9: Miyahuatl

The hum of a small plane engine filled Miyahuatl’s ears. The heavy canvas sack covering her head did little to deaden the noise. A bout of turbulence shook the plane, sending her bouncing on the tiny bench she perched on. She reached out with her bound hands, steadying herself on a metal crate beside her. It’s been hours, she thought with resigned numbness. We have to land sometime. They’re not going to kill me. They’ve had months. Or maybe we’re over the ocean, and they’re going to shoot me and dump me in the middle of nowhere.

She shivered in her threadbare clothes, the plane barely heated for its only living passenger. The stubble on her head didn’t help, exposing the surgical scars across her skull to the elements. The ones across her spine didn’t feel much better. She had no idea what the day was, though it felt like months had passed since she’d been free.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, when Arizona didn’t resemble the surface of the sun, Miya ducked out of the house to avoid her family and wandered off to a nearby convenience store. Grandmother bitched at her for not taking the heat “with stoicism befitting Aztec blood,” though neither of them had ever set foot in Mexico. She’d kept her magic quiet, not wanting an earful about whatever archaic tradition demanded of her. Unlike powers, she couldn’t just use them from the word go. Dozens of schools for mages were scattered around the country, all too expensive for her to even think about.

Shoplifting saved enough money for books from Don’s shop. Trial and error into the arcane nearly killed her, but the books and amulets from the Italian man made more sense than eleven years of public school education ever had. With the camera of the convenience store blocked by the shelf, she stuffed plastic sunglasses into her oversized pockets.

Keeping her expression neutral, she headed out to find a deserted front counter. She spun around, expecting the employee to ambush her. Instead, dull green and wrinkly tentacles tore open roof above her. A tall, thin man, tentacles emanating from beneath his skin, dove on her. One grabbed her foot as she tried to run, her head hit the ground, and the world went black in the span of five heartbeats.

She awoke some indeterminate time later strapped to a hospital bed, a handful of humanoid robots preparing her for surgery. She only met a handful of humans in the windowless facility, though she caught one name: Overlord. Once stable, they started testing their clumsy control of her power. She imagined having a stroke was similar to the experience of someone forcibly extracting an otherworldly force using her brain as the conduit.

The cold, firm grip of a robot grasped her upper arm, breaking her train of thought. It hauled her out of the plane, and her feet hit dirt. They stood a few paces away from the plane for a couple minutes, moon and star light barely filtering through the bag over Miya’s head. Over the idling engine of at least two cars, she could hear movement. Not only precise, measured movement from robots, but the breath and grumbling from other humans as well. Her heart rate picked up. Now what? Who the fuck are these guys?

“Got it,” said a human voice, the first she’d heard in nearly a week since Dr. Orange wished her luck in her future endeavors as robots strapped her to a gurney and carted her off.

The robots grip on her arm released, replaced by one of flesh and blood. She stumbled over a clump of earth she couldn’t see as a man dragged her towards one of the cars. After a long drive over a miserable dirt road, they reached pavement. Some time later someone finally pulled the bag from her head. She blinked, eyes adjusting to the sudden influx of light.

They drove through what appeared to be a district composed of abandoned buildings, lots of homeless and few lit buildings. Graffiti coated most walls. Where the hell are we? She looked around, and nearly jumped out of her skin as she realized the man sitting next to her was a robot. Its head whipped towards her at her sudden motion. It looked identical to the dozens she’d seen patrolling the halls of the labs. Shaped like the average human, with burnished steel instead of anything resembling skin. It wore clothes, a utilitarian jeans and jacket. I guess a naked robot would stick out. A screaming face set in steel met her gaze, then swiveled back to the front, where two humans sat in the front of the car. The one in the passenger seat took a nervous look over his shoulder before swiftly returning his attention to the road.

They pulled into the garage in the back of what appeared to be an office building. The sign near the roof read Lehman Construction. They marched her into an elevator to the top floor, three other waiting men unloading the second car that had been at the landing site with Miya.

She heard talking as the four approached partially opened double doors at the end of the hallway. The robot ushered her in, the two men who’d driven them waiting outside. A massive desk dominated the center of the well lit room. The man behind it took in the arrivals, one hand stroking his full, well groomed black beard. A scar ran across his forehead, aged nearly to the point of invisibility. Well muscled, he dominated his high backed chair, a suit jacket thrown over the back of it. Thick blinds covered the floor to ceiling windows behind him.

The man he spoke with was rail thin and taller than anyone she’d met. Miya, just shy of five feet, craned her neck as far as she could to see his face. It’s him. Her breath caught in her throat as she jumped back, though the robot inexorably shoved her forward and into the room beside the man who’d kidnapped her however many months ago. Now that she saw him up close, the man had next to no body hair, save for his eyebrows and eyelashes. He had almost no body fat, and his skin had no tattoos, or freckles, or blemishes of any kind.

“Another delivery will be made next month,” said the kidnapper.

“Sure. Same place?” asked the man behind the desk.

“No, we’ll be moving it again. We’ll let you know ahead of time. I believe fifty handguns will be more than enough to compensate your crew for the trouble.”

“Music to my ears.” The man behind the desk let out a quick, sharp whistle. The double doors opened once more, and a man came in with a heavy black leather briefcase and presented it to the mercenary. “Your pay, as agreed upon.”

“One more matter, Sanchez,” said the kidnapper, his voice inflection-less. He swept a hand towards Miya. Sanchez turned towards her, curiosity returning once more. “This is a defective prototype. We offer her as a bonus, free of charge.”

Sanchez paused,  “She ain’t a robot?”

“No, flesh and blood,” replied the kidnapper. Despite your best efforts. Miya stood up a little straighter as he placed a familiar grey box on the desk.

Sanchez leaned back in his seat, considering. “Defective prototype. What can she do?” he asked.

“She is a mage of not inconsiderable power,” said the kidnapper. “This power would be yours to control and wield as you see fit, through the controller before you. I’m told the control is imperfect, and the head of the project would like to his extend his apologies for this. As I said, defective.”

“Sure, sure.” He asked Miya, “Aztec, huh? Can you speak English?”

The mercenary turned towards her. “Yes,” she said, voice hoarse from disuse. I guess I should be happy the scientists didn’t cut my tongue out when I was screaming profanity at them.

“Sounds good,” said Sanchez. “Could always use a good mage. Can I assume there are instructions,” he added, eyeing the controller and its myriad buttons.

“Of course. They’re with the rifles.”

“Knew I’d say yes, didn’t you,” Sanchez grumbled. The mercenary simply stood there, with neither a smile nor a frown. “Well, pleasure doing business with you. Tell Overlord the construction crew should be finished up in the next couple days.”

The two men shook hands, and the kidnapping mercenary left Miya with Sanchez. No more experiments? Sanchez headed towards a door on the right. “Come here,” he said with a wave of his hand, the other with her remote control. With no other choice, Miya followed.

“Where are you from?” he asked over his shoulder.

“Arizona,” she replied. She coughed a couple times to clear her throat. “A little town south of Phoenix. What month is it?” she asked.

He cocked an eyebrow. “Mid April.” Half a year. I lost half a year of my life. She slowed to a stop, eyes fixed on a point a thousand yards away. Sanchez gave her an awkward, hesitant pat on the shoulder, the most human gesture she’d received for six months. “Come on.”

The large conference room he led them into stretched on before her, nearly as large as his office. A massive round table with eight chairs stood in the center, with a collection of alcohol and glasses in the center. A door opened on the opposite end of the room, and people began trickling in.

Sanchez pointed to a couple of chairs shoved in the corner of the room. “Sit there, keep quiet. We’ll figure out what to do with you.”

When everyone settled, six of the eight chairs were filled. Miya cast a weary glance at the eclectic bunch. A man build like a shithouse brick caused his chosen chair to creak under his weight as he sat, sunglasses hooked onto his collar. The black man who entered last with a pronounced limp gave a friendly nod to Sanchez. A few shot curious looks at the woman with dyed blond hair to the right Sanchez, though the overwhelming majority were in Miya’s direction.

“Tod?” began Sanchez to the man with sunglasses. “I believe you have a bit of important news for us.”

“More bad news, Boss,” said the solid looking man. “The warehouse on 34th got hit by a vigilante. Cops swarmed the place. We lost most everything.”

“Purifier?” asked Sanchez.

“Nah, we haven’t seen that bastard for months,” replied Tod.

“Guardsman?” asked the woman, the only other in the room besides Miya.

“No, fucking let me finish.”

“Tod,” warned Sanchez.

“Sorry,” he grumbled to the woman. “No, this was the guy with the smiley face. Skulker, that’s it. Charles and Tammy got out before the cops showed. They said there was a feral with him.”

Miya looked up from the patch of carpet she stared at. There’s a feral here? Where is here, anyways?

“A feral?” asked a mustachioed man with a cigar dangling from his lips.

“That’s what they said,” replied Tod. “Tammy’s got a good head on her shoulders, she insisted.”

“This isn’t the first time,” added Sanchez. “This vigilante’s got a pet feral with him, we need him dead.

“They said it had glowing eyes like a demon.”

“Well, they’re dumbasses. Break out some of the heavier firepower, that’ll kill it real quick. Tod, get some guys on finding these two. Talk with our rat, the cops have got to be looking for this feral too. Level whatever rock they’re hiding under before they can so much as sneeze in our direction again. I want you with them, make sure the thing is dead.”

“You got it,” replied Tod.

“We just received, from our benefactor, two crates of weapons. Take you pick, Tod. We also got her,” he said, pointing to Miya in the corner. He beckoned her to the table beside her, though she got no chair. “She’s got a bunch of control implants in her. She does what we tell her or she dies.”

“So we own a human,” said the black man sitting two seats from Sanchez’s right hand.

“Pretty much.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“She’s a mage, Omar” said Sanchez.

The general murmur died down. Here it comes.

“What kind?” asked the woman.

“Well?” Sanchez prompted her.

“Bones,” said Miya. She reached for magic in vain, whatever implant blocking her free access to her power still the one to work consistently.

“Show us.”

“You need to push one of the button on there,” she replied.

“One of these kills you, doesn’t it?” asked Sanchez with a frown.

“Yeah, the covered one,” Miya replied, recalling Dr. Orange’s cheerful explanation of the iron blades millimeters from severing her spine.

“And this one?”

Her bleary, sleep deprived eyes examined the controller for a moment. “I don’t know,” she finally said with a shrug. If you’re going to kill me, just kill me.

He shot her a dangerous look, than returned his attention to his council. “I’ll look over the manual later. I’m inclined to believe Overlord.”

“I still don’t like this,” said Omar.

“What do you want me to do?” demanded Sanchez, wheeling on him. “Tell Overlord no? Is that what you want me to do? Get us all killed? I don’t know what else to do with her.”

