“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.
“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?”
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.”
“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.”