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…

* * * * * * * *

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 #7 – Polar Opposites

Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.

Jaunt, AKA the guy behind everything.

I’m Hatter, by the way.  Not that you asked.

Rude.

Alice Winters looked out over the desolate landscape, wondering why she was here.  The air was dense, difficult to breathe, and everything seemed covered in a sea-blue hue.  It was an arid wasteland, with columns reminiscent of Ancient Greece.

“Rome,” said Alice.

There was nobody around her.

“I’m talking to you, idiot,” she said, crossing her arms.  “The columns are closer to Roman, not Greek. Greek columns are thicker, and didn’t have the ridges.”

Wait, are you talking to me?

“Yes, you,” Alice said.  “And enough of this ‘Alice’.  People call me ‘the Hatter’; it’s more fitting.”

How are you doing this?

“It’s my Third Gen power,” Alice Hatter explained.  “I can talk to the narrator.  I also have some limited powers of narration, myself.”

What do you mean, ‘powers of narration’?

“You’ll see,” Hatter said slyly, putting a knowing finger next to her nose.  “Later this issue. Anyways, Jaunt’s almost here.”

Sure enough, a man stepped out of the shadows to address Hatter.  “Who are you talking to?” he asked.

“Nobody important,” Hatter said.

Thanks a lot.

The man shrugged, used to her oddities.  “Are you ready?” he asked.

“Ready to take on members of the Asylum because you want to ‘test’ them again?” Hatter asked him, “Or ready to pull off a heist and intentionally stick around for the Asylum guys to find me?”

“I know it’s not your usual method,” Jaunt said, “but it’s necessary.”

Hatter scoffed.  “If you say so,” she said.  “I hear Jorge’s sister is still in Zatvor prison, despite your ability to get her out.  But what do I know?”

“Not that it’s your business,” Jaunt said, “but plans have been made to extract Skadi when the time is right.  She’s still recovering from surgery, after all.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Hatter said.  “So she’s not useful to you yet.  I get how it works.” She clapped her hands together and rubbed them expectantly.  “Are we going to do this or what?”

Jaunt raised an eyebrow.  “Sure,” he said. “Shall I get the door for you?”

“Please,” Hatter said, missing the sarcasm.  Jaunt smirked and clapped his hands together.  When he pulled them apart, a rip opened in the air leading to Eon City’s museum.  “Thank you,” Hatter said. “This shouldn’t take long.”

She stepped through the portal, and it closed behind her.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum HQ, training center.

The team is at it again.

“Stop getting in my way!” Reiki growled, pushing past Shadow for the fifteenth time that training session.

“I wouldn’t get in your way if you told me where you were going,” Shadow said, jumping and pulling himself up onto a beam overhead.  “Or, you know, communicated anything. At all.”

“I am communicating!” Reiki shouted back to him, already moving on to the next part of the obstacle course.  “You need to listen better!”

“Can you two stop bickering for two seconds?” Outlier asked, jumping up to Shadow’s perch and following Reiki forward.  “I swear, if I have to do this same course for an eighth time because of you two…”

“To be fair,” Trick said, passing her, “the fifth time was your own fault.”  She whipped out a scarf, tossing it over a beam overhead to help her balance.  “You’re the one who fell.”

“Floor is lava,” Shadow nodded sagely, jumping to the next beam.  “Gotta move carefully.”

“Says the guy who ruined the last run by stopping to argue,” Outlier shot back.  She jumped to the next beam as the one she had been standing on suddenly retracted into the wall.

Outlier passed Trick again, racing to catch up with Reiki.  The goal of their “Floor is Lava” training was to make it across the training room floor without touching the ground – it was harder than it sounds, as the beams in the room kept rotating and disappearing.  If they paused for too long, they would be dropped onto the floor.

The atmosphere in the room was sweltering, which also affected their judgement.  Because Agent had a wicked sense of humor, a hologram on the floor made it look to the team as if they really were above a pit of lava.  He had also raised the temperature of the room to a hundred degrees, which didn’t help their attitudes or their tempers.

“We need to work together,” Outlier added, coming up next to Reiki.  “This is supposed to be a team exercise.”

“Oh lighten up,” Trick said.  “Why are you always so serious?”

“Why don’t you ever take these drills seriously?” Outlier argued.  “We’re supposed to be training to be heroes. This kind of stuff could be life-and-death some day.”