“She can’t be more than eighty pounds,” said Tod. “We can’t just throw her in a fight, magic or not. That feral will rip her up before she gets any magic off.”

“You said she’s got implants. Get those out, hire her,” suggested Omar. Can you do that?

“My cousin just had an appendectomy, it set him back ten thousand after insurance,” said the woman. “Getting whatever those implants are out will cost so much damn money. Plus we’d need to find a quiet doctor, and the equipment, because if the doctor recognizes Overlord’s fingerprints and talks we’ll be drowning in Feds.” Never mind. It’s shit on Miya day after all, just like every other day.

“Would Overlord even want us digging his toys out of her?” pointed out the final man at the table, quiet until then. He drummed his fingers against the table.

“If Overlord didn’t want us to know about it, he wouldn’t give it to us. Nothing so far can be traced back to him,” said Sanchez.

“Except for us,” said Omar.

“Believe me, I know,” replied Sanchez, darkly. With no other complaints or suggestions forthcoming, he turned to Miya and said, “If you do right by us, we’ll do right by you. Work with us and we’ll see if we can get those metal bits out of you, but we can’t afford to do this out of the goodness of our hearts. Omar will be in charge of that, since he seems to have taken an interest.” He shot a look at Omar, who nodded. “Do you accept?”

She looked him in the eye. “I don’t have many options, do I?”

Advertisements

8: Ram

Olivia and Skulker stood atop a building overlooking their target. A handful of streetlights below them flickered, the rest broken and dark. A half moon did more to illuminate the area. No one walked the abandoned streets, save for the two men in front of the old brick warehouse, guns hidden from casual observation. A third man stood atop the warehouse roof, lit cigarette dangling from his lips.

Skulker nudged her with an elbow. “Get goin’,” he prompted her. Oh, we’re starting this now?

Olivia spread her wings and leapt off the side of the building. What did Skulker say to do? “Flatten him?” So just hit him? I think I did that to a guy before. She climbed higher into the air, than tucked her wings and dove. Her speed built up, momentum aimed at the man on the roof. The wind rushed past her face, sending her hair whipping around.

Learning from her previous attempt, she tucked her head and lead with her shoulder, colliding with the man’s chest. With a strangled cry, he crumpled. She rolled with the landing, climbing to her feet the moment she came to a stop. The man let out a groan, clutching his chest. OK, flattened. Is Skulker OK?

The commotion from Olivia’s entrance hadn’t gone unnoticed. As she spun around, one of the men below called out, “You alright up there?”

Movement caught her eye in the night. Skulker, pistol drawn, emerged from an alleyway. He teleported across the streets while the two men below were busy craning their necks to see what was happening on the roof. Olivia jumped back as two, than four shots rang out into the night.

Scraping noises caught her attention. The man behind her struggled upright. She froze, shying away. His fist glanced off her shoulder. Before she could react, another drove into her stomach. They both stared at each other for a split second. She shoved him away, sending him flying. His head smacked into the roof, and he lay still. Oh, he didn’t really hurt me. Her ears still rang with the sound of gunshots.

“Come on down,” called out Skulker.

She glided down, averting her eyes from the dead men and the blood on the ground. Skulker jostled the doorknob of front door to the warehouse. “Fuckin’ locked,” he grumbled. He gave the metal door a sharp kick. “I’ll see if one of these guys has the key.”

Should I kick it too? It didn’t work for Skulker. Maybe a second will work. Wobbling, she placed her foot on the door and shoved. It didn’t budge, though something metal creaked.

“If you’re gonna do that don’t just nudge it. Put force behind it,” said Skulker, hand rifling through the pockets of one of the men he’d killed.

Oh, OK. She took a deep breath, raised her leg up, and shoved it forward as hard as she could. The claws of her feet punched into the metal. The hinges shrieked and gave way, the door slamming into the ground. She caught herself on the doorframe before she could topple over, foot still stuck into the door. With a few shakes, she pulled her foot free.

She spun around to see Skulker staring at her. “Holy shit. Nice. Let’s get in there.”

He led the way into the warehouse, jumping over the bent and broken door. I did that? She followed after him, into a cramped and grimy hallway. In a split second, her eyes adjusted to the unlit interior. Her wings smacked against the walls as they walked. Olivia tried to keep her footsteps light, imitating Skulker, though she kept wobbling on her feet and bumping into the walls.

“That wasn’t quiet, they know we’re here,” murmured Skulker. “Keep your eyes open.” He stopped them at an office, its window covered over. A second lay on the opposite end of the hall. “Watch the hall,” Skulker whispered.

She nodded, attention split between Skulker and anything down the hallway. It definitely smells like people here. But all I can hear is ringing. With one shoulder pressed against the wall, he twisted the doorknob, pistol at the ready. In a flash, he shoved it all the way open and teleported in. Olivia waitied, breath caught in her lungs, as she listened to Skulker’s footsteps inside.

Finally, he poked his head out and said, “Empty. Try the other one.” He nodded towards the door on the opposite side of the hallway.

“It’s locked,” she replied.

“Kick it.”

She took a deep breath and steadied herself. This time she pushed forward, letting her momentum carry her into the room. She stumbled over the broken door and into what was once an office. Haphazard crates of ammo covered the desk in the center of the room, and several coats covered the back of the office chair behind it.

Before she could free her foot from the door, a sharp intake of breath and a metallic click caught her ears. Shots rang out. Olivia threw herself to the side, a sudden pain lancing through her ribs. Skulker teleported in over her and fired. Silence fell over the room as a body hit the ground.

“That was fast,” grumbled Skulker as he cast a look at Olivia over his shoulder. He stiffened. “Oh shit, you’re still alive! You OK?”

She pressed a palm to her ear, failing to deaden the ringing sound. “I’m fine. I think.” She rubbed a bruise on her ribs. That guy didn’t get close. But I’m not bleeding. How?

“Whoa,” said Skulker, pointing to her ragged shirt. “You sure?”

“Oh, um,” she mumbled. With a claw, she hooked the hem of her shirt up and revealed a massive purple and yellow bruise nearly the size of her palm underneath.

“Wait, put it back,” he said, gesturing to her shirt. Once she let it fall, he leaned in and said, “Yeah, a fuckin’ bullet left that. You really OK?”

She paused, feeling no other pain beyond the bruise and her ears. “I think so.”

“That guy was packin’ a nasty lookin rifle an’ he just give you a bruise. An’ you can rip steel with your hands.”

“Is that weird?”

“Fuckin’ hardcore is what it is. Talkin’ with you is the best decision I ever made.” He offered her a hand and threw his entire weight into hauling her to her feet. “We’ve wasted too much time, gotta move quick now.”

She trailed after him, knees weak. What am I doing here? That guy had a gun. He shot me. What am I doing? The ceiling rose, though the walls remained only slightly higher than Olivia’s wings. The carpeting cut off, replaced by concrete. Dim fluorescents dangling from metal roof supports flickered ahead. They turned a corner, and found half a dozen men in a semicircle around them, immediately opening fire.

Skulker pulled Olivia back behind a wall as gunfire ripped through the air where they’d stood just a moment before. Two bullets grazed her partially outstretched wing.

“Keep ‘em busy!” he shouted, teleporting off and leaving her alone against half a dozen armed men.

What? How? Why? Olivia flinched as bullets punched through the thin drywall, a mere foot from where she stood. She let out a stifled shriek and threw herself to the ground. More bullets shot above her, shredding the wall.

“I think we got it!” called out one of the gunmen as the firing ceased. Heavy footsteps approached, the fumes of gunpowder wafting through the air.

Olivia stared in horror as a pair of shadows approached in the doorframe she’d just dove away from. With rifles at the ready, two men, one broad shouldered and dark haired, the other balding, burst in and swivel towards her. Familiar pistol shots rang out. The men froze for a split second, half turning back towards the others.

They’re going to shoot him. They’re going to shoot me. She forced herself to her feet and rushed towards the two. The nearest one, the broad shouldered one, managed to react, firing directly into Olivia’s chest. Her moment carried her into him, slamming him into the brick wall behind him.

Out of instinct, she whipped her tail around, catching the balding man in the hip.

More shots came from the warehouse. Go away! She let out a primal scream and grabbed the broad shouldered man by the collar and slammed him into the wall once more. He slumped to the floor, unmoving and bleeding from the shoulder. She turned around to find the balding man had fallen to the floor. One hand clutched his hip, the other reached for the rifle he’d lost. No. She stomped down on his arm, which snapped with a sickening crack. He screamed and rolled over as she let him go, turning her attention to the warehouse beyond.

Skulker teleported behind a wall of shelves, barely keeping ahead of the rifle fire. One of the gunmen was down, the remaining three oblivious to Olivia’s entrance. Leave him alone. She charged into the back of the closest one, raking her claws down his back. He stumbled forward, rifle still in hand. With a wild cry, he spun and swung his rifle like a club at her, catching her arm, just as her other arm came down for a second swipe. He caught him in the shoulder, sending him crumpling to the ground.

Someone approached from behind, and Olivia spun, claws aimed for the gut. She froze when she caught sight for a grey grinning mask. Silence reigned for a moment, with only the sound of their heavy breathing as she and Skulker stared at each other.

He flashed her a thumbs up. “God damn, no mercy for the weak. Let’s have a look around.”

Olivia half collapsed against a wall, chest aching and lungs burning. Skulker had shot the other two gunmen, their bodies sprawled out on the concrete floor. What just happened? She looked down at her bloody claws. I think I hurt people. She wiped them of on her pants as best she could. Oh god. What am I doing? Am I supposed to be looking for something?

Olivia looked over the main room of the warehouse, now able to take her time without people shooting at her. A dull grey pickup truck was parked beside one of the garage doors in the very back. The gang had shoved various bits of furniture into the corner, making room for shelves upon shelves of ammunition. Skulker flipped open one of the crates near where they had first entered. Bits of drywall and bullet shrapnel slid off the top of the crate as he tossed it aside.

“They got so many goddamn guns. Want one?” She craned her neck, looking over his shoulder at the dozen sleek black rifles, identical to the ones the gang members had used not more than two minutes ago.

“No thank you,” she replied with a shake of her head. They’re so loud.

He shrugged and moved on to the next crate. “Damn it, why do these guys always got real fuckin’ nice ones? Where are they gettin’ these? Why do they need all these?”

Olivia moved on to a desk beside the truck, opening an empty drawer. What am I looking for? She glanced at Skulker, now moving from body to body on the floor. He seems to know. I’ll look stupid if I ask. I guess I’ll know if I see anything.

“Here we go.” Skulker lifted the head of the man she’d clawed and twisted it so he faced Olivia. The man slowly breathed through a crooked nose. Long dirty blond hair partially obscured his face. “This fuckin’ guy. I’ve seen him before. Works for one of Sanchez’s lieutenants. Solid Tod, I think.”

