“… has signed the bill allowing for armed drones to patrol over US airspace after a year of debate,” droned the TV. “While unarmed surveillance drones have been in use for the last decade in the United States, this bill marks a new era in law enforcement, as missile armed drones will allow authorities to react in a timely manner to any threat to public safety.”
“Coming up, unrest in California and new developments in the Middle East. More on those stories after this short break.” The pleasant jingle of a car dealership commercial began playing.
Olivia snuggled up closer to Ben, who’d taken Miya’s place when he’d called her out of the room close to an hour ago. Chris had joined them soon after. Are those the tiny flying things that I always see really high up in the air? I remember spotting one when I flew into the city. They’d turned on the TV in Olivia’s room for lack of anything better to do.
“About time,” said Chris.
“Wha’?” said Ben.
“I said about time,” repeated Chris.
“Yeah, heard ya. Why do ya say that?”
“I was only in the police force for maybe four months, and there were a good half dozen times where we weren’t able to stop a getaway car or a super because we didn’t have the manpower to be everywhere at all times. Think of what we could have done when F.F. attacked. Triangulate and bomb.”
“I dunno ‘bout that. Collateral damage’d be pretty bad,” pointed out Ben.
“Have you seen some of those smart missiles they have?” asked Chris, eyebrow raised. “You can program one to take out one room and one room only. It’s not like they’d coat half the city in napalm or Agent Orange like it was Vietnam.” Who?
“Tha’s assumin’ they bother to program it all special like that. They could jus’ say ‘hey, fuck those guys over there’ an’ bam, explosions. An’ I guarantee they’ll fuck up at some point.” Olivia frowned. Bombing people? The police aren’t supposed to do that, right?
“But there’s so much oversight already. I had to fill out twenty forms for a couple of grenades and a few magazine’s worth of rifle ammo for just a couple patrols.”
“Yeah, but you were random new grunt number 158. If the higher ups want somethin’ to happen, it’ll happen. Ya didn’t see what happened up top when you were there.” Olivia pulled her wings in closer. Why are you guys arguing?
Chris shrugged as the news returned. The two news anchors sat behind the desk with the news station’s logo plastered on the front. An image of a screaming masked man holding a handmade sign appeared on the upper right of the screen.
The Asian man on the left began the report, “Welcome back. Protesters seized the city hall of Los Angeles last night, as well as two police stations and other municipal buildings. A similar attempt at seizing the MHU headquarters in the city was repulsed by officers there. After weeks of mostly peaceful protests against unemployment and the increase in the national security budget over healthcare and education, this move marks a radical change in their strategy. We go now to our reporter in the field, Jonathan Marshall. John?”
The TV cut to a man crouched on the floor. One hand held his mic, the other fidgeted with the shoulder of his black bulletproof vest. He looked up at the camera; Olivia noted a couple beads of sweat stuck to his forehead.
“We’re here at the site of the protest,” the reporter said, his voice loud enough to be heard over the background noise. Something exploded, drowning out whatever the reporter said next. “However, calling this a protest is an understatement. A few minutes ago, the police began their attempt to storm the building.”
Olivia’s eyes widened as she recognized the rattling of gunfire in the background. That sounds really weird through a TV. But why are they fighting? Over unemployment? Why would you try to kill someone over that?
The reporter continued, “The protesters have returned fire, and have begun preparing what appears to be a techie device.” The camera zoomed out and moved to the left a bit. Through a doorway, two people hunched over a sleek, gunmetal grey cylinder. One woman fiddled with something the camera couldn’t make out on the top; the other man rubbed his hands together.
“What the…” Chris murmured under his breath. “That’s not a homemade techie thing.”
The woman finished whatever she was doing and snapped a lid on the top of the device. The man grabbed the device and hefted it upwards. He moved out of the view of the camera. What’s he doing?
The camera shook violently, then stabilized, looking out the window in time to catch sight of the device rocket out the window and collide with the ground. It blinked out of existence, Olivia couldn’t see a trace of it. Then three massive armored vans and dozens of officers on the street floated into the air, the gentleness at odds with the ongoing gunfire all around. People around the camera and reporter cheered.
