8: Riot

Something slid by Chris’s head with the sound of sandpaper on wood. He heard a loud hiss from the same direction. Up. I’m awake. Chris wrenched his eyes open, finding near total darkness, even as the warm, familiar memory of the library vanished. Ben and Amanda weren’t lying, that wasn’t real. Fuck.

He struggled upright, finding his limbs made of lead for a moment as paralysis wore off of him. Several metal things popped off of his head as he heard Amanda whisper something across the room. Olivia stormed off, away from him and Amanda’s whispers. OK, not us, he thought as he massaged his temples. Like every day, the urge to dissociate from whatever nonsense was happening and stop caring weighed down on him, even as the last of whatever knocked him out worked its way out of his system. A memory, even if it was false, stopped him from obeying. I helped make that library. Was I in charge of building that library? No, it wasn’t just me.

Another familiar growl, an amalgamation of human frustration and a dry reptilian hiss, cut through the muffled silence. Olivia crashed through a door nearby. He couldn’t see anything other than the negligible glow of light from a panel set in the wall, but the sounds of property devaluation were unmistakable.

Who is she going after? A couple of heavy footsteps made the line of light under the door flicker, then wood shattered, and Olivia removed the door, letting light fully into the room. She stomped forward, puffing her wings out once she cleared the frame, then snarled at something again.

His arm hit something warm and mildly squishy as he rolled off the wooden table.

“Watch it,” said Miya, already off of her table and on her own two feet.

“Sorry,” he grunted. He got up and took a quick headcount. Miya kept watch on Olivia’s receding back, Amanda helped Rob up, and Ben raised a hand to shield his eyes from the light pouring into the room from his position on the last table.

Chris leaned against the nearby wall, on the far side of the room from the now empty door frame. He rubbed his temples with one hand once more, squeezing his eyes shut. It wasn’t just leading. It was serving. Was it both?

“Chris,” snapped a voice right in front of him. Miya’s. Olivia roared in the background, and something glass shattered.

He opened his eyes to look at her. Rob stood behind and to her side with folded arms. Ben, now up, poked his head out through the doorway to look left and right for any kind of threat. He still shot a glance back at Chris, a small smile flickering on his face. Amanda examined the alien’s terminal, built into the wall. The silver wires from each of the five tables fed into a hole drilled a few inches below.

“Olivia’s pissed off. She just took off through a window, flying after the alien. You got any ideas?” asked Miya. It took everything in his power not to sigh and close his eyes again.

Alien? Right, they mentioned that. Why does everyone think I know what I’m doing? I have no clue. I’m just here. I just say stuff because no one else ever has any idea what to do. It’s not like I’m smarter or anything. They’re just waiting for me to do something.

Quit your bitching. Get moving.

“Fine, let’s go. Ben, get after Olivia, talk her down.” Ben gave a lazy salute as he teleported off. Drywall crunched as Amanda began digging the terminal out of the wall. “What are you doing?” demanded Chris.

“When Olivia woke up it was like someone had dumped her there,” she explained, still locked onto the terminal. “Right in front of the freaky alien nest? I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Maybe I can figure out why.”

Chris nodded in understanding. “Rob, give her a hand. Miya, with me, let’s get some answers. Does anyone have anything on them?” He swatted his pockets. No wallet, keys, or phone. That’s not good. No weapons either.

Four variations of, “Nope, nothing,” replied. Wonderful. Do what we can with what we have. Rob kicked the nearest table leg, breaking it off. He began wrenching off a cabinet door as Chris and Miya began checking the other room of the alien’s apartment.

The first room they found a single table in the center, sturdier, with thicker legs and broader footprint. Miya eyed the claw gouges on the doorframe. More alien equipment lay scattered around the outskirts. Should I grab some more of this stuff? No, Olivia’s yelling might bring in the cops. No need to waste time. The cables at the table’s head ran into another terminal, built into the same wall as the techies worked at. Said terminal jostled free, as Rob used his two pieces of wood as a lever to wedge the opposite side free. Amanda took his place, leaning in to examine the now exposed core within. The next room on the opposite side of the apartment gave them pause.

A bowl of wood, paper, and fabric three feet high, like the bottom half of a gigantic broken eggshell, dominated what would have been a human bedroom. A transparent wax coated the individual pieces, keeping the jumble in one solid structure. Beyond that, drawings etched into the walls themselves caught Chris’ eyes. One was unmistakably of a human body, sexless and without any facial features. Another was the cross section of a human brain. Alien scrawling covered every spare inch.

Shelves, squat steel things made from scrap found throughout the city, held a bizarre assortment of alien equipment mixed with various scavenged human bits. A frosted glass cup from Pizza Invicta held some sort of light yellow liquid, the same swirling around without regards to gravity within a glass and white metal contraption. Below the shelves lay two smooth white crates. Those look way too small for all this alien crap. Chris felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. I am a dumb monkey, staring at something I don’t understand. “Don’t touch anything,” he said to Miya, who skirted around one of the crates. I don’t want to get nuked today.

In the closet he found half a dozen human skeletons. Each had a large, flat rock over the skull, along with two pieces of wood tied or nailed together. Are those supposed to be crosses? I think they are. What the fuck is this alien doing? 

“Was he trying to bury people?” he asked Miya. “Is he evil?” Everything he showed me was pretty nice.

“He kidnapped us. Fuck him,” she replied, with an uneasy look at the skeletons. 

“Yeah, it’s a Gulmer. I recognize some of this shit from the museum,” said Rob as he and Amanda rejoined them.

Amanda examined the drawings and diagrams of human bodies on the walls and said, “Those look like something you’d put up in a lab.”

It was studying us. Don’t know how the fuck putting us in dream world actually does that, but whatever. “You got what you needed?” asked Chris.

“Yes,” she said, holding up the silver core she’d pulled from behind the terminal. Only one cut cable dangled from it, caught on several bent metal pins.

How do you know? Whatever, I have to trust she knows what she’s doing for now. “Then we’re leaving. Where are Ben and Olivia?” 

Miya, by the window, waved them over. Chris peeled back the ragged old curtain and leaned over her. He squinted through the lack of light to track her gaze to a row of houses a block over, run down with older fences and satellite dishes streaked with rust, but none of the telltale boarded up windows and sagging roofs of truly abandoned buildings. Was there another city-wide blackout? I thought they’d finally solved that problem.

A roar from Olivia up above caught Chris’s attention. He caught sight of the alien running away on a roof before Olivia dive bombed and crashed the both of them through it, leaving a ragged hole in their wake. Uh oh. Did she lose it again? She just went through a roof with her shoulder and some momentum.

“Like a mini-Godzilla,” murmured Rob with a wide grin. It wavered as the others turned towards him with no humor. That’s right, you’ve never seen her go huntress mode.

The faint, terrified screams of civilians inside managed to reach them even at that distance, along with the crack of a gunshot. The alien teleported onto the street between the apartment building and the houses. Blood, or rather a pale green ichor that Chris assumed was blood, dripped to the ground where he stood as he pressed a gnarled hand to his side.

We need to get her under control, now. A window on the second floor of the house shattered. The alien immediately broke into a run, not bothering to look back. Olivia jumped out of the building and pumped her wings in pursuit of him. I wonder if it’s panicking. Chris, out of the corner of his eye, caught sight of Ben teleporting onto the ruined roof. Ben paused at the edge of the hole, then jumped off the roof and teleported down before gravity could make him regret that decision. 

Chris tore himself from the window, opening his mouth to urge the others to do the same, when out from a shadowy corner of the room dropped the alien. The group and the alien stared at each other for a split second stretched out for an eternity. Its jaw twitched to the side.

The alien bolted to its feet as Miya, the nearest to it, took a clumsy, untrained grab at it. Does it have bones for her to mess with? It teleported to the side, near the shelf of equipment and devices. Chris phased into liquid form and shot himself as a column towards it. Rather than teleporting through the shadows once more, it clung to a small T shaped device built into the walls, even as Chris slammed into its back. It hammered some mechanism in it, then teleported out, its body sliding out of Chris’ grip. A dull thud shook the building.

He snapped back to human, checking the room in case the alien attacked someone else with a shiver. The others either stared at him or checked the rest of the room. All jumped as something collided with the window they had just been crowding around, sending a shower of glass into the room. A clawed hand punched through the curtain, tearing it aside to reveal Olivia from the shoulders up as she began to climb up into the room. Her lips curled back in a snarl, and her silver reptilian eyes scanned the room without a hint of recognition. She paused and twisted her head around back towards the outdoors, sniffing the air. 

“Olivia!” shouted Miya. “Olivia!” Olivia jumped off of the wall and out of sight. Fuck, I forgot how fast she can move.

“Oh no,” murmured Amanda.

“Come on. We have to do something,” declared Miya.

“Do what?” asked Chris. “Trust me, she won’t hesitate to attack any of us right now if Ben hasn’t gotten through to her.” Hey, remember that time she threw Amanda aside like a rag doll and tried to gut me in the course of five seconds? Because I do. Hell, it was right here.

Miya whirled around. She unclenched her jaw long enough to say, “Anything. Better than just standing here.”

“She’s right,” said Amanda.

They’re right. Fuck, this sucks. I guarantee someone has noticed this by now. Another dull thud shook the building. They stumbled as the floor seemed to drop a few inches beneath them. A great crash of glass and wood and concrete rang in their ears. What did that alien do?

“Buildin’s fallin’,” said Rob, already running for the door. 

“Go, go,” Chris urged the rest as he brought up the rear.

They thundered through the halls and down the stairs. A third thud knocked them off their feet. Chris grabbed Amanda’s collar to keep her from falling over as he clung to the handrail with his free hand. OK, that neighborhood might have two-shots. Someone has called the Watch or MHU, no question. Get a quick sitrep from Ben, if not I might just have to suffocate Olivia again and drag her out of here. We don’t have a car, though. Deal with that later. Rob wrenched the dented metal door on the ground floor open, just as a beam collapsed in the stairwell and punched through the floor. Dust rained down on them. 

As they finally escaped the apartment building, a pair of gunshots rang out into the night, then another pair. Across the street, Ben teleported along the rooftops, waving his arms at Chris and the group. They stopped in their tracks as a pale figure appeared at the mouth of the alleyway. The alien, bleeding from half a dozen more cuts since last they saw it, staggered forward a few steps. It twisted its drooping head to the side, gazing at them.

Olivia landed feet first on the alien’s back with a scream. Five claws of her foot tore into its chest as she slammed it into the pavement. She reached down, hooking her clawed hand into the underside of what would have been its chin, and ripped upwards with an arc of ichor. Chris flinched back, even with an entire street separating them. Jesus fucking Christ.

“She normally do shit like that?” asked Rob.

“No,” replied Amanda in a hushed whisper, still clutching the alien computer core tight.

“Hey!” shouted Ben from his rooftop. “We got cops comin’!” Chris listened for a moment. Sirens approached. Ben dove for cover as another pair of shots rang out, one sending a puff of tile from the roof. 

Great, we have two techies without their gear and a mage without a golem. None of us have guns, and we’re about to be drowning in MHU officers. Chris directed the others away from the oncoming police, though they needed no urging. 

“Olivia,” he called out. “Run!” She paid him no attention, head raised and sniffing the air once more.

Three Metahuman Unit trucks, which may as well have been tanks for all the armor they boasted, burst onto the scene. They came to a stop between Chris’s group and Olivia and unloaded about eight heavily armed and armored MHU officers each. Black armor covered their grey fatigues, with hard plastic mask and goggles covering their faces. Each had their own assortment of equipment strapped to their chests and belts. Two breachers had shotguns strapped to their backs, while three others held familiar batons at the ready. Unlike the others, one wore no helmet, instead barking out an impatient order as they circled Olivia. Marcus. 

One dozen of Chris’ former coworkers formed a semicircle around Olivia, standing her ground with wings half spread. One hand she used to shield her eyes from the glaring headlights of the vans and mounted flashlights of the officers, though below it Chris could see teeth bared. If we get arrested we’re never seeing the light of day again. We’re responsible for Olivia and she just went of a fucking rampage through who knows how many houses. The three baton armed officers inched towards a hissing Olivia. The moment she made towards one of them, he backed up while the other two pressed forward. Any time one of her several flailing limbs got close, they swatted it with an arc of electricity from the baton.

The other dozen turned on Chris’ group. The officers leveled their rifles at them and shouted over the din of the sirens several variations of, “Surrender or get shot a lot.” Chris shifted into liquid form, placing himself between the officers and the others. Amanda, get them moving. It’ll take them all of five seconds to remember I’m basically gasoline.

Behind him, Chris could hear Amanda shouting for Miya and Rob to get moving. They started running, and the officers opened fire. Chris spread himself out to provide as much cover as he could. Bullets hot. Bad, bad, bad. He expelled them as soon as he could. Four or five made it through him but went nowhere near his fleeing teammates. The apartment building finished collapsing in on itself, sending out a billowing cloud of dust, obscuring them from the pursuing officers.

Chris caught up to the others, who had forced open the main door to the computer shop across the street and made their way inside. Me and Amanda were here before. That’s right! There’s roof access in here. He got rid of all the gravel and other detritus he’d picked up and returned to human form. Miya and Amanda coughed out white dust.

“Keep going,” he urged them, following behind them on foot as Rob worked on wrenching open the lock to the roof access. The clomps of the MHU officers chased after him. He poked his head around a window, catching sight of four dust covered officers pounding toward them, the others raising their carbines at the shop. Noble designed those masks, no amount of dust would bother them. Chris flinched back as a hail of bullets tore up the window.

They bolted up the ladder, Chris pausing to topple a shelf over the door to slow the pursuers down. He shifted to liquid and wove his way up the ladder. 

“Fuck. I hate not bein’ armed,” said Rob in between panting. They kept up the run over the gravel covered rooftop.

“Ambush?” suggested Miya.

“With what?” responded Chris. “Circle back around for Olivia.”

A whine caught his attention, now that a ruined building separated him from the sirens of the trucks. He caught sight of a small black quadcopter drone, almost invisible in the night sky, hovering far out of reach. Behind them, metal groaned under the weight of armored men as the pursuing officers began to climb the ladder. That drone has to have a camera. They weren’t going to climb a ladder if we were just going to sit there and club them one by one. There’s no cover for us up here. 

“Down, down!” Chris shouted, jabbing his hand at the edge of the roof and the ground below. He shifted into liquid once more as the first officer up leveled his carbine at the group and fired off three shots. The next one up took one look at Chris and pulled out a clunky pistol. An incendiary flare rocketed towards Chris, forcing him back into human form. Two more MHU officers finished climbing the ladder and began advancing as more bullets flew. He spun around to find only Rob, down on one knee and weighing a rock in his hand. He reached back and flung it with all his might, nailing the drone in one of the rotors and sending it crashing to the ground. Techie? What? Whatever.

Without a word, Chris jumped and Rob climbed down off the one story roof to catch Amanda and Miya on the ground. Each had an officer pinning them to a wall. Miya grabbed at the arm of the one on her, unable to find any contact through the armor. Amanda clung to the computer core as her officer tried to seize it from her. Two more officers leveled carbines at them. “Chris! Stop!” shouted one.

Instinct took over. Still a large mass of liquid, Chris slammed into them, engulfing two and knocking off balance the others. One smacked the back of his head on the pavement, going limp despite his helmet. The other submerged officer fought Chris for another flare gun on his belt, even as he gasped for air. You idiot, you’ll kill us both. His hand almost made it to the trigger before Chris lifted him and slammed him into the concrete once more, knocking the fight out of him for a second. The next slam knocked the fight out of him for much longer.

Chris snapped back to human, shivering as his body regenerated the heat lost in liquid form. Rob, Amanda, and Miya kept an eye on the other two officers, one out cold, another cradling a broken arm and leg. 

“Thanks for that,” said Amanda. Rob just laughed.

“Where’s Olivia and Ben?” asked Miya.

“More are coming,” said Chris, stopping to scoop up a carbine. Rob and Miya followed suit. “Circle back.”

They circled around, keeping out of sight of the officers as they followed the sounds of roars and gunfire. Chris poked his head around a corner. The dozen officers, including Marcus, herded Olivia away from the houses she’d wrecked. Several torn lead weighted nets tangled her wings. She twisted, trying to rip one off completely, catching a bullet to the ribs for her troubles. Marcus raised a hand, and the asphalt beneath her feet dissolved for a moment, locking her ankle deep in the solid road. The baton wielding officers, with only a chestplate for protection, poked at her peripherals as she wrenched her feet free. Helicopter rotors began to beat the air.

Shit, shit, shit. Olivia swayed on her feet, but still attempted a charge at Marcus. Damn it, Olivia. Where is the flight in fight or flight? An officer next to him hefted a large tube, launching another net at her legs. She tore the fabric, though now two halves tangled her footing. 

“No, Olivia. No, no, no,” whispered Miya, joining him at the corner. “Get out of here. That mage knows what he’s doing.”

“I don’t think we can get through that,” Chris replied, gesturing to all the armed officers. Fuck. I thought she might have broken through. She’s just roaring and swinging now.

“Ben?” she asked.

“I don’t even know where he is.” 

His stomach churned, and shoulders slumped. He knew what to say. Olivia regained her feet yet again, roaring in defiance. 

“We can’t stay here,” Chris said, pulling back from the corner.

“What about Olivia?” Amanda shot back.

Fuck me. “We can’t do anything. We’re outnumbered, outgunned, and only have three magazines between us. Those helicopters are getting closer.”

Amanda grimaced. “But…” she began, trailing off. “Fuck. No.” She shook her head, as if willing it to not be true.

“What about Ben?” demanded Rob with a light shove to Chris’ shoulder.

“They weren’t looking for him, he can take care of himself,” Chris replied. “We need to leave.”

With the thundering sound of helicopters overhead, the group pulled back, barely dodging the eight officers from the roof of the computer shop.


They limped back to the lair several hours later. The group collapsed on the nearest chairs save Miya, who paced the length of the auto shop. Chris slouched in his chair, staring at the edge of the tabletop. We fucked up. I fucked up. Maybe if we’d stuck with Olivia and talked her down. Amanda rolled her office chair over to a computer and woke it up, then typed. Other than that, and the pacing, no one did a thing. Rob clenched his hands into fists. He’ll probably kill me if Ben doesn’t show up. And I’d probably deserve it. Maybe we could have ambushed Marcus.

Amanda called out, “She’s still alive. They brought in Noble and Purifier. They’re gonna put her under until they can get her to that Houston research place.”

“So?” asked Miya, her voice hoarse. She kept up the pacing. “How does that help?”

“It means that we’re not going to be able to get to her until they get her out of there.”

“If the MHU out here is the same as mine,” said Rob. “We ain’t gettin’ in.”

“No we’re not,” said Amanda. “This is one of my last backdoors. If their security is any good they’ll figure out what I’m doing and close it off. They’ve gone into lockdown. The only things going in or out are through the front door. They’ll even use tanks of air to limit contact with the outside world.”

“The cells are probably way the fuck underground,” said Rob.

“They can flood them with napalm, collapse it with explosives, vent toxic gas in, or simply get a bunch of guys with large guns to kill everything as contingencies,” added Chris. And they’re doing that because they know about us. And they know that this is where we live. Fuck. Chris pulled himself out of his chair.

It was that moment when Ben kicked the door open. “The fuck?” he shouted. He did not smile.

7: Mask

I can’t remember. I can’t remember. I can’t remember. Why can’t I remember? Olivia stared at Miya standing before her, hoping to find some answer in her stern expression. It’s like before, it’s just blank. I just popped up. Not again. That can’t be right.

After a minute, Olivia still couldn’t form a reply. “Did I break you?” asked Miya to Olivia’s left, not really addressing her. She poked her in the cheek, failing to provoke any sort of reaction out of her.

“I’m still here,” murmured Olivia, eyes fixed firmly on her knees. She still sat on top of the table, though she couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to swing her legs as before. If this isn’t real then I’m not normal. I’m just an idiot.

“What was that?” asked Miya, leaning in.

“I’m still here,” repeated Olivia, forcing a little more energy into her voice to be heard.

“Are you alright, Olivia?” asked Miya, taking a seat on the tabletop beside her.

Olivia closed her eyes for a moment. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember how I got here or what had happened again. Again. How could I have not realized that? Stupid me. And get a grip, someone else is here. Don’t cry or waste her time or anything.

