Issue #12 – Butterfly Net

Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.

The timetable is accelerating.

“He said we had two Earth years,” Jaunt said, glaring from behind his dust mask.  “He promised!” The dry desert air chafed his exposed forehead, but he was too focused on his current problem to bother putting on a hat.

The blue-tinged hologram he addressed smiled pleasantly at him.  “He did not lie. He will arrive in two years, two weeks, five days, four hours, two minutes – ”

“Then why are you taking over?” Jaunt demanded.  “I promised to have a candidate ready, and I meant that I would find one!”

“There is a candidate we have scouted,” the hologram said.  “We simply intend to test them. They are currently incomplete, but show an indication of aptitude for the prerequisites.”

Jaunt rolled his eyes.  “And exactly what ‘aptitude’ are you talking about?” he asked.  “If they don’t meet your standards, then why bother?”

“Humans have shown a resilience, particularly this one,” the hologram said.  “They adapt easily, and can be molded to fit the standard if they show the proper aptitude.  Based on your current reports, this one seems promising.”

“So you’re just going to take over now, is that it?” Jaunt demanded.  “I have done more than a decade’s worth of research for you, trying to find the best candidate, and you just take a random kid?”

“The selection was hardly random,” the hologram said, still giving Jaunt that annoying, mechanical smile.  “We have received your data on the team known as ‘The Asylum’, and made a preliminary hypothesis about one of the members.  Given the data provided, we think she will be an excellent candidate.” The hologram’s face didn’t change, but it moved closer in a slightly threatening manner.  “Of course, if you disagree with our assessment, we can always change the timetable. However, given his excitement over the current rounds, I cannot imagine that he would be pleased with you interrupting him.”

“You’re a machine,” Jaunt countered, hiding a shudder at the veiled threat, “you can’t imagine anything.”  He sighed in defeat, adding, “Nevertheless, I see your point. Fine; if you want to waste your time with an unqualified candidate, be my guest.  I’ll be continuing my other research.”

“Very good,” the hologram said, backing up.  “I look forward to working with you.”

Before it could disappear on him, Jaunt asked, “Hey, which Asylum member are we testing?”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, evening.

Casey’s bar.

“Woo-hoo!” Natalie cried, slamming a shot glass down on the table.  “I win! Pay up.”

Haley shook her head, pulling her wallet out of her pocket.  “I can’t believe you just took ten shots of Jack,” she said, handing Natalie a twenty-dollar bill.  “Good thing we walked here.”

The bar was only a few blocks away from Headquarters, so Haley, Natalie, and Reiki had decided to walk down for a change of scenery after their patrols.  Earthborn and Granny were busy with the evening patrol, and Frank and Rina declined to join them; neither of them drank alcohol. Rina said it made her nauseous, and Frank just didn’t like the taste.  Since they also had the night patrol, they decided to just stay at Headquarters until the shift change.

“Ah, this is nothing,” Natalie said, grinning.  “Agent has rules about us getting too drunk in our off-hours; my limit is thirteen.”

“Though you still hope that we aren’t called in,” Reiki pointed out.  “Especially not tomorrow morning.”

Natalie shrugged, picking up a shot glass from the table in front of her and licking the rim.  “I don’t get hangovers,” she pointed out. “I’ll be fine.”

“That may be,” said Casey as she cleared the empty glasses off of their table, “but you’re still cut off.”  Cassandra “Casey” Johnson was an old teammate of Agent’s from Team Ark. Despite her codename being “Sparrow”, Casey was a Third Gen with the ability to see the future.  She still reported her visions to Agent, but was otherwise retired from Watcher work.

“Come on, Casey,” Natalie pleaded.  “Just one more?”

“Nope,” Casey said, picking up the shot glasses and putting them on a tray, “Agent would kill me if he found out I served you this much.”  She took the one out of Natalie’s hand last, bringing them back to the dishwasher behind the bar.

“Fine then,” Natalie said.  “Anybody up for karaoke?”

Haley pursed her lips.  “I don’t sing,” she said.

“Sure you do,” Natalie told her.  “I heard you last week, singing that one song for the doctor…”

“‘Lavender Blue’ is an old tune my mom taught me as a kid,” Haley pointed out.  The night was young, but she had to raise her voice over the growing din of customers.  “I hummed a few bars to distract the mark; that’s very different from singing a pop song in front of everybody.”

“You’re no fun,” Natalie said.  She stood up from the table and grabbed Haley and Reiki’s hands.  “If you won’t sing, then at least come dance.”

The bar had a dance floor in the back room, while karaoke was done in the front.  On the weekends the place was crawling with satyrs, Third Gens, and humans all looking for a good time.  Casey had a heavy hand and a good wait staff, so her place was pretty popular.

Haley groaned, but got up – she knew that Natalie wouldn’t let it go unless she did one or the other, and dancing seemed like the lesser evil.  After a sharp tug on his arm by the insistent Natalie, Reiki got up as well. He and Haley exchanged glances as they allowed Natalie to drag them to the dance floor.

After a few minutes of awkward movement, Natalie stopped and put her hands on her hips.  “Haven’t you guys ever been clubbing before?” she asked.

Haley was stiff in her movements, self-conscious of the people watching from the sidelines.  In contrast, Reiki looked like he was having an upright seizure: his arms were flailing while his feet tangled around each other.  Natalie stopped them, shaking her head. “Come on guys, like this.” She demonstrated, keeping her feet close together while she swayed to the beat of the music.

Haley tried to copy her, but Reiki just shook his head and went to find a seat on the sidelines.  Watching him leave, Natalie shrugged. “Oh well, looks like we’re the ones having fun tonight. Right Haley?”

“I’m not sure I call this ‘fun’,” Haley pointed out.  People were beginning to look their way; as Watchers of the Asylum, most of the city knew their faces.  Even though most of Casey’s other patrons were also Watchers, Haley could just see a video of her awkward dancing going viral.

“If you’re really that worried about it,” Natalie told her, “then I’ll take the pressure off of you!”

Natalie left Haley’s side, moving to the center of the dance floor.  She strutted to the beat of the music in a large circle, opening up some room in the dancers as the song changed.  When the first beat dropped in the new song, she began to really let loose.

When they were kids, Natalie had trained in many styles of dancing with her brother.  Along with some of the acrobatics she learned when training to be a Watcher, she combined different dance styles into something graceful and unique.  Once the spotlight was on her instead of Haley, the bigger, less coordinated girl faded back to the sidelines.

After a minute of watching Natalie on the dance floor, a vaguely familiar voice came over Haley’s shoulder.  “She really does love the spotlight, doesn’t she?”

Haley spun around, coming face-to-face with Eli Howard, also known as the mercenary Watcher, Butterfly.  “You!” she cried, startled. “What are you doing here?”

“Can we talk?” he asked, gesturing for them to take it outside.  Haley nodded, allowing him to lead her out the front door.

Once they were outside in the brisk summer night air, Haley asked, “What is it?”

Eli was looking around for something.  “I just wanted to see how you were,” he said distractedly.  “I haven’t seen you in a while, and I thought we could talk.”

Haley narrowed her eyes.  “You know where I live,” she said. “If you wanted to talk, then why follow me to the bar?”

“That’s presumptuous,” Eli scoffed, his eyes still darting around.  “What makes you think I followed you here? I happen to like Casey’s.”

“Then what are you looking for?” Haley asked.  “You’re acting shifty. I think I’m going to get the others.”

“Wait,” Eli said.  “You know Trick hates me.”

Haley shrugged, turning to go back inside.  Eli grabbed her arm, and years of fighting practice took over; reflexively, Haley swung his arm up behind him and held it there, slamming Eli up against the wall of the bar.

“Why did you want me out here?” she asked.  “No lies this time!”

“I don’t know,” Eli admitted, his face pressed painfully up against the bricks.  “I was paid to just get you out of the bar and away from the others.”

“What?” Haley asked.  “Paid by who?”

A bright, bluish spotlight came down on them.  “I assume by them,” Eli said, glancing up at the source.

Haley shoved him against the wall again in annoyance.  A tingling sensation ran up her spine, and she suddenly couldn’t feel anything – not the night air on her face, not the concrete under her feet, not even Eli, who looked as if he was dissolving in front of her.  Haley looked down at her hands, noting with detached alarm that she could see straight through her hands. She tried to look up at the spotlight’s source, but her vision chose that moment to go white.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, the next morning.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

Natalie fought back a yawn as she poured herself a bowl of cereal.  She might not get hangovers, but the dancing and alcohol from the night before really took it out of her.  It was lucky that her patrol shift didn’t start until the afternoon; she could stand for some downtime until then.  Poor Reiki had the early morning shift; it was a good thing he didn’t dance much the night before. Natalie’s muscles ached from the hours-long unscheduled workout she had given them.

She had just decided to get a glass of water with her cereal when Agent stormed into the living area.  “It was pretty stupid to get that wasted last night,” he said loudly, crossing his arms.

“Wasted?” Natalie asked, blinking innocently.  “What ever gave you that idea?”

Agent gestured to his data pad.  “We keep track of your vitals, remember?” he said.  “If I had needed you three, you wouldn’t have been fit for duty.  You guys already missed training this morning.”

Natalie’s heart skipped a beat in nervousness.  “I didn’t have training this morning,” she said, shaking her head and checking her schedule.  “I double-checked before we left last night – yep, says right here: I have patrol this afternoon, but I have the morning off.”

Agent took a breath before responding, irritated.  “I know you didn’t,” he told her, “but Haley did. And Reiki was ten minutes late this morning.”

“Then why are you asking me?” Natalie said, turning on the sink for her water.

“Because you’re here,” Agent said, “and the others aren’t.  I’ll be having words with them, too.”

“Reiki didn’t drink that much last night,” Natalie told him.  “He had, like, two beers. He was swaying a bit on the way home, but I thought he was just dancing.  He should have been fine this morning.”

“And Haley?” Agent asked.  “I’ve never had a problem with her before, and I don’t want your influence rubbing off on her.”

“Because I’m such a bad influence?” Natalie said sweetly, grinning at him.

Agent smiled despite himself.  “Exactly,” he chuckled. “Do you know where she is?”

“No idea,” Natalie said, shrugging.  “Haley left a couple of hours before me and Reiki last night.  Casey said she left with Butterfly, so I assumed she had just gone home with him.”  She took a swig of water before adding, “Don’t you keep track of our vitals? She’s fine, right?”

“Her chip malfunctioned last night,” Agent admitted.  “I was going to tell her at training this morning to see Dale to have it checked out, but then she didn’t show up.”

Natalie finished chugging her water and refilled the cup.  “She left with Butterfly last night,” she repeated. “You might try asking him.”

“I’ll make the call,” Agent said.  “If you see Haley, tell her I’m looking for her.  And don’t you be late for your shift,” he added.

Natalie gave him a mock salute.  “Yes, mon capitan,” she said.  As Agent left for his office, she picked up her spoon and stared at it.

Last night at the bar hadn’t been a first for the group – Natalie dragged them out every other week to blow off some steam.  Haley had never skipped training before; she loved the job too much.

Shaking her head, Natalie began eating her breakfast.  It’s probably nothing, she thought.

She couldn’t shake a nagging feeling in the back of her mind, as if she had missed something important.

* * * * * * * *

A metallic room, on board a ship.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Haley groaned as she sat up.  Her head was pounding, and her mouth tasted like sandpaper.  She could hear a feint humming noise, and the metal floor beneath her seemed to be slightly vibrating.

Remembering what had happened the night before, Haley’s eyes snapped open.  She was alone in a large, sterile room; there was no furniture, no door, and she couldn’t even tell where the light was coming from.  It seemed as bright as any office in the room, but there were no lamps, windows, or overhead lights.

“What the hell?” she asked herself, standing up.  She still wore her casual outfit from the night before: a sleeveless floral-patterned nylon shirt, a knee-length black skirt, and dress sandals.

“Hello?” she called angrily.  “What the hell am I doing here?  What’s going on?”

As if summoned by Haley’s questions, a small bluish figure appeared out of nowhere in front of her.  It looked kind of like a little girl, with high cheekbones and big eyes. On second glance, however, she could see that it had ridges on her nose, and long, pointed ears.  The little girl was wearing long robes that covered her feet; it took Haley a second to realize that she had no feet, and was floating a foot off of the ground. The girl flickered, and Haley realized that she was just a projection.

A holographic screen appeared across the girl’s chest.  Words began typing across it, as if the girl were speaking.

Hello.  My name is Ayu, it wrote.  How might I be of assistance?

“Um, hello?” Haley said once she got over the initial shock of the girl’s appearance.  “Where am I, and why the hell am I here?”

You have been selected.  The little girl had a pleasant smile on her face, but it didn’t meet her eyes.  We require you for testing.

“‘Testing’?” Haley asked.  “What testing?”

You have exhibited traits that we find desirable, Ayu wrote.  We would like to see if you have more.

“What do you mean, ‘desirable’?” Haley asked.  “What have I done?”

You are the hero known as ‘Outlier’ on your planet, correct? Ayu said.  You have caught our attention.

Haley rolled her eyes.  “So I ask again: What have I done?  I just started as a Watcher three months ago.”

In that time, you have been tested along with the other members of your team, Ayu explained.  You have demonstrated wit, cunning, patience, diligence, discipline –

“As much as I enjoy being complimented,” Haley said, interrupting the list, “I must insist you take me back.  I have training in the morning, and I’d like to punch Eli in the face before bed.”

It is midday in your sector of Earth, Ayu told her.  It has been twelve Earth hours since you arrived on board.

“Twelve hours?” Haley sputtered.  “What… why?”

The transfer can be difficult for a species that has not yet adapted to space travel, Ayu explained.  You needed to… “sleep it off”.

“You’re kidding,” Haley said, exasperated.  “Fine. I missed training. I still need to get back; or am I a prisoner here?”

You will be tested, Ayu wrote.  Then you will be returned.

“Tested for what?” Haley asked.

Testing will begin shortly.  Please enter the next room, Ayu wrote.