“Right,” Trick said.  “Because one day we might find ourselves dangling over a pit of lava, having to race to the top as our means of escape suddenly disappears.”  She shook her head. “That’s totally gonna happen.”

“Guys?” Shadow said.  “Maybe we should – ”

The beams fell out from under all of them, and all four hit the ground.

“And that’s it for match seven,” Agent said tiredly over the loudspeaker.  “You guys weren’t getting anywhere fast on your own, and we have a call to answer.”

“Where are the others?” Trick asked, wincing as she stood up.  They had fallen down at least fifteen feet, and as humans Trick and Outlier didn’t have powers to cushion their fall.  The floor was matted, and she had landed in a roll to disperse the energy of the fall – years of parkour practice had made that second nature.  “Nightmare, Earthborn, and Granny? I thought Earthborn was out on patrol.”

“Earthborn found a problem with the bridge that he’s busy fixing, and I deployed Nightmare and Granny for another call while you four were on attempt number four.”  Agent crossed his arms. “I’d rather not use all four of you, considering that performance, but reports are saying this one’s big.” He pulled out his data pad and looked at it.  “And weird,” he added. “People are saying that the Eon City museum exhibits are coming to life.”

“Coming to life?” Outlier repeated.  She had crashed to the floor in a break-fall, protecting her head but otherwise taking the hit.  Years of rough-and-tumble sparring with her satyr brothers had toughened her against most blows.

“Sounds like that one old movie we saw that time,” Shadow said.  He had used his shadow-bending powers to make a cushion to land on, rolling off it in a similar fashion to Trick’s parkour roll.  Reiki didn’t say anything, but used his light-bending powers to help him float down from the fall.

“Yes, exactly,” Agent said.  “So get to it.”

The four, already in uniform from training, ran to the helipad on the roof.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum.

Hatter again.  Hi.

“They are really taking their time in getting here,” Hatter said aloud, watching the chaos unfold around her as she stood on an empty pedestal in the center of the main hall.  An elephant tiptoed around an old lady, while a gaggle of cavemen ogled at the sparkling jewels in the Natural History displays.

In her right hand, she held a small, grey bag filled with what looked like gravel.  It was much more than that, though; it came from –

“Oh, get to the point already!” Hatter cried.  “I stole an exhibit called ‘Stardust’, which my client told me to pick up while I’m here.  Now I’m waiting around for those Asylum guys to get around to catching me.”

Fine, then.  Why did you bring the exhibits to life?

“Because I’m bored,” she said.  “I’d been waiting for an hour, and the sucky security around here didn’t even notice that the Stardust was missing!  Honestly, it’s the easiest heist I’ve ever pulled, and on this one I’m being paid to wait around for the Watchers. I had to do something to get their attention.”

Seems like overkill.  Is that a buffalo on a skateboard?

“Bison,” Hatter said.  “He seemed so disappointed that there’s no grazing; I had to give him something fun to do while we wait.”

Sure.  Makes sense.

“Don’t get snippy,” Hatter chided.  “He’s having much more fun riding that thing around than the moose did.”

And the whale?

Hatter shrugged.  “He needed to float to move.  I just made it so he could float through the air.”  She gave a satisfied sigh as she looked at her handiwork.  “This’ll confuse them plenty. Hey, narrator – when do you think the heroes’ll get here?”

They should be arriving any minute.  We wouldn’t have started the scene now if they weren’t coming.

“Good.”  Hatter jumped down from her pedestal, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.  “This oughta be fun. Maybe I could speed it up.” She cleared her throat, then said in a deep, booming, echoing voice, “Trick, Shadow, Outlier, and Reiki chose that moment to arrive.

Oh, that’s what you meant by ‘powers of narration’.

Sure enough, the four heroes came through the museum entrance, staring at the chaos surrounding them.

“Is that a dinosaur with a laser?” Shadow asked, adjusting his goggles in awe.

“Brachiosaur,” Reiki confirmed, his eyes wide.  “With a laser.”

“Oh good, you’re here!” Hatter said, skipping over to where the heroes were waiting.  “I’ve been waiting long enough.” They saw a girl, probably still a teenager, dressed in a tailcoat and fishnet stockings.  She wore a large top hat, cocked to one side, and looked rather mad.

