Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.
The timetable is accelerating.
“He said we had two Earth years,” Jaunt said, glaring from behind his dust mask. “He promised!” The dry desert air chafed his exposed forehead, but he was too focused on his current problem to bother putting on a hat.
The blue-tinged hologram he addressed smiled pleasantly at him. “He did not lie. He will arrive in two years, two weeks, five days, four hours, two minutes – ”
“Then why are you taking over?” Jaunt demanded. “I promised to have a candidate ready, and I meant that I would find one!”
“There is a candidate we have scouted,” the hologram said. “We simply intend to test them. They are currently incomplete, but show an indication of aptitude for the prerequisites.”
Jaunt rolled his eyes. “And exactly what ‘aptitude’ are you talking about?” he asked. “If they don’t meet your standards, then why bother?”
“Humans have shown a resilience, particularly this one,” the hologram said. “They adapt easily, and can be molded to fit the standard if they show the proper aptitude. Based on your current reports, this one seems promising.”
“So you’re just going to take over now, is that it?” Jaunt demanded. “I have done more than a decade’s worth of research for you, trying to find the best candidate, and you just take a random kid?”
“The selection was hardly random,” the hologram said, still giving Jaunt that annoying, mechanical smile. “We have received your data on the team known as ‘The Asylum’, and made a preliminary hypothesis about one of the members. Given the data provided, we think she will be an excellent candidate.” The hologram’s face didn’t change, but it moved closer in a slightly threatening manner. “Of course, if you disagree with our assessment, we can always change the timetable. However, given his excitement over the current rounds, I cannot imagine that he would be pleased with you interrupting him.”
“You’re a machine,” Jaunt countered, hiding a shudder at the veiled threat, “you can’t imagine anything.” He sighed in defeat, adding, “Nevertheless, I see your point. Fine; if you want to waste your time with an unqualified candidate, be my guest. I’ll be continuing my other research.”
“Very good,” the hologram said, backing up. “I look forward to working with you.”
Before it could disappear on him, Jaunt asked, “Hey, which Asylum member are we testing?”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, evening.
“Woo-hoo!” Natalie cried, slamming a shot glass down on the table. “I win! Pay up.”
Haley shook her head, pulling her wallet out of her pocket. “I can’t believe you just took ten shots of Jack,” she said, handing Natalie a twenty-dollar bill. “Good thing we walked here.”
The bar was only a few blocks away from Headquarters, so Haley, Natalie, and Reiki had decided to walk down for a change of scenery after their patrols. Earthborn and Granny were busy with the evening patrol, and Frank and Rina declined to join them; neither of them drank alcohol. Rina said it made her nauseous, and Frank just didn’t like the taste. Since they also had the night patrol, they decided to just stay at Headquarters until the shift change.
“Ah, this is nothing,” Natalie said, grinning. “Agent has rules about us getting too drunk in our off-hours; my limit is thirteen.”
“Though you still hope that we aren’t called in,” Reiki pointed out. “Especially not tomorrow morning.”
Natalie shrugged, picking up a shot glass from the table in front of her and licking the rim. “I don’t get hangovers,” she pointed out. “I’ll be fine.”
“That may be,” said Casey as she cleared the empty glasses off of their table, “but you’re still cut off.” Cassandra “Casey” Johnson was an old teammate of Agent’s from Team Ark. Despite her codename being “Sparrow”, Casey was a Third Gen with the ability to see the future. She still reported her visions to Agent, but was otherwise retired from Watcher work.
“Come on, Casey,” Natalie pleaded. “Just one more?”
“Nope,” Casey said, picking up the shot glasses and putting them on a tray, “Agent would kill me if he found out I served you this much.” She took the one out of Natalie’s hand last, bringing them back to the dishwasher behind the bar.
“Fine then,” Natalie said. “Anybody up for karaoke?”
Haley pursed her lips. “I don’t sing,” she said.
“Sure you do,” Natalie told her. “I heard you last week, singing that one song for the doctor…”
“‘Lavender Blue’ is an old tune my mom taught me as a kid,” Haley pointed out. The night was young, but she had to raise her voice over the growing din of customers. “I hummed a few bars to distract the mark; that’s very different from singing a pop song in front of everybody.”
“You’re no fun,” Natalie said. She stood up from the table and grabbed Haley and Reiki’s hands. “If you won’t sing, then at least come dance.”
The bar had a dance floor in the back room, while karaoke was done in the front. On the weekends the place was crawling with satyrs, Third Gens, and humans all looking for a good time. Casey had a heavy hand and a good wait staff, so her place was pretty popular.
Haley groaned, but got up – she knew that Natalie wouldn’t let it go unless she did one or the other, and dancing seemed like the lesser evil. After a sharp tug on his arm by the insistent Natalie, Reiki got up as well. He and Haley exchanged glances as they allowed Natalie to drag them to the dance floor.
After a few minutes of awkward movement, Natalie stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Haven’t you guys ever been clubbing before?” she asked.
Haley was stiff in her movements, self-conscious of the people watching from the sidelines. In contrast, Reiki looked like he was having an upright seizure: his arms were flailing while his feet tangled around each other. Natalie stopped them, shaking her head. “Come on guys, like this.” She demonstrated, keeping her feet close together while she swayed to the beat of the music.
Haley tried to copy her, but Reiki just shook his head and went to find a seat on the sidelines. Watching him leave, Natalie shrugged. “Oh well, looks like we’re the ones having fun tonight. Right Haley?”
