Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.
The timetable is accelerating.
“He said we had two Earth years,” Jaunt said, glaring from behind his dust mask. “He promised!” The dry desert air chafed his exposed forehead, but he was too focused on his current problem to bother putting on a hat.
The blue-tinged hologram he addressed smiled pleasantly at him. “He did not lie. He will arrive in two years, two weeks, five days, four hours, two minutes – ”
“Then why are you taking over?” Jaunt demanded. “I promised to have a candidate ready, and I meant that I would find one!”
“There is a candidate we have scouted,” the hologram said. “We simply intend to test them. They are currently incomplete, but show an indication of aptitude for the prerequisites.”
Jaunt rolled his eyes. “And exactly what ‘aptitude’ are you talking about?” he asked. “If they don’t meet your standards, then why bother?”
“Humans have shown a resilience, particularly this one,” the hologram said. “They adapt easily, and can be molded to fit the standard if they show the proper aptitude. Based on your current reports, this one seems promising.”
“So you’re just going to take over now, is that it?” Jaunt demanded. “I have done more than a decade’s worth of research for you, trying to find the best candidate, and you just take a random kid?”
“The selection was hardly random,” the hologram said, still giving Jaunt that annoying, mechanical smile. “We have received your data on the team known as ‘The Asylum’, and made a preliminary hypothesis about one of the members. Given the data provided, we think she will be an excellent candidate.” The hologram’s face didn’t change, but it moved closer in a slightly threatening manner. “Of course, if you disagree with our assessment, we can always change the timetable. However, given his excitement over the current rounds, I cannot imagine that he would be pleased with you interrupting him.”
“You’re a machine,” Jaunt countered, hiding a shudder at the veiled threat, “you can’t imagine anything.” He sighed in defeat, adding, “Nevertheless, I see your point. Fine; if you want to waste your time with an unqualified candidate, be my guest. I’ll be continuing my other research.”
“Very good,” the hologram said, backing up. “I look forward to working with you.”
Before it could disappear on him, Jaunt asked, “Hey, which Asylum member are we testing?”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, evening.
“Woo-hoo!” Natalie cried, slamming a shot glass down on the table. “I win! Pay up.”
Haley shook her head, pulling her wallet out of her pocket. “I can’t believe you just took ten shots of Jack,” she said, handing Natalie a twenty-dollar bill. “Good thing we walked here.”
The bar was only a few blocks away from Headquarters, so Haley, Natalie, and Reiki had decided to walk down for a change of scenery after their patrols. Earthborn and Granny were busy with the evening patrol, and Frank and Rina declined to join them; neither of them drank alcohol. Rina said it made her nauseous, and Frank just didn’t like the taste. Since they also had the night patrol, they decided to just stay at Headquarters until the shift change.
“Ah, this is nothing,” Natalie said, grinning. “Agent has rules about us getting too drunk in our off-hours; my limit is thirteen.”
“Though you still hope that we aren’t called in,” Reiki pointed out. “Especially not tomorrow morning.”
Natalie shrugged, picking up a shot glass from the table in front of her and licking the rim. “I don’t get hangovers,” she pointed out. “I’ll be fine.”
“That may be,” said Casey as she cleared the empty glasses off of their table, “but you’re still cut off.” Cassandra “Casey” Johnson was an old teammate of Agent’s from Team Ark. Despite her codename being “Sparrow”, Casey was a Third Gen with the ability to see the future. She still reported her visions to Agent, but was otherwise retired from Watcher work.
“Come on, Casey,” Natalie pleaded. “Just one more?”
“Nope,” Casey said, picking up the shot glasses and putting them on a tray, “Agent would kill me if he found out I served you this much.” She took the one out of Natalie’s hand last, bringing them back to the dishwasher behind the bar.
“Fine then,” Natalie said. “Anybody up for karaoke?”
Haley pursed her lips. “I don’t sing,” she said.
“Sure you do,” Natalie told her. “I heard you last week, singing that one song for the doctor…”
“‘Lavender Blue’ is an old tune my mom taught me as a kid,” Haley pointed out. The night was young, but she had to raise her voice over the growing din of customers. “I hummed a few bars to distract the mark; that’s very different from singing a pop song in front of everybody.”
“You’re no fun,” Natalie said. She stood up from the table and grabbed Haley and Reiki’s hands. “If you won’t sing, then at least come dance.”
The bar had a dance floor in the back room, while karaoke was done in the front. On the weekends the place was crawling with satyrs, Third Gens, and humans all looking for a good time. Casey had a heavy hand and a good wait staff, so her place was pretty popular.
Haley groaned, but got up – she knew that Natalie wouldn’t let it go unless she did one or the other, and dancing seemed like the lesser evil. After a sharp tug on his arm by the insistent Natalie, Reiki got up as well. He and Haley exchanged glances as they allowed Natalie to drag them to the dance floor.
After a few minutes of awkward movement, Natalie stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Haven’t you guys ever been clubbing before?” she asked.
Haley was stiff in her movements, self-conscious of the people watching from the sidelines. In contrast, Reiki looked like he was having an upright seizure: his arms were flailing while his feet tangled around each other. Natalie stopped them, shaking her head. “Come on guys, like this.” She demonstrated, keeping her feet close together while she swayed to the beat of the music.
Haley tried to copy her, but Reiki just shook his head and went to find a seat on the sidelines. Watching him leave, Natalie shrugged. “Oh well, looks like we’re the ones having fun tonight. Right Haley?”
“I’m not sure I call this ‘fun’,” Haley pointed out. People were beginning to look their way; as Watchers of the Asylum, most of the city knew their faces. Even though most of Casey’s other patrons were also Watchers, Haley could just see a video of her awkward dancing going viral.
“If you’re really that worried about it,” Natalie told her, “then I’ll take the pressure off of you!”
Natalie left Haley’s side, moving to the center of the dance floor. She strutted to the beat of the music in a large circle, opening up some room in the dancers as the song changed. When the first beat dropped in the new song, she began to really let loose.
When they were kids, Natalie had trained in many styles of dancing with her brother. Along with some of the acrobatics she learned when training to be a Watcher, she combined different dance styles into something graceful and unique. Once the spotlight was on her instead of Haley, the bigger, less coordinated girl faded back to the sidelines.
After a minute of watching Natalie on the dance floor, a vaguely familiar voice came over Haley’s shoulder. “She really does love the spotlight, doesn’t she?”
Haley spun around, coming face-to-face with Eli Howard, also known as the mercenary Watcher, Butterfly. “You!” she cried, startled. “What are you doing here?”
“Can we talk?” he asked, gesturing for them to take it outside. Haley nodded, allowing him to lead her out the front door.
Once they were outside in the brisk summer night air, Haley asked, “What is it?”
Eli was looking around for something. “I just wanted to see how you were,” he said distractedly. “I haven’t seen you in a while, and I thought we could talk.”
Haley narrowed her eyes. “You know where I live,” she said. “If you wanted to talk, then why follow me to the bar?”
“That’s presumptuous,” Eli scoffed, his eyes still darting around. “What makes you think I followed you here? I happen to like Casey’s.”
“Then what are you looking for?” Haley asked. “You’re acting shifty. I think I’m going to get the others.”
“Wait,” Eli said. “You know Trick hates me.”
Haley shrugged, turning to go back inside. Eli grabbed her arm, and years of fighting practice took over; reflexively, Haley swung his arm up behind him and held it there, slamming Eli up against the wall of the bar.
“Why did you want me out here?” she asked. “No lies this time!”
“I don’t know,” Eli admitted, his face pressed painfully up against the bricks. “I was paid to just get you out of the bar and away from the others.”
“What?” Haley asked. “Paid by who?”
A bright, bluish spotlight came down on them. “I assume by them,” Eli said, glancing up at the source.
Haley shoved him against the wall again in annoyance. A tingling sensation ran up her spine, and she suddenly couldn’t feel anything – not the night air on her face, not the concrete under her feet, not even Eli, who looked as if he was dissolving in front of her. Haley looked down at her hands, noting with detached alarm that she could see straight through her hands. She tried to look up at the spotlight’s source, but her vision chose that moment to go white.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, the next morning.
Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.
Natalie fought back a yawn as she poured herself a bowl of cereal. She might not get hangovers, but the dancing and alcohol from the night before really took it out of her. It was lucky that her patrol shift didn’t start until the afternoon; she could stand for some downtime until then. Poor Reiki had the early morning shift; it was a good thing he didn’t dance much the night before. Natalie’s muscles ached from the hours-long unscheduled workout she had given them.
She had just decided to get a glass of water with her cereal when Agent stormed into the living area. “It was pretty stupid to get that wasted last night,” he said loudly, crossing his arms.
“Wasted?” Natalie asked, blinking innocently. “What ever gave you that idea?”
Agent gestured to his data pad. “We keep track of your vitals, remember?” he said. “If I had needed you three, you wouldn’t have been fit for duty. You guys already missed training this morning.”
Natalie’s heart skipped a beat in nervousness. “I didn’t have training this morning,” she said, shaking her head and checking her schedule. “I double-checked before we left last night – yep, says right here: I have patrol this afternoon, but I have the morning off.”
Agent took a breath before responding, irritated. “I know you didn’t,” he told her, “but Haley did. And Reiki was ten minutes late this morning.”
“Then why are you asking me?” Natalie said, turning on the sink for her water.
“Because you’re here,” Agent said, “and the others aren’t. I’ll be having words with them, too.”
“Reiki didn’t drink that much last night,” Natalie told him. “He had, like, two beers. He was swaying a bit on the way home, but I thought he was just dancing. He should have been fine this morning.”
“And Haley?” Agent asked. “I’ve never had a problem with her before, and I don’t want your influence rubbing off on her.”
“Because I’m such a bad influence?” Natalie said sweetly, grinning at him.
Agent smiled despite himself. “Exactly,” he chuckled. “Do you know where she is?”
“No idea,” Natalie said, shrugging. “Haley left a couple of hours before me and Reiki last night. Casey said she left with Butterfly, so I assumed she had just gone home with him.” She took a swig of water before adding, “Don’t you keep track of our vitals? She’s fine, right?”
“Her chip malfunctioned last night,” Agent admitted. “I was going to tell her at training this morning to see Dale to have it checked out, but then she didn’t show up.”
Natalie finished chugging her water and refilled the cup. “She left with Butterfly last night,” she repeated. “You might try asking him.”
“I’ll make the call,” Agent said. “If you see Haley, tell her I’m looking for her. And don’t you be late for your shift,” he added.
Natalie gave him a mock salute. “Yes, mon capitan,” she said. As Agent left for his office, she picked up her spoon and stared at it.
Last night at the bar hadn’t been a first for the group – Natalie dragged them out every other week to blow off some steam. Haley had never skipped training before; she loved the job too much.
Shaking her head, Natalie began eating her breakfast. It’s probably nothing, she thought.
She couldn’t shake a nagging feeling in the back of her mind, as if she had missed something important.
* * * * * * * *
A metallic room, on board a ship.
Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.
Haley groaned as she sat up. Her head was pounding, and her mouth tasted like sandpaper. She could hear a feint humming noise, and the metal floor beneath her seemed to be slightly vibrating.
Remembering what had happened the night before, Haley’s eyes snapped open. She was alone in a large, sterile room; there was no furniture, no door, and she couldn’t even tell where the light was coming from. It seemed as bright as any office in the room, but there were no lamps, windows, or overhead lights.
“What the hell?” she asked herself, standing up. She still wore her casual outfit from the night before: a sleeveless floral-patterned nylon shirt, a knee-length black skirt, and dress sandals.
“Hello?” she called angrily. “What the hell am I doing here? What’s going on?”
As if summoned by Haley’s questions, a small bluish figure appeared out of nowhere in front of her. It looked kind of like a little girl, with high cheekbones and big eyes. On second glance, however, she could see that it had ridges on her nose, and long, pointed ears. The little girl was wearing long robes that covered her feet; it took Haley a second to realize that she had no feet, and was floating a foot off of the ground. The girl flickered, and Haley realized that she was just a projection.
A holographic screen appeared across the girl’s chest. Words began typing across it, as if the girl were speaking.
Hello. My name is Ayu, it wrote. How might I be of assistance?
“Um, hello?” Haley said once she got over the initial shock of the girl’s appearance. “Where am I, and why the hell am I here?”
You have been selected. The little girl had a pleasant smile on her face, but it didn’t meet her eyes. We require you for testing.
“‘Testing’?” Haley asked. “What testing?”
You have exhibited traits that we find desirable, Ayu wrote. We would like to see if you have more.
“What do you mean, ‘desirable’?” Haley asked. “What have I done?”
You are the hero known as ‘Outlier’ on your planet, correct? Ayu said. You have caught our attention.
Haley rolled her eyes. “So I ask again: What have I done? I just started as a Watcher three months ago.”
In that time, you have been tested along with the other members of your team, Ayu explained. You have demonstrated wit, cunning, patience, diligence, discipline – ”
“As much as I enjoy being complimented,” Haley said, interrupting the list, “I must insist you take me back. I have training in the morning, and I’d like to punch Eli in the face before bed.”
It is midday in your sector of Earth, Ayu told her. It has been twelve Earth hours since you arrived on board.
“Twelve hours?” Haley sputtered. “What… why?”
The transfer can be difficult for a species that has not yet adapted to space travel, Ayu explained. You needed to… “sleep it off”.
“You’re kidding,” Haley said, exasperated. “Fine. I missed training. I still need to get back; or am I a prisoner here?”
You will be tested, Ayu wrote. Then you will be returned.
“Tested for what?” Haley asked.
Testing will begin shortly. Please enter the next room, Ayu wrote.
A door opened in the wall in front of Haley. Sighing in annoyance, she stepped through. “Better get this over with,” she muttered.
The next room was just as sparse as the one she had left, with two key differences. First, there was a big red button on the far wall – which was about twenty feet away from the entrance.
Second, Eli stood on one side of the room.
“You!” Haley started towards him, flexing her arm threateningly.
“Now, hang on one second,” Eli said, putting his hands out as if to hold her back. “I was just doing a job, and now I’m stuck here just like you.”
“A job, huh?” Haley said. “You get me away from my teammates, so that I can be abducted and brought to who-knows-where, and I have some kind of alien kid telling me that I have to be ‘tested’ before I can go home. That was a ‘job’ to you?” She strode over to him and grabbed him by the collar.
Eli shrugged. “It paid well,” he said. “They just want to see what you’re made of, then we can go back.”
“When we get back, I’m getting Agent to lock you up,” Haley told him, letting him go. “I agree with Natalie and Frank: you’re a menace.”
“Whatever,” Eli said, straightening his shirt and rubbing his neck.
Haley looked around at the room. “So when is this ‘test’ supposed to start?” she asked the room.
Nothing visibly happened, but the soft hum of energy was suddenly in the room with them. A female voice spoke over an intercom, saying, “The test has begun. Push the button.”
“That’s it?” Haley asked. “Just push that big button over there?”
“Push the button,” the disembodied voice said again.
Raising her eyebrows, Haley started forward. Eli shook his head. “Wait, Outlier, maybe we should – ”
“You don’t get to talk,” Haley said, walking backwards. “I’m taking this test, and getting us out of here so I can bring you in.”
“I’m just saying, it can’t be that easy,” Eli said, putting his hands on his hips.
Haley ignored him with a wave of her hand as she turned back around – just in time to walk face-first into an invisible wall. “Ow,” she said, rubbing her nose where she hit it. “Damn.”
“Told you,” Eli said, smirking. “What kind of idiot are you? Of course there’s going to be something else to it.”
Haley turned to glare at him. “Okay, smart-ass,” she said. “What do you recommend?”
“No idea.” Eli shrugged, walking over to her and feeling for the invisible wall. “I’m guessing it’ll be a maze.”
As if it heard him, the voice said again, “Push the button.” Haley looked around the room, but she couldn’t tell where the wall was or which way to go.
This was going to be harder than she thought.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, evening.
Outlier has been missing for twenty hours.
“You haven’t seen him either?” Agent was taking a call in the common room, as most of the team gathered to compare notes. “… Okay. Let me know if he turns up.” He hung up, turning back to the others. “Haley didn’t show up for her patrol this evening,” he said. “I checked with building security, and she didn’t come back last night after the bar. The last time anybody saw her was when she left the bar with Butterfly – I just heard from some of my contacts on that end, and nobody’s seen him, either.”
“That’s not so unusual for Butterfly, though,” Rina pointed out. “He comes and goes as he wants.”
“But Haley is Miss Perfect,” Natalie pointed out. “She’s never so much as stepped a toe out of line before; she wouldn’t just disappear on us.”
Frank pulled his uniform hoodie over his head, getting ready for his patrol as he spoke. “So what do you want us to do about it?” he asked. “Any places we should check?”
“I have another person to check with,” Agent said. “If you guys could canvas the city, that might turn something up. Earthborn is currently checking the tunnels, to see if either of them turn up down there. I’m also asking Toby to check with the Fauns – she can get in and out of there a lot more discreetly than any of you, and she won’t raise a flag with them. I’m not sure what other enemies she might have made,” he admitted. “Our best bet is to figure out where Butterfly might have taken her. I have a list of his usual haunts; you guys check these places out.”
He set a very short list down on the counter. Natalie took one look and raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re kidding, right?” she asked. “‘Butterfly Garden’, a studio on the north side, and then a few dives?”
“He’s a pretty straightforward guy,” Agent said, shrugging. “If he’s in the city, he’s usually at these places unless he’s on a job.”
Granny stood up from a chair in the corner. “I’ll check out some of the dives,” she said. “I can handle myself if there’s trouble – though most people wouldn’t trouble an old lady,” she added with an impish grin.
“I’ll take the studio,” Natalie said. “If he took Haley somewhere, I doubt we’ll find them at any of these places, though.”
“I’ll check out Butterfly Garden,” Frank said.
“That leaves me splitting the dives with Granny,” Rina said.
Agent nodded. “You have your assignments, then,” he told them. “Get to it.”
* * * * * * * *
The Invisible Maze.
Haley and Eli, still trapped.
“Push the button,” came the robotic voice yet again.
Haley was really starting to hate that voice.
“I’m trying,” she growled, as Eli laughed at her. She spun to face him. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.
“You,” Eli said, still chuckling. “You’re yelling at a machine.”
“Oh, she knows what she’s done,” Haley said, shouting. Whether she was shouting at him, or the voice, or at the general situation, she wasn’t sure. “She knows exactly what she’s done! We’ve been at this for two hours now, and not only can I not figure out where we’ve gone wrong, but the only path I can seem to find leads us to the wrong wall!”
“Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of genius?” Eli asked, mocking her.
Haley took an angry breath. “I have an eidetic memory,” she said. “In this case, that means I can draw a map in my mind of where the walls we’ve found are. But no matter which way we go, it always leads us back to this one point – nowhere near the button!”
“And of course we can’t climb it,” Eli said, also frustrated. “We can’t see how high it is, but the sides are smooth, and apparently the top is out of jumping range.”
“It’s a stupid optical illusion,” Haley fumed, pounding her fist on the nearest invisible wall. “I don’t know how she’s doing it, but I swear, next time she shows that smug little holographic face…”
“You’ll beat up a kid?” Eli said. “Or will you just throw your fists through the air, since holograms don’t actually have bodies to hit?”
Haley pressed her lips together in annoyance. “You know,” she said, “you have a body I could hit. Maybe I’ll just take out my anger on you.”
“Idle threat,” Eli said, completely unconcerned. “You’d never hit me. It goes against that whole Asylum ‘holier-than-thou’ complex you’ve got.”
“Lucky you,” Haley said drily. She pounded her fist against the wall again.
Something suddenly occurred to her. She hit her fist against the wall again, but more thoughtfully than angrily this time. “The walls all lead back to this spot,” she muttered.
“Oh, gears finally turning in that rusty brain of yours?” Eli said.
“Are you trying to be annoying, or does it just come naturally to you?” Haley asked.
Eli shrugged, putting his hands behind his head. “It’s a gift,” he answered.
“Well, if you’d shut up for a minute, you might figure it out, too.” Haley walked over the metal wall, feeling the invisible one beside her as she went. “We’re still assuming that what we see matters,” she explained. “We can’t see the walls in the middle of the room…”
She put her hand on the metal wall, but met no resistance. Eli stared as her hand went through the wall. “So why would the walls on the edge of the room be real?” he finished.
Haley stepped through the holographic wall, coming into another room on the other side. This room glowed green, and the invisible walls reflected the light enough to be seen – though they were still sheer enough to see what was on the other side, at least now they showed up to the naked eye.
“Video game logic,” Haley muttered as Eli stepped through the wall behind her. “Rina’s much better at those.”
“Well, we’re not done yet,” Eli said. He clapped her on the shoulder, then walked ahead. There was a soft click as he stepped on a loose tile on the floor.
“Wait!” Haley cried, pulling him back.
Three knives flew in front of Eli’s face, where he would have been standing if Haley hadn’t stopped him. “Whoa,” he muttered, his eyes wide.
“Video game logic,” Haley repeated. “Rina’s always telling me that you have to be careful of traps in dungeons like this.”
“Noted,” Eli said, pulling his arm out of her grip. “So what do we do?”
“No idea,” Haley said, peering around through the green light. “I’m horrible at these kinds of games.”
The voice chose that moment to come back on. “Push the button.”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, Butterfly Garden.
Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.
“He lives here?” Shadow asked the groundskeeper, looking around at the field.
Butterfly Garden was a nature preserve on the edge of Eon City, where hundreds of butterflies nested. The air around them was moist, as the garden was kept at optimal conditions for the winged insects. The smell of the plants around them was unlike anything Shadow could smell in the city – the air was fresh, and the dew sparkled in the sunset.
The groundskeeper shrugged. “Eli often comes and helps out with the grounds,” he said. “So I let him kip out here when the weather’s nice, or in the main building when it’s not. He’s got a way with the butterflies, see – he moves like them, and he can walk into the middle of a flock without hurting any of them. It’s that Third Gen power of his, all kinds of useful.”
Shadow stopped gazing around the picturesque garden to look at the groundskeeper. “When was the last time he came here?” he asked.
“Few days ago,” the man said. “He’s a drifter, that one – he don’t hang around much. He just likes the butterflies, when he’s got no other place to go.”
“So he didn’t come here last night?” Shadow asked, his shoulders slumping slightly. The garden was a dead end.
“Nope,” said the groundskeeper. “Try the Essex Studio across town – he sometimes talks about going there.”
“Thanks,” Shadow said, turning away and turning on his com unit. “Butterfly Garden was a dead end. Any luck, guys?”
* * * * * * * *
Haley Prince, on her last nerve.
“Push the button,” said the robotic voice.
Haley started mocking it. “Push the button, push the button,” she said. “I know I have to push the freaking button – I’m just not sure how to get there!”
The floor was covered in hidden switches, and it seemed like every time they made some progress something would force them back. They were still a ways away from wherever the maze was leading them this time, and had already had to backtrack twice.
“I think we have to go through the choke point,” Eli said, citing a spot they had passed twice due to the size of the spinning blades shooting from the walls.
“And what, dance our way through?” Haley asked sarcastically. “Every time we try going there, it’s a close call.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Eli argued. “We’ve tried all of the other paths – the other walls are all solid!”
“I know, I know,” Haley said. “I just have a really bad feeling about that one.”
Eli shrugged. “Doesn’t that mean it’s the right path?” he asked. “Video game logic, remember?”
Haley rolled her eyes, but she led the way back to the choke point. There were two spinning buzzsaws moving quickly up and down the corridor, but they had already discovered that other traps were peppered along the way.
“On three?” Eli asked.
“Okay,” Haley said, a nervous feeling in her stomach. She hadn’t felt such a sinking feeling since her last Watcher license rejection. “One… two… three!”
She darted forward, keeping an eye peeled on the ground for the loose tiles that indicated a trap. Dodging the blades on the sides, she saw the first volley of arrows zip out of the wall in front of her with a SHUNK.
“Allow me, milady,” Eli said, coming up beside her and using a break in the saws to get in front. He tapped out a beat on his leg with his fingers, counting the time between arrow volleys. In rhythm, he said, “Three, two, one, now!” and pulled Haley forward. He stopped suddenly, allowing another volley to pass in front of him before pulling her again.
Five volleys later, they had made it to the other side. “That was incredible!” Haley said, looking at him in awe. “How did you know?”
“My Third Gen ability is hyper-proprioception,” Eli explained, grinning at the praise. “I know exactly where I am in regards to everything around me. It gives me excellent aim, and – more importantly – a really good sense of timing. Come on, let’s move.”
He took one step, straight onto a trap tile. A knife shot out of the wall, aimed straight at his head.
“Watch it!” Haley said, catching the blade just before it reached Eli’s head.
His eyes widened as he turned to see how close he had come to dying. “Thanks,” he said as Haley dropped the knife.
Haley swore. “I’m still in my clubbing clothes,” she muttered, looking down at her outfit as she held her hand away from her body. Blood began to well up in her palm from where she had gripped the edges of the blade.
“Afraid of getting a bit of blood on your pretty shirt?” Eli teased.
“No,” Haley said. “I just don’t have my first-aid supplies; they were in my purse, which I left in the club.” She shook her head, wincing as the blood in her hand began dripping onto the floor. “From now on, I’m not going anywhere without my utility belt.”
“Here,” Eli said, taking off his shirt and handing it to her. “Wrap it with that. Least I can do, since you saved my life and all.”
Haley took it, thanking him. She gripped one of the sleeves with the bleeding hand and wrapped the cloth tightly around it. “Well, it looks like we made it to the wall,” she said.
Eli picked the bloody knife up off the floor and slipped it into his pocket. “Never know when a weapon might come in handy,” he said. “No pun intended.”
“Ha ha,” Haley said dryly. “Let’s see what’s next.”
The two Watchers stepped through the wall into the next room, which was bathed in a red glow.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, Essex Studio.
Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.
“Trick here,” she said over the coms. “The studio is a bust, too. They haven’t seen Eli since yesterday morning.”
“Roger,” Agent told her. “You and Shadow check out the next bars on the list.”
“How are things on your end?” Trick asked him, getting onto her motorcycle and revving up the engine. “Any leads from your contacts?”
“No,” Agent sounded mad. “They are being purposefully vague in their answers. I think they know something, but they aren’t talking.”
Trick pressed her lips together as she drove off. “Want me to go kick their asses for you, Agent?” she asked.
“I’d love that, actually,” Agent admitted, “but it’s more than my job’s worth at this point. Did the studio tell you anything?”
“It’s a gymnastics studio,” Trick said. “Butterfly’s been a gymnast since he was a kid. Who knew?”
“The guy sleeps in a field of butterflies,” Shadow added over the coms. “At this point, I don’t think anything would surprise me about him.”
“Apparently he’s pretty good. He teaches gymnastics to kids in his spare time,” Trick said. “He’s got that in common with Haley, at least.”
“Haley isn’t in the Watcher business for the money, though,” Agent pointed out. Trick could hear the worry in his voice. “We still need to find her; if she isn’t back yet, then there’s something wrong.”
