Asylum Bonus Story #1 – Team Ark

History Lesson: A Watcher’s Function in Society.

From a class taught by Agent five years ago.

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

This was not always the case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, about ten years ago, something changed.

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Scene: The Fall of Team Ark

Eon City, nine years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doubtful,” he grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparrow called after her, “No, Striker – ”

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Team Ark Headquarters, an hour later.

What just happened?

“What the hell happened?!” Agent shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Agency Headquarters, two years ago.

Agent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was not happy about his latest assignment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know the details,” O.N.C. said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s human,” O.N.C. said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the others?” Agent asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you ever heard of the Gamemaster?”

* * * * * * * *

Issue #10 – The Past That Haunts Us

Eon City, five years ago.

Frank Mejia, about to do something stupid.

Deep breath.

Everything appeared to be moving in slow motion as Frank Mejia jumped off of the roof.  Behind him, he knew that Natalie was cheering, that Miranda was yelling, that Parker was applauding, and that Alex hid her face in her hands.  He barely heard the whoops and hollers of his friends as he concentrated on the one rule of the group: Don’t Die.

Breathe.

He kept his mind clear by focusing on the drop, and the hanging metal rafters that would stop his descent from the five-story building.  The second it took for him to fall down to it seemed to last an eternity.

Here it comes…

Frank’s feet hit the rail, but his right foot slipped on the early morning condensation.  His heart skipped a beat as he fought back panic. Six years of training paid off, as his muscles knew what to do: without having to think about it, he bent his left leg to absorb the impact, turning to grab the beam with both hands.  As he leaned forward to absorb some of the impact with his arms, he stared with wide eyes at the ground four stories below.

What was it again?

Oh, yeah.  Breathe.

He slowly pivoted on his left foot to look back up at the roof, where his sister and his friends stood cheering for him.

“Frank, you crazy sum-bitch,” Miranda, Frank’s sixteen year-old sister, yelled down.  Her cat ears were flat and the soft reddish-brown fur on her tail stood on end, showing just how scared she had actually been. “What would I tell Mom if you’d missed?” she asked, arms folded in front of her.

“That my aim was off?” he called back, grinning.  “Somebody better tell Alex she can look, now.”

 “Uh-uh,” he heard Alex’s voice answer, but her face did not appear over the edge of the roof.  “You want to kill yourself, fine, but there’s no way I’m going near that edge.” Alex had a problem with heights, and while she could follow the group up to the top of the building, she always refused to look down.

“Man, that was intense,” cried Natalie, grinning down at her friend.  Her dyed-black hair, starting to grow out, waved in the wind as she looked over the edge.

Parker also poked his head over the side.  His feathery blond hair ruffled in the breeze as he grinned down at Frank.  “Dude, that was amazing!” he cried.

The five friends used to practice parkour and free-running together in this abandoned construction site on the edge of the city, back when they all went to high school together.  The five-story office building was only half-complete, with open walls and exposed rafters giving the tracers an expansive playground. They hadn’t been there together in more than a year until today, though; since Frank and the twins had graduated high school, the twins had gone to New York to get their Watchers’ licenses while Frank helped his mom out at her dojo.  I missed this, Frank thought as he grinned back up at his friends.

He cat-crawled along the beam, examining the slick surface carefully as he went, to get back inside of the building.  Years of dust had settled on the top of the rafters, leaving black streaks on the legs of his light-gray sweatpants.

As his feet reached the main floor, he saw his friends come down from the roof.  Miranda was the first down, jumping through a hole in the ceiling and landing with a roll.  As she popped up beside Frank, Natalie followed her down. Instead of jumping, though, she grabbed onto the edge of the hole and lowered herself down, landing in a crouch on the ground.

Parker came through next, diving through the hole and using his large black and white wings to slow his decent, until his hands hit the ground and he could roll to a stand.  He left his wings unfurled, posing as he pretended to see something off in the distance.

“Where’s your cameraman?” Miranda asked, snickering.

Parker shrugged and ran his hand through his hair.  “Don’t need one,” he said, grinning. “I’m just sharing this with the world.”

Alex was the last one, hesitating for a second before jumping down.  Jumping out of her four-point landing, she closed her eyes for a second as she shook off her fear of heights.

“You okay?” Frank asked.

Alex nodded, her chin set.  She blew her raven-black bangs out of her face and said, “That was insane.”  Smacking Frank over the head, she added, “You could’ve died.”

Frank grinned again.  “Yeah, but I didn’t,” he pointed out.

Parker came up behind him and pulled him into a one-armed hug.  “You aren’t the one with wings,” he said. “What was your back-up?”

Frank walked back over to the edge, shrugging off Parker’s arm.  “See that rafter a floor down?” he asked. “I’d have grabbed that.  I have done stuff like this before, you know,” he wryly added.

“Not off a five-story drop,” Parker pointed out.  “They made us do some crazy stuff in Watcher training, but even the instructors would draw the line at a jump like that.”

“Well, maybe not,” Natalie smirked.  “Could be they just didn’t think of it.”  Parker shuddered at the thought, flexing his wings behind him as if to reassure himself that they were still there.

Twenty year-olds Parker and Natalie Fawkes had just finished the year-long training to become Watchers.  Humans didn’t usually become Watchers – it was nearly impossible for people who didn’t have special abilities to pass – but Natalie had grown up learning her father’s street illusions.  She could easily keep up with her brother, and wanted nothing more than to join a vigilante force. The twins already had an offer from a new agency in Eon City.

 “Mom would love this,” Miranda said, walking out onto the beam and looking down at the drop.  “Hey Frank, when she kills you later, can I have your stuff?”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Frank said, jumping to grab a rail that ran along the ceiling.  He swung his way across a five foot wide hole in the floor, landing silently on the other side.

Alex took a running start, jumping across the same hole.  Landing next to Frank, she said, “You know, you actually looked a bit like Kindred when you were jumping.”

Of course he did.  Kindred was his father – although Alex didn’t know that. When his parents were Watchers, they kept their identities out of the limelight as much as possible to give their kids a normal life.  Frank wasn’t even sure Miranda knew that their parents had been a part of the famous Team Ark – she was just a kid when the team broke apart and their parents became full-time managers of the dojo.

Changing the subject, Frank latched on to the last detail.  “Will your parents keep your stuff while you’re away?” he asked.

“Of course,” Alex said.  “I’m only gone for the first month.”  She flipped back onto her feet, calling to the twins as they crossed the gap, “I just hope the Task Force training won’t be as brutal as your Watcher stories.”

