. “If he knew we were Watchers, Blitz wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face. I highly doubt he’s involved in any breakout scheme.”
Natalie glanced back at Blitz as well, keeping her voice down as she said, “I’d bet the year’s salary that Hatter is, though.” She poked at the cold cafeteria food, grimacing as she added, “I don’t think I’m all that hungry anymore.”
* * * * * * * *
Asylum HQ, the next day.
Outlier and Butterfly, returning from patrol.
“Do you think they’re okay?” Haley asked Eli as she parked her bike in the motor pool. “The guys in Zatvor? It’s been a couple of days now.” She had been worried about the undercover Asylum Watchers for the last two days, but Agent had not told them much about the mission.
“We would have heard if there was something wrong,” Eli said practically, shrugging his rifle off his shoulder as he dismounted from Haley’s motorcycle. “In this case, no news is good news.”
“I guess,” Haley said as they moved to the elevator to check in upstairs. “I’m just worried. They all put so many of the criminals in Zatvor there; it’d be a miracle if they aren’t recognized.”
“Oh, I agree,” Eli said. “But our dear Agent must have had his reasons for sending them there.”
“That’s what I’m worried about,” Haley admitted, as she and Eli both swiped their identification cards to show that they were back. Haley punched the button for the medic floor as they talked. “Agent’s been weirdly evasive since he’s been back. I don’t know if it’s because of what happened the night of the riots, or if he’s just embarrassed, but he refuses to tell anyone why he left us alone for four months – or what made him come back. Now, a week after he’s back, he sends our team into Zatvor with very little to disguise themselves, based on a vague tip from a criminal.”
Eli looked at her. “You think he’s up to something?” he asked. “Agent’s always been an upstanding guy, though.” Through his surprised tone, Haley noted that Eli sounded sarcastic as he said it.
“I think there’s something weird going on in this city,” Haley said. “I’ve been noticing some patterns since my first day on the job – like Poisonshot working for someone who can make portals in the walls.” She shook her head. “I’ve read every report we have, as well as every new one coming in. Almost every villain that’s escaped our team has used those same portals – as if the air in front of them just opened up. There’s some kind of big shot behind the scenes, pulling the strings, and I think Agent knows who it is.”
“That’s a pretty big leap,” Eli said. “What makes you think Agent is in league with Jaunt?”
Haley looked sharply at her partner. “Jaunt?” she asked. “You mean the guy who took down Team Ark? What’s he got to do with it?”
“Oh, yeah,” Eli said, shrugging. “What you described there is his MO. Jaunt takes criminals and puts them together to do certain jobs for clients. A Consulting Criminal, to use the Sherlock Holmes term. A – how did you put it? – ‘a big shot behind the scenes, pulling the strings’.”
“Jaunt,” Haley repeated slowly. “The Team Ark report said he could make portals in the air, too. That would make so much more sense if he’s the one behind everything.”
“But what makes you think Agent is working with him?” Eli asked curiously. “Agent was a member of Team Ark, and he took their defeat pretty hard.”
“Good point,” Haley sighed. “That part doesn’t add up. But still, there’s something fishy going on.”
“Like what?” Eli asked.
“Agent has some kind of mysterious source,” Haley said. “He has his ear to the ground in the underworld.”
“Yeah,” Eli agreed, “but he’s an Agent of the Task-Force. Why wouldn’t he?”
“I’d agree with you,” Haley told him, “but every mission we’ve failed since I got here came from Agent’s mysterious source. Every single one – Poisonshot, Parker, Hatter, Drake, Marauder, Claw. That can’t be coincidence.”
Eli whistled. “No,” he said, “that doesn’t sound like a coincidence. You said Poisonshot used portals to get away?”
“So did Hatter, and Marauder,” Haley said, ticking them off on her fingers. “Parker went into the Fauns to spy on Claw – there was some vague story mentioned about rooting out a mole that people keep forgetting – and that failed miserably. And while David took Drake down, that was the first time we saw Dark David come out.”
“You think Agent’s in league with Jaunt, though?” Eli asked curiously as the elevator doors opened again.
“You’re right,” Haley sighed again, stepping out into the medical floor. They had to get checked out after every patrol, even if Dale was still away. “That doesn’t sound like something he’d do. Still, it’s suspicious. And there’s something that’s been bothering me about the night of the riots.”
Eli hopped up on an exam table as they waited for Dale’s assistants to come check them out. “Only one thing bothers you about that night?” he asked, only half-joking.
“How did they get the bombs up here?” Haley asked. Eli stopped chuckling as the implication fell into place.
