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 #11 – Jekyll and Hyde

Pharos Laboratories, eight years ago.

Laboratory outside of Eon City.

“What do you mean, ‘our funding’s being cut?” cried Doctor James Samson, ripping the paper out of Doctor Carson Dale’s hands.  “The work we’re doing here could change the course of human history!”

“Come off it, Samson,” Dale said, shaking his head.  “You know as well as I tha Ethics Board always had a problem with your work.  This la’est project – ”

“This latest project is about understanding the human brain’s effect on the body,” Samson retorted.  “It could tell us how the Third Gen and Satyr serums progenerated so easily, when all other evidence says that neither species should be fertile.  They both should have died out in a generation or two, but instead the population rates have been hitting record highs. With further study, this project could have told us how that happened!  We might have even found a cure – ”

“A cure for wha’?” Dale asked.  “For Third Gens an’ Satyrs? We’re talkin’ about people, Samson; this is who they are!”

Samson shook his head.  “We’re talking about an anomaly,” he argued.  “Neither evolution was natural; they were both man-made.  They’re closer to genetic disorders than actual identities.”  He walked back over to his lab table, still talking. “If we could find a cure for autism, or Achondroplasia, or some other disability, then nobody would bat an eye.  Third Gen and Satyrism are no different – they just weren’t caused by any environmental factor other than human error.”

“Human error is wha’ tha ethics board is tryin’ ta prevent,” Dale pointed out.  “Unauthorized human experimentation is how Third Gen and Satyrism came about in tha first place.”

“Dale, you may have just gotten here last year, but I have been studying the effects of the serums all my life,” Samson said.  “My research has already led to breakthroughs that nobody else had seen before! Pharos hired me because of my work – ”

“Oh, you mean tha Fourth Gen serum?” Dale asked.  “Sure, tha was a ‘breakthrough’.”

“I recreated the effects of Third Gen and Satyrism in a controlled fashion,” Samson countered.  “I controlled what powers the subjects got – ”

“You mean tha kids,” said Dale.  “You experimented on children, and called it ‘progress’.  Now you run human trials on an experimental drug without goin’ through tha proper channels, and next you would have combined it with one o’ tha serums!”  He slammed his hand on the table to accentuate his point. “You’re jus’ lucky that nobody was hurt this time!”

Samson sighed.  “Scientific discovery takes risk, Carson,” he said.  “If Pharos doesn’t want to take them, then maybe I’ll take my work to King.”  He started stacking loose papers, as if he would leave right away.

Dale raised an eyebrow.  “Pharos an’ King both play by tha same rules,” he said.  “King more so, since the Satyr serum first came out. If Pharos will na’ fund your research, wha’ makes ya think King will?  Especially since tha protests started last year; all companies are playin’ by tha letter of tha law.”

Samson stopped shuffling, putting his hands on the table in defeat.  “So if Pharos is cutting this project, what do they intend for me to work on?” he asked.

“Pharos wants us on tha ‘Gen Juice’ project,” Dale told him.  “By tha time we come in tomorrow, this stuff will be packed up in storage, an’ we’ll be startin’ fresh.”  He clapped Samson on the back. “Come on, we’ll go ta tha pub, have a drink.”

Samson shook his head.  “You go on without me,” he said.  “If they’re packing all this up tonight, I need to get some things in order first.”

Dale shrugged, and walked out the door.  Samson looked around at the lab. This project had taken over the last seven years of his life; for the funding to be lost felt like his legs being cut out from under him.  He waited a minute to make sure that Dale wasn’t coming back before moving over to the vials labelled “samples”.

Checking over his shoulder in case anyone came into the room, he pocketed three vials.  This work is too important to lose, he thought rebelliously.  Maybe he could continue his work on his own.

After all, scientific discovery takes risk.

* * * * * * * *

Pharos Laboratories, present day.

Agent meeting with O.N.C.

“Why, exactly, are we here?” Agent asked, looking uninterestedly around the laboratory.  Trick, Outlier, and Shadow had all been ordered to come with him, but he addressed the lady who had just entered the room.  She wore a business suit and horn-rimmed glasses, giving her the appearance of an executive. Her steel-grey hair was tied back in a no-nonsense bun, and the way she carried herself suggested that she was in command.

“Who’s that?” Outlier whispered to Shadow.

“Agent’s boss,” he whispered back.  “They call her O.N.C.”

Outlier frowned.  “‘O.N.C.? Why?” she whispered.

As the executive lady turned her intense stare on the whispering duo, Shadow added, “You’ll see,” under his breath.

“Mr. Hannah has requested our presence by name,” O.N.C. told them.  “There was apparently a break-in at one of the more sensitive labs, and he wants to keep this quiet.”

“‘He wants to keep it quiet’,” Trick scoffed.  “So he called in three of the best-known Watchers from the highest-profile team in the country, along with their supervisor and his boss, because…?”

“Because you three have impressed me.”  Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, chose that moment to walk through the door.  “Blackbird is currently on an undercover assignment, Reiki is a loose cannon, the Fourth Gens are unstable, and, frankly, Granny’s just weird.  The people in this room have shown ability and restraint,” he added, glancing at Trick.

“I’m sorry, but what is this research?” Outlier asked, trying to ease the tension from the CEO’s implication.  “We haven’t been briefed at all yet.”

“Right,” Sean Hannah said, picking up a sheet of paper.  “Eight years ago, my predecessor had research here called Project Eleutherios.”

“‘The liberator’,” Outlier said.  “Eleutherios was one of the names for Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry.”  As the others stared at her, she shrugged, adding, “I did a project on Dionysus in middle school.  The guy was scary.”

Shadow raised his eyebrows.  “‘God of wine and revelry’,” he quoted.  “Sounds like he had fun.”

“He made people lose their inhibitions,” Outlier explained.  “In small amounts that could be a good thing, but Dionysus could drive people crazy – literally insane – with his powers.  Some of his followers even turned to cannibalism. Some legends even claim that Dionysus was a conqueror – ”

Sean Hannah cleared his throat, and Outlier cut herself off with a sheepish apology.  “Origins of the name aside,” the CEO continued, “Project Eleutherios was supposed to be a drug that heightened a human’s natural abilities.”  He looked at Agent, adding, “Much like the Fourth Gen serum, except not quite as powerful.”

