Issue #11 – Jekyll and Hyde

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

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…”

“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

Lavender green

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.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

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 – ”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Agent’s office.

“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?”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Medical Center.

“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.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Medical Center.

“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

Lavender green

Then I’ll be king, dilly-dilly, and you’ll be my queen…

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Bonus Story #1 – Team Ark

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.

Agent.

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?”

* * * * * * * *

Issue #10 – The Past That Haunts Us

Eon City, five years ago.

Frank Mejia, about to do something stupid.

Deep breath.

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.

Breathe.

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.

Dinner time.

“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.

Miranda Mejia.

Something’s different.

“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.

* * * * * * * *

Issue #5 – Flown the Coop

Eon City Mall.

Quinn Kaine and Lena King, shopping.

“Did you see how cute those pumps were?” Lena King asked, gushing over a pair of shoes they had found on their shopping expedition.  “So sharp, so classy, so…”

“Expensive?” Quinn “Chip” Kaine offered.

Lena rolled her eyes at her friend.  “I was going to say ‘elegant’,” she sniffed.

“I’m glad you’re happy,” Chip said, “especially since they nearly cost what I make in a year.”

“But so worth it,” Lena said, smiling down at the bag she carried.  “These will go perfectly with my dress for the benefit dinner.”

Lena’s father was Jonathan King, the CEO and proprietor of King Enterprises.  Lena’s great-great-grandfather founded the company, and it had been passed down for generations; she was the next in line to take over when her father retired.  King Enterprises hosted a benefit every year to help different charity organizations make money, inviting the rich and famous to help them look good to the media.  As the CEO’s daughter and assistant, Lena was usually in charge of organizing the event.

“Fun stuff,” Chip said.  “Who’s the lucky benefit group this year?”

“Home for the Blind,” Lena told her.  “I tried getting Daddy to agree to the National Satyr Preserve, but you know him.”

“Let me guess: it wouldn’t look good in an election year when he’s trying to push that leash bill through?”  Chip asked.

Lena grimaced prettily, rolling her eyes.  “Don’t get me wrong – Home for the Blind was my second choice – but the NSP would have had a bigger impact on the press.  As the company responsible for the Satyr Serum, we should be doing more to help the descendants of our experiments.”

Chip shrugged.  “Your dad only sees satyrs who act like the Fauns do,” she said bluntly.  “He doesn’t see the ones who do an honest day’s work, even though there are a lot more of them.”

“Those who can get work,” Lena muttered.  “You know my grandpa helped found the Preserve, right?”

“How could I forget?” Chip said wryly.  “Your father ranted for hours at dinner one night just because I brought it up.”

“Right,” Lena giggled.  “‘That upstart Sean Hannah stole the contract!’” she said in a pretty good impression of her father’s voice.  “Speaking of Sean Hannah stealing things…”

“I like working at the Asylum, thanks,” Chip said, anticipating the old debate.

Lena grinned.  “Daddy still wants me to offer you more to come back.  You could probably name any number you want and he’d pay it.”

“Tell him it’s not about the money,” Chip said.  “I like being able to build my toys without being paranoid that they’ll be sold as weapons.”

Lena paused, pretending to think about it.  “Nope, sorry. Can’t help you there,” she teased.  “A weapons dealer has to deal weapons, not tools.” She sighed, getting serious as she added, “That’s one of the first things I’ll change.”

“Who took over for me when I left?” Chip asked, curious.

Lena made a face as she answered, “Skyler Greene.”

“Skylark?” Chip asked, incredulous.  “That social media hack?”

“I know you don’t like her,” Lena said, “but she’s not terrible.”

“No,” Chip agreed.  “She just posts everything she does online to show off.  Of course, not her failures – just her successes, so people watching will think she’s brilliant!”

Lena patted her friend’s shoulder.  “It’s not a crime, as long as they aren’t active projects,” she pointed out.  “Besides, you just say the word and you’ll have her job in a second. You know daddy never wanted you to leave.”

“He did offer me a pretty big number to stay,” Chip said.  “But I like my work at the Asylum. The Watchers are fun to design for.”

“Isn’t your stuff being used as weapons there, too?” Lena asked.

“Yeah,” said Chip, “but a lot of it is also used to save lives, and I know exactly who has which gadget.”

Lena shrugged.  “If you’re sure.”  Something caught her eye, and she turned to the store they were passing.  “Ooh, microprocessors! I’ve got a project at home that could use an octa-core chip.  Look, they’re so tiny!”

Chip laughed at her friend, who had acted the same way around the shoes, and followed her into the store.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Agent’s Office.

Natalie Fawkes, getting briefed.

“We’ve been invited to the King Enterprises charity benefit,” Agent told the team.  “Apparently Jonathan King and Sean Hannah made a small bet over us, that we couldn’t take down one of King’s new weapons projects.”

Natalie rolled her eyes.  “Politics,” she muttered. “So the whole team’s going?”

“Sean asked for only two,” Agent said, amused.  “So I’m sending you and Earthborn.”

“Me?” Natalie asked.  “I’m hardly a heavy hitter,” she pointed out.

“That’s what David will be there for,” Agent explained.  “We’re not sure what this project is – it might require a bit of finesse, which is your specialty.  I figured we should be prepared.”

Natalie folded her arms, raising an eyebrow.  “You know, if you were looking for that kind of tag-team, Parker and I would have worked best.”

“Parker’s unavailable right now,” Agent sighed.  They’d had this conversation before. “You know that.”

“Right,” Natalie said, nearly snarling at him.  “He’s busy.  He hasn’t even been back to the Asylum in two weeks, because he’s busy.”

“Nat,” Agent said, “there’s nothing we can do right now.  I’ve already promised you a hundred times that I’ll do my best to keep your brother safe.”

“And then you send me to a party,” Natalie pointed out.

Agent gripped the bridge of his nose, as if he had a headache.  “I’m sending you into a fight,” he said. “An exhibition, sure, but I thought it would take your mind off things.”  He glanced at her through his hand, adding, “But if you like, I could always send Haley. She is stronger than you, after all.”

Natalie shook her head, knowing that he was trying to provoke her but becoming provoked anyways.  “Damn it,” she finally said, storming to the door. “I’ll go to the stupid party.”

“Make sure you bring something nice to change into!” Agent called after her.  Chuckling to himself, he turned back to his monitors. The grin fell off his face as he changed the parameters of his search for bird-satyrs in the city.  “Where are you?” he muttered.

It’s hard to keep someone safe when they fall off the grid.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum.

King Enterprises Annual Charity Benefit.

They really rolled out the red carpet for this, Natalie thought as she stepped out of the limo onto a literal red carpet.  Flashes went off in her face, and belatedly she remembered to smile for the cameras as David got out after her.  Agent came up on her other side, also smiling politely, and the three of them made their way into the building.

“You clean up nice,” Dave told her, flashing her a teasing grin.  “Not a handkerchief or swear word in sight.” Natalie was wearing a dress that had been laid out for her, since she didn’t have any fancy clothes of her own.  It was a very flattering cut for her figure, and easily the most expensive piece of clothing she had ever even seen, much less worn.

“I barely recognized you without the dirt,” Natalie shot back, also smiling.  “Did you actually take a shower?” Both David and Agent were wearing tuxedos tonight, but since Agent usually wore suits it didn’t look so odd on him.

“A bath, in fact,” he grinned.  “Lilac-scented bubbles, for the manly man.”  As they made it to the door, he struck a pose.

“Children,” Agent scolded from behind his own smile.  “Cameras.”

“They eat this stuff up,” Dave said, striking another pose for the cameras.  He waved jauntily at them before the trio went inside.

Agent turned to them.  “You have a half-hour to mingle before the match,” he said.  “Then go to the rear exit – we’ll have your uniforms waiting for you there.”

“Relax,” Natalie said, picking up a drink from the tray in front of her.  “We got this.”

“No drinking until after the match,” Agent said, taking the glass from her and putting it down on another waiter’s tray.

Natalie stuck her tongue out at him.  “Spoilsport,” she muttered, moving over to the buffet.

David and Agent gave each other an exasperated look.  “I’ll keep an eye on her,” David said, jogging to catch up with his teammate.