“What the hell?” said Ben, a serious look on his face. “Didn’t Roach an’ Quarrel say somethin’-”
“Shush, hang on,” interrupted Chris, his eyes glued to the TV.
The gravitational distortion grew, catching a couple more officers and a car and sending them drifting helplessly upwards. Whoa. How is that possible? The screen cut back to the newsroom.
The anchors reappeared, still smiling. What the… why are they smiling? “The National Guard has promised to restore order in the area,” said the woman on the right. Wait, what? What about the reporter? What about the fighting? What about all those people?
“Are they fuckin’… no, don’ fuckin’ move on. Fuck,” swore Ben at the TV.
“Government doesn’t like news showing civil unrest,” said Chris with a sigh. “Only when it’s in another country.”
“Really?” asked Ben.
“Yeah, sergeants told us in training to not worry about cameras, someone somewhere would take care of them.” Olivia frowned. That doesn’t seem right.
“Wait, what’s this?” said Ben, motioning to the TV.
“The entire city of Mosul has vanished,” proclaimed the Asian anchor, the creepy smile never wavering. The image above his shoulder showed a map of Iraq, with a dot labeled Mosul. “The city has been under siege from Lionhead for the last month. Lionhead has taken over Baghdad in recent weeks and seeks to expand their influence north.”
Ben grunted. I think he said his other triplet was in Iraq. Olivia leaned into him, wrapping a wing over his shoulders. He leaned away, even as a small smile flickered on the corner of his mouth. Sorry.
The news person continued, “US trained forces and Kurdish fighters had held some parts of Mosul in the last week. Now, however, US officials say that there is no trace of the city from plane or satellite imagery, and no contact can be made with people within.”
That’s awful. How are you smiling? I’ve never seen a news person not smile, no matter what they’re reporting on. And even the people in different cities. The ones in Colorado and Houston did the same. Olivia glanced to either side, at Chris and Ben. They don’t seem to notice. What? Should I ask?
“Um, Ben?” said Olivia.
“Why are the news people always smiling?”
Ben gave a small frown and turned back to the TV. “Huh, never noticed that. They’ve always done that, I guess,” he said with a shrug.
Olivia nodded, her frown deepening. I guess if it’s normal… It’s still is super weird, but whatever.
Chris glanced at her and grabbed the remote. “Alright, I can only take so much depressing news,” he said as he hit the power button. “Food?”
Food! “Yeah!” said Olivia, sitting upright. “Wait. Well, what about Miya and Rob?” she asked. “Shouldn’t we wait for them?”
“Rob’s still asleep,” said Ben. “I’d give him some time.”
“He can’t sleep forever,” said Chris.
Ben nodded. “I’ll text him. If he don’ get back to me, he’s still out.” He leaned back to pull his phone out of his pocket.
“How long do you think Miya is going to be?” asked Chris.
Ben shrugged. “Does magic take long?” he asked.
Olivia glanced at Chris, who didn’t look like he had any idea either. “I don’t know,” said Chris.
“Miya didn’t say anything about it,” added Olivia.
“Let’s give her a half hour.” OK, that sounds good. Ben nodded in agreement. “Pass me the box of donuts?” Chris asked.
Olivia passed him the box sitting on the nightstand beside her.
“Olivia?” asked Chris, shaking the few remaining donuts in the box. “How many donuts did you eat?”
“Um, four, I think? No, five.”
“Someone hungry?” asked Ben with a grin.
“A little.” I’m starving, actually. Donuts are great and all, but meat is better.
She scratched her back at the base of one of the spikes. Why are they so itchy lately? She scratched a little more, trying to get a feel for its length. That’s longer than I remember. Almost a centimeter now? Darn it. Stop.
“You OK?” asked Ben.
“What? Oh, I’m fine,” said Olivia. They’ll just think I’m weirder if they knew.