“This was the precursor to Fourth Gen?” Trick asked, glaring at him.

Agent narrowed his eyes.  “It was shut down only eight years ago,” he pointed out to his team.  “More like this was what Fourth Gen led to.” Crossing his arms, he asked, “So what was the problem with this one?  Photosensitivity? Dual personalities?”

“Lack of inhibitions, as the name suggests,” Sean admitted, nodding to Outlier.  “The lead scientist, Doctor Samson, was called in front of the Ethics Board for attempting human trials without authorization.  While the effects proved to be temporary without continuous application, the subjects became unstable, and a danger to themselves and others.  Watchers managed to get the situation under control, and Pharos Industries immediately cut funding to the project.”

“So why now?” Outlier asked.  “Eight years later, why would anybody steal this drug?”

“Better question: why wasn’t the research destroyed?” Agent asked.

O.N.C. answered.  “Projects like Eleutherios cost a lot of time and money,” she said.  “Most companies would rather store such a thing for possible reuse later than to start from scratch in the future.”

“So again,” Outlier repeated.  “Why now?”

“I’m sorry, who are you?” O.N.C. asked her.

Outlier looked at her, seeing what she was trying to do.  “They call me Outlier,” she said, extending her hand. “And you are?”

“My name is of no consequence,” O.N.C. said dismissively.  Behind her, Shadow mouthed to Outlier the letters O-N-C, trying not to laugh.

Outlier bit back a grin of her own as she said, “Fine, O.N.C.  Now if somebody would please answer my question: why now?  What changed to bring this research back to light?”

“Doctor Samson was recently fired,” Sean Hannah told them.  “We believe that he might have stolen the research before he left.”

“Wait, back up,” Trick said, walking up to the CEO and getting in his face.  “You’re saying that this guy, who by your own admission was a sociopathic jerk called in front of the Ethics Board, wasn’t fired until eight years later?”

“And that he stole proprietary information from you?” Agent added, also crossing his arms.

Sean Hannah gently pushed Trick away, saying, “I only became the CEO here five years ago.  I had no idea that the company had done such things, and it wasn’t brought to my attention until he almost tried a similar stunt on the Gen Juice project.”  He straightened his jacket. “Of course, he was fired for even suggesting we go to human trials at this point.”

Shadow stepped up next to Trick.  “I recently had a run-in with your Gen Juice project,” he said.  “My sister and a bunch of other satyrs were kidnapped and tested for it.”

“That wasn’t Pharos Industries,” the CEO said sternly.  “That was a copycat, trying to catch up with our research.  Pharos has always been ahead of the curve in the R and D department, and so we have a lot of rivals trying to catch up.  Unfortunately, word about the Gen Juice project leaked to the public years before it was supposed to – again, probably Samson trying to accelerate it – and I’ve been running damage control for the last year because of it.”  He shifted on his feet, putting a hand to his temple. “You have no idea how many press conferences I’ve had to make just to tell people that it’s years from being finished.”

“Okay, so you know what was stolen, who stole it, and why,” Outlier said.  “So what do you need us for?”

“Muscle,” Agent answered, still glaring at both O.N.C. and the CEO.  “This is a test, right? You want my team to find Samson and bring him in so that you can see them in action.”

“And evaluate them,” Sean Hannah added.  “You three have done exemplary work thus far.  Trick took down King Enterprises’ pet project – in front of a crowd, no less.  Shadow broke up the satyr kidnapping ring last week, and Outlier has been making quite a name for herself around the city.  Didn’t you help stop the museum thief?”

“Along with Reiki,” Outlier said, folding her arms.  “Why isn’t he here?”

The CEO shook his head.  “As I said, Reiki is a loose cannon.  He doesn’t work well with others, and if he gets involved there’s usually violence.”  He walked around a table, adding, “I would prefer to avoid a scene, if you can.”

“Fine,” Agent said, uncrossing his arms but still glaring.  “We’ll help. Do you know where this Doctor Samson is?”

“Yes,” O.N.C. told them.  “In fact, we do.”

* * * * * * * *

Doctor Samson’s home lab, Eon City.

Outlier, Shadow, and Trick.

“Doctor Samson?” Outlier called, knocking on the doctor’s door.  “We’re Watchers from the Asylum. We have a few questions for you.”

“Doesn’t seem like he’s home,” Trick said after a minute, nudging Outlier aside.  “Give me a sec.”

Neither Outlier nor Shadow saw what she did to the lock, but in a few seconds the door was unlocked.  “How’d you do that?” Shadow asked.

Trick shrugged.  “Magic,” she answered, grinning secretively and holding up her hands to show that they were empty.  Given that she wore her Watcher outfit – which Chip had helped design with plenty of hidden pockets – Outlier was pretty sure she had just slipped something up her sleeve.

Shaking her head, Outlier stepped into the lab calling for Doctor Samson again.  “Hold up,” Shadow told them. “I sense something.”

“Something’s in the shadows?” Trick asked him.

“Shh,” Outlier held up a hand.  “Do you hear that?”

Someone was muttering to themselves in the dark house.  “Doctor Samson?” Trick called, heading towards the noise.  “Is that you?”

“I think he’s singing,” Outlier said.  “Listen.”

Sure enough, the halting voice was singing a jaunty tune from the next room:

“Lavender blue, dilly-dilly

Lavender green

If I were king, dilly-dilly, I’d need a queen

Who told me so?, dilly-dilly

Who told me so?

I told myself, dilly-dilly, I told me so…”

“Any guesses?” Shadow asked, heading to the next room.

Trick shrugged, but Outlier answered, “Lavender Blue, by Sammy Kaye from the nineteen hundreds.  My mom sometimes plays classical stuff like that. But why is he singing it?”

As they entered the room, they saw a small laboratory.  The tables were heavy and metallic, and the only light came from a few desk lamps scattered around.  Various test tubes and jars were scattered about the room; a few had flowers in them, while others had A man was dancing around the table, still singing:

“If your dilly-dilly heart

Feels a dilly-dilly way

If you’ll answer yes

In a pretty little church

On a dilly-dilly day

You’ll be wed in a dilly-dilly dress of

Lavender blue, dilly-dilly

Lavender green

Then I’ll be king, dilly-dilly, and you’ll be my queen…”

The man was dressed in beige slacks and a white lab coat.  His hair was pulled back into cornrows, and he had a flower in his hands.