Agent watched them walk off, before grabbing his ever-present umbrella and joining the party.

Natalie didn’t like social functions.  She was fully intent on settling in a nice, cozy corner somewhere until the match started, but she was stopped by a man in his thirties.  “Nice night for it,” he said, looking at her with piercing blue eyes.

The eyes caught her off-guard.  “Oh, um, hi. Yes,” she stuttered, finally getting out, “it is a nice night.”

“Sorry,” the man said, flashing her a smile.  “I didn’t mean to startle you. You’re Natalie Fawkes, right?  The Asylum Watcher known as Trick?”

“Yes, that’s me.”  Natalie really wanted to go to her corner, but she also knew she had to play nice at a function like this since she was representing the Asylum.  “I’m sorry, but you are?” she asked.

“Mr. Hannah!” came a startled voice from behind her.  Dave walked up on Natalie’s right, saving her from embarrassment.

“Ah, you must be David Perry, known as Earthborn,” the man said.  “Forgive me, Trick; I’m not used to having to introduce myself any more.  I’m Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries.”

“Oh, so you’re the guy who signs our paychecks,” Natalie said.  “Nice to meet you!”

“Very direct, isn’t she?” Sean said to Dave, who looked like he wanted to melt through the floor.

“We’re working on that,” he said, shaking the CEO’s hand.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” he added pointedly, glaring at Natalie.

“Yes, it’s nice to meet you,” she repeated, shaking his hand in turn.  “Sir,” she added when Dave kicked her.

Sean laughed, not offended in the slightest by her behavior.  “I hope you’ll give us a good show,” he said. “I have a bet with King that you could take on anything he could throw at you.”

“So these are your champions, eh, Pharos?” came another voice from behind him.  Natalie began thinking longingly of her corner, where she wouldn’t have to deal with people, but it looked like she was never going to get the chance.

“Mr. King,” Sean said, greeting his business’ rival with a pasted-on smile and false sincerity.  “Thank you so much for hosting this event!”

“My pleasure,” King said.  “Here, I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter, Lena,” he added, gesturing to a pretty blonde girl next to him.

Chip had told Natalie about Lena, but it hadn’t prepared her for the actual person.  Chip had described her as a technical genius who could build her own computer stuff. She mentioned that Lena liked clothes and shoes, too, but Natalie had been picturing a glasses-wearing nerd, probably with mousey looks who wore clothes that tried too hard to be fancy.

The person standing in front of her was a cheerleader, dressed to the nines in a long, backless dress that flattered her figure.  Her blonde hair was pulled back in an elegant bun, and her smile seemed to light up the room.

Remembering what Chip had told her, Natalie greeted her with, “Nice shoes.”  They were nice shoes – strappy black pumps with four-inch heels that showed off her perfectly-manicured feet.  Not sure why they cost so much, Natalie thought to herself.  But the compliment made Lena’s smile brighten further.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I really like your hair.”  Natalie’s hair was pulled up into a braided bun, which she could easily let fall into a braided ponytail for the exhibition.  The spiked strap she had braided into it poked out in what she hoped was a decorative fashion.

“And this is Skyler Greene,” King introduced the other girl trailing him, “also known as ‘Skylark’.  She will be your opponent in this evening’s match.”

Skylark was dressed just as elegantly as Lena, but with none of her warmth.  Even when she smiled and shook Natalie’s hand, it seemed more like a taunt than a greeting.  “I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “My channel’s viewers really want to see me take down some Watchers.”

Natalie pressed her lips together as David gave her a subtle kick.  We’re representing the Asylum, she told herself.

Putting a smile on her own face, she said, “I’m looking forward to the match as well.  It’s always fun to put on a show.” There, she thought as David rolled his eyes behind her.  Subtle, but insulting.  Let her stew on that.

“I think we need to get going,” David said, steering Natalie away from the fancy people.  “It was nice to meet you, but we still have to change for the match.”

“Of course,” Sean said, before turning back to King.  The battle of subtext was more his arena than theirs.

As David led Natalie away, he hissed, “Next time, just don’t say anything.  Okay?”

“We win this match, I won’t have to say anything,” Natalie whispered back.  “Next time, I’ll just go to my corner and not have to interact with any more people.”

They made it to the back door, where Agent stood holding their uniforms.  “I see you met the CEOs,” he said.

“I think they wanted to see who they were betting on,” David said, grabbing his and unbuttoning his cumberbund.

“You guys can change behind those curtains,” Agent pointed to where they were supposed to go.  David moved off, but agent stopped Natalie. “Hey, Nat – thanks for doing this,” he said, smiling at her.

“I’m still mad at you,” she said, smiling despite herself.  “But with any luck the next part will be fun.” She moved to go to the changing area, but Agent put a hand on her shoulder.

“One second,” he said, unzipping the back of her dress for her.  “There.”

“Thanks,” she said.  Natalie went to the dressing room without looking back.  The chilly night air was giving her goosebumps, and she wouldn’t be comfortable until she got out of the girly dress and into her uniform.  If her face was flushed, it was because she was getting pre-battle nerves. Nothing else.

* * * * * * * *

A half-hour later.

Trick and Earthborn, ready for anything.

“We got this,” Earthborn said, giving Trick a fist-bump as they entered the makeshift arena.

The museum’s garden was surrounded by a large, blocked-off parking lot where the museum gave a fireworks show on the Fourth of July.  This was also where Trick and Earthborn would face Skylark’s creation.

The event guests were gathered in the garden, looking forward to a good show.  Trick felt a lot more comfortable in her trench coat; here she could throw one of her tricks if she needed to get away.  While she waited for an opponent, she pulled out her deck of cards and started shuffling it nervously.

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that,” Earthborn said, enviously, watching her twirl the deck around.  “I can barely shuffle them the normal way.”

“I could teach you sometime,” Trick offered, starting to show off now that she remembered people were watching them.

Earthborn smiled, pulling gravel up around himself in a make-shift suit of armor as the air began to crackle with a static charge.  “I’d like that,” he said.

THUMP.

The ground began to shake, but Earthborn hadn’t caused it.  Trick could see Skylark off to the side of the spectators, holding a data pad in one hand.  She had some kind of visor over her eyes, and her hands were busy typing something on her data pad.

THUMP.

The ground shook again, and Trick and Earthborn braced themselves for whatever was coming.  In the background they could hear Agent announcing the match, but the sound was echoing across the pavement and they couldn’t make out the words.

THUMP.  THUMP. THUMP.

Whatever it was began to run.  Trick stole a glance at Earthborn as they got into fighting stances.

THUMP THUMP THUMP – STOMP!

A giant robot jumped over the tree line and came to a stop in front of them.  It was man-shaped, with a big chest and thinner arms and legs. The head swiveled around, able to look in all directions.

“Looks pretty smash-’em-up to me,” Natalie muttered.  Her subtlety didn’t seem to be of much use against a twenty-foot robot.

A loud whistle blew, and the match began.  Earthborn started forward, bringing the ground up to hold the robot’s legs in place.  He gathered a bolt of lightning in his hands and flung it at the robot’s chest, but it glanced off harmlessly.

“Darn,” he said.  “Must be insulated.”

“It wasn’t going to be that easy,” Trick pointed out to him.  “Let me try something.” She pulled two mirrors out of her pockets, palming them without thinking about it as she had been taught.  On her palms were two buttons, connecting to small devices up her sleeves. One led to a fire trick, and the other was a high-density laser that could be used as a welding torch – that one was Chip’s design, but Trick loved using it.  From another pocket she pulled out a prism, and she shot the laser from her right hand directly into it.

A bright flash pierced the air, and rainbow-colored lasers washed over the robot.  The prism diluted the laser’s power, but enhanced its range so that she could hit it without being too close.  Sparks flew from the robot’s body, but it still managed to free its legs from Earthborn’s trap.

The robot began running at the Watchers, its arms transforming into octopus-like tentacles as it ran.  It whipped one at Earthborn, knocking him off his feet, before turning the other on Trick.

Seeing the move coming, Trick jumped up and onto the robot’s arm as it passed under her.  The arm whipped around, trying to shake her off, but she held on. Her mind briefly flashed back to hanging onto a building for dear life, and she figured out what she could do.