Natalie shook her head, the first to remember why they were there.  “Who are you, and why did you bring the museum pieces to life?”

“More importantly, how did you bring them to life?” Outlier asked.  “I’ve never seen a Third Gen power like this before.”

Hatter shrugged.  “I have some powers of narration,” she said.  “I don’t expect you to understand; there’s only one other character in this story who could, and we haven’t seen her since the first trailer because she’s so incredibly shy.”  She walked over to the heroes, shaking each of their hands in turn. “My name’s Hatter. It’s so nice to finally meet you; I’ve heard so much about you all!”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” Outlier said uncertainly.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Trick said.  “Why are you here, and what did you do to the museum exhibits?”

“Well, that’s a bit of a long story,” Hatter told them, “and a lot of it would spoil the ending of this season, so I’ll just give you the footnotes: I just stole something, and since nobody noticed I’d stolen it I decided to cause a little chaos to get your attention.”

“What?” Shadow asked, nonplussed.  “We’re going to need some more details.”

“The important question here is how are you going to stop me?” Hatter asked.  “Tell you what: you guys try to hit me, and if you manage to tap me before I escape, I’ll come quietly.”

Trick didn’t wait; she immediately lunged at Hatter.  Hatter danced to the side, laughing, while Trick growled her frustration.  “Stand still, you little – ”

“I got this,” Reiki said, his hands glowing with his power.

“Oh, you didn’t wait to hear the rest!” Hatter said.  “Reiki and Shadow suddenly switched powers.

Light burst forth from Shadow’s hands as Reiki tried to attack.  Reiki pulled his hands back, pulling shadows with them. “Hey, what the hell?” he shouted, waving his arms around.  The more he moved, the more he became a smudge of shadow in the middle of the room.

“What did you do to us?” Shadow cried, trying to turn the light on his hands off by shaking them.

“Don’t worry too much; it’ll wear off as soon as you catch me – however long that takes,” Hatter said, jumping back up on her pedestal.

Trick pulled a handkerchief from one of her uniform’s pockets.  “Don’t think that’ll stop me,” she said. Outlier began running at Hatter as well.

“Oh, you two are no fun,” Hatter said.  “So obvious. You don’t have Third Gen powers like the boys, so I guess I’ll have to be more creative.”  Just before the two Watchers reached her, Hatter said, “Trick and Outlier suddenly found themselves in the other’s body.

Outlier tripped, ramming the pedestal head-first, while Trick suddenly sneezed as the glitter in her handkerchief flew everywhere.

Hatter sighed, hopping down again and shaking her head.  “Look at them,” she said. “So confused. I ought to give them a chance to acclimate.”

You could always change them back.

“Where’s the fun in that?” Hatter said.  “Like I said, they’ll change back if they catch me.  I’ll even make it a narration if you like.” She cleared her throat and said, “Everything will change back to normal as soon as the heroes catch the Hatter.

Now what will you do?

“I’ll give them a day,” Hatter said.  “Hey, heroes: I’ll meet you back here tomorrow at the same time.  We’ll continue our little game then.”

Hatter walked out of the museum, leaving a trail of chaos in her wake.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Dale’s lab.

Ain’t I a stinker?

“I hae ne’er seen a Third Gen power quite like this afore,” Dale said, his accent thickening in shock as he finished his examinations.

“How bad is it?” Agent asked, gripping his umbrella with white knuckles.  He had never faced an enemy that could knock four of his team members out of commission at once – even when his last team fell apart, they had never lost more than two members at a time.

Dale shrugged.  Agent glared at him, so he added, “I cannae say.  Reiki seems to be pulling shadows around himself,” he gestured to a smudge on one table, then to Shadow on the next.  “Frank’s got light-bending powers, and cannae turn ‘em off. And Natalie and Haley seem to have each other’s mem’ries.  I cannae make heads or tails of it.”

Agent went to Natalie’s bedside.  “Nat?” he asked.

“Over here,” came Natalie’s attitude out of Haley’s mouth.  She was holding an ice pack to her head and scowling in a very un-Haley-like way.  “I don’t know what that bitch did to us, but the second I see her again I’m gonna tear that stupid hat off her head and make her eat it.”