When he caught sight of the heroes, he grabbed Outlier’s hand with his free one and pulled her closer to dance with him.  “Umm, excuse me?” Outlier asked, trying to push herself free of the madman. “Are you Doctor Samson?”

“Doctor, doctor…” Samson chuckled.

“Doctor Foster went to Gloucester 

In a shower of rain; 

He stepped in a puddle 

Right up to his middle 

And never went there again!”

“Doctor Samson!” Trick practically shouted at him, startling him into letting go of Outlier.  “Snap out of it!”

“That’s not helping,” Outlier said.

Samson shoved the flower at her, saying, “Pretty flower for the pretty girl.  Smells like… smells like…

“Lavender blue, dilly-dilly – ”

“Nope, not starting that again,” Trick said, grabbing his wrist and wrenching it behind him.  “Doctor Samson, you’re under arrest for the theft of – ”

“No!” Doctor Samson suddenly screamed, wrenching his arm around and throwing Trick over his hip in a display of inhuman strength.  “No! Not theft – this was my life’s work!”

He picked up the metal table, looking like he would throw it on top of Trick while she was down.  The jars and vials flew everywhere around the room, smashing against the floor and walls and splattering their contents everywhere. Shadow stepped forward to tackle the man, but Outlier grabbed his shoulder to stop him.

“Doctor Samson!” she shouted, trying to grab his attention as she wiped a few drops of liquid off of her wrist.  “Don’t you want to dance? Lavender blue, dilly-dilly, lavender green…

“If I were king, dilly-dilly, I’d need a queen

Who told me so? dilly-dilly

Who told me so?

I told myself, dilly-dilly

I told me so…”

Doctor Samson began singing again, swaying to the tune.  He put one end of the table on the floor and began to dance with it.  Trick scrambled back to her feet, wiping some of the test tube contents off of her coat with her hand.  Shadow clapped her on the back, shaking off his gloved hand as he realized she was soaked in the stuff. Outlier breathed a sigh of relief, saying, “He must have been affected by his own drug.  We should take him to Dale.”

“Dale?” Samson said, still dancing with the table.  “Doctor Carson Dale? I know him!”

“You know Doctor Dale?” Outlier asked slowly.  “Do you want to go see him? He wants to see you.”

Samson paused for a second, considering.  “Nah, not really,” he told them. “Dale helped the board cut my funding, see.  He’s a liar, and I don’t want to see him.”

“He says he’s really sorry about that,” Trick said, taking her cue from Outlier.  “He’d like to be friends. But you have to come see him.”

“I’m uninhibited, not stupid,” Samson told her, setting the table down.  “No need to talk to me like I’m a child. Dale said many years ago that he wanted nothing more to do with Eleutherios.”  He put his hands on the table, adding, “I was so close, too!  I could have stablized it, but I needed test subjects.  Human ones, not those satyr or Third Gen ones.”  He turned back to the Watchers. “That’s why the Fourth Gen project failed, you know – we used satyr and Third Gen subjects.  Fourth Gen enhanced their powers, yes – and even gave them new ones. But at a cost, a terrible cost. Even my own children…”

He hopped up to sit on the table, swinging his legs freely as he started singing again:

“Here shines the sun,

Shining so bright;

Now the whole world’s emblazoning.

Flowers in bloom,

Spring will come soon; we’re waiting.

When the green grass grows,

And the trees are close,

And the soft rain falls on the ground…

Here shines the sun,

Clouds gone away,

Rainbows are pretty amazing.

Just close your eyes;

You’ll see the sky someday…”

Tears started falling down his face as he said, “They never did see the sky, though.  They had to run away to leave the room, and they still can’t go out at night. And poor Ryan, number one, he can’t even walk on the ground any more.”  He stopped crying suddenly, growing angry as he continued, “They all left me; abandoned me.  Those freaks of nature, who owed me their lives!  I saved them, you know – my work would have cured them and everyone like them of Third Gen and satyrism!  Why doesn’t anybody see that?”

He gripped the side of the table, and the metal started bending under his strength.  Outlier hummed a couple bars of Lavender Blue, and Samson seemed to calm down. He began singing again, moving his head side to side in time with the tune.

“I wonder…” Trick muttered under her breath.  Turning to her teammates, she asked them in a whisper, “Should we tell him about Rina?”

“You think he’ll come if we tell him we’re taking him to her?” Shadow replied.  He sneezed, putting his hand to his mouth to cover it. “We really should get out of here.”

Outlier shook her head.  “We can’t take him to Rina,” she said.  “Anybody with eyes can see she tries to forget the Fourth Gen experiment.  I don’t know the details, but I don’t want to open up old wounds for her.”

“We won’t actually bring him to her,” Trick said, her voice as low as she could make it.  “We just tell him we will, and bring him to Dale instead.”

“Bad idea,” Outlier warned.  “His history with Dale, plus his super-strength and lack of inhibitions?  That’s asking for trouble.”

“You got a better plan?” Trick demanded.  “No? Okay then.” She turned back to Samson, saying, “Doctor Samson?  We might know where a Fourth Gen is. You remember Sabrina Dawson?”

Samson looked taken aback.  “Sabrina?” he asked. “The Nightmare Child?  She took her mother’s name, then – makes sense.  Her mother died young. Two children, nine years apart – but complications took her a week after Sabrina was born.  Sabby always looked up to her brother. Didn’t know he was her brother – that would have been problematic.” He hopped off of the table, adding, “Take me to her – I want to see Sabby again!”

Outlier gave an alarmed look at Trick, who avoided her eyes.  When she looked at Shadow, he was slowly becoming a smudge against the wall as his powers his him from sight.  They both understood what Samson had said, then.

“Oh dear,” Samson cut through the silent exchange, looking at the smashed jars and test tubes on the ground.  “Eleutherios – who smashed the vials? Shouldn’t have done that.” He shook his head. “Now the whole place is contaminated.”  He started humming Lavender Blue again, as the Asylum teammates looked at each other.

“Call Agent?” Trick asked, wincing at their mistake.

“Call Agent,” Outlier agreed.  Shadow turned on his com to ask for backup.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

After a decontamination scrub.