“We’ll find her,” Trick promised. In the silence that followed, she knew that Agent was remembering the day they found her mom. She might not get along with the Outlier, but Trick hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself.
* * * * * * * *
Haley and Eli, and a lot of fire.
“Something’s wrong,” Eli said, looking at Haley. “Why are you losing so much blood?” She had already re-wrapped the shirt twice, and it was nearly soaked through.
Haley looked down at it and grimaced. “My blood doesn’t clot,” she told him. “It’ll keep bleeding until I get to a first-aid kit.”
Her face appeared bright red in this room, reflecting the light around them. Eli couldn’t tell in the light, but he thought she looked paler than she had in the last room. “Hang on,” he said, counting the time for the next trap. “We’re almost through this one.”
“You know that for sure, huh?” Haley asked him. She had let him take the lead a while ago, as her head was starting to get fuzzy. “We could be going around in circles for all I know.”
“What happened to that eidetic memory of yours, huh?” Eli asked. “Shouldn’t you know where we are?”
Haley shook her head, stumbling. “I lost track after the last fire burst,” she admitted. “I could really use some water.”
The red room didn’t use blades and switches like the green room had done. Instead, flames shot in random patterns through the corridors. They could see the jets that would shoot the flames, which was a blessing – they could avoid getting burned, though the temperature in the room rose with each burst of fire. The main walls were still metallic – if they didn’t find their way through soon, they could be cooked alive.
Eli tried to wipe the sweat off his forehead, only to find that his hand was too wet to do any good. Haley was worse off – she was swaying, and her breathing was coming more heavily. The dry air burned, and he knew they needed more than water to make it through.
“We need to stop the bleeding,” he said. He began to shout to the air, “Hey, hologram lady! She needs medical attention if you want us to finish!”
“Push the button,” the voice repeated.
“She’s no help,” Haley said, shaking her head in an attempt to clear the dizziness. She began to unwrap the shirt from her hand. “If bandaging isn’t working, then I’m going to need to cauterize it,” she told Eli.
Confused, Eli asked, “What do you mean, ‘cauterize it’?” He looked back just in time to see Haley grab the metal base of a flame jet with her injured hand. “Hey!”
Haley gritted her teeth as the jet roared to life, keeping her head and torso as far away from it as possible. When the fire died, she pried her hand from the metal surface and cradled her arm. “Bleeding stopped,” she muttered, shivering in pain.
“Here, let me see,” Eli said, reaching for the injured hand. Her palm was charred, and her fingers were covered in blisters.
“I don’t even feel it,” Haley told him, smiling weakly.
“Yeah, because the nerves are fried,” Eli said.
Haley gingerly yanked her hand away from him. “I can function,” she said. “Stronger than a rhino, steady as a boulder. It was the fastest way.”
She pressed forward, Eli following closely behind her. “Now you aren’t bleeding to death,” he said. “You’re just cooking yourself. I got stuck with a masochist, and if she dies then I’m never getting out of here. That’s just great.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Haley asked. Her charred hand did one good thing – it took her mind off of the burning air.
“It means that this is your test,” Eli said angrily. “You have to be the one to push the freakin’ button.”
“And I will,” Haley said, shrugging. “Look, here’s the far wall.”
She reached her injured hand out to touch it, just in case they had reached one of the real metal walls; she couldn’t afford to burn her other hand. As the burned hand passed through, she turned back to give Eli a confident grin, even as her eyes watered in pain –
– and was pulled through by something on the other side.
* * * * * * * *
Agent, about ready to bust some heads.
“That’s the last one,” Granny said over the coms. “Roberta didn’t hear anybody talking about a missing Watcher.” She referred to her dragonfly, who allowed her to listen to multiple conversations at once.
“I got nowhere, too,” Nightmare said from her own location. “It’s another dead end.”
“Nobody’s seen or heard anything from Butterfly in the last two days,” Trick added. She and Shadow had finished checking the other bars on the list. “Any luck on your end, Agent?”
“Earthborn hasn’t found them in the tunnels,” Agent told them, “and my contact is still being dodgy. You four meet up back at headquarters; I’m going to meet them in person.”
“You could use some backup,” Nightmare pointed out. “We’ll go with you!”
“No,” Agent said. “It’ll go better if I’m alone. They’re not dangerous,” he added, just to put their minds at ease. He muted his com, banging a fist on the table next to him in frustration. He had spent the last five hours trying to contact anybody who might know where Butterfly had taken Haley, to no avail. Now there was only one person left to try – and he really hoped it was another dead end.
Agent went down to the motor pool and took his car out across the city. At this time of night, the roads were mercifully clear – he arrived at the dock warehouses in minutes. When he stepped out of the car, a hole ripped in the air in front of him.
“Jaunt,” Agent said, gripping his umbrella.
Jaunt stepped through the portal, looking around. “Pretty clandestine, don’t you think?” he asked. “Where’s your team?”
“I’m here alone,” Agent told him.
Jaunt chuckled. “That must be killing you,” he said, “to be meeting with me like this. Now, what did you want to talk to me about that needed such a dreary meeting place?” He looked around at the warehouses, wrinkling his nose at the fishy smell coming from the wharf.
“Stop playing around,” Agent said. “You’ve been ducking my call all evening. Don’t pretend you don’t know what this is about.”
“You’ve misplaced a teammate,” Jaunt said, smirking at him. “Or should I say, another teammate.”
He was trying to get a rise out of Agent, referring to Striker. When Agent worked with Team Ark, they had tried and failed to arrest Jaunt – and it had torn the team apart. Striker had vanished from the face of the earth that day, and the team couldn’t recover. It was Agent’s worst failure, and it had been entirely Jaunt’s fault.
Jaunt knew how Agent felt about him, and reminded him of it every time they met. Now with Haley missing, there was no doubt in Agent’s mind that Jaunt was behind it.
“Listen here,” Agent said, using his umbrella’s handle to drag the thief’s face close to his. “You know where Outlier is. You’re going to tell me right now.”
“Pretty touchy for an Agent, aren’t you?” Jaunt said, unconcerned. He didn’t even try to pull free of Agent’s grip. “I didn’t take the girl.”
“You know who did, then.” It wasn’t a question – Jaunt knew more than he was saying.
Gingerly, Jaunt pulled the umbrella handle away from his neck. “She was last seen with the mercenary, wasn’t she?” he asked, evading the question.
“Mercenaries are hired,” Agent said, swinging the umbrella back down to his side. “I want to know by whom.”
“We don’t always get what we want,” Jaunt told him sagely. He clapped his hands together, preparing to leave again. “Don’t worry about the girl,” he added once the portal was open. “If she survives, she’ll be returned to you.”
Agent caught Jaunt’s arm. “I’m not done yet,” he growled. “What do you mean ‘if she survives’?”
“She’s being tested,” Jaunt told him, shrugging. “That comes with some risk. But Outlier should have no problems with that, right?” he asked, smirking. “After all, you hand-picked her for your team. The human girl with the extraordinary willpower.”
Agent’s grip loosened for a second, and Jaunt yanked his arm free. He stepped through the portal before Agent could grab him again.
“Damn him,” Agent muttered, getting back into his car. If he didn’t need the thief…
But he did. That line of thought would get him nowhere, and Haley was still missing. He could only hope that they found her – or that she passed this “test” – before it was too late.
* * * * * * * *
Haley’s in trouble.
Haley kept her charred hand behind her as she faced off with her opponent. She barely registered Eli running through the wall behind her, keeping her eyes on the giant figure that had pulled her into the room.
This room was different from the others. Aside from the blue lighting, it was round instead of square, and it didn’t seem to have any maze walls, invisible or otherwise. The floor was covered in a small pool of clear water, coming up to Haley’s ankles. However, the biggest difference loomed in front of her: instead of traps, this room had –
“Is that a knight?” Eli asked, his eyes going wide.
“Boss fight,” Haley said. “Video game logic, remember?” The knight was in full armor, complete with sword – but it stood ten feet tall in the large chamber.
“At least this room has water,” Eli said weakly. “We have to fight that thing?”
Haley pointed towards the opposite end of the room with her good hand. Eli followed it, seeing a door on the other side that was covered in bars. “I’m guessing we have to subdue it,” she told him, grimacing as she tried to flex her injured hand behind her.
“You’re in no shape to fight,” Eli pointed out. “You’re injured, and you lost a lot of blood…”
“Yes, I’m aware,” Haley said, exasperated. “There’s got to be a trick to this room, just like everywhere else.”
Eli rolled his eyes. “I’m all ears,” he said.
The knight drew its sword, coming after them. Haley pushed Eli out of the way, then dove to the other side to avoid the knight’s swing. Luckily for her, the knight was slow and lumbering, as if it weren’t alive. She rolled to a stand, looking around for its next attack.
It had to have a weakness. Haley could try taking its sword, but strong as she was, she would never be able to wield it with one hand. There had to be another way – even if she just disarmed it, she had no way of knowing what would open the door in front of her.
The water seeped into her shoes, tripping her as she tried to dodge the knight’s next attack. Tripping saved her life – the knight sliced his sword through the air over her, and would have bisected her if she had been upright.
“What do we do?” Eli cried, rolling away from another swing of the giant sword.
Haley scrambled to her feet, wincing as she kicked something under the water. A loose tile! “Eli, there are switches in this room, too!” she called over. “I think we need to press them all.”
“Press the switches? Are you mad?” he called back, dodging another swing of the sword. “The last ones tried to kill us!”
“Just trust me, okay?” Haley said, stepping on the switch by her foot. “Find a switch!”
Eli shook his head in disbelief, but began feeling his way through the water for loose tiles. Haley, for her part, tried to keep the attention of the knight to give him space to move. Her clothes were soaked from falling into the water, and her pants felt like weights around her legs. Her breathing picked up again as her heart rate rose, and a wave of nausea washed over her as she narrowly avoided the knight’s sword.
“Haley!” Eli called, snapping her back into the moment just in time to dodge another hit. “Almost there!”
He stepped on two more switches, but Haley saw the problem: the final switch was at the knight’s feet. She braced herself, blinking the water out of her eyes as she forced herself to focus on the sword. Eli looked over, crying, “What the hell are you doing?!”
As the sword came down again, Haley dove forward towards the giant knight. She pressed the switch with her good hand, using her injured one to push off of the knight’s legs in the direction of the door.
The knight raised its sword again, but instead of swinging it at the pair it held it out in front of its sightless face. The bars in front of the door swiftly retracted into the floor with a shwoop.
Haley stumbled over to the door, meeting Eli there. Giving him a grin as he opened the door for her, she said, “We did it!”
Stepping through the door into the original room, her eyesight began to blur. She could tell that they were only a few feet away from the big red button now, and she stumbled towards it. Eli caught her injured arm, putting it around his shoulders to help her walk forward. “Come on, Outlier,” he said. “We’re right here; don’t quit now.”
Haley took a deep breath, taking it one step at a time. She couldn’t even speak, feeling as if she would puke if she opened her mouth. Her injured arm burned, and the rest of her body felt heavy. She reached out with her good arm, but she couldn’t see if it was touching the button; her eyes chose that moment to roll back into her head, and she gratefully passed out.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, outside of Asylum Headquarters.
Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.
Somebody was talking; that was the first thing Haley realized as she came to. “Hey, you did it,” Eli said. “Come on, Haley; you beat the test, and you pressed that stupid button. Don’t you dare die on me now. Come on, wake up.”
“‘M not gonna die,” she mumbled, opening her eyes. She saw Eli’s face staring down at her, but above him was a pinkish dawn sky. “We’re back?”
“Haley!” Eli said, grinning at her. “That was the stupidest, bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Raising an eyebrow hurt. “What?” she asked, trying to sit up.
“I got you into that mess,” he said. “I was as annoying as I could have possibly been, and you still caught that dagger for me. Then you burned the cut closed – which, frankly, I thought was both idiotic and the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. You figured out the puzzle in the knight room, and still managed to press the button at the end.” He shook his head as he summed up the adventure. “I’ve never seen anybody keep their cool like that.”
“You weren’t so bad yourself,” Haley said, finally managing to prop her arms on her legs to keep from laying down on the sidewalk. It was still early enough that nobody was around, but she would rather avoid the awkward questions if anybody had seen her. “You figured out the pattern to the knives and the fire.”
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t supposed to do that,” Eli said, then bit his lip. At Haley’s questioning – but not surprised – expression, he admitted, “I was paid to hold you back. I was supposed to insult you, and basically be as annoying as possible to keep you from focusing.”
“Makes sense,” Haley said. She looked around and saw the familiar doors of Asylum Headquarters. “I need to get in there,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I missed both practice and my patrol yesterday.” She didn’t try to move from her sitting position yet, though. Her head was pounding, and her stomach still threatened to rebel at the first sign of movement.
“You need help,” Eli said. “You’re injured, anemic, and you’re talking about missing work.”
Haley looked down at her hand, wincing as she saw the injury. The blisters weren’t as bad as they had looked in the fire room, but the charring around the wounds kept her from flexing it fully. “Meh,” she shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
Eli gave a surprised laugh. “You’ve had worse than that?” he asked, disbelieving.
“My brother once dislocated my shoulder while breaking my arm in three places when we were sparring,” she told him.
“Ah.” Eli obviously didn’t know what to say to that. He was saved responding when a flash of blue light appeared next to them.
Ayu still looked like a smiling alien kid, but she spoke with the same grown woman’s voice that had kept repeating “push the button” on the ship. “You gave us excellent data,” she said. “Haley Prince, you exhibited more of the qualities we are looking for in our candidates. You are still incomplete, but you show promise.”
“So you’re talking now, are you?” Haley asked, moving as if to stand up. The world spun around her with the motion, so she elected to remain sitting.
“My voice functions better in the atmosphere of a planet,” Ayu said. “On the ship, it echoes loudly, and some species have difficulty understanding. I wanted to be sure you understood the parameters of the test; for that reason, I kept vocal instructions to a minimum.”
“I passed your test,” Haley said. “What else do you want?”
“She’s injured,” Eli added. “Can’t you do something?”
“She will live,” Ayu said, looking Haley up and down. “Her own doctor will be able to treat her injuries with minimal scarring.”
Haley blinked. “Well, that’s something,” she said. “So why are you still here?”
“I have been tasked with testing the heroes of your planet,” Ayu explained. “I have delegated this task for too long; now I must begin to take a more active role. I wish to inform you that you are still incomplete; however, you show promise. We will see whether you have been completed in two years; in the meantime, I will continue to test the other possible candidates from this world.”
“Why?” Haley asked. “What happens in two years?”
“The Gamemaster will arrive,” Ayu said simply. She didn’t elaborate, but turned to Eli. “The agreed upon sum has been deposited in your bank account. Thank you for your service.”
“No problem,” Eli said, giving Haley a guilty look. “Let’s not do this again, okay?”
“I will not require your services again for some time,” Ayu told him. She nodded first at Eli, then at Haley in some kind of farewell, and then disappeared in another flash of light.
Haley leaned back, laying back down on the sidewalk. If she had trouble sitting up, then standing was probably out of the question. “I think I’ll take a quick nap before going in,” she muttered. “It’s been a long day.”
“Wonder what that ‘Gamemaster’ thing is that’s coming in two years,” Eli mused.
“You don’t know?” Haley asked.
Eli shrugged. “They paid me to do a job. I did it,” he said. He stretched his arms for a minute, then got to his feet. “Anyways, I’d better get going before your friends come down. Trick and Shadow wouldn’t be too happy to see me.”
Haley reached an arm up to him, and he pulled her to her feet. The world still spun around her, but she managed to stay upright. Eli helped her to the doorway of the tower, then turned around and walked away.
“Eli,” Haley called after him. He turned back, stopping on the sidewalk. “Thanks,” Haley said.
Eli gave her a deep, mocking bow. “Any time, milady,” he said with a grin. Then he turned around and walked away.
Haley watched him leave for a minute before pressing the building’s buzzer. The security guard at the front desk hurried to let her in, catching her before she could fall through the open door. “Outlier!” he said, obviously startled to see her. “What happened? Everybody’s been looking for you all night!”
Haley gave him a sheepish smile. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said.
* * * * * * * *
Pharos Laboratories, eight years ago.
Laboratory outside of Eon City.
“What do you mean, ‘our funding’s being cut?” cried Doctor James Samson, ripping the paper out of Doctor Carson Dale’s hands. “The work we’re doing here could change the course of human history!”
“Come off it, Samson,” Dale said, shaking his head. “You know as well as I tha Ethics Board always had a problem with your work. This la’est project – ”
“This latest project is about understanding the human brain’s effect on the body,” Samson retorted. “It could tell us how the Third Gen and Satyr serums progenerated so easily, when all other evidence says that neither species should be fertile. They both should have died out in a generation or two, but instead the population rates have been hitting record highs. With further study, this project could have told us how that happened! We might have even found a cure – ”
“A cure for wha’?” Dale asked. “For Third Gens an’ Satyrs? We’re talkin’ about people, Samson; this is who they are!”
Samson shook his head. “We’re talking about an anomaly,” he argued. “Neither evolution was natural; they were both man-made. They’re closer to genetic disorders than actual identities.” He walked back over to his lab table, still talking. “If we could find a cure for autism, or Achondroplasia, or some other disability, then nobody would bat an eye. Third Gen and Satyrism are no different – they just weren’t caused by any environmental factor other than human error.”
“Human error is wha’ tha ethics board is tryin’ ta prevent,” Dale pointed out. “Unauthorized human experimentation is how Third Gen and Satyrism came about in tha first place.”
“Dale, you may have just gotten here last year, but I have been studying the effects of the serums all my life,” Samson said. “My research has already led to breakthroughs that nobody else had seen before! Pharos hired me because of my work – ”
“Oh, you mean tha Fourth Gen serum?” Dale asked. “Sure, tha was a ‘breakthrough’.”
“I recreated the effects of Third Gen and Satyrism in a controlled fashion,” Samson countered. “I controlled what powers the subjects got – ”
“You mean tha kids,” said Dale. “You experimented on children, and called it ‘progress’. Now you run human trials on an experimental drug without goin’ through tha proper channels, and next you would have combined it with one o’ tha serums!” He slammed his hand on the table to accentuate his point. “You’re jus’ lucky that nobody was hurt this time!”
Samson sighed. “Scientific discovery takes risk, Carson,” he said. “If Pharos doesn’t want to take them, then maybe I’ll take my work to King.” He started stacking loose papers, as if he would leave right away.
Dale raised an eyebrow. “Pharos an’ King both play by tha same rules,” he said. “King more so, since the Satyr serum first came out. If Pharos will na’ fund your research, wha’ makes ya think King will? Especially since tha protests started last year; all companies are playin’ by tha letter of tha law.”
Samson stopped shuffling, putting his hands on the table in defeat. “So if Pharos is cutting this project, what do they intend for me to work on?” he asked.
“Pharos wants us on tha ‘Gen Juice’ project,” Dale told him. “By tha time we come in tomorrow, this stuff will be packed up in storage, an’ we’ll be startin’ fresh.” He clapped Samson on the back. “Come on, we’ll go ta tha pub, have a drink.”
Samson shook his head. “You go on without me,” he said. “If they’re packing all this up tonight, I need to get some things in order first.”
Dale shrugged, and walked out the door. Samson looked around at the lab. This project had taken over the last seven years of his life; for the funding to be lost felt like his legs being cut out from under him. He waited a minute to make sure that Dale wasn’t coming back before moving over to the vials labelled “samples”.
Checking over his shoulder in case anyone came into the room, he pocketed three vials. This work is too important to lose, he thought rebelliously. Maybe he could continue his work on his own.
After all, scientific discovery takes risk.
* * * * * * * *
Pharos Laboratories, present day.
Agent meeting with O.N.C.
“Why, exactly, are we here?” Agent asked, looking uninterestedly around the laboratory. Trick, Outlier, and Shadow had all been ordered to come with him, but he addressed the lady who had just entered the room. She wore a business suit and horn-rimmed glasses, giving her the appearance of an executive. Her steel-grey hair was tied back in a no-nonsense bun, and the way she carried herself suggested that she was in command.
“Who’s that?” Outlier whispered to Shadow.
“Agent’s boss,” he whispered back. “They call her O.N.C.”
Outlier frowned. “‘O.N.C.? Why?” she whispered.
As the executive lady turned her intense stare on the whispering duo, Shadow added, “You’ll see,” under his breath.
“Mr. Hannah has requested our presence by name,” O.N.C. told them. “There was apparently a break-in at one of the more sensitive labs, and he wants to keep this quiet.”
“‘He wants to keep it quiet’,” Trick scoffed. “So he called in three of the best-known Watchers from the highest-profile team in the country, along with their supervisor and his boss, because…?”
“Because you three have impressed me.” Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, chose that moment to walk through the door. “Blackbird is currently on an undercover assignment, Reiki is a loose cannon, the Fourth Gens are unstable, and, frankly, Granny’s just weird. The people in this room have shown ability and restraint,” he added, glancing at Trick.
“I’m sorry, but what is this research?” Outlier asked, trying to ease the tension from the CEO’s implication. “We haven’t been briefed at all yet.”
“Right,” Sean Hannah said, picking up a sheet of paper. “Eight years ago, my predecessor had research here called Project Eleutherios.”
“‘The liberator’,” Outlier said. “Eleutherios was one of the names for Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry.” As the others stared at her, she shrugged, adding, “I did a project on Dionysus in middle school. The guy was scary.”
Shadow raised his eyebrows. “‘God of wine and revelry’,” he quoted. “Sounds like he had fun.”
“He made people lose their inhibitions,” Outlier explained. “In small amounts that could be a good thing, but Dionysus could drive people crazy – literally insane – with his powers. Some of his followers even turned to cannibalism. Some legends even claim that Dionysus was a conqueror – ”
Sean Hannah cleared his throat, and Outlier cut herself off with a sheepish apology. “Origins of the name aside,” the CEO continued, “Project Eleutherios was supposed to be a drug that heightened a human’s natural abilities.” He looked at Agent, adding, “Much like the Fourth Gen serum, except not quite as powerful.”
“This was the precursor to Fourth Gen?” Trick asked, glaring at him.
Agent narrowed his eyes. “It was shut down only eight years ago,” he pointed out to his team. “More like this was what Fourth Gen led to.” Crossing his arms, he asked, “So what was the problem with this one? Photosensitivity? Dual personalities?”
“Lack of inhibitions, as the name suggests,” Sean admitted, nodding to Outlier. “The lead scientist, Doctor Samson, was called in front of the Ethics Board for attempting human trials without authorization. While the effects proved to be temporary without continuous application, the subjects became unstable, and a danger to themselves and others. Watchers managed to get the situation under control, and Pharos Industries immediately cut funding to the project.”
“So why now?” Outlier asked. “Eight years later, why would anybody steal this drug?”
“Better question: why wasn’t the research destroyed?” Agent asked.
O.N.C. answered. “Projects like Eleutherios cost a lot of time and money,” she said. “Most companies would rather store such a thing for possible reuse later than to start from scratch in the future.”
“So again,” Outlier repeated. “Why now?”
“I’m sorry, who are you?” O.N.C. asked her.
Outlier looked at her, seeing what she was trying to do. “They call me Outlier,” she said, extending her hand. “And you are?”
“My name is of no consequence,” O.N.C. said dismissively. Behind her, Shadow mouthed to Outlier the letters O-N-C, trying not to laugh.
Outlier bit back a grin of her own as she said, “Fine, O.N.C. Now if somebody would please answer my question: why now? What changed to bring this research back to light?”
“Doctor Samson was recently fired,” Sean Hannah told them. “We believe that he might have stolen the research before he left.”
“Wait, back up,” Trick said, walking up to the CEO and getting in his face. “You’re saying that this guy, who by your own admission was a sociopathic jerk called in front of the Ethics Board, wasn’t fired until eight years later?”
“And that he stole proprietary information from you?” Agent added, also crossing his arms.
Sean Hannah gently pushed Trick away, saying, “I only became the CEO here five years ago. I had no idea that the company had done such things, and it wasn’t brought to my attention until he almost tried a similar stunt on the Gen Juice project.” He straightened his jacket. “Of course, he was fired for even suggesting we go to human trials at this point.”
Shadow stepped up next to Trick. “I recently had a run-in with your Gen Juice project,” he said. “My sister and a bunch of other satyrs were kidnapped and tested for it.”
“That wasn’t Pharos Industries,” the CEO said sternly. “That was a copycat, trying to catch up with our research. Pharos has always been ahead of the curve in the R and D department, and so we have a lot of rivals trying to catch up. Unfortunately, word about the Gen Juice project leaked to the public years before it was supposed to – again, probably Samson trying to accelerate it – and I’ve been running damage control for the last year because of it.” He shifted on his feet, putting a hand to his temple. “You have no idea how many press conferences I’ve had to make just to tell people that it’s years from being finished.”
“Okay, so you know what was stolen, who stole it, and why,” Outlier said. “So what do you need us for?”
“Muscle,” Agent answered, still glaring at both O.N.C. and the CEO. “This is a test, right? You want my team to find Samson and bring him in so that you can see them in action.”
“And evaluate them,” Sean Hannah added. “You three have done exemplary work thus far. Trick took down King Enterprises’ pet project – in front of a crowd, no less. Shadow broke up the satyr kidnapping ring last week, and Outlier has been making quite a name for herself around the city. Didn’t you help stop the museum thief?”
“Along with Reiki,” Outlier said, folding her arms. “Why isn’t he here?”
The CEO shook his head. “As I said, Reiki is a loose cannon. He doesn’t work well with others, and if he gets involved there’s usually violence.” He walked around a table, adding, “I would prefer to avoid a scene, if you can.”
“Fine,” Agent said, uncrossing his arms but still glaring. “We’ll help. Do you know where this Doctor Samson is?”
“Yes,” O.N.C. told them. “In fact, we do.”
* * * * * * * *
Doctor Samson’s home lab, Eon City.
Outlier, Shadow, and Trick.
“Doctor Samson?” Outlier called, knocking on the doctor’s door. “We’re Watchers from the Asylum. We have a few questions for you.”
“Doesn’t seem like he’s home,” Trick said after a minute, nudging Outlier aside. “Give me a sec.”
Neither Outlier nor Shadow saw what she did to the lock, but in a few seconds the door was unlocked. “How’d you do that?” Shadow asked.
Trick shrugged. “Magic,” she answered, grinning secretively and holding up her hands to show that they were empty. Given that she wore her Watcher outfit – which Chip had helped design with plenty of hidden pockets – Outlier was pretty sure she had just slipped something up her sleeve.
Shaking her head, Outlier stepped into the lab calling for Doctor Samson again. “Hold up,” Shadow told them. “I sense something.”
“Something’s in the shadows?” Trick asked him.
“Shh,” Outlier held up a hand. “Do you hear that?”
Someone was muttering to themselves in the dark house. “Doctor Samson?” Trick called, heading towards the noise. “Is that you?”
“I think he’s singing,” Outlier said. “Listen.”
Sure enough, the halting voice was singing a jaunty tune from the next room:
“Lavender blue, dilly-dilly
If I were king, dilly-dilly, I’d need a queen
Who told me so?, dilly-dilly
Who told me so?