A door opened in the wall in front of Haley.  Sighing in annoyance, she stepped through. “Better get this over with,” she muttered.

The next room was just as sparse as the one she had left, with two key differences.  First, there was a big red button on the far wall – which was about twenty feet away from the entrance.

Second, Eli stood on one side of the room.

“You!” Haley started towards him, flexing her arm threateningly.

“Now, hang on one second,” Eli said, putting his hands out as if to hold her back.  “I was just doing a job, and now I’m stuck here just like you.”

“A job, huh?” Haley said.  “You get me away from my teammates, so that I can be abducted and brought to who-knows-where, and I have some kind of alien kid telling me that I have to be ‘tested’ before I can go home.  That was a ‘job’ to you?” She strode over to him and grabbed him by the collar.

Eli shrugged.  “It paid well,” he said.  “They just want to see what you’re made of, then we can go back.”

“When we get back, I’m getting Agent to lock you up,” Haley told him, letting him go.  “I agree with Natalie and Frank: you’re a menace.”

“Whatever,” Eli said, straightening his shirt and rubbing his neck.

Haley looked around at the room.  “So when is this ‘test’ supposed to start?” she asked the room.

Nothing visibly happened, but the soft hum of energy was suddenly in the room with them.  A female voice spoke over an intercom, saying, “The test has begun. Push the button.”

“That’s it?” Haley asked.  “Just push that big button over there?”

“Push the button,” the disembodied voice said again.

Raising her eyebrows, Haley started forward.  Eli shook his head. “Wait, Outlier, maybe we should – ”

“You don’t get to talk,” Haley said, walking backwards.  “I’m taking this test, and getting us out of here so I can bring you in.”

“I’m just saying, it can’t be that easy,” Eli said, putting his hands on his hips.

Haley ignored him with a wave of her hand as she turned back around – just in time to walk face-first into an invisible wall.  “Ow,” she said, rubbing her nose where she hit it. “Damn.”

“Told you,” Eli said, smirking.  “What kind of idiot are you? Of course there’s going to be something else to it.”

Haley turned to glare at him.  “Okay, smart-ass,” she said. “What do you recommend?”

“No idea.”  Eli shrugged, walking over to her and feeling for the invisible wall.  “I’m guessing it’ll be a maze.”

As if it heard him, the voice said again, “Push the button.” Haley looked around the room, but she couldn’t tell where the wall was or which way to go.

This was going to be harder than she thought.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, evening.

Outlier has been missing for twenty hours.

“You haven’t seen him either?” Agent was taking a call in the common room, as most of the team gathered to compare notes.  “… Okay. Let me know if he turns up.” He hung up, turning back to the others. “Haley didn’t show up for her patrol this evening,” he said.  “I checked with building security, and she didn’t come back last night after the bar. The last time anybody saw her was when she left the bar with Butterfly – I just heard from some of my contacts on that end, and nobody’s seen him, either.”

“That’s not so unusual for Butterfly, though,” Rina pointed out.  “He comes and goes as he wants.”

“But Haley is Miss Perfect,” Natalie pointed out.  “She’s never so much as stepped a toe out of line before; she wouldn’t just disappear on us.”

Frank pulled his uniform hoodie over his head, getting ready for his patrol as he spoke.  “So what do you want us to do about it?” he asked. “Any places we should check?”

“I have another person to check with,” Agent said.  “If you guys could canvas the city, that might turn something up.  Earthborn is currently checking the tunnels, to see if either of them turn up down there.  I’m also asking Toby to check with the Fauns – she can get in and out of there a lot more discreetly than any of you, and she won’t raise a flag with them.  I’m not sure what other enemies she might have made,” he admitted. “Our best bet is to figure out where Butterfly might have taken her. I have a list of his usual haunts; you guys check these places out.”

He set a very short list down on the counter.  Natalie took one look and raised an eyebrow at him.  “You’re kidding, right?” she asked. “‘Butterfly Garden’, a studio on the north side, and then a few dives?”

“He’s a pretty straightforward guy,” Agent said, shrugging.  “If he’s in the city, he’s usually at these places unless he’s on a job.”

Granny stood up from a chair in the corner.  “I’ll check out some of the dives,” she said.  “I can handle myself if there’s trouble – though most people wouldn’t trouble an old lady,” she added with an impish grin.

“I’ll take the studio,” Natalie said.  “If he took Haley somewhere, I doubt we’ll find them at any of these places, though.”

“I’ll check out Butterfly Garden,” Frank said.

“That leaves me splitting the dives with Granny,” Rina said.

Agent nodded.  “You have your assignments, then,” he told them.  “Get to it.”

* * * * * * * *

The Invisible Maze.

Haley and Eli, still trapped.

“Push the button,” came the robotic voice yet again.

Haley was really starting to hate that voice.

“I’m trying,” she growled, as Eli laughed at her.  She spun to face him. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.

“You,” Eli said, still chuckling.  “You’re yelling at a machine.”

“Oh, she knows what she’s done,” Haley said, shouting.  Whether she was shouting at him, or the voice, or at the general situation, she wasn’t sure.  “She knows exactly what she’s done!  We’ve been at this for two hours now, and not only can I not figure out where we’ve gone wrong, but the only path I can seem to find leads us to the wrong wall!”

“Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of genius?” Eli asked, mocking her.

Haley took an angry breath.  “I have an eidetic memory,” she said.  “In this case, that means I can draw a map in my mind of where the walls we’ve found are.  But no matter which way we go, it always leads us back to this one point – nowhere near the button!”

“And of course we can’t climb it,” Eli said, also frustrated.  “We can’t see how high it is, but the sides are smooth, and apparently the top is out of jumping range.”

“It’s a stupid optical illusion,” Haley fumed, pounding her fist on the nearest invisible wall.  “I don’t know how she’s doing it, but I swear, next time she shows that smug little holographic face…”

“You’ll beat up a kid?” Eli said.  “Or will you just throw your fists through the air, since holograms don’t actually have bodies to hit?”

Haley pressed her lips together in annoyance.  “You know,” she said, “you have a body I could hit.  Maybe I’ll just take out my anger on you.”

“Idle threat,” Eli said, completely unconcerned.  “You’d never hit me. It goes against that whole Asylum ‘holier-than-thou’ complex you’ve got.”

“Lucky you,” Haley said drily.  She pounded her fist against the wall again.

Something suddenly occurred to her.  She hit her fist against the wall again, but more thoughtfully than angrily this time.  “The walls all lead back to this spot,” she muttered.

“Oh, gears finally turning in that rusty brain of yours?” Eli said.

“Are you trying to be annoying, or does it just come naturally to you?” Haley asked.

Eli shrugged, putting his hands behind his head.  “It’s a gift,” he answered.

“Well, if you’d shut up for a minute, you might figure it out, too.”  Haley walked over the metal wall, feeling the invisible one beside her as she went.  “We’re still assuming that what we see matters,” she explained. “We can’t see the walls in the middle of the room…”

She put her hand on the metal wall, but met no resistance.  Eli stared as her hand went through the wall. “So why would the walls on the edge of the room be real?” he finished.

Haley stepped through the holographic wall, coming into another room on the other side.  This room glowed green, and the invisible walls reflected the light enough to be seen – though they were still sheer enough to see what was on the other side, at least now they showed up to the naked eye.

“Video game logic,” Haley muttered as Eli stepped through the wall behind her.  “Rina’s much better at those.”

“Well, we’re not done yet,” Eli said.  He clapped her on the shoulder, then walked ahead.  There was a soft click as he stepped on a loose tile on the floor.

“Wait!” Haley cried, pulling him back.

Three knives flew in front of Eli’s face, where he would have been standing if Haley hadn’t stopped him.  “Whoa,” he muttered, his eyes wide.

“Video game logic,” Haley repeated.  “Rina’s always telling me that you have to be careful of traps in dungeons like this.”

“Noted,” Eli said, pulling his arm out of her grip.  “So what do we do?”

“No idea,” Haley said, peering around through the green light.  “I’m horrible at these kinds of games.”

The voice chose that moment to come back on.  “Push the button.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Butterfly Garden.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

“He lives here?” Shadow asked the groundskeeper, looking around at the field.

Butterfly Garden was a nature preserve on the edge of Eon City, where hundreds of butterflies nested.  The air around them was moist, as the garden was kept at optimal conditions for the winged insects. The smell of the plants around them was unlike anything Shadow could smell in the city – the air was fresh, and the dew sparkled in the sunset.

The groundskeeper shrugged.  “Eli often comes and helps out with the grounds,” he said.  “So I let him kip out here when the weather’s nice, or in the main building when it’s not.  He’s got a way with the butterflies, see – he moves like them, and he can walk into the middle of a flock without hurting any of them.  It’s that Third Gen power of his, all kinds of useful.”

Shadow stopped gazing around the picturesque garden to look at the groundskeeper.  “When was the last time he came here?” he asked.

“Few days ago,” the man said.  “He’s a drifter, that one – he don’t hang around much.  He just likes the butterflies, when he’s got no other place to go.”

“So he didn’t come here last night?” Shadow asked, his shoulders slumping slightly.  The garden was a dead end.

“Nope,” said the groundskeeper.  “Try the Essex Studio across town – he sometimes talks about going there.”

“Thanks,” Shadow said, turning away and turning on his com unit.  “Butterfly Garden was a dead end. Any luck, guys?”

* * * * * * * *

Green Room.

Haley Prince, on her last nerve.

“Push the button,” said the robotic voice.

Haley started mocking it.  “Push the button, push the button,” she said.  “I know I have to push the freaking button – I’m just not sure how to get there!”

The floor was covered in hidden switches, and it seemed like every time they made some progress something would force them back.  They were still a ways away from wherever the maze was leading them this time, and had already had to backtrack twice.

“I think we have to go through the choke point,” Eli said, citing a spot they had passed twice due to the size of the spinning blades shooting from the walls.

“And what, dance our way through?” Haley asked sarcastically.  “Every time we try going there, it’s a close call.”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Eli argued.  “We’ve tried all of the other paths – the other walls are all solid!”

“I know, I know,” Haley said.  “I just have a really bad feeling about that one.”

Eli shrugged.  “Doesn’t that mean it’s the right path?” he asked.  “Video game logic, remember?”

Haley rolled her eyes, but she led the way back to the choke point.  There were two spinning buzzsaws moving quickly up and down the corridor, but they had already discovered that other traps were peppered along the way.

“On three?” Eli asked.

“Okay,” Haley said, a nervous feeling in her stomach.  She hadn’t felt such a sinking feeling since her last Watcher license rejection.  “One… two… three!”

She darted forward, keeping an eye peeled on the ground for the loose tiles that indicated a trap.  Dodging the blades on the sides, she saw the first volley of arrows zip out of the wall in front of her with a SHUNK.

“Allow me, milady,” Eli said, coming up beside her and using a break in the saws to get in front.  He tapped out a beat on his leg with his fingers, counting the time between arrow volleys. In rhythm, he said, “Three, two, one, now!” and pulled Haley forward.  He stopped suddenly, allowing another volley to pass in front of him before pulling her again.

Five volleys later, they had made it to the other side.  “That was incredible!” Haley said, looking at him in awe.  “How did you know?”

“My Third Gen ability is hyper-proprioception,” Eli explained, grinning at the praise.  “I know exactly where I am in regards to everything around me. It gives me excellent aim, and – more importantly – a really good sense of timing.  Come on, let’s move.”

He took one step, straight onto a trap tile.  A knife shot out of the wall, aimed straight at his head.

“Watch it!” Haley said, catching the blade just before it reached Eli’s head.

His eyes widened as he turned to see how close he had come to dying.  “Thanks,” he said as Haley dropped the knife.

Haley swore.  “I’m still in my clubbing clothes,” she muttered, looking down at her outfit as she held her hand away from her body.  Blood began to well up in her palm from where she had gripped the edges of the blade.

“Afraid of getting a bit of blood on your pretty shirt?” Eli teased.

“No,” Haley said.  “I just don’t have my first-aid supplies; they were in my purse, which I left in the club.”  She shook her head, wincing as the blood in her hand began dripping onto the floor. “From now on, I’m not going anywhere without my utility belt.”

“Here,” Eli said, taking off his shirt and handing it to her.  “Wrap it with that. Least I can do, since you saved my life and all.”

Haley took it, thanking him.  She gripped one of the sleeves with the bleeding hand and wrapped the cloth tightly around it.  “Well, it looks like we made it to the wall,” she said.

Eli picked the bloody knife up off the floor and slipped it into his pocket.  “Never know when a weapon might come in handy,” he said. “No pun intended.”

“Ha ha,” Haley said dryly.  “Let’s see what’s next.”

The two Watchers stepped through the wall into the next room, which was bathed in a red glow.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Essex Studio.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

“Trick here,” she said over the coms.  “The studio is a bust, too. They haven’t seen Eli since yesterday morning.”

Roger,” Agent told her.  “You and Shadow check out the next bars on the list.

“How are things on your end?” Trick asked him, getting onto her motorcycle and revving up the engine.  “Any leads from your contacts?”

No,” Agent sounded mad.  “They are being purposefully vague in their answers.  I think they know something, but they aren’t talking.

Trick pressed her lips together as she drove off.  “Want me to go kick their asses for you, Agent?” she asked.

I’d love that, actually,” Agent admitted, “but it’s more than my job’s worth at this point.  Did the studio tell you anything?

“It’s a gymnastics studio,” Trick said.  “Butterfly’s been a gymnast since he was a kid.  Who knew?”

The guy sleeps in a field of butterflies,” Shadow added over the coms.  “At this point, I don’t think anything would surprise me about him.

“Apparently he’s pretty good.  He teaches gymnastics to kids in his spare time,” Trick said.  “He’s got that in common with Haley, at least.”

Haley isn’t in the Watcher business for the money, though,” Agent pointed out.  Trick could hear the worry in his voice.  “We still need to find her; if she isn’t back yet, then there’s something wrong.