“At least yours will be shorter,” Parker said, folding his wings around his torso and jumping across the hole in the floor as well.  “Your training only lasts a month or so, right?”

“What was that internship you got again?” Frank asked Alex as Natalie followed them over.

Alex held her chin up proudly as she answered.  “I’ll be working for the DoD, in the Meta-Human Vigilante Task-Force. They’re responsible for gathering and coordinating intelligence on the meta-humans in other countries.”  She shrugged one shoulder, as if it was no big deal, but her grin gave away how excited she was for the opportunity.  “I’ll mostly be a paper-pusher as an intern, but who knows? A month for training, half a year as an intern, and if I do well they might hire me on full-time.”

Frank knew that Alex loved talking about it.  She was the youngest applicant to be accepted into the program at seventeen years old; her test scores had ranked fourth in the nation’s history.

“Hey, what time is it?” Parker asked suddenly, looking towards the skyline.

“Nearly five,” Miranda told him, checking her watch.  “Frank, we’re supposed to meet Mom at the gym,” she pointed out.

“Oh, yeah,” Frank grinned back at the others.  “Same time tomorrow?” They all agreed, and Frank and Miranda jumped down through the hole in the floor.

Frank followed his sister down to the ground floor, staying back at her pace.  Miranda Mejia was a cat-satyr, with long, pointed ears that she usually covered with the ski cap that was currently in her cargo-pants pocket, and a long reddish-brown tail that helped counter-balance her when she jumped.  Frank had been doing parkour since he was twelve years old and was one of the fastest tracers on the coast, but Miranda had a natural grace that allowed her to jump far and land softly without much effort.

They walked along the streets of Eon City mostly together, though occasionally one of them would break off to try a stunt if they saw a good opportunity.  Eon City was filled with rails, ledges, and walls for the tracers to play on.

“Mom’s gonna flip when she hears about that jump,” Miranda told him as they walked the three blocks to their Mom’s gym.  “She’s told you dozens of times to be careful.” She wrapped her tail around her waist and tucked the tail of her tank top around it – a habit she had formed to help her fit in at school – as she pulled the ski cap out of her pocket and put it on.  Her eyes were still the golden-flecked cat eyes, but there wasn’t much she could do about them.

“Not if she doesn’t know,” Frank said, pointedly raising an eyebrow at her.  “Just like she also won’t know about you hanging out with us instead of getting your summer reading done, like she told you to do.”

Miranda got the hint.  “Fine, I won’t tell her,” she grumbled as they came to the entrance of the gym, “but it was still reckless, and stupid, and dangerous.”

Frank grinned.  “I know; it was fun,” he said, poking her in the side.

It was a typical day for them, before Frank decided to become a Watcher.  Even after he joined the Asylum, he sometimes thought back to that time with his friends – the last time the five of them were all together.

Some memories were worth preserving.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, present day.

Frank and Miranda, coming home.

Frank walked through the doors of their mom’s mixed martial arts dojo (or “the gym”, as the family called it).  His mom was finishing up with a class, while Miranda sat on the couch in the lobby area waiting for her to finish up.  Frank sat down next to her, looking at the TV in time to see the tail end of a news interview.

On the screen was a familiar face from social media: Sean Hannah was young for the CEO of Pharos Industries.  He was only about forty years old, and seemed to play that up for the audience – he was a thin man, wearing an impeccable suit and tie, but his curly brown hair was left unkept.  His pointed chin was raised, giving him a slightly proud appearance. The camera angle, showing his face and shoulders as he spoke to the press, accentuated his electric blue eyes and sly half-smile.

“Pharos Industries has always been the leader in genetics research,” scrolled the captions at the bottom; although the sound was turned off, it seemed that the CEO was the one talking.  “Now we prove once again how our innovation can take America forward in scientific discovery.”

“Him again?” Miranda asked, turning her attention away from the TV and onto their mom’s class.  “Pharos has been everywhere lately, ever since that guy took over.”

“What’s that thing they’re advertising now?” Frank asked her, still watching the interview.

Miranda didn’t take her eyes off of the class.  “I think it’s called ‘Gen Juice’,” she answered.

The television confirmed that two seconds later, as the interviewer went on to describe it.  The captions said, “Gen Juice advertises itself as being able to give normal humans the same powers as Third Gens.  How close do you think you are to releasing it to the public?”

Sean Hannah grimaced.  “Unfortunately, we are still in the testing phase.  It will be another few years before the formula is anywhere near ready for humans – we don’t want to repeat history,” he chuckled.  “We’ll also need to get approved by the FDA, and make sure our licenses are in order; it’s unlikely that the public will see it for the next five years, and then the military –”

“Hey kids,” greeted their mom as the class ended.  Frank turned his attention away from the interview to say hi.  Sara Mejia was a small woman, barely five-foot-two, slim and athletic.  She walked with a limp, sometimes even needing a cane. The shattered kneecap in her right leg still seemed to pain her, even years after the accident.  Frank didn’t know how it had happened – only that it had happened nine years ago. He had come home one day to a phone call from his dad at the hospital, telling him that his mom was in intensive care.  The doctor told them that his mom would always have that limp, though it might get better in time.

Sara’s smile left her with worry lines around her eyes as she looked at Miranda.  Nineteen year-old Miranda’s human side took after their mother: they both had the same hazel eyes, high cheekbones, even the same hair color.  Frank had seen pictures of his mom as a teenager, and had to admit that Miranda looked like a taller, more feline version of her.

They met every Saturday morning at the gym to practice sparring, at their mom’s insistence.  Sara claimed it was to make sure that they kept up with their training, but Frank knew it was because she worried about them.  Frank was now a full-time Watcher, and Miranda went to Eon City’s community college – even though she still lived at home, she didn’t see her parents much.  Frank could tell that his mom didn’t see Miranda often enough; Sara always seemed to watch her with worried eyes these days.

“What’s wrong?” Frank asked his mom in an aside, while Miranda went to get water out of the fountain in the back.  “Need more painkillers?”

“No, I’m fine,” Sara said.  “Just promise me that you’ll keep an eye out for your sister.  I’ve been hearing so many reports of satyrs being kidnapped recently; I don’t know what I’d do if Miranda was one of them.”

There had been a rash of missing satyr cases across Eon City in the last year.  Frank knew that his mom believed the police didn’t care enough to expend resources on finding them. He couldn’t blame her – even Agent seemed at a loss on where to start looking, and he had the full resources of the Asylum at his disposal.