I told myself, dilly-dilly, I told me so…”
“Any guesses?” Shadow asked, heading to the next room.
Trick shrugged, but Outlier answered, “Lavender Blue, by Sammy Kaye from the nineteen hundreds. My mom sometimes plays classical stuff like that. But why is he singing it?”
As they entered the room, they saw a small laboratory. The tables were heavy and metallic, and the only light came from a few desk lamps scattered around. Various test tubes and jars were scattered about the room; a few had flowers in them, while others had A man was dancing around the table, still singing:
“If your dilly-dilly heart
Feels a dilly-dilly way
If you’ll answer yes
In a pretty little church
On a dilly-dilly day
You’ll be wed in a dilly-dilly dress of
Lavender blue, dilly-dilly
Then I’ll be king, dilly-dilly, and you’ll be my queen…”
The man was dressed in beige slacks and a white lab coat. His hair was pulled back into cornrows, and he had a flower in his hands.
When he caught sight of the heroes, he grabbed Outlier’s hand with his free one and pulled her closer to dance with him. “Umm, excuse me?” Outlier asked, trying to push herself free of the madman. “Are you Doctor Samson?”
“Doctor, doctor…” Samson chuckled.
“Doctor Foster went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain;
He stepped in a puddle
Right up to his middle
And never went there again!”
“Doctor Samson!” Trick practically shouted at him, startling him into letting go of Outlier. “Snap out of it!”
“That’s not helping,” Outlier said.
Samson shoved the flower at her, saying, “Pretty flower for the pretty girl. Smells like… smells like…
“Lavender blue, dilly-dilly – ”
“Nope, not starting that again,” Trick said, grabbing his wrist and wrenching it behind him. “Doctor Samson, you’re under arrest for the theft of – ”
“No!” Doctor Samson suddenly screamed, wrenching his arm around and throwing Trick over his hip in a display of inhuman strength. “No! Not theft – this was my life’s work!”
He picked up the metal table, looking like he would throw it on top of Trick while she was down. The jars and vials flew everywhere around the room, smashing against the floor and walls and splattering their contents everywhere. Shadow stepped forward to tackle the man, but Outlier grabbed his shoulder to stop him.
“Doctor Samson!” she shouted, trying to grab his attention as she wiped a few drops of liquid off of her wrist. “Don’t you want to dance? Lavender blue, dilly-dilly, lavender green…”
“If I were king, dilly-dilly, I’d need a queen
Who told me so? dilly-dilly
Who told me so?
I told myself, dilly-dilly
I told me so…”
Doctor Samson began singing again, swaying to the tune. He put one end of the table on the floor and began to dance with it. Trick scrambled back to her feet, wiping some of the test tube contents off of her coat with her hand. Shadow clapped her on the back, shaking off his gloved hand as he realized she was soaked in the stuff. Outlier breathed a sigh of relief, saying, “He must have been affected by his own drug. We should take him to Dale.”
“Dale?” Samson said, still dancing with the table. “Doctor Carson Dale? I know him!”
“You know Doctor Dale?” Outlier asked slowly. “Do you want to go see him? He wants to see you.”
Samson paused for a second, considering. “Nah, not really,” he told them. “Dale helped the board cut my funding, see. He’s a liar, and I don’t want to see him.”
“He says he’s really sorry about that,” Trick said, taking her cue from Outlier. “He’d like to be friends. But you have to come see him.”
“I’m uninhibited, not stupid,” Samson told her, setting the table down. “No need to talk to me like I’m a child. Dale said many years ago that he wanted nothing more to do with Eleutherios.” He put his hands on the table, adding, “I was so close, too! I could have stablized it, but I needed test subjects. Human ones, not those satyr or Third Gen ones.” He turned back to the Watchers. “That’s why the Fourth Gen project failed, you know – we used satyr and Third Gen subjects. Fourth Gen enhanced their powers, yes – and even gave them new ones. But at a cost, a terrible cost. Even my own children…”
He hopped up to sit on the table, swinging his legs freely as he started singing again:
“Here shines the sun,
Shining so bright;
Now the whole world’s emblazoning.
Flowers in bloom,
Spring will come soon; we’re waiting.
When the green grass grows,
And the trees are close,
And the soft rain falls on the ground…
Here shines the sun,
Clouds gone away,
Rainbows are pretty amazing.
Just close your eyes;
You’ll see the sky someday…”
Tears started falling down his face as he said, “They never did see the sky, though. They had to run away to leave the room, and they still can’t go out at night. And poor Ryan, number one, he can’t even walk on the ground any more.” He stopped crying suddenly, growing angry as he continued, “They all left me; abandoned me. Those freaks of nature, who owed me their lives! I saved them, you know – my work would have cured them and everyone like them of Third Gen and satyrism! Why doesn’t anybody see that?”
He gripped the side of the table, and the metal started bending under his strength. Outlier hummed a couple bars of Lavender Blue, and Samson seemed to calm down. He began singing again, moving his head side to side in time with the tune.
“I wonder…” Trick muttered under her breath. Turning to her teammates, she asked them in a whisper, “Should we tell him about Rina?”
“You think he’ll come if we tell him we’re taking him to her?” Shadow replied. He sneezed, putting his hand to his mouth to cover it. “We really should get out of here.”
Outlier shook her head. “We can’t take him to Rina,” she said. “Anybody with eyes can see she tries to forget the Fourth Gen experiment. I don’t know the details, but I don’t want to open up old wounds for her.”
“We won’t actually bring him to her,” Trick said, her voice as low as she could make it. “We just tell him we will, and bring him to Dale instead.”
“Bad idea,” Outlier warned. “His history with Dale, plus his super-strength and lack of inhibitions? That’s asking for trouble.”
“You got a better plan?” Trick demanded. “No? Okay then.” She turned back to Samson, saying, “Doctor Samson? We might know where a Fourth Gen is. You remember Sabrina Dawson?”
Samson looked taken aback. “Sabrina?” he asked. “The Nightmare Child? She took her mother’s name, then – makes sense. Her mother died young. Two children, nine years apart – but complications took her a week after Sabrina was born. Sabby always looked up to her brother. Didn’t know he was her brother – that would have been problematic.” He hopped off of the table, adding, “Take me to her – I want to see Sabby again!”
Outlier gave an alarmed look at Trick, who avoided her eyes. When she looked at Shadow, he was slowly becoming a smudge against the wall as his powers his him from sight. They both understood what Samson had said, then.
“Oh dear,” Samson cut through the silent exchange, looking at the smashed jars and test tubes on the ground. “Eleutherios – who smashed the vials? Shouldn’t have done that.” He shook his head. “Now the whole place is contaminated.” He started humming Lavender Blue again, as the Asylum teammates looked at each other.
“Call Agent?” Trick asked, wincing at their mistake.
“Call Agent,” Outlier agreed. Shadow turned on his com to ask for backup.
* * * * * * * *
After a decontamination scrub.
“Well, I feel like I lost a layer of skin,” Natalie said, rubbing her pink face as she guzzled water in the kitchen.
“Do you guys feel any… effects?” Agent asked. “Seriously, at the first sign of trouble, I’m sending you down to Dale.”
“Don’t worry, mother,” Frank said from the couch. “We’ll be fine. I mean, look at Doctor Samson: mostly he was just humming some classical music and sitting around. What’s the worst that could happen to us?”
Agent glanced at Natalie. “I’m not sure,” he admitted, “but I’d still feel better if you three would stay here for the next few days – just in case.”
“Can’t,” Haley said, sitting in a chair across from Frank. “I teach self-defense at the community center tomorrow. I can’t just cancel.”
“I’ll send someone to cover your class for you,” Agent told her. “Most of the people in this business are good enough at martial arts to teach a basic move or two. I think Sara would be more than happy to help, and she’s a certified instructor.”
“My mom?” Frank said. “Sure, she’d be awesome. But she also teaches at the dojo.”
“We’ll make it work,” Agent said. “If not Sara, then I can find someone else. You guys just rest up, and if we don’t see any symptoms in the next few days you’ll be back to your routine.”
Natalie gave him a mock salute. “Aye, captain,” she said, grinning. Agent flashed her a smile and went into the elevator.
As he stepped in, Rina and Reiki stepped out. “How are you guys feeling?” Rina asked, seeing the teammates sprawled across the living area in their pajamas. “We heard what happened.” She and Reiki were still in their uniforms, having just returned from patrol.
“Ugh,” Natalie called from the kitchen. “Agent just grounded us for ‘a few days’. Didn’t even say how many.”
“Myeh,” Frank shrugged from the couch. “Could be worse. What would you guys do if we were affected?”
“Sit around singing Lavender Blue?” Haley giggled. Natalie rolled her eyes.
Rina furrowed her eyebrows, sitting across from Haley in another chair. “Lavender Blue?” she asked. “Why that song?”
“Oh, nothing,” Haley said, waving a hand dismissively. “The guy we were tracking down was dancing around his laboratory singing it.”
“He’s the guy who ran the Fourth Gen project,” Frank blurted out. “Apparently he continued researching it on Project Aloofness – ”
“Eleutherios,” Haley corrected.
“Yeah, that.” Frank turned over on the couch so that his head hung upside-down on the seat.
“Guys!” Natalie was looking at Rina, who looked stricken. “I thought we were going to avoid the whole Fourth Gen thing?”
“Oh pish,” Haley said. “She deserves to know. This is the guy who ran the experiment on her, remember?”
Natalie walked over to the living area, hands on her hips. “Haley, it was your idea in the first place,” she pointed out. “Rina, I’m so sorry – ”
“No, it’s okay,” Rina said. “I’m glad you guys told me. I… I just need to talk to Agent.” She headed back to the elevator as Reiki moved over to Frank.
“You happy?” he asked, pulling Frank up by the collar. “Rina’s upset. Why’d you tell her that?”
“Dunno,” Frank said, looking confused. “I guess I just felt like it. Weird.”
“‘Weird’,” Reiki repeated. “I’ll show you ‘weird’, you – ”
“Reiki, drop him,” Natalie said. “I think we may have been more affected than we thought. The experiments he was running, Project Eleutherios, it had a side-effect of making people lose their inhibitions.”
Shadow grinned as Reiki let him go. “Hey, you think I got super-strength like Samson did?” he asked, not even fased by Reiki’s threat. “That would be cool; I might beat Parker at an arm-wrestling match.”
“Parker knows how to control his strength,” Natalie pointed out. “He’s also still with the Fauns.”
“Oh yeah,” Shadow shrugged. “Here, let me try – ”
He went over to Haley’s chair and tried to lift it, but it barely budged while she was sitting in it. Haley shrugged at him. “Samson was human,” she reminded him. “Maybe the serum affected your Third Gen powers.”
Frank frowned, concentrating. Shadows around the room began expanding until they covered the lamps, putting the room into complete darkness. “Whoa, cool!” Frank exclaimed as their sight was completely cut off. He had never been able to make an entire lit room go dark before.
“Frank, stop,” Natalie said. “We need to get you down to Dale. Haley, we’ll all go; if Frank was affected, then we probably were, too.”
There was no response. At Natalie’s command, Frank dimmed the shadows until they could see again, just in time to see the door to the stairs close with a click.
Haley wasn’t in the room any more.
Natalie put a hand on Frank’s shoulder, shaking her head. “Aw, fu – ”
* * * * * * * *
“Where is he?” Rina demanded, bursting into Agent’s office. “Where did you take Doctor Samson?”
“He’s in the holding cell at the ECPD,” Agent answered calmly. “Why do you need to see him?”
Rina shook her head. “Of all people, you know what I’ve been through,” she said.
“Yes, and that’s why I ask,” Agent told her. “You’ve known who he is, obviously, so you’ve had plenty of chances to see him, but you didn’t. Why now?” He gestured for her to have a seat.
“I found out a month or so ago,” she said, slumping into the prooffered chair. “After the stuff with Leah and Mikey, I looked into it. It wasn’t hard – I don’t know why the others had even waited that long. I just… I’ve been putting it behind me for so long, I didn’t want to dredge it up.”
“And now that he’s been involved in a case, you want to face him,” Agent finished for her.
Rina shook her head. “No,” she said. “Now that I’ve found out he’s been continuing his experiments, I want to ask him why.”
“Who told you that?” Agent asked, concerned. “I thought the others agreed not to bring it up to you.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Rina muttered, but Agent stood up.
“It does matter,” he said. “The other three have been exposed to the same thing Samson was. The main side effect is a loss of inhibitions; if they’re spilling secrets, that might be a symptom, so who told you?”
“Frank,” Rina answered, standing up and heading to the elevator with Agent. “But Natalie was telling him to stop.”
Agent pursed his lips as the elevator doors opened. “Frank’s a little impulsive on his own, so it may be nothing,” he said, “but heaven help us if they’ve been affected.”
“Why?” Rina asked. “So they act drunk for a day or so; no big deal, right? They’re adults, they’ll be fine.”
As they stepped onto the elevator, Agent pointed out something that made Rina’s blood run cold: “Have you met Natalie?”
* * * * * * * *
“There you guys are,” Agent said, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw Natalie and Frank in the medical center. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“I made Frank check in when he found out his powers were enhanced,” Natalie said. “But I lost Haley.”
“What do you mean, you ‘lost’ her?” Agent asked. “Where is she?”
“Best I can figure, she left.” Natalie said. “But you know, it’s Haley; what trouble could she get into? She’s the sensible one.”
Agent looked at his data pad, typing something in. “Not sure,” he said, “but I’d feel better if we found her.”
Dale chose that moment to come in. “I know why you didn’t bring Samson to me,” he said, “but I think I’ll need to see him after all. This isn’t the same as the project we worked on eight years ago – he’s been tweaking it.”
“What do you mean?” Agent asked.
“Frank’s Third Gen powers are erratic,” Dale pointed out. “He can’t control them. He also doesn’t seem panicked, but that could just be because he’s Frank. I’ll need another subject to compare in order to be sure, and I’d like to ask Doctor Samson what he did to Eleutherios.”
“I’ll get him here,” Agent promised, “and I’ll track down Haley. Natalie, you stay here; text me the second you start feeling the effects of it.”
“Will do,” Natalie said, swinging her legs off the side of the table. “You let me know when you find Haley.”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, night.
Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.
About to do something stupid.
Haley danced down the street, humming her favorite songs as she went. On some level she remembered that Agent had told them to stay in the building, but she didn’t care. There was something she had been curious about, and she was on her way to get answers.
She was still dressed in her pajamas, barefoot, but she didn’t care about that, either. There wasn’t any reason to worry about her outfit – she was just going to ask a question.
A section of the south side of the city was Faun territory – Haley had learned that in her Watcher training, which is why she was currently dancing down their streets. When she went on patrol in the afternoons, she rode a motorcycle through this side of the city. Many satyrs were nice people; Haley had met plenty of them on her rounds, as she kept an eye out for trouble. Most of the people in the city knew her face as a Watcher of the Asylum, so a lot of them would greet her during the day. She had met a lot of people in her last few months as a Watcher, so she had no fear of the south side.
Although, she usually met people during her daytime patrols when she had a mode of transportation, a com unit, and her uniform’s utility belt to help get her out of trouble. But she had spent the last hour walking down here, and she had left her equipment at the tower.
The thought was in the back of her mind, but like her lack of shoes it just didn’t seem to matter at the moment. That’s something for future Haley to worry about, she thought, still dancing down the street to the songs stuck in her head.
“Who’s this?” came a voice from behind her. Seven satyrs stepped out of the shadows, surrounding Haley before she could react.
The satyr who had spoken first was a cat-satyr. She had round, cat-like ears, and a striped tail that waved in the night breeze. Her eyes were small and yellow, and she had tufts of white fur – whiskers – on the side of her face.
Another satyr, a small man with a rat-like nose, spoke up as well. “Hey, she looks like one of those Asylum guys. That new one, what’s-her-name.”
“Outlier,” said a third, a burly fellow with lizard scales covering his skin. “The new Asylum Watcher’s name is Outlier – I’ve seen her around here when she patrols. But she’s a sensible person; she wouldn’t have come down to this side of the city without a reason… or backup.” Haley could see the glint of knives in his jacket.
Despite the threatening poses the satyrs had adopted when the rat-satyr called her a Watcher, Haley didn’t feel any danger. “I’m looking for somebody,” she said. “You wouldn’t happen to know him, would you?”
“Depends,” the first satyr said, grinning like a hungry cat. “Who are you looking for at three in the morning in Faun territory?”
“Brother of mine,” Haley said. “He works as a bouncer on this side of town – I’m just not sure where. Name’s Scott Prince; would have just gotten off work. You wouldn’t know him, would you?”
The cat-satyr raised her eyebrows. “You’re looking for Scott?” se asked, disbelieving.
“Yep,” Haley said with a cheeky grin. “He’s my brother.”
“Hey, what’s going on here?” came a familiar voice from behind the cat-satyr. “Who’s this?”
Another satyr stepped up. This one seemed vaguely familiar to Haley: he had feathery blond hair and a pair of speckled black-and-white wings growing out of his back. “You!” she cried, pointing at him. “I think I’ve seen you. You know my brother?”
Parker Fawkes cleared his throat. “Kiara, why are you guys harassing a drunk chick?” he asked the cat-satyr.
“We think she might be a Watcher from the Asylum,” Kiara reported. “The new one, Outlier.”
Raising an eyebrow, Parker asked reasonably, “Do you guys really think an Asylum Watcher would get this drunk and come into Faun territory at night without weapons or backup? She doesn’t even have shoes on,” he pointed out.
“Do any of you guys know where I can find Scott?” Haley insisted. “I need to find him. I need to ask something.”
Parker shook his head. “She might not be a satyr,” he said, “but she’s related to one. She probably just looks like the Watcher, but Scott’s family are all bakers.” He walked over to Haley, adding, “I’ll see she gets out of here. You guys get back to patrols.”
The satyrs scattered at his command, and Parker guided Haley over to the sidewalk. Once they were alone, he hissed, “Are you trying to get us killed, or are you just stupid? If Agent needed me – ”
“Agent?” Haley asked. “Agent doesn’t know I’m here. I have the next few days off – I wanted to see my brother.”
Parker’s eyebrows furrowed. “Wait, Scott’s really your brother?” he asked. “You know he’s a Faun, right?”
“Right,” Haley said. “That’s why I came here – he ran away from home a few months ago. Well, I say ‘ran away’; he’s an adult, he can do what he wants,” she added. “But I wanted to know why. And why he never comes to a family dinner any more. And why I can’t see him…” Tears began to mist in her eyes, making her vision blurry as her brain went down that trail of thought. “He’s my big brother. I’ve only got four; Sean’s been upset since Scott left. They were close, you know – the satyrs in the family. Scott’s a gorilla, and I miss sparring with him and Sean. My mom’s been sick with worry, and my dad, well, he doesn’t emote. But he’s also had Scott on the brain, you know?”
Parker sighed. “I know where Scott is,” he told her. “I can give him the message. But it was stupid for you to come down here on your own – you’re a Watcher of the Asylum, Agent has rules against getting this wasted.”
“Oh, I’m not drunk,” Haley said, starting to dance again.
“Yeah, pull the other one,” Parker laughed, watching her, “it has bells.”
“Really,” she said, grabbing his hand and starting to dance with him. “I just got hit by Eleutherios.” She grinned, repeating the name. “That’s a fun word: Eleutherios. Eh-loo-theh-ree-ohs. E-leu-therios…”
Parker smirked. “Isn’t that another name for Dionysus?” he asked. “‘God of wine and revelry?’”
“You know stuff!” Haley exclaimed happily, throwing her arms in the air as she twirled. “Oh, man, I had to tell Natalie and Frank who it was!”
She had been back-leading their dance to the tune in her head, but Parker took over the lead at that. He was rolling with Haley’s drunk behavior so that she wouldn’t cause too much of a scene; while he could smell that the other Fauns weren’t within hearing distance, he had no idea who might be watching. “Yeah, my sister’s studious, but she forgets stuff as soon as she doesn’t need it any more,” he said. “Besides, Nat was always more into Norse mythology than Greek. She wouldn’t know Dionysus from Apollo.”
“Natalie’s mean sometimes,” Haley said, “but she’s a good Watcher. Small but scrappy; I’ve been teaching her Aikido.”
“Really?” Parker said, slowly leading the dance down the street to the edge of Faun territory. “Nat listens to you?”
Haley shrugged. “As much as she listens to anyone,” she admitted, twirling in the dark. “Anyways, if you’re giving Scott a message, then you’re not taking me to him, right?”
“Right,” Parker said. “I’m taking you out of here before you get in trouble.”
Haley stopped dancing and started walking. “You’re a good guy, you know that?” she said. “I know you’ve had to do some bad things, like sticking up that DMV, but you’re still a Watcher under it all.”
Parker bowed his head to hide a sheepish smile. “I’m not so sure,” he said. “The DMV was small potatoes compared to some other stuff I’ve done. If you remember this conversation in the morning, you might ask Agent about it tomorrow.”
“I always remember everything,” Haley said. She shook her head. “Agent doesn’t talk about you,” she told him. “Last I heard, he hadn’t heard from you in a while. But Frank contacted you last week.”
“I talked to Agent after that,” Parker said. “But yeah, I haven’t been reporting in as regularly as he’d like. Claw’s been onto me for a while, so I’ve been keeping my head down.”
“You okay?” Haley asked, hugging his side and leaning against him as they walked. He smelled like flowers and some kind of citrus, neither of which fully covered up the scent of blood on his clothes. “You sound sad.” She looked up at his face, studying it. “No, not sad… scared. You’re afraid of something.”
Parker tensed at the scrutiny, and Haley stepped away from him. “You don’t even know me,” he said.
“True,” Haley nodded. “We’ve never been properly introduced. I’m Haley Prince, also known as Outlier,” she added, holding her hand out for him to shake.
Parker gave a short laugh at the sudden change of subject. Taking her hand and giving it a mock kiss, as if she were a princess, he said, “I’m Parker Fawkes. I went by Blackbird in the Asylum, and now the Fauns call me Fallen.”
“Pleased to meet you, Parker,” Haley said, grinning. “Thank you for walking me this far. I guess you can’t go too much farther.”
Parker shook his head. “But if you follow this road, you’ll get back to the tower. I’m also texting both Agent and Frank to pick you up.” He pulled out an old-fashioned cell phone, which was how he contacted the Asylum members.
“Oh, Frank was hit by the Eleutherios too,” Haley said. “So was Natalie. But Agent should get the message.”
Parker looked like he wanted to ask, but shook his head. “I can’t be seen with you when Agent gets here, but I’ll keep an eye out so you don’t get into any trouble.”
“Nice to meet you, Parker,” Haley said, grinning at him. “I hope you come home soon.”
Parker nodded. “Tell Natalie I intend to,” he said. “And Haley?” he added as she started to walk away. She looked back curiously. “It was really nice to meet you, too.”
* * * * * * * *
“So this drug makes people dance randomly?” Natalie asked. “If I try that, please stop me.”
“Eleutherios releases inhibitions,” Dale pointed out. “We’re just lucky Haley didn’t try to use any powers.”
“Don’t need powers,” Haley said. “I’ve been fine ‘til now, I can go without. No, thank you.”
Agent crossed his arms. “You’re lucky Parker found you and convinced those Fauns that you weren’t Outlier.”
“Meh,” Haley shrugged. “I am who I am.”
“Still,” Dale said, “for tha sake of research, Haley, could you grip tha table?”
Like the table in Samson’s lab, the one Haley now sat on had a metal frame. She studied it for a second, before grabbing the edge and squeezing until her knuckles were white. “Nope,” she said. “No powers. No, thank you.”
“Hmm.” Dale studied the table, before looking back at Haley. “I guess this version of tha serum in’t as potent as tha one Samson took.”
“Or else it just got mixed with a bunch of other stuff,” Haley said, hopping back up on the table. She began humming to herself.
“Not that song again,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes. “It’s never going to get out of my head now.”
Dale moved over to his work station, where he had a microscope slide with some of the Eleutherios on it. “She has a point,” he said. “Dinnae you say tha you got soaked with the stuff after some jars broke?”
“Yeah,” Natalie said. “Samson pushed me to the ground and the jars broke around me; I got it all over my back. Shadow put his hand in it, and some must have splashed on Haley.”
“But you’re na affected,” Dale pointed out. “You got tha worst dose, but you arenae loopy like these two.” He gestured to Haley, who was still humming to herself, and Frank, who seemed intent on doing handstands.
“Okay, so I’m not dancing in the streets yet,” Natalie shrugged. “So?”
“So maybe you have a natural immunity,” said Dale, still adjusting his microscope. “I have samples of yer blood on file; I’ll need a sample now, post-affliction, to compare. Agent, this might take a bit.”
“Not a problem,” Agent said, pressing the elevator button. “Rina asked to see Doctor Samson, and she might help us get some answers out of him.”
“Good luck,” Natalie called wryly. “Have fun interrogating the prisoner, while I’m stuck here getting poked with needles.”
“There’ll be other prisoners,” Agent told her as the elevator doors opened. He flashed her a grin as he stepped on. “I’ll make sure you get a turn, too.”
Natalie threw a hospital pillow at him as the elevator doors closed, Agent laughing from behind them.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City Police Department, interrogation room.
Sabrina “Rina” Dawson, AKA Nightmare.
Rina shuddered when she saw the lead researcher through the two-way mirror. Samson was hunched over the table, looking like he was asleep; he could just be any other old man, except she knew him as a monster.
Agent looked at her with concern in his eyes. “You sure about this?” he asked. “He might talk to you more than he would to me, but if it’s upsetting…”
“I can do it,” Rina said, cracking her knuckles. “I rarely saw his face, so it’s not that bad. He’s just another bad guy, right?”
“We need to know what was in the Eleutherios,” Agent reminded her. “Also if he’s been conducting human, satyr, or Third Gen experiments outside of Pharos.”
“And about how he stole the research from Pharos, and what else he might have. Yeah, I know,” Rina said impatiently. “Can we get this over with?”
Agent nodded. “He’s still under the effects of the drug,” he added, “so he might have trouble staying on topic. You need to guide the conversation.”
Rina looked at him sideways as she opened the door. “I have done this before, you know,” she pointed out. “I worked as a police interrogator before you recruited me for the Asylum.”
“Right, right,” Agent said. “Just… you can pull the plug at any time. I know how personal this is for you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Rina told him. “You just worry about him.”
She left the viewing room and entered the interrogation room. Agent watched from the sidelines, letting Rina talk to Samson on her own.
Samson’s head snapped up to look at her as she walked in. “Sabby?” he asked, studying her. “It’s my Sabby! Number nine, the Nightmare Child.” He chuckled. “You really put the nurses through the ringer, you know.”
“Good,” Rina said, sitting down across from him. “I need to know what was in Eleutherios.”
“Dionysus, Bacchus… probably a lot of wine!” Samson giggled.
Rina raised an eyebrow, letting her power affect the doctor. “The drug, doctor. The one you’ve been working on in secret. What’s in it?”
“Ooh,” Samson shivered. “You’re controlling your powers, and you didn’t even need a shock. Impressive.”