“I’m not sure I call this ‘fun’,” Haley pointed out. People were beginning to look their way; as Watchers of the Asylum, most of the city knew their faces. Even though most of Casey’s other patrons were also Watchers, Haley could just see a video of her awkward dancing going viral.
“If you’re really that worried about it,” Natalie told her, “then I’ll take the pressure off of you!”
Natalie left Haley’s side, moving to the center of the dance floor. She strutted to the beat of the music in a large circle, opening up some room in the dancers as the song changed. When the first beat dropped in the new song, she began to really let loose.
When they were kids, Natalie had trained in many styles of dancing with her brother. Along with some of the acrobatics she learned when training to be a Watcher, she combined different dance styles into something graceful and unique. Once the spotlight was on her instead of Haley, the bigger, less coordinated girl faded back to the sidelines.
After a minute of watching Natalie on the dance floor, a vaguely familiar voice came over Haley’s shoulder. “She really does love the spotlight, doesn’t she?”
Haley spun around, coming face-to-face with Eli Howard, also known as the mercenary Watcher, Butterfly. “You!” she cried, startled. “What are you doing here?”
“Can we talk?” he asked, gesturing for them to take it outside. Haley nodded, allowing him to lead her out the front door.
Once they were outside in the brisk summer night air, Haley asked, “What is it?”
Eli was looking around for something. “I just wanted to see how you were,” he said distractedly. “I haven’t seen you in a while, and I thought we could talk.”
Haley narrowed her eyes. “You know where I live,” she said. “If you wanted to talk, then why follow me to the bar?”
“That’s presumptuous,” Eli scoffed, his eyes still darting around. “What makes you think I followed you here? I happen to like Casey’s.”
“Then what are you looking for?” Haley asked. “You’re acting shifty. I think I’m going to get the others.”
“Wait,” Eli said. “You know Trick hates me.”
Haley shrugged, turning to go back inside. Eli grabbed her arm, and years of fighting practice took over; reflexively, Haley swung his arm up behind him and held it there, slamming Eli up against the wall of the bar.
“Why did you want me out here?” she asked. “No lies this time!”
“I don’t know,” Eli admitted, his face pressed painfully up against the bricks. “I was paid to just get you out of the bar and away from the others.”
“What?” Haley asked. “Paid by who?”
A bright, bluish spotlight came down on them. “I assume by them,” Eli said, glancing up at the source.
Haley shoved him against the wall again in annoyance. A tingling sensation ran up her spine, and she suddenly couldn’t feel anything – not the night air on her face, not the concrete under her feet, not even Eli, who looked as if he was dissolving in front of her. Haley looked down at her hands, noting with detached alarm that she could see straight through her hands. She tried to look up at the spotlight’s source, but her vision chose that moment to go white.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, the next morning.
Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.
Natalie fought back a yawn as she poured herself a bowl of cereal. She might not get hangovers, but the dancing and alcohol from the night before really took it out of her. It was lucky that her patrol shift didn’t start until the afternoon; she could stand for some downtime until then. Poor Reiki had the early morning shift; it was a good thing he didn’t dance much the night before. Natalie’s muscles ached from the hours-long unscheduled workout she had given them.
She had just decided to get a glass of water with her cereal when Agent stormed into the living area. “It was pretty stupid to get that wasted last night,” he said loudly, crossing his arms.
“Wasted?” Natalie asked, blinking innocently. “What ever gave you that idea?”
Agent gestured to his data pad. “We keep track of your vitals, remember?” he said. “If I had needed you three, you wouldn’t have been fit for duty. You guys already missed training this morning.”
Natalie’s heart skipped a beat in nervousness. “I didn’t have training this morning,” she said, shaking her head and checking her schedule. “I double-checked before we left last night – yep, says right here: I have patrol this afternoon, but I have the morning off.”
Agent took a breath before responding, irritated. “I know you didn’t,” he told her, “but Haley did. And Reiki was ten minutes late this morning.”
“Then why are you asking me?” Natalie said, turning on the sink for her water.
“Because you’re here,” Agent said, “and the others aren’t. I’ll be having words with them, too.”
“Reiki didn’t drink that much last night,” Natalie told him. “He had, like, two beers. He was swaying a bit on the way home, but I thought he was just dancing. He should have been fine this morning.”
“And Haley?” Agent asked. “I’ve never had a problem with her before, and I don’t want your influence rubbing off on her.”
“Because I’m such a bad influence?” Natalie said sweetly, grinning at him.
Agent smiled despite himself. “Exactly,” he chuckled. “Do you know where she is?”
“No idea,” Natalie said, shrugging. “Haley left a couple of hours before me and Reiki last night. Casey said she left with Butterfly, so I assumed she had just gone home with him.” She took a swig of water before adding, “Don’t you keep track of our vitals? She’s fine, right?”
“Her chip malfunctioned last night,” Agent admitted. “I was going to tell her at training this morning to see Dale to have it checked out, but then she didn’t show up.”
Natalie finished chugging her water and refilled the cup. “She left with Butterfly last night,” she repeated. “You might try asking him.”
“I’ll make the call,” Agent said. “If you see Haley, tell her I’m looking for her. And don’t you be late for your shift,” he added.
Natalie gave him a mock salute. “Yes, mon capitan,” she said. As Agent left for his office, she picked up her spoon and stared at it.
Last night at the bar hadn’t been a first for the group – Natalie dragged them out every other week to blow off some steam. Haley had never skipped training before; she loved the job too much.
Shaking her head, Natalie began eating her breakfast. It’s probably nothing, she thought.
She couldn’t shake a nagging feeling in the back of her mind, as if she had missed something important.