When the arm whipped close to the robot’s chest, Trick gritted her teeth and jumped, landing on the robot’s front as her arms scrambled to find a hand-hold.  She managed to grab onto the robot’s face with one arm, and she remembered the visor that Skylark wore – could King’s tech be watching the battle through the robot’s eyes?

She waved with her free arm, giving the robot a cheeky grin as she scrambled up to stand on its shoulder.  Grabbing one of the handkerchiefs in her front pocket, she pulled it out in a swift flicking motion. Glitter rained down over the robot’s face, and the arms came up to wipe at its eyes.

Skylark was definitely watching it from the robot’s eyes.  Grinning, Natalie called to Earthborn, “Crackle maneuver, forty-three!”

Earthborn nodded, understanding, as Trick redoubled her grip on the robot.  The arms had come up again, trying to get her off its back, but for them to win she had to hold on tightly until the right moment.  The robot was so focused on her that it had forgotten about Earthborn; she had to keep it that way until he could get into position.

Suddenly, the robot tripped.  Earthborn had changed the terrain around it so that it couldn’t get its footing.  Trick jumped off its back, rolling to keep the landing from hurting her. She could feel the crackle of electricity in the air, and she knew Earthborn had almost collected enough energy for her plan.

Running back to the robot’s head, she took out her larger scarf and wrapped it around the thing’s eyes.  Skylark had to take off her visor to see anything, and the octopus tentacles started turning back into arms to shake the scarf off.  “Now!” Trick yelled, diving out of the way.

Earthborn shot a direct bolt of lightning at the robot’s head, hitting the ground all around its upper body.  The robot stopped thrashing, and flopped to the ground, dead.

Trick stood up, dusting herself off as she went to give Earthborn a high-five.  His eyes glinted red through his rock helmet, but it seemed to be a trick of the light – the lightning had been blinding from that close, and Trick was still seeing spots.

“No!” came a cry from Skylark’s direction.  She pounded on her control, trying to make the robot move.  “Come on, get up! It didn’t even touch you!”

“Electromagnetic pulse,” Trick called over to her.  “The lightning drained its power source, and it won’t be operational for hours.  If this had been a real fight, we’d be tearing it apart now.”

As if to prove her point, a large spike of dirt shot up from the ground, spearing the robot through the chest.  “A little excessive,” Trick muttered to Earthborn, “but nice touch.”

The Asylum had won a decisive victory.

* * * * * * * *

Back inside the museum.

Natalie Fawkes, stuck at the party.

“Why do I have to stay?” Natalie asked Agent, trying and failing to sound like she wasn’t whining.  “David got to go home!” She was back in the fancy dress, looking around the party with a shudder.

“David has a kid at home,” Agent reminded her.  “Dale wanted to check you guys out later this evening, and he can’t stay out too late, so he got to leave first.  You, on the other hand, get to enjoy this lovely evening with me as we finish representing the Asylum.”

Natalie’s mouth twisted in a pout.  “I’m not talking to any of the fancy people,” she said rebelliously.  “I got my fill of that before the match.”

“Fine,” Agent agreed.  “Then dance with me.” When Natalie glared at him, he added, “Your choices are dancing with me, where I can guarantee that I’m the only person you have to interact with, or stand here and be accosted by anyone who wants to congratulate you on winning the match.  Your choice.”

Natalie glared at him, but dragged him over to the dance floor.  He knew exactly how to manipulate her, and she didn’t really like it.  Agent grinned and spun her around into the steps, in time with the slow waltz playing.  Surprisingly enough, Natalie let him lead, and she wasn’t a bad dancer.

“They teach you to dance at the Agency?” she asked, equally surprised that he knew the steps.

“Standard lessons,” he said.  “Never know when you have to attend fancy functions like this.”

“Like your suit,” Natalie nodded.  “You once told me you always look your best because it opens more doors than anything else you wear.”

“Exactly,” said Agent.  “Now, where did you learn to dance?”

“Parker… he and I learned when we were kids,” she told him, pausing for a second when she mentioned her brother’s name.  “Mom gave us lessons.” She looked up at Agent as they moved around the room, adding, “You really think you can take Claw down?”

Agent nodded.  “This is the closest we’ve ever gotten to stopping him for good,” he said.  “Parker’s a big part of that. But you know I won’t let anything happen to him,” he added.

Natalie put her head on his chest, hiding her face.  She still smelled a little singed from the lightning, but she had also put on some kind of perfume to cover it.  “I believe you,” she said. “I want to believe you.” She looked back up, meeting his hazel eyes with her bright blue ones.  “Don’t make me regret it.”

Agent smiled back at her.  “I won’t,” he said. “I promise.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

The next day.

“Some party, huh?” Frank asked as Natalie entered the kitchen at noon.  Her hair was in disarray, and she’d slept later than usual.

“Uhnn,” she grunted back at him, still tired.  “I had to stay there until two in the morning, and then Dale wanted to give me a check-up before I could go to bed.”  She groaned again as she looked in the fridge for some orange juice. “He took away some of the ouch, but I’m stiff all over after that fight.”

“I saw,” Frank grinned.  “Skylark was streaming it live from her channel.  We were watching it here with some of Reiki’s barbeque.”

“Lucky,” Natalie said, thumping him on the shoulder.  “What’d you think?”

Frank looked thoughtful.  “Nice work on the EMP,” he said.  “But Dave seemed to be in bad shape afterwards.  What would you have done if it didn’t work?”

Natalie shrugged, grimacing at the movement.  “Probably would have lost,” she said. “It was just an exhibition match.”

“Why do you think King wanted to test it out against Watchers?” Frank asked rhetorically.  Natalie froze halfway through pouring her juice. “Who would he sell something like that to?”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” Natalie muttered.  “Maybe we should come up with other ways to beat it, just in case?”

Frank grinned, lifting the mood.  “I’ll meet you in the training room this afternoon,” he said.  “I’ll get the specs from the video, and we’ll get the training room to give us a simulation.”

“Fun,” Natalie said dryly.  “Can I get some food first?”

Frank grinned, grabbing the last pop-tart from the pantry just as Natalie reached for it.  “Sure,” he said innocently, moving to the elevator with the poptart in hand. “Oh, by the way – we’re out of pop-tarts.”

Flashing her a grin, he stepped onto the elevator as it arrived and left.  Natalie grumbled to herself as she went to the cereal cupboard to see what was left.  She’d make him pay for that on the practice courts later.

Right now, she had other concerns.

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #6 – Meet the New Girl

Asylum Headquarters, Eon City, Present Day

Natalie Fawkes. Training.

THUNK.  The corner of the queen of spades sunk into the bull’s-eye of the practice target.

Natalie remembered her dad first showing her how to throw playing cards accurately.  Not many people knew how dangerous paper cards could be with just an added flick of the wrist.

The ace of clubs followed the queen, hitting the bull’s-eye millimeters next to her with another satisfying THUNK.

“Nice,” came a voice from the doorway.  Natalie’s reflexes kicked in, and she raised another card as she turned toward it.

“Geez, Parker,” she breathed, dropping her arm as she scolded her twin.  “Don’t startle me like that!”

“Hello to you, too, sis,” Parker said, dryly.  “I had a feeling I’d find you in here.”

Natalie turned back to the target, barely stopping to aim before she sent the next card flying into the center.  “What’s going on?” she asked. She had come to the training room first thing in the morning to get away from people; only her annoying brother would miss the message.

“I just finished breakfast, and was about to go out on patrol,” Parker said, innocently.  He knew that he was bothering his sister but couldn’t help poking the bear. “Can’t a guy just want to say ‘good morning’ to his sister?”

“Good morning,” Natalie said through her teeth.  “Now go away; I’m trying to concentrate.”

Parker did the opposite – he came and grabbed the deck of cards from her.  “Come on, I know Dad taught you better than that,” he chided. “What was the point of all those blindfold exercises if you actually have to look at the target?”

He threw three cards in quick succession over his shoulder, just to prove his point.  Not only did they land in the bull’s-eye, but they didn’t even touch the other two that Natalie had thrown.

“Give it back!” she cried, whacking her brother on the arm until he handed the deck back to her.  “I was just warming up,” she added, glaring.

