Homecoming – Truth

“Where’s Olivia?” asked Miya. She, Amanda, and the brothers had scattered around the lair, waiting for Olivia to come back. She and the brothers had tapped into the various security cameras around where she had first woken up, while Miya and Amanda had gone up north of the city to check the family of a girl who might have been Olivia.

“Said she’d be flyin’ out an’ about for a bit,” replied Ben, balancing on the two back legs of his chair. I can’t blame her. It’s good to have something to focus on, thought Amanda.

“You know, we need a couch in here,” said Rob, fidgeting in the hard plastic folding chair.

“Kinda runnin’ outta room now, aren’t we?” replied Ben. “Can’t even park a car in here anymore.”

“We already have that beanbag,” said Amanda, nodding towards the massive dark blue lump between the table and the workshop. I can’t believe I completely passed out on that thing. “That thing is super comfortable.”

Just then, the back door opened, and Olivia ducked through. “Hi,” she said to the group at large with a small wave of her scaled hand.

“Hey!” said Rob. “Have fun?”

“Yeah!” She glanced between Rob and Amanda. “And, um…”

“We have something,” said Amanda, answering her unspoken question.

“We don’t think Maria is the one we’re looking for,” said Miya.

Olivia frowned as she took her seat with the sawn off backrest between Ben and Rob. “Why not?”

Miya leaned forward and said, “The main reason we thought Maria might be you is because she is the same age as you, roughly, and vanished a day before you showed up.”

“Her parents could barely speak any English,” said Amanda. “From what they told us it was the same with Maria. You don’t have that problem. Ferals have memories removed, not added.”

“Oh. Well, maybe that’s why other ferals can’t talk. They just forgot how,” said Olivia.

“Could be,” said Miya. “I mean, I don’t know. But that could be it.”

Amanda continued, “They had a couple family pictures of her as well. That one picture the police had must have just been a weird angle or lighting or something, because she and Olivia looked nothing at all like each other in the others.”

“Hold up,” said Ben. “If they couldn’t speak English how’d you talk to ‘em?”

Amanda tapped her phone on the table. “Real time translator. It’s not 100% perfect, but it gets the message across.” Maybe I could… no, not the time. Later.

Silence fell over the group as they mulled over the information. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have no idea what else to do now. “We can’t just leave her to die, wherever she is,” said Olivia.

“I hate to say it, but there’s a reason these kinds of cases go unsolved. There’s almost nothing to go on,” said Amanda. “We don’t have a police force. We have the five of us and whatever databases I manage to tap into.

“Findin’ her is gonna be real complicated,” said Ben, smile nowhere to be found. “Three reasons to kidnap a kid: ransom, labor, sex. I ain’t even countin’ just the straight up loony killers. She ain’t been ransomed, an’ she’s a she. I hate it, but she’s been gone two months. She’s long gone. Could be in fuckin’ Thailand for all we know. Hell, for all her kidnapper knows. Not like they’d keep tabs on her.”

“But we can’t just-” began Olivia.

“No,” said Ben. He paused for a moment before saying, “You seen a kid get shot before? Too small, too much blood. No. This is a real dark place we’re talkin’ ‘bout. This ain’t the time or place for it. Leave it.”

Amanda caught sight of Rob nudging Olivia in the ribs as she opened her mouth to argue. He shot her a warning look and mouthed, “Later.” What’s up with Ben? Olivia frowned and shut her mouth.

“The last thing we have then are the tapes you guys collected,” said Amanda, bringing the conversation back to its original purpose. “I’ll start going through those, see if I can find anything.”

“Hey, Ben, let’s go get some food,” said Rob. “I’ll drive.”

“Sure,” said Ben, still with a sour look on his face. We hit something personal.

The brothers left together, the deep rumble of Rob’s truck left the back of the lair. Miya and Olivia watched as Amanda turned her attention to two of her computers in her workshop. In the MHU, her last task had been to make a facial recognition program. The concept for cars was the same. Easier, in fact, cars couldn’t be packed as close together as a mob, which was what the old program was for.

“Do you need any help?” asked Olivia.

“No, I should be good. It’s mostly automated. If the computer sees anything, it’ll tell me. If we don’t find anything, then yes, help would be good,” replied Amanda.

“But we could get started early,” said Olivia.

“No need to rush it,” cautioned Amanda. “Whoever left you there did it two months ago. Another day or two isn’t going to hurt at this point. It’s best if we take out time and get it right.”

“Is Ben OK?” she asked. Oh, you picked up on that too.

“He’ll be fine,” said Miya.

Amanda nodded in agreement. “Rob didn’t seem that concerned. They’re not exactly reserved when it comes to saying what they’re thinking.”

“Speaking of which, it looks like you and Rob are a thing now,” said Miya, a sly smile playing on her face.

“What? No. We’re just going to dinner.”

“That’s called a date. He asked you on a date, and you said yes. You two are a thing.”

Oh shit she’s right. Oh shit. It’s been four years since I last went on a date. How do you date? “I don’t know. What does a guy want from a date anyways?” asked Amanda.

“Sex.”

Well aren’t you helpful. Amanda rolled her eyes at Miya and said, “Oh please, we’re not taking it that fast. We’re not sixteen anymore.”

Miya raised an eyebrow. “Fast? You two are already practically glued to each other whenever you’re working on something together.”

“Because we’re working on something. It takes a lot of concentration to-” She cut herself off at Miya’s knowing look. “You know what? No. I’m not going to justify myself to you.” Miya smiled and said nothing. Amanda glanced at Olivia, who struggled to keep a smile off of her face. Not you too. “Do you have something to say?”

Olivia composed herself and said, “Sorry. But don’t worry. Just be you. Why else would he have asked you?”

“A date is so much different than just hanging out.” Right?

“You’re overthinking it,” said Miya with a laugh.

Olivia wrapped a wing around Amanda’s shoulders and said, “Relax. You two will do fine.”

Amanda took a deep breath. “Right. Right. Relax.”

“Besides, you two don’t even know where or when you’re going yet,” said Miya.

“Well, yeah. We’re just trying to find some free time, and figure out a good place to eat.” I mean, with a full menu there’s got to be at least something that won’t piss off my stomach.

The rumble of Rob’s truck returned. A moment later, he and Ben walked back into the lair, laughing about something with fast food bags in hand. There’s the Ben I know.

“What’s up, party people?” said Ben.

“We figured you’d be hungry, Little Bird,” said Rob, passing her a bag. No kidding, she’s always hungry. I have no idea where she puts it. “Triple burger for you.”

“Oh, thank you,” said Olivia with a smile, opening the top of the paper bag.

“Everything alright?” asked Miya.

Rob and Ben exchanged glances. “Yeah,” said Rob.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” asked Ben.

“No reason, just asking.

Olivia covered her mouth and let out a loud squeak as her whole body shook. What the… “Are you alright?” asked Miya.

She blinked a few times. “I was going to sneeze, but I also had to cough, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m OK now.” Ben and Rob burst into laughter.

The group dispersed not long after. Miya wandered off to bed, Rob following not long after, once he’d finished his food. Olivia paced restlessly for a while before laying out on her beanbag to read. Ben played around on his phone. Amanda went over her plans for improving her armor, while keeping half an eye on the computers running through the security footage. Two hours passed before it found anything, but it immediately commanded Amanda’s full attention.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” she said to Ben and Olivia. “This is something.”

“Define something,” said Ben.

“One moment. Here,” she said, pointing to the screen. “Truck drives by, bed covered in a tarp, heading for where Olivia woke up.” She fast forwarded the tape. “Here it is again, six minutes later, no tarp, heading in exactly the opposite direction.”

“Shit. You got the plate number?” asked Ben.

Amanda rewound until she got the best view of the truck’s plates possible. “It’s pretty blurry,” she said.

“I can read it,” said Olivia as she kneeled beside Amanda to get a better look at the screen. She read off the plate number for Amanda to search for.

Barely a minute later, with the whole group waiting in awkward silence, the search result returned. Amanda’s eyes flew over the screen. I think this is is. “Here we go. That truck belongs to a member of the Return to Christ Temple. They’re an anti-metahuman cult up in the mountains. One of their members, Judy, was on that short list of possible people for you.”

Olivia’s eyes widened. “Membrane,” she murmured.

“What about him?” asked Amanda.

“When I saw him. He started laughing, and asked if I’d read the Bible,” replied Olivia.

Amanda rested her hand on her forehead. I’m an idiot. “Holy shit. Holy shit, I totally forgot about that. That makes sense. How did I miss that?” Oh no, and it’s the anti-meta–human people, too.

“He was screaming, too,” murmured Olivia, just barely loud enough to be heard.

“I think this is it,” said Amanda.

“It’s worth checkin’ out,” said Ben. “Keep in mind, ‘liv’, these people ain’t gonna take you back with open arms?”

Olivia tilted her head to the side. “Why not? They’re family.” Oh honey…

“Were. Before you triggered,” said Ben. “These are pretty irrational folk. They’d murder the shit outta me if they could get away with it. Same with any of us here. Hell, Miya ain’t white. They probably hate her too.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I don’t,” he admitted. “Not for absolute certain. These kinda fuckers make the news every so often an’ it’s never pretty.” Olivia frowned, which Amanda began to recognize as her stubborn expression.

“He’s right,” said Amanda.

“I still want to try,” said Olivia, showing no sign of backing down. “They’re my family. I really think so. And I haven’t known who they are for so long. I can finally figure out who I am, really. I want to try.”

“I didn’t say we shouldn’t,” said Ben.

“We just want you to be prepared, mentally.” Amanda’s voice wavered. Are we just setting her up for heartbreak?

Olivia took a deep breath. “Thank you. And, well, um, well…” She trailed off.

“Go on,” urged Amanda.

“I… I guess I’ve known you guys the longest. And, um, I was… I was hoping you guys could come with me.”

“Of course,” said Amanda.

“Right behind you,” said Ben.

Olivia smiled and wrapped her arms around Amanda and Ben in a bear hug, lifting both off their feet. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

She released them after a moment and set them back on the ground. Amanda winced and asked, “When did you want to leave?”

“Right now! Is that OK?” replied Olivia. If I say yes will you try to break my spine again? Because I’d like to keep my spine intact.

Ben checked his phone. “That’d work. We’d get there sorta early, but that ain’t a huge problem.”

“Yeah! Let’s go,” said Olivia, leading the way to the back of the lair.

“You wanna drive or me?” Ben asked Amanda.

“You, I’m not really feeling up for a two hour drive.”

“Sounds good,” said Ben as he teleported to Rob’s desk to grab his keys.

Olivia flew overhead as they drove through the mountains. The road crews had finally cleared the rubble from I-70 from Freedom Fighter’s bombings. Amanda gave Ben directions, eventually leading off of the main highway and onto the twisting back roads of the mountains. Amanda looked out the window the whole drive, taking in the scenery. How long has it been since I came out here, just for fun? Oh, right, I had a job with the MHU. Fuck being an adult.

Eventually, the pavement stopped, replaced with the pale brown dirt of the valley they found themselves in. After another twenty minutes, they came to a beat up old wooden sign that arched above the road that read Return to Christ Temple. Here it is. They drove up the hill just beyond the sign, overlooking a large whitewashed ranch house. Amanda could make out the distant specks of cattle in the distance, on the sparse grassland of the mountain valley. Olivia landed beside them as Ben exited the truck.

“How you wanna play this?” asked Ben.

“Can you… can you guys stay here?” asked Olivia after a moment, eyes fixed on the ranch.

Amanda and Ben exchanged glances. She’s not dumb. If she can handle a legion of Overlord robots, she can handle some farmers. Even if they are basically cultists. “We’ll be right here,” said Amanda. Ben nodded in agreement.

“Thank you,” replied Olivia. She climbed down the hill, balancing on her clawed feet.

Amanda spotted a long gun in someone’s hands. Don’t you dare shoot her. After a moment, the two men stepped aside and let her into the ranch house. Then, silence beyond a few songbirds passed overhead, shrieking in hatred at the rising sun.

Twenty minutes passed, with no movement in the ranch below beyond a distant figure raking out the stables. “Maybe we shouldn’t have just let her walk in there on her own,” said Amanda.

“Gotta stop babysittin’ her,” said Ben, pacing back and forth beside her door. The loose dirt and rocks of the road crunched beneath his shoes. “It’ll hurt. We warned her. But she’s hopin’. She’s takin’ the chance. Can’t fault her for that. An’ hell, maybe it’ll work out. Did for Beth.”

Amanda chose not to respond, instead leaning back into her seat and taking in the surroundings. The Rocky Mountains loomed all around them, vast swathes of evergreens on their slopes brown from pine beetles. The untouched groves of aspens rustled in the light breeze. Come fall, they would explode in a riot of color, and Amanda would take her usual one self allotted day of vacation to enjoy them and the fresh mountain air. If my stomach is up for it, may as well go for a hike. My skin is only getting paler.

