Sixteen years ago, an unknown laboratory.
Sabrina “Rina” Dawson, age fourteen.
Fourteen year-old Rina sat in the Pain Chair, panting after the nurses had removed her arm again.
“As you can see,” came the lead scientist’s voice over the intercom, “the subject is already beginning to heal. Stitches and tourniquets are not even required, as the bleeding has subsided.”
“Remarkable,” came another voice. It was another Exhibition Day, where the lead scientist pandered for money from potential investors. That always meant more pain.
Suddenly, the room shook. “What was that?” came the other voice. The lead scientist must not have shut off the intercom.
“Nothing to worry about, I assure you,” came the hated voice. “My guards will check it out; let’s continue with the experiment.”
At that moment, the door to Rina’s room burst open in a shower of sparks. Ryan stood there, along with Finn, Katie, and Leah. “We’re busting out of here,” Ryan said, grinning as he and Katie freed Rina from the Pain Chair.
“Number One, what are you doing?” asked the lead scientist from behind the one-way window.
“I’m saving Rina, what’s it look like?” Ryan said. Once her straps were removed, the Fourth Gens ran from the room. Rina scrambled to follow them, but the blood loss made her dizzy.
“You guys go ahead,” she said, slurring her words. “I’ll… I’ll just slow you down.”
“No way,” Ryan told her, scooping her up in his strong arms. “I’m not leaving you behind, kiddo.”
“We have to get out of here,” Katie said, looking less sure.
Ryan nodded, and they ran through the corridors. “Do you know where we’re going?” he asked Katie.
“The way out should be around here,” she said. She led them through a warehouse, but the alarms had sounded and the big doors were closing.
“I got it!” Finn shouted, throwing his hands up. The doors’ progress slowed to a crawl, allowing the Fourth Gens to slip through – but it only led into a second warehouse, this one more specialized for weaponry.
Rina heard a muffled shout come from one of the containers. “Ryan!” she cried, pointing at it.
Ryan set her down, leaning her against the closed doors before turning his electricity on the container lock. The door popped open, and the haggard form of Michael stumbled out.
“Mikey!” Leah cried, running over to him but being careful not to hug him. “We all thought you were dead!”
“Thanks for the rescue,” Mikey said, grinning fondly at the youngest Fourth Gen. “We busting out of here or what?”
“Through what door?” Katie asked.
“How about this one?” Mikey said, pointing at another closed door. A bolt of energy flew from his fingertips, melting a hole in the door in one shot.
“Nice!” Ryan said, giving him a high five. They scrambled through the door, but ran into a group of guards who were looking for them.
“Come on, come on, come on!” shouted Ryan at the other Fourth Gens. “Now’s our chance!”
Ryan pointed the Fourth Gen kids to the door. Mikey and Finn made it through before the guards cut the rest off.
The lead scientist led the guards with stun guns. “Don’t kill them,” he instructed coldly. “We still need them.”
“This way!” Ryan cried, realizing that the four of them were cut off from the rest of the group.
He led the girls through the maze of corridors, finally reaching a door marked “exit”. Katie went to pull the handle. “It’s locked!” she cried.
Ryan turned to lead them down another hallway, but a group of guards blocked their path. One called the lead scientist, who showed up a few seconds later.
“One, Seven, Nine, and Twelve,” he said, “go back to your rooms quietly, and we might overlook this little act of rebellion.”
“Yeah, right,” Ryan spat. “You’ll just stick us all in the Pain Chair, one after the other, until we march to your tune like good little soldiers.”
The lead scientist adjusted his glasses. “Your tone is argumentative, One,” he said. “Your leadership is to be commended, but this delusion you have of being a hero is dangerous. Let us give you a treatment – ”
“No!” Katie shouted, coming up next to Ryan. “No more ‘treatments’, no more Pain Chair, none of it!” Her red eyes flashed in anger as she spoke. “We’re done being treated like lab rats.”
The tension heightened as Rina let her powers go a little. She had practiced for this, but she couldn’t control it very well. Her abilities, to the best of her knowledge, required her to be scared and panicked in order to inflict it on others, and so it was hard to make the guards and scientist hurt without also hitting her friends.
“Nine!” cried the lead scientist. “Stop!”
Ryan turned back to her, his eyes widened in fright as her powers affected him indiscriminately. “Rina!” he cried.
“I can’t stop it!” she cried. The darkness began enveloping her as her power grew out of her control.
Panicked, Leah removed her gloves and wrapped her fingers around Rina’s remaining arm. As her powers were leached from her, Rina fought to stay conscious. Ryan turned back to the guards.
“We need to open this door, now!” Katie cried. “It’s our only way out!”
“I can do it,” Ryan said, throwing some electricity towards the door lock. It still wouldn’t budge.
As Rina’s powers faded, the guards were recovering. Ryan looked back at the girls, knowing that they needed to escape now if they were ever going to have a chance of seeing the outside.
“Ryan,” Katie said, her voice quivering in fear from exposure to Rina’s powers. She seemed to know what he was thinking – the only way for any of them to escape. “Ryan, no!”
“I love you, Kate,” he said, just before he lunged for the door alarm. He ripped wires out of the wall, allowing electricity to flow through him. He grimaced in pain, looking directly at Rina as Leah let go of her arm. “Keep dreaming, kiddo,” he said, before exploding in a shower of sparks.
“No!” Katie cried. It was little Leah, her hands freshly gloved, who grabbed the other two Fourth Gens and high-tailed it through the now-open door.
Rina found out later that Finn and Mikey had run straight to the police, reporting their captivity. Within a few days, the Meta-Human and Vigilante Task Force raided the building in which they were kept, freeing the other Fourth Gen experiments but finding out that they were vulnerable to sunlight. Some of the more feral experiments went to live in the Satyr Preserve; others, like Mikey, were conscripted into the military, or, like Finn, were settled into foster care.
However, they never saw Ryan again.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, Asylum Headquarters.
Ten years later.