“We’ll find her,” Trick promised.  In the silence that followed, she knew that Agent was remembering the day they found her mom.  She might not get along with the Outlier, but Trick hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself.

* * * * * * * *

Red Room.

Haley and Eli, and a lot of fire.

“Something’s wrong,” Eli said, looking at Haley.  “Why are you losing so much blood?” She had already re-wrapped the shirt twice, and it was nearly soaked through.

Haley looked down at it and grimaced.  “My blood doesn’t clot,” she told him. “It’ll keep bleeding until I get to a first-aid kit.”

Her face appeared bright red in this room, reflecting the light around them.  Eli couldn’t tell in the light, but he thought she looked paler than she had in the last room.  “Hang on,” he said, counting the time for the next trap. “We’re almost through this one.”

“You know that for sure, huh?” Haley asked him.  She had let him take the lead a while ago, as her head was starting to get fuzzy.  “We could be going around in circles for all I know.”

“What happened to that eidetic memory of yours, huh?” Eli asked.  “Shouldn’t you know where we are?”

Haley shook her head, stumbling.  “I lost track after the last fire burst,” she admitted.  “I could really use some water.”

The red room didn’t use blades and switches like the green room had done.  Instead, flames shot in random patterns through the corridors. They could see the jets that would shoot the flames, which was a blessing – they could avoid getting burned, though the temperature in the room rose with each burst of fire.  The main walls were still metallic – if they didn’t find their way through soon, they could be cooked alive.

Eli tried to wipe the sweat off his forehead, only to find that his hand was too wet to do any good.  Haley was worse off – she was swaying, and her breathing was coming more heavily. The dry air burned, and he knew they needed more than water to make it through.

“We need to stop the bleeding,” he said. He began to shout to the air, “Hey, hologram lady!  She needs medical attention if you want us to finish!”

“Push the button,” the voice repeated.

“She’s no help,” Haley said, shaking her head in an attempt to clear the dizziness.  She began to unwrap the shirt from her hand. “If bandaging isn’t working, then I’m going to need to cauterize it,” she told Eli.

Confused, Eli asked, “What do you mean, ‘cauterize it’?”  He looked back just in time to see Haley grab the metal base of a flame jet with her injured hand.  “Hey!”

Haley gritted her teeth as the jet roared to life, keeping her head and torso as far away from it as possible.  When the fire died, she pried her hand from the metal surface and cradled her arm. “Bleeding stopped,” she muttered, shivering in pain.

“Here, let me see,” Eli said, reaching for the injured hand.  Her palm was charred, and her fingers were covered in blisters.

“I don’t even feel it,” Haley told him, smiling weakly.

“Yeah, because the nerves are fried,” Eli said.

Haley gingerly yanked her hand away from him.  “I can function,” she said. “Stronger than a rhino, steady as a boulder.  It was the fastest way.”

She pressed forward, Eli following closely behind her.  “Now you aren’t bleeding to death,” he said. “You’re just cooking yourself.  I got stuck with a masochist, and if she dies then I’m never getting out of here.  That’s just great.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Haley asked.  Her charred hand did one good thing – it took her mind off of the burning air.

“It means that this is your test,” Eli said angrily.  “You have to be the one to push the freakin’ button.”

“And I will,” Haley said, shrugging.  “Look, here’s the far wall.”

She reached her injured hand out to touch it, just in case they had reached one of the real metal walls; she couldn’t afford to burn her other hand.  As the burned hand passed through, she turned back to give Eli a confident grin, even as her eyes watered in pain –

– and was pulled through by something on the other side.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Agent, about ready to bust some heads.

That’s the last one,” Granny said over the coms.  “Roberta didn’t hear anybody talking about a missing Watcher.” She referred to her dragonfly, who allowed her to listen to multiple conversations at once.

I got nowhere, too,” Nightmare said from her own location.  “It’s another dead end.

Nobody’s seen or heard anything from Butterfly in the last two days,” Trick added. She and Shadow had finished checking the other bars on the list.  “Any luck on your end, Agent?

“Earthborn hasn’t found them in the tunnels,” Agent told them, “and my contact is still being dodgy.  You four meet up back at headquarters; I’m going to meet them in person.”

You could use some backup,” Nightmare pointed out.  “We’ll go with you!

“No,” Agent said.  “It’ll go better if I’m alone.  They’re not dangerous,” he added, just to put their minds at ease.  He muted his com, banging a fist on the table next to him in frustration.  He had spent the last five hours trying to contact anybody who might know where Butterfly had taken Haley, to no avail.  Now there was only one person left to try – and he really hoped it was another dead end.

Agent went down to the motor pool and took his car out across the city.  At this time of night, the roads were mercifully clear – he arrived at the dock warehouses in minutes.  When he stepped out of the car, a hole ripped in the air in front of him.

“Jaunt,” Agent said, gripping his umbrella.

Jaunt stepped through the portal, looking around.  “Pretty clandestine, don’t you think?” he asked. “Where’s your team?”

“I’m here alone,” Agent told him.

Jaunt chuckled.  “That must be killing you,” he said, “to be meeting with me like this.  Now, what did you want to talk to me about that needed such a dreary meeting place?”  He looked around at the warehouses, wrinkling his nose at the fishy smell coming from the wharf.

“Stop playing around,” Agent said.  “You’ve been ducking my call all evening.  Don’t pretend you don’t know what this is about.”

“You’ve misplaced a teammate,” Jaunt said, smirking at him.  “Or should I say, another teammate.”

He was trying to get a rise out of Agent, referring to Striker.  When Agent worked with Team Ark, they had tried and failed to arrest Jaunt – and it had torn the team apart.  Striker had vanished from the face of the earth that day, and the team couldn’t recover. It was Agent’s worst failure, and it had been entirely Jaunt’s fault.

Jaunt knew how Agent felt about him, and reminded him of it every time they met.  Now with Haley missing, there was no doubt in Agent’s mind that Jaunt was behind it.

“Listen here,” Agent said, using his umbrella’s handle to drag the thief’s face close to his.  “You know where Outlier is. You’re going to tell me right now.”

“Pretty touchy for an Agent, aren’t you?” Jaunt said, unconcerned.  He didn’t even try to pull free of Agent’s grip. “I didn’t take the girl.”

“You know who did, then.”  It wasn’t a question – Jaunt knew more than he was saying.

Gingerly, Jaunt pulled the umbrella handle away from his neck.  “She was last seen with the mercenary, wasn’t she?” he asked, evading the question.

“Mercenaries are hired,” Agent said, swinging the umbrella back down to his side.  “I want to know by whom.”

“We don’t always get what we want,” Jaunt told him sagely.  He clapped his hands together, preparing to leave again. “Don’t worry about the girl,” he added once the portal was open.  “If she survives, she’ll be returned to you.”

Agent caught Jaunt’s arm.  “I’m not done yet,” he growled.  “What do you mean ‘if she survives’?”

“She’s being tested,” Jaunt told him, shrugging.  “That comes with some risk. But Outlier should have no problems with that, right?” he asked, smirking.  “After all, you hand-picked her for your team. The human girl with the extraordinary willpower.”

Agent’s grip loosened for a second, and Jaunt yanked his arm free. He stepped through the portal before Agent could grab him again.

“Damn him,” Agent muttered, getting back into his car.  If he didn’t need the thief…

But he did.  That line of thought would get him nowhere, and Haley was still missing.  He could only hope that they found her – or that she passed this “test” – before it was too late.

* * * * * * * *

Blue Room.

Haley’s in trouble.

Haley kept her charred hand behind her as she faced off with her opponent.  She barely registered Eli running through the wall behind her, keeping her eyes on the giant figure that had pulled her into the room.

This room was different from the others.  Aside from the blue lighting, it was round instead of square, and it didn’t seem to have any maze walls, invisible or otherwise.  The floor was covered in a small pool of clear water, coming up to Haley’s ankles. However, the biggest difference loomed in front of her: instead of traps, this room had –

“Is that a knight?” Eli asked, his eyes going wide.

“Boss fight,” Haley said. “Video game logic, remember?”  The knight was in full armor, complete with sword – but it stood ten feet tall in the large chamber.

“At least this room has water,” Eli said weakly.  “We have to fight that thing?”

Haley pointed towards the opposite end of the room with her good hand.  Eli followed it, seeing a door on the other side that was covered in bars.  “I’m guessing we have to subdue it,” she told him, grimacing as she tried to flex her injured hand behind her.

“You’re in no shape to fight,” Eli pointed out.  “You’re injured, and you lost a lot of blood…”

“Yes, I’m aware,” Haley said, exasperated.  “There’s got to be a trick to this room, just like everywhere else.”

Eli rolled his eyes.  “I’m all ears,” he said.

The knight drew its sword, coming after them.  Haley pushed Eli out of the way, then dove to the other side to avoid the knight’s swing.  Luckily for her, the knight was slow and lumbering, as if it weren’t alive. She rolled to a stand, looking around for its next attack.

It had to have a weakness.  Haley could try taking its sword, but strong as she was, she would never be able to wield it with one hand.  There had to be another way – even if she just disarmed it, she had no way of knowing what would open the door in front of her.

The water seeped into her shoes, tripping her as she tried to dodge the knight’s next attack.  Tripping saved her life – the knight sliced his sword through the air over her, and would have bisected her if she had been upright.

“What do we do?” Eli cried, rolling away from another swing of the giant sword.

Haley scrambled to her feet, wincing as she kicked something under the water.  A loose tile! “Eli, there are switches in this room, too!” she called over. “I think we need to press them all.”

“Press the switches?  Are you mad?” he called back, dodging another swing of the sword.  “The last ones tried to kill us!”

“Just trust me, okay?” Haley said, stepping on the switch by her foot.  “Find a switch!”

Eli shook his head in disbelief, but began feeling his way through the water for loose tiles.  Haley, for her part, tried to keep the attention of the knight to give him space to move. Her clothes were soaked from falling into the water, and her pants felt like weights around her legs.  Her breathing picked up again as her heart rate rose, and a wave of nausea washed over her as she narrowly avoided the knight’s sword.

“Haley!” Eli called, snapping her back into the moment just in time to dodge another hit.  “Almost there!”

He stepped on two more switches, but Haley saw the problem: the final switch was at the knight’s feet.  She braced herself, blinking the water out of her eyes as she forced herself to focus on the sword. Eli looked over, crying, “What the hell are you doing?!”

As the sword came down again, Haley dove forward towards the giant knight.  She pressed the switch with her good hand, using her injured one to push off of the knight’s legs in the direction of the door.

The knight raised its sword again, but instead of swinging it at the pair it held it out in front of its sightless face.  The bars in front of the door swiftly retracted into the floor with a shwoop.

Haley stumbled over to the door, meeting Eli there.  Giving him a grin as he opened the door for her, she said, “We did it!”

Stepping through the door into the original room, her eyesight began to blur.  She could tell that they were only a few feet away from the big red button now, and she stumbled towards it.  Eli caught her injured arm, putting it around his shoulders to help her walk forward. “Come on, Outlier,” he said.  “We’re right here; don’t quit now.”

Haley took a deep breath, taking it one step at a time.  She couldn’t even speak, feeling as if she would puke if she opened her mouth.  Her injured arm burned, and the rest of her body felt heavy. She reached out with her good arm, but she couldn’t see if it was touching the button; her eyes chose that moment to roll back into her head, and she gratefully passed out.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, outside of Asylum Headquarters.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Somebody was talking; that was the first thing Haley realized as she came to.  “Hey, you did it,” Eli said. “Come on, Haley; you beat the test, and you pressed that stupid button.  Don’t you dare die on me now. Come on, wake up.”

“‘M not gonna die,” she mumbled, opening her eyes.  She saw Eli’s face staring down at her, but above him was a pinkish dawn sky.  “We’re back?”

“Haley!” Eli said, grinning at her.  “That was the stupidest, bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Raising an eyebrow hurt.  “What?” she asked, trying to sit up.

“I got you into that mess,” he said.  “I was as annoying as I could have possibly been, and you still caught that dagger for me.  Then you burned the cut closed – which, frankly, I thought was both idiotic and the most badass thing I’ve ever seen.  You figured out the puzzle in the knight room, and still managed to press the button at the end.” He shook his head as he summed up the adventure.  “I’ve never seen anybody keep their cool like that.”

“You weren’t so bad yourself,” Haley said, finally managing to prop her arms on her legs to keep from laying down on the sidewalk.  It was still early enough that nobody was around, but she would rather avoid the awkward questions if anybody had seen her. “You figured out the pattern to the knives and the fire.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t supposed to do that,” Eli said, then bit his lip.  At Haley’s questioning – but not surprised – expression, he admitted, “I was paid to hold you back.  I was supposed to insult you, and basically be as annoying as possible to keep you from focusing.”

“Makes sense,” Haley said. She looked around and saw the familiar doors of Asylum Headquarters.  “I need to get in there,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I missed both practice and my patrol yesterday.”  She didn’t try to move from her sitting position yet, though. Her head was pounding, and her stomach still threatened to rebel at the first sign of movement.

“You need help,” Eli said.  “You’re injured, anemic, and you’re talking about missing work.”

Haley looked down at her hand, wincing as she saw the injury.  The blisters weren’t as bad as they had looked in the fire room, but the charring around the wounds kept her from flexing it fully.  “Meh,” she shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

Eli gave a surprised laugh.  “You’ve had worse than that?” he asked, disbelieving.

“My brother once dislocated my shoulder while breaking my arm in three places when we were sparring,” she told him.

“Ah.” Eli obviously didn’t know what to say to that.  He was saved responding when a flash of blue light appeared next to them.

Ayu still looked like a smiling alien kid, but she spoke with the same grown woman’s voice that had kept repeating “push the button” on the ship.  “You gave us excellent data,” she said. “Haley Prince, you exhibited more of the qualities we are looking for in our candidates. You are still incomplete, but you show promise.”

“So you’re talking now, are you?” Haley asked, moving as if to stand up.  The world spun around her with the motion, so she elected to remain sitting.