* * * * * * * *
A metallic room, on board a ship.
Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.
Haley groaned as she sat up. Her head was pounding, and her mouth tasted like sandpaper. She could hear a feint humming noise, and the metal floor beneath her seemed to be slightly vibrating.
Remembering what had happened the night before, Haley’s eyes snapped open. She was alone in a large, sterile room; there was no furniture, no door, and she couldn’t even tell where the light was coming from. It seemed as bright as any office in the room, but there were no lamps, windows, or overhead lights.
“What the hell?” she asked herself, standing up. She still wore her casual outfit from the night before: a sleeveless floral-patterned nylon shirt, a knee-length black skirt, and dress sandals.
“Hello?” she called angrily. “What the hell am I doing here? What’s going on?”
As if summoned by Haley’s questions, a small bluish figure appeared out of nowhere in front of her. It looked kind of like a little girl, with high cheekbones and big eyes. On second glance, however, she could see that it had ridges on her nose, and long, pointed ears. The little girl was wearing long robes that covered her feet; it took Haley a second to realize that she had no feet, and was floating a foot off of the ground. The girl flickered, and Haley realized that she was just a projection.
A holographic screen appeared across the girl’s chest. Words began typing across it, as if the girl were speaking.
Hello. My name is Ayu, it wrote. How might I be of assistance?
“Um, hello?” Haley said once she got over the initial shock of the girl’s appearance. “Where am I, and why the hell am I here?”
You have been selected. The little girl had a pleasant smile on her face, but it didn’t meet her eyes. We require you for testing.
“‘Testing’?” Haley asked. “What testing?”
You have exhibited traits that we find desirable, Ayu wrote. We would like to see if you have more.
“What do you mean, ‘desirable’?” Haley asked. “What have I done?”
You are the hero known as ‘Outlier’ on your planet, correct? Ayu said. You have caught our attention.
Haley rolled her eyes. “So I ask again: What have I done? I just started as a Watcher three months ago.”
In that time, you have been tested along with the other members of your team, Ayu explained. You have demonstrated wit, cunning, patience, diligence, discipline – ”
“As much as I enjoy being complimented,” Haley said, interrupting the list, “I must insist you take me back. I have training in the morning, and I’d like to punch Eli in the face before bed.”
It is midday in your sector of Earth, Ayu told her. It has been twelve Earth hours since you arrived on board.
“Twelve hours?” Haley sputtered. “What… why?”
The transfer can be difficult for a species that has not yet adapted to space travel, Ayu explained. You needed to… “sleep it off”.
“You’re kidding,” Haley said, exasperated. “Fine. I missed training. I still need to get back; or am I a prisoner here?”
You will be tested, Ayu wrote. Then you will be returned.
“Tested for what?” Haley asked.
Testing will begin shortly. Please enter the next room, Ayu wrote.
A door opened in the wall in front of Haley. Sighing in annoyance, she stepped through. “Better get this over with,” she muttered.
The next room was just as sparse as the one she had left, with two key differences. First, there was a big red button on the far wall – which was about twenty feet away from the entrance.
Second, Eli stood on one side of the room.
“You!” Haley started towards him, flexing her arm threateningly.
“Now, hang on one second,” Eli said, putting his hands out as if to hold her back. “I was just doing a job, and now I’m stuck here just like you.”
“A job, huh?” Haley said. “You get me away from my teammates, so that I can be abducted and brought to who-knows-where, and I have some kind of alien kid telling me that I have to be ‘tested’ before I can go home. That was a ‘job’ to you?” She strode over to him and grabbed him by the collar.
Eli shrugged. “It paid well,” he said. “They just want to see what you’re made of, then we can go back.”
“When we get back, I’m getting Agent to lock you up,” Haley told him, letting him go. “I agree with Natalie and Frank: you’re a menace.”
“Whatever,” Eli said, straightening his shirt and rubbing his neck.
Haley looked around at the room. “So when is this ‘test’ supposed to start?” she asked the room.
Nothing visibly happened, but the soft hum of energy was suddenly in the room with them. A female voice spoke over an intercom, saying, “The test has begun. Push the button.”
“That’s it?” Haley asked. “Just push that big button over there?”
“Push the button,” the disembodied voice said again.
Raising her eyebrows, Haley started forward. Eli shook his head. “Wait, Outlier, maybe we should – ”
“You don’t get to talk,” Haley said, walking backwards. “I’m taking this test, and getting us out of here so I can bring you in.”
“I’m just saying, it can’t be that easy,” Eli said, putting his hands on his hips.
Haley ignored him with a wave of her hand as she turned back around – just in time to walk face-first into an invisible wall. “Ow,” she said, rubbing her nose where she hit it. “Damn.”
“Told you,” Eli said, smirking. “What kind of idiot are you? Of course there’s going to be something else to it.”
Haley turned to glare at him. “Okay, smart-ass,” she said. “What do you recommend?”
“No idea.” Eli shrugged, walking over to her and feeling for the invisible wall. “I’m guessing it’ll be a maze.”
As if it heard him, the voice said again, “Push the button.” Haley looked around the room, but she couldn’t tell where the wall was or which way to go.
This was going to be harder than she thought.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, evening.
Outlier has been missing for twenty hours.
“You haven’t seen him either?” Agent was taking a call in the common room, as most of the team gathered to compare notes. “… Okay. Let me know if he turns up.” He hung up, turning back to the others. “Haley didn’t show up for her patrol this evening,” he said. “I checked with building security, and she didn’t come back last night after the bar. The last time anybody saw her was when she left the bar with Butterfly – I just heard from some of my contacts on that end, and nobody’s seen him, either.”