“Judy’s a shit name,” said Ben, breaking the silence. “Hope she sticks with Olivia.”

Amanda gave a quick laugh and said, “Yeah, no kidding.”

She jolted upright when the front door of the ranch house opened a minute later. The unmistakable figure of Olivia began trudging back up the hill, unaccompanied by anyone. A few people from the ranch watched her leave, guns in hand. Oh no. Olivia’s gaze was fixed firmly on the ground, even when she approached Ben and Amanda.

“Everythin’ alright?” asked Ben once she reached the truck.

Olivia gave a tiny shake of her head. She climbed into the back seats of the cab, rather than the bed or taking flight, and buried her face in her arms. “No place here,” she whispered.

Ben started the truck for the long drive back home.

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Homecoming – Needle in a Haystack

“Stores have security cameras, right?” began Amanda.

“Ideally,” replied Miya.

Everyone had clustered around Amanda’s workspace in the lair. Amanda had taken the center position, with Miya lounging in a folding chair next to her. Ben and Rob leaned against the desk, leaning forward to get a good look at Amanda’s screen. Olivia herself hung back, looking over the top of Amanda’s head. Where are you going with this?

“So, we can check their cameras, see what kind of cars pass by. They haven’t changed their systems, so I still have access to most of what the police have. It won’t be perfect, but it might give us something, like the car of a human trafficker or someone,” explained Amanda. “We don’t have any real information on who Olivia could be, other than that old government list thing.”

“Three problems,” said Ben. “What time we lookin’ for? An’ more importantly, they ain’t gonna let us random dudes walk in an’ take a look at their security. An’ third, those cameras are gonna be lookin’ in the store, not the streets.”

“I know. One, I’m just about to get that. Two, they probably won’t. We’re going to have to break in. And third, yes, but there’s a chance we might catch something. We’ll have to take any chance we can get. Do you have any other ideas?”

“Breakin’ in, you say?” asked Rob with a grin. Olivia frowned. Isn’t there anything else we can do? “Weren’t you a cop?”

“Yes, but you’re vastly overestimating how much I actually gave a damn about that job. It seemed like a good idea at the time. And besides, it’s not like we’re stealing anything. We’re just going to be looking at their tapes. If we do this right they won’t even know we were there.”

“Just the tapes?” asked Miya. “I mean, we’ll be in there already.”

“Yeah, ain’t been a safe I couldn’t crack,” added Rob. Ben burst into laughter.

Are they talking about robbing people? “Guys, please don’t,” spoke up Olivia. Don’t make me be responsible for a bunch of break ins.

Amanda shot them a dirty look. “Absolutely not. Unless you want the police to come down on us, hard. They have their hands full right now, but we’ll get on their radar.”

“An’ we’ll be goin’ into shops all next to each other. They’ll pick up on that pattern real quick,” said Ben.

“Shit, didn’t think about that,” muttered Rob.

“Alright, enough distractions,” broke in Amanda. She turned to Olivia and said, “Now, I need you to think. When did you wake up?”

Olivia folded her arms and glanced at her feet for a moment. When was it? Oh, right, that first  newspaper I saw. “Um, April 13th? No, that was the next day. April 12th.”

“OK.” Amanda typed something on her computer, then asked, “When that day? Can you remember anything about that?”

“Well, it was raining. And there was lightning. But I saw the sun going down.” Olivia frowned. Am I messing this up? “How does that work?”

“One of those quick storms,” said Ben. “Rolls in, dumps rain, leaves in ten minutes.”

“I’ve seen rain on sunny days before, but not often,” added Amanda. Good, I can remember. “OK, sundown on April 12th. Hang on, is this online?” A few quick keystrokes later, she said, “Holy shit it is. You can look up ‘sundown April 12, 2013’ and it gives you the time the sun went down.”

“Seriously?” Miya leaned over to get a better look, then said, “Oh my god she’s right.”

“Damn right I’m right,” said Amanda. “So we’re looking at around seven thirty, maybe about ten minutes before.”

“She wouldn’t have been layin’ out there that long,” said Ben.

“Someone woulda noticed,” added Rob. “We ain’t lookin’ at a huge window.”

“That worked out really well,” said Amanda. Olivia shot her a small smile. Progress! “Do you remember exactly where you woke up?” she asked her.

It was the alley by the dented door of that apartment building. Red’s building now.Olivia replied, “No, not the street or anything, but I can go and check.”

“I know where it is,” said Ben. Oh, that’s easy enough.

Amanda nodded. “That sounds good. Now, last thing. One of the girls on the list, Maria, has a pretty good chance. She’s your age, and went missing the day before you showed up. That seems like a pretty good indicator. Her parents are migrant workers on the farms out east. They’re probably not going to be the most forthcoming people in the world.”

“Where from?” asked Ben.

“Columbia, I think,” replied Amanda. “I’m guessing they’re here legally if they were willing to go to the police when their daughter went missing.”

“Legally?” asked Olivia.

“Yeah, people sneak into the country,” said Ben. “Met a bunch of ‘em. People movers dick ‘em over all the time, even in Baltimore.”

Miya let out a snort. “You basically have to get in the country by water now.”

“What?” asked Rob.

“Oh, I heard all sorts of awful stories out of Mexico. Like the emperor’s soldiers opening up a shipping container full of people and just gunning them down. Or border guards on both sides of the border setting up minefields.”

Rob let out a low whistle. “Shit,” he murmured.

Olivia covered her mouth with her hands and stared at Miya with wide eyes.“Why would they do that? Why would anyone do that?”

“Why would they care about those people? Those people weren’t Aztecs, or Mexicans, whichever you prefer. If you aren’t from Mexico City you’re nobody. Mexico is still an empire. Empires aren’t built out of love and kindness.” Miya was ranting in a bitter voice now. “And it’s not like Cuauhtemoc is going to kick the bucket anytime soon. The dude’s old, like Cyrus. Except he said, ‘fuck it, I’ll just be an iron fisted dictator. Let the human sacrifices commence!’ He keeps all the old bullshit, changing nothing but the guns he uses. And everyone just uses that to shit on Aztecs outside of the country.”

Silence fell over them once Miya finished. Olivia glanced around at the others. Wow. What are we supposed to say? Ben arched an eyebrow and said, “Got some pent up anger outta your system?”

Miya shrugged, her expression stormy. “Forget about it. What were we talking about?”

“Oh, right, tracking down Maria’s family,” said Amanda, turning back to her computer. “The file here says where they were last employed. The police didn’t look to far into her case when it first appeared, and the feral people didn’t make much headway into investigating last time I checked. And I think Overlord has given them other worries. So we might be able to make some more headway than the police did. If we track down Maria, we can either figure this out or cross her off the list.”

“Sounds good,” said Rob. A buzzing sound filled the room. “That yours, Little Bird?”

Oh, hey. Olivia pulled her phone out of her pocket. “Oh, it’s Beth!” She used the side of her claw to accept the call. “Um, hi?

“Hi, Olivia,” replied Beth over the phone.

“Are you OK?”

Beth laughed. “I’m fine. Just letting you guys know I’m alive.”

“Oh, that’s good. Is everything going alright, then?” At Olivia’s question, the tension in the others receded.

The line went quiet for a moment. “I think so,” replied Beth. “I’m in my old room now. We’re giving each other some space. I think they finally went to sleep.” You only got your daughter back three hours ago. Olivia checked the clock on the phone. Four AM. Right, normal people. “I think they were a bit frustrated. But happy, you know?”

“But they’re OK with everything?” asked Olivia as she walked over to her beanbag.

“They’ve been pretty understanding. I think. They weren’t happy, but they weren’t angry, you know?”

“That’s good. That’s very good.”

“I’ve just been going through my old things. Didn’t you mention something about The Sleepless Ones? I have the first couple books on my bookshelf.”

“Oh! You have that? You need to start reading. It’s so good! There’s one character, and she-”

“Whoa, hey, are you going to tell me the plot of the book?”

“No, sorry. But you have to read it,” urged Olivia.

Beth laughed. “OK, I’ll take a look. I guess I should sleep or… something. It was good talking to you. Thanks for listening. I’ll call you tomorrow, if that’s OK. I tried texting earlier but it’s kind of a pain with the claws.”

“I know, right? That sounds good. Bye.” Olivia slipped her phone back into her pocket as the line went dead. The others had dispersed. Rob and Amanda, as always, had their heads together in their workshop. Miya and Ben both had their phones out at the table. Ben looked up and nodded as Olivia approached.

“How’s Beth doin’?” he asked.

“Good. She said she’s been talking with her family. They’re doing OK.” Miya and Ben exchanged glances. “Why are you guys so doubtful?” asked Olivia.

“I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Miya.

“She’s changed. They remember a different Beth,” said Ben.

“That’s why we made it clear to her she’s got a place here if she needs it,” said Miya.

Olivia frowned. “She hasn’t changed. She just can’t remember stuff. They’ll work through it.”

“What if her favorite food was some weird veggie thing?” asked Miya. “Is she going to be able to eat that? Because they’re going to expect her to.” Why would they want her to? They should know she can’t.

“It’s gonna be a thousand different things,” explained Ben before Olivia could speak. “Old family in jokes, old references to people she don’t remember. She can’t go meet her old friends. The neighbors see her there’s gonna be trouble. That’s all just more stress for ‘em.”

“A thousand little things, all adding up,” added Miya. It won’t be like that.

“They can work through it. Beth said they were,” said Olivia.

Ben shrugged and said, “Maybe, maybe not. If they do, great. If not, don’t be surprised.”

“Why wouldn’t they make the effort?”

“You guys get scary when you’re angry, you know that, right?” asked Miya. “You’re huge, you spread out your wings to look even bigger, you start hissing, you have claws.”

Olivia tilted her head to the side by a few degrees. “But… they’re family. Why would she get angry?”

Miya shrugged and said, “They’re people. People get angry. Sometimes for stupid reasons, sometimes for good reasons.” Olivia frowned and looked down at the table.  Miya broke the silence. “That book you were squeeing about to Beth, is that one of those vampire things?”

Olivia looked up. “Yeah. It’s so good. Have you read it?”

Miya nodded. “The first couple. They lost me after the third book. It got a little too weird. That and the author had no idea how magic works.”

“Oh.” Olivia turned to Ben. “Have you?”

Ben snickered. “Nope. Readin’s borin’.

“No it’s not,” replied Olivia. How could you say that?

“Why read when I can hike up a mountain myself? Live my own damn life.”

“Well I like it,” mumbled Olivia.

“I ain’t judgin’. I’m just sayin’ what I like. To each their own. Speakin’ of which, food sound good?” asked Ben.

“A burger sounds good,” said Olivia, back straightening.. Mmmm, food.

“Have I ever mentioned I hate you sometimes, Olivia?” grumbled Miya.

“What?” asked Olivia, her voice soft. What did I do?

Miya threw her hands up in exasperation. “You eat nothing but meat and sugar and never exercise, but look like you’re in fantastic shape. If I did that, I’d be a ball of fat and acne.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry?”What do you want from me?

Miya folded her arms and grumbled, “You should be. You get to be tall.”

Ben laughed and punched Olivia in the shoulder. “Don’t worry, she’s just jealous. Vertically impaired an’ all.”

Miya glared at him. “No, no, no, don’t give me that. Do you know how many times I’ve needed a stool just to reach something at the back of a counter?”

Olivia stared at her. “I’d love to be short. Do you know how many times I’ve hit my head on doors?”

“Or when I have to stretch my neck way back when I talk to anyone.”

“Same for me, just, you know, down.” Especially for you.

“Or jump around in a crowd, trying to figure out what the fuck is going on?” Olivia fought back a smile of that mental image.

“How about sticking out like a sore thumb?”

“Or how about when I need to climb onto the washing machine just to reach the laundry inside?”

“I can’t find clothes that really fit. Ever.”

“Aw,” said Ben, patting Miya on the head. “She gets so cute when she’s angr-oof.” Miya cut him off with a punch to the ribs.

“What have we learned today?” she asked.

Ben laughed and said, “That Napoleon-” She jabbed him in the ribs again.

“Try again.”

He jumped out of his seat and out of Miya’s reach. “Food is better than punches?” Olivia smiled.

Miya shrugged. “Close enough. Want anything, Olivia?”

Olivia rose from her seat. “I’ll come. It tastes good when it’s fresh. Or fresher. Whatever.”

“Sounds good,” said Ben. “Hey, you had a milkshake before? It’s sugar.”

Olivia looked at him. “Yes. They’re great! Let’s go.”

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Homecoming – Calcified

Over the next several days, things returned to a semblance of normalcy. Miya, Amanda, and the twins drove out once some stores had reopened to restock on food for themselves and Red. Cyrus flew in a couple days after Red had left. He exchanged pleasantries with the others, then flew off with Hank. Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief once they were gone. Thank god, so much less hissing now, thought Amanda.