“Of course I will,” he sighed, “just like I said the last ten times you asked.”

“Frank, this is serious,” Sara scolded.  “There have been three missing satyr reports this week alone.  I don’t want your sister getting caught up in it.”

“Fine,” Frank said.  “I promise. But I can’t be everywhere – Miranda has a mind of her own, and I can only call her so many times in a week.”

“Just do what you can,” Sara told him.  “That’s all I ask.”

Miranda came back over, rolling tape around her hands.  “Are we going to spar or what?” she asked them, pointing to the ring.  “I swear, Frank, this time I’ll kick your ass.”

“You can try,” Frank shrugged, giving her a cocky grin.  “I doubt you’ll do better than the last hundred times.”

He climbed into the ring with her, their mother limping over next to the ring.  Miranda took her hat off when they sparred, though she kept her tail wrapped around herself.  Frank used to grab her tail while they were sparring to teach her not to wave it around while she fought.

As soon as Sara gave them the go-ahead, Miranda tried to knock her brother down with a swift kick aimed at his chest.

Miranda was graceful, but Frank was fast.  He dodged her foot, rolling around her and grabbing her from behind.  Growing up sparring against his sister showed him her exact weak spots, and he knew that Miranda had never learned how to escape a full nelson.

“Give up yet?” he asked calmly as his sister struggled against him.  Her legs flailed in the air as she tried to break his hold, but try as she might she couldn’t get free.

 “That’s enough, Frank,” Sara said, and the siblings stopped struggling.  “Miranda, I’ve told you before: escaping that hold isn’t about brute force.  You need to use your opponent’s weaknesses against him.”

Frank could almost feel the wheels turning in his sister’s head.  The one weakness she would need to exploit was his height – Miranda was four inches taller than his five-foot-four stature, and she could use that leverage if she just leaned forward.

The thought apparently occurred to her at the same time.  Frank had less than a second to tighten his grip on her again before she drove her shoulders downwards.  Frank’s toes came up about an inch off of the ground, and suddenly Miranda had the upper hand. She grabbed his right knee, quickly yanking it upward and making him let go of the hold if he wanted to land properly.  As it was, he landed on just one foot as Miranda held onto his leg. She pulled it forward, throwing him over her hip and slamming him onto the mat.

“You’re getting complacent,” Sara said dryly to Frank.  “You think that because your sister is weak against the one move, you can use it on her every time and not be bothered to follow up.”

“I get it,” Frank groaned, slumping against the floor.  He got up, as Sara turned back to Miranda.

“Very good, sweetheart, but why did you hesitate?” she asked.

Miranda smirked at Frank, saying, “I know how to break out of that hold; I just forget it when I’m sparring.”

“Then you don’t know it,” Sara chided, and the smirk fell from her daughter’s face.  “If you know something in theory but forget it in practice, then what good has it done you?  Again.”

They spent the remainder of the hour going over that hold until Miranda successfully dumped Frank ten times in a row.  As they finished the practice session, even Frank had to admit that his little sister was getting better.

“Very good,” Sara said after the last throw.  “You’ve stopped hesitating.”

Miranda smiled, pushing her bangs out of her face.  “Thanks,” she said. “I needed to work up a good sweat.”  The grin changed to a sour expression as a loud guffaw sounded behind Sara.  “Great,” Frank heard her mutter. He looked over to where his sister was watching.

The laughter came from two large fighters who seemed to be finished for the day.  One was wearing a bright green workout shirt, while the other sported a black shirt with a skull on the front.

“Yeah, little kitty,” Skull said.  “Better not hesitate or the big bad pipsqueak there’ll pull your ears.”

“What?” Miranda demanded, glaring back at them.  “You want to say that to my face?”

Frank stood up, putting a hand on his sister’s shoulder.  “Come on, they’re not worth it,” he said.

“Did you hear what they called you?!” Miranda demanded.  Frank shrugged.

“I heard a fart,” he told her.  “You know where those come from.”  He had been teased about his height before; it didn’t really bother him anymore.

“Hey, kitten,” Green Shirt called.  “You want to see how a real man fights?  I know you satyrs have such… animal instincts!

Miranda’s cheeks flushed, and she started forward as if to fight them, but Sara held up a hand as she turned to face the hecklers.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Sara said, smiling at them.  Frank could see the anger boiling in his mother’s eyes, though. “I have a strict no-bullying policy in my gym.”

Skull crossed his arms.  “And who’s gonna make me?” he asked, taunting the slim-framed woman.

Sara smiled pleasantly, taking one slow step forward.  “I will,” she said, cocking her head to the side. Frank could see that the two brawny fellows thought she was joking.  They laughed even louder at that, and Sara laughed, too. The mirth didn’t quite meet her eyes, however, and Frank knew what would come next.  He had only ever seen his mother this angry once before, and it did not end well for the person who had made her mad.

Mid-laugh, Sara suddenly grabbed the scruff of Skull’s shirt, tossing the man over her right hip using the same move that they had just been drilling.  Instead of landing on the semi-soft mat, however, Skull went crashing into the side of the ring. A loud THUNK told Frank that the heckler had hit the hard wooden frame, and he could hear the heckler’s moans from the floor below them.

Green Shirt’s eyes widened, but he didn’t have time to process what he had seen before he, too, was knocked to the ground.  Sara had used her cane to knock his legs out from under him, and then followed up with a punch to the gut when he was on the floor.

Green Shirt coughed, as though choking down bile, as Sara stood over him.  “Don’t you ever talk to my kids that way again,” she said. “Got it?”

“Yes ma’am,” they moaned.

“Now get out of my gym.”

The two hecklers got up as quickly as they could and ran out the door, Frank and Miranda’s laughter following them into the night.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, night.

Frank walking Miranda home. 

Sara had to stay late to finish up some paperwork after the kids finished practice.  It had stacked up recently, and she was determined to finish it before going home. She told Frank that she would get a cab, and asked him to walk Miranda the mile to their townhouse.

Miranda was unusually quiet, frowning slightly as she walked along the curb like a balance beam.  Her tail was tucked around her again, and she was still wearing the ski cap even though it was a warm night.

“You okay?” Frank asked her.

Miranda shrugged.  “It’s nothing. Those guys were just jerks.”

She was thinking about the hecklers.  “Being a satyr is nothing to be ashamed of,” Frank told her.