“That’s not so unusual for Butterfly, though,” Rina pointed out. “He comes and goes as he wants.”
“But Haley is Miss Perfect,” Natalie pointed out. “She’s never so much as stepped a toe out of line before; she wouldn’t just disappear on us.”
Frank pulled his uniform hoodie over his head, getting ready for his patrol as he spoke. “So what do you want us to do about it?” he asked. “Any places we should check?”
“I have another person to check with,” Agent said. “If you guys could canvas the city, that might turn something up. Earthborn is currently checking the tunnels, to see if either of them turn up down there. I’m also asking Toby to check with the Fauns – she can get in and out of there a lot more discreetly than any of you, and she won’t raise a flag with them. I’m not sure what other enemies she might have made,” he admitted. “Our best bet is to figure out where Butterfly might have taken her. I have a list of his usual haunts; you guys check these places out.”
He set a very short list down on the counter. Natalie took one look and raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re kidding, right?” she asked. “‘Butterfly Garden’, a studio on the north side, and then a few dives?”
“He’s a pretty straightforward guy,” Agent said, shrugging. “If he’s in the city, he’s usually at these places unless he’s on a job.”
Granny stood up from a chair in the corner. “I’ll check out some of the dives,” she said. “I can handle myself if there’s trouble – though most people wouldn’t trouble an old lady,” she added with an impish grin.
“I’ll take the studio,” Natalie said. “If he took Haley somewhere, I doubt we’ll find them at any of these places, though.”
“I’ll check out Butterfly Garden,” Frank said.
“That leaves me splitting the dives with Granny,” Rina said.
Agent nodded. “You have your assignments, then,” he told them. “Get to it.”
* * * * * * * *
The Invisible Maze.
Haley and Eli, still trapped.
“Push the button,” came the robotic voice yet again.
Haley was really starting to hate that voice.
“I’m trying,” she growled, as Eli laughed at her. She spun to face him. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.
“You,” Eli said, still chuckling. “You’re yelling at a machine.”
“Oh, she knows what she’s done,” Haley said, shouting. Whether she was shouting at him, or the voice, or at the general situation, she wasn’t sure. “She knows exactly what she’s done! We’ve been at this for two hours now, and not only can I not figure out where we’ve gone wrong, but the only path I can seem to find leads us to the wrong wall!”
“Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of genius?” Eli asked, mocking her.
Haley took an angry breath. “I have an eidetic memory,” she said. “In this case, that means I can draw a map in my mind of where the walls we’ve found are. But no matter which way we go, it always leads us back to this one point – nowhere near the button!”
“And of course we can’t climb it,” Eli said, also frustrated. “We can’t see how high it is, but the sides are smooth, and apparently the top is out of jumping range.”
“It’s a stupid optical illusion,” Haley fumed, pounding her fist on the nearest invisible wall. “I don’t know how she’s doing it, but I swear, next time she shows that smug little holographic face…”
“You’ll beat up a kid?” Eli said. “Or will you just throw your fists through the air, since holograms don’t actually have bodies to hit?”
Haley pressed her lips together in annoyance. “You know,” she said, “you have a body I could hit. Maybe I’ll just take out my anger on you.”
“Idle threat,” Eli said, completely unconcerned. “You’d never hit me. It goes against that whole Asylum ‘holier-than-thou’ complex you’ve got.”
“Lucky you,” Haley said drily. She pounded her fist against the wall again.
Something suddenly occurred to her. She hit her fist against the wall again, but more thoughtfully than angrily this time. “The walls all lead back to this spot,” she muttered.
“Oh, gears finally turning in that rusty brain of yours?” Eli said.
“Are you trying to be annoying, or does it just come naturally to you?” Haley asked.
Eli shrugged, putting his hands behind his head. “It’s a gift,” he answered.
“Well, if you’d shut up for a minute, you might figure it out, too.” Haley walked over the metal wall, feeling the invisible one beside her as she went. “We’re still assuming that what we see matters,” she explained. “We can’t see the walls in the middle of the room…”
She put her hand on the metal wall, but met no resistance. Eli stared as her hand went through the wall. “So why would the walls on the edge of the room be real?” he finished.
Haley stepped through the holographic wall, coming into another room on the other side. This room glowed green, and the invisible walls reflected the light enough to be seen – though they were still sheer enough to see what was on the other side, at least now they showed up to the naked eye.
“Video game logic,” Haley muttered as Eli stepped through the wall behind her. “Rina’s much better at those.”
“Well, we’re not done yet,” Eli said. He clapped her on the shoulder, then walked ahead. There was a soft click as he stepped on a loose tile on the floor.
“Wait!” Haley cried, pulling him back.
Three knives flew in front of Eli’s face, where he would have been standing if Haley hadn’t stopped him. “Whoa,” he muttered, his eyes wide.
“Video game logic,” Haley repeated. “Rina’s always telling me that you have to be careful of traps in dungeons like this.”
“Noted,” Eli said, pulling his arm out of her grip. “So what do we do?”
“No idea,” Haley said, peering around through the green light. “I’m horrible at these kinds of games.”
The voice chose that moment to come back on. “Push the button.”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, Butterfly Garden.
Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.
“He lives here?” Shadow asked the groundskeeper, looking around at the field.
Butterfly Garden was a nature preserve on the edge of Eon City, where hundreds of butterflies nested. The air around them was moist, as the garden was kept at optimal conditions for the winged insects. The smell of the plants around them was unlike anything Shadow could smell in the city – the air was fresh, and the dew sparkled in the sunset.