“Solid Tod?” Olivia repeated. What does that even mean?

“Don’t ask me. He’s got a power an’ good reputation, though. I think this guy might be up to answerin’ question for us. Well, me, you look beat.” Olivia just stared back, too tired to form a proper question. He reached up and patted her shoulder. “Come on, let’s go see what we missed back there.”

Skulker dragged the man back to the entrance. They stopped to search where Olivia took a bullet to the ribs. They continued their pattern, Skulker combing through the handful of ammunition boxes, while Olivia stood around and tried to look helpful.

Skulker began laughing as he reached the dead man Olivia had spent her whole time avoiding looking at. “What is it?” she asked, eyes still averted.

He popped the magazine out of the dead man’s rifle and showed her the top bullet. “He fuckin’ shoot you with a 300. That’s a big, mean bullet.”

“Is that bad?” What does that number mean?

“Most rifles are somewhere around 200. I ain’t great with numbers but I think the 300 is supposed to make you around fifty percent more dead.” He tossed the magazine to the floor. “Let’s get outta here.”

Sirens in the distance approached as they finally exited the warehouse. “You hear ‘em too?” he asked. She pulled a sweaty lock of hair out of her face and nodded. “Yeah, we don’t wanna stick around. Great job! This took a bit longer than I thought it would,” said Skulker. “But we gotta move quick if we’re gonna find this kid. I’ll chat with this guy an’ figure out where to go next. First thing tomorrow night work?”

She stared. Is that normal? Just getting shot at and hurting people? But what will he do if I say no? And I guess we’re going to help find a kid. “I guess,” she replied.

“Perfect. Go on, I’ll be fine.” She took flight as the weak light of the morning sun began to shine over the horizon, leaving Skulker with a battered and unconscious man in his grips.

7: Fast Track

Olivia closed the front door to her apartment once Skulker left, fighting the urge to simply slam it shut. She un-clenched her feet, pulling the claws out from the carpet. As Skulker’s footsteps faded, she slumped against the wall. OK. He’s gone now. That wasn’t a disaster. Her stomach grumbled as she thought, What did I just agree too?

Last moments of sunlight or the day trickled in from the window. Olivia took a deep breath and pushed off the wall. Though she hadn’t noticed at the time, she was covered in a cold sweat. I think I smell kind of bad. I can’t use the bath here. She paced, the simple act of moving easing her tension. Her tail brushed against the old drapes she was using as blankets. They had been thrown halfway across the room when she’d woken up to Skulker’s knock. A few messy knots of hair drifted in front of her face as she remade her makeshift sheets on the couch. Now what? Her stomach rumbled, sending a jolt of pain through her.

She checked the donut box she’d bought that morning. She’d torn through them the moment she got back, leaving only two and some crumbs. They’re better than dumpster food. Her stomach still ached, even after finishing them off. I need more food. I always need more food. Maybe I should wait, though. Maybe I can look around in here. Didn’t Skulker say this place was haunted?

Her apartment on the fourth floor at least seemed lived in. Most of the dust had dissipated thanks to her keeping a window open, and the random stuff she’d gathered was scattered around. She began a more thorough check of the building. When she’d first woken up, she’d only given it a cursory look over. Contrary to what Skulker had said, the first two floors had very much been looted. A few rooms even had graffiti, though most looked faded.

Things changed on the third floor. In one of the rooms she’d overlooked before, she spotted a half looted apartment. A washer and dryer stood in the middle of the room, next to a partially rolled carpet. The washing machine had 1983 printed on the side. Half the carpet was still attached to the floor, as if someone had stopped pulling it up halfway through the job.

Is this weird? This seems weird. Why would anyone just leave a washer here, even if it is old? Could I use these? I need to clean my clothes. But wait, there’s no electricity in here. A washer and dryer probably need electricity. Right? That seems like something they would need. She moved on. Her own floor and fifth floor seemed completely unscathed, with random bits of old furniture scattered around. She climbed the stairs one last time to find herself on the roof.

I guess that’s the whole building. It doesn’t seem haunted. Now what? She sat at the edge of the roof to enjoy the feel of the breeze on her wings and the lack of weight on her feet. The city stretched on before her, a mass of twinkling lights and roaring engines. There’s so much stuff here. How far does the city go? She relaxed, stretching out her tail behind her. Where did I come from? I probably came from somewhere in this city, right? I couldn’t have just popped into being. Or could a superpower do that? She sighed, unwilling to delve further into the rabbit hole.

Well, Skulker was asking about the stuff from when I first woke up. Maybe I missed something down there. She spread her wings and hopped off the edge of the roof. She glided and pulled a sharp turn, heading for the alley in which she had first awoken during a rainstorm more than a week ago. To her left was the main door she used, a metal door that had buckled in the middle, featuring four long scratches from her claws. To her right was the dumpster her head had rested on. Beyond that, the alley was as nondescript as they came, the only notable feature being a pair of cracks vaguely forming the shape of a dog.

The sheer amount of rot coming from the dumpster surprised her. Does this ever get emptied? It doesn’t look like it. Maybe there are some clues. She held her breath and forced herself to lean in, eyes watering as she surveyed the dumpster. I have no idea what I’m looking for. This is all just rotting trash.

She looked back at the six story building she called home, the tallest around for a block in any direction. The area seemed to mock her with a lack of answers. With little else to do, Olivia took flight. I haven’t gone towards all the really big buildings over there before. Maybe I can do that. Maybe there’s food there.

She flew in parallel to the mountains, heading towards the skyscrapers of the city’s center. The closer she got, the taller they seemed to loom, lights along their rooftops flickering on and off in some set pattern. What caught her eye was a strip of land devoid of any buildings. A park, empty of any people stretched on below her as she coasted down. Beside it stood an old looking building with a golden dome. Massive trees, many times larger than the ones she’d seen along sidewalks or in yards, grew all throughout.

Distracted, she failed to notice a handful of branches in the night sky. Her wing clipped them and folded, sending her spinning and plummeting towards the earth. No! With the ground fast approaching, she twisted herself face first towards the ground and spread her wings, catching the air once again. Trees are stupid. At least I didn’t hit the ground this time.

She coasted along. The inner city seemed much busier than the outskirts she was used to. Though the park seemed deserted, every streets seemed to have people walking along it at any point. Between two skyscrapers, she caught a whiff of something that made her mouth water. That kind of smells like the burgers. Where is that. She followed her nose to the back of a butcher shop, but flashing lights between her and her target made her stop.

Around the corner, two cops stood beside a car pulled over on the side. One leaned against the car with a pad of paper in hand, saying something the driver. The light on top of the police car flashed red and blue, lighting up the whole area. She circled, weighing her options. I shouldn’t go near them. If they spot me they might shoot me. But the food smells good. They’re over here. The food is over there. I should be fine.

She coasted over the traffic stop and maneuvered through the nearby buildings, making sure to keep her wings from brushing up against the walls. A trash bag laying against the wall behind the butcher shop caught her eye immediately. There! It smelled better than anything she’d ever come across.

Olivia stopped when she overheard the police talking.

“You alright?” asked one police officer, the same one who’d spoken with the driver.

“I thought I saw something fly by,” his partner replied, his voice far deeper. “Something big.” What? Me?

“The feral?”

“Maybe.”

In the brief pause that followed, Olivia scrambled away from the trash bag, food forgotten. Oh no.

“No, it’s just the two of us. We’re not wandering after it alone. Call it in.”

A car door opened, and Olivia heard, “Dispatch, we may have spotted the feral, please advise.”

She took flight, bolting directly away from the cops. She looked over her shoulder a minute later. Sirens and flashing lights swarmed the area where she’d been. OK, that’s bad. I’m not going anywhere near the police ever again. Darn it, they looked up. People never look up before.

With Skulker’s explanation of how he’d found her ringing in her ears, she circled in a wide arc around her apartment building, checking the streets for anyone who might have been following her. Only when the coast was clear did she land on the roof and head back to her apartment, the sun just beginning to rise on the horizon.

Her stomach convulsed as she headed down the steps. Her feet slipped, and she tumbled down the last pair of stairs Something burned the back of her throat. She spat to the side, willing her stomach to calm down. I needed that food. She struggled back to her feet and staggered the rest of the way to her couch.

***

Olivia woke the next evening to yet another knock on her door. “Hey! You ready?” called out a familiar, rapid voice. She cracked her eyes open and tumbled off the couch, ignoring the pain in her gut.

She opened the door to find a masked Skulker standing just outside, this time with the rifle slung over his shoulder. He looked up at her and said, “Wow, you OK? You look like shit.”

I shouldn’t bother him. “I’m OK. Just hungry,” she replied.

He gazed at her for a moment longer. “Let’s grab somethin’ to eat first. We got some time. You got any preference?”

“I don’t know. Um, burgers?”

“Great! Follow me.”

“But I don’t have any money,” she said, eyes fixed on the floor.

“Don’t worry about it. Come on.” Skulker lead the way to the roof, stopping occasionally to let her catch up.

She followed him to a fast food restaurant, with its lights still on. Below her, skulker teleported from rooftop to rooftop. It was strange to watch. One moment he was there, and the next he was simply gone. She stopped on top of a short, squat building with a sign out front that read “Tax Law Firm” and waited. In a moment, he returned with a paper bag and handed her a fresh cheeseburger.

He had just sat down when his head whipped towards her. “God damn. Was that all in one bite?” he asked.

She looked down at the remaining half of a burger in her hands, wrapping paper in shreds around her claws. “Maybe.” I wasn’t paying attention.

“What have you been eatin’?”

“Just stuff. Stuff that I find.”

“Stuff,” he repeated. “Sure. I’ll get a bigger one next time.”

“Thank you.”

“Sure thing.” Once he’d finished, they headed towards the mountains. He brought them to a stop ten minutes later.

He pointed ahead. “This place been on my radar for a bit,” he said. “Never could figure out an easy way in on my own, but with the two of us this should be doable.”

A pair of men patrolled outside the rundown warehouse in front of them. They had no guns visible at first sight, until Olivia checked their belts and noticed strange gun shaped bulges at their hips or backsides. On the roof stood a man smoking a cigarette, a long rifle hidden behind the edge. They all have guns. What am I supposed to do?

“I have a question,” she said as she and Skulker observed from a few buildings away.

“You don’t gotta ask my permission. What?” he replied.

“Oh, sorry. Why me? What if I’m not good at this?”