“Oh, you are going down!” cried Frank as his video-game car was hit by an exploding shell. “Just you wait!”
“Yeah, right,” said Rina, flashing a grin at him as her car rolled into first place. “That was what, seven games in a row you just lost?”
“Nobody can beat Rina at video games,” David said from his chair in the corner, shrugging. He was early for his patrol shift, and so was hanging out with his teammates until it started.
“Won’t stop me from trying,” said Natalie, elbowing Frank out of the way. “My turn!”
Haley was currently out on patrol with Reiki and Butterfly, and Granny was having tea in the parlor. Agent was in his office, catching up on some paperwork. The tower was enjoying a peaceful Saturday afternoon.
Haley, Butterfly, and Reiki came back shortly, exhausted, and Rina could hear Agent debriefing them in the kitchen.
“I guess that’s my cue,” David said, standing up. “If Haley’s back, then it’s time for us to start the evening shift, Frank.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Frank grumbled. “I’m coming.”
A shout from the kitchen brought all of them to their feet. “What happened?!” Natalie called as they ran across the hall.
When they arrived in the kitchen, they found an extra person standing there. The girl had white hair, grey skin, and red eyes. She looked like an older version of Rina, except her ears and fingers weren’t webbed, and she had streaks of black in her deathly-white hair.
“Katie!” Rina shouted, taken aback by the sudden appearance of her old acquaintance in Asylum’s headquarters. “What – why are you here?”
“Rina, you know this woman?” Agent asked, his hand clenched over his umbrella in a defensive pose.
Rina sighed, putting her hands on her hips. “It’s okay guys,” she said. “This is Katie Malone. She’s a Fourth Gen like me – we used to call her Shade.”
“We haven’t exactly had good experiences with other Fourth Gens,” Agent pointed out, adding, “present company excepted, of course,” as he realized David was also in the room.
“Having one sneak up here doesn’t inspire confidence either,” Frank added, gathering shadows from around the room. “Haley, Eli, you guys didn’t let her up here, did you?”
“Of course not!” Haley said. “We just got off the elevator, and there she was!”
Katie raised an eyebrow at the group. “Do they always talk this much?” she asked Rina.
Rina felt her powers escaping from the tension, and she took a deep breath to steady them. Her nightmare abilities had been difficult to control since the riots, but regular therapy had been helping Rina to get her emotions under control again. “Katie, why’d you sneak in here?” she asked tiredly.
“Oh, that’s real nice,” Katie Malone said, crossing her arms. In the fifteen years since Rina had last seen her, it appeared that she hadn’t changed that much. “I come asking for help, but you don’t seem to want to give it. Don’t you have any feelings at all?”
Rina rolled her eyes, crossing her own arms and matching Katie’s attitude. “How’d you get up here?” she asked, not addressing the crack about her feelings.
Katie raised an eyebrow, shrugging her shoulders theatrically and cocking her head to the side. “Oh, I met an interesting kid on the street. Pretty overpowered, if I do say so myself – especially since she wasn’t one of us. But she had the ability to walk through walls and turn invisible, so I borrowed it for a bit.” As she spoke, she flickered out of view for a second and reappeared floating above the counter. Then she jumped down, shrugging like it was no big deal.
“What’s she talking about, Rina?” Agent asked, keeping a tight grip on his umbrella in a fighting stance.
Rina narrowed her eyes at Katie, visibly showing how little she trusted the older girl. “Guys, meet Katie Malone,” she introduced. “She’s not a threat, I don’t think. We called her ‘Shade’ because her Fourth Gen power is mimicry,” she added. “When she meets a Third Gen or a satyr, she gains any powers they have. It wears off after about an hour of no exposure, though, and she can’t copy Fourth Gen powers.”
“True,” Katie admitted. “I can’t copy Rina’s fear powers, nor do I have her regenerative abilities.” She looked around the room at the others, pointing at David, Haley, Natalie, Agent, and Granny in turn as she added, “I also can’t tell his, hers, hers, his, or her powers. I assume at least a couple of them are human?” Then she turned to Frank, Eli, and Reiki – which was particularly impressive as Frank had wrapped himself in the shadows. “Their powers, on the other hand…”
Katie trailed off as she dispelled the shadows around Frank with a flick of her finger. With her other hand, she began tracing lines of light in the air as she stood en pointe, showing off all three Third Gen powers at once. Frank and Reiki gave each other alarmed looks, and Eli’s eyes widened in alarm as he saw her foot movements, but the rest of the team was focused on the light show Katie was giving them.
The letters she drew in the air spelled out “Here Shines the Sun”. When she was done, Katie threw the words into the air, and gave them all a theatrical bow as they exploded in a shower of harmless sparks. Rina pressed her lips together, trying not to smile.
“Very funny,” she said, as the old lullaby became stuck in her head. “Now, you mentioned something about asking for help. I haven’t seen you since we broke out of the experiment, when you told me and the other Fourth Gens – including your own sister – in no uncertain terms that you didn’t want to ever see us again.” She strode over to Katie, putting her own intense red eyes right in front of the other Fourth Gen’s. “So what, exactly, do you want?”
“Like I said,” Katie said unflinchingly, “I need your help. Specifically, I need his help,” she added, pointing at David, “but I thought you might help convince him.”
“My help?” David asked, his confusion showing. “What could you need from me?”
“You’re the other Fourth Gen, right?” Katie asked, showing her teeth in a knowing grin. “You’re the accident who looks normal, and can walk in the sunlight, and never had to worry about the Pain Chair or the nurses like the rest of us.” She put a hand on her hip, adding, “More importantly, you can control electricity.”
David looked at Agent, who shrugged while still holding his umbrella at the ready. “What makes you think he’s this Fourth Gen you’re looking for?” Agent asked.