“I know that,” Miranda huffed.  “I just wish Mom didn’t have to step in like that.”

“She was defending you,” Frank said.

“Yeah, and she shouldn’t have to,” Miranda snapped back.  Then she deflated again, as though the fight had gone out of her.  “Besides,” she added, “I’m used to it.”

Frank’s jaw clenched as he realized what she was saying.  “You mean you hear that from other people?” he asked.

Miranda just looked at him with her yellow eyes, and for the first time he really noticed how inhuman they looked.  “What do you think?” she asked rhetorically. “I get it on campus, too: ‘Mangy Miranda’, ‘here, kitty, kitty’. That ‘animal instincts’ crack wasn’t even the most original one I’ve heard.”

Frank stepped in front of her, halting her on the curb.  With a grave expression, he said, “And if they can’t be original, then what good are they?”

Miranda gave a startled chuckle and said in an equally formal manner, “Too true.  Maybe they should have said something about my tail.” She uncurled her tail, letting the streetlights shine on it.

“Nah, too obvious,” Frank said, turning around and continuing to walk.  “How about, ‘Ooh, the fury of the Furry.’”

“Nice,” Miranda laughed, her melancholy forgotten.  As they passed the construction yard, she grinned at Frank.  “What do you say?” she taunted, “A little night training before you go back to the tower?”

“How are you not tired?” Frank asked her.  After spending the last hour getting pounded into the ring by his little sister, Frank was ready to go home and lounge on the couch in front of the TV for the evening.  It was his night off, and he just wanted to rest.

“Come on,” Miranda said, starting to climb the fence around the abandoned site.  “I just want to try one thing.”

“Nah, come on down,” Frank said, “Mom told me to take you straight home.”

It was hard to see it in the dark, but Frank could tell his sister was rolling her eyes at him.  “This won’t take long, I promise. I just want… what was that?”

She stopped climbing, and took one hand off of the fence to remove her ski cap.  Her long ears twitched in the moonlight as she listened. “What is it?” Frank asked.

“I think someone’s in trouble,” Miranda hissed.  “Shush.”

Frank listened, straining to hear anything unusual nearby.  Miranda’s hearing was as good as a cat’s, though, and there were some things that were easier for her than for her brother.  Frank might be a Third Gen, but his powers were mostly limited to being able to see in the dark; his ears were all too human.  “Come on,” she said suddenly, jumping down from the fence and starting to run. Her tail came unwrapped from her waist as she ran off down the sidewalk.

Frank ran after her, calling for her to wait.  Soon after he passed the edge of the construction lot, he heard it too; somewhere nearby, someone was fighting.  From the inhuman growls that punctuated the sound of punches and kicks, there was at least one satyr in the struggle.

Frank sped up, catching up to Miranda as she stopped in front of an alley.  In the dark space between the buildings, five figures were trying to subdue a sixth.  Miranda moved to dart into the fray, but Frank put a hand on her shoulder.

“We have to help,” Miranda said.

“Wait,” Frank said quietly, “we have no idea who they are or why they’re fighting.”

“She’s a satyr, Frank,” Miranda shot back, glaring at him.  “Isn’t it obvious?”

Knowing that Miranda’s night vision was better than his own, Frank squinted down the alley.  The momentary distraction was all Miranda needed to escape his grip; before he could stop her, she had charged headfirst into the fight.

Frank had no choice but to follow; his mom would kill him if he let Miranda get hurt.  He grabbed the first attacker he came to and dragged him away from the center. As the surprised mugger turned around, Frank punched him in the jaw; the man went down like a sack of bricks.

Frank saw Miranda with her back to a wall, using the MMA style of fighting that their mother had drilled into them since childhood.  She held off one attacker but while the wall at her back kept anyone else from sneaking up on her, she also had no escape route. Frank dodged a third fighter and grabbed the arm of his sister’s assailant.  Twisting his arm around behind his back, Frank kicked him in the back of the knee to force him down to the ground. These guys were a foot taller than Frank, but his muscles were harder from a decade of parkour and mixed martial arts, and his Watcher training outmatched their fighting style.

Miranda nodded her thanks, her eyes wide as she focused on something just behind him.  With only two opponents, the satyr woman they had come to rescue could now stand and fight on her own.  Frank quickly slammed the guy he held to the ground, making sure he didn’t get up, and then turned to watch.

This new satyr was unlike anyone Frank had ever seen.  Her floppy ears whipped through the air as she held her own against two guys twice her size.  Her eyes glinted black in the moonlight, even in the darkness of the alley. She swept the feet of one of her attackers out from under him, and then turned to punch the other one in the face in one movement.  She was definitely a dog-satyr, with fur covering her face, but she didn’t have a tail like Miranda did.

“A little help here,” the new satyr cried, as the guy on the ground grabbed her leg.  Frank shook himself for the hesitation, before jumping into the fight.

He took care of the guy on the ground, allowing the satyr-woman to finish off the other one.  As the sounds of fighting stopped, Frank turned to the woman. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Where’s the merc?” came the confusing reply as the woman frantically looked around.

As Frank opened his mouth to ask who “the merc” was, he heard a scream come from behind him.  Turning, he mentally kicked himself for forgetting about the fifth assailant. The first guy he had punched on his way in had also recovered, and was now grabbing Miranda by her exposed tail.  He yanked cruelly, pulling her into him and grabbing her by the neck. A lean bald man stood next to them, grinning with a smile that didn’t quite meet his eyes.

Frank ran after them, but the bald man drew a katana from a double sheath on his back and held the blade up to Miranda’s throat.  Miranda stopped struggling as the metal touched her neck.

“It’s too bad you don’t want to come with us, Toby,” the man called back to the satyr-woman, “but this one will work just as well.  Thanks for the match.”

Frank shook his head.  “That’s my sister,” he cried, trying to stall as he figured out what to do.

The man just shrugged one shoulder.  “Sorry,” he said, “but I have to meet my quota.” He pointed at the satyr woman, who doubled over in sudden, uncontrollable laughter.

Suddenly, the wall next to him seemed to open up, though none of the bricks moved.  Through the hole, Frank caught a glimpse of wooden crates stacked in the background, in a space much too big for the building next to them.  The merc gestured to the goon holding Miranda to step through, before going through the portal himself.

Frank ran after them, jumping to dive through the opening in space, but the portal closed just before he hit it, and without any extra space to finish his dive Frank crashed head-first into the brick wall.

“No!” he shouted, pounding his fists on the brick.  “No, give her back!”