“Claw had someone infiltrate the place, right?” he asked tentatively. “I mean, there are a lot of people coming and going in the building – even more before the riots. One of them had to have snuck up here.”
“Yes, but only the Watchers are allowed on the top floors,” Haley pointed out, holding up her key card. “According to the projections, the bombs detonated from the medic floor, but also from our quarters and Agent’s office. We don’t allow just anyone up there – heck, it was a week after my first day here before I could even move in without needing an escort. The elevator locks down if you don’t use your key card, and the stairs are gated between the admin floors, the tech floors, and the Watcher floors. So, who planted the bombs on the top floors?”
Eli shrugged. “Couldn’t someone have snuck in?” he asked again. “Stolen a key card, or made a fake one, or something?”
“Possibly,” Haley admitted, “but if they did, it would have been right before the bombs went off, and the security scans would have shown something.” She sighed. “Either way, it brings us back to Agent. Why has nobody been investigating it? Nobody asked any of us if we had lost our cards.”
“They probably assume that Claw used Blackbird’s,” Eli said reasonably.
“Except that the logs didn’t show Parker’s card being used,” Haley pointed out. “Plus, my brother told me that Parker pressed that button under duress. Even if he’s well and truly a Faun now, Parker wouldn’t have given over his access card before that moment – after the bombs went off.”
“You’re making a few assumptions, there,” Eli said. “We don’t know that Blackbird wasn’t a traitor, or that Claw didn’t just steal his card.”
“Fair,” Haley said. “It’s still just speculation. I’m mainly just concerned that nobody is asking these questions.”
The medic assistant chose that moment to walk in, so Eli couldn’t respond. They both had their check-up in thoughtful silence, weighing the possibility of a traitor on the team.
* * * * * * * *
Rina, Toby, Natalie, and David, discussing.
“This mission is a bust,” Natalie growled. “First Hatter recognizes me, then there’s a Fourth Gen who knows Rina. It’s been two days since we were burned – why are we still here?”
“Better question,” Toby said, “why did Agent send you guys in the first place? He had to have at least known the Fourth Gen guy was here, and that he’d probably recognize Rina.”
“None of that matters,” David interrupted. “What matters now is that we’re here, and we have a mission to accomplish.”
Natalie shrugged. “Not sure what more we can do but wait,” she said. “Rina and Toby got all they could out of Skadi.”
The satyr girls had reported to Dale as soon as they had finished with Skadi in the hallway two days before. Dale had assured them that he would tell Agent that Finn had recognized Rina, but so far, they hadn’t heard anything else. Later that afternoon they had met Skadi under the covered picnic tables during the yard hour. She had told them that the breakout was planned for three days later – which meant it was now less than a day from the appointed hour.
Unfortunately, the snake-satyr had not been forthcoming with the details of the escape. The undercover Watchers knew when, but not how the inmates would attempt to escape – which meant their mission was not yet over.
David and Natalie had also told Dale about Hatter recognizing them, but there was still no word from Agent about pulling them out. Now they were stuck in a potentially hostile situation and had no extraction plan in place. The teammates had gathered in the indoor recreation room after breakfast to discuss their next steps.
“Agent won’t just leave us in here,” David assured the others. “For now, we just have to lie low and wait for the breakout attempt. Once we stop it, Agent will get us out.”
“You sound like Haley,” Natalie grumbled.
David grinned at her. “You just have to have a little faith,” he said, echoing Haley’s words from earlier that summer. “I thought you of all people would trust Agent.”
“’Me of all people’?” Natalie repeated, raising an eyebrow. “I like the guy, sure, but trust has never been a part of it. Agent has a lot of moves planned out, and I’m a pawn on the board – we both understand that, or we wouldn’t be able to work together.”
“If you didn’t trust him, you wouldn’t be able to work together, either,” Toby pointed out.
Natalie shrugged. “It’s complicated,” she said. “I trust him to make decisions, and to do what’s right for the city, but I can’t forget what happened to my brother. Agent took a risk with Parker, and it blew up in all our faces; he’s not infallible, and I’m not so smitten as to think he can’t make mistakes. And I think this mission is a mistake.”
“Very wise,” Toby said, nodding. “So what are you thinking we do?”
“Do about what?” came a voice from behind them. “Hey Rina,” Finn added, squeezing between her and David. “Mind if I join you?”
“How long have you been listening?” Rina asked, startled.
Finn shrugged. “Long enough to know you four are working for the Asylum,” he said. “Really, you guys should watch what you say in here. Or did you think people wouldn’t know who Agent is?” The Watchers looked around, noticing the hostile stares from the people around them for the first time. Finn laughed at the look on their faces. “Nah, I’m just kidding. Hatter let it slip to Blitz this morning. Rina, why didn’t you tell me you were still a Watcher?”