“My voice functions better in the atmosphere of a planet,” Ayu said.  “On the ship, it echoes loudly, and some species have difficulty understanding. I wanted to be sure you understood the parameters of the test; for that reason, I kept vocal instructions to a minimum.”

“I passed your test,” Haley said.  “What else do you want?”

“She’s injured,” Eli added.  “Can’t you do something?”

“She will live,” Ayu said, looking Haley up and down.  “Her own doctor will be able to treat her injuries with minimal scarring.”

Haley blinked.  “Well, that’s something,” she said.  “So why are you still here?”

“I have been tasked with testing the heroes of your planet,” Ayu explained.  “I have delegated this task for too long; now I must begin to take a more active role.  I wish to inform you that you are still incomplete; however, you show promise. We will see whether you have been completed in two years; in the meantime, I will continue to test the other possible candidates from this world.”

“Why?” Haley asked.  “What happens in two years?”

“The Gamemaster will arrive,” Ayu said simply.  She didn’t elaborate, but turned to Eli. “The agreed upon sum has been deposited in your bank account.  Thank you for your service.”

“No problem,” Eli said, giving Haley a guilty look.  “Let’s not do this again, okay?”

“I will not require your services again for some time,” Ayu told him.  She nodded first at Eli, then at Haley in some kind of farewell, and then disappeared in another flash of light.

Haley leaned back, laying back down on the sidewalk.  If she had trouble sitting up, then standing was probably out of the question.  “I think I’ll take a quick nap before going in,” she muttered. “It’s been a long day.”

“Wonder what that ‘Gamemaster’ thing is that’s coming in two years,” Eli mused.

“You don’t know?” Haley asked.

Eli shrugged.  “They paid me to do a job.  I did it,” he said. He stretched his arms for a minute, then got to his feet.  “Anyways, I’d better get going before your friends come down. Trick and Shadow wouldn’t be too happy to see me.”

Haley reached an arm up to him, and he pulled her to her feet.  The world still spun around her, but she managed to stay upright.  Eli helped her to the doorway of the tower, then turned around and walked away.

“Eli,” Haley called after him.  He turned back, stopping on the sidewalk.  “Thanks,” Haley said.

Eli gave her a deep, mocking bow.  “Any time, milady,” he said with a grin.  Then he turned around and walked away.

Haley watched him leave for a minute before pressing the building’s buzzer.  The security guard at the front desk hurried to let her in, catching her before she could fall through the open door.  “Outlier!” he said, obviously startled to see her. “What happened? Everybody’s been looking for you all night!”

Haley gave him a sheepish smile.  “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said.

* * * * * * * *

Issue #3 – A Good Influence

Asylum Headquarters.

Training.

“Stand still!” Reiki growled, rubbing his hands together as the twins jumped around in front of him.  “Let me hit you!”

“I think you’re missing the point here,” Parker laughed.  “Nobody is ever going to let you hit them.”

“Come on, Reiki!” Frank called back to him.  Natalie was throwing rather sharp playing cards at them, which would have cut them to ribbons if Frank hadn’t been deflecting them with his staff.

A bright light flashed from Reiki’s hands, but the twins dodged it easily – as they had been since the exercise began.  Parker and Natalie looked at each other and nodded; they didn’t need words to communicate. Parker jumped straight up, unfurling his wings to give himself extra lift, and pulled his arm back to prepare for a punch.  Reiki lifted his hands to throw the next light beam at him, while Frank turned his staff to catch Parker’s super-strong hit –

And both were hit by Natalie’s playing cards.

“That’s match,” Agent said, as Parker glided down.  He had been acting as referee for the group while he took notes on the training match.

Natalie grinned at their opponents as Parker landed next to her.  “Stronger together,” she started, holding out her fist to him.

“Stronger as one,” Parker finished, tapping his twin’s fist with his own.  They had been using that phrase as their rallying cry since they first heard it as kids.

“Yeah, yeah,” Reiki said, letting his Third-Gen powered light dim from his hands.  “You guys win again, we need to work on stuff, yadda yadda.” He turned towards Agent, asking, “Why did you have to put those two together again?”

“Because they work well together,” Agent said dryly, “and you need to work on your communication skills.”

Reiki sighed, moving to stand next to Frank for the After Action Review.  “Okay, what is it this time?” he asked, resigned. Frank just shrugged – he knew exactly what had gone wrong, and he also knew that Reiki wouldn’t listen to him.

Agent looked between the two pairs.  “You know,” he said, thoughtfully, “I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said a hundred times before.”  He picked up his umbrella from where it had been resting against his leg and walked to the elevator. “I’ll gather my notes and get back to you.  Dismissed.”

He left the training room.  Parker gave Frank a high-five and said, “I’ve got to get going.  Thanks for the workout!”

“Going again?” Frank asked his old friend.  “That’s every day this week!”

Natalie added, “You also haven’t been coming back to the tower every night.  What’s this ‘special assignment’ Agent has you on?”

“Can’t say,” Parker answered, pulling his twin’s braid.  “It’s going to be a while before I can get back to normal patrols, though.”

“You haven’t even met the new girl yet,” Frank pointed out.  “Haley’s going to be moving her stuff in today; this is normally when we get them with a welcome-to-the-team prank.”

“Aw, man,” Parker grimaced.  “You guys are going to have to do that without me.”  He looked at his watch, and hurried to the stairs. He would have to change out of his training uniform before he could go out on whatever mission he was assigned.  “Let me know how it goes!” he called back as he left. “Natalie – stronger together!”

“Stronger as one!” she called in response just as the door shut behind him.  “I swear,” she muttered, “he’s getting stranger with age.”

“Because you’re so old,” Frank teased.  The twins were three years older than him, and it was a long-standing joke between them.  “Hey, you want to play a free-for-all?”

“Sure,” Natalie said, perking up.  “I still have some tricks left up my sleeves.”

“Hey, Reiki,” Frank said, looking at where their teammate was last seen, “you wanna…”  He trailed off, realizing that Reiki had left the training room while they were talking.  “Okay, then – you and me, Nat, one-on-one.”

“You’re on,” she said, grinning as she let her cards fly.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, later that day.

Haley Prince, moving in.

Haley’s hands were full with a precarious box.

Her dad had offered to help her pack, but she had refused.  After all, she was an adult, wasn’t she? A stupid, stupid adult who now had a large, open box and no way to get it through the door.

What was worse, her lamp was rolling around on top of her blankets, half out of the box already.  That lamp had been in her room since she was ten, and in her older brothers’ rooms before hers; her mom had gotten it as a gift from her parents when Dean, the oldest, was born.  It was at least thirty years old, and her mom would kill her if she broke it trying to move into her new room at Asylum Headquarters.

Jay, the front desk guard, took pity on her and helped her through the front door, but the rules were strict: she had to scan her new badge to use the elevator to get upstairs, and she had no way to get it out of her pocket.

Haley fumbled with the box and the lamp, trying to reach her badge to scan.  She shifted the box to her hip, only for the lamp to fall out. Her heart skipped a beat as she watched it fall, unable to stop the coming crash.

“Here, let me help you with that,” came a man to her left, catching the lamp before it hit the floor.

“Oh, thank you!”  Haley said, scanning her badge to get through the security gate to the elevator.  The man smiled at her, helping her get the lamp situated in the box.

“Can I take something up for you?” he asked.  Haley shook her head.

“Thanks, but only a few people are allowed on my floor,” she told him.  “I’m new, so I’m just getting a couple of things up there.”

The man shrugged, grinning at her.  “No worries,” he said. “So, you’re new?”

“Yeah,” Haley said, smiling back at him.  She shifted the box again to free up a hand to shake, and the lamp nearly fell out again.  “Sorry, I’m not usually this clumsy.”

The guy chuckled.  “I would hope not, Outlier,” he said, emphasizing her callsign.  “The new Watcher of the Asylum should be able to handle a box.”

“You know me?” Haley asked.  She wasn’t sure if she was flattered or creeped out until he explained.

“Everybody in this building knows you,” he said, “or at least knows about you.  There aren’t that many Watchers here.” His smile was disarming, and Haley relaxed a bit.  “My name’s Eli,” he went on. “Eli Howard. I’m a contractor here. Hope I see you around, milady.”  He gave a mock bow, and Haley fought back a giggle.

She let herself smile at him as she answered, “Nice to meet you, Eli.  Sounds good.”

“New girl!” came a shout from behind her.  Haley didn’t need to turn to know that Natalie was stepping out of the elevator.  She marched up next to her, glaring at Eli. “Why’re you talking to him?”

The rude behavior wasn’t out of character for Natalie, but Frank came up on Haley’s other side and added, “What are you doing here, Butterfly?”

For some reason, neither of the Asylum Watchers seemed to like him.  Haley had a dozen questions – he seemed really nice to her – but started with the most obvious.  “Butterfly?” she asked.

Eli shrugged.  “I like butterflies,” he said, “so that’s what they call me.”

“Okay,” Haley moved on.  “So then Frank, why are you being rude?  I mean, I expect it from Natalie,” she added, earning a glare from the other girl, “but not from you.”

“Butterfly here is a licensed Watcher,” Frank explained, “except he only takes jobs where he can get paid.  He’s a mercenary for hire, and he doesn’t seem to care who does the hiring.”

“Gotta make a living,” Eli shrugged again.  “Anyways, Agent called me for a job, so if you could tell him I’m here then I won’t have to be here as long.  Milady,” he added, giving Haley another mock bow. “I’ll be seeing you.”

Frank and Natalie turned Haley towards the elevator before she could reply.  “Watch out for that one,” Natalie said. “He’s all smiles and charm, but he’ll stab you in the back any time it suits him.  All the mercs are like that.”

“He seemed nice,” Haley said.  “What did he do that has you both acting like you sat on a pinecone?”

Frank pressed the button for the elevator.  “Last year, Butterfly took a job for the Fauns, to kill a rival gang leader.  We had to stop him, and he took a shot at Natalie. Since then, we don’t trust him.”

“Makes sense,” Haley said.  Changing the subject, she asked, “So why were you two down there?  I thought you both lived here.”

“We do,” Frank said.  “And you’re moving in today, right?”

“We thought we’d help,” Natalie added sweetly, “so we came down to get you.”

“…Thanks?” Haley said, suspicious at Natalie’s sudden change of tone.  As the elevator let them off, she stepped out into the hallway first. “Do you know which room is mine?”

She saw Frank nudge Natalie out of the corner of her eye as he said, “You’re down this way, next to Rina.  Here, I’ll show you.”

He led her down the hallway to the seventh door on the right.  Agent had shown her a similar room on her first day: it was a spacious dorm room with a bed and a desk, with a private bathroom and a small closet.  This one had Haley’s name and callsign on the door, and she couldn’t help but grin at her new room.

Haley put her box down on the desk, taking out the lamp and setting it up before she dropped it again.  She took out the blankets and sheets, leaving them on the bed as she grabbed another box from beneath them.  “Hey,” she called to Frank and Natalie as they left her to unpack, “wait up!”

She followed them back to the stairs, opening the box.  “My mom made some cookies for my first day here. Want some?” she said, offering them to her new teammates.

“Uh, thanks,” Natalie said, taking one.

“Are you sure you don’t want to spend some time unpacking?” Frank asked.

“Not right now,” Haley said, suddenly very sure that they were up to something.  “I’d rather spar with somebody first. I’d like to check out the training room a bit more; I can unpack later.”

Natalie nudged Frank’s side, not bothering to be subtle.  “Oh, well, we were just training earlier,” she said. “Maybe later.”

“Yeah,” Frank added.  “Maybe you should go back – ow!”

Natalie elbowed him in the side, still smiling sweetly at Haley.  “Maybe later,” Frank echoed, rubbing the spot where she’d hit him.  “I’ve got some… ah, other stuff to do. Thanks for the cookie!”

They left down the stairs, leaving Haley standing in the hallway with a box of cookies in her hands.  “Because that wasn’t suspicious at all,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. She started knocking on doors to see if anyone else wanted a match.

Rina and David didn’t answer; Haley figured that they were out on patrol.  She knocked on Granny’s door, and was surprised when the older woman answered.  “Yes dear?” Granny asked.

“I’m moving in today, and my mom made cookies.  Would you like some?” Haley said, offering the box.  “I was hoping for a sparring partner, too.”

She heard a growling voice from behind Granny say, “Ooh, cookies!”

“Mind your manners, Amii,” Granny called back.  “You and Ieialel still have some talking to do. I’m sorry, dear,” Granny added, turning back to Haley.  “I’d love to train with you, but some other time. My guests need some mediation, and we’re close to making a breakthrough.”

“Oh,” Haley said, wondering what kind of guests she could have that Agent would allow.  “Sure. Here, take some cookies for them, too. My mom’s bakery is the best in the city.”

“Thank you, dear,” Granny said, taking the offered treats.  Haley could also hear two inhumanly deep voices chorusing “thank you!” in the background.  “Maybe you could join us for tea tomorrow?” Granny offered.

Haley grinned.  “I’d like that,” she said.  “I’ll see you later, then.”

She turned to Reiki’s door, wondering if she should bother him or if she should just go unpack like Frank had suggested.  Figuring that she should at least offer him cookies, Haley raised her hand to knock only for the door to open.

Reiki blinked at her.  “‘Sup?” he asked.

“Um, cookies?” Haley said awkwardly, holding up the box.  Reiki took one, his eyes widening as he ate it. “Would you like to train with me?” Haley ventured.

Reiki closed his door, not even bothering to say “no”.  Haley raised her eyebrows at his door before turning on her heels and walking away.

She figured that she would leave the remaining cookies in the kitchen for the others when they returned, and was surprised to find Agent down there.  “Hey, I was just looking for you,” he said, taking a cookie from the box. “You’ve got training today; I just scheduled an extra session.”

“Okay,” Haley said.  “I was just looking to go there, but nobody else is available to train.  Who with?”