“You got claws, wings, an’ are built like a tank,” he pointed out, pointing to her hands, wings, and chest in turn. “You’ll do fine. See those guys? They’re part of Sanchez’s gang. Now, Sanchez is a problem we’re gonna get to later, but the immediate problem is his guys are organized an’ well equipped. Never seen anythin’ like it before. My money is on outside help. From who, got no fuckin’ clue. Mexican Emperor springs to mind though, he’s been too quiet lately.”

“Sorry, what emperor?” asked Olivia. Did I hear that right?

“The Mexican one. Or Aztec, whatever. Who else?”

She blinked, thoroughly confused. “What was that about Aztec? I don’t think I know what you’re talking about.”

“Cuauhtémoc. The immortal god emperor of the Aztecs, sovereign of Mexico, an’ blah, blah, blah. We’ve had, like, three fuckin’ wars with him,” he stated, as if it were basic knowledge. “What did you think they had?”

“I don’t know. A president?” I’ve never thought about governments before. That seems right.

“No. We got a president. They got an emperor. He’s a dick.”

She hung her head and shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Is he really a god?” she asked.

Skulker shrugged. “Dunno. He’s been around for hundreds of years or somethin’. He can’t be everywhere at once, though. But we’re gettin’ off track. The dicks in front of us kidnapped a kid, ten years old, for ransom.”

He pulled out his phone and pulled up a picture. A ten year old blond boy with a bowl cut grinned on the screen. He was missing a front tooth.

“This kid might be in there, might not. If he ain’t, well one of the guys in there might know somethin’ important. An’ if they don’t, they can tell us about somone who does. Make sense?”

“I think so.”

“Problem is, they’ve been keepin’ everythin’ real…” Skulker trailed off, looking off into the distance.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“No, tryin’ to think of the word,” he replied. “Compartmentalized! That’s it! They’ve each got their own little unit, an’ they don’t know too much about what goes on outside of it, besides broad strokes that anyone would know. They get paid well, though.”

“So what are we going to do?” she asked.

“See that guy on the roof?”

She nodded.

“Flatten him. Keep him from spottin’ me too early when I go up. I’ll take care of the two other guys. Once we get inside, I’ll lead the way, do any talkin’ if we need it. You just watch my back.”

“OK.”

6: Delta

“Hey, Delta, bosses want to see us,” Nomad called through the doorway into Delta’s workshop.

Amanda, Delta to those who didn’t know her well, grunted in response, eyes fixed on the delicate circuit board in front of her. The towering pile of equipment in need of fixing from the MHU alone would take at least a month to get through. The paperwork and requisition forms necessary would take another month, not to mention an entire day devoted to a meeting in which Marcus would grill her for not working fast enough to replace the three other non-powered engineers he’d seen fit to fire after hiring her. I should have gone corporate, or independent, she thought.

There were four different computers set up around her chaotic workshop. One was dismantled, its guts strewn about on a desk, gathering dust. Various tools, most of them custom made, covered the workbench Amanda hunched over. A bright lamp clamped to a bucket on her desk, and the only source of light in the room, lit up her work. A whiff of smoke drifted into the air as she tapped solder against the heated iron on the circuit board.

After a moment, with Amanda not making a move to get up, Nomad said, “Come on, Cyrus has got something for us. Something about a feral in the city.”

She sighed. Nomad was the fifth person this week to expect her to drop whatever it was she was doing and fix whatever problem they had. The graveyard shift hadn’t spared her from coworkers, and Cyrus had seen through her proposed security field that would zap anyone who walked in uninvited.

“Fine, just give me a minute. What do they need me for with a feral?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Apparently this one is weird. Skulker reported it an hour ago. Cyrus and Marcus are with a witness right now.”

She put the circuit board down. “Lead on,” she said as she got up. As they walked through the halls of the local Meta-Human Unit headquarters, she asked, “Skulker, that vigilante with the smiley mask? Crippled three of Sanchez’s men up north last week?” Nomad nodded silently. “He didn’t just shoot the feral?”

Nomad looked to be about Amanda’s age and twice her size, in his very early twenties and fresh out of the Academy. The swishes of his standard issue Meta-Human Unit fatigues echoed off the heavy concrete walls surrounding them. As they walked, Amanda wracked her brain for his real name. Bob? Jeremiah? No. Chris, that’s it. He’s the other new guy with powers. She had to crane her neck up to look at him.

“Yeah. I’m not quite sure what the story is. Cyrus called me up and told me to get you. You know as much as I do now,” Nomad responded. He sighed, “Everyone is already hunting for Sanchez, we don’t need a feral on top of this.”

“No kidding. Marcus had me working all week on crowd recognition software stuff.”

They crossed the building and walked up to one of the conference rooms. The room was like the rest of the headquarters, heavily fortified and utilitarian in the extreme. Amanda had grown to hate the sight of drab off white. The omnipresent roar of the AC cut out completely when Amanda and Nomad closed the door behind them. Sitting around the long table were Marcus and Cyrus. A woman who looked to be a civilian was sitting at the table, observing the argument Cyrus and Marcus were having as Nomad and Delta walked in.

Marcus wore the same uniform as Nomad, grey camo pants and shirt made out of tough fabric. The second in command of the MHU leaned forward in his chair, visibly agitated. “…it’s just ridiculous. How could we have not heard anything about this until just now? You are obviously mistaken,” Marcus said, gesturing to the tired woman in her early forties with somewhat smeared makeup at the head of the table.

“I know what I saw,” the woman shot back.

“Both of you, please,” Cyrus broke in before either either could say anything more, his Persian accent faint. Cyrus was only of average height and build, which didn’t quite fit his reputation amongst the average citizen. He had a magnificent black beard, and a helmet that covered the top half of his face, but left his vision unimpaired. He wore the light armor the secret service had let him keep. Despite the fact that Marcus was the most powerful mage in Colorado and quick to let anyone know it, he seemed to occupy the whole room with quiet confidence. Cyrus paused to make sure he’d been obeyed before continuing. “Delta, Nomad. Thank you for joining us. Now,” He gestured to the woman, “Please, tell us your story. From the beginning, short and sweet version.”

“OK. So I was walking back to my hotel after visiting some friends. We’d gone to a bar and probably stayed out later than we should have. I mean, it had been forever since we’d seen each other and I’m from out of town and…”

Cyrus cut her off. “Focus, please. We need relevant details.”

“OK, sorry. I was alone, walking back since I wanted some fresh air and I was probably a little drunk, and these three guys came out and surrounded me. I screamed for help and punched one a couple times, but then one of them came at me with a knife. He had it up to my throat when the girl with wings ran up and yelled out at them.”

Marcus snorted, “Yes, some feral just talked in a complete sentence. It was probably a shifter or something.”

“Marcus,” said Cyrus warningly, “let her finish.”

“Anyways,” she continued with a glare at Marcus, who glared right back, “We were all standing there when I noticed she had claws on her hands. Then she started hissing and looked like she was about to attack or something. The guys ran off.” Amanda frowned, taking a moment to parse the woman’s somewhat scattered story. So she made a bad decision, was about to be mugged, and a thing with clawed hands scared the would-be muggers off. She says it’s a feral, but that’s like saying a lion ran a daycare.

“Why didn’t you? You should know that ferals are dangerous.” interjected Nomad.

“I was kind of in shock,” she replied. “She hadn’t stopped hissing when the men left. I thought I was a goner when she just stopped and asked if I was OK. I told her I was, then she ran after the men. I left and called the police as soon as I could.”

“What did it say?”

“Leave her alone.”

“Describe the feral for us again,” said Cyrus.

“Alright. She had a normal woman’s body, but, like, super tall. Over six feet, easily. Her hands and feet were reptilian, and the fingers and toes ended in claws. She had a tail and wings, and all of this was with dark green scales. She had silver snake eyes, and her teeth were all sharp, like a shark’s. She was dressed in some bulky old clothes. That’s it.”

“Could it have been a shapeshifter instead?” asked Marcus. That’s a good point.

The woman considered for a moment. “I suppose,” she hedged. “But shapeshifters don’t look all warped and stuff, right? Her hands and feet were way too big.”

“The alternative is a feral, a mindless animal, wore clothing, spoke to you, then just left you alone,” challenged Marcus.

“Enough,” said Cyrus firmly before the woman had a chance to respond. He turned to her and said, “Thank you for your cooperation. Marcus here will escort you to the police department, so you can identify your attackers, provide a statement, and so forth. Marcus?” He looked at Marcus expectantly. He grudgingly rose from his seat, and didn’t bother to hold the door open for the woman following behind him.

Delta mused on the new information for a moment, as did everyone else. Hmm. This is new. Ferals are just half human half animal things with fucked up heads that kill people. This is probably some new kid with a power, but Cyrus seems to believe it’s a feral. Weird. When the door closed behind the woman and Marcus, Cyrus turned to Nomad and Delta.

Delta spoke up, “Has something like this ever happened before?”

“Yes,” responded Cyrus, “Two or three times. That’s why the two of you are going to track her down.”

What? Just the two of us?

Ahead of any questions they could voice, Cyrus raised a placating hand and said, “If she is a shapeshifter, we’ll bring her in for a stern talking to. But if she is a feral, and it sounds like she is, we have a potential bomb ready to go off. I know this a big if. But there have been no attacks. Yet. We don’t want to provoke her into attacks. You will find her and give us a preliminary assessment of her mental situation, if she can be reasoned with or if she is just another feral. If she is feral, us and animal control go in. If not, perhaps we can negotiate peacefully. Questions?”

“Why us?” asked Delta immediately. Nomad nodded.

“You because your power lends itself to information gathering. I would be shocked if she hasn’t shown up on a security camera somewhere.” A small smile tugged at the corners of his lips. “And I believe you’ve been looking to get out of your workshop, yes? You told Marcus as much in more colorful terms, If what I’m lead to believe is true.”

Delta bit her lip. I knew that little outburst was going to come back to bite me in the ass. Cyrus turned to Nomad.

“Nomad, you’ve gotten situated with your squad, now it’s time for you to take a leadership role. That, and I believe the average feral would be completely unable to harm you.” Nomad nodded hesitantly. “Now don’t get me wrong, we are taking every precaution in this matter. Warning civilians, telling the police and our patrols to be alert, and the rest. The instant we believe she poses a threat, animal control subdues her. But if I’m right about this, we could have chance of avoiding violence. Now, I believe you two have some work ahead of you. Nomad, you’re in charge. If you need backup, your squad is on standby.”

Finding it shouldn’t be too hard. If I can’t outsmart a feral, I don’t deserve to be here. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to reason with it after, though.

Cyrus added, “Oh yes, a word of warning. You’ll get a more complete briefing with the rest of the unit later but we’re starting to believe that Sanchez is getting outside help. Be careful out there.”

They filed out and parted ways with Cyrus. “Want to head back to your workshop? That would make a good place to set things up,” said Nomad.