That’s definitely Nat, Agent thought, moving over to her.  Haley, in Natalie’s body, sat up and pulled her knees to her chest.  She looked thoughtful, and wasn’t scowling or angry – which meant it was definitely Haley in there.

“She said she’d be back at the museum the same time tomorrow,” Haley said.  “She also said that whatever this is will wear off as soon as we catch her – and that if we can just touch her, she’ll come quietly.”

“Oh, I’m gonna touch her alright,” Natalie growled.  “I’m gonna shove my boot so far up her – ”

“The question is,” Haley continued as if Natalie hadn’t spoken, “how are we going to catch her like this?  No offense Natalie, but you’re kind of puny – I feel weaker than I’ve ever felt in my life. My usual approach won’t work here.”

“You think I want to be a clumsy giant?” Natalie asked.  “These meaty fingers of yours couldn’t grip one of my cards without crushing it.  Not to mention that my coat won’t fit your mannish shoulders.” She raised her eyebrows at her own body.  “Offense meant, by the way,” she added.

“At least you guys don’t have powers,” Frank said.  “Reiki, how the hell do I turn this off?”

“I could probably tell you if I could see anything,” Reiki said sullenly.  “I’m stuck here, blind in the dark abyss of solitude, and hearing you guys talk is the only reason I’m not panicking.”

Frank rolled his eyes.  “Look at your hands,” he instructed.  “If you feel that fluffy stuff, that’s the shadows.  Just push it away, like swimming through cotton balls.”

Reiki was quiet for a minute, but this time when he moved his arms he emerged from the shadows.  “… Thanks,” Reiki said. “To turn the light off, you have to think about dimming light. Think of any sad memory you can.”

“Okay, how about when I found out my mom had been shot?” Frank asked, closing his eyes.  “I didn’t know how bad it was, or if she was going to live – I was so scared…” The light turned off from his hands.  “I wanted to find the bastard that shot her, and – ”

“Wait!” Reiki cried, but it was too late.  The lab shook as the air in front of Frank exploded.

He coughed, blinking.  “What did I do?” he asked.

“Anger makes explosions,” Reiki explained.  “Other emotions mixed in makes them different colors.  That one was blue, which meant sadness or fear.”

Haley looked over at him through Natalie’s eyes.  “So when you do fireworks shows in the park…?” she asked.

“I can manipulate my own emotions to make it do what I want,” Reiki said.  “I’ve had those powers since I was born; I grew up learning how to control them.  Now Frank has to do in a day what took me a lifetime?”

“I never really use my own powers,” Frank pointed out, looking at Agent.  “Except for the occasional prank or sulk, I’ve lived mostly like a human. How are we going to fix this?”

Agent pursed his lips.  “By training,” he said, “just like anything else.  Natalie, you show Haley how you fight, and Haley, you teach Natalie some of your skills.  Reiki and Frank, you two work together until you both have those powers under control.” He turned and gestured to the others to follow.  “You guys will have to work together, whether you like it or not. Now you’re under a time limit.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum training floor, three hours later.

Good luck, guys.

“Ouch!” Haley cried, sucking on her finger.  “What do you do, sharpen the edges?”

She had just gotten cut trying to throw Natalie’s playing cards at a target ten feet away.  So far, she had managed to hit the target once – and the card didn’t even wedge into the wood, like Natalie made them do.

“In my belt, there’s a vial – give it to me,” Haley said, pointing at Natalie.  “Quick!”

“Relax,” Natalie said.  “It’s just a paper cut. It’ll stop in a second.”

Haley took the cut out of her mouth, staring at it in astonishment as the blood clotted.  “Whoa,” she said. “You heal fast.”

“No faster than anybody else,” Natalie shrugged.  “That’s what people mean when they tell you that you heal slowly, you know.”

“Huh.”  Haley said, flexing Natalie’s hand experimentally.  “I never realized.”

Natalie clenched a fist.  “You still wouldn’t have had to realize if you’d hold the cards carefully,” she chided.  “The edges have metal inlaid, which yes, I do sharpen. Be careful!”

“Hey, it’s bad enough that you can’t fight hand-to-hand worth a damn,” Haley said.  They had just come from the sparring ring, where Natalie tripped over herself at least ten times in the past hour.  “If I can’t even figure out how you do fight, then neither of us are getting our own bodies back.”