“I’m OK,” said Olivia.

Miya let out a disbelieving snort. “Bullshit.”

“I’m OK,” insisted Olivia, remembering to curl her fingers again, even though there were no claws to hide. Find a bright side. At least I’m not bleeding or being shot. “I’m fine.”

“We’re still here, and we haven’t reset,” said Miya. What? “Is there something else? You know, that you want to talk about?”

“I’m stupid, OK? I thought it was real,” burst Olivia. “I thought it was real and I didn’t question it and I didn’t want it to end and I couldn’t remember how it happened and I didn’t care. Sorry.”

Stupid, stupid, stupid. It’s so real though. Everything still sounds like I have a blanket over my ears, like when the road noise at the apartment got too loud. She twiddled with the hem of her shirt again. The fabric feels all fabric-y. Claws can’t really feel anything. But this might not be me. It might be just some weird illusion thing, not real.

Miya hopped down from the table and stretched, popping her back. With an annoyed grimace she said, “Let’s just focus on getting out of here.”

“Where even is here?” asked Olivia. There’s no door or anything out.

“As far as I can tell this is some sort of dream. Not a sleeping dream, but everything you want kind of dream,” said Miya.

“So you were in your own place?” Miya nodded. “What was it like?

“Great. I was rich.” Miya hurried to move on. She looks a bit different too. Why? Wait, I should know the answer to that better than anyone. She’s missing all those red dots on her temples. “When Ben snapped me out of it, I came around for a couple minutes. I saw some weird shadowy alien thing. It’s doing something to us, I don’t want to wait until its done. You should probably get us out of here.”

“Wait,” said Olivia. “Shadows? I, um, I think I might have seen him before. Not here. No, not here here, real here. Um, and before. If that made sense.” And I didn’t say anything about it. Because I’m an idiot. Or could I not remember? Can I remember not remembering?

“What?” asked Miya, jaw slack with utter lack of comprehension.

“Sorry. I think I’ve seen the shadow guy before. The first time was a couple days after I woke up. I think. It’s really hard to focus on him. But I think I saw him a few other times since then. Um, sorry. I mean, I didn’t mention it before. Sorry. And did you say you saw Ben?”

“Yeah, he popped up in my world, just like I did with you. I don’t know where he is now.” Miya slowly paced as they talked, taking half a dozen paces one way, then the other.

I hope he’s OK. “Why?” asked Olivia. “Why us? Just for fun?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Miya, lack of patience bleeding into her voice. “Me and Ben never had a chance to compare notes. Did you get a good look at him? What exactly was he doing? Any idea how to fight him?”

“Sorry. No. Well, kind of. Um… I never got a good look at him.”

Miya opened her mouth to say something. After a second or two of indecision she said, “Fine. But it sounds like he’s been stalking you for a month.”

“Could he be watching us now?” asked Olivia. She resisted the urge to turn around to look for some sort of boogeyman behind her.

Miya grimaced and said, “Maybe. I didn’t think about that. We need to figure out why he’s doing this, too, though I’d settle for just getting out and killing the bastard.”


“You know this isn’t real.”

“I know,” Olivia mumbled.

“We’re still here.”

“I know.”

“You keep saying that, but we’re still here. I don’t think we’re moving on until you accept it.”

Olivia folded her arms. “But…” she began, trying to protest.

“That’s what I had to do.”

She’s not going to let it go. They’re going to just keep going at it. And she’s right, and the others are still going through whatever illusions this guy has for them, and I think I’m crying, and my memory is easily manipulated, and I’m still just a weird stupid monster thing once we get out, if we get out, and…

“Hey, hey, hey,” said Miya. “I have no clue what to say now,” she muttered under her breath. Welcome to my world. “It’ll be alright. We’ll figure out a way out.” Right. Just… just get up. Olivia wiped her eyes on her forearm, then sat back up.

“Sorry,” she murmured.

“You sure?” asked Miya. “I was worried we were going to reset there.” I still don’t know what that means.

“Yeah. I’m better.” Get it together, get it together. What did I say before? It’ll be OK. I’ve made it this far already. The others need help, and I can’t do that from here. Even if this isn’t real, it’ll be OK.


Olivia came to with her wings digging into her back. A familiar smell of dust immediately filled her nostrils, even as she struggled to regain control of her own body. I know this smell. This is my old apartment building. The off-white paint on the walls, the style of the window with its sun brittle plastic cover, even the threadbare carpets were familiar.

She took as deep a breath as she could, regaining use of her jaw at least. In addition to the wires running up to her skull, three oval shaped white disks orbited above her, beaming soft blue light down on her wings, hands, tail, and feet in turn. The disks had no power source, no fan even she could hear, simply defying gravity.

With some effort, she managed to flop her head over, towards the source of a pulsing light reflecting off the walls. She found not one, but two different lights on a panel built into the wall, of a far different make to the normal, terrestrial type it was set in. A humanoid figure worked feverishly at it, pressing the screen several times, checking one of the lights, then resuming its work. This cycle repeated several times before the figure turned, giving Olivia a profile of a bullet shaped head embedded with a dozen black eyes.

It began scuttling along the wall before simply slipping into a shadow cast by a partially opened door, vanishing from sight. You. You did this. Olivia took another deep breath and lifted her head, pulling her chest up a couple inches with it. She relaxed and tried again, getting a little further. A third light, this one red, began to pulse as the disks froze in their orbit and rose to a foot shy of the ceiling. No, no. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the figure slip back into the room, freezing once it realized she nearly sat upright with her elbows propping her up.

There was little else she could do but let out a threatening hiss. The figure backed off with at least half of its eyes on her at all times, swaying its upper body in a slow, hypnotic rhythm. It tapped the button on its wrist a second time.


Air escaped from Olivia’s throat as she found herself standing in a concrete corridor, similar to the ones around the Arena. Beside her, Miya let out a surprised grunt. Olivia looked down at her hands, finding neat, trimmed nails instead of claws.

“You saw him too?” she asked, the moment they got their bearings.

“Yeah,” replied Olivia, shivering. “We’re at my old apartment building.”

“Whoa, what? How did you not know about this alien thing?”

“I don’t know. But I watched him move weird and smell weird and teleport through shadows. Is that some weird technology thing?”

Miya bit her lower lip. “That seems too weird and specific. Aliens can have powers.”


“Yeah, why not? They can have mages too. Some Siberian mage nearly wiped out half of China once.” She snapped her fingers. “Wait, that’s perfect, you and me can see it if he was a mage. You didn’t see any streams of magic, right? I didn’t.”

“I don’t think so.”

Miya sighed. “Wait, where are we?”

To Olivia’s right was nothing more than a concrete corridor, though she heard a faint mechanical grinding noise from it. The color of the concrete shifted between different sections, with the occasional bit of sheet metal over random patches of wall.

Miya, looking the other way, gasped and took a step back. Olivia spun around and followed suit. Several paces away from them loomed a pitch-black void. Chunks of concrete, half-finished and forgotten, splintered off into oblivion. Neither of the girls showed any interest in approaching the edge.

Olivia sniffed the air. “Oh, that’s weird.”

“Besides the eternal void?”

“There’s no smell here. Or it’s not strong. It’s just metal. That means Rob, right?” I’m still worried about where the others wound up.

“Yeah,” replied Miya, backing away from the void. “Let’s get this over with.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t like underground concrete bases like this.”


“Because it’s like,” Miya trailed off. “Whatever. Let’s find whoever this is and get out of here.” 

They left the void behind as they headed deeper into the corridor. Its haphazard twists and turns

They passed an open door. Out of curiosity, Olivia looked inside, to find a stereotypical bedroom. A bed, desk, a shelf full of knickknacks. Behind her, Miya stood on her toes to get a good look over her shoulder. Yay, I don’t have wings to brush up against the roof.

Olivia kept walking, Miya following a few moments after. “You didn’t notice anything strange about that room?” asked Miya.

“No, why? What was it?” What did I miss?

“Never mind,” said Miya. She pointed, “That way, I hear it too now.” How did you not hear it before?

Light flickered from a partially open door, accompanied by more grinding noises. Olivia ran the rest of the way. She pushed open the door and came to a stop on the inside. Rob hunched over a workbench in the center of the expansive room, bent back towards her. On one hand lay a disassembled gun of some kind, a shotgun going by the pump on the barrel, half covered by a cleaning rag. A half-eaten apple sat at the other hand amid a disorganized pile of tools. Miya joined her at the door a second later.

Just above the workbench hovered an undulating mass of metal parts easily ten feet in diameter. Gears slotted together with unnatural precision spun, turning the blob of parts inside out. Rob reached up, placing with great reverence a plaque covered in fine engravings within a beckoning four fingered hand of tiny steel ingots bound in copper wire. The hand withdrew with a rattle, growing metal pins to trace the otherwise nonsensical engravings on the plaque. Rob reached out and the blob ceased all movement. He seized a gear the size of his palm from the frozen maelstrom.

The lights flickered again. Olivia glanced up to find the roof replaced with the void, the light emitting from nowhere in particular. Even as the blob resumed its chaotic movements, the source-less light consistently cast several shadows on its surface, giving the distinct impression of a grinning comedy mask leering down on her. Rob grabbed a file from beneath a ball-peen hammer and began drawing it across the edge of the interior circle of the gear, his face not more than a few inches from it.

“Fucking techies,” muttered Miya under her breath.

OK, that’s weird, but he’s here. “Hi, Rob,” called out Olivia, once she recovered her voice. She received no response, Rob still intent on filing the gear. She and Miya exchanged glances. I didn’t think I was being that quiet that time.

“Hi, Rob,” repeated Olivia, raising her voice as much as she dared. He stiffened and spun around in his chair.

Rob took in the two of them for a long moment, face impassive with a lack of recognition. His eyes seemed to look past them. He jerked his head towards the way they’d come in. “Out,” he said.

Olivia flinched at the hostility. What? Why? “But,” she began.

“It’s not done. I’m busy, fuck off.” He grabbed the shotgun, assembled despite no one touching it.

Miya grabbed Olivia’s shoulder. “Come on.”

Olivia opened her mouth to protest but went anyways without a word. They closed the door behind them.

“What? Why did he do that?” she asked the moment the latch clicked. A shotgun? Really? I thought we were friends. I guess he’s only been here a few days, but that’s plenty of time to be friends!

Miya replied, “I guess he doesn’t want to leave.”

“Why? All that’s here is that crazy metal thing.”

“I don’t think we see what he sees. He reached into that thing without even blinking. That would have taken off my hand.”

“OK. So now what?”

“Well, we can’t be nice. We need to make him realize on his own what’s going on.”

“Oh, OK, yeah. Can he see the void? He is working hard.”

Miya snapped her fingers. “Working hard! Perfect!” She opened the door to the workshop and yelled “Rob!” repeatedly until Olivia heard heavy footsteps.

Rob leaned against the doorframe with his right arm out of view. Olivia heard the metallic clink of a shotgun barrel tapping the concrete floor, just out of view. Miya leaned against the opposite wall, leaving Olivia to stare at the ground, rubbing her upper arm with the other hand. What are we doing?

Before either could say anything, he said, “Who are you, how did you get in, how do you know me, and what do you want? In that order. Go.”

After a silent moment where the two of them absorbed what he said, Miya  said, “It’s really hard to explain. I’m Miya, she’s Olivia.” She gestured to both of them in turn.

“Cute. Try again.” He pushed off the doorframe with his shoulder, letting them get a glimpse of the shotgun. He pointed at Olivia. “She’s literally half the Olivia I know. An’ for that matter, why go halfway across the country for a visit without so much as a heads up? No, you gotta do a lot more to convince me.” Olivia’s eyes widened. He doesn’t think we’re in the shop.

“You have to hear us out,” pleaded Miya. “Some alien did this. None of this is real. What even is that?” he jerked her head towards the thing in the center of the workshop.

“Ain’t it obvious?” he said as he waved his free hand at the mass, causing a series of ripples over its surface.

“No,” said Olivia and Miya in sync.

“You wouldn’t get it. It’s a fuckin’ masterpiece,” he said, with a hazy smile.

“No, no, no, this isn’t real,” said Miya, motioning around wildly to the base. “None of it. That shotgun was in pieces when we first walked in, remember?”

He glanced down at his shotgun, jaw clenched. “Why would I? I can do that in my sleep,” he replied, his voice far less confident than before.

“Idea. We’ll be going now,” said Miya. “Show us the door and we’ll be out.”

“What?” asked Rob and Olivia simultaneously.

Miya nudged Olivia, who, rather than taking the hint, asked, “And what was that for?” Rob raised an eyebrow.

“You know this place so well,” Miya said to him. “You made it with your own two hands, just like that masterpiece,” she said, gesturing to the blob, now pulsing like a heart.

“Did you fuckin’ booby trap one of the doors or somethin’?”

“What? No. You want us gone and we’ll be gone,” said Miya, rushing to keep up with him as he stormed down the hall. “Just lead us to the front door.” Olivia hesitantly followed.

He passed the extremely stereotypical bedroom and stopped at edge of the corridor where it turned into void.

Miya shrugged after a few silent moments. “Is there supposed to be a door there?”

He stared at the void. “Yep.”


Olivia jerked awake. Noise hit her ears. Lots of noise. Lots of sound. Creaks in the roof and walls around her, the ragged breathing of her friends lying beside her, a horn in the distance. Someone muttered something in the room. She blinked several times as her eyes focused. Loud. Stop it, stop it, stop it. Not again.

She eased herself upright, flexing her wings and tail as the paralysis wore off, much quicker than before. The wires on her skull popped off without meaningful resistance. Remember, block it out. Focus on something else. Where is everyone? A negligible trickle of light came in under an old, warped door, enough for her to see her surroundings. Dust floated throughout the room, a fleck or two catching her in the eyes. The floating disks still hovered near the roof, their red lights beaming down on her.

With a hiss of frustration, Olivia climbed off of the table and headed towards the door and the hushed voices that had just started beyond it. She found the others arranged on a circle of five tables in the center of what would have been a living room.

“Hey, wake up,” whispered Amanda, eyes darting back and forth, not resting on any one place. Can she see anything? Rob, the nearest to her, grunted in response.

“Sleepy time. Fuck off,” he mumbled, throwing an arm over his eyes.

“No, you idiot,” she said a little louder, punctuating her statement with a punch to his shoulder. “I can’t tell where we are.”

Something else caught Olivia’s attention, a soft sound almost like a water pump. She stomped over to the kitchen, leaning over the counter to find the alien hiding. There he is. His eyes met hers, and he slapped the thin metal bracelet on his wrist. Her eyes felt heavy for a moment. You. Olivia hissed and marched around the corner. You made me think I was normal.

Her wings smacked into the ceiling lamp. The glass shattered completely. You attacked my friends. You made them suffer.

The alien pushed backwards with his legs, scrambling towards the shadow in the corner of some cabinets. Olivia closed the distance. You tricked me.

She aimed a downward kick to the center of his chest, putting as much force into it as possible. Right before she made contact, he vanished, though not before a pair of her toe claws nicked his chest. Her foot shattered the tiling of the floor. No running. She pulled her foot up with a snarl, bringing wood and floor with it.

Where are you? She followed the scent of alien blood, and the much louder sound of a pump. What started as an attempt to open the front door with the handle ended up as her thrusting her fingers through the crack between the door and frame and ripping the whole thing off of its hinges and dropping it to the side.

The alien, in the hallway, jerked his head in her direction. The desperate tap on his bracelet did nothing. Shadows started to coalesce around him, but he ran to the nearest room and slammed the door behind him. No. None of that.

Olivia simply lowered her shoulder an inch or two and plowed through it in her pursuit. She barreled into another room, just as dusty and featureless as her old apartment, except this one had a fleeing alien in it. Get back here.

It stumbled over the remains of a chair, giving her an opening. She charged with fingers and claws unfurled and brought her hand down on him with a roar. In the nick of time, it teleported through the shadows. Olivia hissed in frustration. Kill him. She stormed through the room. Movement in the window of the room caught her eye and the scraping sounds of feet against tile brought her to the window. The alien slipped down another foot on a slanted roof of a nearby house, arms windmilling to the side as he recovered. The stoplights and headlights of the city twinkled in the background. Olivia brought her hand crashing down on the intact window. Tear his fucking throat out.

6: Wrath, Thunder, Glory

Miya poured herself a glass of whisky from a bottle in the cabinet. She’d never had whisky before, but it tasted just as great as she expected. Like victory.

She surveyed her own little domain, a mansion just outside the city. It had taken some time to make it her own and toss out all of Sanchez’ old things, but she had all the time in the world. He wasn’t around to tell her no, or much of anything else since she’d killed him. The pictures and old memorabilia had been the first to go, followed by his and Jess’ old clothes to be replaced by Miya’s own. 

Their interior decorating was a little restrained for Miya’s taste. The two had plenty of money, it was their stashes and credit cards Miya was using. What’s the point of all that money if you’re not going to show it off? She’d never been able to afford the dress she wore ever before, though she’d wanted it ever since spotting it in a Phoenix mall last year.

Her leisurely stroll took her to the old den. She’d tossed most of the rugged homemade wooden furniture within, though the incredibly comfortable armchair stayed. With her glass of whisky half finished, she leaned back in the chair. She turned on the tv for indistinct background noise and swirled her glass, plotting her next move.

Overlord is still out there. Killing him is going to be even better than killing Sanchez. Fuck him fro trying to fuck with me. I’ll need to figure out where he’s hiding. Maybe Sanchez had some clue. I’ll go through some of his old stuff. Later, though. I’ve got time. May as well enjoy it. But it would be so good to strangle the life out of him. Or maybe I could just stab him. Just a little one, then another. Whatever, I just want to see the look on his face.

Or maybe I should find Don first. Yeah, maybe him instead. If Overlord is going after mages, he was the only other person who knew I could use magic. He might know something about where Overlord is, too. Greasy bastard, selling me out like that. After all I paid him, too.

She continued to sip on her whisky, the TV murmuring out indistinct noise over blurry shapes she didn’t bother to focus on. Vengeance was the only entertainment she needed, for hours and hours until the count of time slipped from her mind. Maybe I should grab something to eat. He probably had some really nice steak or something in the freezer. That would be fucking tasty. She set down the half full glass of whisky and headed towards the rest of the mansion.

Her breath caught in her throat as she turned the corner. A stranger stood in the kitchen. Her kitchen. His head hung low like a wounded animal, shoulders tense. One hand clenched into a fist tapped against his thigh in a nervous tick. 

“Who the fuck are you and what are you doing here?” demanded Miya. He spun around at the sound of her voice. Miya flinched at the vaguely familiar face, dark eyes boring into her. Where have I seen you before? Shouldn’t you have some stupid grin on your face?

“Miya!” he began in a rush, his voice strained and raw. “You’re not going to believe this, but there’s some freaky alien holding us captive. We’ve got wires attached to our head and everything. You gotta snap out of it!”

She took a step back to keep her distance from the lunatic. What the fuck? No, that can’t be right. That’s insane. And I escaped Overlord. I killed my way through those doctors and bots and got out. No more wires.

The stranger opened his mouth to continue-


Miya poured herself a glass of whisky from a bottle in the cabinet. She’d never had whisky before, but it tasted just as great as she expected.

“Ahh, fuck,” came a ragged but familiar voice from the kitchen. What the fuck? 

She hurried to the source of the voice, to find a familiar man in jeans and a hoodie leaning his head and arm against the wall, his hands clenched into fists. He murmured something under his breath and tapped his head against the doorframe. “I’m a dumbass. Can’t believe I fell for that shit.” He slammed his fist into the wall, leaving a slight trail of blood on the otherwise pristine cream colored paint.

Miya froze at the sight. Where do I know him from? She cleared her throat, catching his attention. His eyes snapped open.

“I see you got a great fuckin’ gig goin’ on here, but none of this is real,” he barked. 

“Who the fuck are you?” Miya demanded with voice raised. 

“Quit fuckin’ lyin’ to yourself. You ain’t over five feet tall, you still got a shaved head, you still got scars on your damn arms from Overlord. Fuckin’ wake up.”

She glanced down at her completely normal and unscarred arms as she folded them across her chest, standing up as straight as she could. “Well fuck you too. Get out.”