“Uh-huh,” Parker teased.  Natalie glared at him and tossed two more cards over her shoulder.  She didn’t need to look to know that they landed exactly above and below the rest of the cards sticking out of the target.  Parker whistled. “Okay, that was impressive.”

Natalie tossed her hair as she turned back to her exercise.  In high school she had started dying it black to match her Goth appearance.  Their dad had said it was just a phase, but it was one she still hadn’t grown out of seven years after graduation; the only difference was that she had let it grow out long, instead of the short, spiky ‘do she sported back then.  She used heavy eyeliner and black fingerless gloves as part of her motif as the vigilante hero Trick.

Unlike his twin, Parker kept his hair its natural blond, and trimmed it for a feathery look.  His black-and-white speckled wings matched his outfit nicely in his look as Blackbird, without coming across as too harsh.  He completed the domino look with gauntlets over his hands; the metal fingers were sharpened into points and served as his “talons” when he wanted to control his strength.

At twenty-four years old, the twins now worked as professional Watchers; they had gotten their licenses shortly after high school, and had taken down a few bad guys on their own before being recruited for a newly-formed team in Eon City – the Asylum.  For the last year the twins had worked their way up in this new team, and were regarded as some of the top performers.

Parker shrugged his shoulders the way he always did – he needed to loosen his muscles from the drag of his wings – and folded his arms behind his head.  “Well, nice talking to you as always, sis,” he said, grinning at her. “I need to get to patrol. Oh, and Agent was looking for you.”

Natalie made a face at her brother’s retreating back as he walked out of the training room.  He just waved without turning around, and called back, “Stronger together.”

“Stronger as one,” Natalie called the second line back.  It was their good-luck charm, so she had to do it – even if she didn’t feel like dealing with people.

Parker and Natalie always sought each other out before going on patrol – it was a habit developed since their mother went on a mission and never came back.  Natalie wasn’t a superstitious person, but they had a dangerous job; this was the twins’ way of making sure they saw each other in case one of them didn’t make it back.

Natalie threw one more card, bisecting the ones already embedded in the target, and went to find Agent.  She called the elevator to go to Agent’s office on the top floor of the headquarters building, and was taken aback to see him standing in it.

“Hey,” Agent said as Natalie moved to stand next to him.  “I was just looking for you. I’m going to scout a potential new recruit,” he said, putting his hands in his suit pockets and letting his ever-present umbrella lean against his side.  “Would you like to come?”

“Me?” Natalie asked, slightly confused.  “Sure, if you want me there.”

“After you, milady,” Agent said, giving her a cocky half-grin as the elevator doors opened to the garage.  He gestured towards his car with one hand as he effortlessly picked up the umbrella with the other.

As Natalie slid into the passenger seat of Agent’s jet-black sedan, she couldn’t keep it in any more.  “Why exactly would you want me to come along on this one?” she asked, suddenly suspicious. “I mean, it’s no secret that I’m not a sociable person.”

Agent didn’t answer her as he turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the base’s garage.  They were down the road before he spoke. “Do you know anything about this recruit?” he asked.

Natalie did not.  She rarely paid attention to the Watcher recruit lists, unless she knew for a fact that they would join her team.  “This girl actually did her year-long training a few years back,” Agent told her, picking a file out of the center compartment without taking his eyes off the road.  Setting the file in Natalie’s lap, he added, “She’s taken the licensing exam eleven times since then.”

“Why would we want her for our team, then?” Natalie asked as she picked up the folder. She turned it open to the first page.  “I mean, it wasn’t that hard. How stupid would she have to be – holy crap!”

Agent smirked, knowing she had just read the new recruit’s test scores.  “Ninety-ninth percentile?!” she exclaimed, flipping through the pages. “Every time, even the first!  How the hell hasn’t she gotten her license yet with scores like these?! I was in the top of my year at ninety-two…”

“She’s got incredible strength and stamina,” Agent explained.  “She’s a naturally gifted athlete with a photographic memory. Apparently she’s trained her whole life to be a Watcher.”  Natalie just slapped the folder with one hand. Agent answered the silent question: “But she’s human.”

“Human? No way.”  Natalie flipped back through the folder, trying to find something wrong with the girl who seemed perfect on paper.

Agent decided to save her the search. “She never made it past the medical exam.”

“Why not?” Natalie asked, turning to the page.  “Was she taking steroids or something?”

“No – that would have disqualified her from taking the test again,” Agent said.  “The doctors found an irregularity in her blood. She has a vitamin deficiency that keeps her blood from clotting.  She bleeds easily, and so was deemed ‘unfit’ for Watcher work. They denied her license because of it.”

Natalie found the black mark in the recruit’s record.  “So how did she get her license, then?” she asked. “I mean, she has to be licensed if we’re recruiting her…”  She turned an accusatory glare at Agent as she realized.  “You messed with her paperwork, didn’t you?” she accused.

Agent tapped his fingers against the steering wheel.  “Not yet,” he admitted, “but yes, that is the plan. Someone this good, I want to grab her as soon as possible.”

“Her condition doesn’t bother you?” Natalie asked him.  “If she’s in the field and gets hit, she’d be down for a while.  And we get hit a lot,” she added, in case he forgot.

“She’s done extraordinarily well in simulations,” Agent said.  “She had to have taken some hits during training, and she’s still standing.”

“But that’s why you asked me to come,” Natalie guessed.  “You want me to size her up.”

“That,” Agent admitted, “and you’re a fellow human who can keep up with Third Gens.  You know how rare that is.”

“So are you,” Natalie said, but her small smile showed that she was pleased with the praise.

“I’m a highly-trained government agent who has been working as a Watcher-certified vigilante for almost two decades now,” he reminded her.  “You’ve only been doing this five years, without any other special training. Plus you have some… flare that I’m not allowed to use.”

“So you want me to do a magic show for her?” Natalie was even more confused now.

“No,” Agent said.  “Here’s how this is going to work…”

* * * * * * * *

Haley Prince massaged her hands as she glared at the punching bag.  It hung there, taunting her as she sorted through her emotions.

Hook.  Eleven tests, eleven denials.

Kick.  Nobody wants the girl who bleeds, no matter how good she is.

Cross.  Even the suit hadn’t contacted her yet, despite his promise.  She was starting to think he was a figment of her imagination.

Jab.  It was this stupid condition holding her back, and she needed to figure out a way around it.

The blows came faster and harder as the frustration took hold.  She couldn’t talk to her friends about it, or her family; not a single one of them understood the driving need Haley had to become a Watcher.  They all just told her to find something else to do with her life.

But what?  The police and the military wouldn’t take her for the same reason that kept her from getting a Watcher license.  She had no interest in working in her mom’s bakery like her brothers. Business bored her to tears, and she didn’t care about learning computers.  Becoming a professional hero had been her dream since she was a little kid, and she had worked her entire life towards that one goal; now nothing else was good enough.

The self-defense classes she taught at the community center were rewarding, but they didn’t pay enough to live on.

Why does adulting have to be so – cursed – HARD?!

With that last thought, Haley gave the bag a blow so powerful that a seam popped.  She blankly stared for a second at the steady trickle of sand as it fell out of the stupid bag before she moved to take it down.

“Another one?” Andy, the middle-aged gym’s owner, clucked at her, raising his eyebrows as he helped her with the bag.  “That’s the second bag you’ve broken in as many months!”

“Sorry, Andy,” Haley said.  “I’m just going through some stuff right now.”

“We’re all ‘going through stuff’,” Andy pointed out.  “The rest of us find a hobby that doesn’t involve punching the stuffing out of things.”  He grinned at her to show that there were no hard feelings, but Haley knew she would still pay for a replacement bag.  Andy knew exactly what was on Haley’s mind; he had known her since she was a kid, after all. “These things have a way of working themselves out,” he told her as they set the worn-out bag in the back room.  “Maybe you should find a real sparring partner, instead of taking it out on my poor innocent bags.”

Haley smiled back at him.  Andy had been a good friend to her and her brothers since they were kids, letting them use the gym after hours in exchange for odd jobs on summer breaks.  “My brothers all got too busy when they finished college,” she explained as they finished moving the ruined bag to the back room. “Without them, there aren’t many people I feel comfortable sparring against.”