“Well, I feel like I lost a layer of skin,” Natalie said, rubbing her pink face as she guzzled water in the kitchen.

“Do you guys feel any… effects?” Agent asked.  “Seriously, at the first sign of trouble, I’m sending you down to Dale.”

“Don’t worry, mother,” Frank said from the couch.  “We’ll be fine. I mean, look at Doctor Samson: mostly he was just humming some classical music and sitting around.  What’s the worst that could happen to us?”

Agent glanced at Natalie.  “I’m not sure,” he admitted, “but I’d still feel better if you three would stay here for the next few days – just in case.”

“Can’t,” Haley said, sitting in a chair across from Frank.  “I teach self-defense at the community center tomorrow. I can’t just cancel.”

“I’ll send someone to cover your class for you,” Agent told her.  “Most of the people in this business are good enough at martial arts to teach a basic move or two.  I think Sara would be more than happy to help, and she’s a certified instructor.”

“My mom?” Frank said.  “Sure, she’d be awesome.  But she also teaches at the dojo.”

“We’ll make it work,” Agent said.  “If not Sara, then I can find someone else.  You guys just rest up, and if we don’t see any symptoms in the next few days you’ll be back to your routine.”

Natalie gave him a mock salute.  “Aye, captain,” she said, grinning.  Agent flashed her a smile and went into the elevator.

As he stepped in, Rina and Reiki stepped out.  “How are you guys feeling?” Rina asked, seeing the teammates sprawled across the living area in their pajamas.  “We heard what happened.” She and Reiki were still in their uniforms, having just returned from patrol.

“Ugh,” Natalie called from the kitchen.  “Agent just grounded us for ‘a few days’.  Didn’t even say how many.”

“Myeh,” Frank shrugged from the couch.  “Could be worse. What would you guys do if we were affected?”

“Sit around singing Lavender Blue?” Haley giggled.  Natalie rolled her eyes.

Rina furrowed her eyebrows, sitting across from Haley in another chair.  “Lavender Blue?” she asked. “Why that song?”

“Oh, nothing,” Haley said, waving a hand dismissively.  “The guy we were tracking down was dancing around his laboratory singing it.”

“He’s the guy who ran the Fourth Gen project,” Frank blurted out.  “Apparently he continued researching it on Project Aloofness – ”

“Eleutherios,” Haley corrected.

“Yeah, that.”  Frank turned over on the couch so that his head hung upside-down on the seat.

“Guys!” Natalie was looking at Rina, who looked stricken.  “I thought we were going to avoid the whole Fourth Gen thing?”

“Oh pish,” Haley said.  “She deserves to know. This is the guy who ran the experiment on her, remember?”

Natalie walked over to the living area, hands on her hips.  “Haley, it was your idea in the first place,” she pointed out.  “Rina, I’m so sorry – ”

“No, it’s okay,” Rina said.  “I’m glad you guys told me. I… I just need to talk to Agent.”  She headed back to the elevator as Reiki moved over to Frank.

“You happy?” he asked, pulling Frank up by the collar.  “Rina’s upset. Why’d you tell her that?”

“Dunno,” Frank said, looking confused.  “I guess I just felt like it. Weird.”

“‘Weird’,” Reiki repeated.  “I’ll show you ‘weird’, you – ”

“Reiki, drop him,” Natalie said.  “I think we may have been more affected than we thought.  The experiments he was running, Project Eleutherios, it had a side-effect of making people lose their inhibitions.”

Shadow grinned as Reiki let him go.  “Hey, you think I got super-strength like Samson did?” he asked, not even fased by Reiki’s threat.  “That would be cool; I might beat Parker at an arm-wrestling match.”

“Parker knows how to control his strength,” Natalie pointed out.  “He’s also still with the Fauns.”

“Oh yeah,” Shadow shrugged.  “Here, let me try – ”

He went over to Haley’s chair and tried to lift it, but it barely budged while she was sitting in it.  Haley shrugged at him. “Samson was human,” she reminded him. “Maybe the serum affected your Third Gen powers.”

Frank frowned, concentrating.  Shadows around the room began expanding until they covered the lamps, putting the room into complete darkness.  “Whoa, cool!” Frank exclaimed as their sight was completely cut off. He had never been able to make an entire lit room go dark before.

“Frank, stop,” Natalie said.  “We need to get you down to Dale.  Haley, we’ll all go; if Frank was affected, then we probably were, too.”

There was no response.  At Natalie’s command, Frank dimmed the shadows until they could see again, just in time to see the door to the stairs close with a click.

Haley wasn’t in the room any more.

Natalie put a hand on Frank’s shoulder, shaking her head.  “Aw, fu – ”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Agent’s office.

“Where is he?” Rina demanded, bursting into Agent’s office.  “Where did you take Doctor Samson?”

“He’s in the holding cell at the ECPD,” Agent answered calmly.  “Why do you need to see him?”

Rina shook her head.  “Of all people, you know what I’ve been through,” she said.

“Yes, and that’s why I ask,” Agent told her.  “You’ve known who he is, obviously, so you’ve had plenty of chances to see him, but you didn’t.  Why now?” He gestured for her to have a seat.

“I found out a month or so ago,” she said, slumping into the prooffered chair.  “After the stuff with Leah and Mikey, I looked into it. It wasn’t hard – I don’t know why the others had even waited that long.  I just… I’ve been putting it behind me for so long, I didn’t want to dredge it up.”

“And now that he’s been involved in a case, you want to face him,” Agent finished for her.

Rina shook her head.  “No,” she said. “Now that I’ve found out he’s been continuing his experiments, I want to ask him why.”

“Who told you that?” Agent asked, concerned.  “I thought the others agreed not to bring it up to you.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rina muttered, but Agent stood up.

“It does matter,” he said.  “The other three have been exposed to the same thing Samson was.  The main side effect is a loss of inhibitions; if they’re spilling secrets, that might be a symptom, so who told you?”

“Frank,” Rina answered, standing up and heading to the elevator with Agent.  “But Natalie was telling him to stop.”

Agent pursed his lips as the elevator doors opened.  “Frank’s a little impulsive on his own, so it may be nothing,” he said, “but heaven help us if they’ve been affected.”