The groundskeeper shrugged. “Eli often comes and helps out with the grounds,” he said. “So I let him kip out here when the weather’s nice, or in the main building when it’s not. He’s got a way with the butterflies, see – he moves like them, and he can walk into the middle of a flock without hurting any of them. It’s that Third Gen power of his, all kinds of useful.”
Shadow stopped gazing around the picturesque garden to look at the groundskeeper. “When was the last time he came here?” he asked.
“Few days ago,” the man said. “He’s a drifter, that one – he don’t hang around much. He just likes the butterflies, when he’s got no other place to go.”
“So he didn’t come here last night?” Shadow asked, his shoulders slumping slightly. The garden was a dead end.
“Nope,” said the groundskeeper. “Try the Essex Studio across town – he sometimes talks about going there.”
“Thanks,” Shadow said, turning away and turning on his com unit. “Butterfly Garden was a dead end. Any luck, guys?”
* * * * * * * *
Haley Prince, on her last nerve.
“Push the button,” said the robotic voice.
Haley started mocking it. “Push the button, push the button,” she said. “I know I have to push the freaking button – I’m just not sure how to get there!”
The floor was covered in hidden switches, and it seemed like every time they made some progress something would force them back. They were still a ways away from wherever the maze was leading them this time, and had already had to backtrack twice.
“I think we have to go through the choke point,” Eli said, citing a spot they had passed twice due to the size of the spinning blades shooting from the walls.
“And what, dance our way through?” Haley asked sarcastically. “Every time we try going there, it’s a close call.”
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Eli argued. “We’ve tried all of the other paths – the other walls are all solid!”
“I know, I know,” Haley said. “I just have a really bad feeling about that one.”
Eli shrugged. “Doesn’t that mean it’s the right path?” he asked. “Video game logic, remember?”
Haley rolled her eyes, but she led the way back to the choke point. There were two spinning buzzsaws moving quickly up and down the corridor, but they had already discovered that other traps were peppered along the way.
“On three?” Eli asked.
“Okay,” Haley said, a nervous feeling in her stomach. She hadn’t felt such a sinking feeling since her last Watcher license rejection. “One… two… three!”
She darted forward, keeping an eye peeled on the ground for the loose tiles that indicated a trap. Dodging the blades on the sides, she saw the first volley of arrows zip out of the wall in front of her with a SHUNK.
“Allow me, milady,” Eli said, coming up beside her and using a break in the saws to get in front. He tapped out a beat on his leg with his fingers, counting the time between arrow volleys. In rhythm, he said, “Three, two, one, now!” and pulled Haley forward. He stopped suddenly, allowing another volley to pass in front of him before pulling her again.
Five volleys later, they had made it to the other side. “That was incredible!” Haley said, looking at him in awe. “How did you know?”
“My Third Gen ability is hyper-proprioception,” Eli explained, grinning at the praise. “I know exactly where I am in regards to everything around me. It gives me excellent aim, and – more importantly – a really good sense of timing. Come on, let’s move.”
He took one step, straight onto a trap tile. A knife shot out of the wall, aimed straight at his head.
“Watch it!” Haley said, catching the blade just before it reached Eli’s head.
His eyes widened as he turned to see how close he had come to dying. “Thanks,” he said as Haley dropped the knife.
Haley swore. “I’m still in my clubbing clothes,” she muttered, looking down at her outfit as she held her hand away from her body. Blood began to well up in her palm from where she had gripped the edges of the blade.
“Afraid of getting a bit of blood on your pretty shirt?” Eli teased.
“No,” Haley said. “I just don’t have my first-aid supplies; they were in my purse, which I left in the club.” She shook her head, wincing as the blood in her hand began dripping onto the floor. “From now on, I’m not going anywhere without my utility belt.”
“Here,” Eli said, taking off his shirt and handing it to her. “Wrap it with that. Least I can do, since you saved my life and all.”
Haley took it, thanking him. She gripped one of the sleeves with the bleeding hand and wrapped the cloth tightly around it. “Well, it looks like we made it to the wall,” she said.
Eli picked the bloody knife up off the floor and slipped it into his pocket. “Never know when a weapon might come in handy,” he said. “No pun intended.”
“Ha ha,” Haley said dryly. “Let’s see what’s next.”
The two Watchers stepped through the wall into the next room, which was bathed in a red glow.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, Essex Studio.
Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.
“Trick here,” she said over the coms. “The studio is a bust, too. They haven’t seen Eli since yesterday morning.”
“Roger,” Agent told her. “You and Shadow check out the next bars on the list.”
“How are things on your end?” Trick asked him, getting onto her motorcycle and revving up the engine. “Any leads from your contacts?”
“No,” Agent sounded mad. “They are being purposefully vague in their answers. I think they know something, but they aren’t talking.”
Trick pressed her lips together as she drove off. “Want me to go kick their asses for you, Agent?” she asked.
“I’d love that, actually,” Agent admitted, “but it’s more than my job’s worth at this point. Did the studio tell you anything?”
“It’s a gymnastics studio,” Trick said. “Butterfly’s been a gymnast since he was a kid. Who knew?”
“The guy sleeps in a field of butterflies,” Shadow added over the coms. “At this point, I don’t think anything would surprise me about him.”
“Apparently he’s pretty good. He teaches gymnastics to kids in his spare time,” Trick said. “He’s got that in common with Haley, at least.”