“I’ve learned a lot since we broke away from you,” Rina hissed. “I don’t have time for games. Tell me what I need to know so I can help my friends.”
“Here shines the sun,” Samson sang. “Have you ever seen the sun, Sabby? I’d love to take you to the beach. Why don’t we go to the beach?”
Rina slammed a hand on the table. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself before asking again, “What was in the drug?”
Samson considered her for a moment. He could see that she was close to snapping, and realized that he might not want to be on the receiving end of that. “I don’t really know,” he admitted. He lost the silly grin, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands on the table in front of him. “I know what you’re asking me, Sabrina, but I’m not sure what affected your friends.”
Rina’s eyes widened. “You weren’t really affected,” she accused. “You’ve been foxing this whole time!”
“On the contrary, I was affected,” Samson said. “It wore off about an hour ago. I maintained the charade because that Agent and his like were less likely to let me see you while I’m sober.”
Rina stood up, knocking her chair over. “Sabrina, wait!” Samson said, reaching for her hand. The handcuffs chaining him to the table prevented him from reaching her. “Sabrina!”
“You want me to wait?” Rina said. “Tell me what I want to know.”
“I’ve already told you, I don’t know,” Samson said. As Rina turned for the door, he added, “There were five different trials of Eleutherios on that table, and when they smashed they combined. I’m not sure what combination might have affected your friends – they might have canceled each other out, or strengthened each other’s effects. I just don’t know!”
“Are they in danger?” Rina asked. “The drug that you were under wore off; won’t it wear off for them?”
“Probably,” Samson said. “All five had a limited effect in my trials. Without further exposure, they’ll probably be back to normal in a day or two.”
“Okay then,” Rina said, sitting down. “Next question: what other experiments have you done using humans, satyrs, or Third Gens as subjects?”
Samson looked her in the eyes. “I’ll make you a deal, Sabrina. An answer for an answer – you answer my questions, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”
“What could you possibly want to know about me?” Rina scoffed.
“Can’t a father want to know his daughter?” Samson countered.
Rina could almost hear Agent’s hiss from the other room; she had never told him that particular piece of information before. “You stopped being my father the first time you cut off my arm,” she told him. “Heck, you stopped being my father as soon as you put me in your precious Fourth Gen experiment. So no, we can’t go to the beach, because you made me allergic to the sun!”
“That was unintended,” Samson said. “I was trying to save your life.”
“From what?” Rina asked. “I was perfectly healthy before you gave me the serum.”
Samson shook his head. “You were born a hybrid, Sabrina,” he said. “Your nightmare powers killed your mother before you were three. I was trying to get rid of them.”
“Right,” Rina scoffed. “You started me on Fourth Gen as a baby. You ‘wanted to get rid of them’, but instead you made them stronger. Then you marketed me to any military, government and private sector, to say that you could create super-soldiers. And then you cut off my freaking arms and legs just to show them that they’d grow back.” She cracked her knuckles again, showing him her hands.
Samson looked away. “I’ll admit, I was not exactly father of the year,” he said. “I needed funding, so I had to give them something. It wasn’t until your brother rebelled and broke you all out of there that I – ”
“Wait, hang on,” Rina said, leaning forward. “‘My brother’? Ryan was the one that got us out of there.”
“Yes, Ryan,” Samson said. “Your older brother. He was one of the first experiments in the project.”
Rina took a deep breath, trying and failing to calm herself. “So it wasn’t just me,” she said. “I wasn’t even your first child to be born as a guinea pig. Ryan was my brother…” She shook her head to clear it. Act now, emote later, she reminded herself. She had learned that lesson in her early days as an interrogator, but she had never dealt with information that personal before. “You said you had a question for me,” she continued, getting back on topic. “If I answer, you’ll answer my questions. Deal?”
“Deal,” Samson said. “All I really want to know is: how have you been? Since leaving the laboratory,” he clarified. “You’re currently a Watcher in the Asylum, correct?”
“I’ve been great,” Rina told him. “Nobody prodding me, or making me learn to do things one-handed or use crutches. I get to bring bad guys like you to justice.” She leaned forward. “My turn. What other projects have you been on?”
Samson shrugged. “Aside from Fourth Gen and Eleutherios, I worked on the Gen Juice project at Pharos Laboratories. In my spare time, I tried to perfect Eleutherios at home, but I could never get it to take away Third Gen or satyrism. It only enhanced the effects.” He sighed. “I don’t know what they put into the original Third Gen or Satyr serums that made them so resilient,” he said wistfully. “We – humanity – created our own demise in trying to perfect ourselves. I want you to know,” he added, leaning in towards Rina, “that I only ever worked on these projects to help you and your brother. I want to find a cure, so you can be a normal girl.”
Rina shook her head. “How did you get the research out of Pharos?” she asked.
“Oh, that part was easy,” Samson said. “When Eleutherios was shut down eight years ago, I just omitted certain parts from my inventory report and took them home with me that night.”
Rina glanced towards the mirror, knowing Agent was hearing every word. “I’m asking about your recent theft,” she said. “When you were fired from Pharos, you took more. What did you take, and how did you take it?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Samson said. “I didn’t take anything else when Pharos fired me; just the research from eight years ago.”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City Police Department, interrogation room.
Agent and Rina.
“You believe him?” Rina asked Agent once the interrogation was over. She joined him in the viewing room, noting that O.N.C. and Sean Hannah had both joined them at some point during her questioning.
“If he’s lying, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Agent admitted. “Which then begs the question: why did you two put my team on a cold case without telling us?”
Sean raised an eyebrow, folding his arms in front of himself. “Does it make a difference?” he asked. “The research he stole was proprietary, and he was recently fired.”
“It means you never answered Outlier’s question,” Agent said, folding his arms to mock the CEO’s posture. “Why now? What changed?”
Sean grinned. “Her,” he said, nodding to Rina. At her startled look, he added, “I wanted to see how she could handle pressure; nothing seems to phase her, and I knew this would.”
Rina glared at him. “She’s standing right here, and can be addressed directly,” she said. Her powers began to flood the room, making the CEO twitch uncomfortably. O.N.C. took a few steps back, and both of their breathing got harder and faster as Rina gave them the anxiety attack that she herself had been holding back since the start of the interrogation.
“Enough!” Sean roared, waving a hand through the air as if that would stave off the panic. “If you can’t behave like an adult, then you can just leave!” Rina released the pressure on the room, turning and storming out the door.
Agent shook his head at them, unaffected by her powers. “You deserved that,” he said, turning to follow Rina. “Don’t ever mess with my team again.”
He caught up to Rina halfway down the hall, calling her name. “You okay?” he asked, tentatively.
Rina had tears rolling down her cheeks, and she was shivering. Agent put his arms around her, letting her get control of herself. “It’s okay,” he said. “He can’t hurt you any more.” Rina could feel him shivering from the effects of her powers, but he didn’t let go.
“It’s not that,” Rina sniffed, biting her lip to control the quiver in her voice. “He said… Ryan was my brother. My actual brother! I always thought he was just another kid in the experiment.” She sniffed, trying to control her crying. “This is stupid. It’s been nearly fifteen years since he died; I don’t know why I’m so upset now.”
“Hey,” Agent said, pulling away to look her in the face. “Traumas like that don’t just leave,” he told her. “All we can do is move on and try to live despite them. It doesn’t matter if it’s fifty years later and his name comes up – you take the time you need to mourn. As long as you don’t let it consume you, it’s healthy to cry sometimes.”
Rina sniffed. “Thanks,” she said. “You sound like you know what it’s like.”
“I was the Agent of Team Ark,” he reminded her. “I lost friends, and other friends got badly hurt under my watch. So yeah, I know what I’m talking about.” He gave her a sad smile. “If I ever find out that Striker was my brother, I’d be crying in the hallway, too. I’m impressed you didn’t lose it in front of the others.”
Rina shook her head. “‘Interrogate now, emote later’,” she told him, turning to walk down the hall now that she had gotten herself under control. “The detective I worked with taught me that. If you cry in front of the perp, you’re only giving him power.”
“True,” Agent said, falling into step beside her. “Hey, while you were in there I got news from Dale. Haley and Frank seem to be returning to normal.”
“That’s good!” Rina said.
“He’s still not sure why it didn’t affect Natalie, though,” Agent added, worried. “I’m just hoping it doesn’t have any long-lasting effects.”
Rina put a hand on his shoulder. “She’s fine right now,” she told him. “We’ll worry about anything else as it comes.”
Agent nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess I should be grateful she didn’t go berserk.”
“Super-powered Natalie with no inhibitions,” Rina said thoughtfully. “That’s a scary thought. Then again, how can we be sure the drug didn’t affect her?”
“Meaning?” Agent asked.
Rina shrugged. “Natalie doesn’t let much of anything stop her,” she said. “That’s when she’s sober, and that’s why it seems scary for her to be on a drug like that. But then, since she already lives her life with few to no inhibitions, maybe the drug did affect her – we just couldn’t tell.”
Agent raised his eyebrows, considering the point. “That… sounds plausible,” he said slowly. “That actually makes me feel a lot better. Thanks.”
“No problem,” Rina said. “Now what say you we stop and get some ice cream on the way back?”
“Sounds good,” Agent said, grinning. “Chunky monkey?”
“Chocolate chip cookie dough,” Rina said. As they got to Agent’s car, Rina began humming an old tune that her mother used to sing as a lullaby:
Lavender blue, dilly-dilly
Then I’ll be king, dilly-dilly, and you’ll be my queen…
* * * * * * * *
History Lesson: A Watcher’s Function in Society.
From a class taught by Agent five years ago.
Watcher licenses are one of the most difficult achievements in today’s society. An individual who wishes to become Watcher-certified must complete either a year-long training program or one thousand hours of apprenticeship. When a licensed Watcher signs off on the training portion, Watcher hopefuls must pass multiple tests of their physical and mental skills, as well as a physical exam of their well-being. Most people these days believe that one must be either a Third Gen or a Satyr to pass all of these tests, given how few humans have managed to do so since the regulations were enacted.
This was not always the case.
Watcher testing used to be only a simple written exam. Anyone who read a rule book could pass the test and gain their license for government-sanctioned vigilante work. The Watchers were originally established as a means of keeping the super-powered among us from destroying our country’s economy by streamlining other work. Why would a construction company hire a hundred human workers if they could get the same job done in less time with one elemental Third Gen? Delivery companies who hired speedsters would monopolize the market. And so on, and so forth.
To contain the ire of the humans – who outnumbered the Third Gens and Satyrs two hundred to one – most state governments bowed to union regulations, and passed bills that prevented employers from hiring Third Gens and Satyrs. Some states only enacted one or two such laws, giving local authorities the option at the city and county levels to enact further ones. Others enacted dozens of these bills, outlawing more than employment, but also inter-racial marriage, children, education, and in two extreme cases, outlawing any persons legally labeled as Third Gens and Satyrs from entering the state in an attempt to curb the non-human working populations. Some of these laws are still in effect today.
These were dark times for those with heightened abilities. In a few short decades, they went from being the desired state of humankind to “freaks of nature”. Most Third Gens chose to pass as regular humans, hiding their abilities and keeping their heads down. Satyrs lacked that option, as their abilities showed in their animalistic features.
The inequality between the humans, Third Gens, and Satyrs led to the rise of gangs such as the Fauns and the Skels, who used violence and intimidation to keep employers from discriminating against them. Gangs and mob families began employing satyrs as muscle, and the police were unable to keep up with the rising crime rates.
Enter Julius Reign, the Senator from New York who proposed the first Watcher bill, known colloquially at the time as the Superhero bill. The bill proposed that the government create a website that allowed any registered person to post or find jobs based on their ability level. Based on superhero comics from previous generations, it would give the Third Gens and Satyrs the option of using their powers to fight crime instead of causing it.
It was shot down in Congress five times before a draft was considered good enough to pass.
The draft to make the final cut became the current federal Watcher Licensing Program. Using contractors such as Pharos Corporation and King Enterprises in a joint-venture operation, they developed a website that would allow anyone to post job listings for individual or ongoing tasks that required greater-than-human abilities. The Meta-Human and Vigilante Task-Force was formed under the Agency to regulate these postings, and provide any government-related assistance they might require. Agents of the Task-Force were assigned to assist certain postings, and in most major cities teams of Watchers would work with an Agent to complete the hardest assignments.
Posts were generally made from the police departments, who put their most-wanted bounty lists up to take the edge off of their officers in hunting down dangerous criminals. Missing persons reports, bouncer gigs, legal odd jobs, and other such matters were also posted for Watchers to take as they were able. For twenty years, the system worked: crime rates began to fall to manageable levels, and employment was on the rise.
Then, about ten years ago, something changed.
A criminal codenamed “Jaunt”, who had started out as a petty thief, began amassing an underground network of criminal activity. He began connecting people who wanted an illegal job done with criminals who could pull it off. For an as-yet unknown reason, he also began targeting Watchers.
Around the same time, the Task-Force created a team in Eon City to reign in the growing crime rate. These Watchers, known as Team Ark, were meant to be not only vigilantes, but heroes – Third Gens and Satyrs that people could look up to and emulate. Unlike most Watchers, Team Ark was constantly in the public eye. Everybody knew their codenames, and listings on the Watcher site specifically requested them.
Last year, as most of you know, Team Ark disbanded over a few serious incidents. The first of these was the death of Hippolyta – after her patrol, her body was found in an alley. Evidence points to a Faun attack, but without proof of which individuals committed the murder, the case cannot be closed.
Lyta had a very public funeral, at the insistence of the Task-Force. They made her a monument in Eon City’s cemetery, and news crews covered the event. This led to protesters gathering, claiming that satyrs and Third Gens – like Lyta’s family – were a danger to society. Lyta’s funeral turned into a media circus, and her husband and children were accosted by the protesters. Her daughter wound up punching one in the face, and frankly I couldn’t blame her…
But I digress.
Team Ark continued to operate for three months after Lyta’s death before one final incident broke them apart. Jaunt – the criminal who was hunting Watchers – came to Eon City. After a few robberies, Team Ark managed to track him down and confront him. While the details of the encounter are not public knowledge, the aftermath was picked up by the media: Striker had disappeared, and Star was crippled.
After that, the team fell apart. Sparrow left to try and find Striker, and Kindred and Star went into retirement. Marauder, one of the younger members of the team, tried to keep up the work for a couple of months, but then even he left over differences with the Task-Force.
Watchers still function in society, but the standards of those who carry licenses have become more strict. The protests that began at Lyta’s funeral have caused the government to tighten their regulations across the board to appease the vocal masses. Recently there has been talk of certain state laws becoming federally-mandated: the Satyr licensing laws, interspecies marriage acts, and others like those that are meant to curb and control the Satyr and Third Gen populations.
I’ll let you decide the morality of that. It seems like our time’s up – class dismissed.
* * * * * * * *
Scene: The Fall of Team Ark
Eon City, nine years ago.
“Okay, I’ll admit this guy’s good,” Star said over her com to her team as she skated down Main Street after their target. “Three jumps later and he hasn’t even slowed down.”
“That’s why it’s a bad idea to get cocky,” came the dry voice over the intercom. Agent, the team’s young coordinator, had warned Star about exactly that when they had finally managed to put a tracker on this guy.
“Star can’t help getting cocky,” said Marauder’s voice in her ear. “She won a steak dinner when she put the tracer on his foot. I can’t believe you got close enough.”
“Ninja skills,” Star said, grinning, “and a whole lot of luck.”
“Luck only gets you so far,” Sparrow told her. Star caught a glimpse of the girl’s russet-brown cape jumping over the rooftop next to her. The name “Sparrow” was a misnomer; Cassandra Johnson had the ability to see into the future. She modelled her outfit to make her look like a Satyr, to thumb her nose at the Task-Force’s policy of only hiring Third Gens. The girl’s outfit included a sturdy, kite-like cape that attached to her arms, allowing her to glide over rooftops and helping her keep up with the speeding Star.
Sparrow’s older brother, Striker, stayed silent as he ran next to Star, but he did nod in agreement when the older woman glanced at him. He was the only member of the team who could keep up with Star when she wore her Seven-League Boots – which was the fancy name for her rocket-powered skates. Striker could move at superhuman speeds, giving him an edge in most fights.
The last member of Team Ark was Kindred, who drove a motorcycle on her other side. Star’s husband was a Satyr-Third Gen hybrid, who had a cat’s tail and ears but also the ability to make people see things that weren’t there. He usually used his illusions to make bad guys think they had been surrounded, so most articles written about him made people think he could duplicate himself.
Star was the only human in the group, but the Task-Force insisted that the media call her a Third Gen. It was plausible; her ninja-like ability to sneak into places could be seen as superhuman sometimes. The head of the Task-Force insisted that only Third Gens – or those with Third Gen abilities, such as Kindred – be allowed on the team for public relations purposes. Third Gens were seen as the most powerful Watchers, so the team had to reflect that ideal. Most of the team disagreed with the standard, especially in light of the current protests, but there wasn’t much that they could do about it.
Star kept skating, turning her attention to the siblings. “I know you two were practically raised by the stiff-necks at the Task-Force,” Star told them, “but we really need to work on your sense of humor. No offense, Agent.”
“None taken,” came the jocular reply. “At the Task-Force we might be stiff, but either one of our prodigies there could probably kick your ass.”
Star snorted. Unlike other Agents she had worked with over the years, this one was the first to respond to her banter. It made for a refreshing change of pace; this Agent was young, only in his early twenties, but he had a reputation for being the best. So far, he had lived up to the hype in Star’s eyes.
Team Ark was the Alpha Team of the Meta-Human/Vigilante Task-Force, a branch of the DoD specializing in tracking down Third Gen and Satyr criminals. Their current target was a Third Gen who seemed to be able to open holes in space that would take him anywhere in the country. Star had finally gotten close enough to him on their last encounter to put a small tracking device on him, and now they were following it to the thief’s current location.
“So what are we calling this guy again?” Marauder asked as the team came to a stop outside of the building that they were led to; it was an office building for Pharos Industries, the top defense contracting firm in the country. Star used her goggles to scan the place, noting that the tracking device was on the top floor.
“’Jaunt’,” she answered, retracting the wheels on her boots and opening the door.
“Ridiculous name,” Sparrow muttered, following Star into the building.
“Star’s right,” Marauder said, grinning, “you do need to lighten up.” He waved a hand in a vague gesture, and Sparrow started chuckling.
“Stop… it,” she chortled, obviously trying not to laugh out loud. “I need… to concentrate…”
“Marauder,” Star warned, leading them all over to the stairs, “not now.”
The young man sighed. “Fine,” he said, waving his hand in the air again, “but princess over there ought to learn to laugh on her own.” Striker bumped him with his shoulder. “Ow,” Marauder said, rubbing his shoulder. “Same goes for Chuckles, here.”
“Ten floors,” Sparrow sighed as they all got in the elevator. “Do you think you can be quiet just for ten floors?”
“Doubtful,” he grinned.
Star shook her head. Sometimes her younger teammates reminded her of her children; she and Kindred were the only ones over thirty.
She shook that thought out of her head. Not lately, she reminded herself. Since Lyta’s death, Sparrow and Striker seemed older, never laughing or having fun. Marauder seemed to want to make up for it – he and Striker had always been close, and now Marauder seemed to make it his personal mission to cheer them up.
Sparrow knocked Star out of her reverie by falling into her. “Hey,” Striker said, catching his sister before she hit the ground. “What was that?”
“Vision,” Sparrow said, putting a hand to her head as she got back to her feet. “A big one – they don’t usually hit that hard.”
“What about?” As Star asked the question, the elevator opened at the top floor. Star scanned the area for Jaunt with her goggles set to infra-red. There was only one heat signature on the floor, so she silently directed the team towards it.
The signature led them to a large office bullpen, with rows of desks lining the giant office space. It didn’t seem like an important part of the building, until they came to a small plaque that read, “Sean Hannah, CEO”. The thief was rummaging through a nearby desk.
The thief known as Jaunt looked unremarkable at first glance. He was an average height and a skinny build, though his pale blue eyes shone through his mask as he looked up in alarm.
Next to Star, Marauder raised a hand. Star knew from experience that Marauder would make the bad guy feel guilty. Jaunt closed his eyes and shook his head, but then picked up a sheaf of papers and did a kong vault over the desks behind him.
“What?!” cried Marauder. “He’s not supposed to do that.”
“Maybe you messed up,” Sparrow said. She looked at her brother, still shaking her head from the vision. “Striker – ” she started, but he cut her off.
“I got him,” Striker said, before speeding around the desks to where Jaunt was running away. The air shimmered around the thief as Jaunt clapped his hands together.
“No, wait!” Sparrow shouted, grabbing Star’s arm. “We need to stop him – ”
“That’s what we’re doing,” Star told her, yanking her arm out of the girl’s grip. She jumped onto a desk, heading towards Jaunt.
Sparrow called after her, “No, Striker – ”
Jaunt pulled his hands apart, and a man-sized hole opened up in the air next to him looking onto a deserted landscape. Striker tried to stop before he ran into it, but Jaunt grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him through. Sparrow screamed a warning, but Star was already in motion.
Marauder pulled out his handgun, firing at the thief just as Star reached him. Star felt a blinding pain in her leg, knocking her down before she reached the thief. Dimly she heard Sparrow screaming again in the background. In front of her, Jaunt stepped through the portal, clutching a graze on his forearm as it closed behind him.
Star suddenly felt cold, as if she was missing something significant. She looked at her leg, and saw that her knee was a bloody mess. There were white shards sticking out of the hole, and it felt like that might be important.
She felt rather than saw her husband run up to her. She tried to tell him that she was fine, but then everything went black.
* * * * * * * *
Team Ark Headquarters, an hour later.
What just happened?
“What the hell happened?!” Agent shouted.
“I don’t know.” Tears absently fell from beneath Sparrow’s mask as she and Marauder reported back to Team Ark’s headquarters. The spacious training room was silent, but Sparrow felt as if she was being bombarded by a din of noise from her own thoughts. She had seen it coming; she knew it was going to happen before it did. Why couldn’t she stop it?
Marauder’s voice added to the mix, snapping her back to the present. “Somehow he knew we were coming. He was prepared to get away.”
“Kindred took Star to the hospital for her leg,” Sparrow added, her voice sounding hollow, even to her. “And Striker…” She trailed off, refusing to think about her brother’s fate.
“I saw.” Agent ran his fingers through his impeccably-groomed hair, mussing it for the first time in front of other people. “This is a disaster,” he said, closing his eyes. A second later, he was running back to his computer screens, pulling up security footage from two different buildings on the monitors.
The first, Sparrow recognized as King Enterprises’ Laboratory; that was where it had happened. The footage was from the past hour, replaying the worst moment of her life. She refused to look at the screen, choosing instead to focus on the second: current footage from Eon City’s hospital, following Star as she was carried on a gurney into surgery. Kindred followed his wife, but was told to wait in the hallway outside. He raised his hands as if he was going to fight the doctor to stay, but then his shoulders slumped in defeat. He obediently moved to the opposite wall, collapsing to the floor. Next to Sparrow, Marauder was flinching away from that screen.
Good, she thought, narrowing her eyes at him. She knew that she just needed someone to blame, but if Marauder hadn’t fired at the wrong moment then Star could have easily caught the target. Instead, she now had a bullet stuck in her shattered kneecap, and Striker…
Even before joining Team Ark, Sparrow and Striker had been a brother-sister duo of vigilante Watchers. He was her best friend, her teammate, and now he was… he must be…
Sparrow snapped herself out of that line of thought, shaking her head to clear it. She didn’t know what had happened to her brother; he had just disappeared.
She forced herself to look back at the first screen, which showed the moment that the mysterious portal had opened. On the monitor it looked like bad CGI, but in person it had been like a hole had opened in midair. It could have been a jagged mirror or a large picture, if it hadn’t been for the dusty, sandy scent coming from the other side. The hole was just large enough for a person to step through, if they stooped a little to fit.
A bolt of lightning – which is what Striker looked like when he moved at his fastest speeds – ran towards Jaunt, who pushed it into the portal. Star jumped off the desk to stop Jaunt, but missed when Marauder fired his handgun into her kneecap. The bullet went through, but only grazed Jaunt’s arm. The target stepped through the portal, which closed behind him, leaving four team members in the otherwise empty room. Star’s knee bled profusely as Kindred ran up to her, and she passed out from pain, shock, and blood loss within a minute.
Sparrow watched herself on the screen as she cried out for her brother. Sparrow had seen all of this before it happened, from her vision in the elevator. Before she could warn her teammates, though, it seemed like it had already played out. Now Star was fighting for her life in the hospital, while her brother was who-knows-where fighting the most dangerous criminal that the team had ever faced by himself.
“I’m going to find him,” she announced suddenly. She hadn’t realized that she was going to leave until she said it.
As she turned towards the door, Agent said, “You know that he could be anywhere. If he’s still alive, he’ll come back to us as soon as he can on his own.” She stopped, considering his point. “Please don’t go,” he added. Marauder stood silently, still watching the screens.
Agent was only a few years older than her, and they both were in their twenties. That’s why Star and/or Kindred usually led the missions: their experience was usually invaluable to the team. Agent was the tech guy who only joined a fight when necessary. His pleading eyes reminded her how they had trained together in the Task-Force, unlike the rest of the team.
Star and Kindred were in their late thirties, parents of two young teenagers, and had joined the team to keep their family safe. Marauder was an ex-marine in his mid-twenties who joined because of his love of adventure. Agent joined as part of the organization sponsoring their team, to make sure that they toed the line and followed the rules. But Sparrow…
Sparrow had followed her older brother. She was his sidekick when they were teenagers, and joined Team Ark when he did to stay with him. Their parents were killed when she was ten, and he had been all she had left. When Striker decided to join the Task-Force program to help make Eon City safer, Sparrow went with him because she didn’t know where else to go.
The same feeling hit her now: she had to find her older brother. If he was injured, he might not be able to make it back. If he was okay, he probably would have gotten back to headquarters before she did.
“I’m sorry,” she said, walking out the door. She had made up her mind, and nothing was going to change it; and if she looked back on the remnants of her team, it was only because she was closing the door behind her.
* * * * * * * *
Agency Headquarters, two years ago.
The briefing room was quiet. Agent liked it that way; it gave him time to think as his gaze slid over the papers on the table in front of him for the hundredth time that morning. He didn’t need to read them again – he had memorized their contents after the second reading – but the misgivings he felt over this assignment made him worry over the papers like a dog with a bone.
Shaking his head, he sat back in the large, cushioned seat, letting his umbrella rest against his leg as always. Like every other Agent, he could trust that his appearance was impeccable in his three- piece suit, and years of habit kept him from slouching even when he was alone.
Agent wasn’t alone, however. A woman, equally impeccably dressed, sat across the table from him with her hands folded in front of her. The grey bun and horn- rimmed glasses made her look like the world’s strictest librarian, but Agent knew better. “Well?” she asked him, seeing that he had finally met her gaze.
“It’s not every day that I get a mission briefing from O.N.C. herself,” Agent said, crossing his arms. “This must be big.”
“Don’t be pert,” O.N.C. told him, straightening her glasses. “I’m here to discuss the new team you will be forming.”