“You have to be quick,” Natalie told her.  “Rabbit moves – never let them see you coming.  You take a card, and…” She demonstrated, hitting the target in the uppermost ring.

Haley tried, but her movements were stunted.  “How the hell do you move in this thing?” She asked, pulling a wedgie from Natalie’s outfit.  “It’s so tight!” She tried bending her elbow, but the sleeves wouldn’t let her bend very far.

“Better than this thing,” Natalie said, picking at Haley’s lack of sleeves.  “You’re so exposed! With your bleeding problem, I’d think you’d want to be more covered.”

Haley shook her head, walking over to her body.  In a sudden movement – more sudden than she intended, in fact – she punched Natalie in the arm.

“Hey!” Natalie said angrily, before she realized what Haley was showing her.  “That didn’t hurt.”

“I’ve been taking hits from a four-hundred-pound gorilla-satyr my whole life,” Haley pointed out.  “Anything less than being hit by a car doesn’t hurt all that much. Though you do have to watch for the bruising,” she added.  “I’ve learned to handle the blood thing, but bruises last for months and cuts don’t heal without help.”

“Noted,” Natalie said.  “How’s your aim coming?”  Haley threw another card, managing to hit the target again – but not with the sharp edge of the card.  Natalie rolled her eyes. “No, like this.” She picked up another card, holding it delicately by the corner.  In one swift motion, she flicked it at the target, where one corner remained wedged in the wood.

“Maybe you’d better hold onto these,” Haley sighed, handing the cards to her.  “You don’t know how to throw a proper punch, but you still have your aim. I’m going to be useless tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Natalie said, taking them.  “Hey, you still know a bunch of fighting styles, right?” she asked.  Haley nodded (which was still disconcerting to see on her own face). “Do any use speed instead of strength to hit hard?  I’m pretty fast.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” Haley said.  “It’s like being fifty pounds lighter lets you move faster.”  She thought for a second back to her training in the gym. “I’ve been focusing on a hard-hitting style for years now, to use my height and weight to my advantage,” she said, “but when I was a kid Andy taught me some Aikido.”  She looked back at Natalie. “If I can remember it, that might work for me!”

“Glad to see you two have it figured out,” Frank said dryly.

“Any progress on your side?” Natalie asked him.

Reiki just growled as Frank answered, “Well, Reiki’s not covered in shadows.  That’s something.”

“I haven’t heard an explosion in nearly an hour,” Haley pointed out.  “That’s an improvement.”

“I’m too tired to be mad about anything,” Frank said, his eyelids half-shut.  “Right now, I’m just exhausted.”

“Maybe we should take a break,” Reiki suggested.  “That is, if you can stop feeling emotions for any length of time.”

“Hey, why don’t you – ” The air in front of Frank exploded again, although this time it was a much smaller boom.

“Thought so,” Reiki said, smirking at him.  A stray shadow came up around his face, but he swatted it away.  “You know, if you could get control of your emotions, you might find a better use for your power, too.”

Frank crossed his arms.  “Like what?” he asked.

“Like this.”  Reiki began plucking shadows out of the air and arranged them in front of himself, until they formed a smiley face in mid-air.

“Shadow art,” Frank said.  “How original.” He held his hands up and shut his eyes, concentrating.  Multi-colored lights burst from his fingertips until he had a rainbow in front of him.

“Better,” Reiki said, nodding.  “Now, can you turn it off?”

Frank concentrated again, and the light slowly dimmed.

“Progress, I guess,” Natalie said, flipping another playing card at the target.  “At least these giant fingers can hold the cards without crushing them.”

“Do you have to do that?” Haley asked.

“What?” Natalie flipped another card over her shoulder, hitting the outside ring of the target.  “In my own body, I can get a bull’s-eye every time without even trying. Now I’m five inches off, because this lumbering, giant body is five inches taller.  Five inches makes a huge difference when you’re throwing sharp objects, you know.”

“You keep calling me ‘giant’ and ‘lumbering’,” Haley said.  “I’m an athlete – my body is mostly muscle, and a heck of a lot more flexible than yours.  Why do you have to insult it at every turn?”

“Because it’s not what I’m used to,” Natalie said, shrugging.  “My style is light, quick, and short movements. If I take too long, the enemy can see my tricks coming a mile away.”