“Why?” Rina asked.  “So they act drunk for a day or so; no big deal, right?  They’re adults, they’ll be fine.”

As they stepped onto the elevator, Agent pointed out something that made Rina’s blood run cold: “Have you met Natalie?”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Medical Center.

“There you guys are,” Agent said, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw Natalie and Frank in the medical center.  “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I made Frank check in when he found out his powers were enhanced,” Natalie said.  “But I lost Haley.”

“What do you mean, you ‘lost’ her?” Agent asked.  “Where is she?”

“Best I can figure, she left.”  Natalie said. “But you know, it’s Haley; what trouble could she get into?  She’s the sensible one.”

Agent looked at his data pad, typing something in.  “Not sure,” he said, “but I’d feel better if we found her.”

Dale chose that moment to come in.  “I know why you didn’t bring Samson to me,” he said, “but I think I’ll need to see him after all.  This isn’t the same as the project we worked on eight years ago – he’s been tweaking it.”

“What do you mean?” Agent asked.

“Frank’s Third Gen powers are erratic,” Dale pointed out.  “He can’t control them. He also doesn’t seem panicked, but that could just be because he’s Frank.  I’ll need another subject to compare in order to be sure, and I’d like to ask Doctor Samson what he did to Eleutherios.”

“I’ll get him here,” Agent promised, “and I’ll track down Haley.  Natalie, you stay here; text me the second you start feeling the effects of it.”

“Will do,” Natalie said, swinging her legs off the side of the table.  “You let me know when you find Haley.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, night.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

About to do something stupid.

Haley danced down the street, humming her favorite songs as she went.  On some level she remembered that Agent had told them to stay in the building, but she didn’t care.  There was something she had been curious about, and she was on her way to get answers.

She was still dressed in her pajamas, barefoot, but she didn’t care about that, either.  There wasn’t any reason to worry about her outfit – she was just going to ask a question.

A section of the south side of the city was Faun territory – Haley had learned that in her Watcher training, which is why she was currently dancing down their streets.  When she went on patrol in the afternoons, she rode a motorcycle through this side of the city. Many satyrs were nice people; Haley had met plenty of them on her rounds, as she kept an eye out for trouble.  Most of the people in the city knew her face as a Watcher of the Asylum, so a lot of them would greet her during the day. She had met a lot of people in her last few months as a Watcher, so she had no fear of the south side.

Although, she usually met people during her daytime patrols when she had a mode of transportation, a com unit, and her uniform’s utility belt to help get her out of trouble.  But she had spent the last hour walking down here, and she had left her equipment at the tower.

The thought was in the back of her mind, but like her lack of shoes it just didn’t seem to matter at the moment.  That’s something for future Haley to worry about, she thought, still dancing down the street to the songs stuck in her head.

“Who’s this?” came a voice from behind her.  Seven satyrs stepped out of the shadows, surrounding Haley before she could react.

The satyr who had spoken first was a cat-satyr.  She had round, cat-like ears, and a striped tail that waved in the night breeze.  Her eyes were small and yellow, and she had tufts of white fur – whiskers – on the side of her face.

Another satyr, a small man with a rat-like nose, spoke up as well.  “Hey, she looks like one of those Asylum guys. That new one, what’s-her-name.”

“Outlier,” said a third, a burly fellow with lizard scales covering his skin.  “The new Asylum Watcher’s name is Outlier – I’ve seen her around here when she patrols.  But she’s a sensible person; she wouldn’t have come down to this side of the city without a reason… or backup.”  Haley could see the glint of knives in his jacket.

Despite the threatening poses the satyrs had adopted when the rat-satyr called her a Watcher, Haley didn’t feel any danger.  “I’m looking for somebody,” she said. “You wouldn’t happen to know him, would you?”

“Depends,” the first satyr said, grinning like a hungry cat.  “Who are you looking for at three in the morning in Faun territory?”

“Brother of mine,” Haley said.  “He works as a bouncer on this side of town – I’m just not sure where.  Name’s Scott Prince; would have just gotten off work. You wouldn’t know him, would you?”

The cat-satyr raised her eyebrows.  “You’re looking for Scott?” se asked, disbelieving.

“Yep,” Haley said with a cheeky grin.  “He’s my brother.”

“Hey, what’s going on here?” came a familiar voice from behind the cat-satyr.  “Who’s this?”

Another satyr stepped up.  This one seemed vaguely familiar to Haley: he had feathery blond hair and a pair of speckled black-and-white wings growing out of his back.  “You!” she cried, pointing at him. “I think I’ve seen you. You know my brother?”

Parker Fawkes cleared his throat.  “Kiara, why are you guys harassing a drunk chick?” he asked the cat-satyr.

“We think she might be a Watcher from the Asylum,” Kiara reported.  “The new one, Outlier.”

Raising an eyebrow, Parker asked reasonably, “Do you guys really think an Asylum Watcher would get this drunk and come into Faun territory at night without weapons or backup?  She doesn’t even have shoes on,” he pointed out.

“Do any of you guys know where I can find Scott?” Haley insisted.  “I need to find him. I need to ask something.”

Parker shook his head.  “She might not be a satyr,” he said, “but she’s related to one.  She probably just looks like the Watcher, but Scott’s family are all bakers.”  He walked over to Haley, adding, “I’ll see she gets out of here. You guys get back to patrols.”

The satyrs scattered at his command, and Parker guided Haley over to the sidewalk.  Once they were alone, he hissed, “Are you trying to get us killed, or are you just stupid?  If Agent needed me – ”

“Agent?” Haley asked.  “Agent doesn’t know I’m here.  I have the next few days off – I wanted to see my brother.”

Parker’s eyebrows furrowed.  “Wait, Scott’s really your brother?” he asked.  “You know he’s a Faun, right?”

“Right,” Haley said.  “That’s why I came here – he ran away from home a few months ago.  Well, I say ‘ran away’; he’s an adult, he can do what he wants,” she added.  “But I wanted to know why. And why he never comes to a family dinner any more.  And why I can’t see him…” Tears began to mist in her eyes, making her vision blurry as her brain went down that trail of thought.  “He’s my big brother. I’ve only got four; Sean’s been upset since Scott left. They were close, you know – the satyrs in the family.  Scott’s a gorilla, and I miss sparring with him and Sean. My mom’s been sick with worry, and my dad, well, he doesn’t emote. But he’s also had Scott on the brain, you know?”