“Do you not see how everyone is looking at us?” Rina asked, standing up as her teammates tensed for a fight.
“What?” Finn asked. “Nobody’s going to try anything. Mostly they just want to know what you’re doing here.”
“This is worse than we thought,” Natalie said. “We should have gotten out of here as soon as Hatter recognized us!”
“I knew it,” came another voice from down the table. Skadi came walking over, looking between Finn and Rina with her hands on her hips. “You’re Nightmare,” she said loudly, staring at Rina.
If there had been any inmates who didn’t already know their identities, they knew now.
Rina stared Skadi down, however, still trying to de-escalate the situation. “Not anymore,” she said coolly. “I don’t know how much you hear in here, but Eon City was hit by Faun riots nearly half a year ago, and I lost control of my powers. No powers, no Watcher license, no heroics. I was out on the streets like… well, like a satyr.”
She tucked her hair behind her ear, drawing attention to their webbed appearance, as well as the claw-like shape of her fingers. It was a huge risk to admit her identity, since she had single-handedly put down a gang fight just a week before – it was one thing for the inmates to spread rumors, but another to confirm them – but as she spoke, the story took shape in her mind. She could answer questions if needed.
Luckily for her, no one from that day seemed to be in the room at the moment – or they didn’t want to speak up. Skadi nodded and sat down next to them. After a few seconds when the cafeteria collectively held their breaths, the snake-girl looked around and said loudly, “Geez, everyone here is such a busybody. We’re trying to have a conversation here, people.”
At that, the tension around the room seemed to diffuse. Everyone went back to their conversations, and Rina saw David and Natalie out of the corner of her eye standing down.
“Nobody will bother you,” Skadi assured her. “Everyone here knows I was put in here by the Asylum, so if I say you’re good, then you’re good.” She shrugged. “Most of them don’t really hold grudges anyways – at least, not enough to risk punishment from fighting you.”
“What is it you want?” Rina asked, unsure of the teen criminal’s motives. Finn looked curiously between Skadi and Rina. Rina sat back down, but the other Watchers stayed tensed up.
Skadi raised the arches over her eyes. It would have looked human, if she had eyebrows over her scales. “What makes you think I want anything from you?” she asked sweetly, her forked tongue making her voice hiss.
“Cut the crap, Skadi,” Rina said. “Why else would you speak for me?”
Skadi grinned, showing her snake-like fangs. “I assume you all are here because of what I said to Dale and Hannah,” she said. “Oh, don’t bother telling me that story about you leaving the Asylum again; I recognized Earthborn the second I saw him.” She nodded at David, who flushed.
“Yeah, this is a bust,” Toby muttered, sharing a look with Natalie.
“Oh, no worries,” Skadi said. “Nobody here’ll bother you. There’s nothing you can do about the breakout even if you do know.” She tossed her hair, taking a bite of her porridge as she added, “No, I’m here with a friendly warning.”
“A warning?” Rina asked. “No revenge plot or anything?
“Revenge?” Skadi looked taken aback. “Why would I want revenge?”
“For putting you in here,” Rina said.
Skadi laughed. “That was nothing to be mad about,” she said. “I was sick and coming here saved my life. If anything, I owe you for catching me.”
“Thus, the friendly warning, right?” Finn prompted. He seemed to know what she was there to tell them.
“There’s something a lot bigger than us going on here,” Skadi told them, ignoring Finn. The Fourth Gen didn’t seem bothered by it, though. “My brother and I are being held over a barrel by Jaunt, and I don’t like it.”
“’Over a barrel’?” Rina asked.
Skadi sighed. “Yeah, you know: he’s got a gun to our heads, he’s making us do stuff we don’t want to do?” She looked between them. “I think you all know the feeling.”
“How?” Toby asked.
“I was sick,” Skadi said again, rolling her eyes as she explained. “We needed money for an operation, so my brother and I became thieves. Then this guy Jaunt came along, and promised he’d make me better if we did everything that he told us. I tried to get away; I joined the Fauns and hoped Claw could protect me, but my brother isn’t a satyr.”
“So you went back for him, and got caught robbing that bank,” Rina finished. “I knew bank robbery wasn’t your style.”
“You believe her?” Toby asked. “Just like that?”
David put a hand on Toby’s shoulder. “What other reason does she have to talk to us?” he asked reasonably.