Haley put her hands on her hips, looking more like Natalie than she had all day with her glare.  “Well, it’s insulting. My style is straight-forward, beat them into submission. No fancy moves, no running around, and no cheating.”

“It’s not cheating,” Natalie protested.  “It’s using my skills to my advantage. I didn’t have a gym trainer and a gorilla-satyr; I had my brother and my dad, who are both bird-satyrs.  Dad taught me how to use street illusions, and Parker helped me develop them for combat.” She folded her arms, looking more Haley-ish than she had all day.  “It’s unnerving to have to run straight at someone.”

“Maybe instead of trying to use each other’s moves, you guys can come up with combo moves together,” Frank suggested.  “Haley’s got that Aikido thing, and Natalie can still use her cards, so why not figure something else out?”

“What about you and Reiki, huh?” Natalie shot back.  “Instead of relying so much on your powers – which you never did anyways – why don’t you guys practice your hand-to-hand?”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Haley said, nodding at Reiki.  “I know we don’t get along, but maybe if we work together – ”

“Hate to disappoint you, princess, but that’s never been our strong suit,” Reiki said.

Frank took a deep breath, trying to hold back another explosion.  “Maybe if you communicated better in the field – ”

“I do communicate!” Reiki growled.  “Haley there’s the only one who ever listens!”  He gestured first at Natalie, then at Haley.

Haley raised a hand.  “He does communicate,” she says.  “He goes first, and expects you to do what he does.  That doesn’t mean I agree with it,” she pointed out to Reiki, who looked smug.  “You still need to learn to vocalize your thoughts more. We shouldn’t have to keep our eyes on you as well as our surroundings.  But yeah, he does advertise his moves.”

Frank just looked at her.  “I’ve been training with him for nearly two years, and you picked that up in a couple of months?”

“I was new,” she said.  “My instinct was to see what he did.  Still cost us time while I figured it out.”

Frank looked back over at Reiki.  “Okay, fine,” he said. “Now that I know what to look for, let’s go train.”

“Hey, yogi,” Natalie said, nudging Haley in the arm.  “We still need to work on our moves.”

“Okay then,” Haley said.  “Let’s get to it.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum, the next day.

About time, amiright?

“They try so hard,” Hatter said, shaking her head as she looked around the museum.  The chaos from the day before still ran rampant, despite the obvious measures taken to contain it.  The police had rounded up the moose, the bisen, and the Neanderthals, but they couldn’t contain the whale, which still floated lazily above everyone’s heads.

“They took the bisen’s skateboard,” Hatter pointed out.  “That was just mean. He looks so sad now.”

You could always give him another one.

“No point,” said Hatter, hopping back up on her pedestal.  “The heroes should be here any minute. I take it they were training?”

Most of the night.  They’re pretty tired, but they should give you a challenge.

“Good,” Hatter said, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.  “Let’s speed this up, then, shall we?”

You want to do the honors?

“By all means,” Hatter said.  She cleared her throat and added, “Trick, Outlier, Shadow, and Reiki entered the museum.

The four heroes ran through the door, ready to take on their opponent.  Hatter greeted them with a smile. “Welcome back!” she said cheerily. “I trust the rematch will be more entertaining than the first round?”

“Change us back!” Natalie shouted, glaring at her.

Haley added, “Enough games.  Return everything to normal!”

“Or what?” Hatter asked, her voice silky.  “You’ll throw some playing cards at me?” She batted her eyelashes, grinning.

“No, but I will,” Natalie said.  She gripped her cards delicately with Haley’s hands and threw three in a row.

Hatter danced aside, hopping off her pedestal as the cards flashed beside her.  “Ooh, much better!” she said. She flipped her top hat off her head and rolled it down her arm, easily dodging as Shadow came at her from the left.

Another figure flashed beside Shadow.  Reiki had hidden himself in Shadow’s shadow, nearly hitting Hatter with a haymaker.  “Little too slow,” Hatter taunted as she jumped backwards. She nearly missed Natalie coming up from behind.

“Oh, thanks for the warning!” Hatter said, ducking under Natalie’s punch just in time.  She dove to her free side…

Right into Haley’s waiting embrace.

Haley moved in, knocking one of Hatter’s arms aside in a half-remembered Aikido move that she had practiced all night.  Grabbing Hatter in a headlock, Haley threw her to the ground.

“Uncle, uncle!!” Hatter cried.  “You got me!”

“Rules are rules,” Haley said.  “Change everything back and come quietly.”

“Fine, okay, sure,” Hatter said.  “Everything then changed back to normal.”  She gave a sigh.  “Thanks for the heads-up,” she added.

I can’t give away everything.  They are the heroes, after all.

“True,” Hatter said, raising her eyebrows in a resigned manner.

The commotion around them stopped as the exhibits turned back into inanimate objects.  Reiki began to glow, then got a hold of his powers and turned them off. “I’m back!” he cried.

“So am I!” said Shadow, drawing a smiley face in the air with his powers and grinning.  “Are the girls…?”

Hatter had her head slammed into the ground again.  “Yep, we’re back to normal,” Haley said from her own body.

Natalie gave Shadow a half-smile.  “Had to be done,” she said, standing up now that Hatter was unconscious.  “Let’s get a muzzle on her, just to be sure.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

I’m gonna go lie down now.

Narrator can take it from here.

“Hatter is in lockup,” Agent said.  “The guards have instructions to keep her muzzled at all times unless she’s eating.  If she tries to say anything then, knock-out gas will immediately fill the room.

“Good riddance,” Natalie said, stretching her arms out.  “Feels good to be back!”

Agent smiled.  “We did manage to interrogate her, by having her write her answers,” he said.  “She admitted to stealing the stardust, and delivering it to her employer. She wouldn’t say who her employer is past his street handle – ‘Jaunt’.”

“Wait,” said Shadow.  “That’s the one…”

“Jaunt is the villain that Team Ark was trying to take down when they fell apart,” Agent finished grimly.  “There were a lot of issues there to begin with, but he knew how to exploit every single one of them.”

“So what’s our move?” Haley asked.

“For now, we keep protecting the city,” Agent told them.  “Jaunt can open portals anywhere on Earth at will. We don’t know where he makes his base, so we’ll have to stay alert and look for more leads.”  He smiled at the group, though he couldn’t hide the shadows under his eyes. “You guys did good,” he said. “That was excellent teamwork. Keep it up!”

With that, he went to the elevator and left the team to themselves.

“Jaunt,” Shadow spat.  “My mom got shot chasing that guy.”

“I wonder what he meant by ‘Jaunt exploited Team Ark’s issues’,” Haley mused.  “The papers back then reported that Team Ark disbanded, but they didn’t give any details.”

Shadow jumped into one of the cushioned chairs around the living area.  “I don’t know it all, either,” he admitted. “All I know is that after Lyta was killed,” he nodded at Natalie, who tensed at her mom’s codename, “The team had a bit of bad blood in it.  Dad once mentioned that Striker had been challenging his leadership. Sparrow was Striker’s little sister and followed him everywhere, and Marauder closed himself off from the group.”

“That’s why that night hit Casey so hard,” Natalie continued, her voice soft.  “Casey – Sparrow – had the power to see the future. She knew what was coming, and she couldn’t stop it.”

“If I had to guess,” Frank continued, “I’d say Jaunt played on her fears, on Marauder’s cageyness, and on Striker’s beef with my dad.  With all of that, they’d have fallen apart in an instant.”

“That’s why Agent keeps after us about teamwork,” Reiki said, “right?”

“And why I was so pissed at him for keeping Parker’s mission from me,” Natalie added.  “You’d think he’d know better than to keep secrets from his team after all that.”

“We still don’t know a thing about this Jaunt guy,” Frank said, pulling shadows around himself like a blanket.  “I’m willing to bet Agent knows more than he let on, but he won’t tell us.”

“Come on, guys,” Haley said with a nervous giggle.  “He’d tell us if we needed to know, right?”

“If he thinks we need to know,” Reiki corrected her darkly.

They all sat in silence for a minute before Haley broke it.  “Well, this is depressing,” she said. “Speculating will get us nowhere, and my mom sent cookies from her bakery.”

Frank perked up.  “Cookies?” he asked.  “I heard cookies.”

Haley laughed, and the tension in the room was broken.  “Come on, they’re in the kitchen,” she said, grinning. The team followed her, and they started chatting about more mundane things.  While the mood was lifted, the question remained in the back of their minds:

Who was this Jaunt person, and what was his endgame?

* * * * * * * *