Asylum Bonus Story #1 – Team Ark

History Lesson: A Watcher’s Function in Society.

From a class taught by Agent five years ago.

Watcher licenses are one of the most difficult achievements in today’s society.  An individual who wishes to become Watcher-certified must complete either a year-long training program or one thousand hours of apprenticeship.  When a licensed Watcher signs off on the training portion, Watcher hopefuls must pass multiple tests of their physical and mental skills, as well as a physical exam of their well-being.  Most people these days believe that one must be either a Third Gen or a Satyr to pass all of these tests, given how few humans have managed to do so since the regulations were enacted.

This was not always the case.

Watcher testing used to be only a simple written exam.  Anyone who read a rule book could pass the test and gain their license for government-sanctioned vigilante work.  The Watchers were originally established as a means of keeping the super-powered among us from destroying our country’s economy by streamlining other work.  Why would a construction company hire a hundred human workers if they could get the same job done in less time with one elemental Third Gen? Delivery companies who hired speedsters would monopolize the market.  And so on, and so forth.

To contain the ire of the humans – who outnumbered the Third Gens and Satyrs two hundred to one – most state governments bowed to union regulations, and passed bills that prevented employers from hiring Third Gens and Satyrs.  Some states only enacted one or two such laws, giving local authorities the option at the city and county levels to enact further ones. Others enacted dozens of these bills, outlawing more than employment, but also inter-racial marriage, children, education, and in two extreme cases, outlawing any persons legally labeled as Third Gens and Satyrs from entering the state in an attempt to curb the non-human working populations.  Some of these laws are still in effect today.

These were dark times for those with heightened abilities.  In a few short decades, they went from being the desired state of humankind to “freaks of nature”.  Most Third Gens chose to pass as regular humans, hiding their abilities and keeping their heads down.  Satyrs lacked that option, as their abilities showed in their animalistic features.

The inequality between the humans, Third Gens, and Satyrs led to the rise of gangs such as the Fauns and the Skels, who used violence and intimidation to keep employers from discriminating against them.  Gangs and mob families began employing satyrs as muscle, and the police were unable to keep up with the rising crime rates.

Enter Julius Reign, the Senator from New York who proposed the first Watcher bill, known colloquially at the time as the Superhero bill.  The bill proposed that the government create a website that allowed any registered person to post or find jobs based on their ability level.  Based on superhero comics from previous generations, it would give the Third Gens and Satyrs the option of using their powers to fight crime instead of causing it.

It was shot down in Congress five times before a draft was considered good enough to pass.

The draft to make the final cut became the current federal Watcher Licensing Program.  Using contractors such as Pharos Corporation and King Enterprises in a joint-venture operation, they developed a website that would allow anyone to post job listings for individual or ongoing tasks that required greater-than-human abilities.  The Meta-Human and Vigilante Task-Force was formed under the Agency to regulate these postings, and provide any government-related assistance they might require. Agents of the Task-Force were assigned to assist certain postings, and in most major cities teams of Watchers would work with an Agent to complete the hardest assignments.

Posts were generally made from the police departments, who put their most-wanted bounty lists up to take the edge off of their officers in hunting down dangerous criminals.  Missing persons reports, bouncer gigs, legal odd jobs, and other such matters were also posted for Watchers to take as they were able. For twenty years, the system worked: crime rates began to fall to manageable levels, and employment was on the rise.

Then, about ten years ago, something changed.

A criminal codenamed “Jaunt”, who had started out as a petty thief, began amassing an underground network of criminal activity.  He began connecting people who wanted an illegal job done with criminals who could pull it off. For an as-yet unknown reason, he also began targeting Watchers.

Around the same time, the Task-Force created a team in Eon City to reign in the growing crime rate.  These Watchers, known as Team Ark, were meant to be not only vigilantes, but heroes – Third Gens and Satyrs that people could look up to and emulate.  Unlike most Watchers, Team Ark was constantly in the public eye. Everybody knew their codenames, and listings on the Watcher site specifically requested them.