Skadi nodded. “Not to mention, Claw’s under Jaunt’s thumb, too,” she told them. “That guy has his fingers in every pie in the country. There’s no getting away from him.”
“Why are you telling us this?” Natalie asked suspiciously.
Skadi grinned at her, showing her snake-like fangs. “Because if I can’t get away from him, then the least I can do is ruin his plans,” she said, her forked tongue making her voice hiss ominously. “He has ears everywhere – even inside the Asylum,” she added, “and everything he does seems to be testing people’s sense of heroics. This breakout, for example.”
“If you want to get back at him, then tell us how to stop the breakout,” Toby said.
Skadi shrugged. “It can’t be stopped,” she said. “Especially not from in here. The guy makes portals,” she reminded them. “He could be anywhere, and this breakout would still happen.”
Natalie shook her head. “Then what difference does it make if you tell us?” she asked.
“Tomorrow, be in the yard,” Skadi said. “A prison riot will start at noon, and you might be able to stop some of the villains from going through Jaunt’s portals at twelve-oh-five. Bring the rest of your team, too,” she added. “You can stop people from getting hurt in the confusion.”
“And what’s stopping us from just telling the Warden not to let anyone out in the yard tomorrow?” Natalie asked.
“Probably your biggest takeaway from this conversation,” Skadi said. “I already said, Jaunt has ears in the Asylum – and he has back-up plans upon back-up plans. If you don’t keep the prisoners lumped together, then he’ll just open the portals inside the cells and you won’t stop anybody from going through.”
David furrowed his eyebrows. “What do you mean, ‘he has ears inside the Asylum’?” he asked.
“Just what I said, duh,” Skadi told him, rolling her eyes. “He’s got people inside the Asylum telling him everything. Haven’t you wondered why you haven’t been pulled out of here yet? You’re only in Zatvor because Jaunt wants you to be – just like me, and Hatter, and a ton of others around here.”
“Yeah, right,” Natalie said. “Come on, guys – she’s just trying to get us to turn on each other. Why should we believe you?”
Skadi shrugged, but it was Toby who answered, “It makes sense.” When Natalie turned to glare at her, she explained, “I was just thinking that it was weird for Agent to send us in here when there were inmates who would recognize you guys on sight. It’s also weird that we’ve been here two days without getting jumped, even though our covers were blown a while ago.” She shook her head, adding, “Who’s protecting us? ‘Cause I highly doubt it’s the snake-girl here. No offense,” she added, nodding at Skadi. “I also don’t think it’s Agent.”
“Our source is a criminal,” Natalie reminded her. “We’re just taking Skadi’s word for it?”
Skadi stood up. “Honestly, I don’t care what you believe,” she told them. “I told you what I know because I want to thumb my nose at Jaunt. What you do with it is up to you.” She walked away, rolling her eyes. “Tomorrow at noon,” she called back without looking at them.
The Watchers all looked at each other as she walked away. There was a lot that didn’t add up about this mission.
* * * * * * * *
Olympus, the ruins of a once-great civilization.
Jaunt and Poisonshot.
“It’s nearly time,” Jorge Cruz, otherwise known as Poisonshot, said through his breathing apparatus. He ran a cloth down the edge of his composite bow once more to make sure it was polished. “Are you going to open up those fancy portals for us now?
Jaunt smirked at him through his own mask. “Patience, my young friend,” he said, looking out at the wasteland through the balcony window. “We have to wait for all the players to get into position.”
“More of your games, huh?” Jorge asked bitterly. “My sister’s been rotting away in Zatvor for the better part of a year now, and you’re telling me to be patient?”
“I kept my promise,” Jaunt said. “Your sister was cured, and now we’re getting her out. I’m just asking for a few more minutes.”
“I’ve spent the last year running your errands,” Jorge retorted through clenched teeth. “I’ve stolen how much for you, and that ‘final plan’ you keep talking about. All I want now is my sister back, and then we’re both out!”
Jaunt laughed. “Please,” he said, “don’t lie to yourself. You’ll never be out; no one can be.”
Jorge rolled his eyes. “I don’t care what you think,” he said. “We’re done running your errands after this. Katie and I are getting away from Eon City, out of the country, even.”
“And you think Claw will let her go?” Jaunt asked with amusement in his voice. “Just like that?”
Jorge tightened the string of his bow and raised it threateningly. “Yeah,” he said, “he will. Because you’re going to tell him to.”