“They’re gone,” the woman said from behind him, her strange laughter subsiding.  “You shouldn’t have interfered.”

“Yeah?  You’re welcome for saving your life,” Frank spat back.  “Where did they go? We have to follow them.”

“I have no idea where they went,” the satyr-woman said, dropping her eyes to the side.  “I’ve been tracking them around the city for months; this was the first solid lead I’ve had in weeks, and now they could be anywhere.”

“They’ve got my sister,” Frank growled, “because we were trying to save you.”

“Yes, because you led her into a fight,” the woman shot back.  “If you’d just left well enough alone…”

“Then you’d have been dragged off with them,” Frank said, his voice rising, “and we would have gone home.  Miranda stopped to save you, now you tell me where she is!”

“I don’t know!” the woman shouted back, catching his eyes with her inhuman black ones.  “I have no idea how they do that portal-thing, I don’t know where they take the satyrs once they have them, I don’t even know why they’re grabbing satyrs, I – just – don’t – KNOW!!”

Frank was shocked into silence for a few seconds.  When he spoke again, his voice was much quieter as he asked, “So what do we do?”

“’We’?” the woman repeated.  “There is no ‘we’, kid; I’m going to track them down.  I have an old friend in the city I’m going to see; you run home and wait for me to find them.”

“’Run home’.”  It was Frank’s turn to repeat things.  “I’m not just ‘running home’ without my sister.  Mom’ll freak.” What’ll I tell Mom? he thought even as he said it.  After promising to look after Miranda, she was taken on his watch.  How was he going to break the news?

“Tough,” the satyr-woman said.  “I’ve got to find a new lead, thanks to your interfering – your mom is your problem.”

With that last word, she ran out of the alley and into the night.  Frank stood there, dumbstruck, for another minute before running for help.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Agent’s office.

Frank Mejia, briefing Agent.

“I’m telling you, the satyr woman called him ‘the merc’,” Frank told Agent, running through the events of earlier again.  He had come straight to the tower after his sister was abducted; he was hoping to find her and get her home safe and sound before his mom even knew she had been missing.

“What did you say she looked like?” Agent asked, typing something into his computer.

“Long tail, cat ears, I mean, you’ve met her…” Frank said.

“Not your sister,” said Agent.  “The satyr you rescued.”

Frank thought back.  “She’s a dog-satyr,” he said.  “She had fur all over her – at least the parts I could see.  Floppy ears, too. It was dark, but I think her fur was light.”

Agent typed something else into the database.  “That sounds like Holmes,” he said. “Toby Watson.  She’s a private eye in the city; we’ve used her information on a few cases.  I asked her to keep an eye out for the kidnapped satyrs – I guess she found something.”

“What about the guy who took Miranda?” Frank asked, impatient.  “What do you know about him?”

“You said he pointed at Toby, and she started laughing uncontrollably?” Agent asked.  He suddenly looked uncomfortable, as though he wanted to change the subject.

Frank saw through him.  “You know who he is, don’t you?” he accused.

“You know who he is, too,” Agent said.  “That was Marauder, of Team Ark.”

“… What?” Frank asked, hoping he had misheard.

Agent turned to look at him.  “Didn’t you ever meet your parents’ team?” he asked.  “I mean, I know you and I only met a couple years ago, but surely you met Derek, Casey, Steve…?”

“No,” Frank said, stunned.  “Mom and Dad wanted to keep us out of it; I don’t even know if Miranda remembers that they were Watchers in the first place.”

Agent turned back to his computer.  “When I first went to put the team together, I asked Derek if he would join,” he said.  “He and Earthborn were my first recruits, since your dad and Casey refused. Marauder said he’d think about it, but he turned me down, too.  I wasn’t surprised – Team Ark’s breakup was messy, and for any of them to come back here…” he trailed off for a second, then shook his head to clear it.  “Let’s just say that this wasn’t my first choice for a post, either. Regardless, I’ve kept up with the old members, just in case: Star, your mom, runs the dojo.  Kindred, your dad, does Watcher work solo. Sparrow now runs the bar.”

“And Marauder?” Frank prompted.

“Marauder worked as a Watcher for a while, but he turned mercenary.”  Agent pulled up a file on one of his screens, showing Frank the face of the man who had abducted Miranda.  “Derek Hessing, ex-military Third Gen with the power to manipulate emotions. He fell off the grid a while back, doing less-than-reputable jobs for not-so-good people.”

“And now he’s kidnapping satyrs,” Frank finished.  “Why haven’t you stopped him before?”

“On what charge?” Agent asked.  “Derek’s a professional – he knows how to cover his tracks.  Him kidnapping Miranda in front of two witnesses is probably the best break we’ve ever gotten on the kidnapping ring.”

“Glad my sister’s abduction could help,” Frank said drily.  “Now what?”

Agent scanned the file, looking for something.  “We have an address for him,” he said. “Nightmare and Trick are patrolling near there now; I’ll have them check it out.”

“Great,” said Frank.  “What can I do?”

“There’s a storage warehouse near the docks that Marauder has also been known to use,” Agent told him.  “Jaunt has also been seen in the area.”

“Jaunt?” Frank asked.  “What’s he got to do with this?”

“You said they stepped through a hole in the wall and disappeared,” Agent reminded him.  “That has Jaunt written all over it. Unless you know of another Third Gen who can rip holes in space, because Marauder sure can’t.”

“Okay, so I’ll check out the warehouse,” Frank said, turning to leave.

“Not so fast,” Agent said.  “I’m not sending you down there without backup.  Haley will be back in an hour – ”

“I’m not waiting,” Frank said.  “My sister could be there, and in an hour they could move her.”

Agent ran a hand through his hair, gripping his umbrella.  “If I’m going to coordinate the groups, I can’t go with you,” he said.  “The others are out on assignments.” The elevator door opened.

“Don’t worry about me,” Frank said, pulling out his phone as he stepped into the lift.  “I know who to call.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, warehouses near the docks.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

Shadow didn’t turn around as he felt a sudden gust of wind.  “Glad you could make it,” he said, keeping his eyes on the building.  His goggles, set to infra-red, showed him how many people were inside.

“I’ll always be there for my friends,” Parker shrugged as he knelt down next to him.  “What’s the sitch?”

“Miranda was kidnapped,” Shadow told him.  “You remember Marauder from Team Ark?”

“You’re kidding,” Parker whistled.  “Marauder? He was a hero!”