Last year, as most of you know, Team Ark disbanded over a few serious incidents.  The first of these was the death of Hippolyta – after her patrol, her body was found in an alley.  Evidence points to a Faun attack, but without proof of which individuals committed the murder, the case cannot be closed.

Lyta had a very public funeral, at the insistence of the Task-Force.  They made her a monument in Eon City’s cemetery, and news crews covered the event.  This led to protesters gathering, claiming that satyrs and Third Gens – like Lyta’s family – were a danger to society.  Lyta’s funeral turned into a media circus, and her husband and children were accosted by the protesters. Her daughter wound up punching one in the face, and frankly I couldn’t blame her…

But I digress.

Team Ark continued to operate for three months after Lyta’s death before one final incident broke them apart.  Jaunt – the criminal who was hunting Watchers – came to Eon City. After a few robberies, Team Ark managed to track him down and confront him.  While the details of the encounter are not public knowledge, the aftermath was picked up by the media: Striker had disappeared, and Star was crippled.

After that, the team fell apart.  Sparrow left to try and find Striker, and Kindred and Star went into retirement.  Marauder, one of the younger members of the team, tried to keep up the work for a couple of months, but then even he left over differences with the Task-Force.

Watchers still function in society, but the standards of those who carry licenses have become more strict.  The protests that began at Lyta’s funeral have caused the government to tighten their regulations across the board to appease the vocal masses.  Recently there has been talk of certain state laws becoming federally-mandated: the Satyr licensing laws, interspecies marriage acts, and others like those that are meant to curb and control the Satyr and Third Gen populations.

I’ll let you decide the morality of that.  It seems like our time’s up – class dismissed.

* * * * * * * *

Scene: The Fall of Team Ark

Eon City, nine years ago.

“Okay, I’ll admit this guy’s good,” Star said over her com to her team as she skated down Main Street after their target.  “Three jumps later and he hasn’t even slowed down.”

“That’s why it’s a bad idea to get cocky,” came the dry voice over the intercom.  Agent, the team’s young coordinator, had warned Star about exactly that when they had finally managed to put a tracker on this guy.

“Star can’t help getting cocky,” said Marauder’s voice in her ear.  “She won a steak dinner when she put the tracer on his foot. I can’t believe you got close enough.”

“Ninja skills,” Star said, grinning, “and a whole lot of luck.”

“Luck only gets you so far,” Sparrow told her.  Star caught a glimpse of the girl’s russet-brown cape jumping over the rooftop next to her.  The name “Sparrow” was a misnomer; Cassandra Johnson had the ability to see into the future. She modelled her outfit to make her look like a Satyr, to thumb her nose at the Task-Force’s policy of only hiring Third Gens.  The girl’s outfit included a sturdy, kite-like cape that attached to her arms, allowing her to glide over rooftops and helping her keep up with the speeding Star.

Sparrow’s older brother, Striker, stayed silent as he ran next to Star, but he did nod in agreement when the older woman glanced at him.  He was the only member of the team who could keep up with Star when she wore her Seven-League Boots – which was the fancy name for her rocket-powered skates.  Striker could move at superhuman speeds, giving him an edge in most fights.

The last member of Team Ark was Kindred, who drove a motorcycle on her other side.  Star’s husband was a Satyr-Third Gen hybrid, who had a cat’s tail and ears but also the ability to make people see things that weren’t there.  He usually used his illusions to make bad guys think they had been surrounded, so most articles written about him made people think he could duplicate himself.

Star was the only human in the group, but the Task-Force insisted that the media call her a Third Gen.  It was plausible; her ninja-like ability to sneak into places could be seen as superhuman sometimes. The head of the Task-Force insisted that only Third Gens – or those with Third Gen abilities, such as Kindred – be allowed on the team for public relations purposes.  Third Gens were seen as the most powerful Watchers, so the team had to reflect that ideal. Most of the team disagreed with the standard, especially in light of the current protests, but there wasn’t much that they could do about it.

Star kept skating, turning her attention to the siblings.  “I know you two were practically raised by the stiff-necks at the Task-Force,” Star told them, “but we really need to work on your sense of humor.  No offense, Agent.”