Jaunt shook his head. “That’s not how I work,” he said, unconcerned with the bow pointing at him. Jorge hadn’t yet drawn an arrow, but they both knew that he could load, aim, and fire before Jaunt could blink if he chose. “You see,” Jaunt continued, “Claw isn’t the kind of person who takes orders. I don’t tell him what to do – I suggest things to him and let him fill in the blanks for himself. That’s how I get things done,” he added. “Claw is a stubborn old crocodile when confronted, but he’s incredibly easy to manipulate. However, if you and your sister insist on leaving the country, then I will have no input on how Claw chooses to retaliate. Fauns are for life, you know,” he said meaningfully. “I used that fact to get Parker to switch sides, and I can’t undermine it for you.”
Jorge kept the bow raised for another few seconds, before lowering it in defeat. He turned his head to the side as he asked, “So what do you need us to do?”
“For now?” Jaunt said, clapping his hands together, “I need you to stand back. It’s time.”
* * * * * * * *
Zatvor Prison, noon the following day.
Natalie, Rina, David, and Toby.
Natalie, Rina, David, and Toby met in the courtyard the next day under the awning. There were no clouds overhead, which would make it difficult for Rina to help if there were trouble. Her face and arms were bare due to the prison uniform’s cut, and her pale grey skin seemed almost translucent as she stayed in the shade. The air was dry and cool under the awning, but she knew her skin would burn if she were to step out of the shadows.
“So what now?” Rina asked, looking around the courtyard as she blinked in the daylight. “I can’t see too well without my mask – do any of you guys see Skadi anywhere?”
Natalie looked around, using her hand to shield her eyes from the bright sunlight. “No,” she said, “and I’m starting to think they picked today on purpose. Rina, without your powers or your suit you’re going to be useless out here.”
“Great,” Rina sighed. “Of all the times to put the photosensitive Watcher in the field, it had to be this mission.”
Toby shook her head. “I’m telling you,” she said, folding her arms, “something’s fishy in the Asylum. You guys need to watch your back in there.”
“Agent will come through,” David said. “We told Dale about the breakout today. The others should be here any minute.” His doubt showed on his face. Agent should have extracted them all when their cover was blown in the first place; they had no way of knowing if the rest of the team would come.
“Not like we know anything more than the time,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes as she tried to diffuse the tension. “What exactly are we looking for?”
No sooner did the words come out of her mouth than a fight broke out on the other side of the yard.
“Is that Erinyes?” Rina asked, squinting to see clearly. “I still don’t see Skadi, though.”
David sighed. “Erinyes is still a Faun,” he said, “So I guess that answers that. Come on, guys – Rina, you keep an eye out for anything else.” Rina nodded, and David, Natalie, and Toby ran over to the commotion.
“What’s going on?” Natalie shouted at another inmate. The yard suddenly became very quiet, and the inmates who had been “fighting” suddenly stopped, grinning at each other as they stood up.
“Well, well, well,” Erinyes said, grinning at Natalie. “If it isn’t the Watchers. Didn’t we tell you guys? If you waited, we’d get them all together for you.” Her pointy teeth were bared as she addressed the crowd. Natalie’s stomach sank as she realized the fight had been a trap to lure them away from Rina, who was now too far away to help. “Here they are! Get them!”
A wave of bodies slammed into the three Watchers as the inmates suddenly became a mob. Natalie was separated from her teammates as she fought off the criminals. She felt Erinyes’ claws grab her neck as the bat-satyr screamed in her ear, “This is for the tunnels, bitch!”
But the choke-hold was short-lived. The one saving grace of the mob was that no one person had the time to hold her down before another criminal was pushing them out of the way. As Erinyes’ weight was suddenly thrown off of her, Natalie stumbled forward. She pulled her weighted scarf out of her sleeve, using it to grab any arm or leg that was thrown her way and twist it in another direction as she fought to get out of the swarm of fighting bodies.
Suddenly the earth swallowed her up.
A barrier of dirt and rock quickly rose up around her, and Natalie knew that David was trying to give them a moment’s respite by shielding them from the fray. Natalie managed to catch her breath, before remembering the second part of David’s best move. “Don’t do it,” she muttered, clenching her fists as she felt the hum of electricity pass harmlessly under her feet.
Natalie sighed, hearing the sound of criminals dropping like flies as David’s bug-zapper went off. The last thing they needed was David’s alternate personality coming out now if they couldn’t get his treatment done in time, but as she felt bruises forming all over her body, Natalie realized it was for the best.
David pulsed the ground with his earth powers, which was his usual signal to the team that he would be releasing them back into the fray. The team had found out the hard way in the past that waiting until the mob broke down his barriers would only mean they would be surrounded.
As soon as the barrier retracted into the ground, Natalie made a run for it. She looked around for the guards, finding none outside to help control the prisoners. Someone grabbed her shoulder, but Natalie shrugged them off and kept running back towards the awning where they had left Rina.