Shadow’s mouth twisted.  “And now he’s a mercenary, apparently kidnapping satyrs for Jaunt.  Including my sister.”

“Hey,” Parker said, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “We’ll get her back.”

Shadow turned to look at him, pushing his goggles up on his forehead.  “Seriously man, thanks for coming,” he said. “I know you could get in a lot of trouble with Claw for working with a Watcher…”

“Ah, don’t worry about that,” Parker said.  “I got Claw’s permission to come.”

“Really?” Shadow asked.  “How’d you manage that?”

Parker raised an eyebrow.  “Satyrs have been kidnapped,” he said, as if it were obvious.  “The Faun’s manifesto is to help satyrs. I just told him – in front of witnesses – that I had a lead on it, but that I’d have to work with a Watcher to follow through.”  He pushed his sleeves up, revealing a bandage on his arm. “Claw said I’d have to try to kill you when the satyrs are safe, but he let me go.”

“Are you okay, man?” Shadow asked, concerned for his friend.

Parker shrugged.  “It’s not as easy as I thought it would be,” he admitted.  “Claw’s… well, he’s merciless to those who fail him. But I’m moving up in the organization, and we should have enough to bring him down soon.  He’s planning something big; all I need is to get in on it, and we can catch him red-handed.”

“Just come home soon,” Shadow told him.  “Nat’s been out of her mind with worry.”

“How many guards?” Parker asked, changing the subject.

Shadow pulled his goggles back down over his eyes, looking back at the building.  “Looks like ten guards, and five prisoners – they have the satyrs grouped at the back of the building.”

“Okay then,” Parker said, standing up and shaking out his wings.  “What’s the play for the two of us? I distract, you sneak?”

“Like old times,” Shadow grinned at his buddy.  “Nat’s going to be pissed that she missed it.”

Parker chuckled.  “I’ve got something that’ll make her really jealous,” he said.  “She wasn’t the only one to pick up some tricks from Dad.”

“So, do I call you Blackbird again?” Frank asked as they moved into position.

“Better not,” Parker said.  “The Fauns know me as ‘Fallen’.”

Shadow shook his head.  “That’s way too cheesy, man,” he said, “especially with your wings.”

“Then I guess we’re sticking with ‘Parker’ on this one,” Parker said, grinning.  “Man, I missed this. Let’s go get ‘em.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City warehouses.

Miranda Mejia, waking up.

“She’s coming to,” a male voice said from somewhere above her.

Miranda Mejia woke up in a small room, tied to a hard reclining chair.  With the two people and bright lamp above her, she thought for a moment that she was at the dentist’s office.  Then the wooden walls came into focus behind them, and she remembered the fight.

The bald mercenary had taken her through the portal.  Before she could even try to fight back, someone stuck her with a needle and she blacked out.  Now, still groggy from whatever drug they had pumped her with, she fought against her bonds. The two figures looked at her, and then turned to each other.  The one on the left had a faint blue glow, but the light above kept Miranda from seeing either of their faces clearly.

“Who the hell are you?!” she tried to shout, only to find that her mouth had been gagged.  She settled for a string of muffled profanities that would have made her mother wash out her mouth as she struggled against the chair ties.

“Interesting,” said a female voice.  It sounded nearly robotic; if she didn’t see two figures above her, Miranda would have thought it was one person talking to a computer.  “Your methods are rather crude, but appear to be effective.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the male voice replied, and the shadowy figure on Miranda’s right waved a hand dismissively.  “One out of twenty candidates isn’t what I’d call ‘effective’.”

“Nevertheless,” the woman replied, “one candidate is better than none.  It appears your experiment was successful in that regard.”

“She survived,” the man conceded, “and she’s not raving like some of the others, but whether or not she gains powers remains to be seen.”  Miranda quieted down. Powers?  This sounded like something she might want to hear.  Neither person acknowledged her presence, so they might say something to help her later.

“What is the purpose of this experiment?” the female robot asked.  “Your task was simply to find a viable contestant. We did not need you to alter them.”

The figure on the left cocked her head, while the figure on the right put a hand to his temple.  “This planet technically has three dominant species,” he said, “the Third Gens, the Satyrs, and the Humans.  Humans are probably not going to last more than a few generations. While the Third Gen and Satyr serums were supposed to create recessive genes, they’re growing more in numbers as the therapy mutates.  Soon, maybe even within my lifetime, homo sapiens will become endangered. So we really need to focus on the surviving two.”

“What is the purpose of this experiment?” the woman asked again, in the exact same tone as before.

The man sighed.  “You asked for a viable contestant.  One. It isn’t fair for a world of two dominant races to limit our representative to only one of them.  I’m trying to find a candidate who can represent both.”

“So you are infusing a satyr with the Third Gen gene?” the robotic voice asked.

“It’s the least invasive procedure,” the man answered.  “Satyrs are a physical mutation, while Third Gen is a mental one.  As we found when the satyr serum was first tested on humans, the physical mutations can kill.  So I focused on the successful serum: I tweaked Third Gen to interact with a satyr to give them powers.”

“Of your twenty candidates, you injected ten with the current serum.  Of those ten, only one has awoken with any mental clarity,” the woman reported.  “Would it not have been more scientifically judicious to study the candidates before injecting them?”

“Oh give me a break,” the man replied.  “Of course it would, but you gave me a time limit.  That kind of lab work would take years to set up and run, and then would only work with the resources that I’m just now getting.  We have what, two years left?”

“Your time: two years, one month, five days, six hours, eight minutes – ”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” the man interrupted.  “The point is time’s short. I can’t keep this under wraps for much longer, but I’m finally getting into a position where I can find you a viable candidate.  This particular experiment is just me stacking the deck; just like the Fourth Gen experiment, or kidnappings, or any of the others I’ve orchestrated since your boss first told me about this.”

Miranda squinted her eyes, trying to see her kidnapper’s face.  The voice didn’t sound like Marauder from the alley, and this figure seemed to have a head full of hair instead of Marauder’s bald pate.  The voice seemed vaguely familiar, but Miranda couldn’t quite place it.

“So do you have your report?” the man asked.  The figure on the left nodded, and they disappeared in a flash of blue light.  The man swore, and moved out of Miranda’s line of sight. She tried to turn her head, but found that her neck was also clamped down.