“None taken,” came the jocular reply.  “At the Task-Force we might be stiff, but either one of our prodigies there could probably kick your ass.”

Star snorted.  Unlike other Agents she had worked with over the years, this one was the first to respond to her banter.  It made for a refreshing change of pace; this Agent was young, only in his early twenties, but he had a reputation for being the best.  So far, he had lived up to the hype in Star’s eyes.

Team Ark was the Alpha Team of the Meta-Human/Vigilante Task-Force, a branch of the DoD specializing in tracking down Third Gen and Satyr criminals.  Their current target was a Third Gen who seemed to be able to open holes in space that would take him anywhere in the country. Star had finally gotten close enough to him on their last encounter to put a small tracking device on him, and now they were following it to the thief’s current location.

“So what are we calling this guy again?” Marauder asked as the team came to a stop outside of the building that they were led to; it was an office building for Pharos Industries, the top defense contracting firm in the country.  Star used her goggles to scan the place, noting that the tracking device was on the top floor.

“’Jaunt’,” she answered, retracting the wheels on her boots and opening the door.

“Ridiculous name,” Sparrow muttered, following Star into the building.

“Star’s right,” Marauder said, grinning, “you do need to lighten up.”  He waved a hand in a vague gesture, and Sparrow started chuckling.

“Stop… it,” she chortled, obviously trying not to laugh out loud.  “I need… to concentrate…”

“Marauder,” Star warned, leading them all over to the stairs, “not now.”

The young man sighed.  “Fine,” he said, waving his hand in the air again, “but princess over there ought to learn to laugh on her own.”  Striker bumped him with his shoulder. “Ow,” Marauder said, rubbing his shoulder. “Same goes for Chuckles, here.”

“Ten floors,” Sparrow sighed as they all got in the elevator.  “Do you think you can be quiet just for ten floors?”

“Doubtful,” he grinned.

Star shook her head.  Sometimes her younger teammates reminded her of her children; she and Kindred were the only ones over thirty.

She shook that thought out of her head.  Not lately, she reminded herself.  Since Lyta’s death, Sparrow and Striker seemed older, never laughing or having fun.  Marauder seemed to want to make up for it – he and Striker had always been close, and now Marauder seemed to make it his personal mission to cheer them up.

Sparrow knocked Star out of her reverie by falling into her.  “Hey,” Striker said, catching his sister before she hit the ground.  “What was that?”

“Vision,” Sparrow said, putting a hand to her head as she got back to her feet.  “A big one – they don’t usually hit that hard.”

“What about?”  As Star asked the question, the elevator opened at the top floor.  Star scanned the area for Jaunt with her goggles set to infra-red. There was only one heat signature on the floor, so she silently directed the team towards it.

The signature led them to a large office bullpen, with rows of desks lining the giant office space.  It didn’t seem like an important part of the building, until they came to a small plaque that read, “Sean Hannah, CEO”.  The thief was rummaging through a nearby desk.

The thief known as Jaunt looked unremarkable at first glance.  He was an average height and a skinny build, though his pale blue eyes shone through his mask as he looked up in alarm.

Next to Star, Marauder raised a hand.  Star knew from experience that Marauder would make the bad guy feel guilty.  Jaunt closed his eyes and shook his head, but then picked up a sheaf of papers and did a kong vault over the desks behind him.

“What?!” cried Marauder.  “He’s not supposed to do that.”

“Maybe you messed up,” Sparrow said.  She looked at her brother, still shaking her head from the vision.  “Striker – ” she started, but he cut her off.

“I got him,” Striker said, before speeding around the desks to where Jaunt was running away.  The air shimmered around the thief as Jaunt clapped his hands together.

“No, wait!” Sparrow shouted, grabbing Star’s arm.  “We need to stop him – ”

“That’s what we’re doing,” Star told her, yanking her arm out of the girl’s grip.  She jumped onto a desk, heading towards Jaunt.

Sparrow called after her, “No, Striker – ”

Jaunt pulled his hands apart, and a man-sized hole opened up in the air next to him looking onto a deserted landscape.  Striker tried to stop before he ran into it, but Jaunt grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him through. Sparrow screamed a warning, but Star was already in motion.