“Haley isn’t in the Watcher business for the money, though,” Agent pointed out. Trick could hear the worry in his voice. “We still need to find her; if she isn’t back yet, then there’s something wrong.”
“We’ll find her,” Trick promised. In the silence that followed, she knew that Agent was remembering the day they found her mom. She might not get along with the Outlier, but Trick hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself.
* * * * * * * *
Haley and Eli, and a lot of fire.
“Something’s wrong,” Eli said, looking at Haley. “Why are you losing so much blood?” She had already re-wrapped the shirt twice, and it was nearly soaked through.
Haley looked down at it and grimaced. “My blood doesn’t clot,” she told him. “It’ll keep bleeding until I get to a first-aid kit.”
Her face appeared bright red in this room, reflecting the light around them. Eli couldn’t tell in the light, but he thought she looked paler than she had in the last room. “Hang on,” he said, counting the time for the next trap. “We’re almost through this one.”
“You know that for sure, huh?” Haley asked him. She had let him take the lead a while ago, as her head was starting to get fuzzy. “We could be going around in circles for all I know.”
“What happened to that eidetic memory of yours, huh?” Eli asked. “Shouldn’t you know where we are?”
Haley shook her head, stumbling. “I lost track after the last fire burst,” she admitted. “I could really use some water.”
The red room didn’t use blades and switches like the green room had done. Instead, flames shot in random patterns through the corridors. They could see the jets that would shoot the flames, which was a blessing – they could avoid getting burned, though the temperature in the room rose with each burst of fire. The main walls were still metallic – if they didn’t find their way through soon, they could be cooked alive.
Eli tried to wipe the sweat off his forehead, only to find that his hand was too wet to do any good. Haley was worse off – she was swaying, and her breathing was coming more heavily. The dry air burned, and he knew they needed more than water to make it through.
“We need to stop the bleeding,” he said. He began to shout to the air, “Hey, hologram lady! She needs medical attention if you want us to finish!”
“Push the button,” the voice repeated.
“She’s no help,” Haley said, shaking her head in an attempt to clear the dizziness. She began to unwrap the shirt from her hand. “If bandaging isn’t working, then I’m going to need to cauterize it,” she told Eli.
Confused, Eli asked, “What do you mean, ‘cauterize it’?” He looked back just in time to see Haley grab the metal base of a flame jet with her injured hand. “Hey!”
Haley gritted her teeth as the jet roared to life, keeping her head and torso as far away from it as possible. When the fire died, she pried her hand from the metal surface and cradled her arm. “Bleeding stopped,” she muttered, shivering in pain.
“Here, let me see,” Eli said, reaching for the injured hand. Her palm was charred, and her fingers were covered in blisters.
“I don’t even feel it,” Haley told him, smiling weakly.
“Yeah, because the nerves are fried,” Eli said.
Haley gingerly yanked her hand away from him. “I can function,” she said. “Stronger than a rhino, steady as a boulder. It was the fastest way.”
She pressed forward, Eli following closely behind her. “Now you aren’t bleeding to death,” he said. “You’re just cooking yourself. I got stuck with a masochist, and if she dies then I’m never getting out of here. That’s just great.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Haley asked. Her charred hand did one good thing – it took her mind off of the burning air.
“It means that this is your test,” Eli said angrily. “You have to be the one to push the freakin’ button.”
“And I will,” Haley said, shrugging. “Look, here’s the far wall.”
She reached her injured hand out to touch it, just in case they had reached one of the real metal walls; she couldn’t afford to burn her other hand. As the burned hand passed through, she turned back to give Eli a confident grin, even as her eyes watered in pain –
– and was pulled through by something on the other side.
* * * * * * * *
Agent, about ready to bust some heads.
“That’s the last one,” Granny said over the coms. “Roberta didn’t hear anybody talking about a missing Watcher.” She referred to her dragonfly, who allowed her to listen to multiple conversations at once.
“I got nowhere, too,” Nightmare said from her own location. “It’s another dead end.”
“Nobody’s seen or heard anything from Butterfly in the last two days,” Trick added. She and Shadow had finished checking the other bars on the list. “Any luck on your end, Agent?”
“Earthborn hasn’t found them in the tunnels,” Agent told them, “and my contact is still being dodgy. You four meet up back at headquarters; I’m going to meet them in person.”
“You could use some backup,” Nightmare pointed out. “We’ll go with you!”
“No,” Agent said. “It’ll go better if I’m alone. They’re not dangerous,” he added, just to put their minds at ease. He muted his com, banging a fist on the table next to him in frustration. He had spent the last five hours trying to contact anybody who might know where Butterfly had taken Haley, to no avail. Now there was only one person left to try – and he really hoped it was another dead end.
Agent went down to the motor pool and took his car out across the city. At this time of night, the roads were mercifully clear – he arrived at the dock warehouses in minutes. When he stepped out of the car, a hole ripped in the air in front of him.
“Jaunt,” Agent said, gripping his umbrella.
Jaunt stepped through the portal, looking around. “Pretty clandestine, don’t you think?” he asked. “Where’s your team?”
“I’m here alone,” Agent told him.
Jaunt chuckled. “That must be killing you,” he said, “to be meeting with me like this. Now, what did you want to talk to me about that needed such a dreary meeting place?” He looked around at the warehouses, wrinkling his nose at the fishy smell coming from the wharf.
“Stop playing around,” Agent said. “You’ve been ducking my call all evening. Don’t pretend you don’t know what this is about.”
“You’ve misplaced a teammate,” Jaunt said, smirking at him. “Or should I say, another teammate.”