“Maybe you should challenge her after all,” came a voice from near the front desk behind them.  “She looks like she matches you for strength.”

Haley turned around, surprised.  Two people, a man and a woman, stood near the front desk, watching them as they put the bag away.  The man was the same suit that had been at the exam two days ago; she recognized the omnipresent umbrella leaning against his leg.

The woman looked closer to Haley’s age, but seemed out of place in the boxing gym.  She was small, and had long, straight black hair, pale skin, and dressed like the goths Haley used to see in high school: black cargo pants, combat boots, and a black tank top with the words “piss off” written in large block letters on it.  She had black fingerless biker’s gloves on, and a black bandanna wrapped around her arm to complete the look.

She was also the one talking about challenging Haley to a sparring match.

The well-dressed man chuckled, contrasting the stern appearance of his companion.  “I’d like to,” he admitted in response to the woman’s suggestion, “but I can’t watch a fight I’m in.”

The goth-girl sighed.  “Fine then,” she said, “but don’t ever say I don’t make sacrifices for the team.”

She walked over to Haley, who tried to stop gawking long enough to ask, “Can I help you?”

“You’re pretty powerful against a punching bag,” the goth-girl said.  “How are you against something that hits back?”

The man stepped forward and interjected, “What my companion means to say is, ‘would you please spar with her?’”  He gave the goth-girl a wry grin, nodding his head toward Haley.

“‘Would you please spar with me?’” the girl mimicked, rolling her eyes.  Haley wasn’t sure what she thought about the suit yet, but the girl was rude.  Haley tried to get out of the conversation with them as politely as possible.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I only really spar with my brothers.  Maybe someone else around here will be your partner.”  She gestured around the gym, only then noticing that there weren’t many people around.  It was the off-season and the middle of the week, so the gym’s main clientele wouldn’t arrive for a few more hours.

“Nope,” said the girl, putting her hands in her pockets.  “It has to be you. You’re Haley Prince, right?”

Haley frowned.  “How do you know my name?” she asked, guarded.  It was a stupid question, she knew; after all, the girl had come in with the suit, who obviously knew about her from the licensing exam.  But Haley wanted to size them up, and asking a stupid question was the easiest way to get behind a person’s guard. People usually underestimated the “big, slow girl” if they didn’t know her – and Haley used it to her advantage.

The goth-girl frowned back, mocking her.  “How could you possibly want to be a Watcher if you don’t want to fight people?” she taunted, moving towards the ring.  “Come on, show me what you’re made of.”

Andy came out of the back room then, looking between the three figures.  “You don’t really want to fight Haley, sweetheart,” he said to the goth-girl.  “She’ll snap you like a twig.”

“We’ll see,” the girl scoffed, climbing up into the ring.  “Unless you’re chicken,” she added for Haley’s benefit.

The well-dressed man just shrugged at Haley’s questioning look.  “Natalie’s a little… abrasive,” he explained. “We’re working on that.  But please, Ms. Prince, we would like a better demonstration of your abilities.”

The goth-girl was starting to get on her nerves, and maybe a good sparring match was exactly what Haley needed to blow off steam.  She didn’t know why these two strangers had their eye on her, but it might be the opportunity she was looking for. “Fine,” she said, climbing up into the ring after her.  “Your funeral.”

Natalie started attacking as soon as Haley turned around.  Haley had to bring her arms up in defense quickly, taking the hits and not letting the smaller girl move her.  Haley’s biggest strength was her size – she was nearly six feet tall, and her broad shoulders were well-suited for her dense muscle mass.  Most of her opponents couldn’t move her if she didn’t want to be moved.

As soon as Natalie’s hits slowed by a fraction of a second, Haley shifted her weight to throw her off balance.  The smaller girl was faster, too, but Haley knew how to compensate for it from years of practice. She got in a few quick jabs before the other girl jumped backwards and started circling her.

“Not bad,” Natalie said, wiping the sweat off of her forehead.  She touched the spot where the jabs had hit her, and winced when she touched them.  “That’s going to bruise nicely.”

“Had enough?” Haley asked.

She got the answer that she was hoping for: “Not even close.”  Natalie bit her lip as she studied Haley. “You’ve got a solid defense, I’ll give you that.”

“How did you know my name when you came in?” Haley asked as she feinted a hit.  Talking was one way to take her opponent’s focus off of the fight, which could help.

“Agent over there has his eye on you,” Natalie said, using her thumb to indicate her companion.  “He seems to think you’re promising.” She jumped closer, aiming a punch at Haley’s jaw.

“Oh yeah?” Haley asked, dodging the blow and bringing her closed hands down on Natalie’s shoulders in response.  Natalie inched to the side so that the blow hit her shoulder instead of her spine; it was a testament to Natalie’s strength that she didn’t go down, but the muscles in her shoulder were better suited to taking the blow in any case.  “And what do you think?”

Natalie turned quickly, pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket as she went.  She swiped the cloth in front of Haley’s eyes, and swept her foot to knock her down.  As Haley fell to one knee, Natalie jumped up to give a final blow. Glitter sparkled around them, momentarily causing Haley to see double as her brain tried to process the speed of events.  She only just got her guard up in time to protect her face from Natalie’s rain of blows.

“I’m less impressed,” Natalie said.  A playing card appeared in her hand like magic, and she flicked it at Haley’s arm.  It didn’t hurt much – just a paper cut – but Haley winced as a gash opened up on her arm.

It was an illegal move in a real match, but something about this girl told Haley that this wasn’t a normal sparring session – they wanted to see what she could do, even when the odds were stacked against her.  Haley could hear Andy protesting somewhere in the background, but her focus was on the fight. Natalie backed off, scoffing. “A cut like that puts you out of commission, right?” she taunted, panting from the exertion.  “Sparring only against your brothers keeps you from seeing the damage a real opponent can do.” She held up more playing cards, as if to say that was only a taste of what I could do to you.  If all of those cards were as sharp as the first one she had thrown, Haley knew that the other girl could cut her to ribbons in seconds if she wanted to.

Haley stood up, keeping an eye on Natalie as she glanced at the cut.  “You’ve made three mistakes,” she told her, shaking out her arms and putting her guard back up.  She was tired of playing defense; it was about time this witch learned what it felt like when Haley went on offense.

“Oh yeah?” the goth-girl asked.  “What’s that, then?”

“First,” Haley said as she darted towards her opponent in another feint, “Just because I don’t stop bleeding doesn’t mean I bleed much faster than anyone else.  A cut like this won’t bother me for at least an hour.”

She reached in her pocket and pulled out the tube of sealant she kept there.  “Second, I keep this stuff on me. If I can get a spare second in a fight, I can stop the bleeding easily.”

Natalie went on offense again.  “You never get a second in a real fight,” she said as Haley dodged her hit.  Haley slid the tube back in her pocket, nodding her head to the point.

“True,” she said.  “But there’s one more thing that I see your file on me probably didn’t tell you.”

“And what’s that?” Natalie asked as Haley inched closer to her.

Suddenly, Haley swiped her foot, knocking Natalie off-balance.  She grabbed the other girl’s arms, spinning her around until her back was facing her.  Haley then grabbed the back of Natalie’s head and shoved her forward into the mat, putting all of her weight behind the move.

The result was that Natalie’s arms were caught by Haley’s left hand, her head was trapped by Haley’s right hand, and her legs were trapped by the rest of the bigger girl’s weight.  She struggled to break free, but Haley’s grip was like iron. Haley leaned forward just enough to finish her thought.

“Your third mistake?” she told her, tapping the other girl’s face against the ring floor.  “My brother’s a bear-satyr.”

She could hear Andy laughing with the agent off to the side.  Natalie said, “Okay, fine, you win,” and Haley let her up.

“Haley’s the youngest of five,” Andy was telling Agent, “and she’s the only girl and only human in her family.  Two of her brothers are Third Gens, and the other two are satyrs; the bear-satyr is seven feet tall and nearly four hundred pounds.  The other satyr, a gorilla, isn’t much smaller. She grew up fighting them all, and wins at least half the time.”

“It helps that Dean doesn’t really like to fight,” Haley added, winking at Agent.  “He’s a big teddy, really.”

“And she beat Natalie, here,” Agent said, sounding impressed, “even when she used her tricks.”