Rina was not under the awning. Natalie scanned the area, trying to fight past the panic to locate her Fourth-Gen teammate. She could see Toby on the other side of the courtyard, catching her breath as the criminals around her stumbled around from David’s electricity. Toby had not practiced with the team, so she would not have known the signals – but Natalie did not have time to worry about her right now. Toby could take care of herself if she had to.
Natalie spotted David back where they had started. He was clutching his head as he fell to his knees, surrounded by a slew of unconscious inmates that had felt the brunt of his powers. Even from this distance, Natalie could see his eyes beginning to turn red. They needed to get him help, and fast.
As she ran towards David, she finally spotted Rina a hundred feet away, fighting off a group of Third-Gens who had missed David’s shock attack. The Fourth-Gen’s skin was blistering in the sunlight, smeared with black blood from the gash on her forehead. Rina seemed to be heading towards David, but the mob was fighting her every step of the way.
Natalie turned toward her, as Rina’s injuries were the most severe. All of them had to get out of the courtyard – now – but Rina would die soon if she did not get out of the sunlight.
Rina and Natalie reached David at the same time. “What the hell are you doing?!” Natalie cried, taking off her own shirt to wrap around Rina’s head.
“I couldn’t just sit there,” Rina said, panting through the pain. “David needs treatment.”
“I got him,” Natalie said, ripping the shirt off a fallen inmate to wrap around Rina’s head. The second shirt smelled like sweat and butt, but it would help Rina get out of the direct sunlight without her skin blistering further.
“What about the breakout?” Rina reminded her. “I spotted Skadi near the entrance, but there’s no way to know where she is now.”
“Damn it,” Natalie swore. “We have to get you two out of here, too.”
“That’s why I’ll take David,” Rina insisted. “We have to get out of here, right? You stay and find Toby.”
“I can help,” came a voice from behind them. Natalie spun around, facing Blitz, and she felt her lip split as she smiled at the big guy. “My powers can help him,” Blitz said, reaching a hand out to David’s forehead.
Rina moved to stop him, but Natalie held her back. “He can help,” she said. They watched as Blitz drew a small star on David’s forehead with his finger. Nothing obvious happened, but David slumped down, taking his hands away from his face. When he looked up, Natalie could not see the red in his eyes anymore.
“Thanks, Blitz,” he said, sighing with relief. “Natalie, I can take Rina now.”
“Did… did he just cure you?” Natalie asked, looking between the miraculously recovered David and the smiling Blitz.
David shook his head. “No,” he admitted. “I still need Dale’s cure. Blitz just made it easier for me to fight him off until then.” They both knew the him to whom David referred.
“You’re okay?” Natalie asked.
David grinned tiredly at her. “Well, I got half of them off us,” he said, gesturing to the downed bodies around them. “The others seem to be having second thoughts now.”
Natalie had been wondering why they had been let alone for so long. She helped David to his feet, and he and rina supported each other as they made their way back to the exit.
“It’ll be okay, sweetheart,” Blitz said, grinning at Natalie. “I won’t let anything else happen to them.”
“Thanks,” Natalie said, rubbing a bump on her arm that was going to bruise nicely later. “You can call me ‘sweetheart’ anytime.”
As she scanned the yard again, trying to spot Skadi and get the mission back on track, Natalie found herself standing face-to-face with Hatter. “And where are you going?” Hatter asked, looking bored.
“You want some, too?” Natalie snarled at her, readying her scarf again.
Hatter shook her head. “Oh, don’t misunderstand me,” she said. “I’m just wondering why you’re running to safety when this isn’t over yet?” She pointed at a spot back near the mob, and Natalie saw a portal opening up.
Toby stood in front of the portal, keeping the criminals away from it, but she would not be able to hold the breach on her own for long. Natalie made to join her, but Hatter grabbed her arm. “Watch,” the insane girl said, grinning. Natalie then saw a branch of electricity arc out over the courtyard, knocking down the criminals that tried to escape. Toby was the only one left standing when David was done, and Natalie saw blitz give David another dose of his powers.
Suddenly, an arrow flashed through the portal, burying itself in Toby’s arm. Poisonshot stepped through the portal with another arrow nocked on his bow. “Katie!” he called. Natalie saw his bow turn to her as he saw her, and she readied herself for the arrow that would come her way.
But no arrow came. Skadi ran towards the portal, calling her brother’s name. Poisonshot lowered his bow, grabbing his sister and stepping back through the portal, which closed behind him.