Marauder pulled out his handgun, firing at the thief just as Star reached him.  Star felt a blinding pain in her leg, knocking her down before she reached the thief.  Dimly she heard Sparrow screaming again in the background. In front of her, Jaunt stepped through the portal, clutching a graze on his forearm as it closed behind him.

Star suddenly felt cold, as if she was missing something significant.  She looked at her leg, and saw that her knee was a bloody mess. There were white shards sticking out of the hole, and it felt like that might be important.

She felt rather than saw her husband run up to her.  She tried to tell him that she was fine, but then everything went black.

* * * * * * * *

Team Ark Headquarters, an hour later.

What just happened?

“What the hell happened?!” Agent shouted.

“I don’t know.”  Tears absently fell from beneath Sparrow’s mask as she and Marauder reported back to Team Ark’s headquarters.  The spacious training room was silent, but Sparrow felt as if she was being bombarded by a din of noise from her own thoughts.  She had seen it coming; she knew it was going to happen before it did. Why couldn’t she stop it?

Marauder’s voice added to the mix, snapping her back to the present.  “Somehow he knew we were coming. He was prepared to get away.”

“Kindred took Star to the hospital for her leg,” Sparrow added, her voice sounding hollow, even to her.  “And Striker…” She trailed off, refusing to think about her brother’s fate.

“I saw.”  Agent ran his fingers through his impeccably-groomed hair, mussing it for the first time in front of other people.  “This is a disaster,” he said, closing his eyes. A second later, he was running back to his computer screens, pulling up security footage from two different buildings on the monitors.

The first, Sparrow recognized as King Enterprises’ Laboratory; that was where it had happened.  The footage was from the past hour, replaying the worst moment of her life. She refused to look at the screen, choosing instead to focus on the second: current footage from Eon City’s hospital, following Star as she was carried on a gurney into surgery.  Kindred followed his wife, but was told to wait in the hallway outside. He raised his hands as if he was going to fight the doctor to stay, but then his shoulders slumped in defeat. He obediently moved to the opposite wall, collapsing to the floor. Next to Sparrow, Marauder was flinching away from that screen.

Good, she thought, narrowing her eyes at him.  She knew that she just needed someone to blame, but if Marauder hadn’t fired at the wrong moment then Star could have easily caught the target.  Instead, she now had a bullet stuck in her shattered kneecap, and Striker…

Even before joining Team Ark, Sparrow and Striker had been a brother-sister duo of vigilante Watchers.  He was her best friend, her teammate, and now he was… he must be…

Sparrow snapped herself out of that line of thought, shaking her head to clear it.  She didn’t know what had happened to her brother; he had just disappeared.

She forced herself to look back at the first screen, which showed the moment that the mysterious portal had opened.  On the monitor it looked like bad CGI, but in person it had been like a hole had opened in midair. It could have been a jagged mirror or a large picture, if it hadn’t been for the dusty, sandy scent coming from the other side.  The hole was just large enough for a person to step through, if they stooped a little to fit.

A bolt of lightning – which is what Striker looked like when he moved at his fastest speeds – ran towards Jaunt, who pushed it into the portal.  Star jumped off the desk to stop Jaunt, but missed when Marauder fired his handgun into her kneecap. The bullet went through, but only grazed Jaunt’s arm.  The target stepped through the portal, which closed behind him, leaving four team members in the otherwise empty room. Star’s knee bled profusely as Kindred ran up to her, and she passed out from pain, shock, and blood loss within a minute.

Sparrow watched herself on the screen as she cried out for her brother.  Sparrow had seen all of this before it happened, from her vision in the elevator.  Before she could warn her teammates, though, it seemed like it had already played out.  Now Star was fighting for her life in the hospital, while her brother was who-knows-where fighting the most dangerous criminal that the team had ever faced by himself.

“I’m going to find him,” she announced suddenly.  She hadn’t realized that she was going to leave until she said it.

As she turned towards the door, Agent said, “You know that he could be anywhere.  If he’s still alive, he’ll come back to us as soon as he can on his own.” She stopped, considering his point.  “Please don’t go,” he added. Marauder stood silently, still watching the screens.

Agent was only a few years older than her, and they both were in their twenties.  That’s why Star and/or Kindred usually led the missions: their experience was usually invaluable to the team.  Agent was the tech guy who only joined a fight when necessary. His pleading eyes reminded her how they had trained together in the Task-Force, unlike the rest of the team.

Star and Kindred were in their late thirties, parents of two young teenagers, and had joined the team to keep their family safe.  Marauder was an ex-marine in his mid-twenties who joined because of his love of adventure. Agent joined as part of the organization sponsoring their team, to make sure that they toed the line and followed the rules.  But Sparrow…

Sparrow had followed her older brother.  She was his sidekick when they were teenagers, and joined Team Ark when he did to stay with him.  Their parents were killed when she was ten, and he had been all she had left. When Striker decided to join the Task-Force program to help make Eon City safer, Sparrow went with him because she didn’t know where else to go.

The same feeling hit her now: she had to find her older brother.  If he was injured, he might not be able to make it back. If he was okay, he probably would have gotten back to headquarters before she did.

“I’m sorry,” she said, walking out the door.  She had made up her mind, and nothing was going to change it; and if she looked back on the remnants of her team, it was only because she was closing the door behind her.

* * * * * * * *

Agency Headquarters, two years ago.

Agent.

The briefing room was quiet.  Agent liked it that way; it gave him time to think as his gaze slid over the papers on the table in front of him for the hundredth time that morning.  He didn’t need to read them again – he had memorized their contents after the second reading – but the misgivings he felt over this assignment made him worry over the papers like a dog with a bone.

Shaking his head, he sat back in the large, cushioned seat, letting his umbrella rest against his leg as always.  Like every other Agent, he could trust that his appearance was impeccable in his three- piece suit, and years of habit kept him from slouching even when he was alone.

Agent wasn’t alone, however.  A woman, equally impeccably dressed, sat across the table from him with her hands folded in front of her.  The grey bun and horn- rimmed glasses made her look like the world’s strictest librarian, but Agent knew better.  “Well?” she asked him, seeing that he had finally met her gaze.

“It’s not every day that I get a mission briefing from O.N.C. herself,” Agent said, crossing his arms.  “This must be big.”

“Don’t be pert,” O.N.C. told him, straightening her glasses.  “I’m here to discuss the new team you will be forming.”

Agent rolled his eyes.  “You mean the team I’ll be babysitting,” he told her, pointing to the papers on the coffee table between them.  The papers were personnel files on different vigilantes in Eon City, most of whom were either new on the scene or came from problematic backgrounds.  Which pretty much summed up every vigilante that Agent had ever met, if he was honest with himself.

He was not happy about his latest assignment.

“Half of these people are so green, you could juice them for a mojito,” he told O.N.C., who looked confused.  Agent clarified, “Like limes.”

Raising her eyebrows, O.N.C. smirked at him.  “Your euphemisms were better in training.”

“Beside the point,” Agent said, waving a hand irritably.  “I can’t run a half- baked team to defend a safety deposit box, much less a city.”

“These kids are the best at what they do,” O.N.C. told him.  “You need a team to handle the bigger assignments – ”

“So why can’t I use an Agency team, like normal?” Agent asked.  “You know what happened last time I tried to run a Watcher team!”

O.N.C. paused before answering, long enough that Agent muttered a short apology for interrupting.  She stood up slowly, looking straight into his eyes as she answered. “I’m not sure you’re understanding me,” she told him.  “I’m not asking you. You do not have the option of turning this assignment down. In the interest of compliance, however, I will tell you that there is more riding on this than you know.”

She began walking around the table with her hands behind her back, the picture of nonchalance.  “Eon City has turned into a virtual rat’s nest for underworld activity,” she told him. “Thieves with Third Gen abilities prowl the streets at night.  Gangs like the Fauns have set up bases there. Most recently,” she added as she stopped right in front of Agent, “there have been a rash of Satyr kidnappings in the area.”  O.N.C. folded her arms in front of her. “The Agency is already stretched thin between our overseas operations and the small task- forces we’ve set up at home, and Eon City isn’t the only city like this in America right now.  Project Asylum is meant to use the resources already in place – the cities’ Watchers – to help clean up the crime running rampant in this country. The goal is to fund them, outfit them, and use their abilities and their drive to help the Agency with issues that arise.  These people are untrained, but their abilities are unmatched in the city, and with our help and guidance, they could do a lot more than they currently are.

“Maybe I need to find someone who’s got more balls,” she finished dismissively, “but I need my best agent on this job, and right now that’s you.”

Agent stared for a second, this time making sure that she was done before answering.  “I understand that I can’t turn this down,” he said. “As much as I want to. What I’m questioning are the exact choices you’ve made here.”  He pointed to the personnel files. “First is Shadow, who has only been doing this for a few months.”

“He’s the best infiltrator you’ll find,” O.N.C. said.  “He trained with Star herself. He also finished his Watcher training by shadowing Kindred on missions.  With a pedigree like that, you won’t find anybody better at what he does.”

“His Third Gen power is negligible, and he’s not a satyr,” Agent argued.  “How could there be no one better?”

O.N.C. smiled, leaning against the table.  “You’ll just have to meet him and find out,” she told him.  “I know your history with his parents, but Frank Mejia is very good at what he does.  You worked with Star, who was human – and you know that she was still the best. I have to insist on Shadow joining the team.”

Taking a frustrated breath, Agent continued.  “What about Reiki?”

“A Third Gen who creates light from his hands,” O.N.C. prompted.

“A kid who has no business at a crime scene,” Agent protested.  When O.N.C. didn’t respond, he gestured to the others. “Kindred, Sparrow, and Marauder, all a part of Team Ark.”

O.N.C. walked back to her seat.  “They all have years of experience working on a team like the one you’re forming,” she said, “What’s the problem?”

Agent sighed.  “Don’t beat around the bush,” he told her.  “Team Ark fell apart five years ago, in a very messy fashion.”

“I know the details,” O.N.C. said.

“Then you know that there is no way that I’m going to get these guys to work together,” Agent insisted, pushing the papers away.  “I’d have a better chance of training a cat to do ballet.”

O.N.C. sat down, entwining her fingers on the table in front of her.  “What are you hoping to accomplish here?” she asked. “We’ve established that this is not an optional assignment for you.”

“Let me pick my own team,” Agent said.  “I’ll ask Shadow and Reiki, if you insist, but there are more qualified candidates in the city that don’t have the history and stigma of being on Team Ark.”

O.N.C. stared at him calmly.  “I must insist that you at least ask your former teammates,” she said.  “But, given their history, I will concede that you might not get them to agree.  Who would you suggest we take instead?”

“The Fawkes twins,” Agent said immediately.  “Natalie and Parker were the top of their class in training, and they’re already doing well as Watchers.”

“Parker Fawkes, yes,” O.N.C. admitted.  “But Natalie Fawkes? The girl has a record!”

“Nothing proven,” Agent pointed out.  “She was never caught.”

“She climbed Pharos tower and shot fireworks off the top,” O.N.C. said.

Agent shrugged.  “She was fourteen years old at the time,” he pointed out, “which shows her physical abilities.  And she was never convicted.”

“She’s human,” O.N.C. said.

“We went with all Third Gens on Team Ark,” Agent pointed out.  “We need some diversity. Which is why I’m also suggesting Sabrina Dawson.”

“The Fourth Gen girl?” O.N.C. said, considering.

“She has abilities, but she’s also a satyr hybrid – as is Parker Fawkes,” Agent said.  “My other candidates would include Brittany James, Toby Watson, and Eli Howard.”

O.N.C. was silent for a minute.  “I hope we’re thinking of different Brittany Jameses,” she finally said.  “The one I know of is an old lady who claims to know demons.”

“Crazy or not, she has a dragon,” Agent said.  “I’ve seen her powers; she would be a heavy-hitter.”

“Toby Watson keeps a low profile,” O.N.C. continued.  “She’s a satyr who already leads a double life; this team would require her to give one up.”