She stiffened at the thought of someone else in her workshop for extended periods of time. “What makes you say that?”

“You’re the only one there, and you’re only using about half the space. From what I hear you’re kind of a hermit,” he said, casting her a wary look.

I wouldn’t have to lug shit around if we set up there. “Fine.” She led the way back.

“You’re a techie, right?” asked Nomad as he sat, scratching at the skin under the deep blue bandana around his neck.

Delta sighed. She hated her job. There were few more condescending words for a super powered engineer or scientist than techie. There were other, better names for engineers, but the term techie was ingrained in the American public’s, and therefore most unlearned American super’s, psyche. “I specialize in electricity and electronics.” It was vastly more complicated than that, but that’s what the end result was, and explaining it further would be wasted breath. “You have something to do with water?” she trailed off, leaving the question hanging in the air.

“More or less. I turn into a blue liquid. It’s not water though. I’m completely in control, can change my shape, and can snap back to normal at will.”

She nodded. “So the feral will basically be trying to beat up a pool of water when this goes bad.”

“Pretty much.” He leaned back. “Do you have any thoughts?”

Delta smiled. “A few.”

***

The hunt started well enough. Amanda had programs sifting through security feeds and logs from the nearby stores and buildings in a roughly five block radius from where the feral had been spotted. It didn’t take long to find footage from an ATM camera from over a week ago. It was the potential feral, matching the woman’s description, wrapped in some sort of bed sheet. It’s been around for a while. It’s actively looked for clothes since then, the woman would have said if it was wearing a bedsheet. I can’t think of why a shapeshifte would wear that, either. She sent the picture to the newspapers and continued her work.

Amanda and Nomad didn’t see much of each other the first day. While Amanda handled the technical aspects, Nomad attempted to make contact with Skulker, to see if the vigilante had anything else to add. Unfortunately, like most vigilantes, he’d proven difficult for anyone to find. The two living men he’d hospitalized had at least corroborated the woman’s description of the feral, though Nomad told Delta he figured the glowing eyes were an embellishment on their part. Must be nice to be independent. You just dump criminals on the government’s doorstep and let us do the paperwork.

Two days after Cyrus had first called them in, they strolled into the workshop at the beginning of their shift to reconvene. A single, lonely fluorescent light high up on the ceiling struggled to keep the room lit. The map of the city they had pinned to a corkboard had been shoved into the corner, with a series of shrinking concentric circles corresponding to the feral sightings.

“What time did you go home last night?” asked Nomad. “Jeremiah said he saw you leave, but he’s on in the afternoon.”

That’s a change of pace. She followed his gaze to her desk, strewn with empty instant noodle bowls. Nomad was thankfully quiet, reserved, and not too imposing when Delta worked on something. He’d never asked her about anything outside of their jobs before.

“Two in the afternoon.” She slammed back the entire cup of coffee she held, embracing the caffeine and ignoring the heat.

“You’re operating on five hours of sleep right now,” he stated, eyebrow raised.

“I’m fine. I do this all the time.” She took her seat and booted up a laptop.

He nodded slowly. “Sure. Are you going to be up to catching a feral?”

“I’ve got all my gear ready. Although,” she said, trailing off as a thought occurred to her.

“What?”

“It’s reptilian. It could be cold blooded,” she said. Seeing his curious expression, she added, “I’ve got thermal sensors that let me see people through most walls.”

Nomad frowned, considering. “Don’t lizards and snakes sun themselves? They’re cold blooded. This feral is only running around at night.”

“Good point. I’m set.”

“No, your gear is set. Are you set?”

“I’m fine.”

He cast her a wary gaze, but said nothing more. He took a seat in an old, worn out office chair, forming a triangle with Amanda and the map.

“I got a collection of sources about ferals you asked for,” she said. “I just sent it to you.”

That had been a fascinating internet trawl. Just as supers had been around forever, so had ferals. But there were so few constants among ferals it was hard to verify anything about them. The only consistency was that they had to be based on Earth DNA. As for intelligence, the smartest feral recorded to date was named Steve, a large hairy serpent with eight legs. According to his IQ test he was only slightly behind the average person.

“Thanks. I’ll give it a look over once we’re done here,” he said. “I talked with a herpetologist, there aren’t enough defining features on the feral for him to give a good guess about its behavior. He did say it looked like the wings were vestigial. They’re too short for anything that big to fly. I think we have a good range to work with now.”

He gestured to their map, the smallest circle of which covered four blocks in the area where Skulker reported it.

“That’s where most of the sightings we’ve had, and there’s plenty of abandoned buildings in the area.. I think we’ve established that this is a feral. Food has been stolen and it’s scavenging clothes. And I think it does possess intelligence, especially since we’ve had so few sightings of it over two weeks. But it has to be sleeping somewhere.”

“Sure. I’ve got a tracking system all set up for it, and I just finished the modified taser for you,” said Amanda, passing him what seemed to be a normal taser. It wasn’t hard for Delta to modify them so that they knocked people unconscious without any risk to the heart. “These should knock it out. I pumped up the power a bit just to be safe.”

Just then, Nomad’s phone let out a chime. He frowned as he read. “Our feral popped up again. It stopped another mugging.”

“Another?” Amanda replied. I would have thought the first one was a fluke.

He nodded. “There are two witnesses. Bob is waiting with them at my desk.”

They gathered their things and hurried out. Down the hallway were the offices for the MHU officers offices. It was a large open room, with a dozen desks scattered around. Most were unoccupied, Sanchez keeping most of the unit busy. Most were covered in documents and keepsakes. Amanda spotted an ornately carved human skull painted vivid reds and blues with a tiny ethereal feathered serpent twisting through the empty eye sockets, being used as a paperweight. They quickly spotted their witnesses.

Compared to the others, Nomad’s desk was relatively austere, with only a small framed picture of him and another girl his age for decoration. Girlfriend? Doesn’t look like his sister. The two witnesses, a young couple looking around nervously, hung off to the side.

Bob, a somewhat rotund middle aged man sporting a massive, well groomed mustache, greeted them. “New Guy, New Girl,” he said, nodding to Nomad and Amanda in turn. Even speaking normally, his voice boomed, carrying throughout the space. “What took you so long?”

“We came as soon as you texted me,” replied Nomad.

“Huh. Cyrus said he was going to get you.”

“We never saw him,” replied Nomad. Bob sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose, grumbling under his breath. “Something wrong?”

“No, he’s just been forgetting stuff like that more and more lately. He called me some Persian name the other day. I’ll ask him about it later.”

Nomad nodded. He leaned in and asked, “How are the witnesses?”

“A bit shook up, otherwise they’re unharmed,” replied Bob, his voice pointlessly low. The young couple still noticed. “They’ve been talkative so far. They already gave their statements to the police.”

“Nothing strange?”

“Nope, they were out on a date, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, so far as I can tell.”

“Alright, thanks. Bob.”

“Sure thing.” Bob turned to the couple and said, “This is where I leave you. This is Nomad and Delta. They’re the ones looking into the feral you saw. They just have a couple questions for you, than you’re free to go.” With that, Bob sauntered off in the direction of the break room and its coffee machine.

The man, who looked to be in his mid twenties, cleared his throat and stepped forward towards them, managing a nervous smile.

“Hello,” said Nomad. “If you would, describe what happened for us. When did the feral first appear?”

The man spoke first, “We were being held at gunpoint. The guy was telling us to hand over our wallets. Then it swooped down and took him out.”

The woman Amanda assumed was his girlfriend chimed in, “It flew down hit the guy with the gun.”

“So the feral tackled the biggest threat. OK. And I’m sorry, did you say it flew?” asked Nomad. Amanda sighed. So much for them being vestigial.

“Yeah. And I wouldn’t say tackled,” clarified the man.

“Oh?” prompted Nomad.

“No. It kind of awkwardly ran into him. Its arms were kind of just out,” he said, holding a T pose for a moment with elbows half bent.

“Yeah, I didn’t notice it at the time, but looking back it was really strange,” added the woman.

“Not the only thing strange about this feral,” said Nomad. Should you be telling the public that? He continued, “So, the feral hit the man. They go to the ground. And?”

“It got up and roared.”

The woman nodded emphatically. “It was super loud. Like something out of a dinosaur movie.”

“That made the guys run off,” said the man. “Then it kind of just looked at us and flew away.”

“It flew away,” said Nomad, for clarification. Amanda leaned forward, eyes fixed on the man. Does it glide or really fly?

“Yes. It just jumped into the air and flapped its wings.” Fuck.

“So it didn’t actually talk at any point?” asked Nomad.

They both shook their heads. “No.”

“Why?” asked the guy. “Has it before?”

“Probably,” replied Amanda. “We’re trying to confirm.”

“Do you have anything to add? Any other weird behavior or anything like that?”

The man and woman exchanged glanced, then the man said, “No. I hope this helps.”

“Yes, absolutely. If that’s all?” said Nomad, shooting Amanda a look for confirmation. She nodded. “Thank you for your time. I’ll see you out.”

They reconvened in the workshop.

“Well that was something,” said Amanda, the moment Nomad walked through the door.

“That was a pattern, at least the start of one,” he replied.

“Could it understand right and wrong? Is that something ferals can do?”

“I don’t know. We’ll find out when we meet her. I’ll tell Cyrus that we will probably have something for him by tomorrow. You get started finding out which buildings in the area are unused.”

5: Vigilante

Olivia woke to a knock on her door. Late afternoon sunlight beamed in through her window as she cracked her eyes open. What? She rolled off of the couch and stretched her wings as she stood up fully. Wait, no one knows I’m here. Her heart rate spiked. She sniffed and caught a whiff of Benjamin’s scent. The pleasant donuts had faded, leaving behind only something metallic. It’s him. Another knock, this time louder, more insistent. The front door still had a dresser in front of it.  Frozen in place, she whipped her head towards the window in the room, the only other possible exit. Maybe he’ll move on.

“You know this is the only closed an’ locked door in this whole damn place, right?” he called out. “I know you’re in there.”

She flung herself against the old dresser against the door with a thud. Her clawed feet dug deep into the floor, bracing in case he tried to force the door open. No, no, no.

“Whoa, calm down, I ain’t lookin’ for a fight,” he called out again, in his fast, clipped way. “I damn near got fired for runnin’ after you this mornin’. Let’s chat.”

Olivia paused, not taking her weight from the door. He just wants to talk? That doesn’t sound so bad. Wait, he has a gun. “No,” she said, mustering as much force into her voice as she could.

“What was that? Can’t hear you.”

“No,” she repeated, raising her voice as high as she dared. “Go away.”

“What’s your name?” he asked.

The question caught her off guard. Why does he want to know? I guess that’s not too bad. “Olivia,” she called out.