“Please,” Katie rolled her eyes. “Let’s just drop the pretense. I know about the hero Earthborn, a member of the Asylum, with incredible elemental powers beyond those of a normal Third Gen, who just came into the public eye with the new team but whose true identity isn’t widely talked about. But because he’s a registered Watcher, it didn’t take long to look his name up in the registry, or to find out that he was born as a human.” She shrugged, adding, “It wasn’t hard to put it together.”
“Okay,” Rina said, feeling as surprised as the others appeared. “What do you want with him?”
The smug expression fell off Katie’s face as she turned back to Rina. Ignoring the other Asylum members in the room, she gave an odd, pitying look to her. “This is the part that might be hard for you to believe,” she said. “You remember how we broke out of the experiment?”
“Yes,” Rina said nervously. “Ryan flooded the place with electricity, burning himself up to give us a chance to escape. How could I ever forget that?”
Katie paused for a bit, seeming to consider her options. Taking a deep breath, she said softly, “I think I might know a way to bring Ryan back.”
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, present day.
Wondering what Katie Malone is doing there.
The team brought Katie to the interrogation room, where Rina and Agent began asking questions. David stood in the corner, his feet bare, watching Katie intently.
“You know how to bring Ryan back?” Rina asked. “How?”
“Ryan Samson died,” Agent said, reading the incident report on his tablet. “By every witness account, he exploded in a shower of sparks when his powers overloaded.”
“So what do you mean, ‘bring him back’?” Rina repeated.
Katie gave Agent a distrustful look. “Rina, could we talk alone?” she asked. “You know I don’t trust those government peons.”
“Tough,” Agent said, but Rina shook her head.
“Agent,” she said, her tone indicating that she would be okay by herself.
Agent huffed once, but he left the room. Rina knew that he would be listening in – probably with most of the team – behind the mirror in the adjoining room. She put her hands on the table, staring right into Katie’s red eyes. “Okay, he’s gone,” Rina said as soon as the door shut behind Agent and David. “Now spill.”
Katie leaned back in her chair, putting her hands behind her head. “You know how Ryan’s powers worked?” she asked. Rina nodded, and she continued, “Turns out, electric powers are known as the least stable Third Gen powers out there. Many electric-powered Third Gens report psychological issues, split personalities, memory loss, stuff like that. Strong electrical powers mess with the electrical impulses in the brain.” She shrugged, putting her arms back down and leaning towards Rina. “At least, that’s what the doctors I’ve talked to said. I’m no expert, but it sounds plausible, right?”
“So what’s your theory?” Rina asked.
“You saw Ryan in action at the lab,” Katie reminded her. “He could turn his body into electricity, remember? What if – and hear me out now – what if the explosion we saw was him entering the power grid of the lab?”
Rina blinked. “That might have been plausible,” she said slowly, considering her old acquaintance’s words carefully. “At least, ten years ago it would have been. But if Ryan was alive, why didn’t he come back? Where do you think he is?”
“That’s the thing,” Katie said. “There’s not a single Third Gen who could turn themselves into electricity like Ryan could, but every expert I’ve asked since coming up with this theory all say that memory loss would be a likely side effect.” She leaned in closer, conspiratorially whispering so that Rina had to lean in to hear her. “What if he doesn’t remember how to turn back?”
Rina scoffed and sat back in her chair, shaking her head. “Are you kidding me?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “You’re telling me Ryan’s been zipping around the country’s electrical grid for the last decade? Okay,” she added, leaning an arm on the table. “Say I believe you. How do you expect to find him after all this time.”
Katie chuckled, shaking her head. “I’m sure that Agent can tell you more about it,” she said, “but the lab we were in was off the grid – undetectable so they wouldn’t get caught, remember?” She raised her eyebrows at Rina, who considered it for a second before figuring out what the other Fourth Gen was saying.
“It had a closed electrical circuit,” she said, looking to the side with unfocused eyes as she thought back to the lab of her youth. Turning back to Katie, she said, “You think he’s still there.”
“It’s a derelict,” Katie told her. “I looked it up; the space was abandoned after the Fourth Gen experiment because – get this – reports of ghost sightings made the place unsellable.”
Rina considered this for a minute, sitting in silence except for the sound of Katie drumming her fingers on the table. Without another word, Rina stood up and left the interrogation room, locking Katie in before going to the observation room to talk to Agent.
“What do you think?” she asked as she entered. This room was soundproof, so Katie couldn’t overhear them, but it had a direct audio feed to the interrogation room next door so Agent – and the rest of the team, who crowded around the window curiously – would have heard the entire exchange.
Agent was fiddling with something on his data pad, looking thoughtful. “She’s not wrong about the lab,” he said. “There were reports of ghost sightings there shortly after the experiment was shut down, keeping it off the market except as a horror movie set and a good place for kids to go on a dare. It also has its own electrical grid.”
“She’s also telling the truth,” David said, indicating his bare feet. “I could feel her heartbeat from here, and unless she’s a complete sociopath, she’s not lying about her intentions.”
“Not ruling out ‘sociopath’ yet, though,” Eli muttered. Haley elbowed him, and he shut his mouth.
Agent looked up at Rina, turning his data pad to show her his findings. “But the last sighting was years ago, Rina. If he was caught in the electric grid, he probably would have degraded over time until nothing was left.”
Rina’s heart sank, making her realize that on some level she had been hoping that Katie was right. “Still,” David said, “we could go check it out. I assume her plan involves me using my own electrical powers to coax him out if he’s there.” He shrugged. “I’m game to try, if you are. Dale can give me extra serum to offset my alter ego.”
“Probably,” Rina said, smiling at them to hide the nervous energy she suddenly felt. The last few times she had seen David’s other personality, the part that controlled his electrical powers, he had stabbed her through the stomach. Later, he had helped destroy their old tower the night of the riots, nearly killing Natalie. While Rina remembered that neither events were David’s fault, and was able to work with him, she suddenly flashed to both incidents when faced with the possibility of his alter-ego coming out again. “Agent?” Rina asked, shaking her head to dispel the memories and trying not to let her voice crack from the stress.