“Healin’ up OK? Looked like Shotty’d given you a beatin’ when ya flew in last night.”
Olivia paused. I feel OK, I guess. The bruises are still there, but they don’t hurt. “I’m fine. My tooth still hurts, though.” She tapped her lip under the tooth in question. It’s got a chunk missing. Hurts whenever I poke at the exposed part.
“Ask Miya ‘bout that. She regrew one of my teeth once, I bet she can patch that chipped tooth up,” said Ben.
“OK. Thank you.”
Olivia looked out through the partially opened shades of the hospital room’s window. It’s bright and warm here. I kind of like it. Miya’s been so angry looking since we got here, though. And Amanda… Olivia bit her lip. She’ll be OK. She has to be OK. They said she’d be OK.
Olivia caught Miya’s scent, breaking her train of thought. Miya knocked on the door, and Ben jumped off the bed and stood by the door frame.
“Hello?” he said.
What? “It’s Miya,” said Olivia.
At the same time Miya said, “It’s me, open up.”
Ben opened the door and stepped back to let Miya in. She immediately staggered in and collapsed on the bed behind Olivia. Olivia curled her tail out of the way as Miya sunk into the thick blanket. She’s not saying anything; what’s wrong? She smells like sweat, too.
After a silent moment, Ben asked, “So, how’d it go?”
“Dunno,” answered Miya, her voice muffled by the blanket. “We’ll see.”
“Is, um, is Amanda OK?” asked Olivia. Please say she’s OK.
“Dunno. We’ll see.” Miya sighed. “She wasn’t in pain at least.”
That doesn’t sound good. “Are you alright?” asked Olivia.
“Tired. Altering magic is hard.”
“Really?” asked Ben. “That’s kind of an underwhelmin’ thing to be so difficult.”
“That’s what I thought. Fucking hard. Wouldn’t fucking do what I told it to. What have you three been up to?”
“Watchin’ the news. Mosul vanished.”
“Wait, what? A whole city vanished?”
“That’s what the oriental gentleman said.” Silence greeted Ben’s statement.
“Is that racist?” asked Chris. What?
Ben blinked. “What? I called him a gentleman.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Miya. She got up and plopped down on the other side of Olivia, her legs dangling off the side. She’s so tiny. Olivia moved her tail out of the way again.
“How would that be racist?”
“I don’t know. The oriental part?” said Miya. “That’s like saying it’s rare for an Asian person to be a gentleman. Or woman, whatever. And where the hell did you even get the term ‘oriental gentleman’?”
Ben thought for a moment. “My dad, I think. Yeah, him. But anyways, it’s jus’ a rough physical description. Don’ see how that matters.”
“So says the white, heterosexual male,” said Miya with a smirk.
Ben tilted his head to the side. “The hell does that have to do with anythin’?”
“That means you are part of the least discriminated against group of people in the country, if not the world.”
“I’mma go ahead an’ repeat myself. The hell does that have to do with anythin’?”
“Means that you don’t see it nearly as much as anyone else,” said Miya, her voice raised.
“Hey, guys, keep it down,” said Chris.
“Kay,” said Ben.
“Fine, but this isn’t over,” said Miya. Thank you, Chris.
They settled down in silence for a moment before Miya asked, “How are you doing, Olivia?”
“Ears aren’t giving you any trouble? No tinnitus?”
“No, that’s gotten a bit better. It’s really quiet here. There’s no music or anything.”
“Wouldn’t you hear basically any music in the area?” asked Chris.
“Yes. Um, I think so.”
“No thanks,” said Ben. “Most music is terrible.” It’s not the worst thing in the world.
“So says you,” said Miya.
“Most music isn’t bad,” said Olivia. Except the loud, violent songs. Those aren’t fun to listen to.
“What kinda music do ya like? Amanda had me an’ Chris rig that MP3 thingy they gave ya. Had a pretty good selection if I recall.”
“Well, um, there were a couple songs that sounded kind of similar that I liked. Um, they had… drums? And singing. Yeah.”