Agent rolled his eyes. “You mean the team I’ll be babysitting,” he told her, pointing to the papers on the coffee table between them. The papers were personnel files on different vigilantes in Eon City, most of whom were either new on the scene or came from problematic backgrounds. Which pretty much summed up every vigilante that Agent had ever met, if he was honest with himself.
He was not happy about his latest assignment.
“Half of these people are so green, you could juice them for a mojito,” he told O.N.C., who looked confused. Agent clarified, “Like limes.”
Raising her eyebrows, O.N.C. smirked at him. “Your euphemisms were better in training.”
“Beside the point,” Agent said, waving a hand irritably. “I can’t run a half- baked team to defend a safety deposit box, much less a city.”
“These kids are the best at what they do,” O.N.C. told him. “You need a team to handle the bigger assignments – ”
“So why can’t I use an Agency team, like normal?” Agent asked. “You know what happened last time I tried to run a Watcher team!”
O.N.C. paused before answering, long enough that Agent muttered a short apology for interrupting. She stood up slowly, looking straight into his eyes as she answered. “I’m not sure you’re understanding me,” she told him. “I’m not asking you. You do not have the option of turning this assignment down. In the interest of compliance, however, I will tell you that there is more riding on this than you know.”
She began walking around the table with her hands behind her back, the picture of nonchalance. “Eon City has turned into a virtual rat’s nest for underworld activity,” she told him. “Thieves with Third Gen abilities prowl the streets at night. Gangs like the Fauns have set up bases there. Most recently,” she added as she stopped right in front of Agent, “there have been a rash of Satyr kidnappings in the area.” O.N.C. folded her arms in front of her. “The Agency is already stretched thin between our overseas operations and the small task- forces we’ve set up at home, and Eon City isn’t the only city like this in America right now. Project Asylum is meant to use the resources already in place – the cities’ Watchers – to help clean up the crime running rampant in this country. The goal is to fund them, outfit them, and use their abilities and their drive to help the Agency with issues that arise. These people are untrained, but their abilities are unmatched in the city, and with our help and guidance, they could do a lot more than they currently are.
“Maybe I need to find someone who’s got more balls,” she finished dismissively, “but I need my best agent on this job, and right now that’s you.”
Agent stared for a second, this time making sure that she was done before answering. “I understand that I can’t turn this down,” he said. “As much as I want to. What I’m questioning are the exact choices you’ve made here.” He pointed to the personnel files. “First is Shadow, who has only been doing this for a few months.”
“He’s the best infiltrator you’ll find,” O.N.C. said. “He trained with Star herself. He also finished his Watcher training by shadowing Kindred on missions. With a pedigree like that, you won’t find anybody better at what he does.”
“His Third Gen power is negligible, and he’s not a satyr,” Agent argued. “How could there be no one better?”
O.N.C. smiled, leaning against the table. “You’ll just have to meet him and find out,” she told him. “I know your history with his parents, but Frank Mejia is very good at what he does. You worked with Star, who was human – and you know that she was still the best. I have to insist on Shadow joining the team.”
Taking a frustrated breath, Agent continued. “What about Reiki?”
“A Third Gen who creates light from his hands,” O.N.C. prompted.
“A kid who has no business at a crime scene,” Agent protested. When O.N.C. didn’t respond, he gestured to the others. “Kindred, Sparrow, and Marauder, all a part of Team Ark.”
O.N.C. walked back to her seat. “They all have years of experience working on a team like the one you’re forming,” she said, “What’s the problem?”
Agent sighed. “Don’t beat around the bush,” he told her. “Team Ark fell apart five years ago, in a very messy fashion.”
“I know the details,” O.N.C. said.
“Then you know that there is no way that I’m going to get these guys to work together,” Agent insisted, pushing the papers away. “I’d have a better chance of training a cat to do ballet.”
O.N.C. sat down, entwining her fingers on the table in front of her. “What are you hoping to accomplish here?” she asked. “We’ve established that this is not an optional assignment for you.”
“Let me pick my own team,” Agent said. “I’ll ask Shadow and Reiki, if you insist, but there are more qualified candidates in the city that don’t have the history and stigma of being on Team Ark.”
O.N.C. stared at him calmly. “I must insist that you at least ask your former teammates,” she said. “But, given their history, I will concede that you might not get them to agree. Who would you suggest we take instead?”
“The Fawkes twins,” Agent said immediately. “Natalie and Parker were the top of their class in training, and they’re already doing well as Watchers.”
“Parker Fawkes, yes,” O.N.C. admitted. “But Natalie Fawkes? The girl has a record!”
“Nothing proven,” Agent pointed out. “She was never caught.”
“She climbed Pharos tower and shot fireworks off the top,” O.N.C. said.
Agent shrugged. “She was fourteen years old at the time,” he pointed out, “which shows her physical abilities. And she was never convicted.”
“She’s human,” O.N.C. said.
“We went with all Third Gens on Team Ark,” Agent pointed out. “We need some diversity. Which is why I’m also suggesting Sabrina Dawson.”
“The Fourth Gen girl?” O.N.C. said, considering.
“She has abilities, but she’s also a satyr hybrid – as is Parker Fawkes,” Agent said. “My other candidates would include Brittany James, Toby Watson, and Eli Howard.”
O.N.C. was silent for a minute. “I hope we’re thinking of different Brittany Jameses,” she finally said. “The one I know of is an old lady who claims to know demons.”
“Crazy or not, she has a dragon,” Agent said. “I’ve seen her powers; she would be a heavy-hitter.”
“Toby Watson keeps a low profile,” O.N.C. continued. “She’s a satyr who already leads a double life; this team would require her to give one up.”
“She’s the best forensic tracker I know of,” Agent said. “I can at least ask.”
“Eli Howard is a sociopath,” O.N.C. said. “He’s known as Butterfly because he doesn’t have a focus, and he prefers the company of bugs to people.”
“He’s a Third Gen with hyper-proprioception,” Agent said. “He’s a sharpshooter with extraordinary fighting abilities.”
“I’ll approve Brittany James and Toby Watson, assuming you can get them,” O.N.C. said, “but I will not have someone with Butterfly’s track record. This team is supposed to be in the public eye – Watchers that people can look up to as heroes.”
“But the others?” Agent asked.
“You may ask them to join,” O.N.C. said, “on a probationary basis. If these work out, then you can have more autonomy in your other choices.”
“Great,” Agent said, standing up. “One more name to consider: David Perry.”
“There is no doubt about that one being a criminal,” O.N.C. said, alarmed. “He destroyed half the city!”
“He wasn’t himself,” Agent insisted. “He’s on a treatment plan now, and we can keep him in the background until people get used to the idea…”
O.N.C. stood up as well, straightening her blouse. “He is not Asylum material,” she insisted.
“He needs a place to stay, at least,” Agent said. “He’ll be released from the hospital soon, where he has been a model patient. His powers would be too much for even Zatvor to handle – at least let him stay in the headquarters, where these Asylum heroes can keep an eye on him.”
At this point, the door to the briefing room opened. Sean Hannah, the new CEO of Pharos Industries, entered saying, “Sorry I’m late, traffic was awful.” He closed the door behind him.
“Ah, Mr. Hannah,” O.N.C. said. “Let me introduce you to the Task-Force’s top Agent.” She turned back to Agent, adding, “Pharos Industries will be helping to fund this project.”
“Pleasure,” the CEO said, shaking Agent’s hand jovially. “You’ll be the one to spearhead Project Asylum, then?”
“Looks like it,” said Agent with a glance at O.N.C. “We were just discussing names of Watchers to add to the list.”
“Good,” Sean Hannah said, sitting down. “Any I might have heard of?”
“Mr. Hannah was a Watcher himself in Colorado,” O.N.C. mentioned.
“Ah, but my team was never as well-known as Eon City’s Team Ark,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “I understand you were a member?” he asked Agent, who stiffened at the mention of his old team.
“That was years ago,” he said, “and it didn’t end well.”
Sean nodded, perching on his seat with his elbows on the table. “I understand,” he said. “This must be hard for you, but it is vital that we form this team.”
“The Watchers in Eon City are good enough as-is,” Agent said. “Why do Pharos and the Task-Force suddenly want to try again, when Team Ark was such a failure last time?”
Sean Hannah and O.N.C. looked at each other for a minute, as Agent counted the seconds in silence. They seemed to be silently considering what to tell him – when they looked back, O.N.C. said nothing while Sean Hannah said, “There’s something you should probably know about what’s coming.” He folded his hands on the table.
“Have you ever heard of the Gamemaster?”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, five years ago.
Frank Mejia, about to do something stupid.
Everything appeared to be moving in slow motion as Frank Mejia jumped off of the roof. Behind him, he knew that Natalie was cheering, that Miranda was yelling, that Parker was applauding, and that Alex hid her face in her hands. He barely heard the whoops and hollers of his friends as he concentrated on the one rule of the group: Don’t Die.
He kept his mind clear by focusing on the drop, and the hanging metal rafters that would stop his descent from the five-story building. The second it took for him to fall down to it seemed to last an eternity.
Here it comes…
Frank’s feet hit the rail, but his right foot slipped on the early morning condensation. His heart skipped a beat as he fought back panic. Six years of training paid off, as his muscles knew what to do: without having to think about it, he bent his left leg to absorb the impact, turning to grab the beam with both hands. As he leaned forward to absorb some of the impact with his arms, he stared with wide eyes at the ground four stories below.
What was it again?
Oh, yeah. Breathe.
He slowly pivoted on his left foot to look back up at the roof, where his sister and his friends stood cheering for him.
“Frank, you crazy sum-bitch,” Miranda, Frank’s sixteen year-old sister, yelled down. Her cat ears were flat and the soft reddish-brown fur on her tail stood on end, showing just how scared she had actually been. “What would I tell Mom if you’d missed?” she asked, arms folded in front of her.
“That my aim was off?” he called back, grinning. “Somebody better tell Alex she can look, now.”
“Uh-uh,” he heard Alex’s voice answer, but her face did not appear over the edge of the roof. “You want to kill yourself, fine, but there’s no way I’m going near that edge.” Alex had a problem with heights, and while she could follow the group up to the top of the building, she always refused to look down.
“Man, that was intense,” cried Natalie, grinning down at her friend. Her dyed-black hair, starting to grow out, waved in the wind as she looked over the edge.
Parker also poked his head over the side. His feathery blond hair ruffled in the breeze as he grinned down at Frank. “Dude, that was amazing!” he cried.
The five friends used to practice parkour and free-running together in this abandoned construction site on the edge of the city, back when they all went to high school together. The five-story office building was only half-complete, with open walls and exposed rafters giving the tracers an expansive playground. They hadn’t been there together in more than a year until today, though; since Frank and the twins had graduated high school, the twins had gone to New York to get their Watchers’ licenses while Frank helped his mom out at her dojo. I missed this, Frank thought as he grinned back up at his friends.
He cat-crawled along the beam, examining the slick surface carefully as he went, to get back inside of the building. Years of dust had settled on the top of the rafters, leaving black streaks on the legs of his light-gray sweatpants.
As his feet reached the main floor, he saw his friends come down from the roof. Miranda was the first down, jumping through a hole in the ceiling and landing with a roll. As she popped up beside Frank, Natalie followed her down. Instead of jumping, though, she grabbed onto the edge of the hole and lowered herself down, landing in a crouch on the ground.
Parker came through next, diving through the hole and using his large black and white wings to slow his decent, until his hands hit the ground and he could roll to a stand. He left his wings unfurled, posing as he pretended to see something off in the distance.
“Where’s your cameraman?” Miranda asked, snickering.
Parker shrugged and ran his hand through his hair. “Don’t need one,” he said, grinning. “I’m just sharing this with the world.”
Alex was the last one, hesitating for a second before jumping down. Jumping out of her four-point landing, she closed her eyes for a second as she shook off her fear of heights.
“You okay?” Frank asked.
Alex nodded, her chin set. She blew her raven-black bangs out of her face and said, “That was insane.” Smacking Frank over the head, she added, “You could’ve died.”
Frank grinned again. “Yeah, but I didn’t,” he pointed out.
Parker came up behind him and pulled him into a one-armed hug. “You aren’t the one with wings,” he said. “What was your back-up?”
Frank walked back over to the edge, shrugging off Parker’s arm. “See that rafter a floor down?” he asked. “I’d have grabbed that. I have done stuff like this before, you know,” he wryly added.
“Not off a five-story drop,” Parker pointed out. “They made us do some crazy stuff in Watcher training, but even the instructors would draw the line at a jump like that.”
“Well, maybe not,” Natalie smirked. “Could be they just didn’t think of it.” Parker shuddered at the thought, flexing his wings behind him as if to reassure himself that they were still there.
Twenty year-olds Parker and Natalie Fawkes had just finished the year-long training to become Watchers. Humans didn’t usually become Watchers – it was nearly impossible for people who didn’t have special abilities to pass – but Natalie had grown up learning her father’s street illusions. She could easily keep up with her brother, and wanted nothing more than to join a vigilante force. The twins already had an offer from a new agency in Eon City.
“Mom would love this,” Miranda said, walking out onto the beam and looking down at the drop. “Hey Frank, when she kills you later, can I have your stuff?”
“Ha, ha, very funny,” Frank said, jumping to grab a rail that ran along the ceiling. He swung his way across a five foot wide hole in the floor, landing silently on the other side.
Alex took a running start, jumping across the same hole. Landing next to Frank, she said, “You know, you actually looked a bit like Kindred when you were jumping.”
Of course he did. Kindred was his father – although Alex didn’t know that. When his parents were Watchers, they kept their identities out of the limelight as much as possible to give their kids a normal life. Frank wasn’t even sure Miranda knew that their parents had been a part of the famous Team Ark – she was just a kid when the team broke apart and their parents became full-time managers of the dojo.
Changing the subject, Frank latched on to the last detail. “Will your parents keep your stuff while you’re away?” he asked.
“Of course,” Alex said. “I’m only gone for the first month.” She flipped back onto her feet, calling to the twins as they crossed the gap, “I just hope the Task Force training won’t be as brutal as your Watcher stories.”
“At least yours will be shorter,” Parker said, folding his wings around his torso and jumping across the hole in the floor as well. “Your training only lasts a month or so, right?”
“What was that internship you got again?” Frank asked Alex as Natalie followed them over.
Alex held her chin up proudly as she answered. “I’ll be working for the DoD, in the Meta-Human Vigilante Task-Force. They’re responsible for gathering and coordinating intelligence on the meta-humans in other countries.” She shrugged one shoulder, as if it was no big deal, but her grin gave away how excited she was for the opportunity. “I’ll mostly be a paper-pusher as an intern, but who knows? A month for training, half a year as an intern, and if I do well they might hire me on full-time.”
Frank knew that Alex loved talking about it. She was the youngest applicant to be accepted into the program at seventeen years old; her test scores had ranked fourth in the nation’s history.
“Hey, what time is it?” Parker asked suddenly, looking towards the skyline.
“Nearly five,” Miranda told him, checking her watch. “Frank, we’re supposed to meet Mom at the gym,” she pointed out.
“Oh, yeah,” Frank grinned back at the others. “Same time tomorrow?” They all agreed, and Frank and Miranda jumped down through the hole in the floor.
Frank followed his sister down to the ground floor, staying back at her pace. Miranda Mejia was a cat-satyr, with long, pointed ears that she usually covered with the ski cap that was currently in her cargo-pants pocket, and a long reddish-brown tail that helped counter-balance her when she jumped. Frank had been doing parkour since he was twelve years old and was one of the fastest tracers on the coast, but Miranda had a natural grace that allowed her to jump far and land softly without much effort.
They walked along the streets of Eon City mostly together, though occasionally one of them would break off to try a stunt if they saw a good opportunity. Eon City was filled with rails, ledges, and walls for the tracers to play on.
“Mom’s gonna flip when she hears about that jump,” Miranda told him as they walked the three blocks to their Mom’s gym. “She’s told you dozens of times to be careful.” She wrapped her tail around her waist and tucked the tail of her tank top around it – a habit she had formed to help her fit in at school – as she pulled the ski cap out of her pocket and put it on. Her eyes were still the golden-flecked cat eyes, but there wasn’t much she could do about them.
“Not if she doesn’t know,” Frank said, pointedly raising an eyebrow at her. “Just like she also won’t know about you hanging out with us instead of getting your summer reading done, like she told you to do.”
Miranda got the hint. “Fine, I won’t tell her,” she grumbled as they came to the entrance of the gym, “but it was still reckless, and stupid, and dangerous.”
Frank grinned. “I know; it was fun,” he said, poking her in the side.
It was a typical day for them, before Frank decided to become a Watcher. Even after he joined the Asylum, he sometimes thought back to that time with his friends – the last time the five of them were all together.
Some memories were worth preserving.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, present day.
Frank and Miranda, coming home.
Frank walked through the doors of their mom’s mixed martial arts dojo (or “the gym”, as the family called it). His mom was finishing up with a class, while Miranda sat on the couch in the lobby area waiting for her to finish up. Frank sat down next to her, looking at the TV in time to see the tail end of a news interview.
On the screen was a familiar face from social media: Sean Hannah was young for the CEO of Pharos Industries. He was only about forty years old, and seemed to play that up for the audience – he was a thin man, wearing an impeccable suit and tie, but his curly brown hair was left unkept. His pointed chin was raised, giving him a slightly proud appearance. The camera angle, showing his face and shoulders as he spoke to the press, accentuated his electric blue eyes and sly half-smile.
“Pharos Industries has always been the leader in genetics research,” scrolled the captions at the bottom; although the sound was turned off, it seemed that the CEO was the one talking. “Now we prove once again how our innovation can take America forward in scientific discovery.”
“Him again?” Miranda asked, turning her attention away from the TV and onto their mom’s class. “Pharos has been everywhere lately, ever since that guy took over.”
“What’s that thing they’re advertising now?” Frank asked her, still watching the interview.
Miranda didn’t take her eyes off of the class. “I think it’s called ‘Gen Juice’,” she answered.
The television confirmed that two seconds later, as the interviewer went on to describe it. The captions said, “Gen Juice advertises itself as being able to give normal humans the same powers as Third Gens. How close do you think you are to releasing it to the public?”
Sean Hannah grimaced. “Unfortunately, we are still in the testing phase. It will be another few years before the formula is anywhere near ready for humans – we don’t want to repeat history,” he chuckled. “We’ll also need to get approved by the FDA, and make sure our licenses are in order; it’s unlikely that the public will see it for the next five years, and then the military –”
“Hey kids,” greeted their mom as the class ended. Frank turned his attention away from the interview to say hi. Sara Mejia was a small woman, barely five-foot-two, slim and athletic. She walked with a limp, sometimes even needing a cane. The shattered kneecap in her right leg still seemed to pain her, even years after the accident. Frank didn’t know how it had happened – only that it had happened nine years ago. He had come home one day to a phone call from his dad at the hospital, telling him that his mom was in intensive care. The doctor told them that his mom would always have that limp, though it might get better in time.
Sara’s smile left her with worry lines around her eyes as she looked at Miranda. Nineteen year-old Miranda’s human side took after their mother: they both had the same hazel eyes, high cheekbones, even the same hair color. Frank had seen pictures of his mom as a teenager, and had to admit that Miranda looked like a taller, more feline version of her.
They met every Saturday morning at the gym to practice sparring, at their mom’s insistence. Sara claimed it was to make sure that they kept up with their training, but Frank knew it was because she worried about them. Frank was now a full-time Watcher, and Miranda went to Eon City’s community college – even though she still lived at home, she didn’t see her parents much. Frank could tell that his mom didn’t see Miranda often enough; Sara always seemed to watch her with worried eyes these days.
“What’s wrong?” Frank asked his mom in an aside, while Miranda went to get water out of the fountain in the back. “Need more painkillers?”
“No, I’m fine,” Sara said. “Just promise me that you’ll keep an eye out for your sister. I’ve been hearing so many reports of satyrs being kidnapped recently; I don’t know what I’d do if Miranda was one of them.”
There had been a rash of missing satyr cases across Eon City in the last year. Frank knew that his mom believed the police didn’t care enough to expend resources on finding them. He couldn’t blame her – even Agent seemed at a loss on where to start looking, and he had the full resources of the Asylum at his disposal.
“Of course I will,” he sighed, “just like I said the last ten times you asked.”
“Frank, this is serious,” Sara scolded. “There have been three missing satyr reports this week alone. I don’t want your sister getting caught up in it.”
“Fine,” Frank said. “I promise. But I can’t be everywhere – Miranda has a mind of her own, and I can only call her so many times in a week.”
“Just do what you can,” Sara told him. “That’s all I ask.”
Miranda came back over, rolling tape around her hands. “Are we going to spar or what?” she asked them, pointing to the ring. “I swear, Frank, this time I’ll kick your ass.”
“You can try,” Frank shrugged, giving her a cocky grin. “I doubt you’ll do better than the last hundred times.”
He climbed into the ring with her, their mother limping over next to the ring. Miranda took her hat off when they sparred, though she kept her tail wrapped around herself. Frank used to grab her tail while they were sparring to teach her not to wave it around while she fought.
As soon as Sara gave them the go-ahead, Miranda tried to knock her brother down with a swift kick aimed at his chest.
Miranda was graceful, but Frank was fast. He dodged her foot, rolling around her and grabbing her from behind. Growing up sparring against his sister showed him her exact weak spots, and he knew that Miranda had never learned how to escape a full nelson.
“Give up yet?” he asked calmly as his sister struggled against him. Her legs flailed in the air as she tried to break his hold, but try as she might she couldn’t get free.
“That’s enough, Frank,” Sara said, and the siblings stopped struggling. “Miranda, I’ve told you before: escaping that hold isn’t about brute force. You need to use your opponent’s weaknesses against him.”
Frank could almost feel the wheels turning in his sister’s head. The one weakness she would need to exploit was his height – Miranda was four inches taller than his five-foot-four stature, and she could use that leverage if she just leaned forward.
The thought apparently occurred to her at the same time. Frank had less than a second to tighten his grip on her again before she drove her shoulders downwards. Frank’s toes came up about an inch off of the ground, and suddenly Miranda had the upper hand. She grabbed his right knee, quickly yanking it upward and making him let go of the hold if he wanted to land properly. As it was, he landed on just one foot as Miranda held onto his leg. She pulled it forward, throwing him over her hip and slamming him onto the mat.
“You’re getting complacent,” Sara said dryly to Frank. “You think that because your sister is weak against the one move, you can use it on her every time and not be bothered to follow up.”
“I get it,” Frank groaned, slumping against the floor. He got up, as Sara turned back to Miranda.
“Very good, sweetheart, but why did you hesitate?” she asked.
Miranda smirked at Frank, saying, “I know how to break out of that hold; I just forget it when I’m sparring.”
“Then you don’t know it,” Sara chided, and the smirk fell from her daughter’s face. “If you know something in theory but forget it in practice, then what good has it done you? Again.”
They spent the remainder of the hour going over that hold until Miranda successfully dumped Frank ten times in a row. As they finished the practice session, even Frank had to admit that his little sister was getting better.
“Very good,” Sara said after the last throw. “You’ve stopped hesitating.”
Miranda smiled, pushing her bangs out of her face. “Thanks,” she said. “I needed to work up a good sweat.” The grin changed to a sour expression as a loud guffaw sounded behind Sara. “Great,” Frank heard her mutter. He looked over to where his sister was watching.
The laughter came from two large fighters who seemed to be finished for the day. One was wearing a bright green workout shirt, while the other sported a black shirt with a skull on the front.
“Yeah, little kitty,” Skull said. “Better not hesitate or the big bad pipsqueak there’ll pull your ears.”
“What?” Miranda demanded, glaring back at them. “You want to say that to my face?”
Frank stood up, putting a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “Come on, they’re not worth it,” he said.
“Did you hear what they called you?!” Miranda demanded. Frank shrugged.
“I heard a fart,” he told her. “You know where those come from.” He had been teased about his height before; it didn’t really bother him anymore.
“Hey, kitten,” Green Shirt called. “You want to see how a real man fights? I know you satyrs have such… animal instincts!”
Miranda’s cheeks flushed, and she started forward as if to fight them, but Sara held up a hand as she turned to face the hecklers.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Sara said, smiling at them. Frank could see the anger boiling in his mother’s eyes, though. “I have a strict no-bullying policy in my gym.”
Skull crossed his arms. “And who’s gonna make me?” he asked, taunting the slim-framed woman.
Sara smiled pleasantly, taking one slow step forward. “I will,” she said, cocking her head to the side. Frank could see that the two brawny fellows thought she was joking. They laughed even louder at that, and Sara laughed, too. The mirth didn’t quite meet her eyes, however, and Frank knew what would come next. He had only ever seen his mother this angry once before, and it did not end well for the person who had made her mad.
Mid-laugh, Sara suddenly grabbed the scruff of Skull’s shirt, tossing the man over her right hip using the same move that they had just been drilling. Instead of landing on the semi-soft mat, however, Skull went crashing into the side of the ring. A loud THUNK told Frank that the heckler had hit the hard wooden frame, and he could hear the heckler’s moans from the floor below them.
Green Shirt’s eyes widened, but he didn’t have time to process what he had seen before he, too, was knocked to the ground. Sara had used her cane to knock his legs out from under him, and then followed up with a punch to the gut when he was on the floor.
Green Shirt coughed, as though choking down bile, as Sara stood over him. “Don’t you ever talk to my kids that way again,” she said. “Got it?”
“Yes ma’am,” they moaned.
“Now get out of my gym.”
The two hecklers got up as quickly as they could and ran out the door, Frank and Miranda’s laughter following them into the night.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, night.
Frank walking Miranda home.
Sara had to stay late to finish up some paperwork after the kids finished practice. It had stacked up recently, and she was determined to finish it before going home. She told Frank that she would get a cab, and asked him to walk Miranda the mile to their townhouse.
Miranda was unusually quiet, frowning slightly as she walked along the curb like a balance beam. Her tail was tucked around her again, and she was still wearing the ski cap even though it was a warm night.
“You okay?” Frank asked her.
Miranda shrugged. “It’s nothing. Those guys were just jerks.”
She was thinking about the hecklers. “Being a satyr is nothing to be ashamed of,” Frank told her.
“I know that,” Miranda huffed. “I just wish Mom didn’t have to step in like that.”
“She was defending you,” Frank said.
“Yeah, and she shouldn’t have to,” Miranda snapped back. Then she deflated again, as though the fight had gone out of her. “Besides,” she added, “I’m used to it.”
Frank’s jaw clenched as he realized what she was saying. “You mean you hear that from other people?” he asked.
Miranda just looked at him with her yellow eyes, and for the first time he really noticed how inhuman they looked. “What do you think?” she asked rhetorically. “I get it on campus, too: ‘Mangy Miranda’, ‘here, kitty, kitty’. That ‘animal instincts’ crack wasn’t even the most original one I’ve heard.”
Frank stepped in front of her, halting her on the curb. With a grave expression, he said, “And if they can’t be original, then what good are they?”