“Reiki,” Agent told her, leading her to the stairs.  “His performance this morning showed me that he needs some more teamwork exercises, and who better to train with than the new hire?”

“Sure,” Haley said, “but he just closed the door in my face when I asked him.”

“Don’t worry,” Agent said with a smirk.  “It’s mandatory. He’ll be there.”

Sure enough, Reiki was waiting for them in the gym, his grey training outfit clashing with his green-tipped spiked hair.  “You coming?” he growled to Haley when she emerged from the staircase. He whipped around and stomped towards the back of the gym.

The gym apparently had some other training rooms, each big enough for a group of Third Gens to fight each other.  The regular gym equipment was scattered around the entrance, indicating that the team spent most of their training time practicing against each other.

Haley followed Reiki, stretching out her arms as she walked for the match to start.  “So what’re the rules?” she asked.

Reiki shrugged.  Agent spoke up, saying, “This will be a teamwork exercise.  You’ll have to work together to ring the bell.”

The door to the training room closed behind them, and a wall began to retract into the floor, combining two of the practice rooms for more space.  Other panels in the walls opened, and different obstacles began protruding from the walls and floor. When the changes were finished, Haley saw that the room had transformed into a jungle gym.  She saw the bell that Agent had mentioned at the top of the far side of the room.

Agent’s voice came over a loudspeaker now.  “I’ll be monitoring the exercise from out here,” he said.  “Your goal is for both of you to ring the bell; you’ll have to work together.  We’ll be trying this until you both succeed.”

“Ready?” Haley asked Reiki.  He just growled in response and jumped onto the first beam.  The only way for them to get to the bell was to jump from one beam to the next, but the beams would randomly slide out from under them.  It didn’t happen often, but when it did it happened quickly.

Haley found that out the hard way; she was halfway up when the beam she was standing on suddenly pulled back into the wall with a THUNK.  She nearly fell six feet to the floor, but managed to catch herself on another beam nearby.

Reiki was ahead of her, obviously having done this before.  Agent’s voice came from the speakers again. “Reiki, this exercise is about communication,” he said.  “You need to watch your teammate’s back.”

“She’s fine,” he said, not even turning around to look.  “She caught herself, didn’t she?”

Haley was fine.  She pulled herself up onto the beam and continued upwards, catching up to Reiki.  Obstacle courses were her specialty, so once she knew what was coming she could avoid it.  Agent disagreed with the assessment, though.

“That’s not the point,” he told them as the bell retracted into the wall.  Another bell appeared on the far side from them, forcing the trainees to change direction as they went.

“Hey, what else can this place do?” Haley asked Reiki.  He still didn’t answer, instead launching himself forward.  Another trap appeared, this time firing small laser bursts at Reiki.  They seemed to be low-power; one grazed Reiki’s shoulder but didn’t even singe his shirt.

Reiki dodged the lasers, looking back at Haley expectantly.  She followed him through the fire, still balancing on the beams, and he nodded at her.  “You’ve got a head on your shoulders,” he said approvingly.

Haley suddenly realized that he was testing her.  She grinned at him. “It’ll take more than that to slow me down,” she said.

It took three more tries before they managed to catch up to the bell and ring it.  Agent threw other obstacles at them, but Haley had to watch Reiki go through them before she could figure them out.  Reiki didn’t say another word for the rest of the exercise.

By the end of the training hour, Agent was fed up.  “You both could have caught the bell much sooner if you’d just talked,” he said.  “I know what you’re capable of.  Reiki, you know the routine; Outlier, you’re good at obstacle courses.  You both were hit more than five times apiece, which is unacceptable in the Asylum!”  He was close to yelling at this point, and he seemed to realize it.

“Sorry, Agent,” Haley said.  “It won’t happen again.” She looked at Reiki, wondering why he refused to say anything during the exercise.  Agent was right; if he had warned her about the obstacles, they both would have finished much faster.

Reiki just shrugged in response.  Haley wanted to kick him when he spoke, “Agent, I have that other really important thing scheduled in an hour.  I need to shower and change first; can I go yet?”

Agent put his head in his hand, saying, “Sure.  Fine.” Looking up at the two of them, he added, “Take Haley with you.”

“What?” Reiki asked, his eyes widening.  “Why?”

“She should see this, too.  Outlier, meet Reiki in the motor pool in a half hour.  Dismissed.” Agent turned and walked out, but Haley could have sworn she had seen him grin.

“So, what’s the mission?” Haley ventured to ask.  Reiki just stormed out of the room in response. Rolling her eyes, Haley went to her own room to shower and change.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City.

Outlier, victim of a practical joke.

“So Frank and Natalie put some sort of flashing strobe light in my room,” Haley said, venting to Reiki as he drove them to the mission.  “Thing is, I can’t figure out where it’s coming from – so far, I’ve found three mirrors but no strobe light.”

“Yeah,” Reiki said.  “Natalie’s really good at that.”

“At what?  Driving me crazy?” Haley asked.

“At the hazing pranks.”  When Haley didn’t respond, he added, “Every time a new Watcher moves in, the twins and Frank get them with some kind of prank.”

Haley rolled her eyes.  “So they did this to you, too?” she asked him.  Reiki nodded.

“‘Course, because my powers allow me to manipulate light, they used a beeping noise while I was trying to sleep,” he added.

“Hmph.  As long as they don’t do it again,” Haley said.  “I just need to find the darn thing.”  Thinking about Natalie and Frank, she remembered the other odd encounter of the morning.  “Do you know of a ‘Butterfly’?” she asked.

“Butterfly?” Reiki echoed.  “Why d’you want to know about him?”

“I met him this morning,” Haley said.  “Frank told me he’s a Watcher, but he’s also a mercenary.  Is that a thing?”

Reiki glanced at Haley before responding.  “If the Asylum hadn’t tapped you, what would you have done with a Watcher’s license?” he asked.

“… I guess I never thought about it before,” Haley said, taken aback by the realization.  “I was always so focused on getting my license, I never really considered what I’d do once I got it.”

“The Asylum – an agency where Watchers come together to help the public – is a new concept,” Reiki explained.  “Most Watchers take work from the lists, where people pay for that kind of work to be done.  Because they use it to pay their bills, most become bounty hunters and mercenaries for hire.”

“So if most Watchers are mercenaries,” Haley asked, “why would Natalie and Frank hold that against Butterfly?”

“Because not all Watchers take money from villains like Claw or Jaunt,” Reiki said.  “Butterfly is known for not caring where he gets his money; just as long as he gets paid.  He took a shot at Natalie; you know her temper.  And Frank’s been friends with the twins for years, so he doesn’t forgive something like that easily, either.”  Reiki paused as he changed lanes, before adding, “A merc also shot his mom.  That doesn’t help.”

“Huh.”  Haley mulled that over for a bit.  It took her a few minutes to realize where they were; when she looked out the car window, she was surprised to see trees and grass instead of buildings.  “Why are we at the park?” Haley asked, glancing sideways at Reiki.  “What exactly is the mission?”

Reiki pulled the car to a stop.  “That,” he growled, pointing at a pavilion a ways in front of them.  He got out, pulling a large bag from the backseat, and Haley scrambled to follow.  They both had changed into their uniforms, and Haley wondered at the wisdom of sending them out on a field assignment shortly after the failed training session.

There were civilians around, seemingly having a picnic.  A dozen children ran screaming around a playground, while a few adults stood around talking.  There were a few balloons around, and a stack of gifts on one of the tables. Haley looked around, trying to find the source of the trouble.

“What’s the situation?” she asked, walking briskly next to Reiki.  “Domestic abuse? Robbery?”

Reiki paused before the door and looked at her with raised eyebrows as they walked up to the party.  “Brace yourself,” he said.

From their right came a shout, “He’s here!  He’s here!” A young boy ran up to them and screamed, “Reiki!”

Even more surprising, Reiki’s face broke out in a huge grin as he knelt down on the boy’s level.  “Hey kiddo,” he said. “‘Course I’m here! I wouldn’t miss my best bud’s birthday!”

Even as he said it, Haley looked at the party and saw that nothing was wrong.  The decorations in the pavillion told her that the kid was turning eleven, though he seemed to be small for his age.  Reiki nudged her shoulder and she turned back to the birthday boy.

“Hi,” she said politely as the boy’s parents came up to them.  Reiki grinned at them.

“Mom, dad, this is Reiki!” the kid introduced.  “He’s the Watcher I was telling you about.”

The mom smiled at them.  “Welcome,” she said. “Thank you so much for coming; Robby hasn’t stopped talking about you for weeks!”

“Happy to be here,” Reiki said.  “I’m Reiki, and this is my colleague Outlier.  Robby here invited me a few weeks ago; I hope you don’t mind I brought a plus-one.”

“Not at all,” the mom said, shaking Haley’s hand too.  “Robby has been so excited, saying that a real live Watcher was coming to his party.”

“Ever since that show you put on, he’s been a completely different kid,” the dad said.  “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Oh, that?  No problem,” Reiki waved off the praise.  “Happy to help. By the way, here you go, bud,” Reiki said, pulling a present out of the bag for the kid and handing it to him.  “Happy birthday!”

“Wow, thanks!” the kid said, his eyes going wide.

“Hey champ, let’s go put that with your other presents,” the dad said.

The kid turned back to Reiki.  “Could you do the fireworks thing again?  Maybe later? Please?”

Reiki laughed.  “Sure thing,” he said.  “You get everyone together, and I’ll meet you over by the sandbox.”

The kid grinned, and ran to tell his other friends.  Haley couldn’t stop staring at Reiki; she had never seen him smile before, and he seemed like a completely different person.

As the kid – Robby, as his mom mentioned – ran off, his mother led them over to the pavillion and introduced them to the other adults there.  Haley leaned next to Reiki and whispered, “So, a really important mission, huh?”

“Yeah,” Reiki whispered back.  “I promised the kid I’d come.”

“I don’t recognize his parents,” Haley said.  “Do you know them?”

“Never met his mom before,” Reiki answered.  “I just met the kid and his dad in the park a few weeks ago.”

Just then, Robby ran back and grabbed Reiki’s hand.  “You’ve gotta come see this!” he said.

Reiki made a helpless gesture to Haley before letting the kid drag him off.  Robby’s mom laughed, as Haley tried to make sense of the situation. “So, how long have you known Reiki?” the mom asked, turning to Haley.

“Oh, I’ve only just started working at the Asylum,” Haley said.  “I’ve known Reiki just a couple of days. Agent – our boss – said that this would be a good mi… a good experience for me, so Reiki brought me along.”

The mom grinned at her.  “It’s nice to know that the Asylum is watching out for us,” she said.  “Robby and his father likes to ride their bikes to the park in the city.  It’s nice to live in a place where we don’t have to worry about the crime rate as much.”  She led Haley to the back door, explaining, “We just moved here last month from New York City, see, and that was no place for a kid like Robby to run around.”

“You mentioned a show,” Haley prompted.

“Oh, Reiki’s show,” Robby’s dad came up and joined the conversation.  “Reiki puts on a show in Central Park about once a week. Oh, he’s starting – watch.”

He pointed to where Reiki and the kids were gathered.  The kids all sat in a circle, watching Reiki in the middle as he started moving his hands to use his power.  He seemed to be plucking something out of the air, gathering something up.

Suddenly, Reiki started spinning his hands in a circle in front of his face.  Multi-colored lights traced the air where his fingertips were, creating a wheel made of light.  It looked like a normal light show, until he threw the wheel into the air and caught it as if it were solid.

The kids all clapped and cheered for the trick.  Reiki gave a small bow, and spun the ring up in the air again.  This time, he dove through the hoop in midair, doing a flip for his audience.  Haley was shocked to see him grinning broadly as he raised his arms, preparing his next trick.  Small explosions began popping above his fingertips as he created fireworks in the air.

“The kids really love him,” Haley mused aloud.  Robby’s parents both smiled at the scene.

“When we moved here, Robby didn’t have any friends,” the dad told her.  “He and I used to come to the park, but the other kids didn’t want to play with him.  Reiki came up after his show and asked Robby what was wrong; when he heard, he started putting on a show just for him.  Kids began gathering around, and Reiki used the show to introduce them all to Robby.”

“He’s been a completely different kid ever since,” the mom added.  “It’s like he’s come out of his shell. He’s never had that many friends before, even in our old home, but now he’s socializing and having fun.”

Haley smiled, watching her teammate as he created a sparkling rainbow in the air for a finale.  “Reiki’s really something, huh?” she said.

After his show, the birthday boy blew out his candles and the cake was cut.  Reiki came over to where Haley was standing and handed her a piece, taking a bite of his own piece.  “Having fun?” he asked. His face was back to its resting scowl, but it was softer around the eyes than Haley was used to.

Haley smirked at him.  “I never would have thought it,” she said.  “You’re just a big squish!”

“I am not,” Reiki protested, furrowing his eyebrows.  “What’s a squish?”

“You know,” Haley said, teasing him, “you’re so hard and tough on the outside, but underneath you’re just squishy marshmallow fluff.”  Haley took a bite of the cake before adding, “I have a brother like that.” As Reiki scowled at her, she nudged his shoulder with her own.  “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”

Reiki might have argued, but a police siren cut him off.  The Asylum communicators buzzed on in their ears at the same time, and Agent’s voice came over the coms.  “Reiki, Outlier, I hate to cut the party short, but there’s been an incident near you.” He gave the coordinates, and the two Watchers started running to the scene.

At the edge of the park, a Third Gen was spewing lava over the grounds.  Panicked civilians ran away from him, their screams piercing the air. “Who’s that?” Haley asked over the coms.

“Not sure,” Agent replied.  “He’s new, but he’s been trailing lava for the last few blocks.  It’s putting civilians in danger, and he needs to be stopped quickly.  Earthborn is ten minutes out, but he could set fire to the entire park by then.”