Olivia stood beside Amanda in the middle of the street, watching the night sky. Above them drifted Beth, gliding towards them on unsteady wings.

“Have a nice nap?” asked Olivia.

“It was wonderful,” replied Amanda with a smile. “You find your tablet’s charger?”

“Yes. Thank you. It died and I nearly panicked and, oh, hang on.”

Olivia smiled and gave Beth a thumbs up as she came in for the landing. Let’s see if this goes better than last time. Amanda stepped to the side, putting more of Olivia between her and the incoming Beth. She pulled up as she approached, aiming her feet towards the ground. Her clawed toes scratched against the road as she fought against her own momentum. After a couple paces, she tripped, falling headlong to the ground. Too fast.

“That was good!” said Olivia, walking up and offering her a hand. “You almost stayed upright this time!”

“Yeah, I tried. Asphalt doesn’t taste too great,” grumbled Beth as she stood with Olivia’s help. She rubbed her cheek with her free hand as if there was still dirt on it from her first attempt at landing.

“Give it time,” said Amanda, suppressing a smile. It’s like watching a puppy trying to walk for the first time. Nothing but big feet and awkward stumbling.

“Yeah, yeah,” grumbled Beth, flexing her wings as she headed back towards the lair.

“Done for tonight?” asked Amanda, Olivia and her following after.

“No more. Unless you want to take a shot at it,” said Beth with a mischievous smile. “I’d stick around to watch that.”

Amanda let out a snort and said, “No thanks. I’ll leave any and all flying to you two.”

“You wouldn’t want to fly?” asked Olivia.

Amanda shook her head. “Sorry, I don’t have the build for it. And I’m not a huge fan of heights, either.” It’s not really the height, it’s the falling.

They filed into the lair as Olivia said, “But it’s so fun.”

“Speak for yourself,” muttered Beth.

“I take it you’re not enjoying it,” replied Amanda.

“No, it’s fun. Until I have to land, then I look like an idiot,” said Beth.

Rob was still passed out at his desk. Before him was their disassembled railgun prototype, one of the rails his his limp fingers. He can sleep a bit more, I need a break from that thing. Miya had her eyes glued to her phone. They spread out once inside the lair, Amanda heading for her workspace. She opened up a laptop. May as well run another couple simulations on that railgun. Maybe see what kind of hits the battery can take.

Ben barged into the lair a few minutes later and tossed Amanda’s keys to her. “Everything go alright?” she asked once she caught them. “Red hiss at you when you brought her food?”

“No hissin’. Seemed happy about that bag of jerky, too.”

“Is Red OK?” asked Olivia.

“Yeah, fine. Tried flyin’ on her own a bit. I’m guessin’ she’s a bit bored. Makin’ these cool carvin’s on the walls with her claws.”

“Huh,” said Beth.

Ben looked around. “Oh, Rob’s still sleepin’,” he said with an evil smile. “Where’s a water bottle.”

“Oh, right, forgot,” announced Miya from halfway across the room. “Magic time, if you two are up to it.”

Oh, magic. How do you teach magic, anyways? Amanda put away her laptop and joined Olivia and Beth at the table. Ben grinned to himself and hunted

“Now, the trick is to get it up and keep it up,” explained Miya. Did she just say that? Olivia seemed unfazed, but Beth stared at her. Miya’s eyes widened as she realized what she had said. “That was really poor phrasing, but we’re just going to ignore that. Now, try to-”

Amanda and Beth burst into laughter, cutting her off. “I can’t, I’m sorry,” managed Beth.

“What?” asked Olivia, lost.

“I’ll explain when you’re older,” said Amanda, prompting more laughter.

They settled down, as Olivia and Beth concentrated on what appeared to Amanda as absolutely nothing. Wow. No diagrams. No explaining, nothing. Just staring into space.

“Oh, is this something?” asked Beth, holding her hand up.

Beth shot Amanda a questioning look. “I can’t see anything,” said Amanda in response.

“You can’t?”

“Non-mages can’t see magic. And I didn’t want to ask but what are you here for?” asked Miya.

“Something might explode? Maybe something cool and magical? They don’t teach you much about magic in normal schools,” replied Amanda.

“You’re in for a disappointment,” said Miya.

“Hey,” said Olivia with a small frown. “We’re trying.”

“Now,” began Miya, “I don’t want to say you two are bad at this, but you’re bad at this.”

“It kind of hurts,” said Beth.

“Hurts?” repeated Miya. That’s some thin skin there. “I wasn’t that mean.”

“No, the magic, not your attempt at an insult,” replied Beth, sticking her forked tongue out at Miya.

Miya frowned. “Magic doesn’t hurt. Not this super easy stuff.”

“I don’t know. Not hurts. Aches,” clarified Olivia. “Wrong, kind of.”

“That…” began Miya, trailing off. “What?” Amanda leaned back in her seat. That doesn’t sound good.

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” Amanda asked Olivia.

“I’ve never used magic before, I didn’t know if I should bring it up. And it wasn’t the most painful thing I’ve felt, I didn’t really think about it,” Amanda sighed and massaged her forehead. What did I say about communicating? You should try it some time.

“Magic is its own thing, like a sixth sense,” said Miya. “But you can definitely classify it as normal, physical pain?” Beth and Olivia nodded. “OK, that’s bad. How about we stop for today until we can figure out what the mysterious pain is. I need to look up what that could be.”

“Motherfucker!” shouted Rob. Their heads whipped around to see him scramble after a madly laughing Ben, half his face drenched in water.

Ben teleported away every time Rob came close to catching him, until Rob came to a stop and said, “Fine. You win.” A similar grin spread across his face. “But you gotta sleep sometime, you little bastard.” Ben just laughed.

“Get that out of your system, you two?” asked Miya. Rob plopped down next to Amanda, breathing heavily. Hey you.

“For now, yeah,” they said in stereo.

“So, Amanda,” said Beth. “Did you, you know, find anything? About me?”

“Give me a moment. I had something for you.” Amanda retrieved her laptop and opened it up. “I found their address and phone number. Here they are,” said Amanda, pulling up a picture of a smiling blond family on the screen.

“Could I have, like, a physical one?” mumbled Beth, after a long moment.

“Yeah, sure,” said Amanda. She passed her the picture once it had printed.

“Can we call them now?” asked Beth, eyes fixed on the photo.

“Hold on,” said Amanda, raising her hand. “Yours is a suspected abduction case. If we call, they’re going to alert the police. We’d rather not get arrested.”

“So how are we going to do talk to them?” asked Beth.

“Just knock on their door?” asked Rob.

“Think they’re freak out?” asked Ben. “Could just send Miya.”

“What?” she asked, suddenly dragged into the conversation.

“Of all the people here, who looks the least threatenin’? I’m not talkin’ who’s actually threatenin’, but who looks it?” Miya glared at him, biting her lip. “You’re tiny,” he continued.

“OK, fine. What do I say?”

Everyone looked at Beth. She mumbled, “I don’t know.”

“How about, ‘Hey, I saw your daughter. She’s…’” Amanda trailed off. She shot a glance at Olivia and Beth. “How would you put it?”

“Um…” began Olivia. “Different? I don’t know either.” None of us do, it looks like.

“Anythin’ comin’ back?” Ben asked Beth. “Any inspiration?”

“No,” said Beth, not taking her eyes off the picture. She tapped the center of the photo with a claw, where she stood between her parents and an older brother. “That’s me. But I don’t recognize anyone else. Just say I’m different. A lot different.”

“Maybe lead with the memory thing,” said Rob.

“Alright, I’ll knock on the door, but then it’s up to you, Beth. This is family shit. Unless you want me along I’ll stay out of it,” said Miya, expression stormy.

“They both work,” explained Amanda. “And keep in mind, you stick out now. There’s no getting around that. We should wait until nighttime. That might give you and your family some privacy.”

“Can we go now, then?”

“It’s three in the morning,” replied Amanda.

“Yeah, they’re gonna be jumpy. And tired as fuck,” said Miya.

“Let’s wait. That’ll give you some time, figure out what to say,” said Ben.

“But I have no idea what to say,” replied Beth.

“Well, let’s stay calm. We got a full day to figure it out,” said Amanda. Panicking is the worst thing to do, always.

“Figure out their names, who they are. Maybe somethin’ comes back, maybe nothin’. But you ain’t gonna wanna meet ‘em as strangers,” said Rob.

Beth nodded silently, eyes fixed on the photo once again.

***

The next evening found everyone gathered around the table, waiting for a good time to head to Beth’s family. I think a crowd would be the worst thing possible for this.

“I need to head to the gym at some point. My metabolism isn’t what it used to be,” said Miya as she passed a pizza box across the table to the others.

“Yeah, same here,” agreed Amanda with a sigh. “I’m getting too old for this shit.” Olivia tilted her head at her in confusion.

“We usually just find a basketball game,” said Rob with a grin, taking a slice.

“Or just go for a run,” added Ben. “Pretty cheap,”

“I hate running, and envy men their comfort.” Miya laughed. She gets it.

The twins exchanged glances. “What?” they asked.

“You don’t have hips or boobs,” said Miya, before Amanda could answer. That’s one way of putting it, yes.

“But those are the best,” said Ben in a quiet voice, he and Rob sharing an identical lost and confused expression.

Amanda’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, OK. Then tell me, when is the last time you worried about going out without a bra on?”

“Never,” replied Rob.

“But boobs,” said Ben.

Miya frowned. “Yes, boobs are great. But you do realize that women have brains, too, right? And opinions? Not just boobs.”

“Yeah,” replied Rob.

“But boobs,” said Ben. “An’ hips. An’ hair. An’ legs.” Rob nodded in agreement. Oh, I see, letting your twin do the talking when I’m right here. “Women are smooth an’ curvy an’ great. Men are just borin’ bricks.”

“We’re just talkin’ physically. When’s the last time we’ve been leerin’ at some chick?” said Rob.

“Never that I know of,” replied Amanda. “But-”

“Oh! An’ butts,” cut in Ben. Oh, I see. Miya narrowed her eyes at him. Beth watched on, gaze darting between the different speakers.

“But that kind of talk, ‘hurr hurr boobs,’ is very much not appreciated,” finished Amanda.

Miya nudged Olivia beside her with a smirk. “You OK there?”

“I’m not here right now,” Olivia muttered to her knees, face buried in her arms on the table. Her pizza lay forgotten on a paper plate in front of her.

“It’s only awkward if you make it awkward,” said Amanda.

“Fun fact, Olivia,” added Ben. “Everyone in this room has a penis or vagina. Everyone.”

“Go away.”

Amanda shot him a look. “Don’t be crude.” You’re right, but come on, there’s better ways to say that.

Ben shrugged and said, “All we’re sayin’ is that women, physically, are great. How’s that controversial?”

“Because that kind of thinking can very easily turn into objectification,” said Miya.

Amanda nodded in agreement. “I got enough of that in college, there’s not a lot of women in engineering,” she said. “If I see it here I’m going to strangle someone.”

Rob cast a glance towards Amanda. She kept her expression neutral. “That ain’t what we’re doin’,” he said.

“Not intentionally,” said Miya.

The twins exchanged glances again. “Yeah, tryin’ to think of how to word this,” said Rob. “We ain’t sayin’ this right.”

“I guess. How ‘bout this?” Ben pointed to Amanda and Miya. Amanda leaned back in her chair. This should be good. “I’m willin’ to bet the statement ‘women’s sexuality should be oppressed’ would get you pissed.”

“Yes, a lot,” said Miya, arms folded.

“But at the same time you’re tellin’ me an’ Rob to suppress our own. See what I’m gettin’ at here?”

“No, no, no, that’s not what we’re saying,” said Miya. “Sex is wonderful and I’d recommend it to everyone. But the healthy kind. Not the ‘it’s all about the man’ bullshit from the last goddamn century.”

“We don’t do that an’ we ain’t tryin’!” burst out Rob. “That’s what we’ve been sayin’. Women are great, we’re makin’ our opinions known. You’re readin’ way more into that than we ever did.”

“OK, it sounded like something much worse at first,” said Miya.

“We know that’s not what you were going for,” said Amanda as the twins opened their mouths. “You’ve made that clear.”

The conversation trailed off, everyone remembering the pizza in front of them getting colder. After a few minutes as everyone finished, Rob checked his watch and asked, “Is it time?”

“Yep.” Amanda turned to Beth. “You ready?”

Beth took a deep breath. “Yes. Let’s go.”

Ben patted her on the shoulder as he rose from the table. “Alright,” said Amanda. “Relax. We’ll be right behind you.”