“I’m not asking.” Miya took a deep breath, preparing herself, Magic had been sluggish and unresponsive since… Wait, when was it weird? I’m fine. Nothing is wrong. 

The man spread his stance apart a few inches. “Look, I ain’t spendin’ the rest of my life droolin’ on a damn table. Gotta get us outta here one way or another.”

Before the last word even left his mouth, the man tensed as if ready to strike, even from ten feet away. Without any warning, he suddenly stood right in front of her, hand already swinging to strike an open palm on her ear. Caught off guard, she struck out blindly at him, finding only empty air as he teleported out of her reach.

“Come on, snap out of it now,” he mocked her through the ringing in her ear. He teleported in again, with a strike aimed at her gut. This time she rushed forward, not bothering to throw a punch of her own. All she needed was skin contact, which she got has he brought his other hand up to stop her.

He screamed as the bones in his finger shattered. Miya allowed herself a smile. Her ear didn’t even hurt that bad, once the shock wore off. His good hand struck out lightning quick, catching her in the throat. All concentration on her magic vanished as she struggled to breath. He wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her, throwing her to the ground

“Fuckin’ wake up!” he shouted. “If we don’t we’re all fucked!”

She struggled to breath through her bruised windpipe. No, I’m so close. I’ve got to kill Don and Overlord and…


Miya poured herself a glass of whisky from a bottle in the cabinet. She’d never had whisky before, but it tasted just as great as she expected. Sanchez’ mansion, now her fortress, served as her home for the moment as she plotted her vengeance. The next sip seemed to lose some of its appeal, and she set down the half empty glass next to the bottle.

“That was real fuckin’ stupid of me. My bad,” called out a vaguely familiar voice from the kitchen. What the fuck?

She stormed off, ready to behead the intruder. A nagging thought at the back of her head stopped her. That voice was familiar. Don’t know where from though. She poked her head around the corner to the kitchen, spotting a familiar man in jeans and a dark grey hoodie leaning his hip against the granite countertop. He held no weapons she could see.

“Hey,” he said with a wave.

Miya abandoned hiding behind the wall to face him fully. “Who are you and what are you doing in here?” she demanded.

His jaw clenched for a brief moment, but it relaxed as he asked, “Do you not remember one minute ago?”

“Yeah. I was drinking.”

“Remember me?”

“Nope,” she replied with a shake of her head.

A brief look of bafflement crossed his face. “I’m Ben.”

Recognition flooded Miya’s mind. “Oh, shit! That’s right. What are you doing here?” That’s where I know this guy from. The group that… fought Sanchez? Whatever, they’re helpful.

“Checkin’ in, I guess. Nice gig you got goin’ here.”

“Why thank you. It’s secure enough for what I need.”

“I see that,” he said, eyeing the iron bars over the windows, sticking out like sore thumbs from the rest of the house. She followed his sight, frowning. Were those always there? No, I put them there. “So, dressin’ up in a nice house lately? Anythin’ else?”

 “What’s wrong with that?” she asked, folding her arms across her chest.

A broad smile split his face. “Of course. My bad. How you been fillin’ the time? What’s goin’ on here?”

“I’ve been tossing all of Sanchez’ old things. Planning on how to get back at Overlord. Want to help?”

“Yeah, fuck yeah.” I knew there was a reason I liked you. “But Sanchez?”

“Yeah, I killed him, remember? This is his house.”

He nodded along, smile fading as he considered her. “Killed Sanchez, huh? How?”

“What do you mean?” That’s a dumb question. Who cares?

“How did you kill him? Bullets, knives, asthma?”

“Asthma?” she asked with a laugh.

“Magic!” he said with a wave of his hands.

“No. No I…” she trailed off, searching her memory. I didn’t just shoot him, that would have been too easy for him. But he was shot. I guess I did shoot him. “I shot him. How don’t you remember this?”

“You just fuckin’ forgot me,” he replied, smile returning.

“Yeah, yeah, sucks to suck,” she grumbled. She took a seat at one of three bar stools along the counter across from the sink. 

“Was Sanchez the one that did all that science shit to you?”

“What? No. That was Overlord. But I escaped, it’s fine. Everything is fine,” she replied, waving him off.

“Everythin’,” he repeated, eyeing her arms for some reason. “So you escaped Overlord. Wanna kill him, fair enough. Why kill Sanchez? Only reason you ever met him was cuz Overlord sold you off to him.”

“What? No. I…” No, that’s not right. Don sold me out, he has to die. Overlord fucked with me, he has to die. Sanchez fucked with me, he died. “Shut up.” 

“Ever get the feelin’ somethin’ else is fuckin’ with us?”

“In general or right now?”


“Yeah, you.”

“I don’t lie. If you escaped Overlord, why you gun for Sanchez? Can’t even remember how.”

Miya bit her lip. Fuck. I can’t remember. Something is fucking with my head. Don sold me out. Overlord experimented on me and passed me off to Sanchez. And Sanchez is dead, and I didn’t fucking do it. I’m just squatting in his house.

Ben chuckled. Miya stared at him as if he’d lost his mind. What could possibly be funny right now? “This is stupid. This is so goddamn stupid.”

“Ben?” she asked cautiously, at the edge of her seat.

“You figure it out yet? Look pretty pissed.”

She closed her eyes and looked down at the table for a moment. “I think I was out back, behind the lair. I was trying to get this one carving to work, when I saw some shadow guy out of the corner of my eye. I jumped up, then I was here until you popped in. What about you?”


A hiss of air forced its way through Miya’s parched throat. With some effort, she cracked her eyes open and immediately regretted it. She found herself in a horribly familiar room, her body paralyzed just as before. Even breathing took effort. No, not again. She felt sweat gather under the wires running on her head. Get it off, get it off. Her body refused to respond, even as she tried to get up, to scream, to fight. 

A creature, only human at first glance, stood over Chris to her side. It wore a length of metal clasped firmly over its too long forearm. Light shone out from it, reflecting off of the dozen black eyes fixed on Chris. It shifted, holding its arm over his chest for a couple seconds, before withdrawing and skittering out of her sight. 

After a minute, Miya finally managed to fold her head down, catching sight of her tormentor once more. I’m going to kill that thing. It hunched over a screen embedded in the wall, with a soft light blinking in the lower left corner. The colors seemed to swirl together, and Miya felt as if there were others she couldn’t quite see. The creature tapped the screen, dismissing the blinking light, and darkness overtook Miya once more.


Suddenly, Miya found herself seated at a familiar table. She got up from her chair as the scream of rage building in her throat morphed into a confused grunt. Before she could get her bearings, someone said, “Oh, hi Miya!” Bare feet slapped on the concrete in a run.

She turned to the source right as something hit her at chest height. That something proceeded to crush her torso, and Miya’s throat let out a squeak as air was forced from her lungs. The pressure on her chest eased off, the stars in her eyes faded, and the unknown person took a step back. Miya got a good look at her assailant, a small, teenage girl only an inch or two taller, with messy brown hair, a t-shirt and cargo pants both a couple sizes too big, and a wide smile. Who is this? And come to think of it, where am I?

She blinked, finally getting a good look at the room she found herself in. It was the shop. Same folding plastic table near the center with the various chairs they’d scrounged up. Amanda’s desks nearby against the wall, covered in all sorts of fancy techie gadgets. The pseudo-bedroom area, with the dividing curtains Ben and Chris had put up almost a month ago.

It wasn’t quite the same as she remembered, however. The lighting actually worked and the floor had a remarkable lack of old oil and grease stains. Everything is less crappy. The table is even clean. Then Miya looked over the other girl’s shoulders, where she couldn’t see. There she saw what she remembered, the creaky old walls, the bullet holes, and the piles of dirt in the corner that returned within days of them sweeping.

“Where have you been?” asked the girl. “Is everyone else coming back soon?”

“Places. Who are you?” responded Miya. You seem familiar for some reason.

“What?” Her smile faltered a bit. “You don’t recognize me? Oh!” Her smile returned.

Hold on. Her eyes have silver irises. Soft voice, messy brown hair, the face is the same, it’s just not a mile above me. “Olivia?” asked Miya.

She looked up and waved a hand over where Olivia stood, right about where her elbow normally was, finding nothing but air.

“Yeah! Hi!” said Olivia with a small wave.

“So,” began Miya.

“Oh my gosh. This is great. I’ve been reading and waiting for you guys to come back,” said Olivia, rapid fire. “This is so cool. I can balance on my toes.” Someone’s more enthusiastic than I’ve ever heard before.

She stood up on her toes, arms held out to either side. “Or back on my heels.” She rocked back to her heels for a moment, then stood normally. “I sat in Amanda’s chair with the backrest and everything and I don’t really get the appeal but it was great. And look!” She stuck out her tongue.

“Uh,” said Miya, struggling to form the question. What the fuck?

“It’s not forked anymore!”

“You have, or had a forked tongue?” asked Miya.

“Yes. Or, no, not anymore. Whatever.” Olivia bounced up and down on her toes.

“You know this isn’t real, right?”

She stopped moving as her smile vanished. “Wh… what?”

“This isn’t real. One,” Miya pointed to her, “How? Two, notice there’s no doors in here?”

“But, but,” she protested, eyebrows furrowed. Wait, no, Ben tried this on me. “Then that means-”


Suddenly, Miya found herself seated at a familiar table. She gripped the surface as the sense of vertigo overtook her for a split second. “That was weird,” she grumbled to herself as she started to get up to look for Olivia. It’s so abrupt when it’s not your mindfuck.

She heard bare feet slapping on the concrete. Oh no. Olivia slammed into her with a bear hug again. Ow, ow, ow. After she released her, Miya massaged her ribs and said, “Hi there.” You have no idea how strong normal people are, do you?


And of course she remembers nothing. Let’s get this over with. “You look different.” How old is she? She can’t be older than sixteen.


“Everything looks and sounds all fuzzy. I don’t know how you guys stand it but it’s great!”


“I tried eating some carrots earlier and it was so much easier!”


“I can actually feel stuff with my fingertips and hands now. I never noticed that before, but I can now and it’s so cool!”


Suddenly, Miya found herself seated at a familiar table. She sighed and bit back a curse. What are we on? Try ten? Twelve? She actually burst into tears a couple times. How long have we been laying here in real time? Days? Minutes? She got up from her chair, she’d learned from experience the incoming hug would put her leg, hip, and spine at an awkward and painful angle if she took it sitting.

One painful bear hug and far less painful greeting later, Miya said, “Hey, Olivia.” Memory? Let’s try that. If she breaks down again I’ll just reset. Maybe. Hopefully.

“Yeah?” said Olivia as she hopped up on the tabletop and swung her legs beneath her. Don’t let her kick you, whatever you do.

“What happened?” began Miya. “How did this happen?”

“What?” asked Olivia.

“What is the last thing you remember?” asked Miya. 

Olivia looked down, concentrating. “Well, I flew back, then… I got back. Then, this,” she said, spreading her hands for her to see.

“What was wrong with you before?” 

Olivia laughed, though her beaming smile faded a touch. “Really? I wasn’t human.”

“So? What’s so great about being human?” Miya paused the moment the question left her mouth. The only people Olivia had ever met were the cops, who probably thought life was all peachy, and the brothers, who would never bother to ask such a question.

Olivia stopped swinging her legs. “Because everything was weird and wrong and I couldn’t fit in anywhere. Like, cars and stuff, but with other people too,” she 

“But you don’t remember,” Miya insisted.

“I do,” Olivia protested.

“Do you? Do you really? If this is what you looked like before, what you remember what you looked like, what was your name? Do you remember that?”

Olivia opened her mouth, though no sound came out. Worry spread across her face, and Miya readied herself for another reset.

5: Bad Alcohol

Ben entered the old, familiar apartment, the door shut firm behind him. Good to be back. He kicked off his shoes and headed for the kitchen. I guess whoever was here last left all the lights on. He opened the fridge and browsed the selection of food within. Apple, sure. Ooh, honeycrisp, mom did remember! He peeled off the sticker, threw it in the trash, then hopped up on the counter and began munching. About three bites in, he jumped back down to the floor. Mom hates it when we sit on the counters. Forgot about that.

He walked along the thick carpet in the living room and plopped down on the dark blue couch, across from the small flat screen TV they rarely used anymore since the triplet brothers had flown the coop. Another substantial chunk of apple gone, the juicy crunch of his bite breaking the silence of the apartment. He stretched out on the couch in the meantime, a contented smile on his face.

Mom and dad should be back by tonight from their little second honeymoon. Definitely need to wait for them. Rob and Sam should get here soon too. He finished off the apple. Need something to do. He wriggled on the couch, angling so that he could pull his phone out of his pocket.

Did I throw away that apple core? I think I did. He scrolled through the various updates and memes of the day. This got old after about ten minutes, or twenty, or thirty. He lost count at some point. He took a moment to study the old Pakistani rug dad had brought home from deployment and hung up like a tapestry over the couch. Dad had surprised the whole family that day, nonchalantly eating some potato chips at the kitchen when had brought the boys home from school. Two lighthouse paintings that mom favored flanked it, gifts from her own parents in Maine. Been forever since I even thought of school since I dropped out of high school. He frowned. Wait, parents would have thrown a fit if I’d done that. I didn’t do that.

Need something to do. He pushed himself out of the cushions of the brown couch, stood with purpose, then promptly forgot why he stood in the first place. Need something to do, right. Dad’s birthday gift shouldn’t arrive for another couple days. Ben walked back into the kitchen, opening various cupboards. Got enough food, dishes are all clean. Damn. He shut the last door, the rattling of the bowls the only sound in the apartment. Or was it cups? Whatever.

May as well check on the old room, see if there’s any evidence of dad’s claims that they’re renting it out to a hobo while we’re gone. A quick five steps down the hall between the living room and the kitchen later, and he poked his head in the mostly empty room, with the bunk bed and normal bed pushed against the wall. Nothing else in here? He caught sight of a Pakistani rug, hung up like a tapestry along the wall opposite the beds, flanked by two lighthouse paintings.

Oh, I guess they started decorating when we moved out. Then why are our beds still here? Wait, we didn’t move out to college that long ago, I guess that makes sense. But wait, that was years ago. I’ve never been to college. That pissed mom off.

Wait, I have to be honest with myself. Since when did I care about what mom thinks?

His head in a fog, he turned around and began fishing his keys out of his other pocket as he walked. Need some air. A handful of steps later, he stared at the blank expanse of wall where the door should have been. Where the fuck is the door? Why the hell-


Ben entered the apartment, the door shut firm behind him. Good to be back. He kicked off his shoes and headed for the kitchen. He opened the fridge and browsed the selection of food within. Apple, sure. He peeled off the sticker, threw it in the trash, and hopped up on the counter and began munching. About three bites in, jumped back down to the floor. Mom hates it when we sit on the counters. Forgot about that.

He paced until he finished his apple. Need something to do. From what I can tell, everything’s covered for the party, though. Cake was in the fridge, presents for dad are incoming, can’t think of anything else. He pulled out and twirled his keys around his finger as he continued to pace. His customary smile felt forced, somehow. Something screamed at the back of his mind, though he couldn’t pinpoint what it said. 

Just need to wait for the rest of the family to get here. Just want to see dad again, now that he’s finally retired from the Marines. Honestly, I hope he keeps mom from drinking too hard. Again. But this is still boring, and I’ve only been here for about ten minutes. Or has it been thirty? Whatever. 

May as well check on those plants mom keeps by the window sill. Those bulb things with water in them are cool and all, but then mom keeps forgetting about them. He entered the living room. Huh. Could have sworn there was a window in here. Their room, maybe? I know she doesn’t trust the three of us to keep a thing alive.

He poked his head into the master bedroom. Queen sized bed, a dresser with a large attached mirror for mom’s various accessories, a sizable painting of a mountain background over the bed. No window in here, either. Bathroom? No window.

This is weird. I don’t remember there being absolutely no windows in here. Hell, how long have they even had this place? He poked his head into his old bedroom, the one he had shared with his brothers. Beds, a desk, my backpack, and no fucking window. The hell?

He ducked back out to the hallway and scratched the back of his head. I don’t remember the no window thing. That is definitely not right. I can’t remember how I got here, actually. Hell, I can’t even remember-


Ben entered the apartment, the door shut firm behind him. Good to be back. He kicked off his shoes and headed for the kitchen. He opened the fridge and browsed the selection of food within, though he closed the door a minute later. Too quiet right now.

He bounced on his toes for a bit, first considering crashing on the dark red couch in the living room, then at the dining table. Waiting for dad. Just gotta wait for dad. And mom, I guess. He drummed his hands against a nearby countertop, a rapid beat that could’ve belonged in any rock song.

Need something to do. It’s too quiet here. No cars or neighbors or anything. He eyed the empty bottles on the counter in the corner. He sighed. Mom been drinking again? I thought she got over that. Wait, when? She never got over that. Wait, she did. Last year? Last time dad got back? Ben shook his head, willing the cloudiness to go away and the memories to return.

Dad came back? When? That doesn’t seem right, don’t know why. But I’m waiting for him right now. So why can’t I remember-


Ben entered the apartment, the door shut firm behind him. Guess I’m back. He began the process of kicking off his shoes, then something stopped him. I’ve done this before. Maybe. He moved on, not bothering to remove his shoes.

Gotta wait for dad. Gotta wait for Sam. Gotta wait for Rob. Just gotta wait. Just a bit longer. He passed by the cracked wall where that red and white lighthouse picture used to hang. I need something to do. Hell, what am I doing? Not here, in general. This is Maryland. But I was living in Colorado. No, I am living in Colorado. Last thing I remember, Rob was talking about Bri the day before she visited. Then what-


Ben entered the apartment, the door shut firm behind him. Home sweet fucking home. He kicked an empty bottle out of the way as he worked his way inwards. Half these lights need changing. The fuck is mom doing? The hell is dad doing? Why are me, Sam, and Rob even bothering coming here? An aluminum beer can crunched under his foot. He spat and kept walking.

Honestly, she couldn’t even be bothered to notice her own damn kids. We slip out in the middle of the night and it takes her a week to even send a damn text asking where we are. Why are we checking up on her? Why bother? This is dad’s problem.

What the fuck am I even saying? Dad’s dead in a miserable sand pit a thousand miles away.


Ben’s eyes cracked open, taking far too long to focus in the dark room he found himself in. A bare handful of dim yellow lights provided only the lowest amount of illumination possible. His heart beat ever so slowly, in sync with his rasping breath. He heard air moving through another throat off to his right. The muscles of his neck twitched to life, tensing as he tried to simply move his head to give himself a view of something besides a pitted old ceiling. He paused for a moment, catching sight of what looked suspiciously like a crude smiley face etched into the plaster. 

After a few seconds of effort, his head flopped to the side, giving him a blurry view of a tiny figure. Beside him lay Miya, out cold on a wooden table much like the one he found himself on. Several wires attached to different points along her skull lead to a braided bundle, dropping off the head of her table and out of sight. Ben twitched, feeling similar wires on his own head. Bad. What? Help. His jaw refused to cooperate, merely splitting his mouth open to allow his dry tongue to flop out. Motion caught the corner of his eye. His heartbeat picked up a notch. He bent his neck a few degrees, his body responding slowly but surely.

Past his feet he caught sight of a naked humanoid figure, hunched over a screen. He regained enough control to focus on the screen. Utterly alien script scrolled past, meaningless to Ben, though the figure seemed to devote its whole attention to it. On some unknown signal, it bolted upright and scuttled out of view. Its movements were inhuman, joints bending at the wrong angles, or joints where there shouldn’t have been any. 

I don’t want to be here. As an experiment, he took a deep breath. His muscles responded better than before, even if it was something so simple. The haze in his head was dissipating. He next tried his arm, getting it to at least twitch and bend slightly. His fingers followed suit a moment later. Great. Fantastic.  He froze as the figure scuttled back into view, hunching back over the screen. Ben counted ten heartbeats before trying to move again. A grunt escaped his throat. The figure stiffened. Fuck. No. 

It tapped a few buttons on the screen and twisted to gaze right at him with a dozen black marbles embedded in what looked like its nose-less and ear-less face. Ben fought to get up, to fight back, to escape, to do anything. His eyes only rolled back up as his arm flopped uselessly at his side.

Darkness overtook him once more.


Ben found himself standing, not in an old, familiar apartment, but a gigantic kitchen. A colossal granite countertop dominated the center of the room, absolutely clean and spotless. Rich. Several kitchen appliances lined the counter on the far wall. Ben squinted, watching them change from blender to set of steak knives to a mixing bowl, all of which looked brand new and never used. 

“Bwah?” he muttered to himself, struggling to comprehend exactly what it was he was watching.

A sharp, surprised intake of breath caused him to whip around, catching sight of a woman. Miya stood before him with an expression of shock and rage. Rather than the partially grown out shaved head he’d always known on her, her black hair reached down past her shoulders. And, impossibly, she stood a little taller, probably an inch over five feet. The acne scarring along her cheeks had vanished, or perhaps that was simply the makeup. The perfume and dress, however, he’d never seen or smelled before.

“Who the fuck are you and what are you doing here?” demanded Miya.

“Miya!” he began in a rush. “You’re not going to believe this, but there’s some freaky alien holding us captive. We’ve got wires attached to our head and everything. You gotta snap out of it!”

The shock and wrath on her face morphed into confusion. He opened his mouth to continue-


Ben found himself standing, not in an old, familiar apartment, but a gigantic kitchen.

4: Boo

Ben waved to Olivia from the other roof. She took the cue and glided over, landing on the gravel of the roof with a crunch. Ben yanked open the door to the interior of the apartment building and led the way inside.

“No cameras or anythin’ that I found. Cops were here, an’ there’s a good chance there’s listinin’ devices that I missed, so watch what you say,” he explained as they walked down the familiar staircase.

“Should we be here then?” she asked. This was your idea.

“We’re fine. Can’t take too long, though.” They reached the fourth floor of the building, exiting the stairwell and entering the building proper.

They came to Olivia’s old apartment, the one she’d used for the first couple weeks. “Fair warnin’, Johnny Law went through everythin’,” said Ben as he stood off to the side of the door, making room for her to enter and passing her a small duffel bag.


She went in through the broken down door, passing her scratched-in tallies by the door and reached the old couch she’d used as a bed. Ben waited by the front door, keeping watch. It smells a little different. Other people have been here, just not recently.

Scuffs near the feet of the couch further marred the old, shoddy carpet. A scavenged chair leaned against the wall of one of the bedrooms she never used. Stupid backrest. Its shattered leg was new, though. She checked the hallway closet where she’d kept most of her old clothes. I remember there being more in here.

Oh, hey, that alarm clock’s still here. If I remember right, it just needs some batteries. She grabbed that and shoved it in the bag. The water is gone. Not much here besides some trash I never got around to cleaning up. The blankets are way old, and dusty. Not much else I need from here. My backpack was at Ben’s old apartment, and that’s the only other thing I can think of.

She grabbed the last pair of pants and the two shirts that didn’t smell too funny and stuffed them in the small bag Ben had loaned her. Nothing else. She still paused at the hallway leading to the apartment’s front door, looking back over her shoulder. 

“We good?” asked Ben, his masked face tilting to the side a few degrees.

“Yeah,” said Olivia, leaving the apartment and curling her tail out of the way as she closed the door.

“That it?” he asked, motioning to her visibly empty bag. “No keepsakes? No closure? No nothin’?”

“No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “I don’t think I’ll miss this place. I mean, it was better than nothing, but I want to move on, you know?”

“I hear you. Meet up at the strip mall, grab a bite? It ain’t that late” 

Donut mall! “OK!”

Olivia passed the bag to him to keep her wings clear as they parted ways, her to the roof and him to the ground floor. The shadows in the building almost seemed to reach out to her as she walked. Her pace picked up.

She took flight once she reached the roof. That was… I don’t know. Oh well, there’s no reason to go back anymore. I was kind of afraid there’d be rotting food in there, actually. Bri had left earlier that day, driving off in her car stuffed with stuff, and everyone returned to their normal routines. She was nice. If I don’t act big and scary, people are nicer. Who knew?

She passed over the neighborhood. She’d never actually walked in this area since she figured out the whole flying thing. Nothing but old houses, nothing food-wise that she would have felt comfortable taking. The power lines throughout the neighborhood kept her high up, though the lack of wind that night made flying easier than normal.

At the edge of the roof of her favorite building to overlook the donut mall, she took a seat and waited, enjoying the quiet moment. After a minute and some hollow metallic echoing sounds, Ben climbed and teleported up to join her, bag slung over his shoulder instead of his rifle.

“Well that was quick. Hear any sirens comin’?” he said once he got within normal speaking distance.

She paused. Nothing that really stands out. That ringing sound is starting to get irritating. Actually, other than that, there’s not much at all. Isn’t it a Friday night? “No.”


 Ben pulled out the wallet, the one that said “Bad Motherfucker” in red block letters on the outside. “Do I have cash?” he muttered to himself. “I do! Want a burger?”

“OK.” I can’t ever think of a reason to turn down food.

He started for the fast food joint below them. He didn’t take off the mask or anything.

“Wait,” said Olivia.


“You’re going in like that?”

He stopped, spreading his arms apart and looking down at himself. “Huh?”

“You’re just… you know. The mask. Sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“Oh, you can’t pay a fast food worker enough to give a shit. So long as they know I’m payin’ an’ not shootin’, they don’t care. This ain’t too outta the ordinary. Supers still gotta eat.”

“I still don’t think I should walk in there. Because, you know…” she trailed off. But maybe I could.

“You can read the drive thru menu from here, right?”

“Yeah.” Of course I can. Those giant, bright panels outside with all the colorful pictures and words on them? How could you not?

“So read it. Let me know what you want.”

She considered her options. “Um, the bacon burger thing. Oh, yeah, the meal. As a meal.” However you say that.

“Anythin’ else? Want a shake?”

“Sure.” Why not? I don’t think I’ve had one before. Or can remember having one, whatever. It’s under deserts, it must be sweet.


Olivia glanced at the menu again, finding the bright desert menu in the lower right corner. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. The cake they’d bought a week ago on a whim, the white cake with white vanilla icing that Ben insisted was called a Nathan Bedford Forrest cake, tasted good. “Vanilla,” said Olivia.

“Really? The borin’ Superman of shake flavors?”

Boring is great! Nothing is shooting at you when things are boring. “Why not?”

“Fair enough,” he said with a shrug.

Ben dropped the bag and went back down the way he came. Olivia watched as he blatantly teleported up to the store and walked through the door, mask and black clothes and all. I really hope the worker guy in there doesn’t shoot lasers or something. A figure caught her eye on a distant rooftop. The moment she focused on it, it vanished. I keep thinking I’m seeing that, but I’m not sure. Oh, Ben’s coming back! I smell food!

After a minute, he rejoined her on the rooftop. “Jumpy little fry cook. Your plain-ass shake,” he said, offering the large cup with a straw sticking out of the lid. He joined her in sitting on the edge of the roof and lifted his mask to eat, leaving it resting on the top of his head. They divided the burgers and ate.

“What do you have against vanilla?” asked Olivia after a moment.

“Nothin’s wrong with it, just borin’.”

“Well, I liked that vanilla cake we got earlier.”

“Oh, yeah. The Nathan Bedford Forrest cake. An’ no one got the joke, either. Disappointin’,” he said around a mouthful of chicken sandwich. Please stop that. Please?

She pushed on. “Do you need to explain the joke then? Because, you know, only you laughed at that.”

“Nathan Bedford Forrest was a founder of the KKK.”


“You don’t understand the significance of callin’ a pure white cake with pure white icin’ after a KKK dude, do you?”

“Nope.” Because of course not.

“White supremacist group.” He paused. Go on. “They don’t like people who ain’t white. They’ll word it differently, so that they ain’t soundin’ like the bad guys, but the core of the matter is they hate anyone who ain’t white, or just anyone who ain’t them. Despicable fellas.” That’s kind of depressing. Ben almost squirmed in his seat as he talked. Is he uncomfortable? We sit on these things all the time. Or is it what he’s talking about? “So if you put colorful sprinkles on a white cake, it’s a desegregation cake. Now, speakin’ as a white dude, I don’t’ think I’m really qualified to speak on race an’ stuff. Just sayin’.”

They finished their food in silence after that. Mmmm. Shake good. Burger tasted a bit off, though. At some point the light of the drive thru menu started dimming over the course of a few seconds then flickering back to life in a regular pattern.

Ben crumpled the last of his three value menu burger wrappers and threw it in the bag. “Had just as much fast food in the past month as the rest of the year combined,” he commented.

She nodded in agreement, still drinking. I can’t remember ever having much healthy stuff. This isn’t that bad though. Right? It’s meat. Meat is good.

“No complaints? From a chick?” asked Ben. What? “The others, minus Rob, were all moanin’ ‘bout that earlier.”

She shrugged. I don’t really mind. I mean, it’s better fresh… “You don’t care?” asked Olivia.

“Nah. I’m, an’ Rob, are some of those infuriatin’ fucks who don’t gain weight no matter how much they eat. It’ll kick my ass when I get older, but that’s tomorrow’s problem”

All the streetlights died. Olivia looked around. Some lights twinkled off in the distance; nothing near them. This is strange. Ben just sighed. Or not?

“Come on, people!” he exclaimed to the sky. “I thought we got this shit sorted out last year!”

Um… “What?” I am just full of clarification questions today, aren’t I?

“The power’s been spotty since forever. But they said they got their shit together. Hell, that was part of the mayor’s campaign. Or was it the governor’s? Whatever.”

“That doesn’t seem very good.”

“Well, they say once New York goes four months without a blackout, the recession slash depression thing we’ve been in will be over. Still, we’ve got a fraction of the population of what New York’s got, so fuck us, I guess. Anythin’ you wanna do while we’re out?”

“No. Not that I can think of. And thank you. For, you know, the food.”

He laughed as he put his mask back into place. “No problem. See you back at the shop?”

“Sure.” It’s too quiet out right now. Kind of dark now, too. Why is it so dark? That’s never been a problem before.

He started jumping down to the ground, and Olivia took flight back to the lair. The lack of wind made the air noticeably hotter, and thickened the pollution. Is that… tapping I hear? She looked behind her. Nothing but empty air and a handful of lights on the horizon. Weird.

She landed at the auto shop, ahead of Ben, at the back entrance, out of view of the main street. Not that it matters, the whole city is still tonight. She went in, closing the door behind her. Home sweet home. And everyone is almost exactly where we left them. Something seems off, though.

There was Amanda, hunched over her desk. Rob flicked a lever of a gear contraption thing, a small model trebuchet which swung, then returned to its original position with rattles and clanks from within. Rob and Chris talked. Well, Chris talked, trying to explain exactly what it is he did in the MHU, and Rob maintained a sort of glazed expression. They haven’t moved. At all. But no Miya. Olivia sniffed the air. Nowhere. And I don’t hear her either. Is she alright? I didn’t hear any movement from out back.

Olivia walked up to the privacy curtain around Miya’s bed. “Miya? Are you there?” With no response, she poked her head through the curtain to find an empty bed.

Olivia called out to Rob and Chris. “Hi guys. Um, do you know where Miya is?”

“No, why?” asked Chris, knitting his eyebrows together.

“She’s not out back, and she’s not here. She’s usually asleep by now.”

Rob and Chris exchanged glances. Uh oh. It’s never good when people do that. They got up. “That’s a good point. Where the fuck is she?” said Rob, looking around the main room.

Chris got up and checked the offices out front. He swiftly returned with a shake of his head. “Hey, Amanda, you’ve got cameras all around this place, right?” he asked as Rob jogged up to a large metal box he’d pulled from the back of his truck yesterday.

“Yeah, why?” responded Amanda, not looking up from her tablet.

“Miya’s missing. Olivia didn’t see or smell anything,” responded Chris.

Rob yanked on a small lever on the front of the box. Well-oiled machinery worked within, and the lid popped open.

Amanda shoved the tablet along the desk off to her right and clicked on a mouse to get the central computer’s monitor running. “What, from here? How? Also, hi, Olivia.”

“Oh, hi.” said Olivia as Amanda opened the feeds for the cameras. Let’s not get distracted now.

Amanda rewound the camera footage. “Just a couple minutes back,” said Chris.

Olivia looked over her shoulder to Rob. Keeping his eyes on the nearest door, he strapped a knife to his right forearm. She caught a glimpse of some wires extending towards his hand. A crowbar rested on the box beside him.

Olivia returned her attention to Amanda’s screen. “The fuck?” said Amanda. Well that can’t be good.

Static. That’s all that was on the screen. The static moved around in a vaguely humanoid shape, but that was somewhat less helpful than the real picture would have been. Amanda rewound back a minute, and everything became clear. 

The back of the shop remained empty, as usual, save for Rob’s BAT. Over the course of the minute, the edges of the feed became blurrier and blurrier, gradually swallowing up their whole view. Then movement happened.

“What’s the live feed look like?” asked Chris.

Wait, when did the lights get so dim?

“WH-” Something cut off Rob’s shout.

Olivia spun around, her tail nearly taking out Chris. Nothing. Nothing by the box, or in the lair, or by the doors. The crowbar hadn’t moved. Where’d he go? Still smells like he’s here. I didn’t hear anything or anyone else.

“Amanda,” barked Chris.

“On it, where the fuck did my phone go,” she said, jumping to her feet and whipping her head from side to side, searching her desk.

Olivia took a cautious step forward. Nothing happened. She stalked over to where Rob had been. Still nothing. Where’d he go?

“Something’s got it out for us. Stay here or run for it outside?” Amanda asked Chris from under the desk where she’d continued her search. Ben.

“Where’s Ben?” asked Olivia.

“What?” asked Chris.

“Ben?” Something caught the corner of Olivia’s eye. She spun in that direction, only to find a whole lot of nothing, at least nothing out of the ordinary.

“Don’t know, but he can take care of himself,” said Chris from behind Olivia. “Amanda, is there any way…” He trailed off. Amanda was gone. I did not notice that. How did I not notice that? 

Chris ducked his head under the desk as Olivia scanned the lair for a target, any target at all. Where are they?

“Shit, shit, shit” Chris muttered under his breath in rapid succession. To Olivia he said, “You see anything?”

She didn’t respond, instead preferring to continue her search of the lair for any clues at all. I’m hissing, aren’t I? Doesn’t matter. Give me back my friends.

“Olivia? You still with me?”

Right. Threatening. Sorry. She turned her head and nodded to him over her shoulder. Then something blurry and dark caught her eye again. Come here, you. She slashed at where she estimated the blur would be, moving at that speed. Harder to do when there were no accompanying sounds she’d grown used to taking advantage of. She hit nothing.

She growled in frustration. “What was that?” asked Chris.

She shot him a questioning look. You didn’t see that? He wasn’t looking at her, instead keeping watch wherever she wasn’t looking. “I saw something,” she managed

Right. Focus. “Need to get out of here,” he said, backing up towards the nearest door.

She followed watching wherever he wasn’t. This is frustrating, not knowing what to hit. The oppressive and absolute silence, beyond her and Chris’s breathing, started to grate. Hate not knowing what’s going on. He turned around to open the door once he reached it. Olivia took a moment to look around at the lair. Looking exactly like home, just devoid of people.

“F-” Whatever Chris said was cut off. No. The door remained closed. Olivia roared. Get out here. Something dark came from overhead.

3: Horizons

Olivia gradually drifted awake to the sound of an ongoing conversation. This in and of itself was not unusual, though this was the first she’d heard of a state governor. Hang on. Something smells different and I don’t recognize one of those voices. Oh, right. Rob’s friend arrived while I was sleeping. Bri, I think. So many new people. Olivia got up and began to get dressed in her baggy and cut up clothes.

Once ready, she took a moment, with one hand hovering over the curtain separating her bed from the wider auto shop. What should I say? Just hi? Yeah, easy. It’ll be OK. She parted the curtain and walked out, eyebrows furrowing in concern when she realized that Rob sat in Amanda’s chair, twirling a pair of pliers in one hand and eating a bagel in the other. I’m not sure that’s smart, Rob. But food. Food is good. Is it breakfast for me because I just woke up, or dinner because of the time? Chris and Miya sat around the table with another girl Olivia didn’t recognize. 

“Then Mike started freaking out because he heard on the police band they had caught on to us, so we had to book it out of there before Jimmy could grab anything else,” said the girl with her back to Olivia. Bri.

“So he had a radio in his head? That was his power?” asked Miya. Rob and Bri nodded in unison. “That must have sucked.”

“Nah, he could turn it off,” said Rob. “It wasn’t like he listened to static all the time.”

“OK, gotcha,” said Miya. She looked over Chris’ shoulder and called out, “Hey, Olivia.”

Olivia aborted grabbing box of old bagels as Chris and Bri turned around in their seats. “Um, hi,” said Olivia with a small wave in their direction. Bri gave a tiny start. Right, scaly hand. And claws. Sorry.

Chris waved her over, saying, “Bri, this is Olivia. Olivia, Bri.”

Olivia walked over and found a chair, saying, “Good morning. Or evening. You know.” 

“G’mornin’,” said Rob, tossing the pliers carelessly to the side. Then he faced her with a grin and said, “Of course, I could possibly be Ben.”

Her head tilted a couple degrees to the side, puzzled. “No you’re not.”

“You sure?” he prodded her. Bri giggled. 

“Well, yes.”

“Dammit,” sighed Rob. “It’s fun to fuck with people on that.” He wore a pair of jeans and a light grey hoodie, and Olivia got the suspicion that Ben would be dressed the exact same way the next time she saw him.

She smiled slightly. “Um, alright.”

He took a large bite out of his bagel, then asked around it, “How’d you know?” Her smile vanished. Oh god, both you and Ben talk with food in your mouths. Why?

She began to reflexively look down, then stopped herself. No, stop it. Bad habit, bad. “Well, you two are kind of different.”

It was Rob’s turn to shoot her a questioning look. “Never heard that before. Ever.”

“No, no. I mean, you know.” This is going to be weird, just get it over with. “You two kind of smell different. That’s it,” she trailed off. She didn’t add how he talked marginally slower than Ben, or how he was slightly more muscular. Otherwise, the sheer volume of similarities she’d noticed over the past couple of days caught her off guard. Both had easy, if sharp, smiles and dark recessed eyes. They even both habitually leaned in whenever talking to someone, like cats playing with a toy. 

He shrugged and said, “Oh, cool. How does that work, anyhow?”

“I don’t really know. There’s always a lot, and I kind of just tune most of it out.” Good job me. You didn’t say he smelled greasy and burnt, while Ben smells chemical-y and donut-y. Baby steps. Now I just need to figure out how to change the subject.

“So there was you, Rob, Mike, and Jimmy and Shawn?” Miya asked Bri after a silent moment. Thank you, Miya. I just needed to ask him a question. 

“Hm? Oh, yeah. Jimmy was the magic guy, and Shawn was the mentalist guy. He could…” Bri trailed off and sighed. She turned to Rob, the tight braid of blonde hair at the back of her head swaying with the movement. “How would you explain it?”

“Voodoo witchcraft,” he said without hesitation.

“Wow. Saying the black dude with powers is a voodoo witch doctor. Good job,” said Bri, amused. Olivia pulled out her phone while keeping an ear on the conversation. Voodoo.

“OK, you go ahead an’ explain his power. Go on. Waitin’,” said Rob, equally amused.

Bri sighed. She held a hand to her forehead for a moment, then said, “He’s not quite precognizant. He can, like, read plans from body language. That’s the best way I can describe it.” 

“Your confidence is astounding,” said Miya. Olivia fumbled with the small keys under the table. Half the letters have scratches through them already.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself, Bri,” said Rob. “If he said something, you believed it. Wasn’t wrong often.”

“So you were the only girl in the whole group?” asked Miya. Does that matter?

“Yep,” said Bri.

“I’m sorry.” 

Voodoo. Blend of Christianity and African beliefs. Mainly in the Caribbean. Those are those islands to the south, right?

“It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, and it’s not like they were my entire social life.”

“How did you all get together?” Everyone looked at Olivia. Oh, I said that aloud. She slipped her phone back into her pocket. “Um, I mean, when you first met.” There’s a lot of scratches on this table. Of course there are, this is where I usually sit.

“Well, lemme think. There’s no real good story behind it, actually,” said Rob. “Feel free to point out anything I miss, cuz I’m startin’ with my side of it,” he said to Bri.


“So I was drivin’ up north from Baltimore a couple years ago, no real goal in mind. I’d rob the occasional gas station or smash parkin’ meters an’ move on. This was before I got the BAT, so I could be a bit more low profile. Eventually, I got up to Pennsylvania an’ was knockin’ over this late night diner.” 

Wait, he what? Olivia glanced at Chris, who simply leaned back in his chair, almost detached from the conversation. I shouldn’t say anything. It’s not as bad as killing people.

“Three dudes rushed me when my back was on ‘em for a moment. The gun I was threatenin’ with was fake, but the spring-loaded knives up my sleeves weren’t. Plus, I had some metal shin and arm guards under my clothes. Thieves on the streets gotta be wary of their mark in case they shoot lasers outta their eyes, an’ civilians gotta be wary of muggers who could melt their brain or whatever. But back on track. So I start fightin’ those three fellas, got one down but I was still fucked, when some other kid in a bandana smashes a chair over one of the other guys. After was a bit of a blur, but me an’ that kid hightailed it outta there together.”

“You trusted some kid you just met?” asked Miya.

“He kinda saved my sorry ass, an’ I might have kept him from gettin’ leveled at one point. Anyways, he was Mike. He’d been in there for a bit, workin’ up the courage to actually rob his boss when I barged in. We split the money, got to talkin’, an’ he tagged along. Funny, he’s pretty easy to push around, but he’s never once told any of us why.”

“And I’ve asked. Rob’s asked, Shawn’s asked, even Jimmy’s asked. Mike just won’t talk about his past,” pipped up Bri. “I mean, we weren’t asking for his whole life story, but even after two years he would just clam up whenever we asked.”

“Yeah,” said Rob. “So me an’ him kicked around for about a week, when I got contacted by some people at the Black Market. I’d met one of them, didn’t know that at the time, at the DC Techcon. They contacted me to be part of a job, an’ they were OK with Mike. There I met Jimmy, an’ Bri since she was datin’ him at the time.” Whoa. Black market? Techcon? What? Back to the phone.

Bri rolled her eyes and protested, “We weren’t technically dating.” Rob merely smirked. “Fine, whatever. Continue.”

“An’ Shawn was there too, also got hired by the Black Market guy. We had to steal some schematics out of some mine out in the west part of the state, right?”

OK. A black market is just an unofficial market. I guess it’s just for illegal stuff.

“No. Steel mill. It was close to a mine though,” said Bri. “You were lost in your own little world, that’s probably why you don’t remember.”

Rob jabbed a finger at her with a grin. “Don’t judge, that place was cool.” A steel mill? Really? You make steel there, right? That doesn’t sound fun.

“I am aware. That was your mantra through the whole damn job.” Rob grinned. Bri continued, “So we stole the papers, we’ll spare you the nitty gritty details, but afterwards we decided to stick together for a bit. We weren’t the biggest players, we mainly did contract work or robbery to make ends meet.”

The rumble of a car engine caught Olivia’s ear. It pulled up to the back of the shop and cut off. “Someone is here,” she announced.

The door to the shop squeaked open, and in walked Amanda with a bag slung over one shoulder. “Oh, hi everyone,” she said, walking over to her desk amid the chorus of greetings. She set her bag on her desk and started down at Rob with a suspiciously calm expression. 

“Somethin’ wrong?” he asked, grin stretched to shit eating proportions.

“You’re in my spot.” Oh no. Do I have to talk with Rob and Amanda like I did with Ben and Amanda? Wait! Ask a question, change the subject. 

“Um, where’s Ben? Didn’t he drive you?” asked Olivia.

Amanda blinked, attention torn between Rob and Olivia. “No, I just replaced my old car earlier today. It’s not the greatest in the world, but the Tesla’s a bit outside my price range, no matter how much I want it.”

“I kinda want one of those,” said Rob.

“Says the dude who drives a huge, gas guzzling monster of a truck,” joked an oblivious Bri. “And isn’t Tesla basically the techie god?”

Without hesitation, Amanda replied, “Yes.”

“That dude was awesome,” said Rob. Wow, both of them.

“The man invented half the stuff in the modern world, without powers, might I add,” said Amanda.

“He got dicked over by businesses an’ jackasses who valued profit over good engineerin’,” added Rob.

“The man was an unappreciated genius-” started Amanda.

“-an’ I will break the knees of anyone who says otherwise,” finished Rob. OK. Subject changed. That worked really well somehow.

Bri blinked, glancing between the two techies. “OK then, I learned something today.” She yawned as she twisted and stretched in her chair, setting off a chain reaction with the others. “It’s been nice meeting you all, but I’ve been sitting in a car all day. I think I’m going to pass out for the night. What is today? Thursday?” The metal legs of her chair scraped against the concrete floor as she pushed her chair back as she got up.

“All day. Your patch of concrete is right next to mine, over there,” said Rob, pointing.

Everyone started heading to bed, except for Olivia and Amanda, who immediately reclaimed her spot once Rob vacated it. I may as well fly around for a bit now. It’s fun, and I’ve got the whole night to kill if everyone else is going to sleep.

“Nice to meet you, Bri. See you tomorrow,” said Amanda. Yeah. What she said. “Do you have a full night of flying around and reading again?” Amanda asked Olivia.


“Alright. Have fun, stay out of trouble,” Amanda said as she waved her goodbye.

I don’t get in trouble. Much. Not on purpose. “Bye,” said Olivia, returning her wave.

She stepped out into the cool night, stretching her wings the moment she cleared the confines of the doorframe. The back lot was positively crowded, with Rob’s truck dwarfing a little red car and a bubbly hatchback. Which is Bri’s and which is Amanda’s? Wait, the license plates! The red one is Amanda’s. 

With her focus on the cars, it took her a moment to realize an indistinct figure stood on a rooftop a few streets over. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She blinked, staring off into an empty night sky. What am I doing? Oh, right, flying.

She whiled away the hours until the sun began to come back up. The sun looks kind of cool when it comes up over the horizon that way. What did Chris say? ‘Eastern Colorado just an extension of Kansas.’ Whatever that means. I should fly that way tomorrow night and see what’s out there.


The next day, Olivia woke up much earlier than before, silenced her phone alarm, and went out into the lair again. Let’s try this whole socialization thing again. This time the whole gang, plus Bri, was gathered around the table, chatting in two small groups.

“Just in time, we’re gettin’ Thai food from a place we found while drivin’. Want some?” Ben called out to Olivia as she approached.

“Um, sure,” said Olivia, blinking the sleep from her eyes. I don’t know exactly what that means exactly, but food! Food is good.

“Alright, menu’s here.” He pointed to the laminated sheet of partially bluepaper with many colorful words written on it on the table. “Just tell Miya which you want, an’ the spiciness.”


“This place has a scale of one to seven, seven bein’ the highest,” explained Rob.

Olivia read the menu. I don’t recognize a good third of these words. Oh, explanations in English. That helps. There, that looks good enough, I guess. No clue what it is, but it looks like it has a bunch of pork. It might be a nice change of pace from beef. She motioned to what she wanted. Miya nodded as she held a phone to her ear, tapping her foot as the others relayed their orders to her.

“You’ll probably want to start with two or something for spiciness,” said Chris. Olivia nodded and held up two fingers for Miya.

Miya finished her order, thanked whoever was on the other end, then hung up. “They said around a half hour. Who’s driving?”

“Sure, I will,” said Chris. “Also, hello, Olivia.”

“Oh. Hi.” Olivia joined him at the table, between him and Ben.

“So, Olivia,” began Bri. Olivia glanced at her for a second. She’s just curious, this isn’t another police interrogation. “Where were you all today?”

“Um, just sleeping. Over there.” She gestured to her curtained off section.

“The whole day?” Look up, look up. Olivia nodded, bringing her gaze up as she did. “So you’re nocturnal?”

“Um, maybe? A few weeks ago, when we were first starting out, I was doing stuff during the day, but I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“Marcus, the MHU police chief here, has taken a particular dislike for her for some reason, so she’s trying to stay out of sight until something else major comes up to preoccupy him. It might take a while, we just did his job for him.” It’s quieter at night, too. Olivia glanced at Chris with a small smile. Thank you.


“Not sure, but he’s a complete dick,” said Amanda. “Trust me, me and Chris worked under him for a while. It really did suck.”

“That’s got to be super boring, nothing happens at night if you can’t got to, like a club or something,” said Bri.

“Not really. It’s not bad. I read. Fly.”

“Really? You can fly? Like, well?” Bri asked Olivia. Well? I think I’m good at flying. Or do you mean am I messed up, like that other feral?

“Um, kind of.” I liked just observing conversations more.

“Kinda?” blurted out Ben. “You flap your wings an’ off you go, an’ you keep pace with us in cars. You fly. The hell are you talkin’ ‘bout kinda?” Sorry.

“Sorry. Yes. Well, I don’t really flap my wings too much,” said Olivia. I can just address Miya, and Bri can still hear. This is actually quite easier. “That’s just to get off the ground. I usually just glide once I get high enough. Sometimes the air is going up, so I just use that instead of moving my wings too much. It’s quicker too. But yes, I fly. Sorry.”

“Oh, the updrafts keep you going?” asked Bri.

“Um…” From the way she said it, this is something I should know. “Sure?”

“An updraft is rising hot air,” said Amanda.

“Sure,” Olivia repeated. I did not know that, but OK. That seems right.

“Why this interest in flight?” Miya asked Bri.

“Oh, my dad’s a pilot. We actually own a small plane, and he used to take me and my brothers out for flights as a sort of bonding time when he had enough time off back home,” said Bri. “I’ve never had the opportunity to learn how, but it sounds like it’s fun.”

“It is,” said Olivia. Should I say something after that? I think I should say something after that. Everyone’s looking at me. Say something. “Yeah.” Stupid, stupid, stupid…

“I know what you guys need to keep you occupied,” said Bri suddenly with a smile.

“What is that?” asked Rob.

“A pet. Just a small kitten. Or a puppy. This place could use it, there’s no windows for plants or anything.”

“Kitty!” exclaimed Ben, bolting upright from his slouching position in his chair. Everyone looked at him. “Sorry, I had a moment. Please continue.”

“Y-,” began Bri.

“I want a kitten now. That’s my vote,” interrupted Ben.

Bri eyed him. He locked eyes with her but remained silent. “S-,” she began.

“I’m done now, please continue,” interrupted Ben with a mock innocent smile. Olivia nudged him with an elbow. Stop it. He took the hint.

“AS I WAS SAYING,” said Bri, eying Ben until she made sure he wouldn’t interrupt again. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have a pet. Like a kitten. Just look at how he reacted.” 

Chris groaned and spoke up, “We’re not getting a pet, we can barely take care of ourselves.”

Bri sighed, still smiling. “Spoilsport. Just a joke, anyways.” Really?

“Alas, it is my duty,” said Chris. “I’m going to get some food now.” He pointed to Ben and Rob. “Don’t buy a kitten or something while I’m gone.”

“I make no promises,” said Ben.

Chris paused for a moment. Olivia could see the gears in his head turning as he debated with himself whether to take the argument bait with the brothers. Don’t do it, you know you’ll get nowhere. Chris seemed to agree with Olivia’s thoughts, exhaling heavily through his nose as he headed out without another word.

“How was your sightseeing day in Colorado?” Amanda asked Bri.

“I was the tour guide. Took ‘em hiking around Red Rocks for the morning,” said Ben before Bri could get a word in. 

“Oh, is that close by?” asked Miya.

“Yeah, only twenty minutes away from here,” replied Ben. 

“What’s that?” asked Olivia. Wait a minute. I hope the answer isn’t ‘a pile of red rocks’. Then I’ll feel stupid.

“It’s Red Rocks Amphitheater. It’s a concert venue carved into a giant wall of red rocks in the foothills,” explained Bri. “There’s also some light hiking around there.”

“Cool as shit, ain’t it?” asked Ben.

“That was everythin’ I was expectin’ from Colorado. Still gettin’ acclimized though, I could feel the lack of air in my fuckin’ lungs,” added Rob.

“You mean acclimatized?” asked Bri.

“Yeah, sure.”

“An’ after lunch we hit the Seventy Seven museum.” OK, I have no idea what that is. Catching Olivia’s renewed confusion, Ben leaned in and explained, “In ‘77 the Gulmer started abducting tons of people all across the great plains. Shit, wait, the Gulmer were aliens. Grey guys, looked kind of like salamanders.”

“Oh, like the flying saucer kind?” asked Olivia. “Or the Siberian kind?”

“Flying saucer, but real. Their ships were more cigar shaped too. They hit all sorts of farms and little towns. Military couldn’t respond fast enough. A couple supers brought down one of their smaller ships when it wandered too close to Westward. After the feds cleared it out, the city built a full-scale model of the wreck where it landed as a memorial. Turned it into a museum and everything.”

“Why were they taking people?”

Rob shrugged. “Dunno. They weren’t blowin’ anythin’ up. Shields absorbed the worst of what we threw at ‘em. They got twenty thousand people an’ left.”

“I think we know why. My roommate in college was going for a degree in ecology. Or was it biology? I don’t remember, one of those squishy fields that’s barely science. Twenty thousand is about what you need for a viable population for humans,” said Amanda, her expression grim.

“What do you mean by viable?” asked Bri.

“It means you won’t have any inbreeding until way too many generations for it to matter.”

“What happened then?” asked Olivia in the hushed silence that followed. 

“They left,” explained Amanda. “Once they had enough people they flew off into the stars with their captives. Not much the rest of humanity can do about it now.”

“Sucks to be them,” said Rob.

“That’s a little cold,” said Miya

“Like she said, not much to do. If I can’t do somethin’, I ain’t stressin’ it.” Still though… “Hey, can we have some music? You got some speakers sittin’ there,” he said to Amanda, gesturing to her main computer.

“Sure,” she replied, leaning over to dig through a box of cables. She pulled one out and said, “Plug in your phone here.”

Rob hopped out of his chair and complied. Something fast paced and upbeat, with drums and trumpets started playing. Only a few seconds in it cut off.

“We’re not listening to goddamn ska music,” said an irate Amanda. “I draw the line there.”

“It’s not that bad,” said Bri, nudging Rob. “It could be metal.”

“Hey, fuck you!” called out Ben and Rob.

They argued for the next ten minutes over what music to play until Chris got back with the food. After sorting out everyone’s orders, they dug in. This is different. I kind of like this food. A nice change from burgers, pizza, and donuts.

“Hmmm, this isn’t what I ordered,” said Miya after a few bites. “Too bland.”

They all smell different, but I can’t really tell which is which. “Uh, I think we all got it sorted out, everyone else has what they wanted, I think,” said Bri, double checking her own food. Everyone else nodded.

“What did you get, Olivia?” asked Chris.

“Um, this? I don’t know the name.”

“Let me try,” said Chris. He took a bite. After chewing for a moment, he said, “This is quite painful.” To be fair, I have no idea what I ordered.

“Come on, pussy,” said Ben. He also took a bite. He let out a muffled cry after a moment and shook his head. “Fuck! I regret everything.” Um, is he OK? Bri, Rob, and Amanda started laughing.

Are you guys exaggerating? “It wasn’t that spicy,” said Olivia.

“I think you got my thing, Olivia,” said Miya. “You take a couple bites?”

“Yeah.” She looked to Chris and Ben on either side. Chris threw back a bottle of water, while Ben still shook his head.

“Ow, ow, ow,” he muttered.

“Close your mouth, dumbass,” said Rob to Ben.


“Because the pain is comin’ from the peppers oxidizin’ with the air. Close your mouth an’ don’t talk an’ it won’t suck as bad.”

Miya looked between Chris and Ben. “You guys are both pussies.”

“How bad was yours?” asked Bri.

Miya gave the most sinister smile Olivia had ever laid eyes upon. “Seven. And the Thai cooks go easy on Americans, trust me.”

“Do you want to trade back?” asked Olivia.

“Sure. Thanks.” They exchanged Styrofoam trays across the table.

“Wait, so the short Mexican girl likes spicy food,” asked Ben with a grin, apparently recovered. Mexican? You called her Aztec before. I get the feeling it matters, but I can’t tell why.

“I like it, so you can fuck right off. I don’t care if it’s stereotypical or not,” said Miya, punctuating her words with a punch to his ribs. He laughed and held a hand to his ribs. Miya continued, shaking her head, “Pathetic, the lot of you.”

The music they had landed on with the arrival of Chris sounded very similar to what Rob originally started playing, though a little smoother and less choppy. I wish I knew how music worked. I think one of those things is kind of like a trumpet. How do I know what trumpet sounds like? I’ve heard drums before, but a trumpet? Whatever it was, it somehow met Amanda’s standards. It was even her playlist.

Chris returned from the fridge with a few drink refills for the table. As the beat to the song picked up, he tapped his toes against the floor and spun, keeping the glasses upright and preventing any spills. Unlike his usual slow and deliberate motions, this was fast, fluid, and precise.

“The hell was that?” asked Rob, sitting right next to Olivia and getting a full view of the sudden movement

“I’ve been swing dancing for years,” explained Chris, setting down Bri and Rob’s drinks. “This is pretty good dance music.”

Ben choked on his beer. “Swing dancing?” repeated Miya, an incredulous look on her face. What’s that? What’s wrong?

“Yeah,” replied Chris with a shrug. “I took it up in high school.”

After a heartbeat, Miya asked, “Not football?”

“That too. Get up, I’ll show you.”

She hesitated, a response aught in her throat. Bri jumped up, food forgotten. Chris called out a song for Amanda to find and took Bri through some basic steps. The brothers and Amanda even joined in, all fumbling through the same moves. They laughed, danced, joked, and drank deep into the night.

2: Gears

Corn. Fuck corn. Endless fucking corn, as far as the eye can see. I know every goddamn American who has ever crossed the Midwest has said this, but fuck it. So fucking boring I can’t bring myself to give a shit about originality.Oh, hey, a brown smudge in the sky on the horizon. That’s gotta be it. Soon there will be buildings and mountains and not corn and not corn and not corn! Corn can suck all the dicks. 

Rob’s pickup truck rumbled over the highway, on the way to Westward City. The tires hit an uneven repair patch in the road, rattling the tools and armor in the bed of the truck. He refocused his tired eyes as the phone in his jeans buzzed, splitting his attention between the straight and empty road before him and the text from his brother.

‘hey, want wendy’s when ur in’

He grinned in anticipation. Only the most serious and important family conversations happen at Wendy’s. The city came into view just as the gas tank edged towards empty for what seemed like the billionth time since he set out from Pennsylvania three days ago.

‘hell ya’

At the nearest exit, he angled his truck and its heavy trailer into the emptiest gas station. He leaned against the armored flank of the truck as the pump siphoned off his money. What am I walking into here?

His brother said there were four others on a proto team when he confirmed they had a place and not much else. There was Chris, the de-facto leader, Amanda, who was the easiest to mock, Miya, an angry Aztec chick, and Olivia, who had wings. Rob had no idea what Ben was talking about for that last one, and he had provided no more details than that about any of them. Something about energy drinks? Maybe? Whatever. This is far enough for the heat to die down. I can decide in a couple months what to do. I was kind of hoping Ben would have something a little more solid set up. He moved out here years ago.

Night fell by the time he rolled up to the back of an abandoned auto shop. He got out of his truck and hammered a fist on the metal door with a few bullet dents. What the hell happened here? The hairs on the back of his neck raised, as if he were being watched. He turned around, scanning the surrounding rooftops only to find nothing.

The door burst open, revealing a familiar face. They both began laughing madly. We still got it. Rob punched Ben in the shoulder and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, trying to get him in a headlock. “Yo! We heard somethin’ loud,” said Ben by way of greeting, twisting out with practiced ease and elbowing him in the gut. They both entered, squeezing through the door as they wrestled.

“Rob, everyone. Everyone, Rob,” said Ben, introducing him to the four other people in the shop with one hand trying to hook his fingers into the flesh under Rob’s collarbone.

One girl with a practical and thus cute pixie cut sat at a desk, looking at him with barely restrained disgust. Amanda, if Ben has been doing his work well. A smaller girl, with sharp Aztec features that threatened a scowl at any moment, folded a basket full of clothes at the foot of an Army surplus cot. Miya. Behind her loomed another girl, with a small button nose and a wide mouth. More striking, however, was the fact she was seven feet tall, built like a brick, with wings framing her body. She avoided eye contact once Rob looked her way. A feral with literal wings. Olivia. There has got to be a fantastic story behind her. Next to Amanda stood a big guy who studied him with light blue eyes. He nodded to Rob. Chris, by process of elimination. Only guy here who doesn’t look like me.

Rob raised his hand in greeting as he and Ben disengaged, “Hey, everybody.”

They murmured their various greetings. Rob moved forward, brushing some contraption and accompanying tools off to the side of a desk, then took a seat on it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Amanda grimace and close her eyes for a brief moment. Ben leaned against some boxes and called out, “You want anythin’ to eat?”

“I thought you an’ me were grabbin’ Wendy’s tonight?”

“Tonight? It’s late. Ain’t passin’ out?” 

I made double time up here in a gas guzzling monster for Wendy’s, not to put it off for later.“I’m not gonna put off Wendy’s, Ben.” Rob then said to the group at large, “Hi everyone! Thanks for given’ me a place for a bit. Beats the hell outta motels.” Seems like a secure spot. My truck probably won’t get broken into here. Probably.

“Happy to help,” said Chris. “Ben also said that you had a friend coming as well?”

“Yep. Bri is a couple days behind me. She’ll only be crashin’ here for a day, she’s got family out on the West coast. An’ you’re Chris, right?”

“Sorry, yes. My name is Chris.”

After a brief pause, Miya said, “I’m Miya.”

“Amanda,” Amanda said with forced politeness. She doesn’t like me already!

“I’m Olivia,” said the girl with wings studying the ground very intently. Apparently I’m terrifying.

“I guessed right! Jackass over here,” Rob motioned to Ben, who snickered, “told me almost nothin’ about everyone.”

“If you’re going to be staying here long term we might be getting into combat.”

Rob shrugged. “Cool. Who?”

“Overlord is tracking Olivia and Amanda,” called out Miya. Rob let out a low whistle and cast a side eye at Ben. 

Chris nodded and added, “And the local MHU is, while not hostile, not exactly friendly.”

“Y’all ain’t fuckin’ around,” replied Rob with a laugh. I guess they want to know what I can do. He explained, “So I’ve got this kickass set of armor. It can take a bit of punishment, been shot quite a few times in it. It’s entirely mechanical, and amplifies my movements, so I can punch shit hard. I’ve got a good range of motion, but I ain’t the fastest in it. Also, got a nice shotgun, crowbar, an’ a couple other gadgets. ”

There was an art to moving in that suit. Move too fast, and it would seize up. Too slow, and it would lack the necessary force to move the slabs of metal that composed the suit. 

“Need anythin’ else?” asked Rob.

“Your power itself. Ben said it was ‘old fashioned shit’, but I was hoping you would be a tad more descriptive,” said Chris.

“Engineer, pretty generalized. But primarily it’s metallurgy an’ mechanics.” said Rob.

“What do you mean by generalized?” asked Chris.

“So, take metallurgy. I can only really make something strong or brittle or pliable. There’s a guy working for US Steel who specializes only in metals. He can turn copper into putty, make iron into the closest thing we’ve got to adamantium, and so on. He’s practically a fuckin’ wizard. I can’t do that. But he has no idea how to make a clockwork armor.”

“So I’m guessing that’s what you’ve made?” said Chris.

“You got it. So, what can you lot do? I know Ben, don’t know the rest of you.” This goes both ways. If I’m going to risk my neck with these people, I better know what they can do too.

“I turn into liquid, Amanda is an electricity techie, Miya uses magic, and Olivia flies, and is bulletproof,” said Chris. Bulletproof? No fucking way. Suddenly her shyness seemed faintly ridiculous. “You’ll have to ask them individually, it is getting late.”

“Gotcha,” said Rob. There were three sections blocked off with jury rigged curtains. Some people sharing beds or something? Rob didn’t judge, he’d slept in far worse conditions. Sleep is precious, sleep is sacred. “Oh, you. Olivia? You got a question?”

“Oh. Um…sorry. No,” she said, still looking at the floor.

“Yes you do. You’ve been shootin’ me questionin’ looks this whole time when you think I’m not lookin’. Then you open your mouth, then change your mind. Spit it out.” If it’s some bullshit emotional thing or dishonesty thing I’m going to be pissed.

She scratched the back of her head, giving Rob a sudden view of hook claws on her fingertips, then asked, “Did you, I don’t know, drive a semi here? It sounded a lot like one.”

Rob shot a look at Ben. “Did you not tell them about the BAT?”

“It’s a surprise. Surprises are fun!” They both laughed. The others watched them warily.

“Come on, come on! I’ll show you,” said Rob. He got up, leading the way outside. The others hesitantly followed, Ben bringing up the rear. “Behold! It’s a BAT! A Big Ass Truck.”

The truck was enormous. In fact Rob usually had clearance issues in drive thrus due to the smokestack behind the cabin. It appeared normal on the outside, but underneath Rob welded slabs of metal as armor. He’d modded the engine with a mechanic friend of his, so the thing could actually move at a decent pace.

Painted a dull, matte black, he’d resisted the urge to slap on some random paint jobs in the same style as his armor. No reason to be obvious, after all. He’d resisted the urge to add spikes to the front. And a Confederate flag. And blue flames on the hood. Maybe someday. The windows were heavily tinted, in fact made of bulletproof glass. 

“You drive this?” asked Miya.

“I drive this. I drove it all the way from the east coast to here, in part so you could bask in its magnificence.” I read that phrase in a book once.

Chris looked on with a faint aura of amusement. Amanda rolled her eyes and went back inside, while Olivia hung back in the doorway itself.

Rob asked Chris, “So do you need anything else from me right now?”

“Not from me. Ben has you covered, I’m guessing you two want to catch up, or you want to sleep somewhere besides a truck stop.”

Ben laughed. “Yeah, sketchy fuckin’ truck rest stops. Just wake up, an’ you got no second kidney.”

“Well how would you know if it’s gone?” asked Rob.

“It would fuckin’ hurt, that’s how,” said Ben.

“Hey, you don’t know that. Maybe… maybe they used anesthetics or somethin’?” They both grinned now. They knew where this was going.

“One, even if they did, there’d be a huge fuckin’ scar on your back. Two, what kinda organ thief uses anesthetics?”

“The decent kind. I mean, what kind of person would subject their fellow man to such pain?”

“Organ thieves. That’s who.” Miya and Chris stared, Olivia having gone back inside with Amanda a bit before.

“They’re still people, not monsters. Besides, if your victim wakes up on the operating table an’ starts thrashin’ in pain, they could get killed while you operate.”

“What? Why would they give a shit if you die? They’re already slicin’ out a bit of ya.”

“If they die, the organ might be useless before you get it out. See? Economic benefit as well.”

“So they don’t use anesthetics. They hit ya over the head or somethin’,” said Ben in mock exasperation.

“That isn’t a surefire thing. That could still kill someone, an’ now where back to where we started, ain’t we?”

“Anesthetics are expensive.”

“So are organs,” countered Rob.

Ben didn’t respond. Did I win? I think I won! Then Ben said, “Chloroform. It’s a lot cheaper than medical grade shit. Keeps em under so you can get yer merchandise too, but does nothin’ for the hurt.” We both know nothing about actual medicine, so we both could be, and most likely are, completely wrong.

Rob sighed. “Point” He turned to Chris. “Yep, me an’ Ben’ll be out late, got some catchin’ up to do. How long’s it been, three years? Four? Yeah, four,” he said, opening the door to the BAT.

Chris blinked, mouthed ‘what’ silently to himself, then recovered enough to say, “OK. Have fun, you kids.” Rob and Ben snickered, then left. Chris and Miya headed back inside the shop.

“So where we headin’?” asked Rob, once the engine started.

Ben told him, and Rob set off. “Fuck, man. It’s good to see you,” said Ben.

“No kiddin’. This’ll be fun. Even on the somewhat right side of the law an’ everythin’.”

“Yeah, the fuck happened to you lot out east?” asked Ben.

Pricks. Pricks happened. “Wasn’t my choice. Jimmy an’ Sean’s egos eventually grew so large they couldn’t be in the same room together, an’ they basically said ‘it’s me or him’ to the rest of us. Me an’ Bri talked about maybe going together, but that kinda fell through, so here I am.”

“Sean? Tha’s that guy who called me cracker, right?”

“Yep. Same prick,” said Rob. Dammit. I just realized that without Sean I can’t say it’s OK because I have black friends. It’s so fun to piss people off with that.

“Sucks,” said Ben.

Rob nodded. “So yourself. What is the average day in the life of a Ben? Take up skiing or somethin’? I hear that’s what Colorado people do.”

Ben chuckled. “I don’ have the fuckin’ money for that. Nah. What I’ve been doin’ is mainly just work at the donut place for a bit, dick around for a bit at my apartment or the local gatherin’ places, then patrol. Things have been fairly quiet since a bit before Christmas, so I’ve been bored anyway. An’ sleep, that too.”

“You still havin’ trouble sleepin’ too?” asked Rob.

“Yeah,” said Ben. Rob grunted in agreement.

To fill the silence Rob said, “I gotta ask, what’s with the feral? I’m expectin’ nothin’ but the most amusin’ of stories, by the way.”

“Name’s Olivia. An’ there’s no good story, actually. She kinda just showed up one day. She doesn’t remember anythin’, so if you do make a quip ‘bout her smarts I’ll beat the shit outta you.”

Note to self: do not insult the intelligence of Olivia. “Fair enough. You said absolutely nothin’?”

“Nah. We’ve, well, I, have instituted movie night, cuz she hasn’t seen any of ‘em.”

“Huh.” Rob thought for a second. Doesn’t remember anything? “Which night?”

“Most nights. Me an’ her an’ Miya have been fuckin’ bored, seein’ as we’re somewhat unemployed. Amanda’s been doin’ her own thing, Chris’s been gettin’ some stuff set up, but they show up every now an’ then. Gonna wanna turn here. I do still got a job, but it’s part time, an’ we’re goin’ for low profile right about now, so no real patrols.”

Rob turned onto the indicated road. “OK, even if there’s no good story behind it, just how? She seemed fuckin’ terrified of me.”

“Don’t worry. She ain’t a huge fan of new people, that’s all. I was actually the first to report her. Then Cyrus had Chris, and Amanda, who were in the MHU then, track her down. Then the local gang attacked, an’ she goes an’ kills a bunch of ‘em.” 

Ben continued, “Don’t piss her off, by the way. Gets all scary an’ hissy. But if you do manage to get her into that state, you deserve whatcha get. But anyways, she got arrested, the local MHU head went insane an’ the second in command decided Amanda an’ Chris were rats. We all got together, wiped out that gang, an’ got Miya outta there. She had some weird Overlord thing in her head. You gotta step up your game, man.”

He’s right. Their little game of one upmanship began when Ben found and raided an Overlord lab, and got his rifle to show for it. Then Sam sent them a picture of a loose feral he and his unit had killed in Brazil. Then Rob and his gang looted the house of the state governor, tying him upside down to the refrigerator before making good their escape. Now Ben had helped to wipe out a city mob. What to do, what to do?

They pulled into the Wendy’s parking lot, taking up two spaces. It’s fun when someone tries to key the side of an armor plate. Ben and Rob got their greasy burgers and sat down a discreet distance away from the other people eating. Wendy’s was the one place they chose their words carefully, Ben would tell him what was up when he knew how to say it. They munched on in silence.

Eventually, Ben said, “You hear from Sam recently?” Uh oh.

They had lost contact with Sam about a year ago, he said something about being deployed to the Middle East. Probably doing some black ops shit there. Small wonder he isn’t talking to us right now. Probably still angsting or something, too.

“No,” said Rob.

“He sent me this.” Ben pulled out his phone, tapped the screen a couple times, then passed it to Rob.

Rob took it. It took him a moment to comprehend. “This is nearly gibberish. Is ‘taauth’ even a word? An’ somethin’ about the underground?” Random letters of the text were capitalized, and a couple English words had spaces in the middle. The fuck? At the end it said ‘donT wOR ry’. “A code, maybe?”

“Not one that I can figure out. An’ that ain’t our style anyways,” said Ben.

“So either someone stole his phone an’ is screwin’ with us for some reason, or his fingers are broken an’ he tried to type this anyways,” said Rob. I really don’t want to have to track you down, Sam. Because our best lead is Lock Corp and I don’t want to fight that nonsense.

“That’s what I thought. I wanted to check an’ see if you’d heard anythin’.”

“Nah, nothin’. He did say don’t worry at the end, so I’m guessin’ he’s got it under control. You text him back?”

“Yep. Three days ago. Hasn’t responded. Called ‘im too, also nothin’.” 

“We goin’ down the warpath? If we gotta, we gotta, but Lock Corp ain’t small.”

Ben sighed, and rested his forehead on his hand. “Nah. I’m thinkin’ he’s just lettin’ us know he’s alive. We can just keep doin’ what we’re doin’.” They had each stood on their own for years after splitting. 

“That’s about what I was thinking. He said don’t worry, so let’s not worry,” said Rob reluctantly. I said that’s what I’m going to do, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Ben grimaced. “Right. Still don’t like it.”

“Point. I hear you, don’t worry.”

“Blurg. You’re right. Since you were coming up anyway I wanted to check it with you.”

“Thanks. You done? I’m done,” asked Rob.

“Yeah,” replied Ben. “You hear from Mom?”

“Pft. Nah. You?”

“Nope.” They got up, threw away their trash, and left in silence.

In the truck, heading back to the lair, Rob smiled said, “So now that we’re away from ‘em, you actually want to give me some info on who those other fuckers are?”

Ben laughed. “I figured you’d hate goin’ in with no info whatsoever.”

“Yeah, fuck you. Get on with it.”

Ben snickered, then composed himself. “Alright. So you got Chris. He’s the leader guy? We never had a vote or anythin’ but I don’t think anyone else really wants the job, so he’s stuck with it. I call him Blondie. He did just break up with his girlfriend of three years, I think he said.” Ouch.

Ben continued, “He’s alright now. Say whatever you like to him, within reason. It’ll be water off his back. Stoic fella. He’s alright at his job, so far as I can tell. The feral, Olivia, she’s fairly quiet. She’s super hesitant, so be patient.”

“Eugh. So she actually puts thought into what she says before she says it? That takes forever.” Patience. Meh. Ben and Rob knew they were anomalies as far as people went. That didn’t mean they couldn’t have some fun at peoples’ expenses.

“I know. Other than that, she’s jus’ a normal chick. I call ‘er Little Bird.” If Ben’s calling her Little Bird it’s not sounding like joking around will be a problem.

“She can fly?” How do the physics of that work? People aren’t the most aerodynamic of things.

“Yep. Been kinda cooped up with Marcus gunnin’ for her still, but I’ve seen it. She’s got fuckin’ super hearin’ and smell, too, so don’ assume she’s not there.”

“You like her?” Rob asked with a grin and raised eyebrow. You’ve been chatting a lot about her.

“What?” asked Ben, taking a second to catch his meaning. “No. She’s like a little sister.”

Rob blinked. “She’s seven feet tall.”

“A really big little sister.”

After a moment, Rob said, “Alright, an’ the others…”

“Right! Miya seems normal at first glance, but scratch the surface somehow an’ she’s a raging homicidal maniac! You’ll probably get a chance to see it soon enough. She got caught by some of Overlord’s people, an’ so far as I can tell the only thing that got her through was revenge. On the flip side, me an’ her raided a slaughterhouse kinda thing for bones yesterday, cuz that’s what she uses for her voodoo shit. That was pretty fun, actually.”

“Bones? Bone magic?”

“Yep. I think she was born an’ raised in ‘merica, doesn’t have an accent or anythin’. An’ Amanda,” Ben trailed off with a laugh. “Thank you so much for tellin’ me tha’ techies hate bein’ called techies. She fuckin’ hates it, takes it way too seriously.”

Rob laughed. “I try.” What’s the point of making shit if you can’t have fun with it?

Ben continued, “Mess with her stuff, make minor inconveniences, she starts gettin’ all pissy, it’s great. It was great when she had to let me drive her car, too.”

“Gotcha,” said Rob. They continued driving and talking as the night dragged on, in no hurry to break their stride in conversation after years apart. I missed this.

Down South: Homestead

Thin air howled past Olivia’s ears. Eddies buffeted against the bottom of her outstretched wings as the glow of the false dawn loomed over the plains to the East. She filled her lungs to capacity, yet still felt short of breath from exertion of keeping herself aloft. So, this is what they meant when they were talking about altitude, she thought to herself with a shiver. Mountains, so imposing from the ground, appeared as wrinkles in the fabric of the earth below her.

Her experiments in flying helped kill the time over the past month. The others drifted off, finding jobs or hobbies during the daytime when she kept hidden and asleep, leaving her with nights filled with nothing to do. The golden plains to the North, South, and East quickly became boring, but the mountains held a variety of forests and towns, even if only viwed from on high. She sometimes even spotted hikers at some ungodly early hour, getting a head start on some mountain or another.

Olivia drifted downwards, her brief frigid time at high altitude at an end, as she turned around and headed back towards the same repurposed auto-shop she had called home for over half of her current memory. The lights of Westward City drew closer and closer, a patchwork quilt spread out over the plains and foothills. She adjusted her course by a few degrees, going by the sight of a run down and abandoned factory, its three smokestacks jutting into the air acting as a convenient landmark.

Why is so much abandoned? There are tons of people in the city. I get that we want to be out of the way, but why do these places even exist in the first place? “Hey, Amanda?” Olivia asked over the comm on her collar, taking the chance that at least she might be awake. She only managed to catch Chris or Miya as they were falling asleep and she was waking up, or vice versa, but Amanda worked all hours. And then slept all hours as the lack of sleep caught up to her.

“Yeah?” responded Amanda after a minute, with little to no crackle in the earbud. Oh, good, I’m in range and she’s awake.

“Why is so much stuff in this city abandoned or something?” I think Ben mentioned a shantytown, too.

“The economy crashed hard a couple years ago. it happens every decade or so,” she replied, as if that answered everything. That just leaves more questions.

“But where did the people go?”

“Moved and found work somewhere else. Died. Toughed it out in the shantytown until things turn around again,” Amanda listed off.

“Every decade?” replied Olivia with a frown. She pulled up to bleed off speed as she approached the shop. “That seems like a lot to move in and out. Or frequent. Whatever, you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I got you. People like to blame supers for that. A great, unsustainable growth fueled by good people with good intentions, followed by a hard crash as reality catches up. Then new guys take over. It happens everywhere. Hell, if you get out of the US things are much worse right now.”

“Huh. I thought things would be better if people had superpowers.”

Amanda let out a quick laugh. “What, you think powers don’t make you human? Do you think they make you better? People are still heroic, greedy, selfless, murderous, and universally operate with a complete disregard to logic, even with powers. Powers only let people do whatever it is they do better.”

Olivia remained silent for a moment. “You guys make it kind of hard to maintain faith in humanity.”

“Why is that?” Amanda sounded amused.

“I don’t know. People seem awful when you put it like that.”

“You didn’t hear the part where I said people are heroic and selfless as well, did you? Humans would have wiped themselves out if there wasn’t any of that.” I guess. The silence stretched on for a moment, before Amanda groaned, “Oh god its almost the morning already. Are you coming back soon?”

“Yeah, I’m nearly there. See you in a few minutes.”

Olivia landed at the back of the shop with its brand-new garage doors. Chris had taken it as a personal project to repair as much of the damage from Sanchez’s assault as he could, in between his shifts as a handyman and wrestling with the MHU. The new windows out front beat the tarps they’d taped up to keep the cool evening drafts out. I don’t miss that crinkling and fluttering when I’m trying to sleep, that’s for sure. She hooked the key to the back door out of one of her cavernous pockets with a claw and headed inside.

As usual, there was no one awake to greet her but Amanda. Ben would if he drew the short straw and worked an early morning shift busing tables at a local diner, but she could hear him softly breathing behind his curtained off “room.” Amanda looked over her shoulder and gave her a wave.