He was trying to get a rise out of Agent, referring to Striker. When Agent worked with Team Ark, they had tried and failed to arrest Jaunt – and it had torn the team apart. Striker had vanished from the face of the earth that day, and the team couldn’t recover. It was Agent’s worst failure, and it had been entirely Jaunt’s fault.
Jaunt knew how Agent felt about him, and reminded him of it every time they met. Now with Haley missing, there was no doubt in Agent’s mind that Jaunt was behind it.
“Listen here,” Agent said, using his umbrella’s handle to drag the thief’s face close to his. “You know where Outlier is. You’re going to tell me right now.”
“Pretty touchy for an Agent, aren’t you?” Jaunt said, unconcerned. He didn’t even try to pull free of Agent’s grip. “I didn’t take the girl.”
“You know who did, then.” It wasn’t a question – Jaunt knew more than he was saying.
Gingerly, Jaunt pulled the umbrella handle away from his neck. “She was last seen with the mercenary, wasn’t she?” he asked, evading the question.
“Mercenaries are hired,” Agent said, swinging the umbrella back down to his side. “I want to know by whom.”
“We don’t always get what we want,” Jaunt told him sagely. He clapped his hands together, preparing to leave again. “Don’t worry about the girl,” he added once the portal was open. “If she survives, she’ll be returned to you.”
Agent caught Jaunt’s arm. “I’m not done yet,” he growled. “What do you mean ‘if she survives’?”
“She’s being tested,” Jaunt told him, shrugging. “That comes with some risk. But Outlier should have no problems with that, right?” he asked, smirking. “After all, you hand-picked her for your team. The human girl with the extraordinary willpower.”
Agent’s grip loosened for a second, and Jaunt yanked his arm free. He stepped through the portal before Agent could grab him again.
“Damn him,” Agent muttered, getting back into his car. If he didn’t need the thief…
But he did. That line of thought would get him nowhere, and Haley was still missing. He could only hope that they found her – or that she passed this “test” – before it was too late.
* * * * * * * *
Haley’s in trouble.
Haley kept her charred hand behind her as she faced off with her opponent. She barely registered Eli running through the wall behind her, keeping her eyes on the giant figure that had pulled her into the room.
This room was different from the others. Aside from the blue lighting, it was round instead of square, and it didn’t seem to have any maze walls, invisible or otherwise. The floor was covered in a small pool of clear water, coming up to Haley’s ankles. However, the biggest difference loomed in front of her: instead of traps, this room had –
“Is that a knight?” Eli asked, his eyes going wide.
“Boss fight,” Haley said. “Video game logic, remember?” The knight was in full armor, complete with sword – but it stood ten feet tall in the large chamber.
“At least this room has water,” Eli said weakly. “We have to fight that thing?”
Haley pointed towards the opposite end of the room with her good hand. Eli followed it, seeing a door on the other side that was covered in bars. “I’m guessing we have to subdue it,” she told him, grimacing as she tried to flex her injured hand behind her.
“You’re in no shape to fight,” Eli pointed out. “You’re injured, and you lost a lot of blood…”
“Yes, I’m aware,” Haley said, exasperated. “There’s got to be a trick to this room, just like everywhere else.”
Eli rolled his eyes. “I’m all ears,” he said.
The knight drew its sword, coming after them. Haley pushed Eli out of the way, then dove to the other side to avoid the knight’s swing. Luckily for her, the knight was slow and lumbering, as if it weren’t alive. She rolled to a stand, looking around for its next attack.
It had to have a weakness. Haley could try taking its sword, but strong as she was, she would never be able to wield it with one hand. There had to be another way – even if she just disarmed it, she had no way of knowing what would open the door in front of her.
The water seeped into her shoes, tripping her as she tried to dodge the knight’s next attack. Tripping saved her life – the knight sliced his sword through the air over her, and would have bisected her if she had been upright.
“What do we do?” Eli cried, rolling away from another swing of the giant sword.
Haley scrambled to her feet, wincing as she kicked something under the water. A loose tile! “Eli, there are switches in this room, too!” she called over. “I think we need to press them all.”
“Press the switches? Are you mad?” he called back, dodging another swing of the sword. “The last ones tried to kill us!”
“Just trust me, okay?” Haley said, stepping on the switch by her foot. “Find a switch!”
Eli shook his head in disbelief, but began feeling his way through the water for loose tiles. Haley, for her part, tried to keep the attention of the knight to give him space to move. Her clothes were soaked from falling into the water, and her pants felt like weights around her legs. Her breathing picked up again as her heart rate rose, and a wave of nausea washed over her as she narrowly avoided the knight’s sword.
“Haley!” Eli called, snapping her back into the moment just in time to dodge another hit. “Almost there!”
He stepped on two more switches, but Haley saw the problem: the final switch was at the knight’s feet. She braced herself, blinking the water out of her eyes as she forced herself to focus on the sword. Eli looked over, crying, “What the hell are you doing?!”
As the sword came down again, Haley dove forward towards the giant knight. She pressed the switch with her good hand, using her injured one to push off of the knight’s legs in the direction of the door.
The knight raised its sword again, but instead of swinging it at the pair it held it out in front of its sightless face. The bars in front of the door swiftly retracted into the floor with a shwoop.
Haley stumbled over to the door, meeting Eli there. Giving him a grin as he opened the door for her, she said, “We did it!”
Stepping through the door into the original room, her eyesight began to blur. She could tell that they were only a few feet away from the big red button now, and she stumbled towards it. Eli caught her injured arm, putting it around his shoulders to help her walk forward. “Come on, Outlier,” he said. “We’re right here; don’t quit now.”