***

They pulled up to the apartment complex in the eastern part of the city, passing by nighttime crews cleaning up the last of the wreckage from Overlord’s invasion. Amanda stopped beside Rob’s truck. The whole group, plus Beth, piled out of the cars. Olivia landed just beside Amanda’s door.

“You two ready?” Ben asked Beth and Miya.

“Ready when you are,” said Miya. Beth nodded, and they headed off to Beth’s family’s apartment.

“Can you hear them?” Amanda asked after a moment.

Olivia closed her eyes. “They’re talking. The mom said, ‘What do you mean, she can’t remember?’ Dad is angry. He told her to explain. And… they gasped. I… couldn’t hear what that was. I think Beth is crying. And the mom. They closed the door. Miya went in with them.” She reopened her eyes. “I can’t hear them well anymore.”

Amanda took a deep breath. Rob and Ben exchanged grins. “That’s promisin’,” said Ben.

“No screamin’,” added Rob.

They loitered in the parking lot, waiting. Waiting is the worst part. I don’t think they can hurt Miya or Beth physically, at least. Or maybe the wife can melt flesh with her mind. You never fucking know. Whatever. If they let them into their house, that’s very promising. It must be nice to not have sociopaths for parents.

“The door opened,” announced Olivia. They watched as Miya approached, alone.

She bit her lip as she approached. “Well?” asked Amanda once she was close.

“There’s a lot of crying and stuff.”

“So…” said Rob, trailing off to let her finish the statement.

“They just seemed happy to have their daughter back. I’d give it a day or two.”

“They’re not angry? About, you know, the wings and stuff,” said Olivia.

“The dad might have been. They weren’t happy, but she’s not a raving murderer, so they seemed willing to give her a chance. Again, we’ll see.”

“Alright,” said Rob.

“That worked out,” added Ben. “We good here?”

“Yeah, they were talking about opening up her old room. They didn’t say much when I told ‘em I was heading out.”

“So, she’s OK?” asked Olivia.

“Yes. Let’s give her and her family time. And if something goes wrong, I gave her a phone,” said Amanda.

“Cool, let’s get outta here,” said Ben.

As the others began packing back into the cars, Olivia tapped Amanda on the shoulder and said, “I was hoping we could find my family, too. Before, you know, anything else bad happens.”

“Yeah, we can do that.” Amanda’s back straightened as an idea hit her. “Where did you wake up again? And when?”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Homecoming – Diffusion

“It’s not just you. Hank’s an ass,” said Miya.

“I think you mean Buddy,” said Ben with a grin.

Red gave an amused snort and nodded. She and Ben looked on as Miya rooted through her pile of remaining cow bones in the back of the auto shop. The early morning light beamed down on them, two days after Overlord and Cyrus had run amok. Ben rotated his shoulder, wincing as it elicited a twinge of pain. The others were still in the lair, either talking or, in the case of his brother and Amanda, working on something beyond his comprehension.

“I have no idea why you’re agitating him,” said Miya, tossing aside a cracked cow hipbone.

“The more serious an’ pissed a guy looks, the more fun it is to make fun of him,” replied Ben. “Yeah it backfires an’ no, I don’t care.”

“But backfiring means he tears out your intestines and wears them as a hat,” said Miya.

Ben replied with a grin. One hand rested on the handle of an iron knife strapped to his back. I’d say I’m ready, he thought.

“What are you doing?” Red asked Miya after a moment.

“I’m getting really tired of losing my golems. So if I can make a core, that would be super,” Miya replied, brushing a few more bone fragments out of her way on the pile.

Red tilted her head at Ben, who shrugged as he leaned back against the wall of the lair. “Don’t look at me, I dunno ‘bout magic.”

“I’m apparently the magic expert here. I’ve been trying to teach Olivia, but she’s just not getting the hang of it.”

“Magic. What the hell?’ Red murmured to herself.

“Oh, yeah, I can teach you too if you like. It’s a bit more involved than whatever the hell it is techies cook up. Can’t just pick it up and use it, you need to know what the hell you’re doing.”

“Techies? Like your brother and Amanda?” asked Red. Ben nodded. “What’s up with those two?”

“I think they like each other,” said Miya, shooting Ben an amused look.

“What’cha lookin’ at me for? I ain’t my brother.”

“You two look exactly the same. If it weren’t for your hand I would never be able to tell you two apart,” said Miya.

“Really?” asked Red.

“What do you mean, really? They’re identical,” replied Miya with a wave of her hand at Ben. “Oh, wait, right. You guys go by smell.”

Red turned to her, eyes wide. “What?” How is this a surprise at this point?

“Yes.”

“I don’t remember Olivia havin’ this many questions,” commented Ben. “Or not questions, just stuff she didn’t know ‘bout herself.”

“She had, like, a week or two to figure it out before she met you guys, right?” asked Red. Ben nodded. “That must be it.”

“Alright, bored now. Think anything is open?” asked Miya, dusting off her legs as she stood.

Ben laughed. “After that superpower slamdown? Give it another day or so.”

“Do we have any food or water left?”

Ben grinned as he nudged Red. “I dunno, after those four, there might not be enough for us little folk.”

Red cracked a smile. “Not my fault you all are so small. I’m hungry,” she said, ducking through the door back to the lair.

“I’ll be right after you,” said Miya, kneeling over half a cow skull. “I need to check this out.”

Ben nodded and followed after Red, who’d headed for where the beds were set up. Hank, by the wall, snapped as Red walked by. Red snarled and took a swipe at his throat. Whoa. Ben teleported over to them. “Hey, hey, break it up!” Out of the corner of his eye, the back of Hank’s hand swung towards him. Ben ducked and backed away a few steps. He eyed the scene, trying to work out a way to separate people much larger than himself.

“Enough,” Olivia shouted behind him. She beat the tar out of Hank, leaving him winded on the ground. “All of you,” she continued, turning on the others. “Stop fighting, I’m tired of it.”

Hey, she’s got a spine after all. The lair had fallen silent, Rob, Amanda and Beth still at the table, watching on with wary looks. Behind Ben, the door opened as Miya poked her head inside. Olivia hissed as she stomped away.

“OK, think we got the picture,” said Ben with a grin. Hank slowly recovered his breath and rolled over, a shaky hiss rising from his throat. Red glared at Olivia. “I think we should all just take a step back, calm down.” Never heard her raise her voice before.

Olivia whirled around to face him, a wild look in her eyes. “Calm down?” she repeated. “I’m calm. They’re just, they just keep…” She trailed off with a frustrated snarl. Never was the best with words.

“Just what?” asked Rob, standing from his chair. “My brother nearly got his neck snapped. Gotta have a better explanation then that.”

“Aw, thanks for noticin’,” said Ben. Rob nodded and grinned.

“Get the fuck out of the way,” snarled Hank, the impact slightly lessened by the wheeze in his voice as he struggled to his knees.

“Shut up, Buddy. Didn’t ask you,” said Ben.

Olivia’s wings and shoulders slumped. “I don’t know. Too close,” she murmured.

“You guys seem very territorial,” chipped in Amanda, still seated across from Beth at the table.

“This is gettin’ outta hand,” said Ben. I like my neck not snapped.

“You guys can’t fuckin’ control yourselves,” added Rob.

“What the hell?” said Beth. “What did I do?”

“Not much. Yet,” said Ben.

“How long it gonna be before one of you slashes a throat open?” Rob asked the lair at large. “How long until an arm or leg gets torn off?”

“Two days, an’ this has happened four or five times already,” said Ben, jabbing his finger at Hank.

Miya smacked him on the arm. “Are you talking about kicking them out?” she asked, hands on her hips. “That would be a really shitty thing to do.”

Rob and Ben exchanged glanced. “I don’t know,” said Ben.

“I don’t see you lot comin’ up with anythin’ else,” added Rob.

Olivia stared at her feet for a moment.

“For fuck’s sake, Little Bird, you look like you’re stressed the hell out. Never seen that from ya before.” Given the choice between the lot of them and you, I’d go with you.

“Leaving sounds good to me,” said Red, her voice bitter. “Air would be great. Not having to fight about everything would be great too.”

“Not kickin’ you out, but this can’t keep happenin’.”

“It’s not kicking me out if I leave, is it?”

Ben chuckled. Miya smacked him in the arm again. “What are you laughing at?”

“She’s got a point.”

“What? No,” Olivia said to Red. “We can’t…”

“What we? We just sit here and glower at each other. I just want some space, alright?” replied Red, squaring her shoulders off against Olivia.

A low hiss began to rise from Olivia. “Olivia,” said Amanda, adjusting her glasses. “Remember what they said?”

“Cyrus,” growled Hank in the silence that followed.

“What now?” said Ben.

“He said he’s recruiting, right? At least he’s doing something, not just sitting around.”

“An’ what kinda experience you have?” asked Rob.

“Yeah, you woke up maybe two days ago,” added Ben.

“I bet I’m stronger than you,” replied Hank, taking a few steps to tower over Ben.

Ben grinned. “I ain’t takin’ that bet. But you’re an idiot if you think you’re invincible. You been shot? Know what to do when a mage is gunnin’ for ya? How ‘bout mind fuckery? Hell, I could slash you open right now. Stomach’s an organ piñata.”

Hank shoved him in the shoulder, sending him stumbling back. “That a threat?” He smirked when Ben came up with an iron knife in hand. Keep talking.

Hank spun around when a hiss caught his attention. Olivia grabbed the base of his wing, baring her teeth and lifting him up until his clawed feet barely touched the ground. They both hissed for a moment before Hank curled his fingers, fighting to keep the pain from showing on his face. Prick. Olivia released him and pushed him away from Ben. She’s like the big little sister I never had.

Olivia turned on her heels and stormed away. “Do whatever you want. Just don’t fight.”

Red folded her arms, purposefully looking towards the back door rather than anyone else. Miya and Beth glared at Ben and Rob, respectively.

“So you’re screwing me over because of what others are doing?” spat Beth.

“You ain’t the problem, you ain’t fightin’ much,” said Ben.

“But this is Olivia’s home. You’re a guest.”

“The internet came back a little while ago. I’ll see if I can set something up with your family,” said Amanda.

“Yeah,” said Rob. “We ain’t gonna kick you out to starve or anythin’.”

“But someone’s gonna get hurt like this. Just a matter of time,” said Ben.

“I still have Cyrus’ number. I’ll talk to him,” Miya said to Hank.

“An’ we can figure out a place for you to crash, if you want out, Red,” said Ben.

A hush fell over the lair. We gotta figure out something.

***

The day passed with tension so thick Ben thought something might catch fire. Hank and Red kept to themselves on opposite sides of the lair. Beth kept shooting him and Rob angry looks, and Olivia refused to talk to anyone. Well this isn’t going as well as I hoped. Though what exactly was I expecting I got no idea.

Ben hovered over Amanda and Rob’s shoulders. “What’s that do?” he asked, pointing to a random part of their railgun.

“That’s the rail,” they replied.

“What’s it do?”

“Makes not speedy thing speedy,” said Rob.

“How?”

Amanda sighed. Rob rolled his eyes and said, “You know you’re not supposed to bother techies during techie time, right? I’ll fuckin’ hurt you.”

“It’s been ‘techie time’ nonstop like nothin’ happened. We nearly died.” Hell, Chris died. Ben grimaced to himself. Shit, probably need to contact his family. Or foster family. Or should we? What the fuck do I know?

“Overlord’s bunker was so freakin’ cool,” said Rob, breaking Ben’s train of thought. “Terrifyin’ then, but cool now.”

“Yeah,” agreed Amanda. “I recorded it all,” she said, pointing to a computer monitor.

“Of course you did.”

“Well, it was worth it, so shut up,” said Amanda.

Ben laughed and wandered off, leaving them in peace. Angry Rob is a scary Rob. He found himself over in Red’s corner of the lair, where she examined an old phone Amanda had loaned her. Ben could already make out a few deep scratches in its casing, even from a few feet away.

“How’s it goin’?” he asked.

She shrugged, her long and slightly greasy dark brown hair falling in front of her eyes. “Fine, I suppose.”

Ben leaned his back against the wall and studied her, a small smile on the corners of his lips. No point in not being direct. “So you don’t seem pissed. Kinda surprised.”

Red slipped the phone into one of the many pockets of the cargo pants Olivia had loaned her. “No, I’m not angry. Not really. I was honestly thinking of heading out on my own anyways.”

Ben felt his eyebrows raise. “Really?” That seems too level headed. Especially from one of you lot.

“Yes. Too loud here. It’s smells off, too.” She sighed. “God, listen to me. What am I saying?”

“Hell, I dunno. Olivia talked ’bout how loud everythin’ was before. Hell, she didn’t really know she should eat a lot more meat than normal for a while, once she wasn’t just scavengin’.”

“Why does it always come back to her?” asked Red.

“Just cuz I’ve known her a while,” replied Ben. “The way I see it, you lot just need space. No fair coopin’ you all up in a little auto shop like that. Lot of people are gonna call you murder machines, but you ain’t that way.”