Agent was the only one in the room who knew what Ryan meant to Rina. “It’s up to you,” he said, smiling back at her. “It could be a wild goose chase, but unless you think Katie in there has some kind of trap in mind for you, I have no problem with you going.”
Rina sighed and glanced at David again. As if he could read her mind, he pursed his lips. “I won’t go over my limit,” he promised. “I know how much lightning I can use before the other guy comes out, and we’ll bring some extra doses of Dale’s treatment just in case.”
“Okay,” Rina said, taking a deep breath. “Let’s do this.”
She could only hope it was the right decision.
* * * * * * * *
Present Day, the unknown laboratory.
“Here we are,” Katie said as she, Earthborn, and Nightmare exited the car. “Home sweet home.”
The dilapidated building was overgrown with vines, nature reclaiming the least natural place Nightmare had ever seen. It seemed like an ordinary warehouse on the outside, with chipping brown paint and a rusty garage door. Rina remembered their escape very clearly, however; the facility was largely underground, spanning a mile in length and multiple levels in depth.
“This is too creepy,” Nightmare said, shuddering as Earthborn opened the door. The hinges creaked ominously, reminding the Watchers of a horror movie as they carefully entered. Her hand began trembling as she walked back into her own nightmare, and she clenched her fist to stop the shaking. She didn’t even mind her claws digging into her sweaty palm; the pain was nothing compared to what she had felt when growing up here.
Earthborn noticed her tremors, however. “Hey, Rina,” he said, putting a rock-covered hand on her shoulder, “you okay?”
Nightmare nodded, biting her lip underneath her mask. She was grateful that her uniform covered her face so completely; it was meant to shield her from the sun, as all Fourth Gen experiments were photo-sensitive, but it served to hide her emotions as well. So many things could go wrong in this scenario, whether they found Ryan there or not.
“Ugh,” Katie said loudly, her voice echoing in the silent halls. “I always hated this place. Never thought seeing it abandoned like this would be worse than living here.”
“Where should we start?” Earthborn asked, giving Nightmare’s shoulder a friendly squeeze before letting her go and stepping forward.
“If he’s in the electrical grid, then probably the boiler room,” Katie said. “That’s where the fuse box is located, according to the schematics your Agent gave us.”
Nightmare looked around nervously. “All the way down there?” she asked, her eye twitching. “Really?”
“Why, what’s up?” Earthborn asked her.
“The boiler room is near the Pain Room,” Katie told him, crossing her arms as if shielding herself. “We have to pass through there to get to it.”
Earthborn furrowed his eyebrows. “‘Pain Room’?” he repeated. “What’s that?”
Katie raised her own eyebrows at Nightmare. “You didn’t tell him?” she asked curiously.
Nightmare shook her head. “I don’t talk about this place with anyone,” she said, a little more sharply than she meant. “Agent is the only one who has any idea of what went on here, and that’s only because the Task-Force keeps an extensive file about it.” She mimicked Katie’s arm crossing, and the air became thick as her nightmare powers grew. “I just want to forget everything that happened here.”
“Rina!” Earthborn said, and Nightmare gasped as she realized what her powers were doing. Earthborn’s face was grey with shock, and electricity was sparking around him as his own powers responded to his fear. Katie’s eyes were wide, and she kept looking over her shoulder at invisible enemies.
Nightmare took a deep breath, closing her eyes to calm herself down. As her heart rate slowed, her powers also subsided. She opened her eyes to check on the others, and saw Katie shake her head, trying to shake the feeling of Nightmare’s abilities. “I can see why,” she finally said. “That happens every time?”
“No,” Nightmare said. “Since the Eon City riots, my powers have been harder than ever to control. Sometimes I put an entire room out of commission for no reason, and sometimes I try to use them but can’t.”
“So it’s just our luck that they’re working right now,” Katie sighed. “Great. Well, it won’t get any easier if we wait, so let’s just get this over with.”
She began marching down the hall to the staircase, but Earthborn looked back at Nightmare. “We don’t have to do this,” he said. “If it’s too hard for you to be here…”
“I’m fine,” Nightmare said, squaring her shoulders and following Katie down the darkened hallway. “It’s just a place. The people were what made it scary.”
She felt rather than saw Earthborn follow her. They walked in silence for a minute, and Nightmare remembered everything that had happened to her in the experiment. They had tazed her, hurt her, mutilated her, and all of it at the hands of her father, the lead scientist, who had been trying to “cure” Third Gens and Satyrs. Just remembering the Pain Chair, along with everything else that had happened, made the tremors start again, and it was only Earthborn’s voice cutting through the silence that broke her out of the reverie.
“I was twenty-two when I got my powers,” he said. “I was a regular human, you know. I had a life, a girlfriend, a job. I grew up in a small town about thirty miles from here; my mom and dad are still back there, but I haven’t been able to see them in forever.” He paused for a second, and Nightmare looked back at him. He had a sad smile on his face as he remembered. “I was walking home from work one night and I saw a guy being dragged into a van. He was fighting his captors, who were all wearing masks and trying to shove a bag over his head. At first I just thought it was a hazing gone wrong – I ran over to try and help the guy, only to find that the masked guys were all armed. I didn’t even get a good hit in before they threw me in the back of that van, with a bag of my own over my head.”
“That was brave of you,” Nightmare told him. “You just ran in to help.”
Earthborn shook his head, stretching his arms up behind his head. “I was a stupid kid,” he said. “I had a phone with me – I could have just taken pictures and called the police. But I thought I’d live forever, as if I could have taken on five guys by myself. So the guys smashed my phone and took me too. They drove us an hour outside of the city – right around here, in fact. We passed the crater on our way here.”
“Crater?” Nightmare asked as they found the stairs and descended.
“I’m getting there,” Earthborn said. “Anyways, they took us to an open field and made us dig. Didn’t say anything – just shoved the shovels in our hands and pointed a lot. We must’ve dug for hours; I got about four feet down when my shovel hit a metal pipe. I got sprayed with this stuff that started burning, and I heard the kidnappers say, ‘That should be deep enough.’ A storm was coming in, see, and they just wanted to be done with it.