“Yeah, what was that?” Andy demanded, the grin sliding off of his face into a scowl.  “That thing with the cloth and the cards was fighting dirty, and we don’t allow that here.”

“Sorry,” Natalie mumbled, not sounding sorry at all.

Agent explained, “We had to fight a little dirty.  We had to know how she’d handle it.”

“So are you finally going to tell me what this was all about?” Haley asked.

Agent held his hand out for Haley to shake.  “I represent an agency here in Eon City,” he told them.  “You might have heard of us: the Asylum?”

“You guys are from the Asylum?” Haley asked, her annoyance turning to awe at the name.  “That’s the new Watcher group that patrols here; you guys are supposed to be one of the best agencies in the country!”

“And we only recruit the best,” Agent said, nodding his head towards Haley.  “We would like you to come work on our team.”

Haley’s eyes widened in excitement, before she remembered.  “But… I’m not licensed,” she said, looking at her feet in embarrassment.

Agent waved a hand in dismissal.  “That won’t be a problem for us,” he said.  “You can expect your license in the mail in a few days; we want you reporting for duty on Monday.”

Haley’s eyes widened again.  She looked at the man, wondering if this was some kind of joke.  “You’re serious?” she breathed. When he nodded, she had to hold herself back from jumping.  “I-I’ll be there,” she stammered, shaking with an adrenaline surge that had nothing to do with her recent fight.

Agent nodded again and headed out the door.  Natalie moved to follow him, but stopped in front of Haley.  “Good match,” she said, holding out a hand to shake. Haley took it, grinning like an idiot at this turn of events.  “I underestimated you,” Natalie added. “It’ll be interesting to work together.” She gave a small, tight smile, as if she rarely used those muscles in her face, before she walked out the door after Agent.

“See, kiddo?” Andy said, slapping Haley on the shoulder as they watched the strangers’ car speed away.  When Haley looked, her old friend was beaming proudly at her. “I told you these things work themselves out,” he said.  “Now let’s get that cut checked.”

* * * * * * * *

“You lost.”

Agent sounded amused as they headed back to headquarters.  Natalie grimaced as she put her hand to her cheek; that last move would leave her aching for days.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, slouching in her seat.  “I’d like to see you do better.” Behind her hand, Agent could tell she was smiling.  “So you’re going to fix her paperwork?”

“Yes,” he said.  After a second’s beat, he added, “I’ve just never seen you lose before.”

“Shaddup,” Natalie said, whacking his arm.  “It happens from time to time. Just because I never let you beat me when we’re sparring doesn’t mean I’m invincible.”

“I should really be recording this,” Agent said, grinning.  “Parker would get a kick out of it.”

“Yeah, right,” Natalie rolled her eyes.  “Anyways, this recruit looks promising. She could be the greatest Watcher I’ve ever seen, if she keeps up.”

Agent’s smile died a little.  “She might have to be,” he muttered.

Natalie didn’t hear him.  They pulled into the Asylum headquarters, and Natalie quietly sighed, “I just want a hot bath after that bout.”  At Agent’s sly grin she added, “Not one word to the others.” They got out of the car, and Agent held up his hands in surrender.  “I mean it, Agent,” Natalie hissed. “One word of this to the others and I’ll see you on the practice courts.”

“Death threats already?” a voice asked from behind them.  Natalie whipped around to see Parker standing there with an identical grin to Agent’s.  Natalie huffed and marched towards the door. “What’s she mad about this time?” he asked Agent as if his sister wasn’t still within earshot.

“She lost,” Agent told him with mock surprise.

Really?” Parker said, matching his tone.  Natalie didn’t turn around, but she did flip them both the bird before going inside as the two guys laughed behind her.

“Oh, man,” Agent said, “that is not going to get old any time soon.”

Parker walked over to him, his own giggles subsiding.  “I actually came out to talk to you,” he said. “I talked to my contact in the city like you asked.  The offer was still open; I start Monday.”

The smile fell off of Agent’s face.  “Good,” he said. “Let me know what you find out.”

“Are you sure we can’t tell the others about this?” Parker asked, jerking his chin towards the door where his twin had just gone inside.

“This isn’t exactly by-the-book,” Agent told him, “and I’d rather not get her caught up in it when the bureaucratic storm starts raining down on us.”  He put a hand on Parker’s shoulder, adding “We can’t be too careful – if word gets back that you’re actually working on our side, you’re dead.  You know that.”

“I know,” Parker said, “I just hate lying to her.  She won’t take it well when she finds out what we’re up to.  Especially because we didn’t ask her for help.”

“Natalie can be touchy,” Agent admitted.  At Parker’s snort he amended, “Okay, she can get pretty bitchy at times.  But she’s smart; she can see the wisdom behind this.”

“I really hope so, for both our sakes,” Parker sighed, “or she might really kill us this time.”  He grinned to show he was joking again. “Come on inside; Reiki’s barbequing.”

“Now that I can get behind,” Agent grinned as well.  “You go on ahead.”

As Parker went into the building, Agent grabbed Haley’s file out of the car and thumbed through it again.  “I really hope you have what it takes, kid,” he muttered. “We’re going to need you.”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #5 – Haley

Watcher Licensing Exam

Haley Prince, Exam #11

Faster than a cheetah.

The chant ran through Haley’s head as she sprinted down the track, as it had on so many fitness tests before.

Stronger than a rhino.

She came up to the first obstacle in the course: the monkey bars.  Haley swung through them easily, pulling well ahead of the other contestants.  That’s how she thought of them in her head, at least – they were all competing for the limited spots in the Watcher academy.

Agile as a cat.

Haley ran through the tire trap, focusing on keeping her balance as she stepped carefully in every slightly-too-large tire.  This is where she usually lost time; sure enough, two other contestants came up from behind her. She wasn’t going to let them pass, though – she wasn’t going to let the officers in charge of the selection see her fall behind.

Steady as a boulder.

Haley surged forward through the gauntlet of punching bags.  This obstacle was designed to slow the contestants down, but Haley barreled through past the others with no regard to the bruises that she was surely getting from the swinging bags.

She was the first to reach the balance beam, running easily across in just a few steps without losing her footing.  Haley could almost hear the selection officers’ collective jaws dropping, as she knew they must be. She had done so many obstacle courses before this one that she could probably run it in her sleep.  As she sprinted towards the last obstacle, she saw one of the other contestants coming up on her left. She pushed herself even harder, getting a burst of speed that let her come up to the rope swing first.

She had just grabbed the rope to swing across when the other contestant pushed her out of the way.  Haley fought to keep ahold of the rope, tightening her grip, but the damage was done: instead of jumping across, she just fell off the platform without much momentum.

Only one shot at this, she thought, gritting her teeth and bracing for the impact.  Her weight falling off of the platform gave her only one chance to land on the far side; if she missed, she would have to run back around to re-do the obstacle.  But she wasn’t going to miss.

She hit the platform with a thud, scraping one of her calves on the edge of the wood as she landed.  Letting go of the rope, Haley winced as she stood up and kept running. She remembered to swing the rope back to the other side behind her, but she gave a quick glare to the one who pushed her before she did.

She sprinted over the finish line first, allowing herself a quick grin as one of the selection officers came up to her.  “Great job, Prince,” he said, grinning at her. He called her by her last name, like he would any real cadet. “You beat the previous record by nearly a full second.”

“Lots of practice,” Haley said breathlessly.  A sharp pain as she took a step forward reminded her of her injury.  Looking down at her cut, the officer nodded towards the first-aid station set up on the side of the course.

“Go get yourself cleaned up,” he told her, all business, “then report to the start line for your score.”  He grinned again, giving her a conspirator’s wink as he added, “I think you’ll be fine.”

Haley gave a weak smile in return, and then winced as he turned to the next contestant.  She slowly jogged over to where she had left her bag, and brought it to the medic’s tent.  “Could I just get an alcohol wipe for this?” she asked, gesturing to her shin.

The medic took one look at the gash, and pulled out the requested wipes and a roll of gauze.  “Here,” he offered, “I’ll get that fixed up.”

“I can do it,” Haley said, pulling a small vial out of her bag.  The medic brushed her off, though.