Red nodded, silent for a moment. Finally, she said, “Yeah, I guess I’m just learning. God, these claws are annoying,” she said, staring down at her hands.

“Wanna learn? Gotta get out there an’ live. Me an’ Rob learned to fight by gettin’ the shit kicked outta us in school. Learned how to shoot a gun from our dad. Learned how to spot a liar, drive, mix a drink, all sorts of shit by goin’ out an’ doin’. No one knows what they’re doin’ when they start, not really. You’ll catch up.”

Red nodded. “Thanks. I just get the feeling sometimes that I would be like this if it weren’t for her.”

Ben felt his smile slip. “One, she heard that” Red’s eyes widened for a moment, before she screwed them shut and hung her head. Yeah, kind of a fuck up there. He let the thought stew for a moment before continuing. “Two, that ain’t for me to say. Ask yourself that in a couple months, once you got your feet under you. Hell, if you’re lookin’ for a place to go, I got an idea.”

Eager for a change of subject, Red reopened her eyes and asked, “Really? Where?”

“Where Olivia was squattin’ before we met her. Cops shouldn’t be lookin’ there, she ain’t returned in months an’ they got bigger problems right now. Most of the fightin’ was outta that area anyways. It ain’t much, but it’s a roof over your head. Can take all the time you need, it’s free, got a couch to sleep on. Hell, you can masturbate to your heart’s content.”

Red let out a laugh, face turning as red as the scales on her hands and feet. “God, no. Just no.” I thought that was pretty good, if I do say so myself. She composed herself and considered for a moment, gaze passing over Beth, Hank, and Olivia. “Could we go? Like, right now?” That was fast.

“Maybe. Hang on.” He walked back over to the workshop, Red following after. Amanda had vanished, though Rob was hunched over the disemboweled chest plate of his armor, gears strewn about. “Hey Rob, Me an’ Red need a ride. Can we take the BAT?”

Rob slapped down a screwdriver on the table and turned to them. “Like hell anyone but me is drivin’ the BAT,” he replied. “Where you headin’?”

“The bat? You call your car the bat?” asked Red.

“Of course,” said Rob with a grin.

“It’s the Big Ass Truck,” finished Ben.

“Wow,” she said, trying her best to roll her eyes.

“Now where we’re headin’, that would be ‘liv’s old place. I can tell you where it is.”

“Right now? You good with this?” Rob asked Red. She nodded in return. He checked his watch. “Middle of the night. Alright. Let’s get goin’.”

They headed outside. Amanda was up to her elbows in the dashboard of her car, a set of wire cutters tucked into the waistband of her jeans. “Ah hell, forgot,” Rob murmured to himself as he passed.. He smacked the roof of her car as he passed. “Hey, you working on the thing?” he asked through the half rolled down window.

“Yeah,” Amanda grunted in response.

“Cool, I’ll get on those supports once I get back.”

Amanda flashed him a quick smile before returning to her work. As Rob climbed into the driver’s seat of the truck, Ben, turned to Red and asked, “Wanna cram yourself in the backseat or go open air in the back?”

She frowned at the cab of the car and extended her wings a foot to either side. “Back.”

Ben laughed. “But we were havin’ such a good talk,” he said as he headed for the other side of the truck. Once inside, and Rob got the truck moving, Ben asked, “Amanda get hold of Cyrus about Hank?” Can’t wait for that fucker to get out.

“Yeah. Cyrus sounded interested. Said he’d stop by tomorrow”

“Hope that works out. Hank is gettin’ kinda scary.”

“If an immortal warrior dude can’t train Buddy, keep him in line, no one can.”

Ben laughed. “Ain’t that the truth. Hell, he’s got Slim Jim stashed away somewhere, right? Maybe Buddy just needs some good old fashioned whippin’.”

Rob jabbed a finger at him. “Now that’s fuckin’ scary.”

The rest of the drive passed in silence. No one passed them on the road, the city still recovering from Overlord’s invasion. With Ben’s directions, Rob came to a stop outside a familiar apartment building. As Ben and Red climbed out, Rob said, “Hey, I’m gonna stay out here, watch the truck.”

Ben nodded as he followed Red inside. He guided her to Olivia’s old room. He helped her dust off the cold couch, and make sure there wasn’t an infestation of cockroaches or anything. They both sat on the couch.

“There you go, should be set,” said Ben. “Though I bet you’re gonna wanna move to a room on the top floor eventually.”

Red shot him a questioning glance. “Why is that?” she asked.

“Gonna start flyin’ soon. Don’t even need a permit for that or anythin’.”

She rustled her wings a bit, as if mentally testing them. “I guess,” she said, doubt creeping into her voice.

“liv’ loves flyin’. You want lessons, ask her.”

“I’ll think about it. I want to try to figure out some things on my own, you know?”

“I hear you. No problem.” Ben stood and stretched. “Give us a call if you need somethin’. I’ll be tomorrow with food an’ water for you, an’ make sure you haven’t been abducted by aliens or somethin’.”

Red snorted. “I’ll try not to. See you in a couple days.”

Ben waved as he walked out the door and headed down the stairs. Sorry, Olivia, sorry Red, it’s best for all of you you stay apart.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Homecoming – Hand of God

Olivia kept her claws out, taking a cautious step around the trio of grey suited agents standing in the middle of the lair. The others remained scattered around. Rob began drifting towards the gun cases, while Ben crept up on the suits behind Cyrus. The other dragon people, Red, Beth, and Hank, had claws and wings out as well. Olivia kept an ear for any hissing directed at each other or the grey suits. Just leave us alone.

“We deal with problems. And you could very well be a problem. A big one,” Smith, the woman at the head of the grey suits, said to Cyrus.

Cyrus raised an eyebrow. “When have I ever been a problem for you? No, unless you truly start angering me, I’m not a problem.”

“Your history shows otherwise.” Smith sighed. “Look, we appreciate your help. But you’ve made our bosses very nervous. You’ve never been the most predictable of people.”

“So I should apologize for existing, it seems,” Cyrus said.

“Not an apology. Right here, right now, we need to know what you’re doing.”

“I was asleep, at least until a large person was thrown on top of me,” he said, casting Olivia an aside glance. Sorry. Red was just… “Today I was meaning to visit a friend in Florida, then take a visit to China.”

“China,” repeated Smith.

“Yes.”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to elaborate.”

The two grey suits behind Smith kept their drawn weapons pointed to the floor, though they kept their feet apart in a ready stance. Beth, at least, had calmed down some, though she kept her narrowed eyes on the grey suits. Ben, Rob, Olivia, and Miya had formed a half circle around them.

“Overlord detonated a nuclear weapon in Venezuela,” said Cyrus. “That might very well force the Siberians to act.” Wait, Siberia is super far away from Venezuela, right? Or am I misremembering again?

If Smith had noticed Olivia or the others, she made no sign of it. She readjusted the silver watch on her wrist and said, “I’m curious. Why should I believe you would just give us your schedule?”

“Because I’m assuming there are very large guns pointed at this building right now, ready to level it the moment your teleporter gets you out of here. These young men and women don’t deserve to have their home destroyed on my account.”

Miya and Beth cast nervous glances at the walls. I don’t hear or smell anything outside. Cyrus let the silence hang for a moment, then continued, calm as ever, “If you’re so knowledgeable about my history, you know I tend to disappear after making a scene. I find no joy in it.”

Smith considered him for a moment. Don’t do something dumb. “Fine then,” said Smith. “I can’t argue that. I’ll let my bosses know. Don’t do that sandstorm thing again and you’ll never hear from us again.”

“Wait,” spoke up Olivia. As the grey suits turned to her, she gathered her thoughts. OK. It’s just a question. “There was another one of us,” she said, pointing to herself and Red. “She, um, she ran away when we let her out. Did anyone find her. Do you know where she is?”

Smith looked around at Red, Hank, and Beth. “That was actually a secondary reason for us coming here. There were reports of others like you. All of you are accounted for, now.”

Answer the question. “Do you know where she is?” repeated Olivia.

“She’s in custody. She’s in good hands. And before you all do anything stupid, no, she’s not going to the research institute in Houston.” Cyrus stepped aside, leaving Smith and Olivia with a clear line of sight to each other.

Olivia uncurled her hands. “What?” she demanded. “Let her go.”

“No.” Just as Olivia opened her mouth to argue, Smith said, “And I don’t remember saying it was up for debate.”

“No, no, you can’t-”

“Alright, Blackjack,” said Smith with a shake of her head. The agents vanished.

Olivia let out a snarl at the now empty space. Get back here.

Ben teleported to her as she marched for the door. “Little Bird, that ain’t worth it,” he said, nearly hanging off of her arm.

Olivia stopped and stared down at him. “How could you say that?” she asked.

“Riskin’ all out necks for someone we don’t even know? Come on, you four barely get along as is. You think addin’ another of ya will do any good? Hell, you just threw Red onto Cyrus. Another of you an’ I don’t think the rest of us would make it out in one piece.”

Olivia turned to Cyrus. “Could you-”

“Start a war with the US? No,” he said, cutting her off with a shake of his head. “You have helped me, and I am grateful for that, but you’re asking too much.”

“She was feral, Olivia,” spoke up Amanda. “Look at Hank. They’re not clones of you. She might try to kill us.”

Olivia felt her wings slump. We should still do something. Anything. Are we just giving up? She looked around to the others. Miya looked ready to jump in, but the others, dragons included, either refused to meet her gaze or showed no support. She wouldn’t hurt anyone, right? Wait, no, she tried to gouge my eyes out when we first let her out.

“Fine,” Olivia mumbled. Ben let go of her arm, teleporting to the door to check outside.

“Bastards. Just teleporting in and out without a word of warning,” muttered Miya as she joined Olivia. “Fuck them.”

“No fuckin’ kiddin’,” said Rob. His eyes lit up, and he pointed to Amanda. “Hey, Ben said somethin’ ‘bout you detectin’ Freedom Fighter’s power with black magic, right?” Amanda nodded slowly. “Notice anythin’ when those fuckers teleported in?”

Amanda’s eye widened. “I have no idea. Let’s find out!” She rolled over to another computer, Rob hovering over her shoulder.

Olivia stomped over to the table as the others dispersed. Chris would know what to do, she thought as she sat down. Miya passed by behind her, heading towards the fridge between two wooden cabinets on the floor.

“Want something?” Miya asked Olivia.

Food. “Yes please. Just… anything,” she replied.

Miya grabbed an apple for herself. She passed Olivia a package of sliced ham as she sat beside her. The moment she slid a claw through the plastic wrapping, Beth’s head swiveled in her direction from her corner in the lair. Olivia frowned. Get your own. Cyrus took a seat across the table from Miya and Olivia.

“You two seem down,” he commented.

“We lost a friend yesterday. Or was it the day before that? Shit,” said Miya with a grimace and a shake of her head.

“I’d heard.”

No one ever seems to care. “Why do you care?” asked Olivia, the question coming out harsher than she’d intended.

Cyrus raised an eyebrow. “You forget, Chris worked under me, along with Amanda over there, for half a year in the MHU. I tried to keep tabs on them as best I could, before…”

“Before Marcus dicked you over?” said Miya.

“Hrm?” You don’t remember? A small smile formed at the corners of his mouth. “Ah yes, that.”

“You’ve lived basically forever,” said Miya, “How do you deal with it?”

“You remember them as best you can,” replied Cyrus.

Miya nodded as she bit her lip. “That’s what Bob, that one officer, told me. Sounds so easy.”

“Give it time,” said Cyrus.

“You always know what to do, don’t you?” said Olivia, some resentment creeping into her voice in spite of herself. Thousands of years. I have two months, and you get thousands of years.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“No, sorry I just… I can never remember what I’m supposed to do.” Hank and Red and Beth and me keep fighting and I don’t know how to make it stop.

His gaze grew distant. “I… can’t, not truly. Bits and pieces, nothing more. I can remember what happened, not actually being there. It’s more like reading it out of a dry book, the details from it half remembered, than reading it. I know I had a wife, I can barely remember what she looked like,” he said, his voice cracking towards the end.

“So all those things you said to Slim Jim,” began Olivia. About fighting legions and Mongols and stuff?

“Could be true,” said Cyrus, finishing her sentence. “From what I can remember, what I said seems likely.” He shook his head. “The human mind was not meant to exist this long.”

“Wait, Taauth is like you too, isn’t he?” asked Miya as she sat up in her chair.

“I spent several centuries as an acne ridden teen,” he said, one hand stroking his beard. “They’re about a year for me, and I assume the same for him.”

“How does Taauth remember how to do anything, then?” asked Miya. “From what I know, the different schools of magic are radically different from one another. You can’t just tell it to go, there’s a lot of subtleties to it. All the different types of magic is like stuffing you head full of every textbook.” I can barely even get it to work.