Ben and Miya burst into laughter. What? What’d I do?
“Drums and singing,” Chris repeated with a straight face. Olivia nodded, unsure of what else to say. “Would you care to elaborate?” asked Chris.
“Um, it sounded happy. It wasn’t too loud.”
“OK, what genre?”
“What genre?” repeated Chris.
I heard you, I don’t know what you’re talking about. “Um… happy?”
“You fuckin’ with us, Little Bird?” asked Ben.
“What are you guys talking about?” asked Olivia. What music genres are there? Genre means type, right?
“OK, there’s different types of music. Rock is a pretty broad one, but there’s also country, rap, pop, and so on. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“I think so.”
“So what genre of music did you like?”
I don’t know what it’s called! “I don’t know. It was mostly drums, it wasn’t loud, there was singing, but I didn’t really pay attention to the words.”
“Drums… drums. Hang on,” said Chris as he pulled out his phone.
“I… I don’t know what that could be. Do you?” Miya asked Ben.
“I’m thinkin’,” he said. Why is everyone so curious about this?
“Alright, I have something. This?” asked Chris as he held up his phone. He hit the play button. The music began playing over the phone’s speakers, not quite as well as they had with the headphones Olivia had been given in her cell.
“Oh, this!” Olivia smiled. She tapped the claw of her toe against the ground with the beat.
“Reggae? Really?” asked Ben.
“Yeah!” She stopped tapping when she realized everyone was staring at her. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just wasn’t expecting that. At all. Very mellow of you,” said Miya with a laugh. So why is everyone still looking at me? Olivia shrank back a bit.
“So that’s it, just reggae?” asked Ben, a wide grin on his face.
“No. There were some others that, um, that sounded different.”
“How about this song? It’s on the radio all the time lately,” said Miya, tapping a button on her phone.
Olivia recognized it immediately. “Oh my gosh! This song!”
“Oh yeah, this,” said Ben. “It’s by what’s her face. King or somethin’?”
“Lorde,” said Miya, reading from her phone. “You know you can listen to songs on your phone if you have a listener thingy, right? Can listen to anything you want, really.”
Oh, that sounds so cool! “You can?”
“Yeah, do you have your phone with you?”
Olivia glided over the rooftops through the night air, keeping out of view of the ground. Quarrel had pointed them towards a good and cheap hotel near the hospital. They’d managed to get a room near the roof for Olivia. I could have just landed on one of those patio things. They didn’t have to go through the trouble. At least, I think that would have been trouble. I don’t know.
The emergency wing of the hospital loomed before her, a white, six story building. She angled herself upwards and flapped her wings to gain altitude. It’ll take the others a little while for Quarrel to drive them here. I can fly around a little. Yay!
She kept going up, well past the roof of the hospital. I wonder how fast I can stop without hurting myself. I don’t want to re-chip that tooth or something if I mess up. Miya would be mad. It took the others about ten more minutes before they waved up at the sky to signal her. She landed about ten feet away to avoid accidentally smacking someone with a wing.
Rob and Miya sat on a dormant air conditioning unit. The others, including Roach and Quarrel, stood in a semicircle, backs to the door. Quarrel didn’t bother with a mask, but Olivia and the others didn’t recognize her anyways. Olivia stood behind Ben, keeping an eye on Rob. He hasn’t said a word since we woke him up.
“Alright, we need to figure out what to do,” began Chris. “We,” he motioned to Olivia and the rest, “have nothing but the clothes on our backs right now.”
“Your cars will be long gone. They probably took everything from that warehouse and moved on. They didn’t really have an interest in that area before,” explained Quarrel.
“So what are we doin’? What are you doin’? There’s two of ya now in the Watch here,” said Ben.
“Regroup?” rasped Roach. “Strike back?”
“Honestly, we were right about to leave when you people came calling,” said Chris.
“How can you leave now? I don’t think your friend can be moved for a while,” said Quarrel.