She let out a muffled protest again, and the man actually answered.  “I am sorry about this,” he said. “But like I told Ayu, time is short and you’re my back-up plan.  Hopefully you won’t be needed; I’d hate to send a teenage girl to that sadist.” Miranda’s eyes widened in alarm.  “But someone has to go. Personally, I’m rooting for the Team Ark members, but Marauder has already proven corruptible, and Star is crippled.  The Asylum teammates are too new; two of them are human, the Third Gens are under-powered, the Fourth Gens are unstable, the Djinn is too old, and the hybrid has his own agenda.  You were a stroke of luck, by the way,” the shadowy figure came back into view, pressing his hands together. A dust mask dangled from his arm. “Agent sent the Asylum team to look for you, and Claw actually sent someone to help.” He moved away from her chair, but stayed in her field of vision.  “Agent also knows what’s coming,” he added as an afterthought.  “I just can’t wait around for his goody-two-shoes approach.  Wish I could, though.”

After a second’s pause, he shrugged, and opened his hands in the air in front of them.  The air seemed to tear, showing a scene of deserted ruins in mid-air. The man shrugged again and said, “It doesn’t matter.  We’ll figure it out; you just get some rest now. I’ll be seeing you.”

He put the dust mask on and stepped through the portal, leaving Miranda alone in the small, dimly-lit room.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City warehouses.

Parker and Shadow.

The guards were taken aback when the entrance to the warehouse slammed open and smoke began pouring in.  A Guns N Roses song began blaring from the entrance as an angel appeared out of the fog. Parker flared his wings, flipping his knives out dramatically as he grabbed the guards’ attention.

“You know what your mistake was?” he asked over the music.  “You guys pissed off the Fauns. Claw doesn’t like human thugs who kidnap innocent satyrs – and you really shot the wind when you kidnapped one of my friends.”

He really does have Nat’s flare, Shadow thought to himself as he slipped in behind his friend.  While Parker drew the guards’ eyes, Shadow could sneak through the shadows around the side of the warehouse to get to the prisoners.

Sure enough, the guards turned their guns on Parker, who dove for cover behind some boxes near the entrance.  Shadow was already out of the firing range, but he helped Parker out by throwing some shadows into the guards’ faces.  They stopped shooting as they found that they couldn’t see.

Shadow reached the prisoners, who looked dazed and confused.  They didn’t respond when he told them to move, even after he cut their bonds – they seemed catatonic, though they were wide awake.

Miranda wasn’t among them.  Shadow tuned his goggles back to infra-red and looked around, seeing if he could find another heat signature that might be her.  Behind him, he heard the guards scream as Parker pulled out his next trick. Shadow was looking around frantically, trying to find his sister, when he saw a faint signature behind what appeared to be a solid wall.

Turning his goggles back to normal vision, he found a small panel.  As he pressed a button, a red laser grid scanned his face. A female voice said, “Scanning… subject unknown.  Authorization not found.”

“Agent,” he said, calling through his com.  “I think I found a secret room, but there’s a panel with what looks like a retinal or a facial scanner.  Can you hack it?”

You know, I usually need some more details,” Agent pointed out.  “Can you show me?

Shadow pulled out his phone and took a picture of the scanner.  Once he had sent it to Agent, he asked, “So can you hack it?”

At some point, you’re going to have to learn what it is I do,” Agent told him.  “I can’t ‘hack’ scanners.  I can, however, trick them into shutting down and opening the lock.

“Fine, whatever,” Shadow said.  “Can you do it?”

Done.” As Agent said it, a hidden panel opened in the wall.  It became a door, leading to the hidden back room of the warehouse.

Shadow moved to enter, but before he could go in he doubled over in a fit of laughter.  A voice said from behind him, “Clever, Star – very clever. But not quite good enough.”

As he turned around, Shadow found himself face-to-face with Marauder himself.

Marauder furrowed his eyebrows in confusion.  “You’re not Star,” he said. “You’re wearing her outfit, but you don’t have her limp.”

The laughing fit subsided, and Shadow stood to face him.  “My name is Shadow,” he said. “I’m from the Asylum.”

“The Asylum?” Marauder repeated.  “Those new guys who Agent thinks will replace us?  Funny.” He drew one of his katanas and pointed it at Shadow’s throat.  “Your buddy over there claimed to be from the Fauns. You working with criminals now, or was he just blowing hot air?”  He seemed to study Shadow’s face behind the goggles. “Wait, I recognize you – you’re Sara and Kevin’s kid!”

“I’m also the guy from the alley, when you took my sister,” Shadow pointed out.  Despite the sword at his neck, he pulled out his nightsticks and turned them on. The hum of the tasers came on behind the sounds of fighting and Parker’s playlist in the background.  He caught a flash of light out of the corner of his eye, but kept his eyes riveted on Marauder in front of him.

“Right…” Marauder said, shrugging.  “Like I said then, it isn’t personal.  Just business.”

“Then you shouldn’t take this personally,” Shadow said, shoving a taser into the sword at his neck.  He followed through, knocking the sword aside and putting the other taser into Marauder’s arm. The mercenary went down, his body shuddering from the wattage that hit him.

Shadow turned back to the door to see a masked man slowly clapping.  “Well done, young man,” the masked man said. “Marauder is not an easy guy to take down, but you did it so neatly.”

“Who are you?” Shadow asked, clutching his nightsticks in a defensive stance.

The masked man shrugged.  “Nobody of consequence,” he said.  “I believe my record refers to me as ‘Jaunt’.”

An icy feeling washed over Shadow.  “You’re… you’re Jaunt?” he repeated.  “You’re the guy that took down Team Ark!”

“Oh, that?” Jaunt said, waving a hand.  “That was nothing. Team Ark had problems long before I got there; I’ve done many more relevant things.”

“Where’s my sister?” Shadow demanded, holding up his nightsticks.

Jaunt stepped out of the doorway, motioning for Shadow to go in.  “Right through here,” he said. “She’s fine; she turned out better than the others.  You can have her back, now.”

“What did you do to her?” Shadow asked, tentatively stepping past Jaunt into the hidden room.  If it was a trap, Parker was still outside – Shadow had no doubt that Parker had his back.

“Just gave her a new serum,” Jaunt said, shrugging as if it were no big deal.  “I think Pharos is planning to market it as ‘Gen Juice’. She’ll get a taste before the black market gets their hands on it.”

“I won’t let you get away this time,” Shadow said, jamming one of his tasers towards the villain.

Jaunt threw himself back, swatting Shadow’s hand away.  “None of that, now,” he said, stepping back further. “You can have your sister back, but I’m not quite ready to stop the experiments.”

“What?” Shadow asked.