“They shot the other guy in the head, and before I could react they shot me in the chest,” Earthborn told her, pointing to his heart. “I remember it hurting like hell. I couldn’t breathe right, and everything went cold. Then the masked guys tossed dirt over me, and I was alone in the dark and damp for a while. Don’t know how long.” He shuddered as he remembered, and Nightmare was riveted on his story. “Then… I exploded.” He made a gesture with his hands, trying to convey the feeling. “They told me later that lightning struck me, attracted to whatever was in the pipe I’d hit. All I remember after that was getting arrested for ‘wanton destruction of public property’, which is the usual charge for Third Gens who lose control.”
“Dark David,” Nightmare added, nodding. “Your other personality came out.”
“Exactly,” David said. “I at least have that going for me. You, though, remember everything that happened here,” he added. “That’s why you left your mask on even while we’re indoors.”
Nightmare bit her lip again under the mask. “What do you want me to say?” she asked. “If we compare tragic backstories, I guarantee I’ll win.”
“I think it might help you to talk about it,” Earthborn said. “I kept my alter-ego bottled up for four years, and all it got me was a massive headache and my friends nearly killed.” He caught the door that Katie had left open and held it for his teammate, adding, “Who knows? It might help you control your powers again.”
They stepped out into the hall, and Nightmare was suddenly a little girl again. She remembered the nurses dragging her down that very hallway to the Pain Room, and began shivering uncontrollably. The hallway was too familiar, even in the dark: the beige walls were grimier, and there were cobwebs in the corners and over the lightswitch a ways away from the staircase, but the scene was the same as in the nightmares that had plagued her all her life. She squatted down, hugging her knees to her chest as her eyes found the door to the Pain Room. Earthborn tried to put a hand on her shoulder, but she flinched away, biting her lip until she tasted blood as she tried to keep her powers under control.
Katie wasn’t much better. “I hate this place,” she said, leaning against the wall and wrapping her arms protectively around herself. Earthborn stood off to the side, waiting silently for one of the girls to say something.
“I was eleven when my parents sold me and my baby sister to the experiment,” Katie finally said, breaking the silence. “Leah nearly killed our mother when she was born, and our father freaked. Neither of them were Third Gens – I think my aunt might have been, but I’m not sure. Anyways, they decided they didn’t want Third Gen kids and sold us to this place. I was the oldest to get the Fourth Gen serum – most of the others came before they were ten – and it didn’t work as well on me.” She fiddled with one of the black streaks in her hair, her red eyes softer than they had been since she appeared in the tower. “My Third Gen ability was mimicry, but as a kid all I could copy were voices and movements. I learned things faster than everyone else, that was all. Then I got the serum, and suddenly I could copy people’s powers. Only I found out by accident – I outed one of the nurses who’d been trying to pass for human, and he was sacked on the spot. But even without any Third Gens on the staff, they kept pushing me to copy things. And when it didn’t work, they…”
She trailed off, and Nightmare finished for her. “They stuck you in the pain chair, and shocked you until you complied,” she said dully.
Earthborn looked stricken as Katie nodded. “They did that to all of you?” he asked in a hushed voice. He glanced between the two girls, seeming to want one of them to deny it.
Katie took a deep, shuddering breath and straightened up. “Rina had it worse,” she said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “She was born a satyr, and can regrow her limbs – so they regularly cut one off every few days.”
Nightmare clenched her fists and hugged her knees tighter, the pain of her claws digging into her palms a reminder that they were still there. The horrified look Earthborn gave her grated on her nerves; she never wanted his pity, or anyone else’s. Taking a deep breath, she stood up and looked him in the eye. “Yeah, well, I was a kid when they started it,” she told them defensively, hoping that saying it in a nonchalant manner would help them forget that she had very nearly broken down a moment before. “They gave me the serum as a baby; I was quite literally born into the experiment. Until we left, I didn’t remember a time when they weren’t cutting pieces off of me, and I always grew back so it wasn’t that – ”
She was cut off by the sudden hug that Earthborn gave her. His rock armor had dropped away, littering the hall with stones, and Nightmare suddenly felt tears coming to her eyes. She hugged him back, the pressure from her powers building up falling away.
“I can’t even imagine it,” he said softly, talking to both of them as he let Nightmare go. “I have a daughter of my own, and the thought of someone doing that to her…” he trailed off, his voice choking. He took a second to compose himself before continuing. “I don’t know what kind of people would do that to kids.”
“Someone who didn’t see us as human,” Nightmare said. “The lead scientist – Doctor Samson – said he was trying to cure Third Gens and Satyrs, and we were the result.”
Earthborn gave a startled laugh. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but that’s just ironic. In trying to cure Third Gens he made them ten times more powerful!”
“‘Samson’?” Katie asked as the hallway lights flickered on, bathing the area in a ghostly glow. “That was Ryan’s last name.”
“Oh, yeah,” Nightmare shrugged. “We caught him trying to steal Pharos stuff earlier this year. He’s in jail now.”
“The Eleutherios guy?” Earthborn asked curiously.
She took a deep breath, adding, “He’s also Ryan’s father. And mine.”
Both Earthborn and Katie froze at the revelation. “You’re… you’re Ryan’s sister?” Katie asked, and the lights flickered again. Nightmare nodded. “I only found out after we caught him,” she said. “He’s rotting away in jail now, so we don’t have to worry about him anymore.”
Katie’s jaw was clenched as she took in the information. “I wonder if Ryan knew,” she muttered to herself.
Earthborn looked around curiously. “Hey, anybody else notice when the lights turned on?” he asked. Katie and Nightmare both shrugged. “It’s just, I was standing over here, and Rina’s in the middle of the hall, and Katie, you’re up against that wall there…”
“So?” Katie asked.