“That is a good question. He was old when he came to rule Babylon. And he was always powerful, very powerful.” Cyrus grimaced. “I can’t remember much, I’m sorry.” Olivia resisted the urge to wrap a wing around him.

“How did you even kill him, then?” asked Miya.

“We surprised him. I crushed his head before it could reform as three of my king’s mages slowly disintegrated his body. It took four days.”

“You can remember that?” asked Olivia. I want to remember stuff.

“No, that’s an educated guess. Why so much interest in Taauth? I would have thought the twins would have had more interest.”

“He sounds terrifying,” replied Miya. “Whenever Rob or Amanda mention Overlord, they almost sound scared. He is, or was, the boogeyman of techies. He could take their whole life’s work and use it to make screaming terror-bots. This guy sounds like what Overlord was trying to do.”

Cyrus sat up straighter. “Repeat that?”

“What? I don’t know. Taauth sounds like he can do what Overlord was trying to do. Control magic, absolutely.” Olivia wrapped a wing around Miya’s shoulders as her voice grew quiet. It’s OK, he’s gone now.

Cyrus frowned. “So that’s what Taauth was afraid of.”

Miya managed a shaky laugh. “I bet. It’s kind of funny that you don’t already know everything.”

Cyrus roared with laughter for a moment. How is that funny? “I am not all knowing. In fact, I am not a smart or cunning man at all. I would more say I’m a very average man who has been alive for far too long. But I have taken up too much of your time.” He stood and left a slip of paper on the table. “If you need to contact me, call this number. If I don’t answer, just leave a message, I’ll get to it within a day at the most.”

“You’re leaving?” asked Miya. All of a sudden?

“Yes. I wasn’t lying to Smith. I do have places I need to be, Taauth will only get harder to stop as time goes on. In any event, I cannot thank you enough for your help.”

Olivia looked around the lair. No one else besides Hank paid any attention, though Hank sneered and turned away once she looked at him.

“Yeah, sure,” replied Miya. “Any time, I guess.”

Cyrus smiled and slipped outside.

Miya let out a deep breath. “Oh thank god. I couldn’t tell if he was going to get bored and flatten us or not.”

“He wasn’t that bad,” said Olivia with a frown. “People keep saying that about me, too.”

“True, true.” Miya yawned. “I’m still tired and sore,” she said. “I’m honestly thinking of just passing out for a while.”

Olivia shrugged. Reading doesn’t sound bad at all. Without a word, they headed off to the curtained off area. Miya collapsed on her bed. Olivia felt sleep overcome her as she lay in the soft beanbag, the scratched tablet falling from her hands.

***

Olivia awoke to hissing. No, let me sleep. The hissing continued. But… sleep. She grimaced and climbed to her feet, taking in the sight of Red and Beth squaring off against each other near the food. Before she had to intervene, Beth backed off, backing away towards the long table. Oh, hey, they didn’t fight. Olivia looked down at her beanbag. I could go back to sleep. It’s so comfy. But… food.

Once it didn’t look like another fight was about to break out, Rob and Amanda returned to whatever it is they had been working on lately. Olivia thought she recognized some of the railgun parts, but they could have been for something completely different for all she knew. Olivia ignored Red as she grabbed breakfast and sat at the table.

What do you want? She glanced down at her hands, where her claws had dug into the plastic of the table. She relaxed and eyed Beth as she sat across from her. Beth kept her head down and claws curled up. Not hissing, not a threat. Olivia opted for silence, with only Beth’s tail swishing along on the concrete floor to break it.

“Hey,” said Beth after a few minutes.

Did I do something? “Hi.” That’s what she was saying, right?

“How’s it going?”

“Good, I guess.”

The conversation dropped off for a few silent moments. “So,” began Beth. “You’re, like, the original, right? Like, with the wings and stuff?”

Olivia nodded.

“So you can’t remember much either?”

Olivia shook her head.

“How far back can you remember, then?”

“Two months. Wait, it’s the end of June, two and a half.” Why do you care?

Beth looked down at her clawed hands. “But you know more about all this stuff than me. So, like, what exactly is different about us?” she asked.

“Um, well, you can fly. It’s fun!” Olivia sat up straighter in her chair, wings relaxed. I need to go flying again soon. Maybe I could bring the others along!

“These aren’t useless? Yes!” said Beth, cracking a smile.

“Yeah, if you do it right, you can go almost as fast as a car,” explained Olivia. “Landing is kind of annoying, though.” Stupid feet.

“So I can just flap my wings and go?”

Olivia shook her head. “No. I jumped off a building my first time. It takes practice.”

Beth laughed. “Wow. That’s one way to do it.”

“Yeah,” agreed Olivia. That was kind of dumb, looking back. Oh well. “It’s really fun. Do you want to learn?”

“Sure,” said Beth.

“We have to wait for night. Because, you know, people don’t like us.” They freak out, usually.

“Yeah, feral. Fuck,” said Beth, her smile slipping away. “And my ears keep giving me trouble. They’re going to drive me insane, I swear.”

“My ears are kind of messed up, too,” said Olivia. “Sometimes there’s this annoying ringing sound in them. People keep shooting guns and stuff next to my ears. It hurts. But it gets better. Once you figure out what it is you’re hearing. Oh, yeah, we’re kind of bulletproof. They still hurt, but they don’t really break skin.”

Beth looked down at her arm for a moment. “Seriously?” Olivia nodded. Why would I lie? “Wait, how did you figure out you’re, or we’re, bulletproof?”

“I got shot.”

Beth stared. “What? Why? What did you do?”

“They shot me. They were mean.”

“They, who is they?”

“Some mercenary guys,” replied Olivia.

After a dumbfounded moment, Beth said, “Every answer just leads to more questions.”

“I know, I’m weird.”

Rob and Amanda walked over together, both huddled over a tablet in Amanda’s hands.

“Think that’ll work?” asked Rob.

“It should. Let’s give it a shot after food,” replied Amanda. “How are you two?” she asked as she sat next to Olivia as Rob went off to the cupboards.

“Just chatting,” replied Beth. “Where is everyone else?”

“Hank is sulking somewhere, Miya’s talking with Red out back. Something about magic. Oh yeah, and I think Ben is with them,” replied Amanda. Oh, they moved.

“What did you say? Magic?” asked Beth with a disbelieving smile on her face.

“Didn’t know?” said Rob as he returned, protein bars in hand. “Miya thinks you and Olivia and the others can use magic.”

“No, no that was never mentioned,” said Beth, shooting a glance at Olivia.

“Sorry.” I was going to get to that.

“So what were you two chatting about?” asked Amanda.

“Just us,” replied Olivia.

“Like, what we can do,” added Beth.

“Oh, the flyin’ an’ strength an’ stuff like that,” said Rob.

“Strength you say,” said Beth, shooting another look at Olivia.

“Sorry, there’s a lot of stuff,” said Olivia.

“Seriously, so much,” muttered Beth.

“Right, yeah!” said Rob, jumping out of his chair. He jogged over to his work area.  “Here, bend this,” he said as he returned. He passed her an inch thick bar of steel. Rather than taking the bar, she cast him a doubting look. “Trust me,” he added.

She took it, grasping both ends of the bar. With a look of concentration, she pushed, bending the bar a few inches. “Wow,” she said, holding it in front of her. “I didn’t think I could do that.”

“Damn it,” said Rob as he took the bar back.

“Why did you ask her to bend it, then?” asked Olivia.

“Just testin’. I’m tryin’ to make somethin’ you lot can’t bend. Gotta have a goal, after all,” Rob called over his shoulder. He tossed the bar over to the work area, where it hit the ground with a sharp clang.

“OK, Beth, I need your opinion on something,” said Amanda. She twirled her tablet around, showing Olivia and Beth a picture of a jaguar lounging on the bank of a river. “Do you think this is cute?”

Of course it is, how could it be anything else. Beth considered the picture for a moment before saying, “Now that you say it, I guess so.” Olivia gave her a small smile. See guys, it’s not weird.

Rob and Amanda exchanged glances as he took a seat beside her. “I got an idea,” he said, commandeering the tablet. “For both of you. Here’s an enormous grizzly bear. Same question.”

“Oh my gosh!” said Olivia, clasping her hands in front of her. “It’s so fat and furry and cute!”

Beth glanced at her before saying, “Yeah, yeah, that’s kind of cute.”

“And, give me a sec,” said Rob. “This pack of snarling wolves?”

“Yes! Those are even better. But… why do they look so mad?” I want one. And a jaguar. I want both.

“They’re wolves,” said Beth. “That’s what they do.” Her gaze flickered between Rob and Amanda. “Right?” But, just look at them.

Rob nodded. “Come on, one of them has blood on its muzzle,” said Amanda.

“Yeah, but they don’t look that threatening.”

“You’re funny,” said Rob. Yeah, well, you’re short.

A series of hisses and snarls caught their attention. No, no, no. She looked over just in time to see Hank drive an elbow into the center of Red’s chest. What are you doing? Why? She grunted and took a swing at his head, aiming for his throat. Her claws glanced off his chin, failing to hook into anything.

Ben teleported over to them. “Hey, hey, break it up!” He ducked under Hank’s backhanded blow.

“Enough!” roared Olivia as she advanced. Beth hissed behind her.

Right as Hank whirled around to face her, she wrapped an arm around his midsection, lifted him off his feet, and threw him face first to the ground. He let out a snarl as he tried to get up, cut short by a stomp to his back. His claws curled in as he gasped for air.

“All of you,” Olivia sapt as she turned on Red and Beth. “Stop fighting. I’m tired of it.”

She let out a hiss of frustration and she stomped away, her tail smacking against the back of Hank’s head. The lair was silent beyond Hank’s labored breathing. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Homecoming – Hunter

The whole group hovered over Amanda’s shoulder as she navigated the contents of her two flash drives. Ben and Rob flicked each other in the ear, breaking up the otherwise silent moment.

“Here we go. Here’s your file, Red,” called out Amanda after a minute.

She brought a few documents up on the laptop screen. Olivia tilted her head at the picture of the familiar scowling, dark haired girl on the screen, then to Red, standing on the opposite side of the cluster of people. Wait, I’ve seen that picture before. Wasn’t… wasn’t she one of the girls that Amanda thought could be me? She tucked her wing in tighter, letting Miya beside her get a better look.

“I don’t know her. I… I don’t recognize her,” said Red, her usual identical scowl replaced with a curious frown. Her claw fiddled with a small hole in the sleeve of the shirt Olivia had loaned her. Buddy and the other girl watched the proceedings from opposite sides of the lair, gauging her reaction. Good. Just… stay over there.

“Yeah, not totally unexpected,” said Ben.

“Listen up,” said Amanda, reading off the document. “Here we go. Name of Samantha Weiss. Age fifteen. Runaway. Mom was single. They… they grabbed you off the streets, sometime in late March. They kept you under until they needed a…” Amanda’s mouth twisted. “They needed a subject, age fifteen, female. Like Olivia. After, you know, the stuff, it looks like you’re in very good health. Nothing went horribly wrong.”

“Something wrong?” asked the nameless girl from the table, halfway across the lair. “What do you mean something went wrong?”

Amanda blinked in surprise, and spun around in her chair to get a look at the girl who’d spoken. She said something! Olivia offered her a small smile, though the girl’s eyes remained fixed on the screen.

“Oh, hi. What?” replied Amanda. “Nothing went wrong.”

“No, but something could go wrong? Or could have already?”

“Yes. There were twenty initial subjects, ten male, ten female. Hang on, there was something about this somewhere.”

Amanda brought up another couple of documents.

“Here it is. Blah, blah, blah, ‘Two females expired during the process. Five more expired due to complications, detailed,’ in some other part, ‘three males expired during the same process, and five due to similar complications. Of the two remaining, one has developed abnormalities within its heart and requires further study. While the larger number of surviving females, as well as the source of the genetic material suggests they are preferable, with the small sample size any such conclusions would be premature.’”

Ben let out a low whistle and said, “Clinical motherfuckers.”

Amanda shook her head closed the new document. “I haven’t read your file, so I don’t know about you,” she said to the girl. “But so far as those Overlord guys could tell, Samantha here has a clean bill of health.”

“Samantha,” Red repeated to herself.

“Anythin’ comin’ back?” asked Ben.

“No.” By this point, everyone had turned to face Red. Rob leaned against the desk beside Amanda, and Miya watched as she bit her lip “No, nothing,” Red continued. “Is there anything else?”

“That’s all Overlord’s people had to say on you. I don’t think they cared, so long as you were healthy. But…” Amanda shooed Red and Ben out of her way, moving to a computer on another desk. “We stole a file the feds had on you. Or copied, whatever. There might be more details in there.”

“Stole?” asked Red, the corners of her lips quirking up in the beginnings of a smile.

Amanda let out a quick laugh. “Yeah, it’s complicated.” A moment later, she said, “Here’s what there is in the missing person case for you. Ran away from home. Mother is normal suburbanite. Maybe… yeah, the feds thought you were acting out. Looks like it was a messy divorce between your parents.”

“What now? Divorce?” asked Red.

“They were married, and now they’re not.”

“Oh, right,” replied Red, shaking her head. “I don’t remember.” I know, I know. Red let out a hiss. “I can’t remember shit. Fuck this. Fuck her.”

“Well, who are you, then?”

“Red.”

“Hold up, I meant that as a nickname, not a real name,” said Ben.

Red shrugged. “So?  I’m not her. She doesn’t have claws, she ran away from a family I don’t know. It’s not like I have a better name, and I’m not taking the name of some idiot girl I’ve never met.” She shook her head, a growl rising in her throat. “Fuck it, I’m going for a walk.”

Olivia felt her eyes widen. What is wrong with you? We just handed you your whole past and you’re just walking away? What?

“Whoa, hold up,” said Ben, teleporting between Red and the door as she walked away. Her shoulder collided with his, sending him staggering back. No. Olivia uncurled her claws and marched forward. Red whirled around, wings half spread and teeth bared.

It took Olivia to realize that she mirrored Red. Ben had teleported between the two of them, Rob rushing to join them. Buddy and the nameless girl hissed in the background.

“Calm down, calm down,” said Rob, trying to pull an unyielding Olivia away from Red.

Fine. Olivia curled her hands and backed away a step.

Ben talked up to Red. “Jus’ listen for a minute. You hearin’ me?” He held up a hand, his other behind his back, resting on something. Is… is that a knife? An iron knife? Red narrowed her eyes at Olivia and nodded. “OK. You’re gonna wanna stay outta sight. People ain’t gonna react well to ya, an’ soldiers might shoot at ya. Got that? Hell, I’ll come with ya. Sound good?”

Red jerked her head in a quick nod and stormed out the door without a look back. You get to know who you are. Why are you being… being an asshole? Ben grimaced and teleported after her.

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Rob, running a hand through his hair as the door shut behind Ben.

Silence fell over the lair. Olivia walked over to her beanbag and collapsed on it. Ungrateful little…

“So, do either of you want to figure this out?” Amanda asked Buddy and the nameless girl, breaking the silence.

“Yes,” said the girl. Buddy just glowered, keeping an eye on Olivia. You want some too? Once he finally broke eye contact, Olivia pulled out her tablet, with the sound of Amanda typing in the background. Stupid, stupid… She took a deep breath. Calm. No dragon. Calm.

Olivia kept her eyes on the book on the tablet, though she kept her ears open. “Beth. Your name is Bethany Alderson,” Amanda explained to the girl.

“Thank god. Is there anything else? I… I can’t remember anything,” asked the nameless girl, now Beth. She stood with the others, her tired eyes fixed on Amanda’s screen. Buddy kept his distance at the far end of the lair, near the food and long table.

“Not too much. A runaway, like Sam. Or Red, whatever. Again, healthy, no real issues. They thought something went wrong with your ears. Overlord’s people were about to start tests.”

“OK, Overlord. I keep hearing that name and I have no idea what it means. I’m tired of being confused. What is going on?” asked Beth.

“Yeah,” agreed Buddy, his voice deeper than Olivia would have expected. “I’m tired of this.”

Everyone’s heads whipped around as Buddy spoke. He stood upright and glowered at the stares. “So both of you can talk, I was wondering,” murmured Amanda.

“What, exactly, am I? Are we?”

“Olivia didn’t explain?” asked Miya.

“Yeah, I thought she’d have done that already,” said Amanda.

Olivia looked up from her book. “No, nothing.” It’s not like anyone ever listens.

“Well, ask away,” said Amanda. Olivia mostly tuned out the conversation, she’d heard it all before.

“So yeah, that’s that,” concluded Rob.

“Feral. Fuck,” muttered Beth with a grimace. Hey.

“You get used to it, I guess,” said Olivia.

“Real helpful,” said Beth, a small sneer forming on her face. Go away. Olivia set aside her tablet with a hiss.

Rob jumped between them. “Nope, nope, no fightin’. You hear me?”

Olivia locked eyes with Beth. “Sorry, I’m just frustrated. Sorry,” said Beth after a moment, curling her clawed hands.

“Sorry,” Olivia mumbled back. Just let me read my book.

“You two good?” asked Rob, taking a cautious step back.

“Yeah,” said Olivia and Beth at the same time. Just leave me alone.

“Would you want to find your family?” asked Miya.

Beth nodded.

“Alright, we’ll get that all sorted out. There’s not much here right now, but with a name I can find almost anything about you. You’re up, Buddy,” said Amanda. Beth skirted around him as they switched spots in the lair.

Olivia hit the next page button, forgetting to use the back of her claw. It left a deep scratch in the screen. No, no, no. She placed the tablet to her side and buried her face into the dark blue beanbag as the others talked. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Alright, Buddy, your real name is Hank Lentz. Another runaway kid. Grabbed in early June. And, whoa. That’s bad. They’re thinking you have heart problems.” Buddy, now Hank, frowned. Heart? Wait.

Amanda stared hard at the screen for a moment.

“I have no idea what they’re talking about,” she said. “They saw heart irregularities? I think that’s what they said. That other guy, the one that didn’t make it, they mention him as well.” Hearts, something about our hearts. What?

“Why am I alive, then?” asked Hank.

Amanda threw her hands up. “I don’t know, they don’t know. Hell, they were just seeing what the fuck they could do. They were surprised any of you made it. So I guess watch your heart health or whatever.”

Gland. “Gland,” Olivia repeated out loud.

“What was that?” asked Miya.

Olivia lifted her head up. “Um, at that feral research place. Dr. Ruskov said he found a gland thing close to my heart. Is that it?”

“I… have no idea,” said Amanda. “How did they find that?”

“Um, an X-ray I think. And they were talking about magic. That might be it,” replied Olivia.

Rob and Amanda turned to Miya, whose eyes widened at the sudden scrutiny. “Oh, yeah, I can take a look.Olivia sat up as she approached.

“Wait, magic? Seriously?” asked Beth, eyebrow raised.

“You’ve got claws and wings, and you’re questioning the existence of magic? Really?” replied Miya with an incredulous smile. Beth folded her arms and stayed quiet. “Alright, where is this gland thing?”

“Near my heart, on the right.”

Miya nodded as her eyes turned a solid dark red. She knelt down and placed a hand on Olivia’s bare shoulder.

“I’ve always wondered, what exactly do you see?” asked Rob.

“Just magic. People are easy enough. Organs here, bones here, and so on. The lungs take in air, so that’s what the magic tells me. Intestines take in stuff, so that’s what the magic tells me. Olivia is a bit more complex, actually. A lot more going on, some of it active.”

“Wait, we got magic an’ shit in us?” asked Rob.

“Are you made of matter?” Without waiting for a response, Miya said, “Then yes, you have magic in you. It’s dormant, don’t worry.”

“Huh,” replied Rob. Cool.

“I think I found it. Maybe. Magic is weird,” said Miya. Her eyes returned to normal as she broke contact with Olivia. “I have no clue what it does right now, but let’s see if Buddy has one.” I know, I’m weird. But there’s other weird people now, too.

Hank let out a bared his teeth as she approached. She froze. “I’m just going to put my hand on your arm. Nothing else.” He considered her for a moment, then relaxed.

“Yeah, nope, not there,” said Miya after a moment.

“Does that mean anything?” asked Beth.

“Fuck if I know,” replied Miya. “It’ll take me a while to figure it out. I spotted something there that I need to check out, first. I had no idea what it did.” That can’t be good.

“Hey, think the internet’s back?” asked Rob.

“That’s a good question,” said Amanda, wheeling herself over to another desk, with Rob following.

Miya turned to Hank. “You’re standing after a day, and I didn’t see anything terribly wrong, but if you’re feeling off, come to me.”

Hank just shrugged and turned away, heading for the side of the lair opposite of Beth and Olivia. Miya exchanged a glance with Olivia. He’s just being an ass. Whatever.

“Hey, it’s back! That was quick,” called out Amanda. On her largest monitor she put on a news channel.

“This live?” asked Rob.

Amanda tapped the bottom of the screen, where LIVE appeared in bright red letter. “Yep.” Oh, that’s easy enough.

“This is the internet,” said Rob, a confused look on his face.

“So?”

“Why do they have a cable style news thing goin’ on?”

Amanda laughed. “It’s on cable and online. Why would they want to go out of business? News stations aren’t staffed by retarded monkeys.”

Rob threw up his hands in mock surrender with a grin. “Sorry, I’ll try to be less of an idiot.”

Amanda patted him on the leg. “You do that.”

On screen, the two anchors both stared at the camera, dark rings under their eyes. The man had four long scratches in his suit across his chest. The woman stammered something about Overlord, one eye swollen shut.

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah, they’re in bad shape,” said Miya.

“No, well yeah, but not that, read the ribbon thing at the bottom,” said Amanda.

Olivia read, “Erbil leveled by Lionhead, Peshmerga forces in full retreat. The Mother spotted near the French border after botched missile tests. Nuclear detonation by Overlord in Venezuela confirmed. No survivors in Caracas. Renewed Siberian incursions into China suspected.”

“Oh shit,” said Rob softly.

“That’s a lot,” said Miya, voice equally quiet.

“In… in other news.” The woman’s hands started trembling. “I… I can’t. I can’t do this. I won’t-” The feed cut off, replaced by a please wait sign.

Are… are they OK? What’s going on? Olivia looked around to the others, who looked as confused as she felt. A few seconds later, two different anchors appeared on screen, wide plastic smiles plastering their faces. They continued with their broadcast.

“What the hell?” muttered Beth.

“You see that, too?” asked Olivia.

“What’s wrong with their faces?” Oh thank god you do tpo.

“What do you mean?” asked Miya.

“You don’t see those smiles?” asked Beth.

The others considered the anchors for a moment. “Kind of?” asked Amanda.

“They’ve always done that, right?” said Rob. What?

“No, really,” said Beth. “The hell is that?”

“Yeah. That’s super weird,” added Olivia. How do you guys not see that? I mean, I know you guys don’t see very well, but come on. We’ve had this discussion before, too.

“Hold up, I’m seein’ a pattern. What about you, Buddy?” asked Rob.

“Creepy,” replied Hank, trying to look bored..

“I’m really not seeing the problem,” said Amanda with a shake of her head.

“Are you guys insane?” asked Beth.

“Are you?” asked Miya.

“Look,” said Olivia. “Really look.”

Amanda said, “It’s the news. Why would they be hiding something?” Rob and Miya nodded in agreement. Olivia hung her head. Fine. It’s not worth the argument. Whatever. The anchors continued, expanding on the stories that had run on the ribbon below.

Just then, the door opened, and in walked Red and Ben. Red kept her eyes on the ground, heading for the food cabinets near Beth.

“Hola,” said Ben with a wave. “Anythin’ fun happenin’?”

“We were talking about the news people,” said Miya.

Beth let out a low hiss as Red approached her and the food. Red snapped. She grabbed Beth by the throat and lifted her off of her chair. Beth drove her foot into Red’s stomach. Red doubled over, loosening her grip on Beth enough for her to tear herself free, leaving small red marks along her throat.

Enough. Olivia climbed to her feet as Red recovered and tackled Beth to the ground, sending them both to the ground in a tangle of wings and limbs. Olivia hauled Red off of Beth and threw her halfway across the lair. She crashed through the curtains and into the sleeping area.

“Are we interrupting something?” asked a familiar voice. Olivia whirled around to find Smith standing in the middle of the lair with two of her agents. Olivia let out a snarl. Stop teleporting. Get out.

“Jesus! What do you want?” demanded Miya. She and the others had spread out, torn between self-preservation and breaking up the fight. Rob and Ben both had knives at hand, flanking Red.

“We need to speak to Cyrus.”

“He’s sleeping. He don’t wanna talk to you, he don’t wanna talk to you,” said Rob, sliding his long knife back into a sheathe on his back.

“No, no, it’s fine,” said Cyrus, untangling himself from some curtains. “Having someone thrown on you tends to wake you up.”

He managed to climb to his feet, a heavily breathing Red following suit behind him. Don’t do anything stupid again, Sam. She noticed Olivia’s gaze and seemed to deflate a bit, her wings tucking further in behind her back. Good.

Cyrus dusted himself off and walked up to Smith. “Is there any reason you’re harassing me and my hosts?”

“We deal with problems. And you could very well be a problem. A big one.”