Parker sighed.  “I know where Scott is,” he told her.  “I can give him the message. But it was stupid for you to come down here on your own – you’re a Watcher of the Asylum, Agent has rules against getting this wasted.”

“Oh, I’m not drunk,” Haley said, starting to dance again.

“Yeah, pull the other one,” Parker laughed, watching her, “it has bells.”

“Really,” she said, grabbing his hand and starting to dance with him.  “I just got hit by Eleutherios.” She grinned, repeating the name. “That’s a fun word: Eleutherios.  Eh-loo-theh-ree-ohs. E-leu-therios…”

Parker smirked.  “Isn’t that another name for Dionysus?” he asked.  “‘God of wine and revelry?’”

“You know stuff!” Haley exclaimed happily, throwing her arms in the air as she twirled.  “Oh, man, I had to tell Natalie and Frank who it was!”

She had been back-leading their dance to the tune in her head, but Parker took over the lead at that.  He was rolling with Haley’s drunk behavior so that she wouldn’t cause too much of a scene; while he could smell that the other Fauns weren’t within hearing distance, he had no idea who might be watching.  “Yeah, my sister’s studious, but she forgets stuff as soon as she doesn’t need it any more,” he said. “Besides, Nat was always more into Norse mythology than Greek. She wouldn’t know Dionysus from Apollo.”

“Natalie’s mean sometimes,” Haley said, “but she’s a good Watcher.  Small but scrappy; I’ve been teaching her Aikido.”

“Really?” Parker said, slowly leading the dance down the street to the edge of Faun territory.  “Nat listens to you?”

Haley shrugged.  “As much as she listens to anyone,” she admitted, twirling in the dark.  “Anyways, if you’re giving Scott a message, then you’re not taking me to him, right?”

“Right,” Parker said.  “I’m taking you out of here before you get in trouble.”

Haley stopped dancing and started walking.  “You’re a good guy, you know that?” she said.  “I know you’ve had to do some bad things, like sticking up that DMV, but you’re still a Watcher under it all.”

Parker bowed his head to hide a sheepish smile.  “I’m not so sure,” he said. “The DMV was small potatoes compared to some other stuff I’ve done.  If you remember this conversation in the morning, you might ask Agent about it tomorrow.”

“I always remember everything,” Haley said.  She shook her head. “Agent doesn’t talk about you,” she told him.  “Last I heard, he hadn’t heard from you in a while. But Frank contacted you last week.”

“I talked to Agent after that,” Parker said.  “But yeah, I haven’t been reporting in as regularly as he’d like.  Claw’s been onto me for a while, so I’ve been keeping my head down.”

“You okay?” Haley asked, hugging his side and leaning against him as they walked.  He smelled like flowers and some kind of citrus, neither of which fully covered up the scent of blood on his clothes.  “You sound sad.” She looked up at his face, studying it. “No, not sad… scared. You’re afraid of something.”

Parker tensed at the scrutiny, and Haley stepped away from him.  “You don’t even know me,” he said.

“True,” Haley nodded.  “We’ve never been properly introduced.  I’m Haley Prince, also known as Outlier,” she added, holding her hand out for him to shake.

Parker gave a short laugh at the sudden change of subject.  Taking her hand and giving it a mock kiss, as if she were a princess, he said, “I’m Parker Fawkes.  I went by Blackbird in the Asylum, and now the Fauns call me Fallen.”

“Pleased to meet you, Parker,” Haley said, grinning.  “Thank you for walking me this far. I guess you can’t go too much farther.”

Parker shook his head.  “But if you follow this road, you’ll get back to the tower.  I’m also texting both Agent and Frank to pick you up.” He pulled out an old-fashioned cell phone, which was how he contacted the Asylum members.

“Oh, Frank was hit by the Eleutherios too,” Haley said.  “So was Natalie. But Agent should get the message.”

Parker looked like he wanted to ask, but shook his head.  “I can’t be seen with you when Agent gets here, but I’ll keep an eye out so you don’t get into any trouble.”

“Nice to meet you, Parker,” Haley said, grinning at him.  “I hope you come home soon.”

Parker nodded.  “Tell Natalie I intend to,” he said.  “And Haley?” he added as she started to walk away.  She looked back curiously. “It was really nice to meet you, too.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Medical Center.

“So this drug makes people dance randomly?” Natalie asked.  “If I try that, please stop me.”

“Eleutherios releases inhibitions,” Dale pointed out.  “We’re just lucky Haley didn’t try to use any powers.”

“Don’t need powers,” Haley said.  “I’ve been fine ‘til now, I can go without.  No, thank you.”

Agent crossed his arms.  “You’re lucky Parker found you and convinced those Fauns that you weren’t Outlier.”

“Meh,” Haley shrugged.  “I am who I am.”

“Still,” Dale said, “for tha sake of research, Haley, could you grip tha table?”

Like the table in Samson’s lab, the one Haley now sat on had a metal frame.  She studied it for a second, before grabbing the edge and squeezing until her knuckles were white.  “Nope,” she said. “No powers. No, thank you.”

“Hmm.”  Dale studied the table, before looking back at Haley.  “I guess this version of tha serum in’t as potent as tha one Samson took.”

“Or else it just got mixed with a bunch of other stuff,” Haley said, hopping back up on the table.  She began humming to herself.

“Not that song again,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes.  “It’s never going to get out of my head now.”

Dale moved over to his work station, where he had a microscope slide with some of the Eleutherios on it.  “She has a point,” he said. “Dinnae you say tha you got soaked with the stuff after some jars broke?”

“Yeah,” Natalie said.  “Samson pushed me to the ground and the jars broke around me; I got it all over my back.  Shadow put his hand in it, and some must have splashed on Haley.”

“But you’re na affected,” Dale pointed out.  “You got tha worst dose, but you arenae loopy like these two.”  He gestured to Haley, who was still humming to herself, and Frank, who seemed intent on doing handstands.

“Okay, so I’m not dancing in the streets yet,” Natalie shrugged.  “So?”

“So maybe you have a natural immunity,” said Dale, still adjusting his microscope.  “I have samples of yer blood on file; I’ll need a sample now, post-affliction, to compare.  Agent, this might take a bit.”