“So the light switch is down there,” Earthborn said, pointing to a spot a good fifteen feet away from the trio. They all looked down there, and the lights flickered again.
“Ryan!” Katie cried, Nightmare echoing her a split-second later. “It has to be him!”
Nightmare nodded. “So now what?” she asked. “We need him to show himself.”
Earthborn got a dose of Dale’s treatment out of his pocket, using it on himself as his powers caused the rocks around them to float back over his body as armor. The air grew dry as electricity crackled around them. “I got this,” he said.
He clenched his fist, grabbing at one of the electric arcs in the air, and yanked it down to the ground. Sparks showered from the overhead light, forming a ghostly figure in the middle of the hall out of electricity. It had Ryan’s silhouette, but it had no face or form.
Nightmare got another dose of the treatment ready, but couldn’t get close enough to the sparking figure to administer it. “How do I give him a shot when he has no arms?!” she cried, raising her voice above the loud crackling of the electricity.
“Who says you can give me a shot?” came a deep voice from around them. It sounded artificial, as if someone were using a voice modulator. “What could I possibly need from you?”
“Ryan?” Katie asked. “Ryan, it’s me! Katie! And I brought Rina!”
The silhouette turned towards her, it’s faceless head staring. “There is no Ryan here,” said the voice. “I am Primoris. I came first, and I will survive.”
The figure lunged at Katie, slamming into her chest with blue electricity, and she crumpled to the ground.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City Jail.
Interrogation Room A.
Agent straightened his tie before striding into the room, his omni-present umbrella at his side. The gaunt form of Dr. James Samson looked up at him, raising an eyebrow in infuriating smugness. His wild hair had been braided into cornrows as it grew out over the last few months, but otherwise he looked much the same. His thin frame seemed malnourished despite the excellent care Agent knew prisoners received in Eon City, as if he was regularly forgetting to eat – but that was no different from when they had originally brought him in, so Agent shrugged it off.
“Ah, the Agent of the Task-Force,” Dr. Samson said, folding his cuffed hands in front of himself on the table as Agent sat down across from him. “To what do I owe the pleasure? Is my daughter here?”
“No, just me today,” Agent said. “Your daughter is on a mission at the moment, but we need some information from you.”
“I already told you what I know about Eleutherios,” Dr. Samson said curiously. “What more could you possibly want from me?”
“I want to know about the Fourth Gen experiment,” Agent said, leaning his umbrella up against the table’s metal frame and folding his own hands the same way as the prisoner. “How did it come about? What was the first Fourth Gen like?”
Dr. Samson gave a short laugh. “You want to know about my son?” he asked. “One of two things must have happened. Either Ryan made an appearance, or Katie came back to Eon City.” He studied Agent’s face as he spoke, and concluded, “Ah, Katie’s back. She has the ridiculous thought in her head that Ryan is still alive.”
“You seem to know a lot for a man locked up,” Agent said, raising an eyebrow. Deeming it harmless, he added, “Yes, Katie Malone showed up at our tower, claiming that Ryan is still alive. What do you know about it?”
“Ryan is dead,” Dr. Samson said, shaking his head. He looked more disappointed than sad as he discussed his son. “He turned his entire body into electricity and entered the grid of the facility. You know,” he added, “since you work with Earthborn. Electric powers mess with the user’s mind, as it affects the electrical currents in the brain. You can’t turn your head into pure electricity and come out of it the same person.”
Agent shrugged a shoulder. “Speculation,” he said. “As far as I know, no Third Gen has ever turned themselves into electricity before.”
“True,” Dr. Samson said thoughtfully. “I suppose Ryan is the first. But what could I possibly tell you about him that could help?”
“What was he?” Agent asked. “Before you shot him up with the serum, I mean. Was he born human? Third Gen? What were his powers as a child?”
“You think that will somehow help turn him normal?” Dr. Samson asked. “Fat chance. None of the Fourth Gen experiments can ever be normal again.”
Agent smirked, controlling his temper. “One is,” he said. “Earthborn.”
“Ah yes,” Dr. Samson grinned. “The mistake. Tell me, how do you control a demigod with multiple personalities?”
“It’s my understanding that his electric abilities are what causes that effect,” Agent told him. “His earth powers temper it somewhat.”
Dr. Samson looked thoughtful. “Yes, theoretically that would do it,” he said. “Would you mind sending Earthborn over here sometime, when his duties permit? I would love to study him further.”
Agent smiled and shook his head. “Doctor Samson,” he said as though talking to a child, “don’t forget that you’re in prison. No special treatment for you.”
“Hmph,” Dr. Samson huffed. “Fair enough. To answer your question, though, Ryan was born a satyr.”
“A satyr?” Agent repeated. “What kind?”
“A Spotted Salamander, to be precise,” Dr. Samson said. “He didn’t eat the way a normal person would; he photosynthesized.”
Agent’s eyes narrowed. “I thought all of the Fourth Gen experiments were photosensitive,” he said. “But you’re telling me Ryan needed sunlight to survive?”
“I admit, it became harder to keep him alive after giving him the serum,” Dr. Samson said, raising his hands defensively. “He was our first Fourth Gen, though. We didn’t know about that particular side effect when we gave it to him.”
“How did you feed him?” Agent asked.
“We developed a special UV light,” Dr. Samson said. “Ingenious, really. It helped plants grow in an enclosed environment, too. Sold the patent to a marijuana factory for a mint; we ran the experiment on those proceeds alone for years.”
Agent shook his head. “That couldn’t have been healthy for him,” he said.
“For who?” Dr. Samson asked, then remembered, “Oh, right. Ryan. No, it wasn’t, I’m afraid. He was never entirely sane – he hid it well in front of the other children, but he kept going on about being a hero. When we stimulated him to get his powers to come out – ”
“You mean when you tortured him,” Agent said, his patience wearing thin.
“To-may-to, to-mah-to,” Dr. Samson shrugged. “When we stimulated him, he would develop another persona. It called itself ‘Primoris’, and threatened to kill everyone in the facility.” The scientist shook his head, chuckling. “Nearly did, too, many times. Especially once he entered the power grid.”
“What?” Agent asked, his eyes widening as the information set in. “‘Once he entered the power grid’? You mean Katie was right? Ryan’s alive?”
Dr. Samson gave him a pitying look. “It’s not Ryan anymore,” he said. “It isn’t anywhere near human, either. At least the other experiments are humanoid – Primoris is a ghost in the machine, as it were.” He shook his head sadly. “A dangerous ghost, at that. The Task-Force had such an easy time shutting us down because of it. Primoris killed several of the staff, and made the rest stay home the day the Task-Force came. It also killed a few of the Fourth Gens, though we were blamed for those deaths.”
Agent stood up. “How?” he asked sharply.
Dr. Samson considered him. “Katie and Sabrina are already down there, aren’t they?” he asked. “I’m guessing they took Earthborn, to try and get Primoris out of the system, too. Well, if they caught him on a bad day, then they’re already dead.” He shook his head sadly. “Too bad, too. Earthborn was the only successful Fourth Gen. He would have made a fine specimen.”
Agent grabbed his umbrella and strode out the door, slamming it behind him as the mad scientist began to laugh.
* * * * * * * *
The unknown laboratory.
Facing off with Primoris.
“Katie!” Nightmare cried as her old friend collapsed.
“Nightmare, run!” Earthborn shouted at her. “I can’t hold him for much longer!”
“Yes, Nightmare,” said Primoris, turning his silhouette to her in turn. “Better run away.”
“Ryan,” Nightmare pleaded, “I know you’re in there somewhere.”
The mechanical voice laughed. “That pathetic weakling isn’t around anymore,” Primoris said, an arc of blue lighting up the silhouette’s head in a ghastly grin. “Ryan gave himself up for you, Rina. His sister.”
Nightmare backed up to the wall as the electricity moved closer to her. “You knew?”
“I heard you talking just now,” Primoris explained. “It was quite a surprise you sprang there. Of course, that’s not going to stop me from killing you.”
“Nightmare!” Earthborn cried. His eyes were starting to turn red as he strained against the currents running around him.
“I surprised him,” Primoris said, the silhouette gesturing back to Earthborn as he spoke. “Now he has me on a tighter leash. But I can outlast him. He doesn’t look too good, does he?”
It was a fair assessment. The longer Earthborn held onto the electric currents, the more his eyes turned red. A grimace glowed green in the corridor’s light, reflecting the light from the electricity sparking around him. Dark David was trying to appear despite the extra dose of Dale’s treatment, and the longer this fight went on the more likely Earthborn was to lose control.
“What do you want?” Nightmare asked. “Why attack us?”
“Why do you want to bottle me up?” Primoris asked. “Don’t I have just as much right to be here as Ryan?”
“I thought you said Ryan was gone,” Nightmare said. A flash came from the communicator on her wrist, signaling that Agent was trying to reach her.
“He is,” Primoris said.
Nightmare stared him down. “Then what harm could Dale’s treatment do to you?” she asked. “If he’s really gone, then why are you scared of it? He’s still there,” she answered herself before Primoris could speak. “Ryan’s still in there!”
The silhouette began laughing. “Very good, sis,” it said. “I always knew you were smart. Come closer and I’ll let you inject me,” he added, holding out the silhouette’s arm.
“Nightmare!” Earthborn cried, “Whatever you do, do it fast!”
Nightmare looked at the silhouette, and then glanced at her watch. When she hadn’t responded, Agent sent a brief text: He needs sunlight. She looked back up at Primoris, making her decision.
“Nice try,” she said, “but you’ll have to catch me first. Earthborn, let him go!”
She ran away, high-tailing it back up the stairs without looking back. After a few seconds, she heard the electricity sparking behind her as Primoris followed her up the stairs. When she reached the top floor, the silhouette shot out of a light fixture in front of her and shook its finger. “Uh, uh, uh,” the voice said. “No running away. You just abandoned your team down there – is that really what a hero would do?”
“A hero would keep the bad guy occupied,” Nightmare said. “You still haven’t caught me.”
She dove past the figure, rolling into a run as she raced down the corridor to the entrance. She managed to throw the door open just as Primoris hit her, and she fell down on the gravel outside.
“Nice try,” said the disembodied voice. The silhouette stood in the doorway as Nightmare fought to stay conscious. “You’re not faster than lightning.”
“No…” Nightmare said, panting as she pulled herself outside the complex. “I made it.”
The silhouette gave the ghastly grin again, and lunged at her. The moment the sunlight hit it, however, the electric body grew solid. It was still blue, but Nightmare managed to jam its arm with the syringe as it hit her again, and pressed the treatment into Primoris’ system before she passed out.
A few minutes later, Earthborn came running out the door with Katie in a fireman’s carry over his shoulder. He saw a pale, grey-skinned man kneeling on the gravel with Nightmare’s head in his lap. “Please wake up,” Ryan said, crying over her. He looked up as Earthborn approached. “Oh, god, Katie too. What did I do?!”
“You’re Ryan,” Earthborn said, taking in the man’s white hair and red eyes. “She got you the treatment?”
“Yes,” Ryan said, “but not before I hit her. Twice.”
Earthborn gently laid Katie on the ground next to them, covering her with small stones to protect her from the sun. Nightmare had never removed her mask, so her uniform was protection enough for her. “Well, Fourth Gens are made of sterner stuff than they look,” he assured Ryan as he checked Nightmare’s pulse. “Katie’s just stunned – you only hit her with a taser amount, and I made sure her heart was going after I gave myself another dose of Dale’s treatment. As for Nightmare, well, I’ve seen her come back from worse.” He picked up the wrist with her communicator watch on it and checked something. “Yeah, she’s just been knocked out, too.”