Olivia smiled as she approached, looking over Amanda’s shoulder at some incomprehensible gadget. “So, what is it you’re working on?” She didn’t bother to ask who it was for. Amanda kept the clients she tinkered for close to the chest, though they clearly had money and didn’t ask questions.

“Right now, I’m working on thermals,” replied Amanda. She brushed aside a few empty cups of instant noodles, pulled out a plastic bin from a shelf to her side, and presented a pair of thick sunglasses to Olivia. A plastic case entwined the frame. “Try these on, they might be a little small. I’ve been meaning to test them on someone other than me. We’ll see how it works with your vision.” Olivia took them and put them on, making everything darker and not much else. “Now there’s a button on the frame, near the left lens. Press it.”

Olivia did so, and her left eye suddenly took in an entirely different picture. She saw the building, with several human shaped orange and yellow blobs adding color to the otherwise grainy grey picture. “Whoa.”

“Everything looks OK? Is this what you’re seeing with your left eye?” With a couple clicks, Amanda brought up a window displaying exactly what Olivia saw.

“That looks good,” announced Olivia.

“Great! Actually, you’re right eye dominant, right?” asked Amanda.


“Are you right or left-handed? It should be the same.”

“Oh! Then yes, right-handed. And eyed, I guess.”

“Good. Chris is a leftie, I forgot about them when I was making that prototype, I’ve got to add the functionality to both sides.” Olivia smiled and nodded as she handed the glasses back to Amanda. The technical details flew right over her head, but Amanda was happy and chatting instead of frowning at a computer, and that was good enough for her.


They sat around eating breakfast, or dinner in Olivia’s case, that morning when Chris said, “We’re going to have to figure out what we’re going to do now.”

Miya grunted, a glare in her half-opened eyes, “Can’t this wait? I’m still booting up.” She is not a morning person.

Olivia perched at the edge of the sturdiest folding chair they had, munching on a ham and cheese sandwich, if an entire ham steak with a single piece of cheese and two small pieces of bread to keep her hands clean could be called a sandwich. She rested a wing on Miya’s shoulder as she stomped over to join her at the table, a cup of coffee clutched tight in her hands. Chris, across from the two of them, ducked as Amanda tossed a muffin back at Ben with unnecessary force. The grin across Ben’s face never wavered, even if the muffin tagged him square in the nose with a crinkle of plastic wrapping. All is right in the world.

“No. I want to get this out of the way before everyone wanders off,” said Chris. He’d been dead silent for three days after his breakup but had finally worked back up to his normal taciturn self. He started shaving again last week. That blonde beard of his was almost clear, that was weird looking.

“Whash thr ou alk bou?” asked Ben around a mouthful oatmeal. Ew. Come on. I saw flecks of… gahhh. No.

“Want to try that again?” asked Chris.

Ben nodded as he swallowed. “Yeah,” he said, much clearer. “What’s there to talk about?”

“Where everyone is living. I’m guessing Olivia is staying here for the long haul, along with you, Miya, if you’re sticking around.” Wait, we’re all sticking together, right? Why would we be living somewhere else?

“Trying to get rid of me?” asked Miya with an arched eyebrow. What? No.

“Not at all,” replied Chris, in a calm voice that refused to rise to the bait. “You look like you’re recovering well, but none of us are mind readers and we can’t know what you want to do long term.” Miya folded her arms, the scars along her wrists close to fully healed and vanished, save for a pair of thin pink lines against her tan skin.

“I do need to get back to Phoenix at some point,” she said.

“Gettin’ back home?” asked Ben, teleporting to toss his empty paper bowl in the trash can they’d stolen from a curb a few blocks away.

“No. Revenge.”

Chris glanced at Ben and Amanda in the silence following her pronouncement. “Go on,” he prodded, making a spinning motion with his hand.

“Fuck off, I’m thinking.” She unfolded her arms and took a sip of her coffee. “Overlord isn’t psychic. I hope. He knew I was a mage when he had me kidnapped. And I only ever told one person I was a mage. So, maybe we can learn about Overlord from him. Maybe we can figure out what to do with Olivia’s tracker from him. I don’t care, I want Don dead for what he did.”

“And he is?” asked Amanda.

“He was my teacher.” Olivia frowned. But you’re away from him now. Why go back?

“Alright,” replied Chris. “We’ve got another couple of weeks of answering MHU questions.”

“Oh yeah, speakin’ of them. If we can figure out if they’re watchin’ my old apartment, I’d like to go check on it. I’m sure they figured it out from my old Jeep I had to leave behind, but I still got stuff,” added Ben.

“We can look into that. Hey, pass me one of the Cheerios?” Amanda, closest to the food, tossed a small box of Cheerios to Chris. He caught it and began to open the box. “I’m going to go back to my apartment in a bit to pick up my own stuff. I’m not sure if I’m going to find my own place or stay here. Now that I think about it, Amanda, do we owe you rent?” You too?

Amanda squinted as she stared off into the distance, brushing a lock of deep brown hair out of her face. Olivia glanced at everyone else in the room, looking for any sign of distress, finding none. Is everyone moving out? Why? We’re all here already. Why leave?

“I have a small house, on my own. Gear and equipment takes up most of my costs,” said Amanda. “Olivia and Miya don’t really have many options to pay, and you and Ben have been doing a good job of fixing this place up, I’d say don’t worry about rent for now.”

“Wait, you had this place, the workshop at the MHU, and your own house?” asked Chris.

“One: very small, very cheap house. Two: MHU provided all of that stuff at the workshop. Three: most of my stuff is actually at my house, this is just some basic tools and a bunch of computers. I’ve been keeping away for the same reason everyone else has, in case the MHU is watching.”

A ringtone cut off the conversation. “Oh fuck! My brother Rob is callin’,” said Ben. He put his phone to his ear and walked off to the other end of the shop with a grin. “Hey, you son of a bitch!”

Miya pointed out, “Sometimes the police would raid abandoned buildings for squatters in Arizona, don’t know if they do that here or not. Are we at risk of that here?”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Amanda dismissed her concern with a wave of her hand. “This building is in some weird bureaucratic limbo due to a clerical error. I made sure it stays that way, that’s why I took the keys in the first place.”

Simultaneously from Ben, Olivia heard, “So, yeah. It’s been a hell of a month, but things are settlin’ down now. How are the hills still treatin’ you?” What is he talking about?

“If you say so,” said Miya. “I appreciate the place to stay, but I am going back at some point. After, we’ll see. And since we’re not the MHU or the Watch, won’t the feds notice us at some point? Especially with her?” she asked, nudging Olivia beside her.

“Yeah, we will need to get you registered at the USMHD, Olivia. It’s just a form or two,” said Chris. “I think that got started when you were first arrested, I’ll check in next time they bring me in.”

“The what?” asked Olivia.

“The US Meta-Human Department. They keep tabs on the supers in the country. They’re connected with every other department. Immigration, NSA, FBI, Health and Services, and on and on. As far as you’ll be concerned it’s just a very general overview of your powers, nothing too specific. The rest is just any aliases you might use, state and town where you live, and I think that’s it.”

“Weren’t they talking about adding your social security number to it as well?” asked Miya. I don’t think I have one of those.

Ben, still at the other end of the building, exclaimed, “What?! The merry men are going their own ways?” Stop trying to keep track of two separate conversations. Talking, especially from someone like Ben who didn’t bother to keep his voice down, demanded attention and drowned out ambient noises

Olivia plucked at the hem of her shirt, saying, “Are you sure? I don’t think the government likes me.”

“Oh, please tell me you’ve still got the bat,” said Ben. After a moment he cackled, “I know!”

“I think that got shot down,” said Chris. “I’m not sure though.”

“Let me look it up,” said Amanda, wheeling over to a computer.

“So, yeah. It’s really easy, nothing to worry about, but they have some pretty severe penalties for not filling it out,” explained Chris over the clicks from Amanda’s keyboard.

“I thought you said I technically-” wasn’t human in the eyes of the law “-couldn’t go to court or something?” said Olivia.

“True, but we’re going for legitimacy here. You’re a bit of a special case, but it’s worth a shot just in case. Besides, the government will actually offer jobs based on your powers and depending on what you’re looking for they can be pretty good if this doesn’t pan out,” said Chris.

“Really? Even for me?” asked Olivia. But I don’t want to leave too.

“The government does not like bored and unemployed supers.”

Olivia shrugged, defeated. “OK.” I don’t know how to argue.

“Yeah, Chris, you were right. No social security needed,” said Amanda.

“Alright, I’ll call you back,” said Ben, off to the side. Just as Olivia was about to summon a protest, he walked back over and said, “Rob an’ a buddy of his might be drivin’ up here if that’s alright. His gang recently broke up, an’ he’s lookin’ for a change of scenery, as it were. Buddy is just drivin’ through. Also, what’re we talkin’ about?”

Chris sighed and said, “Alright, we were trying to figure out what to do with Olivia, but now I have some questions about your brother.”

“OK, his real name’s Rob, we’re identical triplets, an’ he goes by Gears in armor. He’s a techie, specializing in ol’ fashioned shit.” Didn’t he just say he was a techie? “His friend is a chick, name of Brianna. I think she’s got some sorta power, never asked.”

“Wait,” said Amanda, “Old fashioned shit? What the hell does that even mean?”

“Oh yeah. Plate armor, metallurgy, swords, gears, that kind of stuff. Your polar opposite, basically.”

“Yeah,” began Amanda, doubt written clear across her face.

Ben cut her protest off. He pointed to Chris, saying, “Not all liquids are water.” He pointed to Olivia. “Not all ferals are murderous. Not all technology is flashy shit. He made my mask an’ he’s got one of his own too. Don’t talk shit, a good knife can be worth a dozen good gizmos in the right place. Of course, you’ll have to ask the man himself for specifics. This is just what I know.”

“But what I’m concerned about is what they’re running from,” said Chris. “They’re not wanted for a bunch of murders, are they?”

“Nah, nah, nah. Nothin’ worse than what we’ve done, just longer. They spent three years givin’ the cops in Pennsylvania a run for their money with some other guys.” Running from the cops? What do they do? Wait. I guess that’s kind of a stupid point to complain about.

“How long does he intend to stay?”

“Dunno. ‘til the heat dies down, at least. Bri just needs to stay the night.”

“So, what do we all think?” asked Chris.

Amanda grimaced. Miya shrugged and nodded, indifferent. Ben hopped up and down slightly on his toes, a smile playing at the edges of his mouth. Sure, why not? I don’t see any problems with this. “OK,” said Olivia.

“Do you have something to say, Amanda?” asked Chris, watching the grimace deepen once she was called out.

She gave a drawn-out sigh. “Fine, I guess,” she said through gritted teeth. I guess she doesn’t want another Ben around. He did say they were identical triplets. Where’s the third one?

“Alright,” said Chris. He checked the time on his phone. “Everyone look into their housing, try to let me or Amanda know what you’re planning to do in a week. Ben, you get Rob and Bri’s accommodations put together. I’ll talk with the MHU, Olivia, see if I can get you squared away. If there’s nothing else…” he trailed off, opening up for someone else to fill the blank. No one did. “Meeting adjourned.”

E: Sand Box

The Sahara stretched on below Cyrus, an endless palette of browns and yellows swirling together. Eventually he would hit the Mediterranean, though he had no intention of making it that far. Though, would there be German steamships on those seas, preparing to invade Greece and North Africa, in dire need of a sudden storm to sink them? He blinked and shook his head, trusting the warning feeling in his gut as his mind wandered. His bubble of air, condensed to breathability even scraping the upper reaches of the atmosphere, cut through the early morning sky. Cyrus caught sight of a certain rock formation scoured by the winds and began his descent.

Cyrus. The name, one of his few intact long-term memories. Not his birth name, even that was lost to time, but a sign of respect. The man had broadened his world, irrevocably. The memory of his mother tongue slipped from his mind, the village turned city he had protected as a god for centuries returned to the dust, the faces blended together over and over and over, but the name stayed. The original would have known what to do, but all current Cyrus was left with was little else but an uplifting feeling, utterly devoid of details.

A threat, a dagger at the heart of man lay buried West, where he had just fled. The timing could not have been worse. The human mind could only hold so much, before the memories spilled over like an overflowing water jug filled by a greedy child. Soon it would slip from his grasp entirely and break upon the ground. Two hundred years, give or take. The memories, the count of years, were imperfect, but twenty-five repetitions of the process left its mark upon his psyche.

He landed deep in the Sahara, in the hard desert near no possible caravan routes. He had once saved an entire camel train of hundreds of pilgrims, flying night and day for a week to ferry them as much water as he could carry. Had that been yesterday or centuries? Regardless, this place held no real significance to anyone, no reason to visit, no reason to make an arduous climb up a cliff face, no reason to visit the cave at the top with a handful of creature comforts hardened by the dry heat against, though by no means immune to, the passage of time.

A century of dust coated the cave, save for a well-worn box beside a desk. He cleared the dust from the room with a thought and unlatched the carved lid. Within lay a thick, leather-bound journal. He opened it and leafed through the pages. He didn’t bother to read and absorb, it would be lost soon anyways. The journal would be for later, to read and interpret with fresh eyes.

He eyed the once rich rug in the center of the only true room of the cave, nearly returned to dust as all things did. The Chinese merchant who sold it might have been a dour man, made more so by the unfamiliar and unpleasant jungle climate of Bengal he found himself posted in for one of the Ming trade fleets, but his wife? The broad nosed woman with an easy and genuine smile, who viewed everything as an adventure worth savoring, even talks with a lowly Sultanate official such as Cyrus. Who knew how much of that merchant’s success stemmed from her charm and insight?

The howl of wind, naturally occurring, outside the cave brought him back to the present. Cyrus scrawled down all he could remember, all he could muster, of his plans and goals of the previous five years since he’d last visited his old haunt. There, of course, was no guarantee he could remember the language in which he wrote when he reached the other side, but the invention of writing had helped him immensely in the previous millennia, even if it took time to decipher.

With his task complete, he reclined on a spartan bed, little more than a few extra blankets over a slab of stone. The darkness of sleep took hold, stilling his writhing mind. Perhaps the night would bring recovery. Perhaps it would be a week.


Cyrus awoke with a splitting headache, in a claustrophobic cavern of stone. He lashed out instinctively at the unfamiliar environment, splitting the rock wall with a spear of air. His eyes took a moment of focus fully on the innocent red sandstone, and a few pebbles fell from the ceiling and bounced off of the rug below. The rug had some significance, that was obvious, but he could not recall where it came from. The ancient thing would certainly need replacing, however, faded and threadbare as it was.

This confusion, too, would pass, as all things did. He would heal, as he did all things. Grievous injuries closed within moments, entire removed limbs would regenerate. Whatever force was acting on him, granting him his powers, it would brook no exceptions. Even breaks in his mind, like the one upcoming, would be smoothed over. Devices meant to keep him constantly regenerating had been simply burned from his body, ceasing to function within minutes of the mad techie hooking him up.

Was he still human? Perhaps. The question occurred to him often in his lower points. But Cyrus lived, he loved, cried, and laughed. Leadership centuries ago had humbled him, badly, despite all of his power. If he could not lead, how could he set himself above others? So he lived as any other man, returning to this place whenever the memories grew too great. Perhaps this would be a waste of an extraordinary life. Perhaps a new calling would reveal itself to him in his wanderings. Perhaps.


It took him another full day for his full mental faculties to return, and another two to fully recall and interpret the contents of his journal. There were gaps, that he knew. Whatever cover story he had at the MHU he would never be able to maintain again for more than a few seconds of questioning. He could certainly lie, but those lies would almost never match up with whatever he had said on record before.

Cyrus sat cross legged at the base of the rock formation as the sun set and the night cooled, meditating with a newly cleared mind. He refused to break his inner peace, even as the sounds of helicopter blades approached. The trio approached him from across the valley, in full charcoal grey suits and red ties despite being in the middle of the Sahara Desert. He steadfastly ignored them, gaze fixed on the horizon in the distance until a figure stood directly in front of him.

“Agent Smith,” said the leading woman, with the most generic American accent possible, holding an official looking badge up for a brief moment before whisking it away into a breast pocket.

“What department would you happen to work for?” he asked, an unwilling smile playing on the corner of Cyrus’ lips.

“A great question. We have some questions for you as well.”

He held up a hand, interrupting her. “You are not the first to try to ambush me here. Nor the first to attempt to confuse me. It never ends well.”

“If we were here for a fight with a man who controls air, we wouldn’t have taken a helicopter here,” she said, her confident smile never wavering. “And you don’t seem too confused. It’s been almost a week since that power nap you took. I can’t imagine that’s a coincidence on our part.”

He conceded the point with a nod.

“Of course we have an old file on you, but we certainly weren’t expecting you to break cover so spectacularly. We’ll be needing to go through the Westward MHU with a fine-tooth comb when all of this is said and done.”

“What is it you are here for?” he asked, growing weary of beating around the bush.

“I have some questions for you about Overlord.”

Both eyes now gave her his full attention. “Such as?”

“Your own interest in him, for starters.”

“He is a grave threat to all humans.”

“Humans? He was a Yugoslav general and a techie. Not exactly a Siberian level threat.”

“Ah, ‘was’. You already know that his horizons have since expanded. What he plans would not leave a humanity worthy of the name.”

“Which is?”

He humored her. “Slavery. He would call it something else. Man freed of the shackles of flesh. And what a wonderful tale he would spin, of immortal beings striding the world like steel colossi. Of course, only he holds the key. If only we trust him and turn a blind eye to all those who would not fit this vision of his.”

“You have a poetic way with words,” she complimented him. He replied with a smile just as false.

“You knew this already,” he said.

She placed one hand on her hip. Her two companions remained utterly still and silent throughout the whole conversation, one never taking his eyes off of Cyrus, the other never ceasing his scan of the perimeter. “Your actions in Westward have left the Department in quite a pickle. We have our hands full with Overlord at the moment, we’d rather not put another super on our short list.”

“I killed no one, and harmed few,” he pointed out.

“You placed several agents at risk at MHU headquarters, even if you killed no one,” she replied, smile vanishing. “The Department is very curious about that coincidence.”

“How could I have known? I don’t even know which department you work for.”

“You are a several thousand-year-old super with a web of contacts, resources, and experiences to rival an entire government agency,” she pointed out.

He paused, considering his next words carefully. “Overlord has, over the last several years, begun creating and leveraging contacts across the underworld within the United States. Sanchez was the most relevant kingpin in Westward City.”

“We were aware. He’s dead now. Killed by a couple supers you had contact with. Another coincidence?”

“Oh? That was fast. Not a coincidence,” he said with a shake of his head. “I encouraged the young ones to investigate and, if possible, to capture or eliminate him.”

“Your young ones are suspect as well.”

Cyrus smiled,as a puzzle piece fell into place. “Then I will give you two gifts, instead of the one I was planning on. One, that your agents may not be as loyal as you believe them to be. Another is a name I suggest you begin investigating. Lock Corp, specifically the branch under Pierre Lafitte, has begun providing security for several unorthodox archaeological excavations throughout the Middle East. I stumbled upon one that was personal to me a few years ago.”

“And how do we corroborate any of this?”

“That is not my problem.”

She fixed him with a look, no doubt weighing how much further to push. “We’ll keep in touch.” With another toothy smile, she spun on her heels and began a brisk walk back to the helicopter. He watched and waited until it vanished over the horizon.

Perhaps the men in grey would fulfill their goal and Cyrus would be worried for nothing. Perhaps the seeds he had planted in Westward and elsewhere would bear fruit and Overlord would be stymied. Perhaps the Siberians would break through the Beijing line and render everything moot. Perhaps.

31: Cinnamon

Over the next few days, after their final fight with Sanchez and the standoff with the MHU, Olivia and her friends found themselves in a rut. Ben had, thankfully, parked is car well out the line of fire, keeping it safe even as several MHU tow trucks came by to scrape up the ruined or abandoned ones around their safehouse. Ben and Chris made several short supply runs, with Olivia helping to put up tarps over the broken windows in the front or to replace drywall. It might not have been the best home, or even the safest, but their former auto shop was the only place any of them had at the moment. That, and the MHU specifically told them to stay in place for later questioning.

With the passage of time and the MHU no longer putting out alerts since their escape, Chris and Amanda managed to go unrecognized in the sprawl of Westward City once more. Ben and Miya had always been unknowns, leaving Olivia as the only one hidden away. Amanda and Miya didn’t forget about her when they went for their own supply run for Miya, and Olivia now owned three whole sets of clothes that at least weren’t overly tight as well as short.

Amanda otherwise kept herself busy, and busy meant frantically darting from one ruined contraption to another, cursing bullets, Sanchez, the concept of pickup trucks, all dust, and curiously the local power company. She ripped devices from the walls or lifted them from a plastic bin with a couple bullet holes through it and placed them one after the other on her workbench, cataloguing the damage.

Without techie devices to occupy them, Olivia and the others could only work on repairs or rest. The first couple days remained quiet, Miya keeping herself apart from the others, but eventually even she began to go stir crazy.

“Has anyone heard from Cyrus?” asked Olivia, sitting on a folding chair spun around so the backrest wouldn’t dig into her wings. Her tail she kept curled around the chair’s legs and her feet, out of the way. He seemed nice. A little weird, but I am too.

“Oh yeah, what happened to that guy?” asked Ben, balancing a knife on his fingertip. “He gave y’all a head start outta the MHU, right? Ain’t seen him since.”

“Cyrus gave us a pat on the cheek, an encouraging word, and fucked off to leave us fighting an entire gang alone. And half the shit he said still doesn’t make sense,” grumbled Chris, opposite their folding table from Olivia. “I’m willing to let that sleeping dog lie.”

Ben nodded as the silent moment stretched on and on. “I’m still bored. Anythin’ else need doin’?”

“What about that tracker?” asked Chris. “Could we have Miya take a crack at that?”

“What?” asked Miya, leaning back in her chair.

“One of Overlord’s bots stuck a tracking device in the back of Olivia’s neck,” explained Amanda, not looking up from her work. She held a tweezer with some tiny component pinched in the forceps, staring down at a board through a giant magnifying glass the size of her face. “Olivia is made of iron, so I can’t get to it without throwing a lethal amount of electricity at her.”

“What’s this about iron?” asked Miya. “That’s the one thing magic can’t deal with.”

Amanda shook her head, her loose short hair waving around just above her eyes. “Sorry, figure of speech. She’s tough, that’s all.”

“Yeah, can do.” Miya turned to Olivia and explained, “I’m still recovering, I’ll only really be able to affect bones right now, but I can at least take a look at everything else. Oh, and I’ll need to put my hands on you, like, on the shoulder or arm or something.”

“Um, OK, I guess,” Olivia said with a shrug.

“Just don’t break contact, that would be annoying,” said Miya, walking up and placing her hand on Olivia’s forearm. Why did her eyes just turn dark red? She probably needs to concentrate if her eyes get weird. So Olivia sat and waited, trying hard not to feel awkward. And waited. And waited.

Should I say something? She hasn’t moved. After waiting a couple more moments, she thought, is something wrong? “Hey, Miya? Is everything, you know, alright?” asked Olivia.

“What the fuck am I looking at?” she exclaimed. Olivia cringed as everyone stopped what they were doing. I know, I’m weird.

“Me?” said Olivia.

“Is something wrong?” asked Chris, arms folding across his chest.

“Maybe?” said Miya. That’s not good. At all. “Hey Olivia, do you feel any pain at all right now?”

She considered herself. “No. Why?” Everything feels normal. I guess that ringing in my ears is a little annoying. My feet ache, but that’s normal.

“Cuz I’m seeing five small fractures on what are, hands down, the strongest bones ever. Just ever. Three ribs, a shin bone, and a collar bone. You don’t feel those?”

“No. Should I?”

“What did you do?” demanded Miya. “The force to do that should have fucked up a bunch of other things in there.”

“I got shot. Some guy punched me through a wall. I got shot some more. I fought another feral,” Olivia listed off.

Miya stared at her with solid, blood red eyes for a second. “That’ll do it.”

“Can you heal her?” asked Chris.

“Oh yeah, no problem. This might sting, these bones are so fucking beefy compared to human bones.” Olivia suppressed a flinch as five separate bones burned under her skin momentarily, then the feeling vanished. “But that’s not all.”

Oh come on. Miya’s eyes returned to normal, and she broke contact. “So,” she trailed off, gaze unfocused and staring off into the distance.

“Miya, this is kind of important,” said Chris.

“It’s not necessarily bad, I don’t think,” she said, returning her attention to them. I’m really not liking how this is sounding. “Medically, she’s fine, so far as I can tell. Give me a second, I’ve got to figure out how to say this.” Chris and Olivia watched Miya like hawks.

Eventually, she said, “So basically Olivia has some sort of passive magic thing going on. I’m not quite sure how it works, it’s a super intricate and complicated weave that she’s running throughout her whole body. Each individual stream is almost insignificant, but there’s intricacy and layers to it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“You know that?” Ben asked Olivia.


“It would take me forever to figure out exactly how it all works. It’s almost like a second body. I recognized a couple weaves that would help with healing. There’s some beefy lattice in your skin. It’s weird, it looks like it fits in much better on the scales. There’s some crazy intricate stuff I’ve never seen before in her wings.” Miya looked at her thoughtfully. I know. I’m super extra weird.

“This isn’t dangerous at all, is it?” asked Chris.

“No, it shouldn’t be,” replied Miya with a vigorous shake of her head.

Ben laughed, “Well, the more you know.”

“So that’s it then,” said Olivia.


“Magic. Magic is the reason for,” she made a vague motion towards herself as she spoke. “This. Just magic. That’s it.” There’s not much I can do about it. I actually thought it was going to be worse. Like I’m programmed to forget everything every year or something stupid.

“What? No. Magic is why you can get shot dozens of times and keep going,” said Miya. “Powers and magic are not mutually exclusive. There are certain bits of magic that affect only powers. Some powers revolve only around magic. There’s the chance I could trigger, though I doubt it at this point, but I could still do what I do now, provided the power isn’t a null power specific to magic.”

“That seems like too much,” said Olivia. Chris snorted. Come on. I’m not that strong. Am I?

“Why? It’s just magic. They’re just powers. Don’t get me wrong, there are scientists who spend their whole lives trying to figure this stuff out with nothing to show for it. But they’re just things that happen. They’ve always happened,” said Miya. “Anyways, everything else seemed fine.”

“You don’t seem that shocked by this,” observed Chris.

“Actually, now that I’ve seen it, I could probably do something similar to myself, but it would take, like, all my concentration. As in, meditate for an hour beforehand, and do nothing else meanwhile kind of concentration.”

“Alright. Thank you, Miya,” said Chris. Olivia mumbled something similar. He asked Olivia, “Are you alright?”

“I guess.” His lips thinned as he looked at her skeptically. “Well, it doesn’t really change anything,” she explained. “It’s just another thing, you know?” I’m magic, I guess, because I’m not weird enough as it is.

Chris’ neck stiffened and rocked back a few degrees. “Wait, Miya, the tracker.”

“Shit, that’s right!” she exclaimed. “I got distracted. Come here.” She waved Olivia over again. Her eyes turned deep red as she resumed her magical examination and her gaze shifted up to the base of Olivia’s neck. Now without distraction, it only took her a few moments to return to normal and report, “This little thing is coated in iron. I won’t be able to do anything about it. Why is there a mage proof tracker in your neck?”

“That doesn’t seem normal. In fact, why does an Overlord robot have a mage tracker thing in the first place?” asked Chris.

“You could say that again. What exactly happened?”

Chris and Miya both looked to Olivia. “Oh, um, I was fighting a robot when we were attacking that construction place.” Miya grimaced in recognition. “It slashed me with a knife a couple times, then hit me in the back of the neck with something.”

“A knife? That hurt you?” asked Ben.


“An iron knife would do that. Even steel,” said Miya.

Ben burst into laughter. “Good thing you keep gettin’ hit with lead.”

Chris considered for a moment. “The robot knew about the magic.”

“How? It’s a robot. Most people can’t even see magic,” pointed out Miya.

“The red stuff?” asked Olivia, head tilted a few degrees to the side. It’s right there.

Miya, Ben, and Chris froze for a moment in shock. Did I say something wrong? “Is she a mage?” asked Chris.

“I have no idea,” replied Miya. She held her hands out a few inches apart towards Olivia. “Tell me what you see.” Dark red coils twisted and writhed between her palms, most hair thin, some up to an inch thick. Whenever one arced too far, it began to dissipate into the air without a trace. The eldritch energy twisted into impossible shapes, sometimes reminding Olivia of patterns in the clouds, other times seeming to draw her vision to a point not quite there, not quite visible.

“A bunch of dark red string,” said Olivia. It looked really cool though!

With an amused snort, Miya said, “Yeah. She’s a mage.”

“A mage with an Overlord tracker in her.”

“They might come for her,” pointed out Amanda.

“They just did,” responded Miya. “A bot came to Sanchez and told them where you were. Like I said, they wanted Olivia and Amanda. If Sanchez is all he’s got, we might have some time.”

“I’ll work on blocking the signal. It shouldn’t be too hard since we have some time.”

“Why don’t we take a fuckin’ load off! Relax, grab some drinks, initiate ‘liv’ into American culture!” announced Ben. At the hesitant look she gave him he jabbed a finger at her and added, “Or we sit here, bored out of our skulls and sleepin’ the hours away cuz we’re all lunatics who don’t know how to function without someone actively tryin’ to kill us. I dunno about you but movies sound way better.”

“Ben, what movies?” asked Chris, a look of weary resignation on his face. He flipped his phone around in one hand, letting the long side slap into his palm before twirling it again with a flick of his wrist. “You are not going to ruin movies for her by showing her Silence of the Lambs or Rocky Horror Picture Show or something like that.” I kind of get the horror one, but what’s wrong with lambs?

“Nah, we’ll start with the basics. Blazing Saddles, cuz I refuse to respect the comedic opinion of someone who ain’t at least watched it. Star Wars, one of the old James Bonds, we got options.” Olivia sighed. I didn’t really understand most of that. Because of course not.

“Where would we watch the movies? We don’t have a TV,” pointed out Olivia.

“Amanda,” said Ben, “has got that giant monitor thingy that isn’t quite the size of a TV still intact, an’ a computer to play ‘em on. I got some video streamin’ service thingy, Amanda’s leechin’ off of free internet from somewhere, an’ if I ain’t got it we can just pirate ‘em or somethin’.”

Chris and Miya shrugged simultaneously. “Sure, why not?”

What about pirates? “Sure, I guess.” Olivia watched warily as Ben practically bounced with excitement as he spoke. I guess movies are better than sitting in here doing nothing. Or worrying.

“Alright!” said Ben, grabbing his car keys. “I’ll grab the drinks, Amanda gets the movies ready an’ picks the first one.” She looked up at him over her work and glared, though she did set it aside and roll her chair over to one of her intact computers.

Chris jumped up as his phone rang. Nope, I’m not listening. Olivia began tapping her claws against the plastic tabletop, to the rhythm of a song she’d once overheard on the radio. Without bothering to get outside, he only got halfway to the ruined wall before answering, “Alice, you got my message! It’s so good to hear you.” He stopped as if slamming into a solid brick wall.

They all watched; they couldn’t help it. The quiet, intensely private man had never really spoken about much outside of their immediate work. Amanda and Miya exchanged looks as they listened to one side of a conversation. What’s going on? Is it something bad?

“What do you mean?”

“Communicate? I gave you a call as soon as I could!”

“And then people were trying to kill us.”


“Yeah, I’m sure he did. Marcus is full of shit.”

“Warrant? The MHU just walked away. How is there still…”

Silence reigned for a moment. The muffled talking on the other end of the phone Olivia desperately tried to avoid listening to cut off, leaving Chris standing with a quiet cell phone.

Ben gave him an uncertain half smile as he edged past him, only one corner of his mouth curling up. “I’ll grab some stiffer drinks then. Be back in a few.”


Over the next four hours, the group plowed through two movies and started on their third, along with nearly a dozen beers. They also made good progress on the three bottles of liquor. Olivia took one sniff of alcohol and kept herself to the popcorn. It might not have been made of meat, but salt and butter couldn’t go wrong, even if the kernels kept getting caught between her shark teeth. Miya, still weary after her impromptu surgery and keeping herself somewhat apart from the others, called it quits first. She burrowed under a blanket, gripped a pillow tight, and passed out after the second movie, a sci-fi flick even Olivia understood.

She sat beside Chris, who’d allowed himself to be guided back to the table by Amanda and herself. Listless eyes only partially watched the screen, and the whole atmosphere seemed far more subdued than Ben had started with. Ben, at least, cut Chris off of liquor after the first few shots, keeping him to beer instead. One time he slipped Chris water, who didn’t seem to notice.

“What am I going to do?” Chris mumbled to himself, his first words beyond asking for another drink.

Olivia rested a wing unnoticed on his opposite shoulder. I don’t know what to say. I never know what to say. It’s not about me, though.

“Man exists for man,” he said, each slurred word deliberately chosen. He rambled on, far less precise, “I guess I couldn’t…” he trailed off, eyes searching the blank wall above the screen for the word he was missing. “I couldn’t.”

Olivia said, “You could.” Whatever it is. “We’re here for you.”

“So, what does it mean, then? I’m not good enough?”

“Nah, mean’s you’ll get ‘em next time,” encouraged Ben. “She ain’t worth it if she’ll dump you over that.”

A soft snore caught Olivia’s ear. She and Ben turned to find Chris lying passed out over the table, a half empty glass of water in his hand. She froze, uncertain. Is he OK? He’s still breathing. Should I wake him up?

Amanda caught her eye and shook her head. “Don’t worry, if you’re done, I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“Is he OK?” asked Olivia softly.

“He’ll be fine, a guy his size can take plenty more alcohol. He’s just tired.”

“No, well, that’s good, but I mean, what about everything else?”

Amanda frowned. “Breakups can be rough. I can’t say I knew much about him and Alice when we were working together at the MHU, but it’s going to be something he’ll have to work through. Don’t hover over him too much, OK?”

“OK. But, I don’t know, it seems like we should do something more. Right?”

“I get it. We are our relationships, good and bad. Girlfriend, coworker, father.” Olivia’s brow furrowed as she caught a tense inflection on the last word. “Breaking something like that will take time to heal, no matter what you or I do.”

“OK,” Olivia repeated, sparing Chris one final glance.

She finished off her bag of popcorn and excused herself, heading to the roof. Below her, Ben’s new car hummed to life and drove off as she sat down on the edge of the roof, facing west.

I guess that’s it. That Lock Corp. guy got away from Amanda yesterday. She gets angry whenever they come up. Chris lost his girlfriend and his job. Miya is free of those Overlord things. I’m a mage, I guess. I don’t know what that means, but cool, why not? And Ben is still Ben. He’s always kind of just been hanging around. Overlord is still out there. Cyrus is still out there. But neither of them are here right now.

A few minutes later the car returned, and Ben climbed the ladder to join her. He flopped down next to her on the roof’s edge, beer and donut box precariously clutched in one hand.

“Hi,” she greeted him with a small wave.

A whiff of something sweet caught her nose. Ben grinned as he tracked her gaze. He set down the box between them and opened it, revealing half a dozen cinnamon rolls covered in donut glaze. “Hey! Back again, huh? Figured you could use some thinkin’ fuel.”

They each took a roll and settled into amicable silence. The low buzz of the city around them drowned out the ringing in her ears and the chewing, though the two of them were too lost in thought to be in any rush. Cinnamon! We should get these all the time.

Ben waited, his roll only partially eaten, for Olivia to finish her own before starting, “What brings you…” She paused, half a second roll already in her mouth as he asked his question. “Never mind,” he said with a grin.

With another hasty bite, she finished her roll and cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. What were you asking?”

“What brings you up here again? No need to worry, ain’t got anyone huntin’ you now.”

She pointed west with a clawed finger. The sun dipped behind the green and brown mountains, the occasional dark blue cloud breaking up the orange sky. “Just watching the sunset, I guess. I’ve noticed it, but never really paid attention to it before.”

Ben nodded and took a sip of his beer. “It’s alright,” he said.

“Oh.” Am I weird for liking this? It’s all colorful instead of concrete. I guess neon signs and traffic lights are colorful, but those don’t count.

He raised an eyebrow. After a silent moment he said, “I half expected a sorry there.” I’m sorry? I don’t say that that much. “Ignore what I said. You got somethin’ to say, say it. What do you think?” he asked with a wave of his hand.

“It’s pretty, I guess.” I have an amazing way with words, don’t I? I can sound completely and totally stupid no matter what.

“You guess?” he prodded.


“I’m not a fan, but to each their own.”

“What do you mean? Not a fan?” asked Olivia. They’re mountains. Do mountains have fans?

“Nature shit, there’s no spark, you know? It’s just nature doin’ what it does. There’s no brain behind it. A book, someone had ideas, put those down into words, an’ other people read it. A paintin’, someone saw somethin’ either in the real world or in their mind, an’ painted that into reality. A cathedral, enough people believed enough to pay for the whole thing, put in the labor, engineer the thing. A canyon, with all the pretty layers of earth, is just a hole dug by a river. Only pretty cuz we say so, you know?”

Olivia digested this in silence. That kind of makes sense, I guess. I’ve never had a discussion on aesthetics before. And how do I remember a word like aesthetics? She sighed. I know, I’m weird.

Ben continued after a while, “Don’t take my word as gospel. That’s my own opinion, you gotta come up your own. There’s a lot of cool shit in the world, an’ you should go into it with an open mind if you want it to be worthwhile. We might disagree on shit, that’s OK.”

Olivia returned her attention to the mountains, with the sun a fading orange smudge behind them. The air ever so gradually cooled. Ben threw his head back, finishing off his beer. He tossed the bottle into the street. The glass shattered, the shards to join the rest of the random trash accumulated on the edges of the road.

“Whatcha out here for, anyway? There’s a sunset every day. You’re kinda avoidin’ everyone with this,” he asked.

“I just wanted to clear my head, I guess.”

“Somethin’ on your mind?” he prodded once more.

She sighed, repressing the initial urge to say no as her tail curled inward. Remember what Amanda said. It took her a minute to gather her thoughts, rather than rush them out in her traditional stumbling manner.

“I noticed something.”

“What’s that?” he asked, for once not grinning or threatening one.

“I’m not hungry. I mean, I’m still kind of hungry,” she hastily added after he fixed her with a look, both well aware of the flecks of sugar blending into the dark green scales on her hand. “But I haven’t been thinking about it all the time. My stomach doesn’t hurt. And I have a bed, a real bed and blanket instead of some old couch. I have a name.”

As she choked to a stop, he pointed out, “You had a name when I first me you.”

She took a shaky breath. It’s weird, saying it all out loud. “Yeah, but no one knew it. No one said it.”

Man exists for man. Doesn’t that go both ways?

“That other feral, the one we found in the Arena, just seemed wrong. That could have been me. Like, had anything changed or been different, I’d have been like that. It would have been so easy for that to happen. I don’t want that, but I don’t really know what I want to be. I mean, I know I’m… I’m not fully human anymore, but still.”

“That don’t matter too much. We got time, we’ll figure out who you were.”

“Yeah, I still don’t know who I was but…” she agreed, trailing off and searching for the words once more. “It matters, but I know I’ll make it to the next day even without knowing. Does that make any sense? Like that magic stuff. I didn’t know that before, but there’s nothing I can really do about it. But I’ll be OK. And I know I’ll be OK.”

Ben shrugged. “I can’t answer all your questions. That’s your own thing. But however you wanna go forward, the others care about you. You know that, right?”

“Well, yeah. I do too. Care. About them. Too. Yeah.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. “I don’t know. I guess there’s always the possibility that I just stop, you know” she mused out loud, almost detached. The city, so vast from their small rooftop, roared ever onward. “Just something goes wrong because biology or whatever, and I just stop. Because I’m, you know-”

He cut her off, bringing her back to herself. “Don’t finish that.” He sighed and asked, “Olivia?”


“Do you need a hug?”

“I’m OK.” Sorry, I’m just being weird.

“Olivia,” he repeated.


“Do you want a hug?” Her brain froze, unable to come up with a response. Ben laughed. “Come here, you.” He wrapped an arm around her waist, ignoring the donut box between them.

After a minute, Olivia broke the silence. “Thank you,” she whispered. Together, they watched an orange sun set behind a blue shadowed mountain range.