“I’m sure you can,” he said in a patronizing tone, “but this is my job.  I’ll just wrap this up for you.”

Haley was torn for a second, before she sighed and slipped the vial back into her pack.  I’ll just apply that in the car, she thought, hoping that the final scores wouldn’t take too long.

She thanked the medic when he had finished – he did do a good job in cleaning and binding the wound – and then jogged over to the start line where four other contestants waited.  She stood at attention with them as the remainder of the twenty try-outs finished.

The full version of her mantra repeated over and over in her head as she waited.  Her dad had written that poem for her when she was a little kid chasing after her brothers:

Faster than a cheetah I run through the night,

Patient as a rainfall I wait for the light.

Stronger than a rhino, I help those in need,

Steady as a boulder I give word and deed.

Anger rolls through me, agile as a cat,

Fear flies away to the night like a bat.

Peace keeps me strong in times of doubt,

Strength keeps me steady in times without.

Her dad wasn’t exactly a poet, but the meditative nature of the words helped Haley keep her emotions in check.  It helped her in the interviews to keep her cool, especially when they kept telling her the exact same thing, over and over again, every single time she took the Watcher licensing exam.

Patient as a rainfall, Haley thought, before the apprehension swallowed her up again.  She shifted her feet, unlocking her knees before her blood flow stopped.  She didn’t dare look down at the cut. The less attention I draw to it, the better, she decided, even though she knew it was a vain hope.

Finally, the last contestant was through the obstacle course and the officers were joining the cadet-hopefuls.  Hurry up already, Haley let the impatient thought cross her mind before repeating the mantra again.

It took another twenty minutes before the officers were done with the group, as they listed everything they had seen – both good and bad – before announcing each candidate’s final score.  Haley would have appreciated the feedback a few try-outs ago, but now she just wanted to get back to her car as fast as possible before anyone noticed her leg.

Too late.  The officer that had congratulated her before called her out as the fastest candidate, and his smile faltered as he saw the bandage on her leg.  Don’t look down, Haley thought, fighting the urge despite knowing what he had seen.  The officers finished up pretty quickly after that, but the damage was done.

“Prince!” the medical officer called as she tried to leave.  “Wait a minute.” He was standing with the other evaluation officers at this point.  Haley’s shoulders slumped slightly as she gave a sigh. Turning around, she straightened back up and jogged back over to them.

“Yes sir?” she asked, keeping her demeanor respectful.  She had no idea who these officers might know, and showing any disrespect here could ruin her chances for the next exam.  She clasped her clammy hands together behind her back as she came to parade rest while she waited for the judgment.

Most of the evaluating officers wore Watcher PT uniforms, except for one man who stood out like a sore thumb in a three-piece suit.  It was all Haley could do not to stare at him; in late May, the weather had to be too hot for him to be standing there so easily.  His face wasn’t even flushed, though. He just stood there like the others, propping a large black umbrella up next to his perfectly shiny black shoes.

The medic saved her from staring by asking a question.  “What’s the matter with your leg?” – the very question Haley had been dreading.

Maybe staring at the suit wouldn’t be so bad.

“What do you mean, sir?” she asked politely, still refusing to look down on her own.

“The cut she got earlier wasn’t that deep,” the medic insisted to the others, “not something that she should need stitches for.”

They told her to sit back down by the medical station, and Haley had to comply.  Propping her leg up on another chair, she got to look at what she knew would happen: her stupid blood had soaked through the gauze bandage in less than an hour.

Haley sighed and reached for her bag, taking the vial out again.  The medic stripped the bandage off, showing the cut to all of the other officers.  The medic had been right, it wasn’t that deep. The problem was in Haley’s blood.

She had what the doctors said was an “inherent vitamin K deficiency”.  That meant, in layman’s terms, that her blood wouldn’t clot properly. When she got bruised or cut, it lasted far longer and bled more freely than it would for any other person.  Haley had been living with this her entire life; she had inherited the condition from her mother’s side, and it had never seemed like a big deal until she first took the exam for her Watcher license.  All she had to do on her part was to keep her diet high in vitamin K – in other words, eat an inordinate amount of kale and broccoli and take vitamin pills twice a day – as well as keep a vial of medical sealant in her bag, and she could live like a normal human.  At least, that’s what every doctor she had ever seen tried to say about it.

The problem was that she didn’t want to live “like a normal human.”  Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to be a Watcher – a government-sanctioned vigilante that caught criminal Third Gens and satyrs that the human police couldn’t handle.  It was rare enough for someone who wasn’t a Third Gen to get their license in the first place, but Haley had very nearly done it. She trained every day, working to become just as fast, strong, and durable as any Third Gen or satyr.  She raced her brothers and her satyr and Third-Gen friends for months up until the physical test so that she could keep up. She had never wanted anything more in her entire life.

The day of that first exam came, and she had passed with flying colors.  She impressed the trainers, her fellow candidates, and even some real Watchers who had come to see the new cadets, that a human girl could keep up with (and in some cases even beat) a roomful of Third Gens and satyrs.  She had everything she had ever wanted within reach; it was the best moment of her life.

Then her traitorous blood showed up in her physical, and she was kicked to the curb.

Her doctor refused to sign off on the medical waiver for her license.  She went to three other doctors, who all said the same thing. Her dream was dashed by something entirely out of her control.  If she ever had a moment where she felt like there was no point in living, then that was it.

Haley wasn’t going to give up, though.  She tried joining four different branches of the military, and then moved on to police forces, and every three months she took the Watcher exam again, as soon as the next one came around.  This was Haley’s eleventh try at the Watcher exam, and now her only hope was to impress the selection officers so much with her scores that they ignored her medical forms and sign off on the license anyways.  She had to be the best, and it became an obsession – to the point where she had opened herself up to yet another disappointment by allowing a stupid board to cut her stupid leg.

The officers waited until the medic cleaned the cut, and didn’t say anything until Haley sealed it with the artificial sealant.  Then the lead officer, the one that had told her how impressed they had been, pointed out: “We can’t sign off on you with a condition like that.”

Haley snapped out of her reverie and looked at him.  He had some papers open on his clipboard, and from the small corner she could see, Haley recognized her medical file.  He had it open to the page they all did, the one that damned her chances of joining. “Please understand,” he continued; her feelings must have been apparent on her face.  “That obstacle course is nothing compared to what the Watchers face every day. Forget about the real legwork – if you’re going to bleed out from a paper cut, what would happen if you went up against an actual criminal?”

Haley couldn’t speak; her throat was closing up, and it was all that she could do not to cry in front of these seasoned Watchers.  She knew all of this, of course. They thought that they were saving her life by denying her the one thing that would make it worth living.  Every other let-down had been exactly the same.

The officers were kind, and that made it worse.  One sympathized, citing an old injury that knocked him back from patrol work to licensing.  Another recommended where else she might try, though he added that it might be best if she looked for another field.  Haley just stared at the cut, barely listening to the platitudes of the people who already had what she wanted. She nearly missed it when the man in the suit asked her a question.

“I’m sorry, come again?” she asked, dropping the “sirs” now that the officers had confirmed her worst fears.

The man in the suit gave her a small smile.  “I said, ‘why do you want to do this so badly?’”

Haley looked up at him, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion.  “It’s all I’ve ever wanted,” she answered, not knowing what else to say.

“But why?” he asked again.  “I see in your file that you’ve taken this exam eleven times now.  You’ve also tried out for four police forces, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and even the Coast Guard – every one of them told you the exact same thing.”  He closed her file with a snap, staring at her intently. “Why haven’t you given up? Why are you still trying out?”

“Because I want to help people,” she said without thinking.  Realizing that it sounded cliché, she explained, “I’ve always wanted the kind of adventure and excitement that came with being a Watcher.  I want to be the best I can possibly be, and, to me, that means keeping up with Third Gens and satyrs, and helping to clean up the city. This world is full of titans, and…” she trailed off, thinking, before finishing: “I might be just a human, but I want to prove that anyone can be a titan if they try hard enough.”