“OK, Olivia, call me Ben, Skulker, whatever,” he yelled through the door. “You really just wanna keep shoutin’? Or do you wanna open the door so we can talk face to face?”

“No, I want you to go away,” she replied.

He muttered something under his breath, though the door muffled most of it. Then he said, “You know, most people you run into ain’t gonna be as friendly as me. An’ I don’t lie. You don’t got many options.” In the silence that followed, Olivia thought, I don’t know. No one else has ever talked to me before. Maybe I can find something out.

“How did you find me here?” she asked.

“You went straight fuckin’ here from the donut shop. Wasn’t hard,” he replied.

“But I was flying.”

“An’ I got workin’ eyes. Wasn’t expectin’ this though. Pale Man’s Palace, no wonder no one’s stumbled on you yet. Place is freaky.”

“What is the Pale Man’s Palace?” she asked.

“It’s what the place is called. Well, it’s really somethin’ else, but no one gives a shit about that anymore. Supposed to be haunted.”

Like, haunted by ghosts? Is that what that means? “Really?”

“You don’t find it weird no one’s looted this fuckin’ place? Pale Man’s just an urban legend, but people steer clear anyways.” I haven’t noticed anything. Ben continued in the silence that followed, “Olivia, I’ve put my gun away, an’ if this goes nowhere you never gotta see me again. If you open this door we can talk face to face.”

Olivia rested her hand against the wall beside her, weighing her options. I guess. I think he’s being honest. It sounds like he’s being honest. He hasn’t tried to force the door open or anything.

“Hang on.” She finally pulled herself from the door and dragged the dresser out of the way, its wooden feet rasping against the threadbare carpet. With a deep breath, she opened the door and poked her head out.

Ben’s head whipped up towards her, still grinning. Rather, the metal mask grinned, he could be cross eyed and slack jawed for all she knew. He leaned against the opposite side of the hall, arms folded across his chest. They considered each other for a few moments. True to his word, he didn’t have a weapon in hand, though it didn’t take her long to spot a holster at his hip.

“Damn you’re tall. Hi!” he said with a nod.

“Hello.” He nodded, should I nod? She added a hesitant, jerky nod after a brief moment.

The mask threw her off. Other than his wary, tense shoulders, she couldn’t tell his expression, if he was angry or happy or bored. Is he about to shoot? She glanced to the side. Closing the door would slow him down, and she could fling herself through the window and away from him. Ben’s dark hoodie and jeans stood in stark contrast to the white wall behind him, though without the mask he wouldn’t look out of place simply walking down the street. The massive rifle he’d carried on his back before was nowhere in sight.

“How you doin’?”

Olivia blinked. “I’m OK.” They started at each other for another moment. Should I say something? “What do you want?” she asked hesitantly.

“Right!” he said, pushing off the wall and standing upright. “I believe that a mutual exchange of info is in order. Keeps anyone from gettin’ shot or stabbed.”

She tilted her head to the side, not certain she’d heard him correctly. “I thought you said people were going to shoot me. Why aren’t you?”

“Cops. I said cops were gonna come after you. I think they try to catch ferals nowadays, not shoot ‘em. An’ besides, I coulda just shot you instead of knockin’. Or this mornin’. Or the day before. You get the point.”

No one else has ever talked to me before. I guess he’s right. “OK. But you stay there. I stay in here.”

“Fair enough.” He relaxed noticeably, his foot tapping to a rhythm only he heard. Olivia remained hidden behind the door, only her head and half a wing exposed. He spread his hands wide and said, “You look lost as fuck. What’s up?”

Olivia glanced down both ends of the hallway, just in case anyone else had snuck up on them, as well as to buy some time to gather her thoughts. The sun began to set, casting the hallway in a more orange glow.

“So, who am I exactly,” she said, stumbling over the words. She braced herself for a laugh, or a curse, but she wanted answers.

“Fuck if I know,” said Skulker, as if that statement were obvious. “Never seen you before in my life.” He held up a hand. “Wait, wait, hold on. If you don’t know who you are how do you know your name is Olivia?”

“Oh, um, I just picked it,” she mumbled.

“Just picked it,” he repeated. “Just Olivia? What a wasted opportunity. You coulda gotten creative with it! You coulda been Skullcrusher or somethin’.”

“But I don’t want to be called Skullcrusher,” she whispered.

Skulker either didn’t hear or didn’t care, as he said, “Man, that’s just sad. Last name coulda been somethin’ like Coldheart. Middle name? Any ideas?”

“Never mind. I meant what am I? What is a feral?”

He laughed and replied, “A feral is big scary mutant thing. You know how people get freaky powers an’ shit?”

Olivia nodded. “I guess.”

He continued, “Ferals get the same deal. But everythin’ gets fucked up when it happens. Human gets smashed together with whatever. Elephants or bugs or some shit. They don’t mesh too well, I think you’re figurin’ that out. I’ve never heard of a feral talkin’. Usually you lot just go on a killin’ rampage until someone puts a bullet in you.”

Human. I used to be human and normal. Her gaze dropped to the ground as she thought, Why me?

“So you first said you don’t know who you are, right?” he asked, breaking her train of thought.

“Yes,” she replied, not looking at him.

He nodded. “Maybe that’s somethin’ we can work on. You’re really fuckin’ weird, I bet if we kick over a few rocks in the right places we’ll probably find somethin’.”

Olivia nodded, struggling to keep up with the speed he talked at. Maybe we can find out who I am? Is that what he said? Can he do that?

“What do you remember?” he asked.

“Stuff. I know what a grape is, even though I don’t ever remember seeing one. But, like, remembering stuff with me in it? Only a few days now.”

His head leaned back slightly. “Damn. The bits with you. What do you got?”

“Oh, with me.” I woke up with nothing. “I didn’t have anything.”

“Might wanna be a little more specific,” he prodded.

“I was naked,” she mumbled, staring at the floor.

“No clothes? No jewelry?” he asked without missing a beat.

“No.”

“Anyone nearby?”

“No.”

He started at her for a moment. Did I say something wrong? “Are you fuckin’ with me?”

She flinched. “What? No.”

“That’s weird as fuck. Never heard of anythin’ like that. Anythin’ around you? Anythin’ at all? Anyone?”

She paused, wracking her memories for anything that might help. “No. I mean, it was raining. I was behind a dumpster. In that alleyway downstairs.”

“OK, that’s a start. Not sure where to go with that. Tell you what, I’ll give it some thought.”

“OK. And, um, I had another question.”

“Shoot.”

“What can superpowers do?” she asked.

“Anythin’, I think. I teleport. My brother makes cool techie shit. Within reason. You ain’t gonna find someone who can throw you into the sun, but if you’re thinkin’ small scale the sky’s the limit.”

She blinked. Did that make sense? “So maybe someone could change someone else? Like, physically?”

Skulker paused, staring at her for a moment as he leaned back. “I dunno,” he said, slower than normal. “Maybe. Somethin’ like that’d be super dangerous though. Super fuckin’ dangerous.”

“Oh, OK,” said Olivia in a small voice, trying not to show her disappointment.

“Hey, cheer up! At least you ain’t dead yet,” he said. “Now, my turn.” He arched his back, stretching, before he continued, “Those dudes you ran off two nights ago, why’d you do that?”

“Them?” she asked. What do they have to do with anything? “They were trying to hurt someone.”

“That all?” he asked.

Olivia frowned, “What else would there be?”

He chuckled. “Fair enough. They’re actually part of a larger problem I’m workin’ on. You see, they’ve got a boss, goes by Sanchez. Not sure of his real name. They’ve been doin’ some very bad things lately, as you’ve seen. You seem like you could be super helpful there.”

“I don’t know, I don’t think I could do that.”

“You don’t want them runnin’ around, doin’ whatever they want, do you?” he asked, sounding almost offended.

“No. But what are the police doing?”

“Cops have got lots of shit on their plate. They’re gettin’ overwhelmed. And concerned citizens like you an’ me have gotta be willin’ to step up when we need to, don’t you agree?”

“I guess.”

“Here is what I’m proposin’. I could use some help out there, an’ you need help with your memories or whatever. It’s not like you ain’t done what I’m askin’ you to do already, right?”

“I guess,” she replied again, doubt niggling in the back of her head. “But there’s a bunch of them, the guys with Sanchez, right?” she added, grasping for some reason to say no.

“You’ve already pissed ‘em off. You ain’t exactly subtle.”

“But what would we be doing.”

“Lead cops to evidence. That’s the short of it.”

That doesn’t sound bad. And he said he’ll help me. “OK,” she said,

He pushed off the wall and gave her a lazy salute. “Great! I’ll see you around here tomorrow. Oh, an’ I’d keep out of sight of any cops if I were you.”

4: Silver Eye

Olivia slammed the door to her apartment closed behind her and leaned her weight against it, heart pounding in her chest. He killed a guy. That masked man killed a guy. They weren’t even fighting any more. That guy was down and he just shot him and killed him. Why? Why? She took a deep, shaky breath. Her tail thrashed back and forth behind her, smacking against the door frame.

The quiet night seemed exactly the same as before. It didn’t seem to care she’d just seen someone killed in cold blood. She took a moment to press her ear to the door. The whole building was silent, save her panicked breathing. It’s OK. He didn’t follow me. There’s no one here but me. She stepped away from the door, hands shaking. It’s OK. I’m OK. A pleasant breeze picked up, whooshing past her open windows. She took a long look at the closed door to her apartment. Someone with a gun could just walk in here. The broken lock on the handle didn’t fill her with confidence.

She looked around for anything solid to put between her and the unsecured door. A collapsed dresser sat in a bedroom on the far end of the building. She hauled the dark wooden box over and shoved it against her door. The night remained quiet, save for the breeze outside. She paced, clawed hands uncurled and eyes fixed on the front door, until her feet began to ache. It’s been a while. He must not have followed me. She stopped and crashed on the couch.

The cheerful morning sun began its rise. Her eyelids grew heavier and heavier as the looming spectre of a grinning murderer faded. She spread her wings, wrapped her blankets around her shoulders, then tucked in her wings around over them. Her eyes never left the door until she finally fell asleep.

***

Olivia awoke to a constant tapping sound from outside. Her blanket went flying as she bolted upright. What is that? She sniffed the air, smelling no one. A light evening rain came down outside the window. OK. It’s just rain. That’s all. Just rain. She curled her fingers and paced, trying to work out the sudden spike of adrenaline. The rain washed away the gas fumes and people smell the city usually carried. He didn’t follow me back here last night.

The rain didn’t last too much longer. With little else to do after her tiny breakfast of water and another cinnamon bun, she paced back and forth. Six steps to one end of the living room, six steps to the other. Her nervous energy wore off, and the walls of her apartment seemed to grow closer and closer every minute. I can’t stay in here forever. She glanced outside. No one has tried to get in. It’s probably safe. But what if it isn’t?

She laid her hands on the the dresser aside and took a deep, calming breath. The hallway beyond sounded empty to her ears. She opened the door, poking her head out cautiously. Nothing but dust greeted her. See? I’m fine. She went up to the roof of her building to stretch her wings. Far to the south, she could still see lightning flash through the clouds. The distant thunder barely registered to her ears. She sat at the edge of the roof, clawed feet dangling beneath her, wings and tail stretched out behind her

The sun finally set as she thought, Why did that other guy show up and kill? Was I supposed to help that woman last night? I just wanted to help. She hung her head, unwilling to leave the relative safety of her building.

***

The next day found Olivia pacing once again. The tips of her extended wings scraped against the walls of her apartment. Her stomach grumbled. No more ifs. I need food. She headed to the roof of her building. The claw on her heel nearly caught on the stairs several times as she walked. She took a deep breath of fresh air once she reached the top. The city stretched out before her. Streetlights twinkled in all directions. With a few steps, she dropped off the edge of the roof and began flying.

A smile crept across her lips as the air rushed past her, whipping around her hair. Nothing up here but me. She looked up just in time to see a power line directly in her way. She tucked her wings in and dropped like a stone, passing just below black cables strung up between two weathered poles. OK. I still need to pay attention.

After flying around for a bit and scrounging old fatty ham scraps from behind a closed deli, she looked back up to the sky. I wonder if I can takeoff from the ground this time. She ran forward a few steps and leapt as high as she could. At the same time, she spread her wings and pumped them as hard as she could. She finally got the timing right, her wings pumping as she gained height and left the ground behind.

She coasted on towards the mountains. The buildings here grew shorter and shorter, though the occasional taller building still stuck out. She experimented with diving and rising while flying. This part of the city had less people, and less power lines.

Harsh voices caught her attention as she flew during a low point. She landed on a building. In a nearly empty parking lot, two men had a young couple cornered against their car. Not again. One of the attackers held up his arm. It took Olivia a moment to realize he held a gun, all harsh angles and dark grey metal. There was someone else there as well. A woman stood against a flickering streetlight, occasionally looking over her shoulder at the robbery in progress. She looked bored, with hooded eyes and a slouched posture. Why isn’t she doing anything?

She turned back to the robbery. He’s got a gun. He could hurt them. Her hands shook. She clenched them, trying to wrestle control back, the claws biting into her palms. It took a couple deep breaths before she regained her composure. I can’t just sit here. The guy with the gun isn’t looking at me. I have to get him first. But how? Maybe I can just tackle him. When I hit the ground the first night the concrete cracked. Maybe I can do that. With her decision made, she took flight.

She soared through the air, aiming for the man with the gun. Her body collided with his, the force of the impact shaking her. The man was flung off his feet, his pistol flying from his grasp. Shouting surrounded Olivia as she rolled to a stop, her claws digging into the asphalt of the parking lot. Blood rushing in her ears, she rushed to her feet and planted herself between the young couple and the two would be muggers. The man she’d bowled over scrambled to his feet, his look of shock mirroring his friend’s.

“Go away!” she roared.

The two men backed away slowly. There was no trace of the woman at the street corner. Once Olivia made no further move towards them, the two men took off at a dead sprint to where the woman had been. She watched until they rounded a corner and were out of sight before turning towards the young couple behind her. The moment she looked at them, they slowly backed away from her, eyes wide. The man fumbled with the car door handle behind him. What did I do? Olivia shrank back, hiding her clawed hands behind her back. Their fear seemed to fade once she had backed away about fifteen feet. Sorry. She spun around and took flight, her wing nearly giving from the ache of the impact.

It’s OK. No one got hurt. That’s good. She circled in the air a few times as the couple got into their car. Once it was clear they were on their way with no more trouble, she began coasting roughly in the direction of her apartment building. She stopped midway through the trip, letting her wings and back rest for a few moments on a rooftop. A bright light caught her eye.

The neon sign over the door read ‘Laundromat’. A woman and two men walked in and out with baskets full of clothes, clean and folded leaving, dirty and crumpled going in. So people can just wash their clothes there? Would they let me? She watched beyond the glass walls from across the street. The woman handed the teen behind the counter a strip of green. Money? That has to be money. Right? I just need money.

She took flight once the ache in her shoulder and the adrenaline had faded, heading back to her apartment. The scraps of food she’d picked up earlier weren’t settling in her stomach well, but it beat gnawing hunger. The few people she saw on the streets never bothered to look up. They also avoided the smaller, less lit side streets Olivia used whenever she was on the ground. I guess I should be glad they don’t. No one notices things there. Like the dirty ten dollar bill sitting on the curb down below her.

Wait, really? Awesome! She landed, scooped up the money, and took off again. Cool! Now what can I do with this? Maybe get clean clothes? Olivia’s nose caught a pleasant, familiar scent as she continued towards her building. Donuts! Food! Ten dollars is enough, right? There wouldn’t be many people around this early in the morning, but the donut place would just be opening about now. She’d nearly run into one of the workers yesterday.

She tilted, turning to the strip mall. I’m finally going to get real food! The area was quiet as she landed near the side of the row of dim shops. The neon red and blue Open sign flickered below a picture of a donut with a happy, smiling face in the hole. She froze, just a few feet away from the door.

What if there’s other people in there? They might freak out. There’s food in there, though. Not dumpster food. The sweet smell of sugar tickled her nostrils. It smells so good. Maybe I could buy a whole bunch of donuts with ten dollars. Hunger won out. She took a deep breath and opened the front door. Her head whipped up at the cheerful ring of a small bell above the door.

“Be with you in just a sec,” called out a voice from the back.

Donuts filled the glass displays up front, and a stack of newspapers lay next to the door. A few empty tables were scattered around the room. The scent of fresh bread and sugar filled the air, along with something else. Cinnamon! Olivia approached the donuts, the claws of her feet scraping against the freshly mopped floor tiles. They all look so good. The person who’d called out came through a set of double doors backwards, pulling a cartload of donuts. Olivia thought she smelled something else familiar, but before she could place it the man turned.

“What can I getcha’,” he began, trailing off at the sight of Olivia. His name tag read ‘Benjamin’. He wasn’t a big guy, but his wide smile wavered only for a moment, even as his eyes widened and he muttered, “You fuckin’ kiddin’ me?” under his breath. Something smelled off to Olivia, but she’d already come this far.

“Hi,” she said with a small, uncertain wave.

He started at her for a moment before replying, “Hey.” His eyes lingered on her large scaly hands.

“Um, could I have some donuts? Please?” she added, tucking her hands behind her back.

“What was that?” he asked as fast as possible. “Speak up.”

She cleared her throat and repeated, “Could I have some donuts please?”

“Sure. How many?” His grin never faded, though she thought she spotted tension in his shoulders. Sorry.

Olivia looked up at the menu above them. A dozen is under ten dollars. “A dozen?” Is that how I’m supposed to order? I just have to say that?

“I can do that. Anythin’ in particular?” he replied. He pulled out a cardboard box, watching her expectantly.

She paused a moment, struggling to parse his hastily spoken words. “I don’t know. They all look good. Um,” She looked back up at the menu, then down at the displayed donuts several times.

“I can just pick out a dozen for you.”

“OK. Oh, cinnamon. Can I have any with cinnamon?” she asked.

“Sure, why not?” he said with a chuckle.

As Benjamin started grabbing assorted donuts, the whole conversation struck Olivia as terribly awkward. It was also the longest conversation with another person she could remember. At least he didn’t stare at her too much. She sniffed the air, finally returning to that familiar smell.

She finally realized the scent came from Benjamin. She recognized it. Blood, chemicals, metal, and the nearly, but not quite, overwhelming scent of donuts. Suddenly his now familiar wide smile seemed less jovial and more sinister. Her tail swished in agitation, and she backed away from the counter with wide eyes.

His smile widened the next time he looked back up at her. “Somethin’ wrong?” he asked. “Is this fever dream I’m havin’ about to get real dark?”

“You’re him,” she whispered.

“Gonna have to be a little more specific than that,” said Benjamin, grabbing two more random donuts without taking his eyes off of her.

“You shot that guy.” Her voice picked up

“That so?”

“You’re him. You look like him and you smell like him.”

“Smell?” She gave a small nod, taking another step back. “Huh. You know you’re in the news, right?”

His question caught her off guard. She blinked, frozen halfway between steps. What?

“You can go look at a newspaper by the door. They’re free.” He gestured towards the door, still speaking quickly. “Front page.”

She backed away, never taking her eyes of him, until she leaned over and picked up a newspaper. The front page had the title Feral Sighted in Westward City, along with a grainy picture of her in that stupid bed sheet she’d worn that second night.

“Feral?”

“What?” Benjamin finished packing her donuts, closing the box and setting it on the counter next to the register.

“Feral?” she repeated. “What’s a feral?”

“What?” As she opened her mouth to repeat herself for a third time, he added, “No, no, I heard you. You don’t know what a feral is?”

“No.”

“It’s a you. Kinda. Most are too dumb to talk. Cops and animal control are huntin’ for you now.”

Hunting? “What? Why? What are they going to do?”

“Shoot you, probably. Security risk an’ all that. But I ain’t the cops.” Benjamin offered her the donut box. “Your total’s $8.16.”

Mutely, Olivia gave him the ten dollar bill she found earlier. He passed her the donuts and her change. Shoot me. They’re going to shoot me. Is he going to shoot me?

“See ya later!” he said with a wide grin that now fully mirrored his mask.

She nodded and backed away again, nearly tripping over her own feet, the forgotten newspaper still clutched in her hand with the donuts. It was fully morning when she finally escaped the donut shop. More cars drove by, the sounds of their tires echoing off the tall buildings nearby. She took flight, heading straight back home as the sun warmed her back and wings. Unnoticed by anyone, she stormed into her apartment and collapsed on the couch. The donut box and newspaper fell to the floor by her hand.

Her heart took a long time to stop racing. After hauling the dresser back to block the door, she returned to the couch and finally read the article of the paper. Animal control. Animal control is hunting me. People think I’m just some feral thing. She sniffed a little bit, letting the paper drop to the ground once again. They said I can’t even talk. I’m a dumb animal. Am I just supposed to be some animal? A feral? What are they going to do to me if they catch me? Shoot me? That’s what Benjamin said they would do.

A frustrated hiss rose up in her throat. Why don’t I know anything? Her claws dug into the paper. She took a deep breath and set the paper down. Enough, I have donuts. She picked up a fresh donuts still tasted far better than dumpster food. She inhaled three more in quick succession. The sun was full in the sky now, and she felt her eyelids droop. She settled back on the couch and tossed a blanket over herself, only partially covering herself.