“Not a problem,” Agent said, pressing the elevator button.  “Rina asked to see Doctor Samson, and she might help us get some answers out of him.”

“Good luck,” Natalie called wryly.  “Have fun interrogating the prisoner, while I’m stuck here getting poked with needles.”

“There’ll be other prisoners,” Agent told her as the elevator doors opened.  He flashed her a grin as he stepped on. “I’ll make sure you get a turn, too.”

Natalie threw a hospital pillow at him as the elevator doors closed, Agent laughing from behind them.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Police Department, interrogation room.

Sabrina “Rina” Dawson, AKA Nightmare.

Rina shuddered when she saw the lead researcher through the two-way mirror.  Samson was hunched over the table, looking like he was asleep; he could just be any other old man, except she knew him as a monster.

Agent looked at her with concern in his eyes.  “You sure about this?” he asked. “He might talk to you more than he would to me, but if it’s upsetting…”

“I can do it,” Rina said, cracking her knuckles.  “I rarely saw his face, so it’s not that bad. He’s just another bad guy, right?”

“We need to know what was in the Eleutherios,” Agent reminded her.  “Also if he’s been conducting human, satyr, or Third Gen experiments outside of Pharos.”

“And about how he stole the research from Pharos, and what else he might have.  Yeah, I know,” Rina said impatiently. “Can we get this over with?”

Agent nodded.  “He’s still under the effects of the drug,” he added, “so he might have trouble staying on topic.  You need to guide the conversation.”

Rina looked at him sideways as she opened the door.  “I have done this before, you know,” she pointed out.  “I worked as a police interrogator before you recruited me for the Asylum.”

“Right, right,” Agent said.  “Just… you can pull the plug at any time.  I know how personal this is for you.”

“I’ll be fine,” Rina told him.  “You just worry about him.”

She left the viewing room and entered the interrogation room.  Agent watched from the sidelines, letting Rina talk to Samson on her own.

Samson’s head snapped up to look at her as she walked in.  “Sabby?” he asked, studying her. “It’s my Sabby! Number nine, the Nightmare Child.”  He chuckled. “You really put the nurses through the ringer, you know.”

“Good,” Rina said, sitting down across from him.  “I need to know what was in Eleutherios.”

“Dionysus, Bacchus… probably a lot of wine!” Samson giggled.

Rina raised an eyebrow, letting her power affect the doctor.  “The drug, doctor. The one you’ve been working on in secret. What’s in it?”

“Ooh,” Samson shivered.  “You’re controlling your powers, and you didn’t even need a shock.  Impressive.”

“I’ve learned a lot since we broke away from you,” Rina hissed.  “I don’t have time for games. Tell me what I need to know so I can help my friends.”

Here shines the sun,” Samson sang.  “Have you ever seen the sun, Sabby?  I’d love to take you to the beach. Why don’t we go to the beach?”

Rina slammed a hand on the table.  She took a few deep breaths to calm herself before asking again, “What was in the drug?”

Samson considered her for a moment.  He could see that she was close to snapping, and realized that he might not want to be on the receiving end of that.  “I don’t really know,” he admitted. He lost the silly grin, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands on the table in front of him.  “I know what you’re asking me, Sabrina, but I’m not sure what affected your friends.”

Rina’s eyes widened.  “You weren’t really affected,” she accused.  “You’ve been foxing this whole time!”

“On the contrary, I was affected,” Samson said.  “It wore off about an hour ago.  I maintained the charade because that Agent and his like were less likely to let me see you while I’m sober.”

Rina stood up, knocking her chair over.  “Sabrina, wait!” Samson said, reaching for her hand.  The handcuffs chaining him to the table prevented him from reaching her.  “Sabrina!”

“You want me to wait?” Rina said.  “Tell me what I want to know.”

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know,” Samson said.  As Rina turned for the door, he added, “There were five different trials of Eleutherios on that table, and when they smashed they combined.  I’m not sure what combination might have affected your friends – they might have canceled each other out, or strengthened each other’s effects.  I just don’t know!”

“Are they in danger?” Rina asked.  “The drug that you were under wore off; won’t it wear off for them?”

“Probably,” Samson said.  “All five had a limited effect in my trials.  Without further exposure, they’ll probably be back to normal in a day or two.”

“Okay then,” Rina said, sitting down.  “Next question: what other experiments have you done using humans, satyrs, or Third Gens as subjects?”

Samson looked her in the eyes.  “I’ll make you a deal, Sabrina. An answer for an answer – you answer my questions, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

“What could you possibly want to know about me?” Rina scoffed.

“Can’t a father want to know his daughter?” Samson countered.

Rina could almost hear Agent’s hiss from the other room; she had never told him that particular piece of information before.  “You stopped being my father the first time you cut off my arm,” she told him.  “Heck, you stopped being my father as soon as you put me in your precious Fourth Gen experiment.  So no, we can’t go to the beach, because you made me allergic to the sun!”

“That was unintended,” Samson said.  “I was trying to save your life.”

“From what?” Rina asked.  “I was perfectly healthy before you gave me the serum.”

Samson shook his head.  “You were born a hybrid, Sabrina,” he said.  “Your nightmare powers killed your mother before you were three.  I was trying to get rid of them.”

“Right,” Rina scoffed.  “You started me on Fourth Gen as a baby.  You ‘wanted to get rid of them’, but instead you made them stronger. Then you marketed me to any military, government and private sector, to say that you could create super-soldiers.  And then you cut off my freaking arms and legs just to show them that they’d grow back.” She cracked her knuckles again, showing him her hands.

Samson looked away.  “I’ll admit, I was not exactly father of the year,” he said.  “I needed funding, so I had to give them something. It wasn’t until your brother rebelled and broke you all out of there that I – ”

“Wait, hang on,” Rina said, leaning forward.  “‘My brother’? Ryan was the one that got us out of there.”

“Yes, Ryan,” Samson said.  “Your older brother. He was one of the first experiments in the project.”

Rina took a deep breath, trying and failing to calm herself.  “So it wasn’t just me,” she said. “I wasn’t even your first child to be born as a guinea pig.  Ryan was my brother…”  She shook her head to clear it.  Act now, emote later, she reminded herself.  She had learned that lesson in her early days as an interrogator, but she had never dealt with information that personal before.  “You said you had a question for me,” she continued, getting back on topic. “If I answer, you’ll answer my questions. Deal?”