“She’s the best forensic tracker I know of,” Agent said.  “I can at least ask.”

“Eli Howard is a sociopath,” O.N.C. said.  “He’s known as Butterfly because he doesn’t have a focus, and he prefers the company of bugs to people.”

“He’s a Third Gen with hyper-proprioception,” Agent said.  “He’s a sharpshooter with extraordinary fighting abilities.”

“I’ll approve Brittany James and Toby Watson, assuming you can get them,” O.N.C. said, “but I will not have someone with Butterfly’s track record.  This team is supposed to be in the public eye – Watchers that people can look up to as heroes.”

“But the others?” Agent asked.

“You may ask them to join,” O.N.C. said, “on a probationary basis.  If these work out, then you can have more autonomy in your other choices.”

“Great,” Agent said, standing up.  “One more name to consider: David Perry.”

“There is no doubt about that one being a criminal,” O.N.C. said, alarmed.  “He destroyed half the city!”

“He wasn’t himself,” Agent insisted.  “He’s on a treatment plan now, and we can keep him in the background until people get used to the idea…”

O.N.C. stood up as well, straightening her blouse.  “He is not Asylum material,” she insisted.

“He needs a place to stay, at least,” Agent said.  “He’ll be released from the hospital soon, where he has been a model patient.  His powers would be too much for even Zatvor to handle – at least let him stay in the headquarters, where these Asylum heroes can keep an eye on him.”

At this point, the door to the briefing room opened.  Sean Hannah, the new CEO of Pharos Industries, entered saying, “Sorry I’m late, traffic was awful.”  He closed the door behind him.

“Ah, Mr. Hannah,” O.N.C. said.  “Let me introduce you to the Task-Force’s top Agent.”  She turned back to Agent, adding, “Pharos Industries will be helping to fund this project.”

“Pleasure,” the CEO said, shaking Agent’s hand jovially.  “You’ll be the one to spearhead Project Asylum, then?”

“Looks like it,” said Agent with a glance at O.N.C.  “We were just discussing names of Watchers to add to the list.”

“Good,” Sean Hannah said, sitting down.  “Any I might have heard of?”

“Mr. Hannah was a Watcher himself in Colorado,” O.N.C. mentioned.

“Ah, but my team was never as well-known as Eon City’s Team Ark,” he said, waving a hand dismissively.  “I understand you were a member?” he asked Agent, who stiffened at the mention of his old team.

“That was years ago,” he said, “and it didn’t end well.”

Sean nodded, perching on his seat with his elbows on the table.  “I understand,” he said. “This must be hard for you, but it is vital that we form this team.”

“The Watchers in Eon City are good enough as-is,” Agent said.  “Why do Pharos and the Task-Force suddenly want to try again, when Team Ark was such a failure last time?”

Sean Hannah and O.N.C. looked at each other for a minute, as Agent counted the seconds in silence.  They seemed to be silently considering what to tell him – when they looked back, O.N.C. said nothing while Sean Hannah said, “There’s something you should probably know about what’s coming.”  He folded his hands on the table.

“Have you ever heard of the Gamemaster?”

* * * * * * * *

Issue #7 – Polar Opposites

Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.

Jaunt, AKA the guy behind everything.

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

Rude.

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

“Rome,” said Alice.

There was nobody around her.

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

Wait, are you talking to me?

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

How are you doing this?

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

What do you mean, ‘powers of narration’?

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

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

“Nobody important,” Hatter said.

Thanks a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum HQ, training center.

The team is at it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum.

Hatter again.  Hi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure.  Makes sense.

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

And the whale?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could always change them back.

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

Now what will you do?

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Dale’s lab.

Ain’t I a stinker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum training floor, three hours later.

Good luck, guys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank concentrated again, and the light slowly dimmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum, the next day.

About time, amiright?

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

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

You could always give him another one.

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

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

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

You want to do the honors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right into Haley’s waiting embrace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

I’m gonna go lie down now.

Narrator can take it from here.

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

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

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

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

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

“So what’s our move?” Haley asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *