Eon City Mall.
Quinn Kaine and Lena King, shopping.
“Did you see how cute those pumps were?” Lena King asked, gushing over a pair of shoes they had found on their shopping expedition. “So sharp, so classy, so…”
“Expensive?” Quinn “Chip” Kaine offered.
Lena rolled her eyes at her friend. “I was going to say ‘elegant’,” she sniffed.
“I’m glad you’re happy,” Chip said, “especially since they nearly cost what I make in a year.”
“But so worth it,” Lena said, smiling down at the bag she carried. “These will go perfectly with my dress for the benefit dinner.”
Lena’s father was Jonathan King, the CEO and proprietor of King Enterprises. Lena’s great-great-grandfather founded the company, and it had been passed down for generations; she was the next in line to take over when her father retired. King Enterprises hosted a benefit every year to help different charity organizations make money, inviting the rich and famous to help them look good to the media. As the CEO’s daughter and assistant, Lena was usually in charge of organizing the event.
“Fun stuff,” Chip said. “Who’s the lucky benefit group this year?”
“Home for the Blind,” Lena told her. “I tried getting Daddy to agree to the National Satyr Preserve, but you know him.”
“Let me guess: it wouldn’t look good in an election year when he’s trying to push that leash bill through?” Chip asked.
Lena grimaced prettily, rolling her eyes. “Don’t get me wrong – Home for the Blind was my second choice – but the NSP would have had a bigger impact on the press. As the company responsible for the Satyr Serum, we should be doing more to help the descendants of our experiments.”
Chip shrugged. “Your dad only sees satyrs who act like the Fauns do,” she said bluntly. “He doesn’t see the ones who do an honest day’s work, even though there are a lot more of them.”
“Those who can get work,” Lena muttered. “You know my grandpa helped found the Preserve, right?”
“How could I forget?” Chip said wryly. “Your father ranted for hours at dinner one night just because I brought it up.”
“Right,” Lena giggled. “‘That upstart Sean Hannah stole the contract!’” she said in a pretty good impression of her father’s voice. “Speaking of Sean Hannah stealing things…”
“I like working at the Asylum, thanks,” Chip said, anticipating the old debate.
Lena grinned. “Daddy still wants me to offer you more to come back. You could probably name any number you want and he’d pay it.”
“Tell him it’s not about the money,” Chip said. “I like being able to build my toys without being paranoid that they’ll be sold as weapons.”
Lena paused, pretending to think about it. “Nope, sorry. Can’t help you there,” she teased. “A weapons dealer has to deal weapons, not tools.” She sighed, getting serious as she added, “That’s one of the first things I’ll change.”
“Who took over for me when I left?” Chip asked, curious.
Lena made a face as she answered, “Skyler Greene.”
“Skylark?” Chip asked, incredulous. “That social media hack?”
“I know you don’t like her,” Lena said, “but she’s not terrible.”
“No,” Chip agreed. “She just posts everything she does online to show off. Of course, not her failures – just her successes, so people watching will think she’s brilliant!”
Lena patted her friend’s shoulder. “It’s not a crime, as long as they aren’t active projects,” she pointed out. “Besides, you just say the word and you’ll have her job in a second. You know daddy never wanted you to leave.”
“He did offer me a pretty big number to stay,” Chip said. “But I like my work at the Asylum. The Watchers are fun to design for.”
“Isn’t your stuff being used as weapons there, too?” Lena asked.
“Yeah,” said Chip, “but a lot of it is also used to save lives, and I know exactly who has which gadget.”
Lena shrugged. “If you’re sure.” Something caught her eye, and she turned to the store they were passing. “Ooh, microprocessors! I’ve got a project at home that could use an octa-core chip. Look, they’re so tiny!”
Chip laughed at her friend, who had acted the same way around the shoes, and followed her into the store.
* * * * * * * *
Asylum Headquarters, Agent’s Office.
Natalie Fawkes, getting briefed.
“We’ve been invited to the King Enterprises charity benefit,” Agent told the team. “Apparently Jonathan King and Sean Hannah made a small bet over us, that we couldn’t take down one of King’s new weapons projects.”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “Politics,” she muttered. “So the whole team’s going?”
“Sean asked for only two,” Agent said, amused. “So I’m sending you and Earthborn.”
“Me?” Natalie asked. “I’m hardly a heavy hitter,” she pointed out.