Ryan took a deep, shuddering breath. “What if she doesn’t wake up?” he asked. “I hit her pretty hard before I came back to myself…”
“First of all, you didn’t hit her,” Earthborn said. “You and me, we have a lot in common. We’re not responsible for what our other half does.”
“I am, though,” Ryan said miserably. “I made a choice when I went into the grid. At the time, it was the only way to get them out of there – but I knew what it would do to me.”
“Ugh,” Katie moaned, her eyes fluttering open under the rocks. She sat up, and then flinched in pain as the sun hit her. Earthborn quickly threw up a rock wall to block the sun, and Katie huddled in the shade as she took in the scene. “Ryan?”
Ryan grinned at her. “I’d hug you, babe, but Rina’s sleeping,” he said shakily. He looked back at Earthborn, as if he were drowning and the Watcher held out the only lifeline available. “You’re sure she’ll be okay?”
“Well, Dale’s going to want to check all of us out,” Earthborn said, grinning as Nightmare began to stir, “but yeah, she’ll be fine.”
Ryan breathed a sigh of relief as Nightmare groaned and sat up. “Good,” he said, grinning. “Which just leaves one question: who’s this ‘Dale’ you guys keep mentioning?”
* * * * * * * *
Asylum HQ, a few hours later.
Dale’s medical lab.
“Well, tha’s tha,” Dale said, pulling off his gloves as he finished examining Ryan. “Yer all in tip-top shape now.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Earthborn said, jumping off another table. “I’ve got to get home; Amy’ll be worried.”
He waved goodbye as he moved to the elevator, passing Agent on his way in. “How’s my team?” Agent asked.
“David and Rina are back ta normal,” Dale reported. “Rina got a massive shock, but nothin’ my powers couldnae handle.”
“I’m good as new, thanks to the doc,” Rina said, waving from a table across the room.
Dale smiled, then continued, “As fer tha other two, Miss Malone and Mister Samson, they’re both fine as well.” He gestured at the two guests; Ryan was still on the table next to Dale, but Katie had moved next to him.
“What about his other personality?” Agent asked.
Ryan shook his head. “Primoris only comes out if I turn myself into electricity,” he said. “As long as I limit my powers, he shouldn’t come back.” He raised his hand, showing that it had turned back into an electric silhouette, adding, “I can do stuff like this, as long I as I don’t use my powers on my head or torso.”
“Anywhere near tha brain stem,” Dale confirmed. “Ye’ll also need reg’lar sunlight. Tha should help.”
Agent looked confused. “I thought the Fourth Gens were all photosensitive,” he said. “How’s that going to work?”
“Me less so than the others,” Ryan said. “I can go out on cloudy days, or in direct light for a few minutes at a time. I can also get a UV lamp like they had in the lab.”
“Sunlight’ll help wit tha side effects of yer powers, too,” Dale told him. “Like David’s earth powers, yer satyr abilities will help stabilize ye.”
Ryan grinned. “Who’d have thought? Dad always said my being a satyr was a bad thing.”
“So you know about that?” Agent asked.
“Yeah,” Ryan said, looking down. “My dad was the lead scientist of the experiment. I didn’t know about Rina being my sister until she mentioned it in the lab, though.” He looked up at Agent. “You have Doctor Samson in custody, right?” he asked.
“Yes we do,” Agent said. “Do you want to see him?”
Ryan shook his head. “That man never cared about me,” he said. “He always saw me as a failed experiment.”
“What’re you guys going to do now?” Rina asked, hopping off her own exam table and moving over to Ryan and Katie. “You could always get your Watcher licenses, like me.”
“And put myself on a government watchlist?” Katie shuddered. “No way.”
“I don’t know, Katie,” Ryan said, grinning at her. “Being a Watcher sounds kind of cool. A real superhero.”
“You do what you want,” Katie said, rolling her eyes, “but leave me out of it.”
“I just got you back, babe,” Ryan said, jumping up and pulling her closer to him. “I’ll go where you follow.” He turned to Rina, adding, “Sorry, kid. Maybe later.”
Rina grinned at the two of them. “You know, I always suspected there was something going on with you two,” she teased.
“Yeah, because we were trying to hide it,” Katie said sarcastically, kissing Ryan on the cheek.
“You know,” Agent said, “the Task-Force will probably want to keep an eye on you.”
“Let ‘em try,” Katie said, waving off his concern. “I know how to go underground.”
Agent shrugged. “If you say so, Roxie. Or maybe you like Shirley. Or Lira.” He grinned at Katie’s obvious discomfort.
“You know about those?” she asked.
“We know about all of them,” Agent said. “So you could try to go to ground again if you want, or you could live out in the open. Your choice.”
Katie looked to the side. “Why’d you never bring me in, then?” she asked.
Agent rested his hands on his umbrella handle. “You weren’t hurting anyone,” he said simply. “You were also legally an adult. We kept an eye on you because of your powers, but otherwise we didn’t care how you wanted to live your life.”
Katie huffed in frustration. “Still,” she said, a little less arrogant than before, “there’s a huge difference between the government knowing about you and voluntarily signing up as a Watcher.”
“UYou could always consult with us,” Agent said. “We’re looking to branch out into Neoterra City up north; you two could help us scout the area.”
“You offering us a job?” Ryan asked.
“Yes,” Agent said, grinning. “I’m offering you a job.”
Ryan grinned back, holding his hand out to shake. “Sounds good to me,” he said.
Katie looked annoyed. “I’ll think about it,” she said, pulling away from Ryan.
“While you’re thinking,” Rina offered, “there’s a great pub down the street. You guys want some dinner?”
“A pub?” Ryan asked, perking up, “as in, alcohol?”
Rina and Katie laughed, and Rina threw her arm over his shoulder. “There’s a lot you need to catch up on, brother,” she said. “Life outside the complex is good.”
With that, they said good night to Dale and Agent and headed out of the tower.
* * * * * * * *
Next: Issue #19 – Laugh of the Sinners
Also: Bonus Story #3 – The Gangs