Sleep did not come easily. The claws of her long toes tapped against the bottom of her foot as she started at the ceiling, going over everything that day in her head. Who was that guy at the shop? He killed another guy that night. Did he just goes right back to making donuts? Who would do that? But he didn’t shoot me. Everyone else is afraid of me.

For once, she slept on a full stomach.

3: Skulker

The heavy pounding of the guitar shook the foundations of the supposedly abandoned bar. Ben joined the screaming voices with a grin. The filthy walls of the basement were covered in various posters of bands who had graced the venue before. More power than simple sound shot from the speakers mounted to either side of the makeshift stage. Always fun when the band has super powers, Ben thought.

Two halves of the roughly fifty person crowd separated, Ben included, and jumped to the sound of heavy metal. The beat picked up. Ben threw his mostly empty beer bottle into the face of a skinhead across from him, then joined in as the opposing sides charged. He ducked under a punch from somewhere, then came up in a shoulder check. The mass of people on the other side knocked him back. The press of bodies on all sides barely kept him on his feet. Ben laughed and sang along to the unintelligible lyrics, fist raised in the air. Someone screamed in pain off to the side. Ben pressed forward, twisting out of the way of a switchblade as it flashed out of the mob. Fucking skinhead.

The next stab the skinhead took, Ben grabbed his hand and drove a fist into his wrist. As the knife dropped, Ben jabbed a thumb in his eye for his trouble. The skinhead’s shock of pain allowed Ben to bring the elbow of his free arm down on the skinhead’s nose. People around them cheered. Before the skinhead could recover, Ben shoved off of him and vanished into the mob around them.

The drums reached a frantic pace. The mob eased off, then slammed into each other again. And again. And again. Ben lost track of the skinhead, time, and the stage, but no one else tried stabbing him again. Then mood of the mob shifted.

Police sirens sounded, barely audible over what could only loosely be described as music. He laughed as warning shots were fired overhead and the door at the back of the room burst open. It just isn’t a good underground mosh pit without the cops showing up. The mob began to disperse; the band cut off. Ben sprinted past fleeing mob members towards an open window set high in the wall of the basement. Shit, too tall to climb quick. He grinned again. Eight feet away, he reached, jumped, and teleported.

The teleport put him close enough to the window, still in the same position as when he’d jumped on the ground. His extended hand grabbed the ledge, and his momentum carried him fully through. He sprinted into the night as others began to climb the wall behind him. Others surged towards the police, who responded with rubber bullets. He teleported between the two cops waiting by the windows before they could react.

With a couple more teleports, Ben left the sirens and screaming far behind him. Damn that was fun. Gotta remember that band. He slowed to a walk as he approached his car a few minutes later, an old forest green jeep with the back bumper rusted off. Scanning the abandoned parking lot, he unzipped his pant pocket and fished out his keys. The engine rattled as he attempted to start it. The check engine light lit up for the millionth time. Damn thing’s been having ignition problems for the last month. The engine started properly on the third try.

Time? He turned on the headlights, then tapped the clock on the jeep’s radio. Three AM. Got some time before work starts. The engine didn’t squeal in protest when he put it in reverse, so Ben backed out of the parking garage and onto the empty streets. He kept an eye out for any police cruisers on the road on his way back to his apartment. I don’t think the grenades in the back are legal.

Twenty minutes later, Ben slipped back to his apartment complex. His hands drummed against his legs from residual adrenaline. No one saw him as he entered his apartment and closed the door behind him. He jumped up a couple times in the living room, landing light on his feet. Need to do that more often. Work is killing me. Got maybe an hour until it’s back to the grind. Damn bakeries and their early hours. Sleep?

In his bedroom, Ben grabbed the long rifle off his bed and leaned it in the corner. The knives he threw on his desk. Uniform clean? Yes, good. He checked himself over as he changed. Some scuffs on my shins, didn’t even feel those. That’s a nice bruise on my chest, but no big deal, the uniform should cover that up.

He held up the red collared shirt with the happy, smiling donut on the right breast. Should patrol tomorrow night, though. Sanchez has been getting real bold lately. The glint of his grinning mask on the nightstand caught the his eye. Gotta pay the bills. Not much else if you don’t have a high school diploma. Besides, donuts are fucking awesome. There’s about a billion worse jobs, and I’m not missing out on much sleep anyways. He smiled to himself. Just gotta keep telling myself that.

He put on the shirt, then crashed on the office chair in front of his computer. Any other bands like that? Ones with powers? Let’s see here. Some fucking country singer, nope. Jazz, nope. Some religious nuts bitching about powers, nope. Come on, the world isn’t this boring. There’s gotta be something out there. He tore himself from his computer after an hour or so. No point putting it off. Time to make donuts, motherfucker!

***

The next night, Ben grabbed a black duffel bag and laid it out on his bed. What do I need for tonight? He grabbed his sniper rifle in its sheathe first, stretching the bag lengthwise to fit it in. His few remaining flashbangs he’d stolen from one of Sanchez’s arms dealers went in next, followed by a pistol, its holster, and two magazines. He stuffed a switchblade into his boot and tossed a few more into his bag.

He moved onto the gear his brother Rob had made, pulling a long, curved knife from its sheath. Shit, do I need to sharpen this? He said something about that. He held it down on his desk, edge pointed up. With his free hand, he plucked a hair from his head and dropped it an inch above the knife. The strand of hair split in half the moment it floated down to touched the edge of the blade. Nope, still good. He set that in the bag, then examined his mask.

On the outside, it looked like solid metal. Inside, two circular bits of glass marked the eyes. Over the mouth sat a small block of white plastic with slots over it. Rob had assured him any toxin going through would be neutralized. He had tried explaining how it worked once, everything he’d said went way over Ben’s head. It works, that’s all I need to know. Soft grey felt covered the remainder of the inside.

He placed the mask in the duffel bag and zipped it up. Where do I want to go tonight? Downtown? That where Sanchez’s guys have been? Shit, I dunno. Flying blind is only so fun for so long. With the bag slung over his shoulder, he returned to his jeep. Five attempts to start it later, the engine rattled to life. North? South? Fuck it, right sends me north, and I don’t have to wait for this damn light.

The streets were close to empty once he began driving, with nearly half the cars he passed by cop cars. Damn, they’re out in force. He kept his speed reasonable, not too fast, not too slow. Cops tended to despise vigilantes like himself. No one paid him any mind, he was just a guy driving in a beat up old car. He stopped at the top of a parking garage and strapped his equipment on over his hoodie and black pants. He slipped his mask on last. Skulker time!

Skulker ran to the edge of the garage and jumped up to the edge of the wall. His teleport at maximum range brought him just across the street and onto the roof of the next building. He jumped from one building to another, never staying for more than a minute to observe the area. He didn’t expect to find anything, but trying never hurt and it got him active.

The city’s criminal element had come roaring back with an almost cult like fervor since nearly disappearing last Christmas. ‘Sanchez will have his due.’ I’ve just gotta find someone who won’t just say that over and over again. From what he could pick up from the police band, the cops weren’t having much luck either.

He eventually stopped and sat on the edge of a building overlooking the Rocky Mountain Shopping Center, deciding to relax for a bit. It was a quiet April Monday, the air was refreshingly cool. It probably wouldn’t warm up until sometime in May. The donut shop where he worked at was below him. Shouting came from the north side of the strip mall. Well what do you know? Grinning in anticipation of something to do, he hoped back to his feet and teleported.

Before he reached what he had judged to be where the people were, he saw three men running hard away from the street, blocked from Skulker’s view by the building he was standing on. Hi there! He drew a switchblade. Just as they were about to run under his position, he jumped off the building, then teleported to the ground.

As he landed in a crouch, he drove the blade into the foot of the first man, the one with an impressive black eye. Skulker took advantage of the man’s forward momentum to flip him over his shoulder, tearing out the knife in the process. The other two barely had time to react before Skulker righted himself and drove a kick into the stomach of the second man. The third man had a knife, and swung it wildly at him.

Skulker teleported a couple feet through the gap between the two men, to just behind and to the side of the knife man, then spun and slashed at the armed man, leaving a shallow cut across his back. The second had recovered and swung a punch at him. Skulker ducked his head, saw that the man had overextended himself, then turned and brought his elbow into the man’s throat as hard as he could. He went down gurgling.

It was just Skulker and the knife man now. The man tried a desperate stab at Skulker, but he spun out of the way and drove his foot into the man’s knee. He collapsed, knife coming free of his grip.

“Sanchez’s boys? I got some questions for you,” said Skulker as he loomed over the man, pistol aimed at his forehead.

The man laughed through ruined teeth. He spat blood and said, “No, you little prick. We’re gonna die. There’s a-”

“Not what I’m lookin’ for.” Skulker cut off the man with a shot to the head. Before he could move on to the next one, he noticed someone about five feet away to his side and felt his smile evaporate. A big girl in ratty old clothes, with a massive pair of wings, clawed hands, and a tail loomed by the entrance to the alley. She might have been up to seven feet tall if she stood up straight, but the wings extending above her head made it hard to tell. Inhuman silver eyes locked onto him

Oh fuck me, that’s a feral.

“Shit” he muttered.

The feral hunched over and hissed the moment Skulker made a move, claws uncurled and ready. He froze. He didn’t bother trying to talk, ferals couldn’t. They stared at each other for a long moment, his pistol still halfway between it and the dead man. If the stories were true it wouldn’t even feel the bullets. Why the hell aren’t you attacking? He prepared to freeze time the moment it made a move towards him.

The feral’s hissing died down, and it slowly started to back away. Skulker remained in place until she disappeared down the corner she came from, their eyes never leaving each other. Skulker took a deep breath and relaxed slightly. Beside him, the man with the bleeding foot whispered, “Sweet Jesus, thank you.”

Fuck. I’m definitely gonna have to call cops now. Animal control is gonna need their help. Should have just shot the damn thing once it was running off.

He pulled out a disposable phone and dialed 911. “Hello, this is 911, what is your emergency?” asked a calm female voice.

“I’m Skulker, vigilante, on 16th. Spotted a feral. Big, lizard, female.” One of the thugs at his feet groaned, rolling over with a hand pressed to his ribs. “I also got three would be muggers here, one dead, two injured.”

He hung up the phone before the 911 operator could respond and teleported away. Once he had a block’s worth of distance between himself and the scene, he turned and headed towards his car, keeping out of sight the moment he spotted the headlights of a car. Fucking feral.

Wait a minute, it was wearing clothes. What kind of feral does that? He slowed, reconsidering. Murder and disappearance rates had risen in the past year, though he hadn’t hear of any murders chalked up to animal attacks. Can ferals be smart? And what the fuck was it doing around those three assholes? Damn it, something super weird is going on here.