11: Alive

The worrying rattling noise coming from Skulker’s Jeep’s engine vanished after two minutes of driving. Oh thank god, he thought. If it keeps getting longer I might have to do something about it. No clue what, maybe Rob can help. At an unreasonably long red light, he twisted in his seat to take check on his passenger. Olivia took up most of the back seats, neck bent at an odd angle. Each wing pressed against the windows for lack of anywhere else to go.

He grinned and said, “Get comfy, we got about forty more minutes of this. Apparently there’s somethin’ out east we need to see. I think it was a little airstrip out in the fields.”

“I thought we were in mountains,” she replied, voice as timid as ever.

“Nope. We’re right at the foothills. East of the city is just empty fuckin’ corn fields, same as the rest of the Midwest.” The light ahead turned green, and Skulker resisted the urge to simply gun the engine into the empty intersection. “This would go quicker if we were on the highway, but cops watch the fuck outta those, so we gotta take little streets. They probably don’t got checkpoints set up where we’re headin’.”

“So what happened to that guy you had? Did he tell you where this was?” she asked.

A chuckle escaped Skulker. I thought she was going to turn a blind eye to that. Maybe she’s finally growing a spine. “Me and him just had a little chat. He ain’t dead, don’t worry. He’s got a nice prison cell right now, havin’ another chat with the cops,” he replied.

“He went to the police? Why would he do that?”

“Here’s the thing. He knows I can do whatever I want with him. So I let him run to the cops instead, in exchange for info. They got laws. They need proof. If I just stabbed him, he’d say whatever he’d think I’d wanna hear, not the truth.” He glanced at the rear-view mirror, catching a look of horror on her face at the casual mention of stabbing.

They drove on, the screaming metal band on the radio at half volume the only sound filling the silence, until Olivia cleared her throat and asked, “Why do you cuss so much?”

Cuss? “What? Like shit an’ fuck?” he said.

“Yeah.”

“That a problem? They’re just words.”

“No, never mind,” she said, eyes fixed on the window to her right.

Skulker gripped the steering wheel tight in frustration. God damn it. You almost had a personality there! Put some force behind your voice or something. I feel like I’m talking to a bowl of oatmeal.

“You know, you’ve been askin’ all these questions, but I don’t really know anythin’ about you.” She shrank in her seat, shoulders hunched forward. “Tell me about yourself.”

“I don’t know,” she replied, voice barely above a whisper. “I can’t remember.”

“Yeah, that’s just extra bullshit. Who are you? What do you do? What do you like? What opinions do you got?” Silence reigned for a full minute. “Well?” he prodded. These aren’t hard questions.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’m just me.”

He twisted in his seat to look her dead in the eye. “What does that mean? What do you do for fun?”

“I like flying.”

He nodded. “Great! Good start. What else?” She stayed silent. “Who are you? You just gonna sit around an’ wait for the answer to fall in your lap?”

“I fly around,” she stammered out. “I look for food.”

“That all?” This is like pulling teeth. “You don’t remember anythin’, I get that. Olivia, why’d you pick that as your name? You gotta remember that,” he said.

“I don’t know.”

Lazy. “Think.”

“It sounded nice. Sorry,” she whispered, eyes fixed firmly on her knees.

“Less apologizin’, more doin’. An’ don’t worry, that ain’t a bad reason.”

Skulker let the topic drop, and they drove through the dark streets in silence as they skirted around the edge of a part of Sanchez’s territory. His mask rested on the seat beside him just in case anyone happened to look through the window, though they’d only come across one or two other cars in fifteen minutes. He flicked a button jury rigged to the radio, swapping out the music with the chatter of the police band. Good, it’s quiet. Less chance for something stupid to happen.

He spotted a couple of women leaning on the wall of a closed bar, phones in hand. One glanced at the car for a brief moment before returning her attention to her little glowing screen. A few minutes later, they drove past a man walking down the street, notable only because there had been no others in twenty minutes. No fear there. Something’s not right. We’re not driving through the heart of gangland here.

