Every time Olivia looked out, it took her a moment to recognize the city without the lights on. While distant towns and suburbs still had power, forming patches of soft light on the horizon, darkness shrouded most of the city. Olivia, on the roof of her apartment building, craned her neck up. Hey, I can see a couple stars. They’re so pretty. The constant blaring of sirens all around broke the otherwise tranquil early morning, just before daybreak. She took a deep breath of fresh air, steeling herself for a trip to a familiar fetid dumpster, and headed back down the stairs.
In the hour since she and Skulker had gone their separate ways for the night, she’d finally tackled the task of cleaning up her only recently inhabited apartment. She’d tucked in chunks of carpet torn by time or her own clawed feet where she could, moving an old rug from another apartment over a massive hole where she couldn’t. Dust, collected over an unknown number of years, filled up most corners of her home. Old wrappers, nearly a dozen empty plastic water bottles, and more had piled up as she tried to figure out what to do with it all. What if I need the bottles for something else? But I guess if I haven’t used any of this stuff I may as well get rid of it. But what if I need it? Maybe keep half. With a salvaged intact garbage bag in tow, she gathered up everything she didn’t need or want in her apartment and headed downstairs to toss it out.
The dumpster smelled exactly as foul as the day she’d woken up behind it. Just as she dumped her trash, the rumbling of multiple engines caught her ear. A series of headlights approached, screeching to a halt on the street right in front of her building. She pulled back, getting the battered door closed just in time as a car door opened.
They aren’t the police. Why are they here? She hurried away, keeping her ears focused on the outside. Footsteps and hushed voices reached her.
“You see this door? It’s here,” said a husky woman’s voice, barely above a whisper.
“Careful, there might be someone with it,” replied a different, male voice. The damaged door squealed as they forced it open.
They’re looking for me, she realized. Who are they? She ran as fast as her clawed feet would allow for the stairs, back to the relative safety of her apartment.
“There!” someone cried out before Olivia could get her tail through the doorway.
She scrambled up the stairs, taking steps two at a time. A sudden, low boom shook the building, enough to trip her up. She dug her claws in and got moving again as she thought, Not my apartment, just a window. More booms in rapid succession rang out, getting closer. She tore through the first exit she could, the booms right behind her. A sudden impact threw Olivia off her feet, slamming her into the nearby wall. Half of her torso shattered the wood and drywall, leaving her partially embedded. Her eyes struggled to focus, dazed from the sudden hit.
“You find it, Tod?” called out a man’s voice from down below.
“Yeah.” Through the blur, she spied the brick of a man who’d spoken across the hallway, filling the doorway.
Olivia placed a hand on the ruined wall and forced most of herself out, regaining a foothold on the floor. Dust and small chunks of rubble rained down, forcing her to duck her head down to keep her eyes clear. A low, threatening hiss escaped her throat in a desperate attempt to warn him off.
“Whoa, it’s still moving. Get up here!”
She wrenched herself free of the wall. Her wings tried to spread, though her right wing was sore and bent at an odd angle. “Go away!” she roared. This is my home.
Despite the distance between them, Tod began to wind up a lazy punch. Then, a now familiar boom rang out and he shot forward, almost too quick to see. His fist slammed into the center of Olivia’s chest and sent her careening through the already ruined wall. With another hiss, she hit the floor and pulverized the remains of the wall beneath her.
He stared at her for a split second. “Fucking die already!” She took another boom and a hit before she could get free.
This time she bounced off a solid concrete wall. Her claws rolled under her feet instead of catching solid footing, bringing her down to her hands and knees. She ducked her head down, taking the next impact on her shoulders. Without anywhere to fling her, the man was now right beside her. She didn’t know who he was, but she didn’t care, this was his fault. Her hand swung out and caught the edge of his leg as a boom rang out and he pulled back. The iron smell of blood filled her nostrils. Shouting echoed in from the Olivia sized hole in the wall as she forced herself back onto her feet.
A handful of people rushed into position, heavy rifles at the ready. Go away. The first bullet went wide, hitting the wall off to her left and ricocheting off with a spark. Most hit their mark with sharp strikes that knocked the wind out of her. Stop. She covered her face with a scaly hand and rushed for a window. Four steps away the gunfire petered off. Two steps away a fist slammed into the back of her knee, bringing her down a few feet from freedom.
I can’t run. The big man drove a hard kick into her chest, tossing her away from the window as the boom shattered the glass. Two bullets snapped through the air just above her head. She rolled to a stop, lungs burning as they struggled to take in air. One hand digging into the wall, she hauled herself to her feet, bracing herself. With a now familiar boom, he shot forward, slamming into her shoulder. Rather than simply take the blow, she pushed into it.
His arm bent in the middle of the forearm as she shoved into his fist with her shoulder. Her sheer mass slammed into him, knocking him aside. With her heart pounding in her ears, she continued her charge towards the others. They reacted almost in slow motion, only a few shots hitting her before she closed the gap. Survival took over, and they abandoned their ruined wall, their few parting shots going wide.
One man didn’t dodge out of the way fast enough, blocked in the hallway by the backs of his retreating friends. Her claws dug into the side of his gut, hooking him in and slamming him against the wall. He crumpled to the ground, unmoving. With the sound of his cut-short scream, others found their nerves. The nearest man spun around, finger pulling on the trigger with wild abandon. One bullet caught her in the side of the neck, leaving her choking with a half-clogged windpipe. Another of the attackers grabbed the unmoving man by the back of his collar and began dragging him away. By the time she hacked and coughed her throat clear, all she was left with was a series of shut doors and a blood smear along the floor.
She wiped a lock of sweaty hair out of her face with the back of her hand. Attackers were still here, hiding. She could hear them. Smell them. Someone spoke, voice hushed and frantic, behind a door at the far end of the building. The smell of fresh sweat and blood oozed from the crack below. She shoved her claws into the old wood and ripped it off its hinges, tossing it aside.
For her efforts she received a bullet to the shoulder and bicep, forcing her out the doorway. With a snarl she tried to push in again, only to be forced back by yet more bullets. Frustration boiled over in her with the smell of attackers so close. The third try only one bullet hit her, before the shots stopped entirely. Two attackers knelt at the far end of the room with the injured one laying behind them, fumbling with their weapons. She charged, long strides closing the distance before the attackers could do more than cry out.
A familiar scent caught her nose as she towered over the attackers with an overhead blow. She turned and dug her claws deep into the floor, just in time to catch the boom and hit that would have sent her careening back. An uppercut caught her in the chin, sending her rocketing into the ceiling. Her wings flailed out, failing to deaden the fall as she collapsed back on the ground at the big man’s feet.
Her hand slammed into the floor just inches behind his bloody calf as he withdrew. Another attacker kicked her across the back of her head from the other side. It didn’t hurt too much, so she ignored it to keep watch on the big one. He kept his distance with her eyes on him, stepping to the side while cradling his crooked left arm. Another step would take him out of her sight from her vantage point on the ground, and a second kick to the head didn’t help her concentration.
She ducked her head and rolled over, the attackers shouting something to each other. The one kicking her stumbled out of her way. She took a boom and hit on the shoulder once more and continued rising to her feet, until a metallic click caught her ear. The third attacker held a rifle at her chest point blank and fired. From five feet away they couldn’t miss, and they didn’t spare the trigger.
Her hand flailed out as she spasmed in pain, a claw catching a flute in the barrel’s edge. She pulled in and grabbed the rifle with a roar, shoving it in any direction other than her’s. The armed attacker pushed back, the other two jumping in and throwing themselves on her other arm. She lunged forward against all of them, biting into the throat and twisting head as she withdrew. As the gun fell to the floor, her tail lashed out and caught an attacker in the hip, knocking them back.
She turned towards the big one, hands wrapped around her arm but frozen. Her gaze jolted him into action. Her free hand shot out and her claws raked deep into his already broken arm. He pulled back before they could get too deep, though blood poured from the wound.
Reeking of desperation, the man ducked low and to the side. As she spun towards him, he lunged forward with a boom, shoulder checking her in the gut. Instead of hitting another wall, or stumbling on clawed feet to the ground, glass shattered around her as she burst through the window he’d put at her back. Wings and limbs flailed as she grabbed at air.
The pavement knocked the breath out of her. Bits of broken glass rained down around her. Wrath pushed her through the pain and onto her feet once more, the smell of more attackers in her nostrils. Two more stood before her dressed in grey, saying something. She roared and charged the bigger one.
Just as her hand reached him, he exploded into some strange, light blue goo, her claws carving harmlessly through. The goo flowed around her on its own accord and engulfed her head. She thrashed against the suffocation, her leg spasming as something painful thrust into it with a shock. Lungs burning, vision fading as the air ran out, she slashed at the goo, even as she lost her balance and toppled to the ground. The world went black.
Flashing lights hit her eyes, dragging her back to consciousness. Loose gravel from the asphalt dug into the back of her skull. She hurt all over, as if people had been beating her with chains for several hours. There was a strange taste in her mouth. She could hear and smell people near, very near. She tried to roll over away from them, her movements clumsy and slow.
They weren’t shooting or hitting. Just talking, clearly and urgently. “We’ll give this one last try.”
Where am I? Who am I? “Nonononono, not again,” she mumbled. Not again? “No, I woke up… a couple weeks ago. I got food. I got some weird… monster body. Some people found me. Feral. Olivia. That’s… that’s my name.”
Then she remembered people talking. She looked over to the source of the voices. There stood a bulky man and a figure in grey riot gear, just watching. The earliest morning rays broke the horizon behind them.
“What happened?” asked Olivia, attempting to stand on wobbling limbs. The arm she was pushing up with stopped cooperating and she collapsed. The bruises covering her chest ached with every move.
“Easy, easy! Can you hear us? Can you understand us?” replied the man. Through clumps of sweaty hair, she focused her tired eyes on them. Both kept their distance from Olivia, hands on weapons and shoulders hunched and wary. She got herself upright, wings splayed to either side.
“Yes, I understand.” I can hear, I can understand, Olivia thought, more for her own benefit than theirs. “What happened?” she repeated.
“A group of people were attacking you in there,” he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at a familiar apartment building. “Then you took a swing at us.”
Did I? Olivia stared at him blankly, then to the woman. She looked down at herself. Her hands were a muddy red. They should be green. Right? “What? Who are you?”
“My name is Nomad,” replied the man, slowly and clearly despite the blue bandana covering everything below his eyes. “This is Delta. We’re with the MHU.” Nomad knelt beside her.
“Don’t get close,” said Delta, her voice hushed.
“There’s blood on her mouth and chin.”
“I know,” he replied.
There is? She scratched at her chin with a tentative claw, feeling something flake off. How did…
Nomad placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, agitating a massive bruise there. “We’re going to have to figure out what happened here and get this mess sorted out,” he said, right up to the point Olivia doubled over and vomited.
She would have fallen over had Nomad not grabbed a hold of her. She was busy trying and failing to form some sort of coherent thought, there was only static in her mind. Eventually, other cop cars pulled up, along with a massive metal van. Out came about a dozen armored figures in grey.
A blur of people and talking swirled past Olivia, keeping a healthy distance. Four of the cops formed a semicircle around her twenty paces away, with her back to the van. They, too, didn’t shoot, though their hands never left their rifles and their eyes never left her. Delta peeled off to join the newcomers as most went into Olivia’s apartment building. Nomad kept by Olivia’s side the whole time talking. The words were calm, though they got lost in the haze. She pulled her knees in under her arms, keeping out of the way and out of sight as much as possible.
Another cop, a heavyset man, approached. “Nomad, that thing alright? Not giving you any problems?” he asked in a booming voice. One of the cops watching Olivia jumped with that voice in his ear.
“No, Bob,” replied Nomad.
“Good. Get over here.”
“I’ll be right back,” he said to Olivia. He got up, brushed the dirt off his knee, and joined the man who’d called him past the semicircle.
The two retreated a good distance away. Olivia looked up, focusing on what they were saying. “I’m going to need you to walk me through the short version. What the fuck just happened here,” said the other cop, Bob.
“We were checking out a few places of interest Delta had marked. We heard shots fired, investigated, and the feral was tossed out the building. We restrained her, you got here,” explained Nomad.
“And why do we now have an unstable feral to deal with?” asked Bob, his voice a strange mix of patience and fury. Olivia pulled her limbs in tighter at the sound.
“Do we have any way to guarantee our safety with that thing up and moving? Solid Tod was here, and he hits like a truck. It looks like he got the feral at least twice, and it’s not a grease smear on the side of a wall. Do you think that van of ours can hold it if it wants to get out? And what will happen to all the squishy people in the way, us included, if that happens?”
“She’s good now.”
“Do you know that or do you hope that? Look me in the eye,” demanded Bob. “What kind of guarantee can you give me we’re not all in danger here? Actually, now that I think about it, why were you sitting right in claw range of the damn thing?”
Nomad replied, “I was talking with her. That’s what you do with someone with new powers. Deescalate.”
“Deescalate before it rips apart two people with its bare hands. Did you go in there yet? It’s a bloody massacre.”
“But it worked. She’s just sitting there right now.”
“You got damn lucky. Damn lucky. For all you knew, that could have gotten your throat ripped out too.”
“Doesn’t seem right,” said Nomad, voice quiet. “To just kill her while she’s out like that.”
“Between you and her, choose you,” replied Bob, the anger gone from his voice. “I would choose you. Delta, Jeremiah, all of us. And it’s not all about you. Without you there’d have been nothing between that feral and Delta.” Nomad’s back stiffened, and Bob raised a hand. “Later. It’s alive, and our job was to get it alive. Let’s get out of here. You’re the only one I can put close to it until we can get Cyrus on the horn.”