Silence followed her speech.  The selection officers all looked uncomfortable, as if she was a child saying “I’m gonna be an astronaut when I grow up!”  They don’t think I can do it, Haley thought wryly.  She wanted to put her hands over her face in embarrassment, maybe run home and hide under the covers with a pint of ice cream.  She could feel the heat rising in her face as her cheeks flushed, but she kept her eyes trained on the man in the suit, whose lips were pursed in a judging manner.  They think I’m weak, she thought, setting her chin in determination.  Weak, and childish, and naïve, and –

The man in the suit started to laugh.  It took Haley a second to realize it – he had looked so stern a moment before – but there it was: he was laughing so hard that he had to lean on his umbrella to keep from doubling over.  “Oh, you’ll do nicely,” he finally said once he caught his breath. “‘The world is full of titans,’ I’ve never heard it phrased quite that way before.” He pulled himself together, still chuckling at whatever it was he had found so funny.  “These men may not think you’re capable, but I might have just the job for you.”

He picked up his umbrella and put it over his shoulder.  “I’ll find you later in the week,” he promised. “There are just a few more things I need to take care of, first.”  He turned to the other officers present, who all looked at him like he was growing a second head. “… I think you’re dismissed, unless these gentlemen have anything else to add?”

He let them all sit in stunned silence for a second, before picking up his umbrella and walking towards the entrance to the yard.  Haley looked between him and the card a few times before calling after him, “Who are you?”

The man turned around and gave her a jaunty smile.  “My name is Agent,” he said, flourishing the closed umbrella in a mock wave, “and I will see you tomorrow.”

As she watched Agent walk away, Haley felt a dreadful, wonderful feeling that she had thought was gone forever:

Hope.

She looked back at the card he had left and smiled.  It was about time for a new job.

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #3 – Project: Asylum

Former Team Ark Headquarters, three years ago.

Derek Hessing, formerly known as “Marauder”.

What the hell am I going here?

Derek Hessing stepped through the open doorway of the building that he had once called “headquarters”.  That was back when he went by the name “Marauder”, while he worked with Team Ark. It was a bittersweet moment for him – the memories associated with this place were mostly good ones, tainted by the horrible memory of the last time he set foot here.

He had thought that he would never return.

The building was enormous, meant to house training rooms and living spaces for a dozen people.  The lobby looked like any office building or apartment complex in Eon City, but the entryway to the main living area was exactly as he had left it.

Three years’ worth of dust had settled, disturbing the home-like feel that Derek used to know when walking in.  None of the old team had set foot in this place in years, and it showed through the little details: there was no flower vase in the front hall from Kindred’s love of plants.  No smell of delicious meals came from the kitchen, as Sparrow wasn’t cooking. No sharp sounds came from the metal shop where Star used to work in her downtime. The security cameras had no red lights, as Agent hadn’t turned them on in years.  Derek could almost hear the thuds from the training room where he and Striker used to spar, but Striker was long gone…

Derek stopped in his tracks.  No, he wasn’t imagining it: there were definitely sounds coming from the sparring room.  Hardly daring to hope, he ran in that direction as he allowed his feet to take him down the stairs and through the familiar hallways.  Could Striker really be back? He’d disappeared without a trace five years before; surely he would have found his old teammates if he was still alive…

Derek came to a halt outside the training room.  His shoulders slumped slightly when he realized that it wasn’t Striker in front of him, but he straightened again when he realized that he had never seen the intruder before.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked, storming in.  It was a testament to how long it had been since he had last used his Third Gen ability to subdue someone that he did not think to use it now.  Instead, he moved towards the sword area where he kept his practice katana; they were still there after all this time.

The intruder straightened, turning to face Derek.  The young man seemed to be in his early twenties, around Sparrow’s age the last time Derek had seen her.  He wore a tank top and sweatpants, and he didn’t look like he intended to run – which implied that he had been staying there for a while.  “I could ask you the same thing,” he said evenly. His eyes sparked with excitement, as though he was daring Derek to try something that would start a fight.

Derek side-stepped, never turning his back on the other guy.  “My name is Marauder,” he said, relishing his old name as he used it for the first time in five years.  “This is Team Ark’s headquarters, and you’re the one trespassing. I’ll ask again: who the hell are you?”

“’Name’s David,” the young man replied, shrugging.  “Some people call me Earthborn.” He didn’t seem concerned when Derek picked up the wooden swords, suggesting that he thought Derek either couldn’t or wouldn’t use them.

As he stepped forward, Derek nearly stumbled over a small pile of rocks.  Straightening back up, he raised the practice sword and pointed it at David.  “What are you doing here?” he asked.

David just shrugged at him.  Derek fought back a grin; the young man reminded him a lot of his old friend Striker.  He waited in silence for a moment to catch the young man off-guard, and then sprang forward onto the sparring mat.  Whipping his sword around in a fluid motion, Derek lunged at the intruder, aiming for the young man’s legs to knock him to the floor.

A small, sharp pain hit his arm, knocking his sword off-course.  Derek looked around for the source, but all he saw was David standing in exactly the same spot as before.  A smug grin spread across David’s face, which only made Derek want to knock it off. He gripped the wooden sword tighter and swung around for a new attack.

It happened again!  This time, Derek managed to catch the assailant out of the corner of his eye: a rock had flown up from the pile on the floor, hitting him just hard enough to knock his swords off-course.

Derek looked back over at David, who was still smugly standing there.  The name “Earthborn” rang in his ears, making him roll his eyes in frustration: of course the kid was a Third Gen.

But then again, so was Derek.

“Nice trick,” he said, standing to face the young man.  “Want to see a new one?”

He lunged forward once more, but this time he kept his mind focused on one word: funny.  At the moment when the rock should have hit him, Derek heard it clack back onto the floor as “Earthborn” started laughing uncontrollably.

The sword connected with the young man’s leg, forcing him to drop down to one knee.  David wasn’t laughing anymore; the command had only been for a second, but it was long enough to give Derek the upper hand.  He was putting one of the swords at the kid’s throat, intending to make him talk through intimidation, when he heard the crackling sound.

A flash of light threw him across the room, where he just barely managed to stay conscious.  The kid walked towards him, electricity crackling around one of his hands.

He can throw both rocks and lightning? Derek thought.  Not fair.

Just as David began to loom over him, Derek heard an impressed whistle from the elevator doors.  “Wow,” came a familiar voice from the same direction. “I mean, I’d heard about you, but that was incredible.”

Derek looked up, laughing.  “About time,” he said to Agent.  “Mind helping me take out the trash?”

The young man glared at him, electricity sparking back up in his hand.  Agent propped his umbrella up against the door, saying, “Not really. I mean, I did invite him here.”

Derek shook his head to clear it, standing up as the kid backed off.  “What the hell do you mean, you ‘invited him’?” he asked, confused.

“David,” Agent said, “I’d like you to meet Derek, otherwise known as Marauder of Team Ark.  Derek, this is David: he’s going to be on the new team.”

“You’re kidding.”  Derek got to his feet, still unsteady after the fall.  “When you said ‘new team’, I thought you meant you, me, Kindred, and Sparrow would stick together.”

Agent sighed, leaning against the edge of the sparring ring.  “Kevin is still helping take care of the kids,” he explained. Derek and Agent had both known their old team so well that their code names and real names were interchangeable. “Their youngest is in high school, and he says that both he and Sara have been enjoying their retirement.”

“And Sparrow?” Derek asked.

“Casey told me,” Agent cleared his throat, and gave a bad impression of the girl’s voice: “’Go fuck yourself.’”  He gave a weak laugh, adding, “Her words, not mine. I guess she’s not quite over what happened to Striker.”

“And you think I am?” Derek said, pushing past the new guy to stand in front of Agent.  “The team broke up that day,” he said. “You and I tried keeping it together for a while by ourselves, and that didn’t work out so well, either.  What makes you think getting a newbie would make any difference?”

“Four new members.” Agent corrected him.  “Earthborn isn’t the only person I asked.”

“You know, Earthborn is standing right here,” David said, raising an eyebrow.  “I’d like to know what the hell’s going on, too.”

Agent shook his head, smiling again.  “Alright then,” he said. He walked back over to the elevator, picked up his umbrella, and motioned for the other two to join him.  “I’ve been tasked by my superiors to start a new team,” he explained as they all crowded into the elevator. Hitting the button for the debrief room, he added, “It’s called Project: Asylum.”

* * * * * * * *