“See?” Hatter said behind her. “You’ll be needed over here.”
Turning back to Hatter, Natalie’s eyes grew wide. She pushed Hatter out of the way and grabbed Erinyes’ claw with her scarf before the bat-satyr could hurt the other girl. Using the Faun’s momentum against her, Natalie threw Erinyes over her hip and stomped on the criminal’s leg, breaking it.
“You okay?” she asked, turning to the wide-eyed Hatter.
“I didn’t see that coming,” Hatter said. “You saved me!”
“Yeah, well,” Natalie shrugged. “That’s my job.”
Hatter stared at Natalie for another second, before saying, “Another portal is going to open here.”
“Here?” Natalie asked, wondering if she should trust the criminal.
“Specifically, there,” Hatter told her in a daze, pointing to a spot about twenty feet away.
Natalie narrowed her eyes for a second, before running off to the spot where she pointed, leaving a stunned Hatter on the ground. “You can stop saying that I’m stunned,” Hatter said.
What are you going to do now?
“Oh, dear, I suppose I’ll have to help them,” said Hatter. “She did save me, after all. Ahem… The prison riot stopped.”
All of the criminals in orange jumpsuits – at least, the ones still standing after David’s electric attacks – suddenly stopped fighting. Recognizing the girl’s powers, Natalie turned back to Hatter just in time to see another portal open up next to her. “Oh, you bitch,” she muttered, turning on her heel towards the new portal as she realized Hatter had lied to her. She saw Erinyes haul herself through the portal as Hatter stood guard.
Hatter gave Natalie a mock salute as she ran up. “I owe you one,” she said, just before stepping through the portal after the criminal who Natalie had saved her from just a few seconds earlier. Natalie tried to catch her, but the portal shut down just before she made it there, leaving the inmates trapped in Zatvor once again.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, the next day.
“That whole mission was a failure from the start!” Toby shouted at Agent. “Where the hell was our backup?!”
The four Watchers were in the medical center, still getting fixed up from the prison riot. Dale’s Third Gen powers had only just finished clearing Toby of the poison from the arrow wound in her arm, but it would be another day or so before she could use it. At the moment, she was glaring at Agent, clenching the fist of her good arm as Dale fitted her with a sling.
“Agent, you owe us answers,” Rina added, hissing in pain as she tried to sit up. Her arms, face, and neck were covered in charred blisters from her exposure to the sun, even after Dale had used his powers to stop the bleeding. She glared accusingly at Agent with red eyes – and she was the most understanding one there.
Natalie and David were both nursing bruises and cuts. David had been given an injection shortly after the riot so that his alter-ego would not make an appearance, but he still looked worn out from all of the electricity he had to use. Natalie was black and blue all over, and she sported a couple of cracked ribs from the first onslaught of inmates. Neither said anything, but they both stared at Agent expectantly.
Agent shook his head. “I apologize,” he said, “but I didn’t hear about it until it was over. I am so sorry you all were hurt.” He had kept the rest of the team out of the med bay until the debrief was over, and was suddenly glad he did; he would have crumbled and spilled everything if the others also looked at him like that.
“Sorry my ass – ” Toby started, but Natalie cut her off.
“I’m sure you had a good reason for leaving us in there,” she said, glaring at him, “but don’t insult our intelligence by lying to us now. Our identities were compromised, but you didn’t pull us out. Then the riot began – with days’ notice, mind you – and you didn’t call the rest of the team to help.” She shook her head, wincing from the massive bruise splashed across her face. “So don’t give us this ‘I didn’t know’ crap,” she added. “We told you ourselves.”
“You’re right,” Agent said, unable to look any of them in the eye. “Please understand – if I could have pulled you out, I would have.”
No further answer seemed forthcoming, so David asked the next question on everyone’s minds. “What was the damage?” he asked, standing up to face Agent. “How many prisoners escaped?”
“Seven,” Agent said, his gaze fixed on the umbrella handle clasped in his white knuckles. “Including Skadi, Erinyes, and Hatter. The other four were one satyr and three Third Gens, all low-level thugs.”
Natalie swore under her breath, and David and Rina both sighed in defeat. “Ye did an amazing job, all things considered,” Dale said, trying to placate them as he finished adjusting Toby’s sling. “On’y seven got through one of Jaunt’s portals, out o’ a couple hunnerd inmates that were in the yard. That’s nothing to sneeze at.”
The Asylum Watchers seemed inconsolable, but toby stood up as soon as Dale finished with her. “Agent, I need to speak with you in private,” she said, moving towards Dale’s office door. “Now.”