“Something big is coming,” Jaunt warned him.  He moved to where Marauder laid. “I’ve been preparing the world for it.  One of these days I might even show you – but for now, get your sister and get out.  Your Faun friend will leave as soon as he has a sample of the Juice.”

Shadow shook his head, even as he realized the sound of the fighting had stopped.  “He wouldn’t leave,” he said. “He was here to help me get my sister.”

“He was here on Claw’s orders, to pick up a shipment,” Jaunt said.  “Make no mistake: you’re getting your sister back because I’m letting you take her.”  He clapped his hands together, and as he pulled them apart a hole seemed to open in the space between them.  A blue-hued desert landscape showed from the other side as Jaunt grabbed Marauder and tossed the limp mercenary through.

Jaunt stepped through the portal after him, saying, “Tell Agent I said hi,” before it shut behind him.

Shadow let out a frustrated sigh, before going into the hidden room.  There he found Miranda tied to a medical chair. “Frank!” she cried as soon as he removed the gag.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Shadow said, freeing her from the other restraints.  “I’m here.”

“Hey, man,” Parker said, poking his head into the room.  “You got her?”

Shadow nodded.  “She’s right here,” he said.  As soon as he freed her arms, Miranda threw them around her brother in a hug.

“I don’t know what they did to me,” she admitted, her voice shaking.  “They were talking about an experiment, and said I was the only one who woke up from it – so I know they did something, but I don’t know what they did…”

Shadow gently shushed her.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said, holding her back so that he could look into her cat-like eyes.  “We’ll get Dale to check you and the others out. But after that, you’re going home. It’s over.”

Miranda was still shaking, but she stood up from the chair.  As she rubbed feeling into her limbs, Shadow reflected on the tough training that his parents had put them through.  Miranda might not be a Watcher, but even after the night’s ordeal she could still function enough to get out of there.

Parker came into the room.  “I’ve finished off the guards,” he said.  “The other satyrs aren’t moving – you’ll take them to Dale?” he asked.  When Shadow nodded, still keeping an arm around his sister, Parker added, “Okay.  I have to get back to the Fauns, then.”

“Claw doesn’t want you to take the satyrs to him?” Shadow asked.  It didn’t sound like the cult leader to let satyrs leave with a Watcher.

Parker shrugged, shaking out his wings.  “Claw isn’t interested in taking in strays who can’t function,” he said, moving over to check out the lab where Miranda was held.  “Technically he’ll want me to bring him Miranda, but I’ll make something up about you not letting me take her.” He picked up a small medical jar with an orange liquid sloshing around in it.  Facing Shadow, he said, “Go ahead, get her out of here.”

“Agent’s sending the others,” Shadow told him.  “They’ll want to see you.”

Parker shook his head.  “I can’t stick around,” he said, heading for the door.  “If Claw finds out I’m chummy with you guys, he’d probably kill me.”  He gave Miranda a quick hug as he passed. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he told her, walking out the door.  “Catch you later!”

As he walked out the door, Shadow watched him pocket the jar of liquid.  He wanted to go after his friend and ask why Parker had just lied to him, but he had his hands full helping his sister.  The siblings made it to where the other satyrs were kept, and watched Parker fly off into the night.

* * * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, the next day.

Dinner time.

“I can’t believe he was there and didn’t wait for us!” Natalie cried, pounding her fist on the counter.  “That inconsiderate jerk!”

“He said he might be home soon,” Frank told her again, trying to calm his friend’s temper.  “Just one more big job with Claw, and he said they can catch him red-handed.”

“He’d better,” Natalie muttered, folding her arms over her chest.  Her food lay untouched on the plate in front of her.

“How’s your sister doing?” Haley asked, sitting down at the kitchen island with her dinner.  “Did Dale sign off on her?”

Frank nodded.  “Clean bill of health,” he said.  “She’s taking a few days off of classes, just for her mental health, but physically Dale couldn’t find anything wrong with her.”  He gave a small sigh as he opened the fridge to find something to eat for himself. “She’s acting different,” he added with a worried frown.

“Stands to reason,” Reiki shrugged, listening in from the living area.  “Anybody would be shaken up after that, even if they didn’t hurt her.”

“What about the other satyrs?” Rina asked, sitting next to Reiki.  “Have they said anything yet?”

“Miranda was the only responsive one,” Haley said, swallowing a bite.  “Dale had the other five moved to a lab outside the city for treatment.”

“We only got six back,” Natalie said, grabbing her fork and stabbing a piece of broccoli angrily.  “Reports had fifteen missing satyrs, including Miranda, and we only got six back.”

“We’ll find the others,” Haley said.  “Six is better than none. Especially when one of the six was family.”  She nodded towards Frank.

Natalie huffed.  “Sorry, Frank,” she said.  “Of course I’m happy we got Miranda back safely.  I’m just frustrated with how little we know. This Jaunt guy has been playing with us, and I’m sick of it.”

“And he got away,” Frank added, frustrated himself.  “I had him right there, and he got away.”

“We’ll get him, too,” Haley promised.  “Agent’s working on it. In the meantime, we can train, and be prepared for when we see him again.”

Natalie and Frank looked at each other, but they didn’t say anything.

Rina spoke up to break the silence.  “Hey, Frank – I’ll give you another chance to beat me at Smash Bros after dinner!” she called over.

Frank grinned at her, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes.  “You’re on,” he said.

Haley was right – they would get another chance.  Worrying about it would only keep them up at night for nothing.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, night.

Miranda Mejia.

Something’s different.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Sara asked her daughter for the hundredth time that evening.

“Mom, I’ll be fine,” Miranda said, settling into bed.  “I’m going back to school tomorrow and everything. Stop worrying!”

Sara sighed.  “I’ll never stop worrying about you, baby girl,” she said.  “But if you’re sure…”

“Mom, I need to sleep,” Miranda pointed out.  Sara took the hint and backed out of the doorway.  “Good night!”

“Sleep tight, sweetheart,” Sara said, closing the door enough to block out the hallway light, but leaving it open a crack.

Miranda got up and closed it the rest of the way, shaking her head.  She wasn’t even jumpy any more – her mom was worrying about nothing. She hadn’t been hurt.

In fact, she felt better than she had in her entire life.

Miranda smiled to herself as she looked down at her hands.  She snapped her fingers, and a small flame lit up above her thumb.  She watched the fire dance for a minute before snapping her fingers again to turn it off.

It was different, but she was definitely okay.

* * * * * * * *