“That’s what David will be there for,” Agent explained. “We’re not sure what this project is – it might require a bit of finesse, which is your specialty. I figured we should be prepared.”
Natalie folded her arms, raising an eyebrow. “You know, if you were looking for that kind of tag-team, Parker and I would have worked best.”
“Parker’s unavailable right now,” Agent sighed. They’d had this conversation before. “You know that.”
“Right,” Natalie said, nearly snarling at him. “He’s busy. He hasn’t even been back to the Asylum in two weeks, because he’s busy.”
“Nat,” Agent said, “there’s nothing we can do right now. I’ve already promised you a hundred times that I’ll do my best to keep your brother safe.”
“And then you send me to a party,” Natalie pointed out.
Agent gripped the bridge of his nose, as if he had a headache. “I’m sending you into a fight,” he said. “An exhibition, sure, but I thought it would take your mind off things.” He glanced at her through his hand, adding, “But if you like, I could always send Haley. She is stronger than you, after all.”
Natalie shook her head, knowing that he was trying to provoke her but becoming provoked anyways. “Damn it,” she finally said, storming to the door. “I’ll go to the stupid party.”
“Make sure you bring something nice to change into!” Agent called after her. Chuckling to himself, he turned back to his monitors. The grin fell off his face as he changed the parameters of his search for bird-satyrs in the city. “Where are you?” he muttered.
It’s hard to keep someone safe when they fall off the grid.
* * * * * * * *
Eon City Museum.
King Enterprises Annual Charity Benefit.
They really rolled out the red carpet for this, Natalie thought as she stepped out of the limo onto a literal red carpet. Flashes went off in her face, and belatedly she remembered to smile for the cameras as David got out after her. Agent came up on her other side, also smiling politely, and the three of them made their way into the building.
“You clean up nice,” Dave told her, flashing her a teasing grin. “Not a handkerchief or swear word in sight.” Natalie was wearing a dress that had been laid out for her, since she didn’t have any fancy clothes of her own. It was a very flattering cut for her figure, and easily the most expensive piece of clothing she had ever even seen, much less worn.
“I barely recognized you without the dirt,” Natalie shot back, also smiling. “Did you actually take a shower?” Both David and Agent were wearing tuxedos tonight, but since Agent usually wore suits it didn’t look so odd on him.
“A bath, in fact,” he grinned. “Lilac-scented bubbles, for the manly man.” As they made it to the door, he struck a pose.
“Children,” Agent scolded from behind his own smile. “Cameras.”
“They eat this stuff up,” Dave said, striking another pose for the cameras. He waved jauntily at them before the trio went inside.
Agent turned to them. “You have a half-hour to mingle before the match,” he said. “Then go to the rear exit – we’ll have your uniforms waiting for you there.”
“Relax,” Natalie said, picking up a drink from the tray in front of her. “We got this.”
“No drinking until after the match,” Agent said, taking the glass from her and putting it down on another waiter’s tray.
Natalie stuck her tongue out at him. “Spoilsport,” she muttered, moving over to the buffet.
David and Agent gave each other an exasperated look. “I’ll keep an eye on her,” David said, jogging to catch up with his teammate.
Agent watched them walk off, before grabbing his ever-present umbrella and joining the party.
Natalie didn’t like social functions. She was fully intent on settling in a nice, cozy corner somewhere until the match started, but she was stopped by a man in his thirties. “Nice night for it,” he said, looking at her with piercing blue eyes.
The eyes caught her off-guard. “Oh, um, hi. Yes,” she stuttered, finally getting out, “it is a nice night.”
“Sorry,” the man said, flashing her a smile. “I didn’t mean to startle you. You’re Natalie Fawkes, right? The Asylum Watcher known as Trick?”
“Yes, that’s me.” Natalie really wanted to go to her corner, but she also knew she had to play nice at a function like this since she was representing the Asylum. “I’m sorry, but you are?” she asked.
“Mr. Hannah!” came a startled voice from behind her. Dave walked up on Natalie’s right, saving her from embarrassment.
“Ah, you must be David Perry, known as Earthborn,” the man said. “Forgive me, Trick; I’m not used to having to introduce myself any more. I’m Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries.”
“Oh, so you’re the guy who signs our paychecks,” Natalie said. “Nice to meet you!”
“Very direct, isn’t she?” Sean said to Dave, who looked like he wanted to melt through the floor.
“We’re working on that,” he said, shaking the CEO’s hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” he added pointedly, glaring at Natalie.
“Yes, it’s nice to meet you,” she repeated, shaking his hand in turn. “Sir,” she added when Dave kicked her.
Sean laughed, not offended in the slightest by her behavior. “I hope you’ll give us a good show,” he said. “I have a bet with King that you could take on anything he could throw at you.”
“So these are your champions, eh, Pharos?” came another voice from behind him. Natalie began thinking longingly of her corner, where she wouldn’t have to deal with people, but it looked like she was never going to get the chance.
“Mr. King,” Sean said, greeting his business’ rival with a pasted-on smile and false sincerity. “Thank you so much for hosting this event!”
“My pleasure,” King said. “Here, I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter, Lena,” he added, gesturing to a pretty blonde girl next to him.
Chip had told Natalie about Lena, but it hadn’t prepared her for the actual person. Chip had described her as a technical genius who could build her own computer stuff. She mentioned that Lena liked clothes and shoes, too, but Natalie had been picturing a glasses-wearing nerd, probably with mousey looks who wore clothes that tried too hard to be fancy.
The person standing in front of her was a cheerleader, dressed to the nines in a long, backless dress that flattered her figure. Her blonde hair was pulled back in an elegant bun, and her smile seemed to light up the room.
Remembering what Chip had told her, Natalie greeted her with, “Nice shoes.” They were nice shoes – strappy black pumps with four-inch heels that showed off her perfectly-manicured feet. Not sure why they cost so much, Natalie thought to herself. But the compliment made Lena’s smile brighten further.
“Thank you,” she said. “I really like your hair.” Natalie’s hair was pulled up into a braided bun, which she could easily let fall into a braided ponytail for the exhibition. The spiked strap she had braided into it poked out in what she hoped was a decorative fashion.
“And this is Skyler Greene,” King introduced the other girl trailing him, “also known as ‘Skylark’. She will be your opponent in this evening’s match.”
Skylark was dressed just as elegantly as Lena, but with none of her warmth. Even when she smiled and shook Natalie’s hand, it seemed more like a taunt than a greeting. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “My channel’s viewers really want to see me take down some Watchers.”
Natalie pressed her lips together as David gave her a subtle kick. We’re representing the Asylum, she told herself.
Putting a smile on her own face, she said, “I’m looking forward to the match as well. It’s always fun to put on a show.” There, she thought as David rolled his eyes behind her. Subtle, but insulting. Let her stew on that.
“I think we need to get going,” David said, steering Natalie away from the fancy people. “It was nice to meet you, but we still have to change for the match.”
“Of course,” Sean said, before turning back to King. The battle of subtext was more his arena than theirs.
As David led Natalie away, he hissed, “Next time, just don’t say anything. Okay?”
“We win this match, I won’t have to say anything,” Natalie whispered back. “Next time, I’ll just go to my corner and not have to interact with any more people.”
They made it to the back door, where Agent stood holding their uniforms. “I see you met the CEOs,” he said.
“I think they wanted to see who they were betting on,” David said, grabbing his and unbuttoning his cumberbund.
“You guys can change behind those curtains,” Agent pointed to where they were supposed to go. David moved off, but agent stopped Natalie. “Hey, Nat – thanks for doing this,” he said, smiling at her.
“I’m still mad at you,” she said, smiling despite herself. “But with any luck the next part will be fun.” She moved to go to the changing area, but Agent put a hand on her shoulder.
“One second,” he said, unzipping the back of her dress for her. “There.”
“Thanks,” she said. Natalie went to the dressing room without looking back. The chilly night air was giving her goosebumps, and she wouldn’t be comfortable until she got out of the girly dress and into her uniform. If her face was flushed, it was because she was getting pre-battle nerves. Nothing else.
* * * * * * * *
A half-hour later.
Trick and Earthborn, ready for anything.
“We got this,” Earthborn said, giving Trick a fist-bump as they entered the makeshift arena.
The museum’s garden was surrounded by a large, blocked-off parking lot where the museum gave a fireworks show on the Fourth of July. This was also where Trick and Earthborn would face Skylark’s creation.
The event guests were gathered in the garden, looking forward to a good show. Trick felt a lot more comfortable in her trench coat; here she could throw one of her tricks if she needed to get away. While she waited for an opponent, she pulled out her deck of cards and started shuffling it nervously.
“I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that,” Earthborn said, enviously, watching her twirl the deck around. “I can barely shuffle them the normal way.”
“I could teach you sometime,” Trick offered, starting to show off now that she remembered people were watching them.
Earthborn smiled, pulling gravel up around himself in a make-shift suit of armor as the air began to crackle with a static charge. “I’d like that,” he said.
The ground began to shake, but Earthborn hadn’t caused it. Trick could see Skylark off to the side of the spectators, holding a data pad in one hand. She had some kind of visor over her eyes, and her hands were busy typing something on her data pad.
The ground shook again, and Trick and Earthborn braced themselves for whatever was coming. In the background they could hear Agent announcing the match, but the sound was echoing across the pavement and they couldn’t make out the words.
THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.
Whatever it was began to run. Trick stole a glance at Earthborn as they got into fighting stances.
THUMP THUMP THUMP – STOMP!
A giant robot jumped over the tree line and came to a stop in front of them. It was man-shaped, with a big chest and thinner arms and legs. The head swiveled around, able to look in all directions.
“Looks pretty smash-’em-up to me,” Natalie muttered. Her subtlety didn’t seem to be of much use against a twenty-foot robot.
A loud whistle blew, and the match began. Earthborn started forward, bringing the ground up to hold the robot’s legs in place. He gathered a bolt of lightning in his hands and flung it at the robot’s chest, but it glanced off harmlessly.
“Darn,” he said. “Must be insulated.”
“It wasn’t going to be that easy,” Trick pointed out to him. “Let me try something.” She pulled two mirrors out of her pockets, palming them without thinking about it as she had been taught. On her palms were two buttons, connecting to small devices up her sleeves. One led to a fire trick, and the other was a high-density laser that could be used as a welding torch – that one was Chip’s design, but Trick loved using it. From another pocket she pulled out a prism, and she shot the laser from her right hand directly into it.
A bright flash pierced the air, and rainbow-colored lasers washed over the robot. The prism diluted the laser’s power, but enhanced its range so that she could hit it without being too close. Sparks flew from the robot’s body, but it still managed to free its legs from Earthborn’s trap.
The robot began running at the Watchers, its arms transforming into octopus-like tentacles as it ran. It whipped one at Earthborn, knocking him off his feet, before turning the other on Trick.
Seeing the move coming, Trick jumped up and onto the robot’s arm as it passed under her. The arm whipped around, trying to shake her off, but she held on. Her mind briefly flashed back to hanging onto a building for dear life, and she figured out what she could do.
When the arm whipped close to the robot’s chest, Trick gritted her teeth and jumped, landing on the robot’s front as her arms scrambled to find a hand-hold. She managed to grab onto the robot’s face with one arm, and she remembered the visor that Skylark wore – could King’s tech be watching the battle through the robot’s eyes?
She waved with her free arm, giving the robot a cheeky grin as she scrambled up to stand on its shoulder. Grabbing one of the handkerchiefs in her front pocket, she pulled it out in a swift flicking motion. Glitter rained down over the robot’s face, and the arms came up to wipe at its eyes.
Skylark was definitely watching it from the robot’s eyes. Grinning, Natalie called to Earthborn, “Crackle maneuver, forty-three!”
Earthborn nodded, understanding, as Trick redoubled her grip on the robot. The arms had come up again, trying to get her off its back, but for them to win she had to hold on tightly until the right moment. The robot was so focused on her that it had forgotten about Earthborn; she had to keep it that way until he could get into position.
Suddenly, the robot tripped. Earthborn had changed the terrain around it so that it couldn’t get its footing. Trick jumped off its back, rolling to keep the landing from hurting her. She could feel the crackle of electricity in the air, and she knew Earthborn had almost collected enough energy for her plan.
Running back to the robot’s head, she took out her larger scarf and wrapped it around the thing’s eyes. Skylark had to take off her visor to see anything, and the octopus tentacles started turning back into arms to shake the scarf off. “Now!” Trick yelled, diving out of the way.
Earthborn shot a direct bolt of lightning at the robot’s head, hitting the ground all around its upper body. The robot stopped thrashing, and flopped to the ground, dead.
Trick stood up, dusting herself off as she went to give Earthborn a high-five. His eyes glinted red through his rock helmet, but it seemed to be a trick of the light – the lightning had been blinding from that close, and Trick was still seeing spots.
“No!” came a cry from Skylark’s direction. She pounded on her control, trying to make the robot move. “Come on, get up! It didn’t even touch you!”