“Deal,” Samson said.  “All I really want to know is: how have you been?  Since leaving the laboratory,” he clarified. “You’re currently a Watcher in the Asylum, correct?”

“I’ve been great,” Rina told him.  “Nobody prodding me, or making me learn to do things one-handed or use crutches.  I get to bring bad guys like you to justice.” She leaned forward. “My turn. What other projects have you been on?”

Samson shrugged.  “Aside from Fourth Gen and Eleutherios, I worked on the Gen Juice project at Pharos Laboratories.  In my spare time, I tried to perfect Eleutherios at home, but I could never get it to take away Third Gen or satyrism.  It only enhanced the effects.” He sighed. “I don’t know what they put into the original Third Gen or Satyr serums that made them so resilient,” he said wistfully.  “We – humanity – created our own demise in trying to perfect ourselves. I want you to know,” he added, leaning in towards Rina, “that I only ever worked on these projects to help you and your brother.  I want to find a cure, so you can be a normal girl.”

Rina shook her head.  “How did you get the research out of Pharos?” she asked.

“Oh, that part was easy,” Samson said.  “When Eleutherios was shut down eight years ago, I just omitted certain parts from my inventory report and took them home with me that night.”

Rina glanced towards the mirror, knowing Agent was hearing every word.  “I’m asking about your recent theft,” she said. “When you were fired from Pharos, you took more.  What did you take, and how did you take it?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Samson said.  “I didn’t take anything else when Pharos fired me; just the research from eight years ago.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Police Department, interrogation room.

Agent and Rina.

“You believe him?” Rina asked Agent once the interrogation was over.  She joined him in the viewing room, noting that O.N.C. and Sean Hannah had both joined them at some point during her questioning.

“If he’s lying, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Agent admitted.  “Which then begs the question: why did you two put my team on a cold case without telling us?”

Sean raised an eyebrow, folding his arms in front of himself.  “Does it make a difference?” he asked. “The research he stole was proprietary, and he was recently fired.”

“It means you never answered Outlier’s question,” Agent said, folding his arms to mock the CEO’s posture.  “Why now? What changed?”

Sean grinned.  “Her,” he said, nodding to Rina.  At her startled look, he added, “I wanted to see how she could handle pressure; nothing seems to phase her, and I knew this would.”

Rina glared at him.  “She’s standing right here, and can be addressed directly,” she said.  Her powers began to flood the room, making the CEO twitch uncomfortably.  O.N.C. took a few steps back, and both of their breathing got harder and faster as Rina gave them the anxiety attack that she herself had been holding back since the start of the interrogation.

“Enough!” Sean roared, waving a hand through the air as if that would stave off the panic.  “If you can’t behave like an adult, then you can just leave!” Rina released the pressure on the room, turning and storming out the door.

Agent shook his head at them, unaffected by her powers.  “You deserved that,” he said, turning to follow Rina. “Don’t ever mess with my team again.”

He caught up to Rina halfway down the hall, calling her name.  “You okay?” he asked, tentatively.

Rina had tears rolling down her cheeks, and she was shivering.  Agent put his arms around her, letting her get control of herself.  “It’s okay,” he said. “He can’t hurt you any more.” Rina could feel him shivering from the effects of her powers, but he didn’t let go.

“It’s not that,” Rina sniffed, biting her lip to control the quiver in her voice.  “He said… Ryan was my brother. My actual brother! I always thought he was just another kid in the experiment.”  She sniffed, trying to control her crying. “This is stupid. It’s been nearly fifteen years since he died; I don’t know why I’m so upset now.”

“Hey,” Agent said, pulling away to look her in the face.  “Traumas like that don’t just leave,” he told her. “All we can do is move on and try to live despite them.  It doesn’t matter if it’s fifty years later and his name comes up – you take the time you need to mourn. As long as you don’t let it consume you, it’s healthy to cry sometimes.”

Rina sniffed.  “Thanks,” she said.  “You sound like you know what it’s like.”

“I was the Agent of Team Ark,” he reminded her.  “I lost friends, and other friends got badly hurt under my watch.  So yeah, I know what I’m talking about.” He gave her a sad smile. “If I ever find out that Striker was my brother, I’d be crying in the hallway, too.  I’m impressed you didn’t lose it in front of the others.”

Rina shook her head. “‘Interrogate now, emote later’,” she told him, turning to walk down the hall now that she had gotten herself under control.  “The detective I worked with taught me that. If you cry in front of the perp, you’re only giving him power.”

“True,” Agent said, falling into step beside her.  “Hey, while you were in there I got news from Dale.  Haley and Frank seem to be returning to normal.”

“That’s good!” Rina said.

“He’s still not sure why it didn’t affect Natalie, though,” Agent added, worried.  “I’m just hoping it doesn’t have any long-lasting effects.”

Rina put a hand on his shoulder.  “She’s fine right now,” she told him.  “We’ll worry about anything else as it comes.”

Agent nodded.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I guess I should be grateful she didn’t go berserk.”

“Super-powered Natalie with no inhibitions,” Rina said thoughtfully.  “That’s a scary thought. Then again, how can we be sure the drug didn’t affect her?”

“Meaning?” Agent asked.

Rina shrugged.  “Natalie doesn’t let much of anything stop her,” she said.  “That’s when she’s sober, and that’s why it seems scary for her to be on a drug like that.  But then, since she already lives her life with few to no inhibitions, maybe the drug did affect her – we just couldn’t tell.”

Agent raised his eyebrows, considering the point.  “That… sounds plausible,” he said slowly. “That actually makes me feel a lot better.  Thanks.”

“No problem,” Rina said.  “Now what say you we stop and get some ice cream on the way back?”

“Sounds good,” Agent said, grinning.  “Chunky monkey?”

“Chocolate chip cookie dough,” Rina said.  As they got to Agent’s car, Rina began humming an old tune that her mother used to sing as a lullaby:

Lavender blue, dilly-dilly

Lavender green

Then I’ll be king, dilly-dilly, and you’ll be my queen…

* * * * * * * *

Issue #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?

* * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * * *