Trailer #6 – Meet the New Girl

Asylum Headquarters, Eon City, Present Day

Natalie Fawkes. Training.

THUNK.  The corner of the queen of spades sunk into the bull’s-eye of the practice target.

Natalie remembered her dad first showing her how to throw playing cards accurately.  Not many people knew how dangerous paper cards could be with just an added flick of the wrist.

The ace of clubs followed the queen, hitting the bull’s-eye millimeters next to her with another satisfying THUNK.

“Nice,” came a voice from the doorway.  Natalie’s reflexes kicked in, and she raised another card as she turned toward it.

“Geez, Parker,” she breathed, dropping her arm as she scolded her twin.  “Don’t startle me like that!”

“Hello to you, too, sis,” Parker said, dryly.  “I had a feeling I’d find you in here.”

Natalie turned back to the target, barely stopping to aim before she sent the next card flying into the center.  “What’s going on?” she asked. She had come to the training room first thing in the morning to get away from people; only her annoying brother would miss the message.

“I just finished breakfast, and was about to go out on patrol,” Parker said, innocently.  He knew that he was bothering his sister but couldn’t help poking the bear. “Can’t a guy just want to say ‘good morning’ to his sister?”

“Good morning,” Natalie said through her teeth.  “Now go away; I’m trying to concentrate.”

Parker did the opposite – he came and grabbed the deck of cards from her.  “Come on, I know Dad taught you better than that,” he chided. “What was the point of all those blindfold exercises if you actually have to look at the target?”

He threw three cards in quick succession over his shoulder, just to prove his point.  Not only did they land in the bull’s-eye, but they didn’t even touch the other two that Natalie had thrown.

“Give it back!” she cried, whacking her brother on the arm until he handed the deck back to her.  “I was just warming up,” she added, glaring.

“Uh-huh,” Parker teased.  Natalie glared at him and tossed two more cards over her shoulder.  She didn’t need to look to know that they landed exactly above and below the rest of the cards sticking out of the target.  Parker whistled. “Okay, that was impressive.”

Natalie tossed her hair as she turned back to her exercise.  In high school she had started dying it black to match her Goth appearance.  Their dad had said it was just a phase, but it was one she still hadn’t grown out of seven years after graduation; the only difference was that she had let it grow out long, instead of the short, spiky ‘do she sported back then.  She used heavy eyeliner and black fingerless gloves as part of her motif as the vigilante hero Trick.

Unlike his twin, Parker kept his hair its natural blond, and trimmed it for a feathery look.  His black-and-white speckled wings matched his outfit nicely in his look as Blackbird, without coming across as too harsh.  He completed the domino look with gauntlets over his hands; the metal fingers were sharpened into points and served as his “talons” when he wanted to control his strength.

At twenty-four years old, the twins now worked as professional Watchers; they had gotten their licenses shortly after high school, and had taken down a few bad guys on their own before being recruited for a newly-formed team in Eon City – the Asylum.  For the last year the twins had worked their way up in this new team, and were regarded as some of the top performers.

Parker shrugged his shoulders the way he always did – he needed to loosen his muscles from the drag of his wings – and folded his arms behind his head.  “Well, nice talking to you as always, sis,” he said, grinning at her. “I need to get to patrol. Oh, and Agent was looking for you.”

Natalie made a face at her brother’s retreating back as he walked out of the training room.  He just waved without turning around, and called back, “Stronger together.”

“Stronger as one,” Natalie called the second line back.  It was their good-luck charm, so she had to do it – even if she didn’t feel like dealing with people.

Parker and Natalie always sought each other out before going on patrol – it was a habit developed since their mother went on a mission and never came back.  Natalie wasn’t a superstitious person, but they had a dangerous job; this was the twins’ way of making sure they saw each other in case one of them didn’t make it back.

Natalie threw one more card, bisecting the ones already embedded in the target, and went to find Agent.  She called the elevator to go to Agent’s office on the top floor of the headquarters building, and was taken aback to see him standing in it.

“Hey,” Agent said as Natalie moved to stand next to him.  “I was just looking for you. I’m going to scout a potential new recruit,” he said, putting his hands in his suit pockets and letting his ever-present umbrella lean against his side.  “Would you like to come?”

“Me?” Natalie asked, slightly confused.  “Sure, if you want me there.”

“After you, milady,” Agent said, giving her a cocky half-grin as the elevator doors opened to the garage.  He gestured towards his car with one hand as he effortlessly picked up the umbrella with the other.

As Natalie slid into the passenger seat of Agent’s jet-black sedan, she couldn’t keep it in any more.  “Why exactly would you want me to come along on this one?” she asked, suddenly suspicious. “I mean, it’s no secret that I’m not a sociable person.”

Agent didn’t answer her as he turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the base’s garage.  They were down the road before he spoke. “Do you know anything about this recruit?” he asked.

Natalie did not.  She rarely paid attention to the Watcher recruit lists, unless she knew for a fact that they would join her team.  “This girl actually did her year-long training a few years back,” Agent told her, picking a file out of the center compartment without taking his eyes off the road.  Setting the file in Natalie’s lap, he added, “She’s taken the licensing exam eleven times since then.”

“Why would we want her for our team, then?” Natalie asked as she picked up the folder. She turned it open to the first page.  “I mean, it wasn’t that hard. How stupid would she have to be – holy crap!”

Agent smirked, knowing she had just read the new recruit’s test scores.  “Ninety-ninth percentile?!” she exclaimed, flipping through the pages. “Every time, even the first!  How the hell hasn’t she gotten her license yet with scores like these?! I was in the top of my year at ninety-two…”

“She’s got incredible strength and stamina,” Agent explained.  “She’s a naturally gifted athlete with a photographic memory. Apparently she’s trained her whole life to be a Watcher.”  Natalie just slapped the folder with one hand. Agent answered the silent question: “But she’s human.”

“Human? No way.”  Natalie flipped back through the folder, trying to find something wrong with the girl who seemed perfect on paper.

Agent decided to save her the search. “She never made it past the medical exam.”

“Why not?” Natalie asked, turning to the page.  “Was she taking steroids or something?”

“No – that would have disqualified her from taking the test again,” Agent said.  “The doctors found an irregularity in her blood. She has a vitamin deficiency that keeps her blood from clotting.  She bleeds easily, and so was deemed ‘unfit’ for Watcher work. They denied her license because of it.”

Natalie found the black mark in the recruit’s record.  “So how did she get her license, then?” she asked. “I mean, she has to be licensed if we’re recruiting her…”  She turned an accusatory glare at Agent as she realized.  “You messed with her paperwork, didn’t you?” she accused.

Agent tapped his fingers against the steering wheel.  “Not yet,” he admitted, “but yes, that is the plan. Someone this good, I want to grab her as soon as possible.”

“Her condition doesn’t bother you?” Natalie asked him.  “If she’s in the field and gets hit, she’d be down for a while.  And we get hit a lot,” she added, in case he forgot.

“She’s done extraordinarily well in simulations,” Agent said.  “She had to have taken some hits during training, and she’s still standing.”

“But that’s why you asked me to come,” Natalie guessed.  “You want me to size her up.”

“That,” Agent admitted, “and you’re a fellow human who can keep up with Third Gens.  You know how rare that is.”

“So are you,” Natalie said, but her small smile showed that she was pleased with the praise.

“I’m a highly-trained government agent who has been working as a Watcher-certified vigilante for almost two decades now,” he reminded her.  “You’ve only been doing this five years, without any other special training. Plus you have some… flare that I’m not allowed to use.”

“So you want me to do a magic show for her?” Natalie was even more confused now.

“No,” Agent said.  “Here’s how this is going to work…”

* * * * * * * *

Haley Prince massaged her hands as she glared at the punching bag.  It hung there, taunting her as she sorted through her emotions.

Hook.  Eleven tests, eleven denials.

Kick.  Nobody wants the girl who bleeds, no matter how good she is.

Cross.  Even the suit hadn’t contacted her yet, despite his promise.  She was starting to think he was a figment of her imagination.

Jab.  It was this stupid condition holding her back, and she needed to figure out a way around it.

The blows came faster and harder as the frustration took hold.  She couldn’t talk to her friends about it, or her family; not a single one of them understood the driving need Haley had to become a Watcher.  They all just told her to find something else to do with her life.

But what?  The police and the military wouldn’t take her for the same reason that kept her from getting a Watcher license.  She had no interest in working in her mom’s bakery like her brothers. Business bored her to tears, and she didn’t care about learning computers.  Becoming a professional hero had been her dream since she was a little kid, and she had worked her entire life towards that one goal; now nothing else was good enough.

The self-defense classes she taught at the community center were rewarding, but they didn’t pay enough to live on.

Why does adulting have to be so – cursed – HARD?!

With that last thought, Haley gave the bag a blow so powerful that a seam popped.  She blankly stared for a second at the steady trickle of sand as it fell out of the stupid bag before she moved to take it down.

“Another one?” Andy, the middle-aged gym’s owner, clucked at her, raising his eyebrows as he helped her with the bag.  “That’s the second bag you’ve broken in as many months!”

“Sorry, Andy,” Haley said.  “I’m just going through some stuff right now.”

“We’re all ‘going through stuff’,” Andy pointed out.  “The rest of us find a hobby that doesn’t involve punching the stuffing out of things.”  He grinned at her to show that there were no hard feelings, but Haley knew she would still pay for a replacement bag.  Andy knew exactly what was on Haley’s mind; he had known her since she was a kid, after all. “These things have a way of working themselves out,” he told her as they set the worn-out bag in the back room.  “Maybe you should find a real sparring partner, instead of taking it out on my poor innocent bags.”

Haley smiled back at him.  Andy had been a good friend to her and her brothers since they were kids, letting them use the gym after hours in exchange for odd jobs on summer breaks.  “My brothers all got too busy when they finished college,” she explained as they finished moving the ruined bag to the back room. “Without them, there aren’t many people I feel comfortable sparring against.”

“Maybe you should challenge her after all,” came a voice from near the front desk behind them.  “She looks like she matches you for strength.”

Haley turned around, surprised.  Two people, a man and a woman, stood near the front desk, watching them as they put the bag away.  The man was the same suit that had been at the exam two days ago; she recognized the omnipresent umbrella leaning against his leg.

The woman looked closer to Haley’s age, but seemed out of place in the boxing gym.  She was small, and had long, straight black hair, pale skin, and dressed like the goths Haley used to see in high school: black cargo pants, combat boots, and a black tank top with the words “piss off” written in large block letters on it.  She had black fingerless biker’s gloves on, and a black bandanna wrapped around her arm to complete the look.

She was also the one talking about challenging Haley to a sparring match.

The well-dressed man chuckled, contrasting the stern appearance of his companion.  “I’d like to,” he admitted in response to the woman’s suggestion, “but I can’t watch a fight I’m in.”

The goth-girl sighed.  “Fine then,” she said, “but don’t ever say I don’t make sacrifices for the team.”

She walked over to Haley, who tried to stop gawking long enough to ask, “Can I help you?”

“You’re pretty powerful against a punching bag,” the goth-girl said.  “How are you against something that hits back?”

The man stepped forward and interjected, “What my companion means to say is, ‘would you please spar with her?’”  He gave the goth-girl a wry grin, nodding his head toward Haley.

“‘Would you please spar with me?’” the girl mimicked, rolling her eyes.  Haley wasn’t sure what she thought about the suit yet, but the girl was rude.  Haley tried to get out of the conversation with them as politely as possible.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I only really spar with my brothers.  Maybe someone else around here will be your partner.”  She gestured around the gym, only then noticing that there weren’t many people around.  It was the off-season and the middle of the week, so the gym’s main clientele wouldn’t arrive for a few more hours.

“Nope,” said the girl, putting her hands in her pockets.  “It has to be you. You’re Haley Prince, right?”

Haley frowned.  “How do you know my name?” she asked, guarded.  It was a stupid question, she knew; after all, the girl had come in with the suit, who obviously knew about her from the licensing exam.  But Haley wanted to size them up, and asking a stupid question was the easiest way to get behind a person’s guard. People usually underestimated the “big, slow girl” if they didn’t know her – and Haley used it to her advantage.

The goth-girl frowned back, mocking her.  “How could you possibly want to be a Watcher if you don’t want to fight people?” she taunted, moving towards the ring.  “Come on, show me what you’re made of.”

Andy came out of the back room then, looking between the three figures.  “You don’t really want to fight Haley, sweetheart,” he said to the goth-girl.  “She’ll snap you like a twig.”

“We’ll see,” the girl scoffed, climbing up into the ring.  “Unless you’re chicken,” she added for Haley’s benefit.

The well-dressed man just shrugged at Haley’s questioning look.  “Natalie’s a little… abrasive,” he explained. “We’re working on that.  But please, Ms. Prince, we would like a better demonstration of your abilities.”

The goth-girl was starting to get on her nerves, and maybe a good sparring match was exactly what Haley needed to blow off steam.  She didn’t know why these two strangers had their eye on her, but it might be the opportunity she was looking for. “Fine,” she said, climbing up into the ring after her.  “Your funeral.”

Natalie started attacking as soon as Haley turned around.  Haley had to bring her arms up in defense quickly, taking the hits and not letting the smaller girl move her.  Haley’s biggest strength was her size – she was nearly six feet tall, and her broad shoulders were well-suited for her dense muscle mass.  Most of her opponents couldn’t move her if she didn’t want to be moved.

As soon as Natalie’s hits slowed by a fraction of a second, Haley shifted her weight to throw her off balance.  The smaller girl was faster, too, but Haley knew how to compensate for it from years of practice. She got in a few quick jabs before the other girl jumped backwards and started circling her.

“Not bad,” Natalie said, wiping the sweat off of her forehead.  She touched the spot where the jabs had hit her, and winced when she touched them.  “That’s going to bruise nicely.”

“Had enough?” Haley asked.

She got the answer that she was hoping for: “Not even close.”  Natalie bit her lip as she studied Haley. “You’ve got a solid defense, I’ll give you that.”

“How did you know my name when you came in?” Haley asked as she feinted a hit.  Talking was one way to take her opponent’s focus off of the fight, which could help.

“Agent over there has his eye on you,” Natalie said, using her thumb to indicate her companion.  “He seems to think you’re promising.” She jumped closer, aiming a punch at Haley’s jaw.

“Oh yeah?” Haley asked, dodging the blow and bringing her closed hands down on Natalie’s shoulders in response.  Natalie inched to the side so that the blow hit her shoulder instead of her spine; it was a testament to Natalie’s strength that she didn’t go down, but the muscles in her shoulder were better suited to taking the blow in any case.  “And what do you think?”

Natalie turned quickly, pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket as she went.  She swiped the cloth in front of Haley’s eyes, and swept her foot to knock her down.  As Haley fell to one knee, Natalie jumped up to give a final blow. Glitter sparkled around them, momentarily causing Haley to see double as her brain tried to process the speed of events.  She only just got her guard up in time to protect her face from Natalie’s rain of blows.

“I’m less impressed,” Natalie said.  A playing card appeared in her hand like magic, and she flicked it at Haley’s arm.  It didn’t hurt much – just a paper cut – but Haley winced as a gash opened up on her arm.

It was an illegal move in a real match, but something about this girl told Haley that this wasn’t a normal sparring session – they wanted to see what she could do, even when the odds were stacked against her.  Haley could hear Andy protesting somewhere in the background, but her focus was on the fight. Natalie backed off, scoffing. “A cut like that puts you out of commission, right?” she taunted, panting from the exertion.  “Sparring only against your brothers keeps you from seeing the damage a real opponent can do.” She held up more playing cards, as if to say that was only a taste of what I could do to you.  If all of those cards were as sharp as the first one she had thrown, Haley knew that the other girl could cut her to ribbons in seconds if she wanted to.

Haley stood up, keeping an eye on Natalie as she glanced at the cut.  “You’ve made three mistakes,” she told her, shaking out her arms and putting her guard back up.  She was tired of playing defense; it was about time this witch learned what it felt like when Haley went on offense.

“Oh yeah?” the goth-girl asked.  “What’s that, then?”

“First,” Haley said as she darted towards her opponent in another feint, “Just because I don’t stop bleeding doesn’t mean I bleed much faster than anyone else.  A cut like this won’t bother me for at least an hour.”

She reached in her pocket and pulled out the tube of sealant she kept there.  “Second, I keep this stuff on me. If I can get a spare second in a fight, I can stop the bleeding easily.”

Natalie went on offense again.  “You never get a second in a real fight,” she said as Haley dodged her hit.  Haley slid the tube back in her pocket, nodding her head to the point.

“True,” she said.  “But there’s one more thing that I see your file on me probably didn’t tell you.”

“And what’s that?” Natalie asked as Haley inched closer to her.

Suddenly, Haley swiped her foot, knocking Natalie off-balance.  She grabbed the other girl’s arms, spinning her around until her back was facing her.  Haley then grabbed the back of Natalie’s head and shoved her forward into the mat, putting all of her weight behind the move.

The result was that Natalie’s arms were caught by Haley’s left hand, her head was trapped by Haley’s right hand, and her legs were trapped by the rest of the bigger girl’s weight.  She struggled to break free, but Haley’s grip was like iron. Haley leaned forward just enough to finish her thought.

“Your third mistake?” she told her, tapping the other girl’s face against the ring floor.  “My brother’s a bear-satyr.”

She could hear Andy laughing with the agent off to the side.  Natalie said, “Okay, fine, you win,” and Haley let her up.

“Haley’s the youngest of five,” Andy was telling Agent, “and she’s the only girl and only human in her family.  Two of her brothers are Third Gens, and the other two are satyrs; the bear-satyr is seven feet tall and nearly four hundred pounds.  The other satyr, a gorilla, isn’t much smaller. She grew up fighting them all, and wins at least half the time.”

“It helps that Dean doesn’t really like to fight,” Haley added, winking at Agent.  “He’s a big teddy, really.”

“And she beat Natalie, here,” Agent said, sounding impressed, “even when she used her tricks.”

“Yeah, what was that?” Andy demanded, the grin sliding off of his face into a scowl.  “That thing with the cloth and the cards was fighting dirty, and we don’t allow that here.”

“Sorry,” Natalie mumbled, not sounding sorry at all.

Agent explained, “We had to fight a little dirty.  We had to know how she’d handle it.”

“So are you finally going to tell me what this was all about?” Haley asked.

Agent held his hand out for Haley to shake.  “I represent an agency here in Eon City,” he told them.  “You might have heard of us: the Asylum?”

“You guys are from the Asylum?” Haley asked, her annoyance turning to awe at the name.  “That’s the new Watcher group that patrols here; you guys are supposed to be one of the best agencies in the country!”

“And we only recruit the best,” Agent said, nodding his head towards Haley.  “We would like you to come work on our team.”

Haley’s eyes widened in excitement, before she remembered.  “But… I’m not licensed,” she said, looking at her feet in embarrassment.

Agent waved a hand in dismissal.  “That won’t be a problem for us,” he said.  “You can expect your license in the mail in a few days; we want you reporting for duty on Monday.”

Haley’s eyes widened again.  She looked at the man, wondering if this was some kind of joke.  “You’re serious?” she breathed. When he nodded, she had to hold herself back from jumping.  “I-I’ll be there,” she stammered, shaking with an adrenaline surge that had nothing to do with her recent fight.

Agent nodded again and headed out the door.  Natalie moved to follow him, but stopped in front of Haley.  “Good match,” she said, holding out a hand to shake. Haley took it, grinning like an idiot at this turn of events.  “I underestimated you,” Natalie added. “It’ll be interesting to work together.” She gave a small, tight smile, as if she rarely used those muscles in her face, before she walked out the door after Agent.

“See, kiddo?” Andy said, slapping Haley on the shoulder as they watched the strangers’ car speed away.  When Haley looked, her old friend was beaming proudly at her. “I told you these things work themselves out,” he said.  “Now let’s get that cut checked.”

* * * * * * * *

“You lost.”

Agent sounded amused as they headed back to headquarters.  Natalie grimaced as she put her hand to her cheek; that last move would leave her aching for days.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, slouching in her seat.  “I’d like to see you do better.” Behind her hand, Agent could tell she was smiling.  “So you’re going to fix her paperwork?”

“Yes,” he said.  After a second’s beat, he added, “I’ve just never seen you lose before.”

“Shaddup,” Natalie said, whacking his arm.  “It happens from time to time. Just because I never let you beat me when we’re sparring doesn’t mean I’m invincible.”

“I should really be recording this,” Agent said, grinning.  “Parker would get a kick out of it.”

“Yeah, right,” Natalie rolled her eyes.  “Anyways, this recruit looks promising. She could be the greatest Watcher I’ve ever seen, if she keeps up.”

Agent’s smile died a little.  “She might have to be,” he muttered.

Natalie didn’t hear him.  They pulled into the Asylum headquarters, and Natalie quietly sighed, “I just want a hot bath after that bout.”  At Agent’s sly grin she added, “Not one word to the others.” They got out of the car, and Agent held up his hands in surrender.  “I mean it, Agent,” Natalie hissed. “One word of this to the others and I’ll see you on the practice courts.”

“Death threats already?” a voice asked from behind them.  Natalie whipped around to see Parker standing there with an identical grin to Agent’s.  Natalie huffed and marched towards the door. “What’s she mad about this time?” he asked Agent as if his sister wasn’t still within earshot.

“She lost,” Agent told him with mock surprise.

Really?” Parker said, matching his tone.  Natalie didn’t turn around, but she did flip them both the bird before going inside as the two guys laughed behind her.

“Oh, man,” Agent said, “that is not going to get old any time soon.”

Parker walked over to him, his own giggles subsiding.  “I actually came out to talk to you,” he said. “I talked to my contact in the city like you asked.  The offer was still open; I start Monday.”

The smile fell off of Agent’s face.  “Good,” he said. “Let me know what you find out.”

“Are you sure we can’t tell the others about this?” Parker asked, jerking his chin towards the door where his twin had just gone inside.

“This isn’t exactly by-the-book,” Agent told him, “and I’d rather not get her caught up in it when the bureaucratic storm starts raining down on us.”  He put a hand on Parker’s shoulder, adding “We can’t be too careful – if word gets back that you’re actually working on our side, you’re dead.  You know that.”

“I know,” Parker said, “I just hate lying to her.  She won’t take it well when she finds out what we’re up to.  Especially because we didn’t ask her for help.”

“Natalie can be touchy,” Agent admitted.  At Parker’s snort he amended, “Okay, she can get pretty bitchy at times.  But she’s smart; she can see the wisdom behind this.”

“I really hope so, for both our sakes,” Parker sighed, “or she might really kill us this time.”  He grinned to show he was joking again. “Come on inside; Reiki’s barbequing.”

“Now that I can get behind,” Agent grinned as well.  “You go on ahead.”

As Parker went into the building, Agent grabbed Haley’s file out of the car and thumbed through it again.  “I really hope you have what it takes, kid,” he muttered. “We’re going to need you.”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #5 – Haley

Watcher Licensing Exam

Haley Prince, Exam #11

Faster than a cheetah.

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

Stronger than a rhino.

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

Agile as a cat.

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

Steady as a boulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faster than a cheetah I run through the night,

Patient as a rainfall I wait for the light.

Stronger than a rhino, I help those in need,

Steady as a boulder I give word and deed.

Anger rolls through me, agile as a cat,

Fear flies away to the night like a bat.

Peace keeps me strong in times of doubt,

Strength keeps me steady in times without.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope.

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

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #4 – Tower Climb

Pharos Tower, nine years ago.

Natalie Fawkes, way too high.

How did I get into this mess?

Fourteen year-old Natalie Fawkes was hanging on to the tenth-story window ledge for dear life.  Her hands ached with the strain of holding her, and she wondered once again if she really could finish her climb, or if she would fall to her death on the pavement below.

The book bag shifted on her back.  As flat as it was against her spine, it wouldn’t stay still with its bulky contents.  Natalie bit her lip and grunted as she pulled herself up onto the foot-thick ledge. She sat there for a minute, massaging her arms and hands to bring some life back into them.  The air on the ground was deceptively warm in the spring; eleven stories up, the wind nipped at her skin and froze her sweat-soaked shirt to her body.

“Wish I’d worn sleeves,” she muttered, looking down at her black tank top and sighing.  She felt a gust of wind beside her as her brother appeared.

Natalie’s twin brother was a satyr – in this case, half-man, half-bird.  Large, flexible, black-and-white speckled wings grew out of his shoulder blades, allowing him to catch the breeze and fly up to where his sister perched on the ledge.  His feathery blond hair ruffled in the breeze as he grinned down at her. “You okay?” he asked as he tucked his wings in to stand next to her on the ledge.

“Yeah,” Natalie grinned up at him.  “I’m just resting a sec. I don’t think I’ve ever done so many muscle-ups in a row before.”

“And you’re only halfway up,” Parker said, giving her a worried smile.  “You know, you don’t have to prove anything to those idiots,” he said, nodding his head at the ground below.

“’Course not,” Natalie told him, standing up next to her brother and looking out over the city.  “But I do need to shut them up.” She looked back at her twin, adding, “I’m fine; really. I can do this.”

Parker gave her a half-smile and an ironic salute before leaving his sister to her mission.  Natalie watched as he allowed himself to fall off the ledge, catching the wind as his wings unfurled.

Shaking her head to clear it from the height, Natalie turned back towards the building and jumped for the next ledge.  As her fingers caught the stone edge, she bit her lip and thought, Maybe I am crazy after all.

* * * * * * * *

Natalie had been working on a chemistry project when the whole situation began.  One of the instructions had not been very clear, and she needed the teacher to answer a question.  Unfortunately, the teacher seemed determined to ignore her; he went around to every other person first, even after looking directly at Natalie’s stubborn hand.  Natalie had been raising her hand for twenty minutes, unable to continue with the work, when she snapped.

Slowly, methodically – she needed to be obvious about what she was doing if she wanted to get away with it – Natalie began coating her hand with the dish soap next to her lab station.

“What are you doing?” Parker hissed next to her.  The question was rhetorical; he grew up in the same house, and had learned the same trick from their dad.  He knew exactly what his twin had in mind.

“If the teacher’s going to ignore what goes on right in front of him, then he deserves a little scare,” Natalie said, matter-of-factly, as she doused rubbing alcohol over the soap-covered hand.

Parker looked around at the class, some of whom were watching her with expressions that said she was being weird.  “You’re going to get in trouble for it,” he muttered, but he didn’t try to stop her as she turned on the Bunsen burner at their table.

“Maybe,” Natalie whispered back, running her free hand through her short dyed-black hair.  With one fluid motion, she ran her alcohol-drenched hand over the flame of the Bunsen burner and raised it up like before.

It took nearly five seconds before people registered that her raised hand was on fire.  Then chaos erupted in the classroom.

As expected, Natalie was sent to the principal’s office as soon as she rinsed off her hand.  Parker went with her, and marveled at how she talked her way out of trouble – she turned the tables on the teacher, asking the principal what her father might say when he was told that the teacher hadn’t stopped her.

They didn’t even call her parents.

“You know,” Parker said as they walked home after school, “that was risky.  If they’d called Dad, he would have been all for you getting suspended for that stunt; you know the rule.”

Natalie nodded.  Their dad had ingrained one rule of thumb into them since they were old enough to copy his magic tricks: never show off.  “‘True power requires subtlety,’” she quoted. “‘Your audience should never know all of your secrets; your strengths should be as well-guarded as your weaknesses.’”

“Right,” Parker said, acting as though he was ten years older than her instead of ten minutes. “And you just gave away the trick by doing it in front of the whole class.”  He grinned wryly at her. “Not to mention,” he added, “the entire class got extra homework assigned because you got the teacher in a mood. They aren’t going to like that.”

“Like I give a damn what they think,” Natalie retorted.  “We graduate in six months, and then we never have to see any of them again.”

Parker sighed.  “You know, eventually you’ll have to learn how to get along with people.”

“Uh-oh,” Natalie said, but she wasn’t referring to Parker’s lecture.  In front of the twins stood seven of their classmates, and all of them looked like they wanted a fight.

Natalie let her hand hover over her cargo pockets.  She kept her flash-paper and lighter in there, which would help if they needed an escape.  She was fine letting Parker do all of the talking; anything she said would be twisted around by these bullies.

“Can we help you?” Parker asked as they approached.

One of the gang, presumably the leader, stepped forward.  “We don’t have a problem with you,” he said carefully. “But her stunt just got us extra homework, so we want her to do it.”

The others piped in with things like “Yeah!” and “It’s only fair.”  Natalie rolled her eyes, walking past them without another glance. She knew it drove her classmates crazy when she pretended not to care if they existed.

As predicted, the movement just stoked the other kids’ ire.  “You think you’re better than us?” asked the leader. “You’re nothing but a wannabe – you think you’ll be a Watcher, but you’re all talk.”

Natalie stopped, and Parker put a hand on her shoulder.  “Nat, don’t,” he warned under his breath, but it was too late – they had hit on the very thing that Natalie herself was afraid of.

“I will be a Watcher,” she said, clenching her fists and whirling around to face them.

The leader smirked, knowing his barb had hit home.  “Oh yeah?” he asked. “Prove it.”

Later that evening, Natalie was climbing the tallest tower in the city, a book bag full of fireworks on her back.

* * * * * * * *

Pharos Tower, that night.

Natalie Fawkes, fifteenth story.

Each story of the building took two muscle-ups to climb: one to a bar in the middle of the window, where Natalie had only about two inches of space to grab on to, and one to the larger ledge in between stories.  The ledges of the twenty-story building were nearly eight feet apart; meaning that they were two to three inches above Natalie’s outstretched arms. This made the jump to the larger ledges especially difficult, as she couldn’t stop to rest between stories.

Natalie got into the rhythm of the climb early on, but fifteen stories up and she was getting tired.  Her current strategy of jumping straight from the window-bar to the larger ledges wouldn’t hold up forever, as the cold and the workout began freezing her aching muscles.

She reached up to the next window-bar.  Sixteenth story, she counted to herself, biting her lip as her arms shrieked from the movement.  Just do this one, and then only four more.

Her hands gripped the window-bar, and she forced her arms to lift her body up.  She put her right foot on the two-inch-thick space, and steeled herself for the difficult part.  From this position, she had to jump straight up as high as possible, grabbing onto the ledge above without falling.  Her legs were just as tired as her arms, and she shook with the effort of holding herself up.

“Come on,” she told her shivering body, “I’ll let you rest on the next ledge.”  She had used the same mantra for the last few stories, and it seemed to be working so far.

She tensed herself, and launched herself with her right leg.  She knew as she took off that it wasn’t good, though; her leg had been shaking too much, and her foot slipped as she threw her body straight up.  Her eyes widened as her fingers only scraped the ledge above, and she started to fall back down.

Years of practice paid off: adrenaline hit her system, and when her left arm hit the twelfth-story stone ledge she threw her head and chest forward to stop the momentum.  Her forehead slammed against the window, but she remained hanging from the ledge.

As Natalie swung her leg up, it, too, banged against the concrete. Ignoring the dull ache, she rolled onto her back, arching over the bulky bookbag.  She let herself lie on the ledge for a minute, cradling her left arm against her body and covering her eyes with her right elbow. She forced herself to breathe, fighting back against the shock and panic that her slip had caused, and mentally took stock of her injuries.

Head: aches a bit from the window, but should be fine. Doesn’t seem like a concussion.

Legs: probably bruised, but not bad. Ankle might have twisted a bit, but it’s still usable.

Abs: hurt from catching myself on the ledge, but no worse than before.

Arms: … Right one seems okay.  Left one hurts. A lot. Probably more than the adrenaline is letting me feel right now.

She blinked back the tears that had come from shock, swallowing hard as her breathing slowed back to normal.  She didn’t sit up, but she uncovered her face when she heard Parker landing next to her head.

“I’m taking you back down,” he said.  “No arguments. This whole thing is stupid, and you dying won’t prove anything to anybody.”

“Wait,” Natalie told him, her voice raspy.  Throat is dry, too, she mentally added, sitting up. She’d been in shock before, but this was the first time she’d needed to overcome it through sheer willpower.

Slowly, taking care of her injuries, she rose to a crouched position.  She winced as the bruises on her legs throbbed with the movement, but they weren’t as bad as she had initially thought. Clearing her throat, she stood up and leaned back against the glass of the window.

Parker put his hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off.  “I’m fine,” she said again. “I just mis-timed that last jump; I can still do this.” One good thing about shock, she thought absently, I don’t feel the cold as much anymore.

“I don’t care,” Parker said, his voice cracking.  “You’re done. You’re lucky that you grabbed that ledge; with how fast it happened, I’m not sure I could have caught you.”

Natalie looked up at her twin’s face, not saying anything.  She could see the worry in Parker’s blue eyes, even through the angry frown on his face. He had been calling her ten kinds of stupid ever since she made the bet, but she was determined to see it through.

Parker, on his side, saw the determination in his sister’s face.  Her short, spiky hair, dyed black to match her closet, only served to accentuate her icy eyes as they stared him down.

People always said that they looked alike, but Parker never saw it.  True, they both had blond hair (before Natalie dyed hers), and they had similar coloring and features, but while Parker was usually carefree and sunny, Natalie had a determined look in her eyes that never really went away.  He was the Third Gen with wings, the Satyr with power; people both feared and admired him for things beyond his control. But Natalie…

She was the human, growing up in his shadow.  Their classmates wouldn’t dare pick on Parker – at least not to his face – but Natalie was constantly teased for being “the weird girl who wants to be a Watcher”.  If she had been anyone else, the stunt in class would have been seen as cool, or even heroic to their high school classmates – but because Natalie was a loner, it was just another reason to pick on her.

The silent exchange lasted only a couple of seconds, but Parker eventually blew out a defeated huff.  “Fine,” he said, “climb the stupid thing. But I’m staying up here with you, just in case.”

Natalie grinned at him, too tired to speak but still standing up on the ledge.  She flexed her arms, testing the injured one to make sure it would still take her weight.  I’ll have to put more weight on my right side, but I can manage, she thought.  She looked back up at the window-bar, grit her teeth, and jumped.

* * * * * * * *

“ – fireworks display over the Pharos Tower in downtown Eon City is reportedly the work of an unknown party.  When confronted by investigators over the illegal pyrotechnics, Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, had this to say…”

Parker looked over at Natalie as the news report played over breakfast.  She could barely move her spoon to her mouth to eat breakfast, but a huge grin covered her face as she listened.  Parker shook his head; his sister was wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck that she hated in order to hide the fact that her left arm was turning nasty colors.

“You are entirely too proud of yourself right now,” Parker hissed across the table.  Somehow they had made it home without waking up their parents. As annoyed as he was with Natalie, he knew that they both would be grounded until they were thirty if he gave away that they had pulled off the apparently-illegal fireworks display.

Natalie stuck her tongue out at him.  “I just pulled off the stunt of the century, and didn’t even get caught.  Of course I’m proud.”

Parker shrugged his shoulders, stretching them from keeping his wings folded around his waist at the table.  “You nearly died for that stunt,” he reminded her. “You’re injured, you got maybe an hour of sleep last night, and you have to act normal today so that Mom and Dad don’t get suspicious.  Have fun with that.” Natalie was too tired to come up with a retort, so she settled for kicking Parker under the table. From her wince, the movement hurt her more than it hurt him.

“Hey, have you seen Dad yet?” she asked, realizing how late in the morning it was getting to be.  Their father usually got up early, putting coffee on for their mom and cooking breakfast for the family before school.

“No, I haven’t,” Parker said, his eyebrows furrowing.  “That’s weird.” He got up from the table and went to their parents’ room to check.  He came back a minute later to report, “They aren’t home. Neither of them. On a school day – that’s never happened.”

Natalie groaned as she stood up.  Her side hurt more than ever, but her phone was in her bag and she needed to see if she had missed any messages the night before.  “I got five texts from Dad,” she told her brother.

“Ooh, busted,” Parker grinned.  But the grin slid off his face when he saw the expression on Natalie’s.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

Natalie ignored him, dialing her phone in a hurry.  “Dad?” she said, more timidly than Parker had ever heard her in his life.  “I’m so sorry I wasn’t… We were just out with some friends, we’re home now, we’re fine.  Dad, what happened?”

Parker piped up, “Yeah, sis, what happened?  Is he that mad?”

“… No.  No, no, there’s got to be some kind of mistake…” Natalie was close to tears – and Parker couldn’t remember ever seeing his sister cry.  “No, she can’t be… Daddy… Okay, we’ll wait here for you. I… yeah, we’ll talk later. Okay. I love you, Daddy.” She hung up the phone, turning to her brother with tears in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Parker asked.  He was getting a sinking feeling in his stomach, and he had never seen such a shocked look on his sister’s face before.  “Nat, what happened?”

“Dad’s at the hospital,” she said.  “Mom didn’t come home last night, either.  She was on a mission downtown, and… her team found her ripped to pieces.”  The tears started falling freely down her face, as she choked out the horrible truth: “Mom’s dead.”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #3 – Project: Asylum

Former Team Ark Headquarters, three years ago.

Derek Hessing, formerly known as “Marauder”.

What the hell am I going here?

Derek Hessing stepped through the open doorway of the building that he had once called “headquarters”.  That was back when he went by the name “Marauder”, while he worked with Team Ark. It was a bittersweet moment for him – the memories associated with this place were mostly good ones, tainted by the horrible memory of the last time he set foot here.

He had thought that he would never return.

The building was enormous, meant to house training rooms and living spaces for a dozen people.  The lobby looked like any office building or apartment complex in Eon City, but the entryway to the main living area was exactly as he had left it.

Three years’ worth of dust had settled, disturbing the home-like feel that Derek used to know when walking in.  None of the old team had set foot in this place in years, and it showed through the little details: there was no flower vase in the front hall from Kindred’s love of plants.  No smell of delicious meals came from the kitchen, as Sparrow wasn’t cooking. No sharp sounds came from the metal shop where Star used to work in her downtime. The security cameras had no red lights, as Agent hadn’t turned them on in years.  Derek could almost hear the thuds from the training room where he and Striker used to spar, but Striker was long gone…

Derek stopped in his tracks.  No, he wasn’t imagining it: there were definitely sounds coming from the sparring room.  Hardly daring to hope, he ran in that direction as he allowed his feet to take him down the stairs and through the familiar hallways.  Could Striker really be back? He’d disappeared without a trace five years before; surely he would have found his old teammates if he was still alive…

Derek came to a halt outside the training room.  His shoulders slumped slightly when he realized that it wasn’t Striker in front of him, but he straightened again when he realized that he had never seen the intruder before.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked, storming in.  It was a testament to how long it had been since he had last used his Third Gen ability to subdue someone that he did not think to use it now.  Instead, he moved towards the sword area where he kept his practice katana; they were still there after all this time.

The intruder straightened, turning to face Derek.  The young man seemed to be in his early twenties, around Sparrow’s age the last time Derek had seen her.  He wore a tank top and sweatpants, and he didn’t look like he intended to run – which implied that he had been staying there for a while.  “I could ask you the same thing,” he said evenly. His eyes sparked with excitement, as though he was daring Derek to try something that would start a fight.

Derek side-stepped, never turning his back on the other guy.  “My name is Marauder,” he said, relishing his old name as he used it for the first time in five years.  “This is Team Ark’s headquarters, and you’re the one trespassing. I’ll ask again: who the hell are you?”

“’Name’s David,” the young man replied, shrugging.  “Some people call me Earthborn.” He didn’t seem concerned when Derek picked up the wooden swords, suggesting that he thought Derek either couldn’t or wouldn’t use them.

As he stepped forward, Derek nearly stumbled over a small pile of rocks.  Straightening back up, he raised the practice sword and pointed it at David.  “What are you doing here?” he asked.

David just shrugged at him.  Derek fought back a grin; the young man reminded him a lot of his old friend Striker.  He waited in silence for a moment to catch the young man off-guard, and then sprang forward onto the sparring mat.  Whipping his sword around in a fluid motion, Derek lunged at the intruder, aiming for the young man’s legs to knock him to the floor.

A small, sharp pain hit his arm, knocking his sword off-course.  Derek looked around for the source, but all he saw was David standing in exactly the same spot as before.  A smug grin spread across David’s face, which only made Derek want to knock it off. He gripped the wooden sword tighter and swung around for a new attack.

It happened again!  This time, Derek managed to catch the assailant out of the corner of his eye: a rock had flown up from the pile on the floor, hitting him just hard enough to knock his swords off-course.

Derek looked back over at David, who was still smugly standing there.  The name “Earthborn” rang in his ears, making him roll his eyes in frustration: of course the kid was a Third Gen.

But then again, so was Derek.

“Nice trick,” he said, standing to face the young man.  “Want to see a new one?”

He lunged forward once more, but this time he kept his mind focused on one word: funny.  At the moment when the rock should have hit him, Derek heard it clack back onto the floor as “Earthborn” started laughing uncontrollably.

The sword connected with the young man’s leg, forcing him to drop down to one knee.  David wasn’t laughing anymore; the command had only been for a second, but it was long enough to give Derek the upper hand.  He was putting one of the swords at the kid’s throat, intending to make him talk through intimidation, when he heard the crackling sound.

A flash of light threw him across the room, where he just barely managed to stay conscious.  The kid walked towards him, electricity crackling around one of his hands.

He can throw both rocks and lightning? Derek thought.  Not fair.

Just as David began to loom over him, Derek heard an impressed whistle from the elevator doors.  “Wow,” came a familiar voice from the same direction. “I mean, I’d heard about you, but that was incredible.”

Derek looked up, laughing.  “About time,” he said to Agent.  “Mind helping me take out the trash?”

The young man glared at him, electricity sparking back up in his hand.  Agent propped his umbrella up against the door, saying, “Not really. I mean, I did invite him here.”

Derek shook his head to clear it, standing up as the kid backed off.  “What the hell do you mean, you ‘invited him’?” he asked, confused.

“David,” Agent said, “I’d like you to meet Derek, otherwise known as Marauder of Team Ark.  Derek, this is David: he’s going to be on the new team.”

“You’re kidding.”  Derek got to his feet, still unsteady after the fall.  “When you said ‘new team’, I thought you meant you, me, Kindred, and Sparrow would stick together.”

Agent sighed, leaning against the edge of the sparring ring.  “Kevin is still helping take care of the kids,” he explained. Derek and Agent had both known their old team so well that their code names and real names were interchangeable. “Their youngest is in high school, and he says that both he and Sara have been enjoying their retirement.”

“And Sparrow?” Derek asked.

“Casey told me,” Agent cleared his throat, and gave a bad impression of the girl’s voice: “’Go fuck yourself.’”  He gave a weak laugh, adding, “Her words, not mine. I guess she’s not quite over what happened to Striker.”

“And you think I am?” Derek said, pushing past the new guy to stand in front of Agent.  “The team broke up that day,” he said. “You and I tried keeping it together for a while by ourselves, and that didn’t work out so well, either.  What makes you think getting a newbie would make any difference?”

“Four new members.” Agent corrected him.  “Earthborn isn’t the only person I asked.”

“You know, Earthborn is standing right here,” David said, raising an eyebrow.  “I’d like to know what the hell’s going on, too.”

Agent shook his head, smiling again.  “Alright then,” he said. He walked back over to the elevator, picked up his umbrella, and motioned for the other two to join him.  “I’ve been tasked by my superiors to start a new team,” he explained as they all crowded into the elevator. Hitting the button for the debrief room, he added, “It’s called Project: Asylum.”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #2 – The Twins

Fifteen years ago.

The twins.  Not supposed to be here.

“We’re strong together, but we’re stronger when we’re all of one mind.”

Parker and Natalie first heard this phrase when they were nine years old, listening at the kitchen door to their mom’s team argue over their latest mission.

Most of the details about this meeting grew foggy over the years.  For example, if you asked the twins today about who said it, or what they looked like, you might get different answers.  Parker would tell you that it was their mom’s teammate Kindred who said it, while Natalie might insist it was their mother.

What, exactly, the team was arguing about is also a matter of debate.  They could have been going over failed battle tactics, or they could have been arguing over dinner options.  The Watcher team worked as a cohesive unit when fighting supervillains, but they rarely agreed on anything off the battlefield.

This story isn’t about them.

It’s actually about the twins listening at the door.

“What do you think that means?” Natalie asked her brother, shrugging away from his wings as they crowded the small door space.

“What what means?” Parker said, shrugging his shoulders to give his twin more room.

“’One mind’?” Natalie quoted.  She wasn’t interested in his answer; she asked it to make sure he was paying attention.

He wasn’t, really.  Parker had followed his sister to the door of the living room out of curiosity, not interest.  Their mom usually had her teammates over for strategy meetings, and the novelty was long gone. “I guess it means they have to agree on stuff,” he shrugged.

Natalie dreamed of being a Watcher like their mom.  At nine years old she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up, and that conviction never wavered.  “Strong together, stronger as one,” she repeated, biting her lip.

Suddenly, a bright light illuminated the room.  Sunlight streamed in around them as their father opened the curtains behind the eavesdropping children.

“You know you two aren’t supposed to listen at doors,” he said, glaring at the guilty-looking twins.  He had just come from his workshop, and his face was streaked with black powder from his latest project.

Natalie and Parker’s parents seemed like polar opposites.  Their mother worked as a Watcher, one of the superheroes that kept the city safe.  Their father was a street magician – an illusionist – which was a difficult profession when there were people who could actually do miraculous feats.

Natalie was the first to recover from the surprise.  “How else are we supposed to learn?” she asked. “That’s an actual Watcher team,” she added, in case he didn’t understand the significance.  “They’re heroes!”

Parker shook his head and went back to his chair.  The living room was comfortably furnished, but the only chair that Parker could comfortably lean back in was the low-backed cushioned seat at the far side of the room.  He flopped down in it, stretching his wings behind him over the chair’s back as he listened to the exchange.

Their dad sat down in one of the matching recliners, pointing a clawed finger at the other one for Natalie to sit.  Of the three of them, Natalie looked the most out of place: as bird-satyrs, Parker and their father both had avian traits alongside their human ones.  Parker had feathery hair and wings, while their dad had a beak and talons in place of some of his fingers. Natalie, in contrast, was human: her thick blonde hair hung in curls around her face, and her softer features gave her an innocent appearance – or it would, if she didn’t insist on scowling at nearly everybody.

Their father sighed, settling into his chair.  “Your mother works very hard to be a Watcher,” he told them, “but the job is dangerous.  I’m not sure I want to see my children go into it. Especially you, Nat.”

“Why me?” she protested, crossing her arms to match her furrowed brow.  “I’m just as good as Parker. As anybody.”

“Natalie,” their father said in a warning tone.  She stopped glaring, and he nodded before answering.  “It isn’t about your ability, Stinker,” he told her, using the childhood pet name that he rarely called her any more.  “The doctors told us when you were little that you might never develop a third-gen ability. As twins, your brother got both the satyr and third-gen genes from your mom and me, and you were left as a regular human.  Because of that, you can’t protect yourself the way he can.”

“Mom’s not a satyr either,” Natalie grumbled.  “Most of her team aren’t.”

“Not many satyrs become Watchers these days,” their father conceded.  “Parker, you’d do well to remember that; there are gangs out there that target satyrs, especially ones who get their Watcher license and work with a company like your mom’s.”

“I know, dad,” Parker said, shrugging again to loosen his shoulders.  “Nat’s the one who wants to be a Watcher, not me.”

“So, what do you want to do?” their dad asked.

Parker tilted his head to the side.  “I don’t really know,” he admitted. “I like the idea of helping people, but the Watchers look like too much work.  Nat’s always been better at that.” It was true; Parker had better social skills and was good at making friends, but Natalie got better grades in school.

Natalie threw her hands up, drawing the attention back to herself.  “Exactly,” she said. “So why can’t I do it?”

Their father sighed and put a hand to his forehead.  “It’s not that you can’t,” he told her. “You could. I’m pretty sure you could do anything that you set your mind to, honey.”  Looking directly at her, he added, “I just hope you won’t.”

The twins both gave him questioning gazes, so he continued, “Every night your mom leaves the house for patrol, it worries me.  She’s on one of the best teams in the country, she had the best training and has a flawless record as a hero, and she can lift a tractor over her head.  But all it takes is one villain who is more dangerous than her, and she won’t come home.” He smiled, and Parker could see his eyes glistening. “I don’t want to worry about my kids, too.”

Natalie bit her lip.  Parker knew that look: her mind hadn’t changed one bit.  But now she felt a bit guilty about it.

“But I don’t want anything else,” she muttered, just loud enough for them to hear.

Their father stood.  “You know, as a human you’re going to have to work harder than anyone else at it.  You’ll be compared to third-gens and satyrs who can use their powers or claws or wings.  You’ll have to find some way to keep up with them.”

“I know,” Natalie said, her voice getting hard again.  “I don’t care. I can do it.”

Their father stared at them for a second.  While the details of this anecdote have been forgotten by the twins, both of them can agree that this was the moment it all started.  Their father, doing his best to talk Natalie out of her dream, realized that he couldn’t. So he made a decision that would change their lives forever.

“Come with me,” he said, turning back to his workshop.  “I’ve got a lot to show you.”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #1 – Cassandra’s Vision

Unknown time. Unknown place.

Cassandra’s mind.

Cassandra “Casey” Johnson couldn’t see the faces of the two people fighting, but she knew it was the Fawkes twins.  From their outfits, their stances, and even their fighting styles, there was no reason for Casey to think she knew the two fighters at all – but she knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Parker and Natalie were the ones fighting.

She couldn’t tell which was which, though.  Even as one grabbed the other by the throat, while the other punched the first as hard as they could.  Even as the punches grew weaker, slower, more desperate. Even when the twin being choked to death managed to croak out, “Please…”

Even as she saw the first break the second’s neck with a twist of their arm, and fling them to the ground.  All Casey knew was that she had just seen one of the Fawkes twins kill the other.  The victor then moved to a throne-like chair hovering above the ground.

The chair was clearly visible.  The metal frame was cushioned in the seat by purple and red pillows.  Wires stuck out from the back in an orderly fashion, and two needles were held up by mechanical arms from the back.  As the surviving twin sat in the chair, the needles moved to their temples and inserted themselves there – the twin had metal implants where the needles fit in perfectly.

As the vision faded to white, Casey heard a female voice whispering from all around her: “Congratulations, Gamemaster…”

* * * * * * * *

Casey snapped back to the present, where a voice was calling her, “Earth to Cassandra?  Did you get that?”

She was standing in the bar.  Of course I’m still in the bar, she thought as she mentally shook herself from the vision.  “I’m sorry, Robyn, I spaced out there for a second. What was that?”

Robyn, one of her waitresses, looked concerned.  “A Jack and Coke, and a lime Tic Tac for the table in the corner.  You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Casey assured her coworker as she prepped the order.  “Just a little tired. Haven’t been getting much sleep lately.”

“Still having those weird dreams?” Robyn asked sympathetically.  Casey had told her that she’d been plagued with dreams; she hadn’t told the other girl about her ability, though.  Most people either freaked out when they knew, or else didn’t believe that Casey could actually see the future.

“Yeah; they’ve been getting weirder, too.  Here’s the order.” Casey handed the girl the drinks.  “Kyle will take over for me in a minute; he’s running a little early today.”

“Try to get some sleep, Case,” Robyn said as she put the drinks on her tray.  “You look like a zombie.”

Casey forced a laugh as the waitress walked away.  As predicted, Kyle clocked in two minutes before his shift was supposed to start.  Casey handed the bar off to him and went to the back.

As the owner of the bar she knew that there was paperwork to be done, but first she had to make a call.  She took her cell phone out to the alley, to make sure her employees and customers didn’t overhear, and dialed the number.  She wasn’t supposed to save in her phone, given the secretive nature of her contact, but she’d called it so many times in the last few weeks that she had the number memorized.

The phone rang twice before the person on the other side picked up.  “Hello,” he said in way of greeting.

“Agent, hi,” Casey said.  “I just had another one. Whatever this Gamemaster business is, it’s pretty serious – I just saw one of the twins killing the other over it.”

“The twins?  Are you sure?”  The voice sounded skeptical, but Agent believed her.  He was the only one who ever fully believed her visions, no matter how far-fetched they seemed.

“Mm-hmm.  And last night I saw another girl entering an arena, like the one you described,” Casey added.

“Thanks, Sparrow,” Agent said.  “I suppose you’re getting curious about the whole thing?”

Casey grunted no.  “I have no idea about whatever this Gamemaster thing is, and I don’t want to know.  You asked me to update you with my visions on the subject, but I’m retired. I tried the superhero thing before, and I lost my brother.  I’m not doing it again. I’m not Sparrow any more; I’m a bartender now.”

“I’m aware,” Agent said wryly.  “Just reminding you that the post is open if you ever want to come back.”

“Thanks, but no.”  Casey hung up the phone.  She knew that she would be calling him again in the morning with another vision; they’d been coming so often lately.  She might not be able to stop getting involved at this rate.

Whatever the “Gamemaster” was, it was serious.  They would need all hands on deck before long, and Casey knew it was a matter of time before she donned her old hero outfit again.

After all, she had seen it coming.

* * * * * * * *