A light turned on in the back seat, straining his night adjusted eyes for a moment. “Whoa, turn that off. I can’t see,” he called out.

“Sorry!” Olivia fumbled around, her claws scratching at something plastic, before finally figuring out how to turn off the light. “My head hit the switch,” she added.

He put on the gas, eager to get out of the neighborhood. After a few minutes, a car pulled up behind them, dark blue and low to the ground. From around Olivia, he noticed a second, larger car just behind it, a split second before its high beams turn on and blinded any view behind him. Fuck.

Skulker put on his mask in one fluid motion. “Ready! This is gonna suck,” he shouted. He gunned the engine just as a short, unmarked truck with its lights off shot into the road in front of them. Skulker yanked the steering wheel hard to the left, feeling the right tires leave the pavement for a moment. Olivia, caught completely off guard, slammed into the door with a startled yelp.

His hands desperately twisted the wheel back towards the road, the corner of his Jeep coming within inches of ramming into the curb. With a straight, empty road ahead of him, he shoved floored the gas pedal, leaving the ambush site behind. The muscle car caught up with almost contemptuous ease. Skulker struggled with a brief glance to make out the headlights of the second car past the glare of the muscle car’s high beams

The muscle car pulled up, passenger window rolled down. I’m about to get filled with lead. Just as the muscle car reached the Jeep, he hit the brakes. Two shots whipped past, one breaking his door window. He swerved into the back panel of the muscle car, sending the surprised driver spinning out. Now without high beams burning his eyes in a mirror, he could see a black SUV swerving around his friend.

Even it was more than a match for Skulker’s old, weathered car, though the muscle car had lost precious ground. He slammed the brakes once more, twisted the steering wheel, and gunned the engine down another road. The other cars scrambled to adjust, though not far behind. My car is too shitty. We’re in the middle of the city, no dirt road I can fuck them over with.

“We need to lose these guys.” Someone got off a couple shots, forcing him to duck, though only one hit the car. “Ideas?” he called out. Olivia simply looked at him with fear.

Good talk. OK. Options? Cops might make them back off, but they’ll come after us too. In the rear-view mirror, he spotted a man leaning out the side of the SUV, gun in hand. Skulker faked a turn to the right, than cut hard to the left, down yet another street. It took a moment for the headlights of an oncoming car to register. It blared its horn and swerved out of the way. Glass shattered and metal shrieked as the muscle car, having taken the turn much sharper than the much higher profile vehicles it followed, collided with the oncoming car.

Poor dude. Skulker slammed the gas pedal into the floor, keeping inches ahead of the black SUV as it swerved at him, attempting the same maneuver he’d used on the muscle car. Heart racing, knuckles white on the steering wheel, he felt a wide grin split his face. This is living! He was jolted back to reality when the SUV swiped at them once more, causing him to over correct. For a split second that lasted an eternity, his car drove on two wheels before gravity helped him out. More gunshot went off. Skulker yelled to his passenger, “Keep your head down!”

One more car, he thought, We’ve got room to maneuver. Could we just kill them?

“Can you shoot?” he shouted over the roar of the engine. He leaned over, one hand reaching for his handgun resting on the passenger seat beside him.

“What? No!” replied Olivia.

Great. He rolled down his window, swerving to the side to keep the gunners behind them on their toes. A few bullets his the asphalt near his tires. I can’t hit that shot either. Unless I do this. With the road empty and straight in front of him, he took a deep breath, and time froze.

Everything stopped, color receded. The bleached world around him made no sound, no movement. His head pounded. He reached for his pistol and began to lean out of his car.

One.

Still moving, pistol and arm now out.

Two.

The rest of his upper body followed his arm outside. The pulse of his heart sent a lance of pain through his brain.

Three.

His free arm grabbed the door, steadying himself. He raised his knee to press against the unmoving steering wheel to keep it nominally under control once time resumed.