Miranda gave a startled chuckle and said in an equally formal manner, “Too true. Maybe they should have said something about my tail.” She uncurled her tail, letting the streetlights shine on it.
“Nah, too obvious,” Frank said, turning around and continuing to walk. “How about, ‘Ooh, the fury of the Furry.’”
“Nice,” Miranda laughed, her melancholy forgotten. As they passed the construction yard, she grinned at Frank. “What do you say?” she taunted, “A little night training before you go back to the tower?”
“How are you not tired?” Frank asked her. After spending the last hour getting pounded into the ring by his little sister, Frank was ready to go home and lounge on the couch in front of the TV for the evening. It was his night off, and he just wanted to rest.
“Come on,” Miranda said, starting to climb the fence around the abandoned site. “I just want to try one thing.”
“Nah, come on down,” Frank said, “Mom told me to take you straight home.”
It was hard to see it in the dark, but Frank could tell his sister was rolling her eyes at him. “This won’t take long, I promise. I just want… what was that?”
She stopped climbing, and took one hand off of the fence to remove her ski cap. Her long ears twitched in the moonlight as she listened. “What is it?” Frank asked.
“I think someone’s in trouble,” Miranda hissed. “Shush.”
Frank listened, straining to hear anything unusual nearby. Miranda’s hearing was as good as a cat’s, though, and there were some things that were easier for her than for her brother. Frank might be a Third Gen, but his powers were mostly limited to being able to see in the dark; his ears were all too human. “Come on,” she said suddenly, jumping down from the fence and starting to run. Her tail came unwrapped from her waist as she ran off down the sidewalk.
Frank ran after her, calling for her to wait. Soon after he passed the edge of the construction lot, he heard it too; somewhere nearby, someone was fighting. From the inhuman growls that punctuated the sound of punches and kicks, there was at least one satyr in the struggle.
Frank sped up, catching up to Miranda as she stopped in front of an alley. In the dark space between the buildings, five figures were trying to subdue a sixth. Miranda moved to dart into the fray, but Frank put a hand on her shoulder.
“We have to help,” Miranda said.
“Wait,” Frank said quietly, “we have no idea who they are or why they’re fighting.”
“She’s a satyr, Frank,” Miranda shot back, glaring at him. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Knowing that Miranda’s night vision was better than his own, Frank squinted down the alley. The momentary distraction was all Miranda needed to escape his grip; before he could stop her, she had charged headfirst into the fight.
Frank had no choice but to follow; his mom would kill him if he let Miranda get hurt. He grabbed the first attacker he came to and dragged him away from the center. As the surprised mugger turned around, Frank punched him in the jaw; the man went down like a sack of bricks.
Frank saw Miranda with her back to a wall, using the MMA style of fighting that their mother had drilled into them since childhood. She held off one attacker but while the wall at her back kept anyone else from sneaking up on her, she also had no escape route. Frank dodged a third fighter and grabbed the arm of his sister’s assailant. Twisting his arm around behind his back, Frank kicked him in the back of the knee to force him down to the ground. These guys were a foot taller than Frank, but his muscles were harder from a decade of parkour and mixed martial arts, and his Watcher training outmatched their fighting style.
Miranda nodded her thanks, her eyes wide as she focused on something just behind him. With only two opponents, the satyr woman they had come to rescue could now stand and fight on her own. Frank quickly slammed the guy he held to the ground, making sure he didn’t get up, and then turned to watch.
This new satyr was unlike anyone Frank had ever seen. Her floppy ears whipped through the air as she held her own against two guys twice her size. Her eyes glinted black in the moonlight, even in the darkness of the alley. She swept the feet of one of her attackers out from under him, and then turned to punch the other one in the face in one movement. She was definitely a dog-satyr, with fur covering her face, but she didn’t have a tail like Miranda did.
“A little help here,” the new satyr cried, as the guy on the ground grabbed her leg. Frank shook himself for the hesitation, before jumping into the fight.
He took care of the guy on the ground, allowing the satyr-woman to finish off the other one. As the sounds of fighting stopped, Frank turned to the woman. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Where’s the merc?” came the confusing reply as the woman frantically looked around.
As Frank opened his mouth to ask who “the merc” was, he heard a scream come from behind him. Turning, he mentally kicked himself for forgetting about the fifth assailant. The first guy he had punched on his way in had also recovered, and was now grabbing Miranda by her exposed tail. He yanked cruelly, pulling her into him and grabbing her by the neck. A lean bald man stood next to them, grinning with a smile that didn’t quite meet his eyes.
Frank ran after them, but the bald man drew a katana from a double sheath on his back and held the blade up to Miranda’s throat. Miranda stopped struggling as the metal touched her neck.
“It’s too bad you don’t want to come with us, Toby,” the man called back to the satyr-woman, “but this one will work just as well. Thanks for the match.”
Frank shook his head. “That’s my sister,” he cried, trying to stall as he figured out what to do.
The man just shrugged one shoulder. “Sorry,” he said, “but I have to meet my quota.” He pointed at the satyr woman, who doubled over in sudden, uncontrollable laughter.
Suddenly, the wall next to him seemed to open up, though none of the bricks moved. Through the hole, Frank caught a glimpse of wooden crates stacked in the background, in a space much too big for the building next to them. The merc gestured to the goon holding Miranda to step through, before going through the portal himself.
Frank ran after them, jumping to dive through the opening in space, but the portal closed just before he hit it, and without any extra space to finish his dive Frank crashed head-first into the brick wall.
“No!” he shouted, pounding his fists on the brick. “No, give her back!”
“They’re gone,” the woman said from behind him, her strange laughter subsiding. “You shouldn’t have interfered.”
“Yeah? You’re welcome for saving your life,” Frank spat back. “Where did they go? We have to follow them.”
“I have no idea where they went,” the satyr-woman said, dropping her eyes to the side. “I’ve been tracking them around the city for months; this was the first solid lead I’ve had in weeks, and now they could be anywhere.”
“They’ve got my sister,” Frank growled, “because we were trying to save you.”
“Yes, because you led her into a fight,” the woman shot back. “If you’d just left well enough alone…”
“Then you’d have been dragged off with them,” Frank said, his voice rising, “and we would have gone home. Miranda stopped to save you, now you tell me where she is!”
“I don’t know!” the woman shouted back, catching his eyes with her inhuman black ones. “I have no idea how they do that portal-thing, I don’t know where they take the satyrs once they have them, I don’t even know why they’re grabbing satyrs, I – just – don’t – KNOW!!”
Frank was shocked into silence for a few seconds. When he spoke again, his voice was much quieter as he asked, “So what do we do?”
“’We’?” the woman repeated. “There is no ‘we’, kid; I’m going to track them down. I have an old friend in the city I’m going to see; you run home and wait for me to find them.”
“’Run home’.” It was Frank’s turn to repeat things. “I’m not just ‘running home’ without my sister. Mom’ll freak.” What’ll I tell Mom? he thought even as he said it. After promising to look after Miranda, she was taken on his watch. How was he going to break the news?
“Tough,” the satyr-woman said. “I’ve got to find a new lead, thanks to your interfering – your mom is your problem.”
With that last word, she ran out of the alley and into the night. Frank stood there, dumbstruck, for another minute before running for help.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, Agent’s office.
Frank Mejia, briefing Agent.
“I’m telling you, the satyr woman called him ‘the merc’,” Frank told Agent, running through the events of earlier again. He had come straight to the tower after his sister was abducted; he was hoping to find her and get her home safe and sound before his mom even knew she had been missing.
“What did you say she looked like?” Agent asked, typing something into his computer.
“Long tail, cat ears, I mean, you’ve met her…” Frank said.
“Not your sister,” said Agent. “The satyr you rescued.”
Frank thought back. “She’s a dog-satyr,” he said. “She had fur all over her – at least the parts I could see. Floppy ears, too. It was dark, but I think her fur was light.”
Agent typed something else into the database. “That sounds like Holmes,” he said. “Toby Watson. She’s a private eye in the city; we’ve used her information on a few cases. I asked her to keep an eye out for the kidnapped satyrs – I guess she found something.”
“What about the guy who took Miranda?” Frank asked, impatient. “What do you know about him?”
“You said he pointed at Toby, and she started laughing uncontrollably?” Agent asked. He suddenly looked uncomfortable, as though he wanted to change the subject.
Frank saw through him. “You know who he is, don’t you?” he accused.
“You know who he is, too,” Agent said. “That was Marauder, of Team Ark.”
“… What?” Frank asked, hoping he had misheard.
Agent turned to look at him. “Didn’t you ever meet your parents’ team?” he asked. “I mean, I know you and I only met a couple years ago, but surely you met Derek, Casey, Steve…?”
“No,” Frank said, stunned. “Mom and Dad wanted to keep us out of it; I don’t even know if Miranda remembers that they were Watchers in the first place.”
Agent turned back to his computer. “When I first went to put the team together, I asked Derek if he would join,” he said. “He and Earthborn were my first recruits, since your dad and Casey refused. Marauder said he’d think about it, but he turned me down, too. I wasn’t surprised – Team Ark’s breakup was messy, and for any of them to come back here…” he trailed off for a second, then shook his head to clear it. “Let’s just say that this wasn’t my first choice for a post, either. Regardless, I’ve kept up with the old members, just in case: Star, your mom, runs the dojo. Kindred, your dad, does Watcher work solo. Sparrow now runs the bar.”
“And Marauder?” Frank prompted.
“Marauder worked as a Watcher for a while, but he turned mercenary.” Agent pulled up a file on one of his screens, showing Frank the face of the man who had abducted Miranda. “Derek Hessing, ex-military Third Gen with the power to manipulate emotions. He fell off the grid a while back, doing less-than-reputable jobs for not-so-good people.”
“And now he’s kidnapping satyrs,” Frank finished. “Why haven’t you stopped him before?”
“On what charge?” Agent asked. “Derek’s a professional – he knows how to cover his tracks. Him kidnapping Miranda in front of two witnesses is probably the best break we’ve ever gotten on the kidnapping ring.”
“Glad my sister’s abduction could help,” Frank said drily. “Now what?”
Agent scanned the file, looking for something. “We have an address for him,” he said. “Nightmare and Trick are patrolling near there now; I’ll have them check it out.”
“Great,” said Frank. “What can I do?”
“There’s a storage warehouse near the docks that Marauder has also been known to use,” Agent told him. “Jaunt has also been seen in the area.”
“Jaunt?” Frank asked. “What’s he got to do with this?”
“You said they stepped through a hole in the wall and disappeared,” Agent reminded him. “That has Jaunt written all over it. Unless you know of another Third Gen who can rip holes in space, because Marauder sure can’t.”
“Okay, so I’ll check out the warehouse,” Frank said, turning to leave.
“Not so fast,” Agent said. “I’m not sending you down there without backup. Haley will be back in an hour – ”
“I’m not waiting,” Frank said. “My sister could be there, and in an hour they could move her.”
Agent ran a hand through his hair, gripping his umbrella. “If I’m going to coordinate the groups, I can’t go with you,” he said. “The others are out on assignments.” The elevator door opened.
“Don’t worry about me,” Frank said, pulling out his phone as he stepped into the lift. “I know who to call.”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, warehouses near the docks.
Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.
Shadow didn’t turn around as he felt a sudden gust of wind. “Glad you could make it,” he said, keeping his eyes on the building. His goggles, set to infra-red, showed him how many people were inside.
“I’ll always be there for my friends,” Parker shrugged as he knelt down next to him. “What’s the sitch?”
“Miranda was kidnapped,” Shadow told him. “You remember Marauder from Team Ark?”
“You’re kidding,” Parker whistled. “Marauder? He was a hero!”
Shadow’s mouth twisted. “And now he’s a mercenary, apparently kidnapping satyrs for Jaunt. Including my sister.”
“Hey,” Parker said, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We’ll get her back.”
Shadow turned to look at him, pushing his goggles up on his forehead. “Seriously man, thanks for coming,” he said. “I know you could get in a lot of trouble with Claw for working with a Watcher…”
“Ah, don’t worry about that,” Parker said. “I got Claw’s permission to come.”
“Really?” Shadow asked. “How’d you manage that?”
Parker raised an eyebrow. “Satyrs have been kidnapped,” he said, as if it were obvious. “The Faun’s manifesto is to help satyrs. I just told him – in front of witnesses – that I had a lead on it, but that I’d have to work with a Watcher to follow through.” He pushed his sleeves up, revealing a bandage on his arm. “Claw said I’d have to try to kill you when the satyrs are safe, but he let me go.”
“Are you okay, man?” Shadow asked, concerned for his friend.
Parker shrugged. “It’s not as easy as I thought it would be,” he admitted. “Claw’s… well, he’s merciless to those who fail him. But I’m moving up in the organization, and we should have enough to bring him down soon. He’s planning something big; all I need is to get in on it, and we can catch him red-handed.”
“Just come home soon,” Shadow told him. “Nat’s been out of her mind with worry.”
“How many guards?” Parker asked, changing the subject.
Shadow pulled his goggles back down over his eyes, looking back at the building. “Looks like ten guards, and five prisoners – they have the satyrs grouped at the back of the building.”
“Okay then,” Parker said, standing up and shaking out his wings. “What’s the play for the two of us? I distract, you sneak?”
“Like old times,” Shadow grinned at his buddy. “Nat’s going to be pissed that she missed it.”
Parker chuckled. “I’ve got something that’ll make her really jealous,” he said. “She wasn’t the only one to pick up some tricks from Dad.”
“So, do I call you Blackbird again?” Frank asked as they moved into position.
“Better not,” Parker said. “The Fauns know me as ‘Fallen’.”
Shadow shook his head. “That’s way too cheesy, man,” he said, “especially with your wings.”
“Then I guess we’re sticking with ‘Parker’ on this one,” Parker said, grinning. “Man, I missed this. Let’s go get ‘em.”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City warehouses.
Miranda Mejia, waking up.
“She’s coming to,” a male voice said from somewhere above her.
Miranda Mejia woke up in a small room, tied to a hard reclining chair. With the two people and bright lamp above her, she thought for a moment that she was at the dentist’s office. Then the wooden walls came into focus behind them, and she remembered the fight.
The bald mercenary had taken her through the portal. Before she could even try to fight back, someone stuck her with a needle and she blacked out. Now, still groggy from whatever drug they had pumped her with, she fought against her bonds. The two figures looked at her, and then turned to each other. The one on the left had a faint blue glow, but the light above kept Miranda from seeing either of their faces clearly.
“Who the hell are you?!” she tried to shout, only to find that her mouth had been gagged. She settled for a string of muffled profanities that would have made her mother wash out her mouth as she struggled against the chair ties.
“Interesting,” said a female voice. It sounded nearly robotic; if she didn’t see two figures above her, Miranda would have thought it was one person talking to a computer. “Your methods are rather crude, but appear to be effective.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the male voice replied, and the shadowy figure on Miranda’s right waved a hand dismissively. “One out of twenty candidates isn’t what I’d call ‘effective’.”
“Nevertheless,” the woman replied, “one candidate is better than none. It appears your experiment was successful in that regard.”
“She survived,” the man conceded, “and she’s not raving like some of the others, but whether or not she gains powers remains to be seen.” Miranda quieted down. Powers? This sounded like something she might want to hear. Neither person acknowledged her presence, so they might say something to help her later.
“What is the purpose of this experiment?” the female robot asked. “Your task was simply to find a viable contestant. We did not need you to alter them.”
The figure on the left cocked her head, while the figure on the right put a hand to his temple. “This planet technically has three dominant species,” he said, “the Third Gens, the Satyrs, and the Humans. Humans are probably not going to last more than a few generations. While the Third Gen and Satyr serums were supposed to create recessive genes, they’re growing more in numbers as the therapy mutates. Soon, maybe even within my lifetime, homo sapiens will become endangered. So we really need to focus on the surviving two.”
“What is the purpose of this experiment?” the woman asked again, in the exact same tone as before.
The man sighed. “You asked for a viable contestant. One. It isn’t fair for a world of two dominant races to limit our representative to only one of them. I’m trying to find a candidate who can represent both.”
“So you are infusing a satyr with the Third Gen gene?” the robotic voice asked.
“It’s the least invasive procedure,” the man answered. “Satyrs are a physical mutation, while Third Gen is a mental one. As we found when the satyr serum was first tested on humans, the physical mutations can kill. So I focused on the successful serum: I tweaked Third Gen to interact with a satyr to give them powers.”
“Of your twenty candidates, you injected ten with the current serum. Of those ten, only one has awoken with any mental clarity,” the woman reported. “Would it not have been more scientifically judicious to study the candidates before injecting them?”
“Oh give me a break,” the man replied. “Of course it would, but you gave me a time limit. That kind of lab work would take years to set up and run, and then would only work with the resources that I’m just now getting. We have what, two years left?”
“Your time: two years, one month, five days, six hours, eight minutes – ”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” the man interrupted. “The point is time’s short. I can’t keep this under wraps for much longer, but I’m finally getting into a position where I can find you a viable candidate. This particular experiment is just me stacking the deck; just like the Fourth Gen experiment, or kidnappings, or any of the others I’ve orchestrated since your boss first told me about this.”
Miranda squinted her eyes, trying to see her kidnapper’s face. The voice didn’t sound like Marauder from the alley, and this figure seemed to have a head full of hair instead of Marauder’s bald pate. The voice seemed vaguely familiar, but Miranda couldn’t quite place it.
“So do you have your report?” the man asked. The figure on the left nodded, and they disappeared in a flash of blue light. The man swore, and moved out of Miranda’s line of sight. She tried to turn her head, but found that her neck was also clamped down.
She let out a muffled protest again, and the man actually answered. “I am sorry about this,” he said. “But like I told Ayu, time is short and you’re my back-up plan. Hopefully you won’t be needed; I’d hate to send a teenage girl to that sadist.” Miranda’s eyes widened in alarm. “But someone has to go. Personally, I’m rooting for the Team Ark members, but Marauder has already proven corruptible, and Star is crippled. The Asylum teammates are too new; two of them are human, the Third Gens are under-powered, the Fourth Gens are unstable, the Djinn is too old, and the hybrid has his own agenda. You were a stroke of luck, by the way,” the shadowy figure came back into view, pressing his hands together. A dust mask dangled from his arm. “Agent sent the Asylum team to look for you, and Claw actually sent someone to help.” He moved away from her chair, but stayed in her field of vision. “Agent also knows what’s coming,” he added as an afterthought. “I just can’t wait around for his goody-two-shoes approach. Wish I could, though.”
After a second’s pause, he shrugged, and opened his hands in the air in front of them. The air seemed to tear, showing a scene of deserted ruins in mid-air. The man shrugged again and said, “It doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out; you just get some rest now. I’ll be seeing you.”
He put the dust mask on and stepped through the portal, leaving Miranda alone in the small, dimly-lit room.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City warehouses.
Parker and Shadow.
The guards were taken aback when the entrance to the warehouse slammed open and smoke began pouring in. A Guns N Roses song began blaring from the entrance as an angel appeared out of the fog. Parker flared his wings, flipping his knives out dramatically as he grabbed the guards’ attention.
“You know what your mistake was?” he asked over the music. “You guys pissed off the Fauns. Claw doesn’t like human thugs who kidnap innocent satyrs – and you really shot the wind when you kidnapped one of my friends.”
He really does have Nat’s flare, Shadow thought to himself as he slipped in behind his friend. While Parker drew the guards’ eyes, Shadow could sneak through the shadows around the side of the warehouse to get to the prisoners.
Sure enough, the guards turned their guns on Parker, who dove for cover behind some boxes near the entrance. Shadow was already out of the firing range, but he helped Parker out by throwing some shadows into the guards’ faces. They stopped shooting as they found that they couldn’t see.
Shadow reached the prisoners, who looked dazed and confused. They didn’t respond when he told them to move, even after he cut their bonds – they seemed catatonic, though they were wide awake.
Miranda wasn’t among them. Shadow tuned his goggles back to infra-red and looked around, seeing if he could find another heat signature that might be her. Behind him, he heard the guards scream as Parker pulled out his next trick. Shadow was looking around frantically, trying to find his sister, when he saw a faint signature behind what appeared to be a solid wall.
Turning his goggles back to normal vision, he found a small panel. As he pressed a button, a red laser grid scanned his face. A female voice said, “Scanning… subject unknown. Authorization not found.”
“Agent,” he said, calling through his com. “I think I found a secret room, but there’s a panel with what looks like a retinal or a facial scanner. Can you hack it?”
“You know, I usually need some more details,” Agent pointed out. “Can you show me?”
Shadow pulled out his phone and took a picture of the scanner. Once he had sent it to Agent, he asked, “So can you hack it?”
“At some point, you’re going to have to learn what it is I do,” Agent told him. “I can’t ‘hack’ scanners. I can, however, trick them into shutting down and opening the lock.”
“Fine, whatever,” Shadow said. “Can you do it?”
“Done.” As Agent said it, a hidden panel opened in the wall. It became a door, leading to the hidden back room of the warehouse.
Shadow moved to enter, but before he could go in he doubled over in a fit of laughter. A voice said from behind him, “Clever, Star – very clever. But not quite good enough.”
As he turned around, Shadow found himself face-to-face with Marauder himself.
Marauder furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. “You’re not Star,” he said. “You’re wearing her outfit, but you don’t have her limp.”
The laughing fit subsided, and Shadow stood to face him. “My name is Shadow,” he said. “I’m from the Asylum.”
“The Asylum?” Marauder repeated. “Those new guys who Agent thinks will replace us? Funny.” He drew one of his katanas and pointed it at Shadow’s throat. “Your buddy over there claimed to be from the Fauns. You working with criminals now, or was he just blowing hot air?” He seemed to study Shadow’s face behind the goggles. “Wait, I recognize you – you’re Sara and Kevin’s kid!”
“I’m also the guy from the alley, when you took my sister,” Shadow pointed out. Despite the sword at his neck, he pulled out his nightsticks and turned them on. The hum of the tasers came on behind the sounds of fighting and Parker’s playlist in the background. He caught a flash of light out of the corner of his eye, but kept his eyes riveted on Marauder in front of him.
“Right…” Marauder said, shrugging. “Like I said then, it isn’t personal. Just business.”
“Then you shouldn’t take this personally,” Shadow said, shoving a taser into the sword at his neck. He followed through, knocking the sword aside and putting the other taser into Marauder’s arm. The mercenary went down, his body shuddering from the wattage that hit him.
Shadow turned back to the door to see a masked man slowly clapping. “Well done, young man,” the masked man said. “Marauder is not an easy guy to take down, but you did it so neatly.”
“Who are you?” Shadow asked, clutching his nightsticks in a defensive stance.
The masked man shrugged. “Nobody of consequence,” he said. “I believe my record refers to me as ‘Jaunt’.”
An icy feeling washed over Shadow. “You’re… you’re Jaunt?” he repeated. “You’re the guy that took down Team Ark!”
“Oh, that?” Jaunt said, waving a hand. “That was nothing. Team Ark had problems long before I got there; I’ve done many more relevant things.”
“Where’s my sister?” Shadow demanded, holding up his nightsticks.
Jaunt stepped out of the doorway, motioning for Shadow to go in. “Right through here,” he said. “She’s fine; she turned out better than the others. You can have her back, now.”
“What did you do to her?” Shadow asked, tentatively stepping past Jaunt into the hidden room. If it was a trap, Parker was still outside – Shadow had no doubt that Parker had his back.
“Just gave her a new serum,” Jaunt said, shrugging as if it were no big deal. “I think Pharos is planning to market it as ‘Gen Juice’. She’ll get a taste before the black market gets their hands on it.”
“I won’t let you get away this time,” Shadow said, jamming one of his tasers towards the villain.
Jaunt threw himself back, swatting Shadow’s hand away. “None of that, now,” he said, stepping back further. “You can have your sister back, but I’m not quite ready to stop the experiments.”
“What?” Shadow asked.
“Something big is coming,” Jaunt warned him. He moved to where Marauder laid. “I’ve been preparing the world for it. One of these days I might even show you – but for now, get your sister and get out. Your Faun friend will leave as soon as he has a sample of the Juice.”
Shadow shook his head, even as he realized the sound of the fighting had stopped. “He wouldn’t leave,” he said. “He was here to help me get my sister.”
“He was here on Claw’s orders, to pick up a shipment,” Jaunt said. “Make no mistake: you’re getting your sister back because I’m letting you take her.” He clapped his hands together, and as he pulled them apart a hole seemed to open in the space between them. A blue-hued desert landscape showed from the other side as Jaunt grabbed Marauder and tossed the limp mercenary through.
Jaunt stepped through the portal after him, saying, “Tell Agent I said hi,” before it shut behind him.
Shadow let out a frustrated sigh, before going into the hidden room. There he found Miranda tied to a medical chair. “Frank!” she cried as soon as he removed the gag.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Shadow said, freeing her from the other restraints. “I’m here.”
“Hey, man,” Parker said, poking his head into the room. “You got her?”
Shadow nodded. “She’s right here,” he said. As soon as he freed her arms, Miranda threw them around her brother in a hug.
“I don’t know what they did to me,” she admitted, her voice shaking. “They were talking about an experiment, and said I was the only one who woke up from it – so I know they did something, but I don’t know what they did…”
Shadow gently shushed her. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, holding her back so that he could look into her cat-like eyes. “We’ll get Dale to check you and the others out. But after that, you’re going home. It’s over.”
Miranda was still shaking, but she stood up from the chair. As she rubbed feeling into her limbs, Shadow reflected on the tough training that his parents had put them through. Miranda might not be a Watcher, but even after the night’s ordeal she could still function enough to get out of there.
Parker came into the room. “I’ve finished off the guards,” he said. “The other satyrs aren’t moving – you’ll take them to Dale?” he asked. When Shadow nodded, still keeping an arm around his sister, Parker added, “Okay. I have to get back to the Fauns, then.”
“Claw doesn’t want you to take the satyrs to him?” Shadow asked. It didn’t sound like the cult leader to let satyrs leave with a Watcher.
Parker shrugged, shaking out his wings. “Claw isn’t interested in taking in strays who can’t function,” he said, moving over to check out the lab where Miranda was held. “Technically he’ll want me to bring him Miranda, but I’ll make something up about you not letting me take her.” He picked up a small medical jar with an orange liquid sloshing around in it. Facing Shadow, he said, “Go ahead, get her out of here.”
“Agent’s sending the others,” Shadow told him. “They’ll want to see you.”
Parker shook his head. “I can’t stick around,” he said, heading for the door. “If Claw finds out I’m chummy with you guys, he’d probably kill me.” He gave Miranda a quick hug as he passed. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he told her, walking out the door. “Catch you later!”
As he walked out the door, Shadow watched him pocket the jar of liquid. He wanted to go after his friend and ask why Parker had just lied to him, but he had his hands full helping his sister. The siblings made it to where the other satyrs were kept, and watched Parker fly off into the night.
* * * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, the next day.
“I can’t believe he was there and didn’t wait for us!” Natalie cried, pounding her fist on the counter. “That inconsiderate jerk!”
“He said he might be home soon,” Frank told her again, trying to calm his friend’s temper. “Just one more big job with Claw, and he said they can catch him red-handed.”