Haley pulled a pair of goggles out of her utility belt and put them on, and Reiki did the same.  “How are we going to get close?” Haley asked her teammate. Reiki just shrugged in response. The firefighters were busy putting out the lava that the Third Gen had trailed behind him, and the police were trying their best to keep the civilians away.  The air around the Third Gen was scalding, and neither Reiki nor Haley could get close.

Reiki bit his lip, and seemed to have an idea.  Before he could move, Haley grabbed his arm. “Hey,” she said.  “We need to communicate, or we’ll never beat this guy. What’s your plan?”

He glared at her, but said, “I might be able to draw the heat out of the air to get closer to him.”

“Good,” Haley said.  “Can you get us both in there?”

“I can try,” he grimaced, “but that’s a lot of energy to absorb.”

Haley thought back to his light show.  “Do you have to absorb it?” she asked. “Can’t you, i dunno, redirect it or something?”  She mimed the ring of light he had done earlier.

Reiki furrowed his eyebrows, but nodded.  “That might work,” he said. “Let me see if I can do it, then you follow behind me.”

He began spinning his hands in front of him, and Haley could feel the air cooling down.  A ring of light shone in his hands, and Reiki threw it up in the air above them.

It only lasted a few seconds before the air heated up again.  Reiki repeated the movement, and the duo moved a few feet closer.  Haley could see the strain that Reiki was taking with each toss of the ring, but he gritted his teeth and kept moving them.  She didn’t want to think about how they would get out of the burn zone if they failed to subdue the Third Gen.

There was no footing within ten feet of the Third Gen that wasn’t lava.  Reiki tried to cool some of it off, but he couldn’t work on both the ground and the air at the same time.  Haley took stock of their surrounding, trying to find a path through, but they were stymied.

The Third Gen saw them, and threw up another spout of lava in their direction.  “I can’t hold this for long,” Reiki said, stumbling. “Need to finish this quick.”

Haley took another look at the Third Gen, whose eyes were wide as another stream of lava came out of his mouth.  “Helk,” he cried, “ah cahn cahnolle eh! Helk!” His voice gurgled from the burning rock pouring from his mouth. It didn’t seem to burn him, but he also didn’t seem able to turn it off.

“Put him to sleep,” Reiki said.  He glanced at Haley, adding, “Chip gave you a knock-out pistol, right?  He’s asking for help because he can’t control it; we need to knock him out.”

Haley pulled a small pistol from her belt, checking the settings.  “I’ve never used this before,” she told Reiki, “but Chip told me it could stun an enemy.  Right?”

He glanced at the gun, nodding.  “It can. Set the dial to one,” he instructed.  “The kickback is minimal, but aim a little low just in case.  I’d do it myself, but…” he trailed off, tossing another ring of light into the air.  “Don’t miss,” he added. “That’s not something we like to use regularly.”

Haley had trained with firearms before when she was trying out for the police academies, but nothing like the tiny little peashooter Chip had given her.  It was the size of her closed fist; “compact” was the word Chip had used to describe it, but it was smaller than any other weapon Haley had ever held before.  Her only chance of hitting the Third Gen and knocking him out was to hope Reiki’s directions were correct.

She pulled the trigger, and a pulse of energy shot forward to the Third Gen.  Reiki was right, the kickback wasn’t nearly as much as the pistols she trained with, but there was enough that her wrist hurt from the effort of holding the weapon still.  The pulse hit the Third Gen with a loud POP, knocking him to the ground.

“Yes!” Haley cheered.  Reiki gave a weak smile, collecting more of the heat around them.  With the Third Gen knocked unconscious, lava stopped flowing from his mouth.  The heat began to lessen, and didn’t come back as much with each new toss of Reiki’s light ring.

The two Watchers left the heat zone, and Reiki collapsed on the ground.  His face was red, and his hands looked burned from the effort of dispersing the heat.  “Are you okay?” Haley asked him. Reiki just nodded.

The firefighters had caught up to the scene, and were cooling down the lava so that someone could get close to the Third Gen.  Agent pulled up in another car and walked over to Haley and Reiki to debrief them, with Dale following closely. “Thanks,” Agent said as police officers began containing the Third Gen.  Dale moved to Reiki and looked at the burns on his hands. “Witnesses confirmed that the guy suddenly lost control of his powers; putting him to sleep was the right call.”

“It was Reiki’s plan,” Haley said, clapping her teammate on the shoulder.  Reiki seemed close to passing out. “He’s the one who caught that the guy wasn’t doing it on purpose.”

“Aye, and he did well in keeping injuries to a minimum,” Dale added, using his own Third Gen power to heal the worst of Reiki’s burns.  “You two’ll have a bit of a sunburn left, but nothing some aloe can’t fix.”

Agent nodded, offering his umbrella to Reiki as a cane to help him stand up when Dale was finished.  “Good call,” he repeated. “You two worked well together; we might have to team you up more often.”

Haley looked at Reiki, who smiled at her.  “I had a partner who actually pays attention,” he admitted.  “I wouldn’t mind teaming up with Outlier again.”

Agent raised an eyebrow.  “Well, Earthborn should be here soon, and it’s technically your day off,” he said.  “You guys can go back to the party if you want.” He nodded to something behind them.  Haley turned around to see the kids and adults from the party looking at the scene in awe.  “Your fans await you,” Agent added with a smirk.

“Fifteen minutes,” Dale said.  “Then I want you on your way back to Headquarters for a full exam.”

Haley helped Reiki over to the kids.  He was still exhausted, and both of their faces and arms were still raw from the heat, but they assured the kids and their parents that they would be fine.  “Thanks for having us,” Haley said to Robby’s parents while Reiki said goodbye to Robby. “Sorry about the mess.”

“That was exciting,” the mom said, her eyes wide.  “You guys do that often?”

“Not really,” Reiki assured her.  “Just when we’re needed.” He shook their hands, managing not to wince from the contact with his newly-healed burns, and the duo walked to their car.

* * * * * * * *

Back at Headquarters, the next day.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Haley’s peeling burns itched, but there was nothing she could do about it now.  She was scheduled for a patrol with Reiki that afternoon, her first patrol since joining the Asylum.  She was supposed to meet Reiki in the motor pool beforehand, but decided to get some fresh air first.  She left the elevator at the lobby level, but as she walked towards the door to go outside she ran into a familiar face. “Hey,” Eli greeted her. “I heard about the excitement at the park yesterday.  You okay?”

“Yeah.”  Haley didn’t stop to flirt with him this time; she was on the clock, after all.  She walked outside, blinking in the sunshine, and Eli followed her out.

Eli pressed his lips together.  “They told you about me, huh?” he said.  Haley nodded. “I get it,” he added. “They don’t trust me, so you don’t trust me, either.”

“It’s not that,” Haley said.  “I just don’t know you.”

“You know of me,” Eli said.

“But I’ve only heard their side of things,” Haley shrugged.  She thought about Reiki’s behavior at the party as she added, “I’ve learned not to judge people on first impressions.”

“You don’t hate me?” he asked, beginning to smile.

Haley raised an eyebrow.  “To be clear, I don’t like you either,” she told him.  “I’m just not judging you based on hearsay.”

Eli straightened, smiling that cocky grin at her.  “Well then, milady,” he said, “I’ll just have to prove myself to you.”  He gave a mock bow and walked away.  Haley called after him, “Don’t get cocky!”

He just laughed and gave her a thumbs-up.  Shaking her head, Haley started jogging to where her teammate waited.  I’ll have to watch out for Butterfly, she decided.

She would most likely see him again.

* * * * * * * *

Issue #2 – …Come Great Things

Office building in Eon City.

Jorge Cruz, AKA Poisonshot.

“Where’s my sister?” Poisonshot demanded.  “You told me that if we pulled that job you would get us out if we got caught.”

“And I keep my promises,” the man in the shadows agreed.  “But I never told you when. I have an image to keep up, and so it will take time – ”

“I don’t give a damn about your image,” Poisonshot said.  “We go for my sister now.”  He pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow; while he didn’t point it at the man, it was meant as an unveiled threat.

The man in the shadows stood up, calmly straightening his suit jacket.  “Patience,” he said, walking around the desk to lean against the front of it.  He was intentionally making himself a bigger target, which reminded Poisonshot that he wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight with the suit.  “We’ll get your sister back. It just has to be on a certain timetable – otherwise, she would have been caught for nothing.”

“You never even told us why we had to hit that bank,” Poisonshot said.  “Now I have the Asylum searching for me, and my sister’s been locked up.  I think you owe us some answers.”

“Soon,” the man said.  “For now, though, I need you to finish what you started.”

Poisonshot raised an eyebrow.  “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.  “And when, exactly, will you give us what you promised?”

“You’ll get your reward when the job is done,” the man snapped, before composing himself.  “You did well, stabbing Shadow with that arrow. He’ll be out of commission for awhile. But the Asylum has a new member – and she needs to be tested.  Go after her, and I’ll be sure to give you what you need.”

“And my sister?” Poisonshot asked.

“In Zatvor, she’s currently better off than you are,” the man said, raising a hand.  The air in front of him seemed to tear open, revealing a desolate wasteland on the other side.  Poisonshot had seen the man do this before; he was a Third Gen who could open portals to many different places.

This time was different, though.  The air on the other side seemed almost blue with dust, and the ruined buildings seemed inhuman.  The man smirked at the bewildered look on Poisonshot’s face. “We’ll talk again soon,” he said before stepping through.  As the portal closed, he added, “Try not to get yourself caught, too. At least, if you want to get your sister back.”

As the portal closed, Poisonshot gripped his bow with white knuckles.  Screw you, he thought at the suit before turning to leave the office.  A small portal opened in front of him, dropping a file at his feet as if the man had heard the rebellious thought.  Poisonshot picked it up, thumbing through the file for instructions on his new target.

An Asylum noob, he thought as he read.  Just what’s so special about you?

* * * * * * * *

Outside Eon City National Bank.

Haley Prince, Newbie.

“Is he going to be okay?” Haley asked as they passed Shadow off to Dale’s medical team.  The arrow wound in his side looked serious; he had already lost a lot of blood, and from the nasty shade of red his skin was turning around the entry wound, the arrowhead had probably been poisoned.  The medical team took him in a helicopter directly back to the Asylum’s medical center.

Agent grimaced.  “Dale’s the best doctor in the country.  If anyone can stop the poison, it’s him.”

Haley bit her lip, knowing that he hadn’t answered the question and afraid to ask why.  The rest of the team had returned to the tower, all except for Reiki and Granny. Reiki had to go out on the next patrol, and Granny was still tracking down Poisonshot.  Agent stayed behind to supervise the clean-up, and Haley stayed with Agent since she wasn’t fully cleared in the headquarters building.

Earthborn had successfully caught Poisonshot’s partner Skadi, a snake-satyr, and after handcuffing her and putting a muzzle over her fangs they passed the criminal off to the police.  Agent explained that Satyr and Third Gen criminals, who might overwhelm a regular prison, were kept in a special facility outside of the city called Zatvor Penitentiary.

Just as Agent was explaining the process they had for booking criminals, he was interrupted by a loud roar and a flapping sound.  Haley involuntarily backed up as a large dragon landed in the bank’s parking lot.

Agent seemed nonplussed, as if he saw dragons every day.  “Oh, Granny’s back,” he said, clicking his tongue in disappointment. “Doesn’t look like she caught Poisonshot.”

Haley just looked at him, completely shocked.  Turning back to the dragon – an actual dragon! – she saw a familiar shape dismounting from its shoulders.  Granny turned back to the dragon with her knitting needles in hand and whispered something to it. The dragon folded its wings back and shrank until it could fit into the palm of her hand.  Granny bent down and picked it up before shuffling over to Agent and the startled newbie.

“I lost him about five blocks from here,” she reported bitterly.  “He slipped down a tunnel, and it branched a ways in. I think there must have been a hidden passage in there, but Herschel’s too big to take in the tunnel in the first place; I need to go back to the tower for Louise.”  Granny put her hands on her hips as she added, “Not to mention that a place that dark is more Shadow’s territory than mine. How is he?”

“Dale has him,” Agent told her.  “No news yet. I’ll send Reiki to the tunnels, see what he can find.  Haley, stop gaping. You’ve already met Granny.”

Haley quickly closed her mouth, which had been hanging open ever since the dragon landed.  Now that Granny was closer, she could see that the dragon had turned into a small, plush, knit toy in Granny’s hand.

Granny smiled at her, even though her eyes still showed her worry for Shadow.  “The short answer to your question is ‘magic’, dearie,” she said, patting Haley’s arm sympathetically.  “Not widely known, but it is still around. The long answer might have to wait for another day; it’s rather complicated.”

Haley nearly responded, but thought better of it.  After all, Agent and Granny were acting like the dragon was a usual occurrence; like the callsigns, it was probably something she would get used to.

Agent was already moving on, instructing Granny to take Haley back to the tower.  “I’ll be back in a bit,” he said, “but there’s still a lot to sort out here. Granny, could you make sure Haley is caught up with the others until I get back?”

“Will do,” Granny said, touching her needles to the plush dragon again.  Turning to Haley, she asked, “How would you like a ride on a dragon, dear?”

Given Haley’s expression, Granny already knew the answer.

* * * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

The team waits for news.

“Shadow’s still out, but Dale says he’ll be okay,” David told them when Granny and Haley returned to HQ.  “It was a good thing he bled so much; the poison was diluted, so it was easy-ish for Dale to counter it.” The team was in the common area’s lounge, waiting for either news on Shadow’s condition from Dale or else orders from Agent.

“Dale’s a Third Gen,” Rina explained to Haley, who looked confused.  “He can heal people with a touch, including cleaning wounds of irritants and poisons.”

That explained a lot.  With a Third Gen for a doctor, no wonder Agent wasn’t as concerned about injuries as everybody else.  “So what now?” Haley wondered aloud. “How do we catch this Poison guy?”

“‘Poisonshot’,” Natalie corrected her, standing up.  “And we,” she gestured to the veteran members of the team, “will do our job and track him down.  Newbies like you stay behind and wait until they have an actual uniform before going out on patrol.”