Four.

He took aim, directly at the driver of the SUV. He didn’t bother firing, one bullet probably wouldn’t get the job done, and any more would freeze in the same spot the moment they left the barrel and collide once time resumed.

Five.

His finger rested on the trigger, aim as good as it would get under the circumstances. Blood trickled from his nose.

Now.

Time resumed forward progress. Three bullets, aimed perfectly at the driver of the SUV, fired from Skulker’s pistol in quick succession. Without a foot on the gas, his car began to decelerate. The SUV rear ended his car as he was halfway back into his seat, slamming his ribs into the window frame. He dropped his pistol to wrestle back control of his vehicle. The SUV slowed down as Skulker and Olivia hurdled off into the night.

***

“We kicked a fuckin’ hornets nest. I shoulda known. Too many guns in that warehouse,” Skulker grumbled as they drove meekly down the country road.

All windows were down, airing out the smell of sweat and adrenaline from the car. The trash bag taped over the shattered rear window fluttered in the wind. They’d stopped for a few minutes to cover up the handful of bullet holes and other damage the car had taken as best they could in case they drove past a cop.

“They were watchin’ for us,” he continued. “We were already suspicious, when that light went on they probably saw you.”

“Sorry,” Olivia mumbled. She’d shown the glimmer of a personality by jumping at the chance to get out of the car earlier, but now found herself crammed back in, wings bent on either side of her. As always, she’d spoken up only rarely, and then only to ask clarifying questions.

“Ain’t your fault, I shoulda steered us way clear of that. Thought it was just a risky shortcut. Be real fuckin’ careful where you go from here on. They’re gonna be watchin’ the skies too, it’s hard to miss those wings.”

They drove on, Skulker ignoring the new rattling sound coming somewhere from the back of the car. There’s nothing dragging back there when we checked. Not much I can do about it right now. They’d left the city a few minutes ago, and now drove down a deserted country road to the east of the city. Row upon row of desolate corn fields passed them by, punctuated by the occasional sleeping herd of cattle or bison.

“Hey, Ben?” said Olivia, breaking the silence.

So many questions. “Yeah?”

“When they were chasing us, at the end, you teleported, but you didn’t move that much. And your nose was bleeding. What was that?” she asked.

“I froze time for a few seconds,” he replied, ignoring the mounting pressure behind his eyes. “Gonna give me a bitchin’ migraine in about four hours.”

“I’m really sorry,” she mumbled, eyes fixed on her lap. “I shouldn’t have touched that light thing.”

He snorted out a laugh and said, “Hey, it was an accident. We’re both in one piece. I’m pissed about my car, but I’ll live. Let’s get to this place an’ go home.”

After a few more minutes of driving, they finally came to the field the captured gang member had told Skulker about. The sun began its march over the sky, the weak light providing just enough to see. Beyond obvious signs of upturned dirt and tire marks, the place was devoid of any structure of any other feature. Might wanna check on whoever owns this land, he thought as he stepped out of his car. Just behind him, Olivia’s foot twisted and she nearly fell flat on her face as she climbed out of the car.

“You OK?” he asked with a grin.

“Yeah,” she replied, cheeks reddening.

He checked his phone. “This should be it. Thought it was weird he gave us lat long coordinates.”

“Lat long?” Olivia repeated.

“Latitude and longitude. It’s a universal point on earth thing. I’ll show you a map later, it’ll make more sense. Our guy mentioned unwillin’ people comin’ in an’ outta here.”

He looked up from his phone to catch her staring off into the sky. The reptilian eyes made it hard to tell if she was focused on anything.

“What’s up?” he asked her.

She paused, sniffing the air a few more times before replying, “There’s a weird smell here.”

“What’s the smell?”

“I don’t know. It’s almost like oil. There’s nothing else like it out here.”

He thought for a moment. Of course, this is an airstrip. Why is she pointing it out? “Plane fuel?” he asked.

“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “The plane stuff smells similar to car stuff. This is different.”

“Can you track it?” God damn. If she can be a bloodhound too this is gonna be great!

He followed her through the field, keeping an eye out in case anyone else happened to be out in the middle of nowhere at the crack of dawn. She led them about two hundred yards into the dirt, than stopped.

“There isn’t a source,” she murmured. “It just ends here.”

A dull glint caught his eyes. He knelt down and dug up an unfired grey bullet. Not brass? What is this? Oh no. The rifle cartridge had more than a few similarities to the ammo he used for the long rifle on his back.

“Fuck. The kid is gone,” he sighed.

“What? Why?” asked Olivia.

“This casing,” he said, holding it up for her to examine. “Looks like unpolished stainless steel, right? It ain’t. Better than brass, a quarter of the weight, same strength. See how short it is, compared to the other rifle ammo you saw in the warehouse? Less weight again, right? Powder in this is some voodoo alchemy, don’t need much to make the killin’ bit fly. Only Overlord uses somethin’ like this.”

Her head tilted to the side as she asked, “Who is that?”

“The boogeyman. Techie. Real bad news. Probably where Sanchez got those rifles from.”

“Why didn’t we see any of these before?” she asked, motioning to the bullet in his hand.

“Good question. This ain’t for those rifles in the warehouse. He probably just makes shit like that to make ends meet. Well, I say shit, those rifles are probably top of the line anywhere else. Shit for him. This? This is for his real guns. They probably made one to pay off some mob boss or another. Hell, maybe even Sanchez.”

“So what about the kid?”

“He could be halfway across the world by now. Overlord ain’t fuckin’ around.” He lifted his mask and spat on the ground. “Let’s get out of here. We’re done.”

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10: Q & A

Olivia coasted through the air, ignoring the aching bruises on her chest from last night. The cool night air helped to clear her head and let her focus on something beyond the faint ringing in her ears that hadn’t dissipated fully. I hope those guys I hit are OK. After helping Skulker, she found herself with nothing to do but fly, sleep, and wait. There should be something I’m doing, right? I can’t just do this forever. Maybe when I figure out who I really am, than I can figure something out.

A familiar scent caught her attention as she approached her apartment building. She circled around a few times, catching sight of Ben walking the streets below in his normal clothes, mask nowhere to be seen. He waved up at her after she swooped down, then pointed to her building. A few minutes, later, they met in her apartment.

He snapped and pointed a finger at her the moment he barged in after her. “Hey! Quick question, do your organs feel alright?” he asked, just slow enough to be comprehensible.

“I’m sorry?” she asked in bewilderment, desperately searching for some sort of context clue to make sense of his question.

“Your insides, do they feel bad?”

She stared. I mean, my bruises hurt, but that’s just my skin. “No. I hope not.”

“Great! Just makin’ sure. I realized yesterday that gettin’ shot might lead to internal bleedin’. Sounds like your fine, though,” he said with a grin.

He strolled through her apartment, one hand tapping against his thigh in some unheard rhythm. He tried a light switch, getting no response out of the dark bulb above him. Should I do something? She spotted her box of donuts on the kitchen counter. Food. Food is good. Maybe I can offer him some. Oh, wait, it’s empty. Say something.

“What would happen if I did have internal bleeding?” she asked. That doesn’t sound that bad. Blood is supposed to be inside anyways, right?

He shrugged and said, “I’d probably wind up draggin’ you to a hospital.”

“I thought I was supposed to stay away from people.”

“Whatever would happen would be better than dyin’ slowly on the floor.” Oh, I guess it is bad.

“Are those drapes?” he asked, pointing to her makeshift bed on the couch.

“Yes.” I think that’s weird, though. “They’re warmer than nothing,” she added defensively.

He gave her apartment another look, eyebrow raised. “You sure you wanna do this?”

I don’t know. Everyone has a gun. But they’re bad, right? Ben is alone otherwise. And they kidnapped someone. And if I say no, maybe Ben wont help me. She nodded. “Yes. But have you figured out how to figure out who I am?”

“Yeah!” he said, leaning on the wall between the living room and the kitchen. Olivia sat on the couch, tossing the apparently offensive drapes off the side to make room for her tail.

“I have a plan,” he continued. “That’s actually what I was doin’ before you flew over. This is what I’m thinkin’. This is a skeevy area, but there’s a couple shops in the area. I’m willin’ to bet at least some have got security cameras. We take a look, see if they picked anythin’ suspicious up. Now before you say yes, this is gonna require breakin’ an’ enterin’. We ain’t gonna steal anythin’, but this is super not legal.”

If he’s willing, I guess it’s alright. “OK.”

“For this to work though, I need to know when you woke up. Do you know?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied with a shake of her head, getting a clump of hair in her way.

“You were outside, right?” He leaned forward, eyes locked with hers. “Where was the sun? Was it still up?”

“Yes. I think it was just setting.” Is that right? I think that’s right.

“Hold on.” He pulled out his phone. “No fuckin way,” he said with a grin. “You can fuckin’ search when sunset an’ sunrise were for any day. OK, some time around nine PM. That gives us a specific time to work with when we’re goin’ through the video records. This ain’t a guarantee, keep that in mind, but it’s a start.”

“Why do you think we’ll find something?” she asked.

“I’m thinkin’ someone dumped you there. You didn’t have anythin’. That seems like it’d be on purpose,” he said.

“I didn’t have any clothes,” she mumbled, eyes fixed firmly on the ground in front of her.

“That ain’t super surprisin’. There ain’t many seven foot chicks in the world. What is surprisin’ is you haven’t mentioned anythin’ near you. No torn clothes, no jewelry or bags nearby. It’s a rare day when someone walks down the street buck naked. Someone took all that off you after you turned.”

“I don’t know how long I was there.”

“Not long if no one reported you. Remember, the first time anyone knew you existed was when we ran into each other. An’ you’re pretty tough. Remember gettin’ shot? I bet you were up an’ runnin’ in no time.”

I wasn’t really up. I was super scared. She didn’t bother to correct him, instead asking, “So when are we going to do that?”

“Tomorrow. If tonight goes well. Don’t want to just break in an’ leave evidence of us everywhere. Need to plan that out a bit.”

“What are we doing tonight. Did you find something about the missing kid?”

“I did, but we got time. They’re movin’ someone early mornin’” He looked over her apartment, smile wavering. “If you don’t mind, you could come over to my place. It’s smaller, but it’s got runnin’ water, electricity, an’ a fridge with real food.”

Food? “OK.”

“Wow, that didn’t take much convincin’.” Ben pushed off the wall and headed for the door. “I’m parked one street over. Unless you wanna hoof it for miles.”

“Oh.” I’ve never been in a car before. “I guess that’s OK,” she said, following after him. What’s wrong with flying though? Is it too far?

True to his word, his car was only one street over, parked next to a long broken parking meter.  Lights flashed on an old forest green car that had seen better days. Olivia eyed the small door opposite of where Ben entered. Wing tip first, she agneld herself in, stopping halfway when she felt Ben’s hand on her side.

“Maybe try the back,” he said, leaning around her wing to look at her with a grin. “Can’t drive with a wing in my face.”

She wedged herself in the back, wings splayed to either side, head tucked nearly into her chest, and tail wrapped around her waist. Out from speakers in the front blasted a horrible noise which took her a moment to recognize as music. Oh god, it’s terrible. And angry. Why is he listening to this? Why would anyone listen to this?

To give her something else to hear, she leaned forward and said, “You mentioned a Mexican emperor before.” That sounded interesting.

“Yeah. You still hung up on that? It’s common fuckin’ knowledge. How do you not know that?”

Her shoulders slumped. “Because I’m stupid and don’t know anything,” she mumbled.

He laughed and said, “Welcome to the club.”

“Could you help?”

He cast her a sidelong glance over his shoulder and asked, “With what?”

“You know stuff. I need to know stuff”

“Stuff is a pretty big word. I don’t know all things.”

“No. How about just history?” she said, picking a subject at random.

“I really ain’t the best guy for this,” he said with a shake of his head.

“You know more than me.”

“OK, world history: Ben edition. Someone invented farmin’. People built cities. Egypt, uh, existed. Some goddess popped up in Germany. Then Greeks conquered a bunch of shit. Then Romans conquered a bunch of shit. And Persians conquered a bunch of shit. Not in that order though. Some dude teleported some poor fuckin’ Chinese people into the Mediterranean, an’ that was the Silk Road. Maybe that was earlier, I dunno. Rome collapsed and then knights did their thing. Europe discovered the rest of the world an’ decided they didn’t like it. Except the Glass City, everyone gets along fine with them. They fought everythin’ else, an’ invented factories. An’ kicked off a couple World Wars. Us an’ Russia decided we hated each other. That stopped when aliens crash landed an’ gave us other things to worry about. Overlord tore shit up when everybody was busy with the genocidal aliens. Some nukes were thrown, an’ here we are.”

That’s a lot to process. Maybe too much. “I don’t think that helped.”

Ben threw his hands up in exasperation, sending the car swerving before he regained control of the wheel. “What do you want from me? That was just random bullshit I remember from history class. I spent half of that asleep.”

“OK.” Smaller questions. “You’ve mentioned gods twice now. Who? What?”

“I did? Oh, yeah. So, the Mother is in smack dab the middle of Europe. She’s spent thousands of years dancin’ naked in the forest or some shit, I dunno. She tried purifyin’ all humans or somethin’, those were those World Wars I mentioned. She lost, an’ she ain’t done much lately, far as I know.”

“So she made a world war on her own?” asked Olivia.

“Two, an’ no, she made friends, an’ then they dragged in their friends. She didn’t tell them about her eugenics. Probably smart of her.”

“OK. The other guy?”

“Right. Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec emperor. Or Mexican, same thing. Remember when I said Europe fought everyone? Well, first thing that happened was Spain showed up an’ attacked Mexico outta nowhere. Or was it Portugal? I dunno, I think they had a bunch of succession wars or somethin’. Anyways, he said no.”

“That’s it?” You can just tell an invasion no? That works?

“No, he killed a whole bunch of people. I think the empire had two civil wars after that. Disease killed everyone he knew. He’s immortal, his people ain’t. Thank god.”

“So wait, you’re happy his people can die?” That can’t be right.

“Yeah,” he said.

Her jaw dropped. “That’s a horrible thing to say.”

“We’ve fought like three wars with the fucker. If it weren’t for that little fact we’d be gettin’ our hearts ripped out right now. I dunno if this is clear yet, but he ain’t a nice guy.”

“Why hasn’t he taken everything over?”

“Just cuz he’s immortal don’t mean he magically knows how taxes work. Or how to keep his toadies from gettin’ murdered by the locals the second he turns his back.”

“But he’s had all that time.” He said he was immortal, right?

“You’d think so. But Mexico is held together with tape an’ fear right now, an’ that’s cuz of him.”

“Are there any more gods I should know about?”

“Nope, just the two.” Oh, great. Two isn’t so bad. I thought he was going to say there were seven more.

“That was a lot of war you just mentioned,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, everyone thinks their superpowers are the best superpowers.”

Olivia shifted in her seat as the conversation lulled. Leaning to the side relieved some of the bend in her neck, though her left wing was shoved against the window.

“You mentioned a bunch of people being teleported led to the Silk Road. What does any of that mean?” she asked. That doesn’t sound like a war.

“Some Roman dude with powers got the emperor to give him a metric fuckton of drugs to make his powers better. Or was that some British guy? Whatever. He made a portal that connected Rome an’ China. Even after the portal closed, they still tried to trade. I guess that was important. Everyone kept sayin’ it was.” Ben finished with a shrug.

she opene“And the Glass City, what is that?” Maybe that will be cooler.

“A city made of glass.”

Olivia took a moment to bite back a mean retort and said, “I don’t think that’s very helpful.”

“You can’t fight in the city. Can’t use weapons, long range shit doesn’t work. Someone tried launchin’ a missile, it just swerved away. They set up the League of Nations there. It’s somewhere in Africa, I forget where.”

Olivia received a slapdash lesson in world history through the fifteen minute drive. Despite his protests, Ben seemed happy just talking as fast as possible, no matter the subject matter. The conversation came to a stop once they reached his building. They slipped into his the third floor without incident. The building reminded Olivia of her home, dilapidated, in bad repair, and otherwise worse for wear.

Whatever Olivia expected of Ben, the apartment wasn’t it. The walls were a light grey, adorned only with a mounted tomahawk. There was a couch across from a small TV, hooked up to a cable box on a table. A tiny, clean kitchen was off to the right. To their left were doors to the bedroom and bathroom.

“Don’t have to just stand there you know,” he said, beckoning her further inside. “Go on, grab a bite to eat. I gotta check on somethin’.” He teleported off to his bedroom.

Food. She lumbered over to the fridge in the kitchen, claws catching on the carpet. A delicious scent immediately caught her nose once she opened the door. A barely touched package of sliced ham lay at the bottom. She opened it up and ate the entire thing in two bites. This is his food. I shouldn’t take any more. She wandered after Ben.

As sparse as the living room was, Ben’s bedroom was chaotic. She saw three pistols on the ground the far corner. Two crowbars, a fire axe, and a sledgehammer leaned against each other in another. A couple movie and videogame posters covered the walls at odd angles, tacked onto with a thick grey tape. The closet was thrown open, clothes clean and dirty spilling out. This seems more like him. She approached the unmade bed next to Ben.

Do I just sit? She walked in and sat on the edge of his bed, tail dangling off the side. Ben spun in his chair to face her directly and said, “You always seem nervous. You still worryin’ about everythin’?”

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know what I am. I hurt people when we went into that warehouse. I almost hurt you too, I think.”

He said, “Well, to be fair, I just walked up to you in the middle of a fight, that was a bad call on my part.”

“Yeah, but still, I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Yeah,” then he suddenly leaned over and jabbed her in the eye.

“Ow, why?” she asked, holding a hand over the poked eye. What did I do?

He considered her with a grin, stroking his chin in mock contemplation. “Interestin’. You see, if you were dumb monster thing, as you seem to think you are, you woulda bit me or attacked or somethin’. Instead, you’re makin’ me feel like I just kicked a puppy. Not a classic monster trait, I’ll tell you that for free. Also, I didn’t getcha too hard, did I?”

She blinked her eye a couple time and removed her hand, her eye was fine. “I’m fine, but please don’t do that again.” He smiled and nodded, holding his hands up to as if to say ‘I’m innocent’. She sighed. “Why?”

“Huh?”

“Why did this have to happen? All of it, everything.”

“You want the short version or the long version? Never mind, I’ll tell you both.” He grinned and settled more comfortably in his chair, leaning forward. “The short reason is cuz fuck you. That’s why.”

She stared at him for a moment, then said, “That’s not a reason.” Why do I bother?

He burst into laughter. “OK, OK, OK. Lemme explain. Long version. You an’ I an’ everyone else are insignificant specks on a chunk of rock, which in turn is an insignificant speck, hurtlin’ through the icy screamin’ void of space. We mean nothin’. Everythin’ we do is ultimately meaningless. No matter what happens to you, trigger or no, means jack shit. Tha’s the truth. You with me so far?”

“But you can’t look at it like that. In spite of what I just said, people still do amazin’ shit. Moon landings, pyramids, you get the picture. You may be one in a billion, but you never know what’ll come outta what you do until you try. Ninety nine point nine repeating percent of all 9.7 billion people on Earth wouldn’t care if I died, so why do I continue? Because I want to. Because I’ve got my brothers, I’ve got friends an’ acquaintances, I’ve got stuff I wanna do before I kick the bucket. It matters what you do more than anythin’ else. So what are you gonna do? Mope about somethin’ outta your control, or do somethin’? I watched you eat bullets. Bullets. There’s a reason we use those to kill each other, an’ you just shrugged ‘em off. You can do a lot of shit if you put your mind to it.”

He leaned back and took a deep breath. Olivia barely heard him breathe during that entire tirade.

“I get what you’re saying. But I don’t know. I’ve been afraid of nearly everything for weeks now.” Ben started coughing at that. “What?”

“Nothin’. Continue.” He waved her off, hiding his smile with the other hand.

Olivia was getting tired of Ben treating everything like a joke. “What, you’ve never been afraid that some government agency is going to swoop in and dissect you? You’ve never been afraid that you were going insane because you didn’t even know your own name? Never been afraid of how you’re going to get by day to day, if you’re ever going to get a job or fit in anywhere?” Her voice was raised at that point.

Unfortunately, he still grinned. So help me, I’ll… I’ll do… something. Ben spoke up before she could think of something suitable, “You got a point. Several actually. Sorry ‘bout that. Never really thought about it. But let me tell you this: even without the whole dragon thing goin’ on, you look like you could break me in half, no problem. So it’s kinda funny when you get all scared and uncertain. Kinda jarring.” He caught her look. “Hey, hey, it’s a compliment. The breaking in half part at least.”

He did sound apologetic, as much as she had ever heard him before. As well, not lying seemed to be his thing. “Sorry, I kind of lost my temper.”

He looked incredulous. “What, you lost your temper? That sounded like a normal conversation with me. You’ve spent more time around me without snappin’ than anyone who’s not my brother. An’ what the hell are you saying sorry to me for anyways? I’m a jackass. My job is to hurt people. You saw me stab  an’ shoot people. Guess what? No moral repercussions for me. None. They had it comin’.”

“What, you’re OK with killing other people?”

“Yeah.”

“How are you a good guy then?” she asked.

“I’m not. My brother Rob, he’s a techie, goes by Gears. He’s in Pennsylvania as a freelancin’ fixer. Sam never got powers, I don’t think. He joined up with Lock Corp. a couple years ago when we split. Haven’t heard from him in a while. But the thing is, Rob said he’d go into the crime business, Sam said he’d be a merc. I said I’d be a vigilante, which is basically a criminal who hurts other criminals.” He motioned around them to the room full of weapons. “Hell, I stole most of this from criminals, or bought it with money I stole from them. We do what we do because we said we would. I said nothin’ about bein’ a good guy.”

He kills people. How did I forget? “You were going to kill me if I was feral, weren’t you?”

Without hesitation, he said, “Yep. Wouldn’t have lost any sleep, either. But, you ain’t a standard feral, which I don’t think has been drilled into your skull quite enough yet. I’m thinkin’ you’re bein’ a bit hard on yourself. So I tell you what, we track down those kidnappers, an’ murder ‘em. Until they die, of course. How’s that sound?”

Olivia studied her knees instead of responding. One claw played with a worn hole on her pants. I think he wants me to say yes. I don’t know. That seems like something he wants to do. But what else can I do?

“I’ll take that as a maybe. God damn, we’ve been talking for hours,” said Ben, bringing her back to the real world. “It’s time to get movin’. Give me a minute to pack an’ get everythin’ to the car.”

“Do I have to be in the car?”

“It’s on the far end of town. Might save you some leg work. Or wing work, whatever.”

“OK,” she mumbled. But that car is so small and uncomfortable. I guess he knows what he’s saying.

Ben pulled out a duffel bag from under his bed with the butt of a long rifle sticking out of the side. “Just needs some ammo,” he said with a grin.

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?”

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 the 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.”