“Not our fight. One of ours is already hurt,” said Chris. Olivia frowned.
“Tzontlis made it our fight,” said Ben. “They’re gunnin’ for us, remember?”
“Yeah, you killed a member of the Underground, and the uncle of the gang leaders,” said Quarrel.
“Are those the same groups of people, or separate?” asked Chris.
“Both. Work together,” said Roach.
“The Underground’s leader, Samedi, is kind of a jackass,” said Miya.
“Yes,” agreed Quarrel “But a neutral jackass. He was never this aggressive. Then, in about January, they suddenly swooped down on a bunch of different street gangs. Forced them in line, or slaughtered them,” explained Quarrel. “Tzontlis are just dumb muscle, for the most part.”
“I thought they were jus’ a magic club,” said Ben.
“You’re not all that familiar with Aztecs and magic, are you?” said Miya. “It’s all based on war and killing. The Underground here is less of a club and more of a militia. If you have magic, you use it to fight. These mages aren’t with the usual universities and covens. Hell, some cults south of the border purposely infect their members with really bad strains of wildfyre.” Roach nodded in agreement with Miya.
Olivia blinked. I’ve heard that word. I think Dr. Ruskov said something about that being a disease I could get. “Wait,” she said. “What…” she trailed off. Is this a dumb question? Now Quarrel and Roach are looking at me. I think it is. Um… say something.
“You don’t know what wildfyre is? That’s like saying you don’t know what the black plague is,” said Quarrel.
“The… the what?” I mean, I can guess that a plague is bad, and black also means bad, but I don’t really know what it is.
“Wildfyre is a disease native to the Americas,” said Miya. “I think it wiped out about… ninety percent of the mage population in the rest of the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, everywhere. It’s a bit like the flu, if the flu overloaded your metabolism and burned you out.”
“Crippled the European mage guilds, right?” said Chris. “That’s why the tribes and reservations have some of the best mage universities in the country. Their mages weren’t all killed off at once, since they were able to fight the common European diseases better than the Europeans could fight wildfyre.” I thought Miya was the one who knew all about magic.
“Yeah. And you need a teacher for magic, a lot can’t just be learned out of a book. And… how did you know all that?” said Miya.
“Learn something every day,” murmured Quarrel under her breath.
Chris’s brow furrowed. “I thought I said this. I took a couple history of metahumans classes as MHU electives.”
“Ew, history,” said Ben with a fake grimace masking a grin.
Chris shrugged. “Each to their own. I like history. There’s actually some theories about wildfyre and the Haboob.”
“The who?” asked Olivia. Did he just say boob?
“Heh, he said boob,” said Ben with a snicker. Miya smacked him upside the head.
Chris rolled his eyes at Ben. “To answer your question, Olivia, a haboob is the Arabic word for a really bad sandstorm. The Haboob is a man who occasionally shows up throughout history and destroys everything. He was last seen sometime around 1920 and leveled a quarter of Istanbul singlehandedly. And-”
“OK, OK, OK, enough, back on track,” said Miya, cutting Chris off. “As for why a cult would purposely infect themselves; if you survive wildfyre, it usually leaves you either a lot stronger or a lot weaker. Usually that last one. Anyways, back to the topic of what we’re supposed to do.”
“I think we were talkin’ ‘bout the gang fellas,” said Ben.
“Yes, right,” said Quarrel. “They attacked MHU headquarters and killed five officers a month ago, and since then the cops have been very cautious with them. We were thinking, if we cut out the mages, they rest will be easy pickings for the police.”
“Cops ain’t done that?” asked Ben. Something on the wind caught Olivia’s attention. What was that? She looked out over the roof, not seeing anything out of the ordinary. Hrm.
“Nope. Well, yes. When they tried that, it went south, fast. We think someone important is being paid off.”
“Dumb,” added Roach.
“Yes, they went in with a convoy, guns blazing. They didn’t meet any resistance, just snipers and bombs on the side of the road.”
“Note to self, don’ do that,” said Ben. Why are you trying to make a joke about that?
“We have no idea where the Underground could be. The only known location we’ve staked out for a month. They stopped using it a while ago. We also have no idea why they started all this in the first place. ‘Because they could’ isn’t a good reason.”
“Which place are you talking about?” asked Miya.
“The gas station on the corner of 7th and Osborn,” replied Quarrel.
“Not the big-ass abandoned movie theater in downtown? Or the backlot between the old grocery store and the closed furniture shop? That’s where they usually met when I was with them.”
Quarrel stared at her. “What?”
“You didn’t know that?” asked Miya. Roach’s phone rang. He mouthed sorry and withdrew, pulling out his phone in the process. Olivia studiously avoided listening in on his conversation. Eavesdropping is rude; don’t be rude.
“No. No we didn’t. How did you know that?”
“I was Don’s student for a while.”
“I thought you killed Don.”
Roach tapped Quarrel on the shoulder. “Preacher’s body,” rasped Roach, his face impassive.
“Oh,” said Quarrel, starting towards the door. She paused and looked over her shoulder at the others.
“It’s fine. We’ll go get food in the meantime,” said Chris.
Quarrel and Roach nodded gratefully and Olivia sniffed. Oil. Well, it smells bitter, but also kind of like that oil Rob uses sometimes. Very faint. She followed Roach and Quarrel into the hospital.
“Olivia, what are you-” said Ben.
“Oil,” Olivia murmured in response. Robot oil.
“Oh shit,” said Miya. “Robots,” she told the others.
“No,” said Olivia, stopping at the top of the stairs. Roach and Quarrel had paused a flight below. “Not that strong.” What are they here for?
“OK, someone who’s spent time around the robots. What are they here for?”
“Your friend,” rasped Roach. Amanda! He vaulted a railing and fell a flight of stairs. Quarrel followed.
“Miya and Rob, head for Amanda’s room. Ben, you and me try and find these guys. Olivia, stay here.” Olivia marched down the stairs. I smell them, but the air vents are messing it all up. Where are they? Ben teleported past her.
“Olivia!” repeated Chris. Rob and Miya managed to rush past her on their way to the fourth floor.
Olivia sniffed the air again. They’re still lower. She leapt down to the bottom floor five steps at a time. Stay away from Amanda. Chris and Ben used their powers to keep up.
She ripped the door leading to the rest of the hospital off its hinges. There. Three people who’d been hurrying towards the stairs stopped at Olivia’s entrance.
A buzzing noise filled the air. The man in the center threw a knife as the man and woman on either side drew their guns. The steel knife hit Olivia in the shoulder. It bounced off, drawing a little blood.
The two flanking people fired at her as they backed up. She snarled and charged. The man threw another knife. Olivia ducked her head so that it bounced off her forehead instead of hitting her eye. The man on the right turned and ran.
The center man drew a machete from beneath his coat and ducked under Olivia’s swipe as she came within range. He delivered a shallow cut to her ribs and rolled out of the way of her follow up swipe.
She swung her tail to the side, catching the man in the hip. The blow slammed him into the wall of the corridor. Before he could recover, her uppercut tore through his ribcage. Done for now. Other two?
Chris, in liquid form, slammed the woman’s head into the ground. Not a threat. Ben had teleported past them, and wrestled with the last man for a gun. You. She shouldered her way past Chris and stomped the last couple steps to Ben and the other.
Olivia grabbed the man by the neck with one hand and hauled him off his feet. Chris grabbed Olivia’s arm. He said something as he raised a placating hand. Ben walked up to the man and said something else. Why are you talking? He was here to hurt Amanda. The man in her hand nodded vigorously.
Chris released his grip on Olivia’s arm. She crushed the man’s neck and slammed his body into the floor. Stay away from Amanda. Chris and Ben both backed up a couple steps, both yelling something. Olivia hissed, watching the unmoving body. Stay down. Things keep moving when they should be dead. The man’s body continued to be dead; she couldn’t hear any breath or heartbeat. Finally.