There wasn’t much Haley could say to that.  It was Rina who spoke up in her defense. “Hey, I’ve seen her stats.  Just because Haley beat you in a fight doesn’t mean you have to be so rude.”

“Beat me?  Hah!” Natalie laughed, but looked discomfited.  “Who told you that?”

“Parker,” Rina said, smirking at her.  “He said he heard it from Agent. You went to see what the new girl was made of, and you lost.”

“I’m going to kill them,” Natalie muttered.  “As soon as those smug bastards get back, they’re dead.”

“Anyways, Haley,” Granny said, as Natalie and Rina kept bickering, “When Agent gets back, he’ll give out assignments.  Reiki is going to the tunnels to see if he can find Poisonshot – but if the archer has any sense, he’s gone to ground.”

David stood up and stretched.  “We’ve got his sister in lockup,” he added.  “Those two never leave each other behind for long.  He’ll come out of the woodwork for her.” The elevator made a ding sound as the doors opened on their floor.  David added, “I’m more worried about why those two were robbing the bank.  Poisonshot and Skadi usually go for museums, and they don’t usually make so much noise about it.”

“That will have to wait,” Agent said.  “Reiki’s checking out the tunnels now, but he can’t look everywhere.  Nightmare, Granny, I need you to meet him in the tunnels. Granny, trade out your dragon for something that can fit down there.”

“Hey, what about me?” Natalie demanded as Rina and Granny turned to leave.  “Shadow was hurt by this guy; shouldn’t you put everybody out there?”

“You and Earthborn just finished patrol.  Earthborn doubly so since he also had to fight at the bank,” Agent told her.  “You know the drill: Dale has to check you out before any more assignments. Which means you two have to wait until he’s done with Shadow to join the hunt.”

“So you’re sending those two out with no backup?” Natalie said.  “That’s the kind of stupid call that got Frank hurt at the bank.”  She didn’t wait for a response, but stormed to the stairs to her room.

“That wasn’t fair,” David said, staring after her.  “There was no way to avoid a fight with those two, and sending in any more than me and Shadow would have just gotten in the way.”

“She’s just stressed,” Agent said, shrugging.  “I understand. Frank was an old friend of hers and Parker’s from long before they became Watchers.  Their moms were both on Team Ark together.”

Haley spoke up, “She’s got a point, though.  With how dangerous Poisonshot and Skadi were at the bank, we should assume that Poisonshot could surface again.  Shouldn’t more than three people go?” After she said it, she realized that she had just corrected Agent on her first day.  “I mean, you know, since there are some…” She trailed off, shrugging, before she put her foot further into her mouth.

“As it happens,” Agent said, amused by her outburst, “Chip says she has something you can wear.  I hate to throw you into it on your first day, but let’s see how you do out in the field.” Haley’s eyes widened, and a huge grin broke out on her face.  Agent added quickly, “You’re to stay close to Granny and Nightmare – if you guys split up, you don’t go off on your own. As soon as Trick and Earthborn are cleared for duty, they’ll come relieve you, and you come straight back to base.  This is recon only until they arrive; no taking any unnecessary risks.”

“I won’t let you down, sir,” Haley said breathlessly, biting her lip to stop smiling so hard.  She didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of her new team any more than she already did.

“Report to Chip on the fourteenth floor,” Agent ordered.  “As soon as you’re changed, meet Rina and Granny in the motor pool.”

“The motor pool?” Haley asked.

“B-1 on the elevator, dear,” Granny told her as she stepped into the elevator.  “Rina and I will meet you down there.”

As the elevator doors shut, Haley pumped her fist into the air.  Field work on her first day! Could it get any better than this?

* * * * * * * *

Tunnels under Eon City.

Reiki, searching for Poisonshot.

Probably not going to find him.

Reiki threw light into the stones around him as he walked through the tunnels.  He had been searching the tunnels for two hours since the bank heist; chances were that Poisonshot wasn’t down there anymore, but it couldn’t hurt to see where he was going.  His light stayed put, showing him the path out as well by illuminating the stones on the walls.

When he first entered the darker parts of the tunnels, he followed a trail left behind from when Poisonshot turned on a flashlight.  Reiki’s Third Gen powers allowed him to manipulate light and energy, including seeing where light had recently shone. But the trail stopped cold less than fifteen minutes into his search; Poisonshot must have turned off the flashlight at that point.  Since then, Reiki searched the tunnels methodically, lighting up the darker parts to see if there were any hidden passageways.

He made a gesture as if throwing something at the wall, but nothing happened.  “Welp, that’s as far as I can go,” he muttered. He peered as far as he could into the darkness, but saw no trail of where his prey might have gone.  He would have to go back out into the sunlight to recharge before he could continue.

As he turned around he heard a feint sizzling sound, as if something were being burned behind him.  Reiki turned back, but barely caught a glimpse of a rip in the stone wall before something hard hit him on the back of the head.  The last thing he saw before he collapsed was Poisonshot stepping out of a tear in the air itself.

* * * * * * * *

The Motor Pool.

Haley Prince, decked out and ready to go.

Haley’s new uniform itched.

Wish I could give it a wash first, she thought, wriggling uncomfortably before checking herself.  She desperately wanted to scratch her butt, but as this was still her first day she thought it would be crass.  Sure, she was in an elevator for the moment, but the last thing she needed was the doors to open on her scratching her ass for the entire team to see.

Despite its “new clothes” feel, the outfit looked amazing.  Haley had to admit that Chip had an eye for design: the unitard was a fashionable blue with red trim and a gold-colored utility belt, making her look like she stepped out of a comic book.  The fabric was light but sturdy, with extra armored padding around her knees, chest, elbows, and neck – Chip had told her that the padding could stop bullets if need be. The outfit was sleeveless, giving Haley the freedom of movement in her arms that she loved when working out, but included a light pair of gloves that would make it easier for her to grip heavy objects.  Her bust was supported without crushing her, so she could breathe easily and not make a scene even if she didn’t wear a bra underneath. It also left a little room in the hips, so that her underwear wouldn’t ride up. The boots were well-balanced, so that Haley couldn’t feel the extra weight of the steel toe. With her short-cropped hair, Haley felt like she could take on the world in this outfit.

Rina whistled when Haley stepped out of the elevator, and Granny nodded her approval.  “Chip’s outdone herself this time,” Rina said, gesturing for Haley to follow her to the car they had pulled around.  “That outfit looks amazing!”

“Now I just have to live up to it,” Haley said, getting into the passenger side and buckling up.  “Not taking the dragon this time, Granny?” she asked.

“I’m getting too old to ride everywhere, dear,” Granny said, sliding behind the wheel.  “Poor Herschel’s also getting worn from so many transformations. I’ve already had to stitch him up twice.  Best to let him rest a bit.”

Granny drove like a maniac.  They arrived at the tunnels in minutes, even though they were across town.  Haley and Nightmare jumped out of the car as soon as it stopped; Haley’s hand hurt from gripping the grab handle so hard, and Rina looked like she might throw up.  Granny slid out of her seat, picking up her silver knitting needles and her purse. “Oh, I keep forgetting: you young people don’t have the same reaction time I do.”

“On the way home,” Rina gasped, getting control of her stomach, “I drive.”

“Pish-posh,” Granny scoffed.  “We’re alive, aren’t we? Now let’s catch that crook!”  She marched over to the tunnel entrance as the two younger women stared.

“I’m learning all sorts of things today,” Haley said, shaking her head.  “I’m not sure if she’s crazy, but I want to be her when I grow up.”

Rina bit her lip and led Haley to the tunnels.  “Granny’s something else,” she said. “I’m not sure what, though.”

Granny began taking out another plush toy from her purse.  “Herschel would be too big for this,” she told Haley, tapping the side of her nose knowingly.  “But Louise is perfect.” She whispered to the toy, tapping her silver knitting needles to it as she set it down on the floor, and it grew into a large wolf.  The wolf began sniffing around the scene, occasionally looking back at Granny.

Haley wasn’t even surprised anymore.  After the dragon, a wolf seemed pretty tame – even though it was as big as her.  Granny slid on to the wolf’s back and said to Rina, “We’ll go ahead and find Reiki; Louise can sniff you two out again when we do.”

“Gotcha,” Rina said.  “The Outlier here and I will search on foot.”

“‘Outlier’?” Haley whispered.

“Your new call-sign,” Rina said, grinning at her.  “Reiki picked it, we all agreed. Welcome to the team, Outlier.”

Haley shook her head with a small smile.  She wasn’t sure of her new name, but now she felt more like a Watcher on the team instead of the newbie tag-along.  As Granny rode ahead on the wolf, Rina straightened up and became more business-like. “Right,” she told Haley. “We’ll start searching in a grid pattern.  Reiki will have started straight, no turns. We’ll start searching the side paths until Granny gets back.”

“Why do we think he’s still in the tunnels?” Haley asked.  “He could be anywhere by now.”

“We don’t think he’s still down here,” Nightmare said – Haley began thinking of the all-business Rina by her callsign.  “But if we find the passage he went through, then we can follow it to wherever he’s holing up.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Haley added, nodding.  “Agent wouldn’t have sent the new kid if he thought we might actually run into the target.”  A twinge of disappointment crept into her voice.

Nightmare smiled, not unkindly.  “You saw what this guy did to Shadow,” she pointed out.  “Stands to reason you would need some more training before you get put on a take-down.”

“Makes sense,” Haley said, her mouth twisting wryly.  There would be other criminals to catch; she didn’t have to get into a fight on her first day.

They took the first right down the tunnels, looking at the walls for any hidden passages.  In high school history class, Haley once learned that the tunnels were left over from the old city, connecting Eon City to the ruins underneath it.  After a flood wiped out the old city fifty years ago, Third Gens with elemental powers were paid to raise the ground up above sea level. As they couldn’t create new ground, they pushed the existing ground back to create large cliffs overlooking the ocean.  The ruins of the old city were pressed into a cavern directly below Eon City, and the tunnels were built so that people could still access the ruins as needed. It was a long hike down the tunnels, miles below the surface, and most people were not allowed to go down there.  The ill-lit tunnels became the perfect hideaway for criminals running from the Watchers, and so was deemed “unsafe” for humans to enter.

This was Haley’s first time in the tunnels, and she had never seen the ruined city before.  “Do you think he’s hiding out in the ruins?” she asked Nightmare as she remembered.

“Doubt it,” Nightmare said, still watching the tunnel walls for a hidden passageway.  “The ruins are miles down, and most of the passages down to it have been walled off. It wouldn’t be practical to run down there, even if there was a way down.”

“Not to mention the monsters,” Haley said, laughing.  At Nightmare’s puzzled silence, she added, “You know, the urban legends saying that monsters have taken over the old city?”

Nightmare shrugged.  “I’ve seen enough monsters in Eon City to worry about ones below my feet.”

“They’re not real,” Haley told her.  “It’s just something they told us in grade school to keep kids from exploring down here.”

“Oh,” Nightmare said.  “I never went to school.”

“Homeschooled?” Haley asked, trying to make conversation.  The dark tunnels were giving her the creeps, so she wanted to keep talking while they looked.

“Sort of,” Nightmare answered.  “I was part of an experiment with nine other kids.  They tutored us in our down-time.”

“Experiment?” Nightmare had said it so matter-of-factly that Haley found herself asking.

Nightmare didn’t mind talking about her past.  “Genetics research. Illegal, of course, but some companies still do it.  Some humans and satyrs want Third Gen powers, so they try to recreate the original Third Gen experiments.  In my case, they were trying to combine Third Gen with the Satyr serum to control the outcome. The result varied between the ten of us, but we all wound up with the black veins and red eyes.”  She stopped at a patch of the wall, peering intently at it as she added, “They called us Fourth Gens.”

Haley stopped asking questions.  Even though Nightmare sounded fine, Haley felt like she was bordering on some big secret about her new teammate’s past.  Nightmare noticed Haley’s silence and added, “Everybody on the team has a backstory. Mine’s nothing compared to some of the others’.  What about you?”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Haley answered, relieved enough to tell the other woman about her failed past.  “Eleven tries at the Watcher exams, while also trying out for every military and police branch I could find.  Wasn’t until I met Agent that I had a shot at becoming a Watcher.”

“Eleven tries?” Nightmare asked.  “I’ve seen your scores, though. You’re amazing in every test you’ve ever taken!”

“I have a photographic memory, and I’ve been training my whole life for this,” Haley said, waving off the praise.  “I’ve got a small medical issue that kept me out, until Agent decided to take a chance on me.”

“‘Small medical issue’?” Nightmare prompted.  “What could be so – ”

The ground exploded in front of her.

* * * * * * * *

Tunnels under Eon City.

Granny, riding her wolf.

As Louise followed Reiki’s scent, Granny tried contacting him on the communicator.  “Reiki, come in,” she said. As she heard only static in reply, she muttered, “Darn things don’t work well down here.”

She patted Louise absently on the neck, and the wolf turned to look at her.  “You’ll find him, though, won’t you?” Granny asked. Louise wagged her tail and began following his scent again.

They came into a better-lit corridor, and Granny saw signs of Reiki’s powers in the stones that glowed on the wall.  “Getting closer,” she said, scratching Louise’s right ear. “He should be somewhere…”

The light suddenly stopped halfway down the tunnel, but Reiki was nowhere to be seen.  “What in the world…” Granny muttered as Louise started circling one spot. The scent trail ended at the light, but there was nowhere else he could have gone.

Something’s wrong.  The realization hit her as she put two and two together.  “Louise, we need to get back to the others,” she ordered the wolf.  “As Ackbar would say: it’s a trap!”

* * * * * * * *

Tunnels under Eon City.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

“Rise and shine,” came a voice from above Haley.  She felt a few taps on her cheek, as if someone were slapping her awake.  “Let’s get this over with.”

Haley opened her eyes quickly, remembering the explosion.  She and Nightmare had been knocked off their feet as a purple cloud filled the tunnel.  The smell had been sickly sweet, and both Watchers had passed out within a minute of breathing it in.