“Electromagnetic pulse,” Trick called over to her. “The lightning drained its power source, and it won’t be operational for hours. If this had been a real fight, we’d be tearing it apart now.”
As if to prove her point, a large spike of dirt shot up from the ground, spearing the robot through the chest. “A little excessive,” Trick muttered to Earthborn, “but nice touch.”
The Asylum had won a decisive victory.
* * * * * * * *
Back inside the museum.
Natalie Fawkes, stuck at the party.
“Why do I have to stay?” Natalie asked Agent, trying and failing to sound like she wasn’t whining. “David got to go home!” She was back in the fancy dress, looking around the party with a shudder.
“David has a kid at home,” Agent reminded her. “Dale wanted to check you guys out later this evening, and he can’t stay out too late, so he got to leave first. You, on the other hand, get to enjoy this lovely evening with me as we finish representing the Asylum.”
Natalie’s mouth twisted in a pout. “I’m not talking to any of the fancy people,” she said rebelliously. “I got my fill of that before the match.”
“Fine,” Agent agreed. “Then dance with me.” When Natalie glared at him, he added, “Your choices are dancing with me, where I can guarantee that I’m the only person you have to interact with, or stand here and be accosted by anyone who wants to congratulate you on winning the match. Your choice.”
Natalie glared at him, but dragged him over to the dance floor. He knew exactly how to manipulate her, and she didn’t really like it. Agent grinned and spun her around into the steps, in time with the slow waltz playing. Surprisingly enough, Natalie let him lead, and she wasn’t a bad dancer.
“They teach you to dance at the Agency?” she asked, equally surprised that he knew the steps.
“Standard lessons,” he said. “Never know when you have to attend fancy functions like this.”
“Like your suit,” Natalie nodded. “You once told me you always look your best because it opens more doors than anything else you wear.”
“Exactly,” said Agent. “Now, where did you learn to dance?”
“Parker… he and I learned when we were kids,” she told him, pausing for a second when she mentioned her brother’s name. “Mom gave us lessons.” She looked up at Agent as they moved around the room, adding, “You really think you can take Claw down?”
Agent nodded. “This is the closest we’ve ever gotten to stopping him for good,” he said. “Parker’s a big part of that. But you know I won’t let anything happen to him,” he added.
Natalie put her head on his chest, hiding her face. She still smelled a little singed from the lightning, but she had also put on some kind of perfume to cover it. “I believe you,” she said. “I want to believe you.” She looked back up, meeting his hazel eyes with her bright blue ones. “Don’t make me regret it.”
Agent smiled back at her. “I won’t,” he said. “I promise.”
* * * * * * * *
The next day.
“Some party, huh?” Frank asked as Natalie entered the kitchen at noon. Her hair was in disarray, and she’d slept later than usual.
“Uhnn,” she grunted back at him, still tired. “I had to stay there until two in the morning, and then Dale wanted to give me a check-up before I could go to bed.” She groaned again as she looked in the fridge for some orange juice. “He took away some of the ouch, but I’m stiff all over after that fight.”
“I saw,” Frank grinned. “Skylark was streaming it live from her channel. We were watching it here with some of Reiki’s barbeque.”
“Lucky,” Natalie said, thumping him on the shoulder. “What’d you think?”
Frank looked thoughtful. “Nice work on the EMP,” he said. “But Dave seemed to be in bad shape afterwards. What would you have done if it didn’t work?”
Natalie shrugged, grimacing at the movement. “Probably would have lost,” she said. “It was just an exhibition match.”
“Why do you think King wanted to test it out against Watchers?” Frank asked rhetorically. Natalie froze halfway through pouring her juice. “Who would he sell something like that to?”
“I’m not sure I want to know,” Natalie muttered. “Maybe we should come up with other ways to beat it, just in case?”
Frank grinned, lifting the mood. “I’ll meet you in the training room this afternoon,” he said. “I’ll get the specs from the video, and we’ll get the training room to give us a simulation.”
“Fun,” Natalie said dryly. “Can I get some food first?”
Frank grinned, grabbing the last pop-tart from the pantry just as Natalie reached for it. “Sure,” he said innocently, moving to the elevator with the poptart in hand. “Oh, by the way – we’re out of pop-tarts.”
Flashing her a grin, he stepped onto the elevator as it arrived and left. Natalie grumbled to herself as she went to the cereal cupboard to see what was left. She’d make him pay for that on the practice courts later.
Right now, she had other concerns.
* * * * * * * *