“He’d better,” Natalie muttered, folding her arms over her chest. Her food lay untouched on the plate in front of her.
“How’s your sister doing?” Haley asked, sitting down at the kitchen island with her dinner. “Did Dale sign off on her?”
Frank nodded. “Clean bill of health,” he said. “She’s taking a few days off of classes, just for her mental health, but physically Dale couldn’t find anything wrong with her.” He gave a small sigh as he opened the fridge to find something to eat for himself. “She’s acting different,” he added with a worried frown.
“Stands to reason,” Reiki shrugged, listening in from the living area. “Anybody would be shaken up after that, even if they didn’t hurt her.”
“What about the other satyrs?” Rina asked, sitting next to Reiki. “Have they said anything yet?”
“Miranda was the only responsive one,” Haley said, swallowing a bite. “Dale had the other five moved to a lab outside the city for treatment.”
“We only got six back,” Natalie said, grabbing her fork and stabbing a piece of broccoli angrily. “Reports had fifteen missing satyrs, including Miranda, and we only got six back.”
“We’ll find the others,” Haley said. “Six is better than none. Especially when one of the six was family.” She nodded towards Frank.
Natalie huffed. “Sorry, Frank,” she said. “Of course I’m happy we got Miranda back safely. I’m just frustrated with how little we know. This Jaunt guy has been playing with us, and I’m sick of it.”
“And he got away,” Frank added, frustrated himself. “I had him right there, and he got away.”
“We’ll get him, too,” Haley promised. “Agent’s working on it. In the meantime, we can train, and be prepared for when we see him again.”
Natalie and Frank looked at each other, but they didn’t say anything.
Rina spoke up to break the silence. “Hey, Frank – I’ll give you another chance to beat me at Smash Bros after dinner!” she called over.
Frank grinned at her, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “You’re on,” he said.
Haley was right – they would get another chance. Worrying about it would only keep them up at night for nothing.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, night.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Sara asked her daughter for the hundredth time that evening.
“Mom, I’ll be fine,” Miranda said, settling into bed. “I’m going back to school tomorrow and everything. Stop worrying!”
Sara sighed. “I’ll never stop worrying about you, baby girl,” she said. “But if you’re sure…”
“Mom, I need to sleep,” Miranda pointed out. Sara took the hint and backed out of the doorway. “Good night!”
“Sleep tight, sweetheart,” Sara said, closing the door enough to block out the hallway light, but leaving it open a crack.
Miranda got up and closed it the rest of the way, shaking her head. She wasn’t even jumpy any more – her mom was worrying about nothing. She hadn’t been hurt.
In fact, she felt better than she had in her entire life.
Miranda smiled to herself as she looked down at her hands. She snapped her fingers, and a small flame lit up above her thumb. She watched the fire dance for a minute before snapping her fingers again to turn it off.
It was different, but she was definitely okay.
* * * * * * * *
Brittany Rose James yawned as she woke up, slowly stretching her creaking joints. She smiled wryly at the stuffed dolls lining her wall, saying, “It’s no wonder they call me Granny, huh?”
She slowly swung her feet over the side of the bed, settling them into her slippers before standing up with more creaking and groaning. The alarm clock at her bedside blinked 5:03 am in big green numbers. She never needed to set it – she snapped awake at five in the morning every day.
“What day is it today?” she asked her zoo, picking up her knitting needles from her nightstand as she straightened the blankets on her bed. She tapped them against a small knit dragonfly, whispering a spell. The dragonfly came to life, zipping over to the calendar hanging next to the door.
“Oh, it’s the twenty-first!” Granny said. “Thank you, Roberta. Silly me, I almost forgot my own birthday. One hundred and nineteen years young, eh?” she chuckled. She stopped to admire herself in the mirror as she went to the bathroom. “But I don’t look a day over eighty.”
Her morning routine took about two hours as she straightened her room, packed certain stuffed animals into her day-bag, washed and dressed herself in a pastel outfit. Today was special, though – she wore her special birthday shirt to see the doctor.
“Good morning, sunshine!” Dale greeted her, referring to the bright yellow suns that dotted her shirt. “Happy birthday to my favorite octogenarian.”
“Good morning to you too, Doctor,” Granny said, smiling at his flirtations. “Though I’m afraid I stopped being an octogenarian around the time you were born.”
Dale grinned back. “You’ll forever be eighty-three to me, my dear,” he said. “You need your pills this morning?” He held out a cup with six pills in it.
“Wouldn’t hurt,” Granny said, taking it from him. After swallowing everything he prescribed, she went back to her room to get a load of laundry in before breakfast.
When she came down to breakfast, she was surprised to see Haley sitting at the table. “Morning!” she said cheerily.
“Good morning,” Granny said. “I’m surprised to see you down here; the others don’t usually get up until later. Do you have patrol this morning, dear?”
“Oh no, my patrol’s this afternoon,” Haley said. “I just couldn’t sleep, so I came down early today. I hear it’s your birthday,” she added, changing the subject.
“Another year older,” Granny shrugged, shuffling over to the coffee pot. “One year left.”
“Come again?” Haley asked, tilting her head in confusion. “One year left ‘til what?”
“Oh, never you mind, dear,” Granny said, sipping her morning brew. “It’s an old person thing.” She winked conspiratorially at the younger girl, putting a finger on her nose.
Haley giggled. “I’ve never met another ‘old person’ who fights while riding a dragon,” she said. “Instead of ‘old’, why don’t we just call you ‘youth-challenged’?”
“Works for me!” Granny cackled. “Would you like some eggs?”
“That’d be great, thanks!” Haley stood and got a bowl down from the cupboard. Together, the two of them prepared breakfast for the team.
Granny liked Haley. The girl had been polite and charming since the day she started at the Asylum. Haley would often join Granny for tea on days she didn’t have patrol, and she was always extremely helpful. Granny watched as the young hero squirted ketchup on her eggs.
“Would you like some?” Haley asked, offering the bottle to her.
“No, thank you,” Granny said. “Never know who else will show up.”
She thinks I mean the other Asylum folk, Granny thought as Haley shrugged and put the bottle down. Granny had stopped using condiments on her food more than a hundred years ago.
* * * * * * * *
One hundred and seven years ago.
Brittany James, age thirteen.
It was summer vacation, and Brittany was loving every minute of it. Middle school was tough: she had always been socially awkward, and she couldn’t make friends at school no matter how hard she tried. If she was friendly, she was called “weird” – but if she was anything less, kids would say she was being a bitch. There didn’t seem to be a middle ground for her; the other kids in her classes were determined to hate her just for existing.
In the summer, though, she didn’t need to get along with people. She could watch TV all day while her parents were gone, and play video games. She was currently preparing her favorite sandwich for lunch: turkey and swiss with tomato, lettuce, onions, and mayo.
She squirted the mayo in a thin stream onto the bread in a star shape today. She didn’t know why – it just pleased her to see the shape take form. A star, then a circle around it – the bottle was nearly empty, though. She had to shake it to get the last bit out, and it sprayed a random pattern onto the rest of the pentagram.
Smoke began to fill the room, and glowing red eyes stared at her from across the table. “Who has dared summon me?” came a booming voice. Brittany was coughing from the sulfur-smelling smoke, and couldn’t answer. “Who dares to call upon the great Mališa?”
Brittany stared at the demon’s eyes. At the time, she had no idea that demons really existed; she thought they were just fairy stories to frighten kids into behaving in church. Her first thought was to panic – but then she noticed something strange.
The demon was staring at her sandwich.
It looked back at her, realizing what had happened. “You summoned me… with lunch?” Mališa asked. “You, child – you didn’t mean to summon me here, did you? Why did you write my name with mayonnaise?” The demon stood up, revealing his bat-like wings.
The movement also revealed that Mališa was only two feet tall. He looked bigger because he was standing on the counter next to Brittany’s sandwich.
“Speak, child!” Mališa demanded. “Do not waste my time, or I’ll devour your soul!” He bared his fangs, and despite his diminutive size, Brittany had no doubt that he meant the threat.
“I…” she stammered. “I… I was wondering if you were hungry.” She gestured to the sandwich. “Please, would you join me for lunch?”
The demon blinked at her. “You want me to eat with you?” he asked. “You… you don’t think I will eat you?”
“Well, that would be pretty rude,” Brittany said, “to eat your host after being invited to lunch.” She shrugged, warming up to the idea as she got out another piece of bread and began making another sandwich for herself – this time without mayo. “Care to join me?” she asked the demon, who was still standing on the counter.
“…I am a bit peckish,” Mališa admitted. The demon grabbed the sandwich already made, putting the two pieces of bread together carefully. Slowly, he took a bite. His eyes widened, and he looked down at the sandwich in his hand. “This is delicious,” he said, surprised. “I haven’t tasted something this good in centuries!”
“I’m glad you like it,” Brittany giggled. “My secret is putting the cheese in between the lettuce and tomato, and the tomato on the meat. That way, the juices of the tomato don’t soak the bread, and the cheese adds flavor to the lettuce.”
“Amazing!” Mališa finished his sandwich, savoring every bite. “I don’t get food like this at home,” he said. “The other imps take the best stuff for themselves, and call me ‘runt’ when I try to get my share.”
“That’s awful!” Brittany said. “I have the same problem with the kids at school. They say I’m ‘weird’, or else they ignore me when I try to talk to them.” She sighed. “My parents are always at work, and I don’t have any siblings. It gets kind of lonely around here.”
“I have five hundred and thirty-two brothers and sisters,” Mališa told her, “but they’re all much closer with each other than they are to me. Nobody has time for the runt of the litter.” He sighed, sitting down on the counter as Brittany finished her sandwich. “Even my parents named me ‘Little One’ – my siblings got all the cool names, like ‘Bringer of Death’ and ‘Saberwing’. For a demon, it’s embarrassing.”
“‘Saberwing’?” Brittany asked, giggling. “What, does he have like a sword on his wings?”
Mališa started to laugh, too. “No – but he does have a nose that takes up his whole face!” he told her. They both giggled.
“I think Mališa’s a cool name,” Brittany told him. “Sounds like ‘malice’.”
Mališa looked at her with wide eyes. If he had tear ducts, Brittany thought he might cry. “That is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me,” he told her.
The demon stayed for an hour before he had to go back home. He told her about life in the underworld as an imp, having bigger demons pick on him all the time. Brittany told Mališa about the kids at school who picked on her.
“I will devour their souls!” he swore when she told him about the girls who would make fun of her lack of chest in the gym locker room. “They will rue the day they messed with… I never did get your name, child.”
“Brittany,” she introduced.
“They will rue the day they messed with Brittany!” Mališa finished.
When Mališa left, it was with the promise of coming back the next day to chat some more. For the rest of that summer, Brittany had lunch with her new friend – and suddenly the world didn’t feel quite so lonely.
But she never used condiments out of a squirt bottle again.
* * * * * * * *
The other Asylum members trickled into the kitchen over the morning. Frank came back after his night patrol, ready to pass out until the afternoon. Granny always made him eat something before bed, since his rocket-skates took a lot of physical effort to use.
“I don’t know what’s been going on lately,” he said, slowly and dramatically trying to lift his fork with effort. “There were five robberies last night. Five! Two were from Third Gen and Satyr groups, and one was the Fauns.” He took a bite and looked at Natalie, who was eating her own breakfast at the kitchen island. “Parker says hi, by the way.”
“You saw Parker last night?” Natalie asked, suddenly interested in the conversation.
Frank nodded. “He was leading a group of Fauns in a jewelry heist,” he said. “I told him that was cliché. He said that Claw wanted those pieces for some reason.”
“Which pieces?” Granny asked. She was always on the lookout for interesting artifacts; maybe Claw had discovered something.
“A gold necklace,” he said. “Big, pretty gaudy. It had some onyx stones set in the gold.”
“Did they have a pattern?” Granny asked, drawing something on her napkin. “Did it look like this?”
What she showed him looked like a maze puzzle, with certain etchings around the edges. Frank nodded. “I don’t know if that’s exactly what it was,” he said, “but it looks pretty close. Why? Do you know it?”
Granny pursed her lips. “I’ve never seen it in person,” she said, “but I know of it. I’ll check it out later today, dear.” She shrugged, using the back of the napkin to wipe her mouth. “It’s probably just a replica.”
The description disturbed her. A relic, after all this time? she thought to herself. No, probably just a replica.
But she would check it out. Just in case.
* * * * * * * *
One hundred years ago, to the day.
Brittany James, nineteen years old.
“How are your studies coming, Brittany?” her dad asked over dinner one night. “Keeping your grades up?”
“Yes,” she said. “My theology course is amazing! We got to debate over the different religions’ versions of heaven and hell last week.”
She attended a local college for her first years, since her dad said it would be cheaper than going to a university for her basic classes. Brittany had no idea what she would major in, but ever since Mališa showed her some old tomes from the underworld, she wanted to go into a field that dealt with similar books.
Mališa had been teaching her Coptic and Aramaic for years, so she was already at the top of her class in her archeology and ancient literature electives. Over the last six years he had also introduced her to some higher-level demons, praising her sandwiches as “the best in all the realms!”
She fed anyone who came for a visit, and they taught her different things about ancient history – most of them had been alive for it, after all. She used her allowance for sandwich ingredients, which confused her parents to no end. When she was fifteen, they told her to get a job to learn the value of money, and to stop wasting it on foodstuffs; she just managed to afford better ingredients.
Brittany learned how to make her own bread, and her sandwiches became the stuff of legend in the underworld. Mališa still managed to come almost every day, and the two had grown close as friends.
But dinner was always with her parents, who asked her about her grades and then talked politics for the rest of the evening.
“That’s good to hear, dear,” her mom said. “Did either of you hear about the new serums being tested?”
“Genetics,” her dad said, rolling his eyes. “People keep trying to live longer by any means necessary, even though that stuff never works.”
“Pharos has promised results with this new one,” her mom said. “They’re calling for human test subjects, and it passed the FDA regulations.”
Brittany fiddled her fork around her pasta. “I think it would be nice to never get sick again,” she said. “If it works, this might be a cure for cancer and other stuff like that.”
“If it works,” her father said. “That’s a big ‘if’. Messing around with people’s genes – if it goes wrong, and it could easily go wrong, then all of the test subjects would die. And if it goes right, they’ll just raise the price until nobody but the rich can afford it.”
“May I be excused?” Brittany asked.
“You’ve hardly touched your food,” her mother noted.
“I’m not really hungry,” she said.
“Of course,” her dad waved her off. As Brittany took her plate to the kitchen, she heard him add, “It’s all those damn sandwiches. I swear, that girl could eat a horse at lunchtime.”
Grinning to herself, she went up to her room to study the latest scrolls that Mališa had brought her that afternoon.
The next day at lunchtime, Mališa showed up early. “There’s someone new coming today,” he told her, “and I feel like I should warn you that tensions might get a little high.”
“You know the rules,” Brittany said. “Café Brittany is middle-ground. No feuding houses.”
“This is a little different,” Mališa said. “This new guy… well, he’s not from the underworld. He’s from the overworld.”
“The ‘overworld’?” Brittany asked, setting out her sandwich stuff. “What’s that?”
“Another realm,” Mališa explained. “I think humans might call it ‘heaven’.”
“Wait a second,” Brittany said, stopping with her hand halfway into the package of turkey. “Are you trying to tell me that you invited an angel to lunch with demons?”
“Oh, not at all,” Mališa said. Brittany breathed a sigh of relief and continued setting up. “The angels are much too busy to deal with a low-level imp like me. I invited a malakhim.”
“A malakhim…” Brittany repeated, stopping again. “Okay, I thought that the demons and celestials have been at war for millennia now.”
“Correct,” Mališa said, grabbing a box of Cheez-Its from the cupboard.
“So how, exactly, do you know a malakhim to invite?” she asked incredulously.
“Malakhim are low-level celestials,” Mališa explained. “Kind of like imps are to demons. I run across them all the time when running messages between realms; this one, Remmiel, I started talking with the other day, and found he’s actually not so bad. So I invited him to lunch with us.”
“What about the other demons who come here?” Brittany asked.
“This is a middle-ground,” Mališa said. “We’ve all agreed to your no-fighting rule; I’ll just make sure it applies to Remmiel.”
“Can you?” Brittany said. “I mean, no offense, but you’re pretty small compared to some of them.”
“We’ll just say that you won’t have anybody around for sandwiches any more if there’s any fighting,” Mališa shrugged. “Nobody will ever risk that.”
He was right. When Remmiel showed up that first time, the other demons nearly went to war in Brittany’s parent’s kitchen, but Mališa shut it down by threatening to take away the food. After that, everyone was civil; a couple of other imps even shook Remmiel’s hand on their way out.
From that day on, Brittany’s sandwiches were known in the overworld, too. Remmiel came back, and brought some friends of his, too. Brittany began meeting celestials as well as demons, and food brought the warring factions together, if only for a little while. It continued like that for another year, before the next big thing happened.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, a jewelry shop.
Granny’s checking out the necklace.
“It’s a replica,” she muttered under her breath, sighing with relief. “Of course it is.” She bought it anyways, bringing it back to the tower for further study.
On her way back, a man bumped into her. “My apologies,” he said, tipping his hat. He walked on, but Granny grabbed her needles and turned to face him.
“I may look old, sonny,” she warned, “but I’m not to be trifled with. I’m nearly at the end of my hundred years, so my power is many times that of yours.”
“Your hundred…” the man said, turning back to her. “So you’re djinn-marked, like me!”
“Can’t you even sense the other djinn, sonny?” Granny scoffed, twirling her silver knitting needles in her hand. “You’ve been marked for what, less than a decade, then?”
The man rubbed the ring on his right hand. It was a large, gold piece, similar to the necklace he held in his left after picking Granny’s pocket. “I need this necklace,” he told her. “And I’ll be needing whatever your relic is.” He he inhaled sharply, annoyed by something.
“You’re really new at this, aren’t you?” Granny said. “That necklace is a replica; any djinn could smell it.”
“You don’t understand,” the man said. “I’m trying to – ”
“You’re trying to collect the relics, bring them together with the Ring of Solomon to break your curse, along with all of the others,” Granny finished, rolling her eyes. “We’ve all been there. Three of the relics are in use – four, since you’re new. You’ll have to find the other three before someone else gets to them, or else you’ll have to murder the djinn-marked for theirs, and that’s a hassle.”
“You know where the others are?” he asked. “Tell me!”
Granny sighed. “The young are always in such a rush,” she said. “You have a hundred years from the time you’re first marked before your soul is trapped. The ones in use right now are much older than you – it’s easier to wait them out than it would be to kill them, low-level as you are.” She looked at his ring, studying it. “Let me guess – Jessamyn? Or is Rogul the Djinn of the ring?”
He clenched his fist, holding the ring up for her. “You know what this is?” he asked.
“Calm down,” Granny said, making a placating gesture. “Yes, I know what it is. I know all seven of them, though I’ve only seen pictures in books. I’ve been doing this for ninety-nine years now; try to keep up.”
“So you know where the others are?” the man asked, calming down. “And where’s yours?”
“Mine was melted down during World War Two for knitting needles,” Granny said, showing him. “They still hold the djinn, and mark the next one. It’s happened with some of the other relics, too.” She turned around, beckoning him to follow her. “Come, join me for lunch. I’ll introduce you to my friends, and we can bring you up to speed.”
The man followed her back to the tower, where Granny had security let him up to visit. They took lunch in her room, and she (along with her friends) explained everything to him.
* * * * * * * *
Ninety-nine years ago, to the day.
Brittany James, her 20th birthday.
“Happy birthday to you!” sang a chorus of demons and angels, happily chatting together in Brittany’s kitchen.
“Congratulations on getting accepted to the university!” Mališa added. “We’re all so proud of you!”
“I’m just happy that this little experiment of ours is working,” Brittany said, hugging her oldest demonic friend. “Just look at this place – so many demons and celestials are hanging out, catching up, and having fun together!”
“There’s talk that even the Archangels might come to visit,” Remmiel added. “This place is known to all as a haven from the war.”
“Lucifer himself has even heard of you,” Mališa said. “He sends his regards for your birthday. Uh-oh,” he added as a chill grew in the air. “Oh no, not today…”
“What is it?” Brittany asked.
“Veliki,” Mališa whispered. “He’s an Ifrit, a high-level djinn. His older brother was trapped in a relic by a human, so he says he hates all of your kind.”
“What’s he doing here?” Remmiel asked.
“He heard about the lunch club,” Mališa said. “He’s been threatening to come shut it down for a while now; nobody told him where it was, though.”
“Well, he’s here now,” Brittany said. “The no-fighting rule is still in effect. Plus it’s my birthday – I don’t want any fighting ruining it if it can be avoided.”
“Looks like a party in here!” boomed the Ifrit’s voice. “It’s the human’s birthday, is it? Well, I brought a gift!”
Sure enough, when the crowd parted to show the Ifrit, he appeared as a lion-headed warrior holding a small, wrapped box.
“Brittany, the rest of us here are low-tier,” Mališa hissed. “If Veliki decides to fight, he’d kill us all!”
“Nonsense, Little One,” Veliki purred with a smirk on his lion’s muzzle. “I’m not here to fight. I just want to give the human her birthday present.”
Mališa’s eyes were wide. He hopped up to the counter next to Brittany, saying, “It’s a trick; it’s got to be! The Ifrit are djinn; they’re known as tricksters.”
“It would be rude to refuse,” Veliki said. “Trick or no, she must take it or insult her guest.” He licked his lips. “Nobody would fault me for retaliating against an insult.”
“This is a place of peace,” Brittany said loudly. “Of course I will accept your gift in good faith, and I expect you to follow the same rules as everyone else.”
“Of course,” Veliki said, sickeningly sweet. “Go ahead; open it.”
Brittany picked up the box, smiling back at the Ifrit as she tore into the wrapping paper. Veliki continued talking as she unwrapped her gift. “Centuries ago, my brother met a human named Solomon,” he said. “Solomon was a gifted magician, who also summoned demons to help him rule. He mostly used us for power – to eat his enemies’ souls, and terrify his conquered people into submission.”
“Sounds like an ass,” Brittany said.
“Yes,” Veliki slowly said, a confused look on his face. “He was. If a demon turned against him, he would lock us away. Seven Ifrit djinn tried to stand up to him at once, and he trapped them inside seven relics – knickknacks that the king of men had at hand.”
“I’ve heard a story like this before,” Brittany said. “Was one of them an oil lamp?”
Veliki nodded. “Rogul was trapped in an oil lamp. Jessamyn was trapped in a ring. Ogrlica was trapped in a necklace, Frikad in a perfume bottle, Çapraz in a golden cross, Chiroq in a small pillow, and my brother, Krstot, was trapped in a silver cross.”
Brittany opened the box to find four plain silver knitting needles. “They’re lovely,” she said. “Thank you!” She had been half-expecting to find the silver cross from his story.
“Pick them up,” Veliki said with a sly grin. “See, human history is rather complex. I rescued these from Germany in nineteen-fifty-two. The Nazis had melted down any metal they got their hands on to make things of… practical use.”
Brittany picked up the needles as he spoke, and her stomach sank when he got to the part about the Nazis. “Then these…” she said hesitantly. A sharp pain went through her hand where the needles sat, as if they burned her skin – but try as she might, she couldn’t drop them.
“See, a trick!” Mališa said. “You’re hurting Brittany!” He launched himself at the Ifrit, claws out, but Veliki just opened his mouth and swallowed Mališa whole.
“No!” Brittany screamed, half from the pain in her hand and half from the casual murder that Veliki committed in her home. The other demons and celestials scrambled to leave, disappearing in puffs of smoke and beams of light.
As the world started to go black, Veliki loomed over her. “Let’s see if you have what it takes to free my brother,” he said, laughing as he, too, disappeared.
Brittany blacked out, and nothing remained but the pain.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, present day.
“Mališa was a good friend,” Remmiel said as Granny finished telling the djinn-marked man her story. “I still miss him.”
“He thought my lunches might end the war,” Granny said, smiling fondly as she remembered her best friend.
The man swallowed a bite of his sandwich. “So the Ifrit killed him?” he asked.
“Swallowed his essence,” Xabla, one of Mališa’s siblings, confirmed. “Mališa, as a being in the universe, is gone.” Granny had met Xabla at lunch a few days after Mališa was killed.
They sat in a moment of silence, before Granny continued. “Anyways, that was when I was djinn-marked. I was tested, like you, and came to on my kitchen floor.”
“Only a few minutes had passed,” the man said, remembering his own marking.
“Exactly.” Granny picked up another finger-sandwich. “I haven’t seen Veliki since then, but I’ve had djinn-powers. Anything I make using these comes to life.” She gestured to the zoo of plush animals around her room. “As you can see, I’ve been busy.”
“You joined the Asylum,” the man said, “and you fight crime.”
“Well, for many years I went after the relics like you,” Granny told him. “It was a futile effort. Of the three remaining without a marked human, two are in the underworld and one is in the overworld. The others, like my needles, are in possession of the djinn-marked, and I guarantee you they will not go easily.”
“But if I can do it,” the man said, “if I can bring all seven together, I can break the curse on all of us. We won’t have to be trapped in the relics with the cursed Ifrit after our years are up – we’d be human again!”
Granny nodded. “True,” she said. “That’s why I brought you here.” She gestured to her other two guests. “Remmiel can help guide you through the overworld, and Xabla has volunteered to show you to the two in the underworld. Plus there are other, higher-tier beings that know me and owe me favors. They will help you, too.”
“I recommend going to the overworld first,” Remmiel said. “The seraphim are less likely to attack a human if you don’t stink of the underworld.” He looked at Xabla apologetically, adding, “No offense.”
“None taken,” Xabla said sincerely. “I agree; demons who don’t know Brittany will attack anyone not of their clan, no matter what they smell like. So if going to the overworld first makes you slightly safer there, then by all means go.”
“Now?” the man asked.
“You have someplace better to be?” Granny asked in return. “Remmiel, if you would do the honors?”
“Sir,” Remmiel said deferentially, taking the man’s hand. “If you’ll come with me.”
As the two of them disappeared in the normal celestial beam of light, Granny sighed. “Oh, to be young and on an adventure.”
“You still have a year left,” Xabla pointed out. “It’s not much, but it’s something.”
“I’m perfectly content to spend it here, in the Asylum,” Granny said, smiling. “Something big is happening right in our backyard, and hell if I’m going to miss it.”
Xabla smiled at her with her bat-like teeth. “Happy birthday, child,” she said. “I hope it’s a good year.” She disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving Granny alone with her thoughts. She didn’t even notice when she fell asleep.
A loud knock on her door woke Granny from her reverie. “Come on, Granny!” Dale shouted through the door. “It’s your birthday, and we’re all going to the pub to celebrate!”
“Be right there!” Granny called back. She smiled at her reflection in the mirror as she put her slippers on. “Not a day over eighty,” she said, before picking up her bag and needles and heading out.
* * * * * * * *
Four years ago, a lab outside of Eon City.
Drake Rogers, on the table.
It didn’t hurt. That was what surprised Drake the most about his condition – he had been thrown around, pummelled, and electrocuted quite thoroughly, but nothing hurt.