Haley took a deep breath, taking it one step at a time. She couldn’t even speak, feeling as if she would puke if she opened her mouth. Her injured arm burned, and the rest of her body felt heavy. She reached out with her good arm, but she couldn’t see if it was touching the button; her eyes chose that moment to roll back into her head, and she gratefully passed out.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, outside of Asylum Headquarters.
Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.
Somebody was talking; that was the first thing Haley realized as she came to. “Hey, you did it,” Eli said. “Come on, Haley; you beat the test, and you pressed that stupid button. Don’t you dare die on me now. Come on, wake up.”
“‘M not gonna die,” she mumbled, opening her eyes. She saw Eli’s face staring down at her, but above him was a pinkish dawn sky. “We’re back?”
“Haley!” Eli said, grinning at her. “That was the stupidest, bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Raising an eyebrow hurt. “What?” she asked, trying to sit up.
“I got you into that mess,” he said. “I was as annoying as I could have possibly been, and you still caught that dagger for me. Then you burned the cut closed – which, frankly, I thought was both idiotic and the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. You figured out the puzzle in the knight room, and still managed to press the button at the end.” He shook his head as he summed up the adventure. “I’ve never seen anybody keep their cool like that.”
“You weren’t so bad yourself,” Haley said, finally managing to prop her arms on her legs to keep from laying down on the sidewalk. It was still early enough that nobody was around, but she would rather avoid the awkward questions if anybody had seen her. “You figured out the pattern to the knives and the fire.”
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t supposed to do that,” Eli said, then bit his lip. At Haley’s questioning – but not surprised – expression, he admitted, “I was paid to hold you back. I was supposed to insult you, and basically be as annoying as possible to keep you from focusing.”
“Makes sense,” Haley said. She looked around and saw the familiar doors of Asylum Headquarters. “I need to get in there,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I missed both practice and my patrol yesterday.” She didn’t try to move from her sitting position yet, though. Her head was pounding, and her stomach still threatened to rebel at the first sign of movement.
“You need help,” Eli said. “You’re injured, anemic, and you’re talking about missing work.”
Haley looked down at her hand, wincing as she saw the injury. The blisters weren’t as bad as they had looked in the fire room, but the charring around the wounds kept her from flexing it fully. “Meh,” she shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”
Eli gave a surprised laugh. “You’ve had worse than that?” he asked, disbelieving.
“My brother once dislocated my shoulder while breaking my arm in three places when we were sparring,” she told him.
“Ah.” Eli obviously didn’t know what to say to that. He was saved responding when a flash of blue light appeared next to them.
Ayu still looked like a smiling alien kid, but she spoke with the same grown woman’s voice that had kept repeating “push the button” on the ship. “You gave us excellent data,” she said. “Haley Prince, you exhibited more of the qualities we are looking for in our candidates. You are still incomplete, but you show promise.”
“So you’re talking now, are you?” Haley asked, moving as if to stand up. The world spun around her with the motion, so she elected to remain sitting.
“My voice functions better in the atmosphere of a planet,” Ayu said. “On the ship, it echoes loudly, and some species have difficulty understanding. I wanted to be sure you understood the parameters of the test; for that reason, I kept vocal instructions to a minimum.”
“I passed your test,” Haley said. “What else do you want?”
“She’s injured,” Eli added. “Can’t you do something?”
“She will live,” Ayu said, looking Haley up and down. “Her own doctor will be able to treat her injuries with minimal scarring.”
Haley blinked. “Well, that’s something,” she said. “So why are you still here?”
“I have been tasked with testing the heroes of your planet,” Ayu explained. “I have delegated this task for too long; now I must begin to take a more active role. I wish to inform you that you are still incomplete; however, you show promise. We will see whether you have been completed in two years; in the meantime, I will continue to test the other possible candidates from this world.”
“Why?” Haley asked. “What happens in two years?”
“The Gamemaster will arrive,” Ayu said simply. She didn’t elaborate, but turned to Eli. “The agreed upon sum has been deposited in your bank account. Thank you for your service.”
“No problem,” Eli said, giving Haley a guilty look. “Let’s not do this again, okay?”
“I will not require your services again for some time,” Ayu told him. She nodded first at Eli, then at Haley in some kind of farewell, and then disappeared in another flash of light.
Haley leaned back, laying back down on the sidewalk. If she had trouble sitting up, then standing was probably out of the question. “I think I’ll take a quick nap before going in,” she muttered. “It’s been a long day.”
“Wonder what that ‘Gamemaster’ thing is that’s coming in two years,” Eli mused.
“You don’t know?” Haley asked.
Eli shrugged. “They paid me to do a job. I did it,” he said. He stretched his arms for a minute, then got to his feet. “Anyways, I’d better get going before your friends come down. Trick and Shadow wouldn’t be too happy to see me.”
Haley reached an arm up to him, and he pulled her to her feet. The world still spun around her, but she managed to stay upright. Eli helped her to the doorway of the tower, then turned around and walked away.
“Eli,” Haley called after him. He turned back, stopping on the sidewalk. “Thanks,” Haley said.
Eli gave her a deep, mocking bow. “Any time, milady,” he said with a grin. Then he turned around and walked away.
Haley watched him leave for a minute before pressing the building’s buzzer. The security guard at the front desk hurried to let her in, catching her before she could fall through the open door. “Outlier!” he said, obviously startled to see her. “What happened? Everybody’s been looking for you all night!”
Haley gave him a sheepish smile. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said.
* * * * * * * *