Now Haley’s hands were tied behind her.  She was sitting up against the wall of the tunnels, facing both Nightmare and Reiki against the other wall.  Reiki was unconscious, but his chest rose and fell with his breathing. Nightmare was awake and glaring at the figure who had captured them.

Poisonshot – who else could it be? – was stoking a small fire between them.  “Good, you’re up,” he said. “The sooner we get this over with, the better.”

“What do you want?” Haley asked, squinting in the dim firelight to see him.  Taking a better look at their situation, she could see that Nightmare and Reiki both had gags over their mouths.  Since Haley could speak freely, she figured that she could keep him talking until Granny found them.

As if he could read her thoughts, Poisonshot said, “The rest of your team won’t find you for a while.  We did a thorough job of hiding our tracks.” He turned back to Haley. “As for what I want: I want my sister.  But that’s not what should concern you right now. What you should worry about is what my employer wants.”

“Oh?” Haley kept looking around for an escape route.  “And what’s that?” Her hands were tied with some kind of twine, but she couldn’t break it without getting a different angle.  Her feet were also tied together, so standing might be difficult without Poisonshot seeing. She couldn’t get the element of surprise, then, and Poisonshot’s bow was strung in his hand.

Seeing her squirm, Poisonshot said, “You could try to run, hero, but your friends would be at my mercy.”  Sure enough, Haley saw that Nightmare and Reiki were both tied up with more than twine – they were practically cocooned in thick hemp ropes up to their shoulders.

“So what is it your employer wants?” Haley asked him.  If she could keep him talking, maybe Granny or one of the others might find them.  There had to be a reason they were all still alive. Her heart was racing, and she started shivering in fear.

Oddly enough, Poisonshot also started to shake.  He gripped his bow tightly with a white-knuckled fist as he dug around for something in his pack.  “You know what?” he said, stomping over to Nightmare. “I’ve had it up to here with that power of yours.  I warned you, and now you’ll see I’m as good as my word.” He held a small vial under Nightmare’s nose, adding, “Time to sleep.”

Nightmare’s eyes rolled up in her head as she passed out again, slumping against her bonds.  Haley, still panicked from Nightmare’s powers, yelled, “What did you do to her?!”

“Relax, she’s only sleeping,” Poisonshot said, waving her off as he capped the vial.  “It’s the same knockout gas I dosed you with earlier. She’ll be out for an hour – maybe less – which gives us time to talk.”

“Fine then.  Talk,” Haley said, even as her heart rate came down.  She started to see what Rina had meant back at headquarters that morning about causing people around her to panic.  “What do you want from me?”

“It’s pretty simple,” Poisonshot said.  “I just want you to choose.”

Haley gave an exasperated sigh.  “You know, I really hate it when people beat around the bush.  Choose what?”

“Which of your teammates should I shoot?” Poisonshot asked.

“What?” Haley asked, taken aback.  “You’re crazy!”

“I should explain,” Poisonshot told her, sitting across the fire.  “See, my employer says he wants to test you. He’s been testing all of the Watchers in Eon City – probably elsewhere, too.  So he asked me to give you a bit of a ‘Sophie’s Choice’: I’m going to shoot one of your friends, and I need you to tell me which one.”

Haley stared at him.  “And why would I do that?” she asked.

Poisonshot shrugged.  “If you don’t, I’ll just shoot them both.”

“Why do you have to shoot anyone?” Haley asked.  She had to keep him talking until Granny could find them.  “Why don’t you just tell your employer to stuff it?”

“I could,” Poisonshot said.  “But see, I need his resources to get my sister out of Zatvor.”

“She wouldn’t be in prison if you hadn’t hit that bank,” Haley pointed out, twisting her hands behind her to free them.  Since Poisonshot had to look through the fire to see her, she felt safe doing so behind her back. “I assume that was under orders from your employer, too?  They said you don’t usually pull bank robberies.”

“You’re good,” Poisonshot said, nodding in approval.  “Yeah, we hit the bank under orders. He needed a distraction from something else.”

“What else was he doing?”  Haley’s wrists were raw, but she managed to squeeze her right hand out of the ties.

Poisonshot didn’t seem to notice in the dim light.  “Heck if I know,” he answered. “But he said he would help us if we pulled it off.  My sister’s sick, see.”

“Sick?” Haley asked.  Now that her hands were free, she played along until she could do the same with her feet.  That would be trickier to do without Poisonshot seeing. “Sick how?”

“She’s a snake-satyr,” he said.  “Like most snakes, her venom sacs didn’t grow in until she hit puberty.  Since then, they’ve been slowly poisoning her from the inside.”

Haley stopped moving in surprise.  “Oh,” she said, not quite sure what else to say.

“She needs an operation to remove them, and since we have no money and no insurance…”  He trailed off, raising his hands in a helpless gesture. “We started pulling jobs to save up enough.  Skadi’s even been running with the Fauns, ever since Claw told us he could give her an antidote. But it’s not a fix – soon her immune system won’t take the antidote any more, and we’ll be back at square one.  My employer said he’d pay for the operation if we pulled that one job.”

“And one job turned to two, and soon it’ll be three, and four,” Haley said, trying to kick off the ties on her feet again.  “When will it stop?”

Poisonshot gave her a tight smile.  “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But right now it’s the only chance we have.  She’s my sister – I’d do anything to keep her safe.” He stood up and came back around the fire, gripping his bow.  “And right now, that means I’ve got to shoot one of your friends. Have you made a choice yet?”

The twine was at her ankles, but it would have to do.  “Sure have,” Haley said. She bent her knees and rolled to a standing position.  “You’re not hurting either of them until you go through me, first.”

Poisonshot blinked.  “You’re kidding, right?” he asked, raising his bow to point it at her.  “I could pin you to the wall right now, and still shoot both of them before you could do anything to me.  Why would you risk it?”

“Because,” Haley said, grabbing the twine on her foot and snapping it since she had a second, “it’s what I do.”

She dove towards him, one fluid leap that she had learned from her brothers growing up.  Poisonshot’s arrow grazed her shoulder, but it didn’t stop her from tackling him. In close combat he wouldn’t be able to draw his bow; adding Haley’s experience wrestling guys four times his size, and she had a distinct advantage.

That didn’t stop Poisonshot from trying.  Haley yelled in shock as he dug the butt of his bow into the wound on her shoulder, and her grip on that side loosened enough that he could roll away from her.  He scrambled to his feet, drawing another arrow from his quiver and nocking it to his bow in one fluid motion.

As Poisonshot drew back the arrow, a howl echoed through the air around them.  He cursed, letting the arrow fall as if a timer had gone off on the fight. He put a hand to his ear, saying calmly to the air, “I’m gonna need an evac.  Now.”

Granny’s large riding wolf ran into the tunnel, snarling at Poisonshot.  Granny was still riding its back, one hand on its fur and one hand in the air as she hollered, “Don’t even think about drawing that bow!”

Poisonshot raised his hands in the air, one still gripping the bow, as a hissing sound crackled in the air behind him.  He grinned at Haley. “Well done,” he told her. “We’ll finish our chat some other time, shall we?”

The air ripped open behind him, showing an empty room.  Poisonshot waved as he stepped through the portal, even as Granny and her wolf charged at him.  The rip in the air closed suddenly, and Louise sneezed at the spot where Poisonshot had disappeared.

“Gosh darn it,” Granny swore.  “We’ll never be able to track him now.”  Turning back to Haley she asked, “How are you, dear?  That cut looks bad.”

Haley put her hand to her shoulder, feeling the damage.  “He just grazed me,” she said. “Check on Reiki and Nightmare; they’re both knocked out.”

“As you wish,” Granny nodded, dismounting Louise and examining the two unconscious teammates.  Nightmare was already stirring; the knockout gas that Poisonshot used on her was wearing off. “Reiki was hit over the head,” Granny reported aloud, pointing to a bump on the back of his skull.  “We’ll need to get him back to Dale. Louise?”

The wolf walked over to Granny, who was pulling another stuffed animal out of her bag.  Despite her injury, Haley came over and helped put Reiki onto the beast’s back. “I’ll stay here with Nightmare until she comes around,” Haley said, seeing the dragon toy in Granny’s hand.  “You take Reiki on the dragon, and we’ll take the car back.”

“What about that cut, dearie?” Granny asked.  “Isn’t bleeding a bit of a… problem… for you?”

Haley opened a small pocket on her utility belt, taking out a small bottle of liquid bandage.  “I can stop most of the bleeding,” she said. “I’ll be fine; go.”

Granny pursed her lips, but mounted Louise.  “If we don’t hear from you in an hour, we’ll send someone back.  And dear?” she added, turning Louise towards the tunnel entrance, “You did good.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Fourteenth Floor.

Haley Prince, End of Day 1.

“I’m sorry you got into trouble,” Agent said as Dale looked at Haley’s cut.  “I didn’t mean for you to be in so much danger on your first day.”

“Hey, everyone’s alive,” Haley shrugged, “and it makes for a heck of a story.”

Agent gave her a half-smile.  “Still,” he said, “First thing tomorrow, we start your team training.”

“What about Poisonshot?” Haley asked.  “Are we going after him?”

Agent’s smile turned thin as he told her, “If he’s using portals as you and Granny reported, then he could be anywhere in the world by now.”  He picked up his umbrella, adding, “We’ll just have to wait for him to come back into the open. I’m more concerned with his employer, in any case.”

Haley bit her lip, saying, “Poisonshot said that his employer was testing me.  That he’s been testing Watchers around the city, if not around the country. What do you think he meant?”

“No idea,” Agent admitted, “but it’s something we’re looking into.”

“Agent, if ye dinnae mind, I’ve got patients needing rest,” Dale pointed out.  Turning to Haley he added, “Lass, the arrow weren’t poisoned, so you’re good to go.”

“How’s Shadow?” she asked, sliding off the exam table and looking around.  “Is he okay?”

“Shadow’s fine,” came a voice near the elevator.  Frank stood there with David and Natalie, grinning at her.  “I hear you’ve had an interesting first day, huh, Outlier?”

She grinned back, heading over to join them as Dale moved on to examine Rina.  “Yep,” she said. “Arrows hurt, don’t they?” She looked at the spot where the arrow had grazed her shoulder, but the cut was gone.  Dale had used his Third Gen power to completely heal the damage.

“You’re telling me,” Frank said, chuckling.

“So new girl,” Natalie interrupted, “first day means we all go out for drinks.  What do you say?”

“You can tell us all about how you took on Poisonshot,” David said, playfully punching her shoulder.  “The others can join us as soon as they’re done here. I think Chip’s already down at the bar.”

Agent added, “We all could spare a couple hours from work.  I’ll schedule a stand-in to patrol this evening.”

Haley nodded.  “Stand-in?” she asked.  Agent chuckled, clapping her on the shoulder as they all stepped into the elevator.

“You still have a lot to learn,” he said.

Haley waved to Dale and Rina as Frank let them know where to go, and stepped onto the elevator with the others.  My new team, she thought proudly.

* * * * * * * *

Office building in Eon City.

Poisonshot, reporting.

“She did good,” Poisonshot told the suit.  “She kept me talking until she got her hands free, and she didn’t engage until I threatened the others.  She stood up for both of them, despite not knowing them that well, and played for time instead of just charging in.”  He shrugged noncommittally. “Is that what you’re looking for?”

“Maybe.”  The man in the suit sat back in the shadows, pressing his fingertips together as he considered Poisonshot’s report.  “I wish I could have seen more of her fighting style in action.”

“I got out of there when Granny showed up,” Poisonshot said.  “I’m not stupid enough to try and fight her.  We already know the outcome of that fight.”

The suit nodded.  “I get it. She’d wipe the floor with you.”

“Exactly.”  It wasn’t a blow to Poisonshot’s pride to admit it.  He’d seen Granny in action before; in a one-on-one fight with the old lady, with no civilian hostages crowding her space, she would win.  “Now, about my sister…”

The man in the suit looked at him expectantly.  “What about her?”

“When are we going to get her out of Zatvor?” Poisonshot demanded.  “I’ve done what you asked, I ‘tested’ the new girl. Skadi needs that antidote, and she needs an operation.  Why won’t you get her out?”

The man in the suit looked at his watch.  “It takes roughly sixteen hours for the antidote to wear off and for Skadi to start showing signs of being poisoned, correct?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Poisonshot said.  “And we’re coming up on that, fast.”

“Then in about two hours, the guards will be informed that there is something wrong with one of their inmates,” the man said.  “Skadi will be taken to the prison hospital, where they will discover the problem with her venom, and they will then extract the venom sacs for free.”

“What?” Poisonshot said, dumbstruck.  “Why would they do that?”

“Because Zatvor has certain rules in place,” the suit explained.  “They can’t allow a prisoner to die without at least trying to fix them.  With the right bribes, and the right doctors scheduled, they’ll fix your sister.  She can recover at Zatvor, and then we’ll extract her.”  He smiled sarcastically up at Poisonshot.  “Sound like a plan?”

“She’ll get better?” Poisonshot asked, hopeful.

The man in the suit nodded.  “As I keep saying, she’s in a better position than you are right now.”  He gestured between himself and Poisonshot. “You and I aren’t done yet.”

Poisonshot breathed a sigh of relief.  Skadi would be okay; that was all he cared about.  Looking at the man in the suit, he considered the bargain he had made for his sister’s life.  Worth it, he thought.  He straightened his spine as he asked, “What do I have to do?”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #5 – Haley

Watcher Licensing Exam

Haley Prince, Exam #11

Faster than a cheetah.

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

Stronger than a rhino.

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

Agile as a cat.

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

Steady as a boulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faster than a cheetah I run through the night,

Patient as a rainfall I wait for the light.

Stronger than a rhino, I help those in need,

Steady as a boulder I give word and deed.

Anger rolls through me, agile as a cat,

Fear flies away to the night like a bat.

Peace keeps me strong in times of doubt,

Strength keeps me steady in times without.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope.

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

* * * * * * * *