In fact, he couldn’t feel anything below his neck.
At first, he had assumed that the doctors had tied him down. Then he thought that maybe they had given him an anesthetic. The truth dawned on him slowly – especially since the doctors didn’t seem to want to tell him – that he was paralyzed.
That damn kid, he thought. His opponent hadn’t really been a kid; the target had been in his early twenties. But Drake, who was in his thirties, saw him as a kid – a stupid kid who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and by sheer accident was now the strongest being on the planet.
As if echoing his thoughts, a voice came from the doorway. “Sucks, doesn’t it?” Jaunt asked him.
The man in the suit strolled in as if he owned the place – which he probably did. Drake didn’t even know which hospital he was in, but it looked as fancy as the other facilities that Jaunt owned.
“What… do you… want?” Drake managed to croak out. Breathing enough to speak was difficult, since he was on an artificial respirator.
“The same thing you do,” Jaunt said. “I want you up and about, able to take on your enemies.”
“You… did… this…” Drake pointed out.
Jaunt shrugged. “I can see why you think that,” he admitted. “It was my hit that you were taking out, my order to kill any witnesses, my order to track the witness down when you failed to kill him.”
“Your… drug… made him… a… monster…” Drake said. “I… killed… him… the… first… time…”
“You shot him,” Jaunt said. “You buried him in a shallow grave, and left him for dead. But you obviously didn’t kill him.”
“I… shot him… in the… heart…” Drake said.
Jaunt smiled. “And then buried him right over a chemical runoff,” he said. “Then lightning strikes the ground where he’s buried, and poof! Suddenly there’s a new, more powerful being running around.” He shook his head. “All of that experimenting with the Fourth Gens, and the answer was right under our noses. We have a true Fourth Gen, with no aversion to sunlight, who has god-like powers.”
“Can’t… control…” Drake said. “He’s… insane…”
“We’re working on a fix for that, too,” Jaunt said. “I have my top doctor figuring out a serum for him; we’ll have him back to his old self in no time.”
“What… do you… want… from me…?” Drake asked. He was getting tired of Jaunt’s blathering.
“Simple,” Jaunt said. “No experiment can be called a success unless we can duplicate the results.” He moved over next to Drake’s bedside. “I want your consent to give you the serum, and then shoot you with a bolt of lightning.”
It sounded crazy. Drake would have said no – except what did he have to lose? He knew about the Fourth Gen serum, and how it had nasty side-effects in all of the other subjects. But he was facing long-term paralysis, and that scared him more than dying.
“Do… it…” he said.
Jaunt smiled again and walked out of the room, calling behind him, “It’s already begun.”
Drake twitched his cheek in a ghost of a smile, the first since he had woken up from the fight. He would get his revenge for what the kid did.
David Perry would get what’s coming to him.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, present day.
David Perry, AKA Earthborn.
“Wake!” came a squeal from next to David’s side of the bed. “Wake, Daddy, wake!” There was a slight tugging at his sheets as his two year-old daughter tried to get him up.
“Sweetie, our daughter’s calling you,” Amy mumbled from behind the sheets.
David looked at the clock. Of course baby girl’s calling me, he thought. “It’s nearly eight,” he said, nudging Amy to wake her up too. “I’m up, munchkin,” he told his daughter.
He groaned as he climbed out of bed. He put his daughter in her booster seat at the table and got breakfast ready for the three of them.
“What time does your patrol start?” Amy asked, yawning as she came out of the bedroom.
“I’ve got the afternoon shift,” David told her, kissing her good morning. “Starts at twelve and goes until about eight.”
“I have to work the evening shift,” Amy told him. “I’ll call my mother to see if she can babysit tonight until you get home.”
David grinned at her. “I love you, you know that?” he said.
Amy smiled back at him, still tired. “You say that every day,” she told him.
“I mean it every day,” he said, pouring her a cup of coffee and sitting next to their daughter to help her with the cutlery.
Amy came over and kissed his forehead before sitting down next to him. “I love you, too.” she said. “It’s nice to have a decently quiet morning for once.”
No sooner did the words come out of her mouth then an alarm rang, coming from the bedroom. David winced, getting up as Amy took his spot next to their daughter. “You just had to jinx it, didn’t you?” he teased, going to the bedroom to answer his com.
“Earthborn, we need you,” Agent said, sounding urgent. “There’s a powerful Third Gen tearing up downtown.”
“Can’t Granny take it?” David asked, pulling on his uniform.
“I’d ask her, but it’s calling you out by name,” Agent said.
“I’m being requested?” David asked, pausing for a second as it sunk in. Finishing with his uniform, he added, “Most bad guys tend to hate it when I show up.”
“Union Square,” Agent directed. “Get there as soon as possible. I’m also sending Granny and Nightmare as back-up – we’ll need our heavy hitters on this one.”
“Roger,” David said, and Agent hung up. David went back out to the kitchen to let Amy know.
“Be careful,” she said. “We’ll be watching the news.”
David gave her a mock salute and kissed their daughter goodbye before heading out the door.
It took Earthborn only a few minutes to get downtown. That was one benefit of his powers – he could travel faster by tunnelling underground than he would in a car. It had taken him more than a year to get a handle on his powers, but now they were a part of him. Dale’s serum helped keep the crazy under control, and as long as he used his lightning powers sparingly he wouldn’t go mad again.
Which is why he gave an exhausted sigh when he saw the bad guy shooting lightning bolts out of his hands.
“Hey, Earthborn,” Nightmare greeted as he ran up to join them. “He’s got the same electric powers as you; I think that’s why he’s calling you out.”
“Not possible,” Earthborn said, shaking his head. “Maybe similar to mine, but that’s not my power.”
“David Perry!” the electric villain called out. “Or do you go by ‘Earthborn’ now? Come over here and face me!”
“He seems to know you by name,” Granny said, landing her dragon on his other side. “Friend of yours?”
Earthborn shook his head, drawing rocks up to cover him in his usual armor. “I don’t recognize him,” he said.
The villain had scars all over his face, and his brown hair was shaggy. He shot a bolt of lightning in Earthborn’s direction, but he missed, hitting a parked car behind him.
“Who are you?” Earthborn called. “What do you want with me?”
“Oh, you don’t recognize me?” the villain called back, giggling maniacally. “You did this to me, you know. Four years ago, you went on a rampage trying to destroy the city, and I tried to stop you.” A cold, sinking feeling rose in Earthborn’s stomach as he began to realize who this was. “You beat the crap out of me, as ‘a warning to others’ if I remember right. Well, now it’s my turn. We’re on the same playing field now.”
“Drake?” Earthborn asked.
“Ye-es,” Drake said in a mocking voice. “But so much more handsome than the last time we met, don’t you think?” He gave a mocking bow. “Even with the Fourth Gen serum, the same serum that brought you back from the dead, it took four YEARS for me to recover from that fight,” he said. “And what’ve you been up to?” He started walking forward, making the air around him crackle with electricity. “You got a girlfriend. And had a little kid. And started working a cushy job as a Watcher in the Asylum. All while I was eating out of a TUBE!”
Drake threw a bolt of electricity, but it again went wide of Earthborn. Nightmare had to dive out of the way. “What’s he talking about, Earthborn?” she asked. “He took Fourth Gen serum? But he doesn’t look like the rest of us – he’s out during the day with no cover.”
“Cliff notes version: his name is Drake Rogers,” Earthborn told her and Granny. “I thought he was dead. He tried to kill me four years ago – he did kill me four years ago – but he buried me with a chemical, that might have been Fourth Gen, and lightning struck, and I woke up with my powers.”
“And you beat the crap out of him?” Nightmare prompted.
Earthborn shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t remember much about that,” he said, this time loudly enough for Drake to hear. “The electricity I shoot messes with my head; more so back then before I could control it.”
“And you have so much more control over it now?” Drake asked, still coming towards him. “I think I’ll test that.” He shot another lightning bolt at Earthborn, this time using an enormous amount of power to strike everything in a city-block radius.
The street had already been cleared of pedestrians, but there were police officers in the line of fire. Earthborn stomped the ground, and every living being in the strike zone was surrounded by earth to block the lightning. Unfortunately, that also included Nightmare, Granny, and Herschel, which meant the fight was now one-on-one. “Neat trick,” Drake said. “But how about this?”
He had come close enough to lunge for Earthborn, tackling him to the ground even with his rock armor to protect him. Drake used another huge burst of power to shoot lightning directly into Earthborn, breaking through the armor and hitting him in the chest in a constant stream of electricity.
“Hurts, doesn’t it?” Drake asked through gritted teeth as Earthborn lost control over the rocks surrounding him. The armor completely broke apart, showing Earthborn’s face as he directly absorbed the electricity.
Then, a surprising sound rose above the roar of Drake’s lightning:
He looked down at Earthborn’s face, as his victim laughed with his eyes wide and staring. His bright red eyes, which shone with the same manic glint that Drake often saw in the mirror. And Drake then knew that he had made a horrible mistake.
“My turn,” David said, grinning as Drake’s electricity ran out. He punched his arm upward, throwing Drake off of him with a giant fist made from the rocks littering the ground. Drake screamed as he was pummelled without mercy, as David stood up in a shower of sparks. “You tried to kill me,” he accused. “Twice now. So I have no reason to let you live to try again.”
He shot lightning at Drake with a lot more accuracy than Drake had demonstrated. As the energy flowed around them, he also picked up any loose gravel from around them, and pulled it together into a giant, compacted ball of dirt.
Nightmare had just managed to dig herself out of the ground trapping her when she saw David slam the giant chunk of earth onto Drake’s head. The bad guy was buried, but David didn’t stop his onslaught – he hit Drake again and again, even after he fell unconscious from the beating.
“Earthborn!” Nightmare called, watching with horror as her teammate acted like a villain. “Earthborn, stop! He’s down!”
David turned towards her, and she saw her own red eyes staring back at her. “Earthborn isn’t here right now,” he said, an insane grin spreading over his face. “In fact, he’s been keeping me suppressed for years. I think it’s my turn to come out now.”
Nightmare didn’t know what else to do, so she called Agent. “Are you seeing this?” she asked into the com.
“Granny’s buried, along with her dragon, and David’s other personality is free,” Agent summed up. “Yeah, I see it. I’m calling all hands for this one. In the meantime, try to bring him in – that’s the only way we can help him now. Use any force necessary.”
Nightmare didn’t think; she sent out a wave of her power at David. If she could give him a mild heart attack, then they could get him back to headquarters before he hurt anybody else.
“Oh, Rina,” David said, still calm and unpanicked. “The Nightmare Child. There’s a big drawback to your power – for it to affect me, I’d have to fear something.” He raised his hands, pulling up spikes of rock from the earth. “And what could I possibly have to fear? I’m a god,” he said. He used lightning strikes on the ground around her to emphasize his point. “I’m the god of the earth. I’m the god of lightning. The god of storms. The god of death.” He pointed at her. “Your power doesn’t work on me.”
Nightmare stopped wasting her time with her powers, and ran towards him to take him down the old-fashioned way. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said, “but I will if I have to.”
David yawned, cocking his head to one side. Nightmare managed to land one punch, and it didn’t even phase him.
She never even saw the spikes as they impaled her from behind.
* * * * * * * *
All hands on deck.
“What the hell, Agent?” Natalie demanded as soon as the elevator doors opened. “First my brother, now David? Any other secrets you’re keeping from us?” Natalie and Frank entered the room together, where Granny, Haley, and Reiki all waited with Agent for orders.
“How’s Rina doing?” Frank asked.
“Rina’s in recovery,” Agent told them. “Dale says she’ll be fine. Her accelerated healing kept her alive, and Dale’s doing all he can to fix her.”
“She wouldn’t have been in that position in the first place if you had just told us about David’s problem,” Natalie growled.
“I know,” Agent sighed. His knuckles were white on the handle of his umbrella. “I messed up. I didn’t want you all worrying about this, or trusting him any less as your teammate.”
Natalie shook her head, keeping her eyes locked on Agent. “This is why you sent him home early from the party,” she accused. “Why Dale has to check us all out after every little thing, even when we’re fine.”
“Partly,” Agent said. “Dale also worries over all of you.”
“Let’s not get off-topic,” Granny said. “David is now out there causing havoc in our city just like any other Third Gen who lost control of his powers.” She patted her bag, asking, “How do we stop him?”
“How did this happen?” Frank asked. “I mean, I always thought the guy was just a really strong Third Gen. But that Drake guy was talking about ‘Fourth Gen’ – isn’t that what gave Rina her powers?”
“No more lies,” Natalie warned. “No more half-truths. If we’re going to stop him, we need to know everything.”
Agent sat down on a stool at the kitchen island. “David was an accident,” he told them. “From what he told me, he witnessed an assassin – Drake Rogers – kidnapping a hit, and was taken alongside; Drake doesn’t leave witnesses alive. Drake shot him in the heart and buried him and the other guy in a field. Somehow, lightning struck the spot where he was buried, and David woke up with his powers.”
“And the other guy?” Haley asked.
“No idea,” Agent said. “I was put on David’s trail as an afterthought, only once his alter ego started running rampant. Anything before that you’ll have to ask him.”
“Assuming we can get close enough to him,” Natalie muttered. Out loud, she said, “I’ve never seen someone that strong. Even Rina doesn’t have that much power.”
Agent shook his head. “She does,” he told them. “Rina can drive hundreds to panic at once if need be – she just doesn’t usually need to in the Asylum. Accident or not, David is a Fourth Gen like her – and Fourth Gens were designed to be single-person armies.” He leaned back against the kitchen island, adding, “Elementals like David are usually strong enough when they’re Third Gens, but they usually can only manipulate one element – and they have limited control. Eighty percent of Third Gens who suddenly lose control over their powers are elementals.”
“But they don’t usually go crazy,” Natalie argued. “They just cause storms, or fires, or something, but they don’t mean to do it.”
“To our knowledge, that would be because of David’s electrical powers,” Agent said. “His other personality only comes out when he uses too much lightning.”
“So let me get this straight,” Haley said. “This ‘other personality’…” She shook her head. “Nope, not calling it that. This ‘Dark David’ that we have to go fight now – he’s that way only because he uses his lightning powers? Then how is fighting going to help?”
“It’s not.” Dale walked in from the elevator. He seemed exhausted, with eyelids that would barely stay open and shuffling feet. He held a case in his hand, presumably to give to Agent.
Granny was the first to ask, “How’s Rina doing?”
“As well as can be expected,” Dale told them. “Thank god for her natural healing ability – without that, she’d have been dead before I got there.”
Agent nodded. “Dale, you were saying?”
Dale shook his head to clear it. “Right,” he said. “I’d recommend avoiding a fight if you can. All you need to do is stick him with this.” He put the case he was carrying down on the kitchen counter, opening it to show the team five syringes. “It’s a concoction of my own making,” he explained. “Right now, he’s suffering from tachycardia due to heightened adrenaline levels. That’s why Rina’s powers wouldn’t work on him – he’s naturally in the state that she was trying to cause. His electrical powers target the dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters in his brain, causing his behavior change, lack of inhibitions, and delusions of grandeur.”
“So he’s drunk?” Natalie asked.
Haley shook her head. “No, more like he’s been overdosing on Ritalin, right?”
“Ritalin, methamphetamines, and alcohol all rolled into one giant shock to his system,” Dale confirmed. “His powers cause a ton of stress on his body, which is why he loses control just by absorbing some lightning. The stuff in these syringes’ll bring him out of it – and then you’ll have one massively hung-over Fourth Gen to deal with.”
“Trippy,” Frank noted. “Next question: how do we find him?”
“He dove underground just as I dug myself out of that shield,” Granny added. “He could be anywhere by now.”
“There has to be some place he’d go,” Agent said. “Even in his current state, he’s still David – he’d still have a place in mind, somewhere to hole up.”
Natalie crossed her arms. “And do you happen to know where that place is?” she asked.
“No,” Agent admitted, pulling out his cell phone. “But I know someone who does.”
* * * * * * * *
David and Amy’s apartment.
“Thanks for watching her, mom,” Amy said, pulling her shoes on as she headed out the door. “Bye, sweetie!” Her mother babysat often, so the toddler was at peace with her mother leaving. That, and she was distracted by a coloring book.
As the door shut behind her, Amy’s phone rang. “Hello?” she greeted, answering it as she headed to her car.
“This is Agent,” came the voice on the other end of the line. “I need your help.”
“Good to hear from you too,” Amy said dryly. “How’s the kid? Oh, she’s fine – sleeping through most nights, finally. Other pleasantry stuff.”
She could almost hear Agent biting back a sarcastic retort. “There’s no time for that,” he said instead. “We need to know where David might have gone.”
“I’m not sure how I can help you,” Amy told him. “He’s been on patrol all day, since you called him in early.”
“You haven’t seen the news?” Agent asked.
“I have a two year-old daughter who is starting to repeat everything she hears,” Amy pointed out. “Of course I don’t turn on the news around her.”
“David was in a fight this morning,” Agent told her. “He had to use his lightning powers.”
Amy stopped in her tracks. “You don’t mean…?” she asked hesitantly.
“His other personality came out, and he ran off before the rest of the team could get there,” Agent confirmed. “We need to know where he might have gone.”
“Um… try the tunnels,” she said. “He likes being underground. Otherwise, he might have gone to the fields.” She named the farmland outside the city where David had first gained his powers.
“Thank you,” Agent said. “Call me if you think of anything else.”
“Of course,” Amy said. “But if you do find him, won’t you need me to talk him down?”
“You have done it before…” Agent considered, “but no. I think the team is up for this, and David would never forgive me – or himself – if you got hurt.”
“Right,” said Amy. “I’ll be at work if you need me,” she added, just before hearing the click of Agent hanging up the phone. “Dumbass,” she muttered under her breath. She got into her car to go to work, trying not to worry about her superhero beau.
* * * * * * * *
Tunnels under the city.
Trying to find Dark David in the dark.
“How the hell are we supposed to find him down here?” Trick asked Shadow. “This place is a maze!” She shone her flashlight into a suspicious-looking corner.
“Outlier and Reiki went to check the fields,” Shadow said, “so you and I get to check the tunnels with Granny.” Shadow didn’t need a flashlight; he could tell what was in the shadows without looking.
“No offense,” Trick said, “but why us? My illusions only go so far against his powers, and you’re more stealth than strength.”
“Stealth would be easier if you stopped talking,” Shadow pointed out. Seeing the look on his friend’s face, he added, “We’re here because Reiki’s power works best out in the sunlight, and he works better with Outlier than any of us. Granny’s our hard-hitter down here if we need to fight.”
Trick bit her lip, peering into the shadows around them. “This place gives me the creeps,” she said. “Further down we go, the more I feel like something’s watching us.”
“If they’re watching, they’re not attacking,” Shadow said. “Beyond that, I’d prefer not to think about it.”
“Mm-hmm,” Trick agreed. They walked in silence for a bit, listening for movement in the darkness.
A shuffling sound alerted them to Granny riding up behind them. Her wolf sniffed at the ground, whining softly. “Louise smells something,” Granny told them. “I think – ”
The ground erupted around them. Shadow and Trick were knocked backwards, and Granny was cut off from the other two by a wall of dirt. Trick jumped to her feet, coughing, and shone her flashlight on where Dark David stood.
“That was a warning,” Dark David told them. “As I’m sure Rina told you, I don’t have to miss.”
“Earthborn,” Trick started, but Dark David cut her off.
“I’m not Earthborn,” he said, shaking his head. The air crackled around him with electricity, reflecting on his red eyes. “That goody-two-shoes keeps pinning me down. I keep trying to come out to play, but I’m forced to watch from the sidelines.”
Trick glanced to where Shadow lay on the ground. He looked unconscious at first glance, but Trick could see the shadows starting to envelop him. She had to keep Dark David talking.
“Okay, so if you aren’t Earthborn,” she said, “then who are you? We’ve been calling you ‘Dark David’, but…” she trailed off, shrugging. ‘Not sure if you already had a name.”
“‘Dark David’,” he mused. “I like it. Who came up with that one? You?”
“Haley, actually,” Trick said. “She thought ‘other personality’ was too much of a mouthful.”
Dark David laughed. “True that,” he said. “So I’m Dark David. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Why did you stab Nightmare?” Trick asked.
He shrugged, taking a step towards her. “I felt like it,” he said.
“Are you going to stab me?” Trick looked around, as if she would see the ground coming at her. Dark David gave that cold laugh again.
“If I wanted any of you dead, you would be,” he told her.
“So what do you want?” Trick looked for Shadow in her peripheral vision, but she couldn’t see him any more. She took a step away from where he had been, hoping that Dark David wouldn’t notice.
“I just want my freedom,” Dark David said. “How would you like it if someone else was possessing your body, and you could see what they were doing but weren’t able to move on your own?”
“That’s what it’s like for you?” Trick asked, taking another step. A scratching sound came from behind the wall that Dark David had thrown up.
“Granny’s trying to break through,” Dark David said dismissively. “And it’s a bit more complicated than what I just described, but that’s the gist of it. I remember – ”
Shadow jumped onto his back, trying to stick him with the cure. Dark David roared, shaking Shadow off with a massive bolt of electricity. Trick’s flashlight flickered, dimming with the electricity pulsing through the air. “Shadow?” she asked. “Shadow!”
Her light barely made out the form of her friend, lying prone on the ground. The shadows fell away from him – he was truly out this time, and Trick was alone.
“That’s Dale’s serum,” Dark David said, looking at the needle he pulled out of his shoulder. Shadow hadn’t managed to inject him before getting thrown off. “You were trying to trap me again!”
Trick pulled her own dose of the serum out of one of her coat pockets. Glints of blue flashed in the darkness, showing her where Dark David was even as her light dimmed. “David, you need to come with me,” she said. “We can help you; don’t you want to see your family again?”
“That’s not my family,” Dark David yelled, his voice echoing in the tunnel. “That’s not my life! I just want my freedom!”
“You remembered something,” Trick prompted, trying to get him talking again. If he ran from the tunnels, they might never get another chance to catch him. “You were talking about how it feels to be stuck inside your own head…”
“I won’t let you take me!” he shouted. “Let… me… go!”
“I don’t have you!” Trick said, confused. She crept closer to him as she spoke. “I just want to talk.”
“Let me go!” Dark David roared again. As Trick got closer, the light from his electricity showed her enough to see what he was talking about: Dark David’s legs were encased in mud, trapping him from the waist down.
She didn’t wait any longer. Trick dove to him, sticking him with her needle and pressing the back end to get the serum into his system. Dark David yelled again, trying to shake her off until the serum took hold and he collapsed.
The mud fell away from his legs as David groaned. “Wha… what happened?” he asked, groggily.
Trick breathed a sigh of relief, just as Granny’s wolf punched a hole through the wall that had been separating them. “Is everyone alright?” Granny asked.
“Yeah,” Trick called back, hearing Shadow get up as well. “Radio Agent – we got him.”
* * * * * * * *
Back at Asylum Headquarters.
“I am so sorry,” David groaned again, his face in his hands. “I should have told you all before; I really thought I had it under control.” Agent had just finished debriefing him as Dale checked over the team.
“You did,” Dale told him. “But even my serum can’t take as much electricity as that Drake fellow gave you.”
“I’m just glad you’re back to normal,” Rina said from her own bed. She had nearly finished healing, but Dale had wanted to keep her under observation. “Seeing you beat the crap out of that guy… that was scary. You weren’t you.”
“I’m just glad you’re okay,” Agent said to her. “If it had been anybody else…”
“I don’t think he would have done that to anybody else,” Natalie mused. “He said in the tunnels, ‘If I wanted you dead, you would be.’ He had plenty of chances to kill me or Frank, but he didn’t.”
David shook his head. “He doesn’t think that way,” he explained. “The other guy acts on impulse, not rational thought. It was a stroke of luck that the lightning he threw at Frank only grazed him – if he’d gotten a direct hit, Frank would be dead now.”
“I don’t know,” Natalie shrugged. “In the tunnel he just seemed more… sad, I guess, than anything else.”
“Don’t fall for it,” David said. “He said what he thought in the moment you wanted to hear. He’s not stupid – talk of ‘freedom’ and such gets people to empathize with him. Then, when you let him go, he’d have terrorized countless others.”
“How much do you remember?” Agent asked. “Do you know where he was in the hours before we caught up?”
David shook his head. “I get the feeling that I ran into someone,” he said, “and that I tried to destroy something. But I don’t remember details.”
“Well, anyways,” Natalie stood up, stretching as she walked to the elevator. “Thanks for holding him down.”
“What?” David asked, looking up at her.
“Thanks for holding him down for me,” she said. Seeing the blank look on his face, she added, “You know, covering his legs in mud so he couldn’t escape, distracting him enough that I could stick him with Dale’s serum… that was you inside his head, right?”
David furrowed his eyebrows. “Natalie, when he has control, he has complete control,” he told her. “He’s still me, he just acts different. I’m not ‘inside his head’ any more than he’s inside mine – it’s not a separate personality, it’s more like being bipolar. Or, you know, really, really drunk – I might not remember much when I sober up, but it was still me.”
“So assuming he wasn’t holding himself down…” Natalie started.
“…I don’t think you were alone in the tunnels, Nat,” Agent said.
* * * * * * * *
Zatvor Penitentiary, medical center.
“You were supposed to get me out of here ages ago,” Skadi accused the man in the suit. “Where’s my brother?”
“He’s safe,” Jaunt said. “You’ll see him shortly.” He turned back to the patient in the full-body cast. “As for you, I gave you the powers of a god and you still failed spectacularly.”
Drake couldn’t speak. If he hadn’t had Fourth Gen serum, he would be dead – as it was, he could barely move a finger.
Knowing this, Jaunt continued. “I’m terminating our relationship. You got yourself into Zatvor, and you can get yourself out. Skadi here was useless to me until she was healed,” he added for her benefit, “but soon she’ll be able to take her place with her brother.”
“‘Soon’?” Skadi asked, crossing her arms. “How soon?”
She was looking better than when she had gone into the prison. Color had returned to her cheeks, and she was gaining weight to a healthy point.
Jaunt nodded at her. “Some other things need to be done first,” he said. “I have other pieces in place, but money only goes so far when setting up a jailbreak from the most secure prison in the world.”
“How soon?” Skadi repeated. “Ballpark figure.”
“Two months,” Jaunt said. “That should go pretty quickly, all things considered.”
Skadi raised her eyebrows, but said, “Could you at least give a letter to my brother?” She reached under her pillow and pulled out some papers. “I didn’t know where to send them.”
“Fair enough,” Jaunt said, taking them from her. “It’s not an easy place to reach.” He clapped his hands together, forming a portal for himself to step through. Pulling a mask over his face, he stepped through the portal. As the portal closed behind him, Skadi fell back into her bed. The red lights on the cameras turned back on, and she knew that she was being watched by security again.
How does he do that? she wondered idley. She thought back to the other times Jaunt had checked on her progress, and how each time he managed to turn the cameras off before portalling into the room. It was a mystery she was trying to figure out.
After all, there wasn’t much else to do with her time.
* * * * * * * *