Agent looked at his team, but Dale made a shooing motion as he moved back to check Rina’s burns. The team leader shrugged and picked up his umbrella, following Toby into the office.
Toby shut the door as soon as they were alone. “So,” she said, turning on Agent with a snarl, “how long have you been working for Jaunt?”
“What?” Agent asked, taken aback by the sudden interrogation.
“Don’t make up some bullshit story,” Toby threatened, baring her teeth. “Even with one arm, I can still knock your lights out if I have to.”
“What are you talking about?” Agent asked, subtly shifting his feet into a more defensive stance.
Toby saw the movement. “Jaunt was watching us,” she growled. “That’s the only way he could have opened the second portal behind Hatter as soon as Natalie moved out of the way.”
“So he hacked the prison cameras,” Agent said.
“He wouldn’t need to,” Toby shot back. “Stop playing dumb, Agent; you know exactly who Jaunt is.”
Agent narrowed his eyes, seeing a spark of knowledge behind Toby’s rage. “You do too,” he guessed. When Toby flinched, he knew he was onto something. “You know exactly who Jaunt is. My question is how?”
“I am very good at my job,” Toby answered, “which is as a private investigator – not a Watcher like the others. I observe things for a living.” She breathed a sigh, her fist coming unclenched. “What I see here is a guy who’s following someone else’s orders,” she added. “The only reason I can think that you would sell out your team like this is that he has something on you.”
Agent shook his head, dropping his own defensive stance as the tension eased. “I didn’t sell anyone out,” he said. “I work with Jaunt, not for him, and only to keep my team safe.”
“Oh really?” Toby asked sarcastically, gesturing to her arm. “Good job. They seem perfectly safe to me.”
“They’re alive, aren’t they?” Agent said. Sighing, he added, “Think about it: David and Rina were down before the first portal opened. You defended one by yourself, and the second was only open long enough for the two closest prisoners to get through.” Shaking his head, he chuckled as he pointed out, “Do you really think Jaunt couldn’t have gotten everyone out of there if I hadn’t… erm, convinced him otherwise?”
“How the hell do you convince the underworld’s mastermind of anything?” Toby asked, disbelieving.
“A trade,” Agent said, the humor gone from his voice. “You wondered why I didn’t send in backup.”
Toby’s canine eyes widened in horror as she realized what he had done. “You left us there to die,” she said.
“I didn’t mean to!” Agent shot back. “I told him that I wouldn’t send the rest of the team in if he only got his own lieutenants out and left the rest. I didn’t know he was planning to start a riot!”
“So you ‘traded’ our lives for – ” Toby began, but Agent cut her off.
“For a couple hundred dangerous criminals to stay behind bars,” Agent said. “I took a calculated risk: that you four could defend yourselves long enough for Jaunt’s test to finish, and in exchange I kept the city, the country, safe from a massive influx of criminals.”
Toby bit her cheek, considering his words. “Why haven’t you told your team any of this?” she asked. “I only pulled you in here because for whatever reason the others keep defending you, and I knew this was the only way you’d answer me. But why haven’t you told them?”
“Shame,” Agent admitted. “Guilt. Natalie and Parker lost their mom because of my mistakes with Team Ark, and Frank’s mom is crippled because of Jaunt. However, my biggest reason is because I need their trust if they’re going to survive Jaunt’s tests.”
“Yeah, you’ve mentioned that twice now,” Toby said curiously. “What do you mean, his ‘tests’?”
“Jaunt is trying to find the greatest hero in the world,” Agent told her. “The Asylum is supposed to be a proving ground of sorts; Jaunt sets up ‘tests’ for them, and judges them on their ability to handle it.”
Toby furrowed her eyebrows. “That makes… no sense,” she said finally. “Why would he need a hero?”
Agent shrugged. “Why would he need a criminal network?” he asked back. “It’s impossible to explain, and you wouldn’t believe most of it.”
“The team really should know,” Toby said, glancing at the door to the windowless office. She sounded less certain than she had when they began the conversation.
“Will you tell them?” Agent asked, clutching his umbrella as he waited for her answer with bated breath.
After a long pause that felt like an eternity, Toby shook her head. “No,” she answered as Agent breathed a sigh of relief. “Besides, would they even believe me?”
“Probably not,” Agent said bitterly. As Toby opened the door to go back to the others, Agent added, “Will you join our team? We could use someone with your skills.”
“Hell no,” Toby said, rolling her eyes. “Not with you in charge.”
With that, she marched back to the others. Agent watched them talk among themselves from across the room for a minute, before turning to the elevator and leaving them alone.
* * * * * * * *