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Homecoming – Fallout

Olivia huddled in the back of Gears’ truck, shoulder to shoulder with the red scaled girl. Behind them rose a wall of dust and wind. The truck hit a bump in the road, sending the nameless girl jostling into Buddy’s side. He bared his teeth and let out a low growl at her. Olivia’s foot shot out and caught him in the shin. Knock it off. He gave her a token, halfhearted hiss, then slumped against the wall of the truck bed.

She resisted the urge to reach over and smack him. He’s… he’s just confused. Tired. So am I. They passed an army checkpoint. Unlike the others near the city, this one was manned by dusty and worn out soldiers. They barely spared the truck a glance, eyes focused on the fight behind them. One did notice, and he stared openly at Olivia and the others in the back until they were past the checkpoint.

Olivia looked back at the maelstrom behind them. Someone, either Overlord or Cyrus, punched through a skyscraper, wreckage trailing behind them. I hope Cyrus is OK. The invisible laser Overlord had used before sliced off the corner of another skyscraper, sending twisted metal and glass careening back down to earth. What could we even do against stuff like that?

They hit another bump in the road. Gears didn’t slow down, putting as much distance between them and the fight as possible. Something pressed against Olivia’s shoulder. Her clawed fingers uncurled. The nameless girl slumped against her shoulder, eyes closed. Not attacking. And… how are you asleep? Olivia looked around at the other two. Buddy’s eyes drooped, though Red still watched him like a hawk. She tapped her extended claws against her leg.

Olivia returned her attention to the nameless girl. Too close. She nudged the girl with her shoulder, trying to jostle her awake. The girl’s eyelids didn’t so much as flutter. Come on. Oliva shoved her so she leaned up against the rear of the cab.

Olivia’s arms burned. Not with the familiar pain of bruises from gunshots or punches from one of the many super strong monstrosities they always seemed to run into, but an ache in the muscles themselves. Scabs had formed on her hands where the friction burn from the elevator cable and stripped the scales off. The various shops and shipping centers, most abandoned and covered in graffiti, began to look more and more familiar. Olivia yawned wide. What am I supposed to do with you three? And where is the other girl? The screaming one? We should track her down, I guess. Everyone’s being really… I don’t know. Aggressive. They keep hissing and just… I don’t know. Getting too close. Soon enough, they pulled into the lair; the stop jerked Olivia back to reality.

“Wind is dyin’ down,” said Gears as he stumbled out of the truck, halfway out of his armor. He smacked an armored fist on the side of the truck. “Wakey wakey.”

Buddy jumped awake, letting out a deep growl as he narrowed his eyes at Gears. Bad. Olivia’s foot lashed out, catching Buddy in the shin. He hissed in pain and whirled around. She locked eyes with him. Don’t you dare hurt Rob.

“You two lovebirds at it again?” called out Skulker with a short laugh, joining his brother.

Olivia sighed and shook her head. Not now, please. She shook the nameless girl awake as Buddy and Red climbed out of the truck. The girl woke and flinched, shielding her eyes from the rising sun. Sorry, but I’m not letting you sleep out in the open like this. Together, they followed Red and Buddy out of the truck.

“Is it over?” asked Red.

“I think so. The police seem to think so,” replied Delta, joining them in looking out at the city.

They’d formed a rough line, watching the maelstrom lost more and more of its power. The dust settled in the air, forming a dirty brown cloud rather than a swirling hurricane.

“Think Overlord is done?” asked Miya.

Delta shrugged. “Could we do anything anyways?”

“Asked me a couple days ago, I’d say everythin’ dies if ya shoot it enough,” replied Skulker, pulling his mask off. “Now? I dunno. I’d still say shoot him a bunch, jus’ don’ expect it to go well.”

“Overlord is dead,” announced Delta. Wait, what?

“What?” asked everyone.

“He’s dead. Cyrus tore off his armor and stabbed ten pieces of rebar into him. He’s dead. Holy shit. The army guys just confirmed it.”

“Fuck him,” said Gears, tearing his gaze away from the city and stomping off to the auto shop they called home. His free hand fiddled with whatever kept his gauntlet on his hand.

They filed after him into the lair. Ben peeled off his mask and gun holsters and sat with his back against the wall, not five feet from the door. Rob joined him soon after. Amanda removed her helmet and took a seat by her computer desks. Miya crashed on the nearest mattress. Olivia collapsed onto her beanbag. She didn’t even feel her face hit the cushion.

***

Something poked Olivia in the cheek. No. Something poked her in the cheek again. Stop. She scrunched her eyes shut tighter and curled up. Another poke. She burrowed her face into the beanbag. Warm.

“You look like shit,” said a voice above her.

“Go away,” she grumbled.

Ben poked the back of her head. “Come on. Gotta wake up sometime.”

“Not now.”

Ben snickered. “Rise an’ shine. We got a whole new day today.”

“Five more minutes.”

Another poke, and more snickers. “Nope, gotta get up now.”

She cracked an eye open and turned her head to take in a bleary view of Ben’s grinning face. “Why?”

“Cuz I wanna wake Miya up an’ I need a shield.”

No. “Go get Chris.”

Silence greeted her statement. Ben’s grin vanished. What… oh. Her face went slack. Chris is gone. And he’s not coming back. He’s never coming back. And… and…

A hand rested on her shoulder. “Easy, easy.”

It took Olivia a few minutes to compose herself. Stupid, stupid… “Sorry, sorry. I just… It didn’t hit me until just… just now.”

“Know what’ll help?”

“What?”

“Messin’ with a sleepy Miya.”

Olivia let out a surprised half sniffle, half giggle. “Don’t be mean.”

“I won’t.” He offered her a hand up.

The others lay sprawled all over the lair. Amanda snored softly at her chair, a small pool of drool forming on the desk below her head. Rob still sat with his back against the wall, chin resting against his armored chest. Buddy lay on the bare concrete, though Red and the other girl had claimed mattresses, Olivia couldn’t tell whose. Why are they… hrmph.

She followed Ben to where Miya had collapsed… When is it? When did we get here?

“What time is it?” she whispered.

“Midnight.” He looked over his shoulder to take in her surprised look. “Yeah, we were passed the fuck out.”

He stopped and nudged Miya, face down on the bed, with his foot. A second, more insistent nudge got her moving. Olivia stood back. I’m not messing with Miya right now. Ben knelt down and poked her in the cheek.

“How you doin’, Pokey?”

“I will end you,” said Miya, her voice serene, though muffled through the pillow. “I will end you, slowly, painfully, with no remorse. Your last moments will be those of suffering, and pain, and fear, and despair. Unless, of course. You. Leave. Me. The fuck. Alone.”

Ben grinned and poked her in the cheek. Why would you do that? Miya let out a remarkable imitation of Olivia’s hiss as her hand snapped out, aiming for his crotch. He twisted to the side and jumped back. As Miya climbed to her feet, murder in her eyes, Ben teleported past Olivia and ducked behind her.

“Move, I have murder to do,” Miya said to Olivia through gritted teeth.

Olivia stretched out a wing, blocking her way. “No murder.”

“Fine, I’ll just rough him up a bit.”

Olivia folded her wing back up and stepped to the side. “OK,” she said with a small smile.

“What? No!” sputtered Ben, teleporting away as Miya gave chase. “You traitor!”

“You woke me up, too,” replied Olivia.

The others began to stir with much grumbling as Miya chased after Ben around the lair. Olivia gave the other dragons a wide berth. Just… stay away. Too close. She joined Amanda as Ben Miya dashed behind her. Amanda nodded to her as she approached, reaching for a bag beneath the table.

“Hi,” said Olivia.

“Hey, could you grab that water bottle over there?” asked Amanda, motioning with her free hand. “Thanks,” she said once Olivia passed it to her. From the bag she produced a couple pill bottles.

“What are those?” asked Olivia.

“Sweet, sweet painkillers. I’ll figure out what to do with the digestive ones later.”

Behind them, Ben collapsed in a chair around the table. “I quit. Legs hurt. Everythin’ hurts.”

Miya stopped at the opposite table, panting heavily. “Yeah, me too.”

“Truce?”

“Sure.”

A knock on the back door silenced them. Olivia spun around and sniffed the air. Is that… Cyrus stood just beyond the door Rob opened, his MHU uniform battered to the point of being simply rags. Why is he here? Why is he here?

“The fuck?” said Rob.

“May I come in?” asked Cyrus, leaning on the wall.

“The fuck?” repeated Rob.

“Please?”

Rob stepped aside, wary gaze fixed on Cyrus. Everyone in the lair had observed their exchange. Ben and Miya had half risen out of their seats. The dragons, though they’d spread out to different ends of the lair, had their claws out, picking up on the general mood in the air. DOn’t do anything dumb.

Cyrus stopped a few feet into the lair and removed his helmet. “I’m not going to bite,” he said.

“What are you doing here?” asked Olivia. I’m not going to go crazy again, am I?

“There are things you need to know.”

“Way to be super cryptic,” said Ben.

“You know who I am,” stated Cyrus.

“The Haboob,” replied Amanda from beside Olivia.

Olivia couldn’t stop herself from letting out a giggle. Why would you call yourself that? It sounds like boob. Ben and Rob glanced at her and snickered. Olivia composed herself, her lower lip trembling at the effort. Sorry, sorry.

“It’s an Arabic word, not an English one,” said Cyrus in a mildly affronted voice. “In any event, there are four others besides myself. People who age extremely slowly, whose powers far eclipse most others. You know of at least two. Cuauhtémoc is the Aztec emperor, he has been for the past five centuries. The Mother is another such person.”

Ben let out a low whistle. Rob said, “Those are two very scary people. So is the Haboob.”

“Do you mind if I take a seat? It’s been a long day,” said Cyrus.

Rob laughed. “You’re tellin’ us.”

They slowly gathered around the table, the other three dragons hanging back, wary and uncomprehending.

“So, you were sayin’?” said Rob.

“Have you ever wondered how the Siberians never conquered earth?” began Cyrus. “Technology beyond most human techies? Mages that put the best of humanity to shame? How is is they haven’t overrun all of Asia, if not the world, at this point?”

“Fire.” Everyone stared at Amanda. “What? You have a wind person, Cyrus, an earth person, Cuauhtémoc, and a water person, the Mother. So there’s a fire person, too. It’s not that hard.” Wait, what are the Mother’s and Aztec guy’s powers? Like Cyrus? Just with water and dirt?

“Yes. There is a young woman in China. She can make any carbon ignite, regardless of what form it is in. I believe the only exception is carbon monoxide or dioxide.”

“Wait, any form?” asked Amanda.

“Yes. Keep in mind Siberians and humans are both carbon based.”

“Put her in, like, a vacuum or something. No oxygen means no fire, right?” said Amanda.

“You’d think so,” said Cyrus, with a small smile. “But she already throws all natural laws out the window, just like we all do. I truthfully do not know. The point is, we are tremendously powerful, able to shape events the way few else are able.” Weird, everything everywhere is weird. Got it.

“Wait, you said four others. You’ve only said three others so far,” pointed out Miya.

“Indeed,” agreed Cyrus. “I don’t know if you have been paying attention to current events in the last month or so, but have you heard of the warlord in Iraq? He goes by the name of Taauth.”

Olivia let out a small hiss at the name. Bad name. Where have I heard that before? Miya nudged her with an elbow and shot her a questioning look.

“Heard of him,” said Ben, a frown on his face. Damn it, where have I heard that name?

“What’s he control?” asked Rob, his expression mirroring Ben’s.

“Magic.”

Silence greeted his statement. That’s not good. Miya’s eyes had widened, the others just looked confused.

Cyrus continued after allowing for a moment for his statement to sink in. “He draws near infinite energy from his surroundings. He is not a true mage, he does not draw it from himself. He does not follow traditional mage laws. He can maintain as many golems as he feels fit. He can incinerate a building, stitch any wound, and enter the land of dreams.

“So he’s basically a god,” said Miya.

“For the most part.”

You said he was back. Like, he was dead before. “How did he die in the first place? I mean, if he’s like you?” asked Olivia.

“A group of my king’s mages and I surprised him in his palace. He was occupied with his concubines.” What? Concubine?

“Where does magic even come from?” asked Amanda.

“Something something nuclear something,” replied Miya. “I’m not a scientist, I don’t fucking know.”

“Why you tellin’ us all this?” Rob demanded, his attention focused on Cyrus. Wait, yeah. You just ran off when I was mind controlled.

“You all have power. As well, you two have a personal stake in this,” said Cyrus, pointing to Ben and Rob. “I am no mage, but I believe he has somehow possessed your triplet brother.”

“Explain.”

“Now.”

“I spoke with him. He wore a mask exactly like yours. He stood the same height as you two. He had the same build as you two. His voice sounded like yours, speaking at the same time at Taauth’s. As for how, a deal with a demon, perhaps. Again, I am no mage. I don’t know.”

“No, you don’t fuck with demons,” explained Miya, voice wary. “If you fuck with a soul, any sentient’s soul, anywhere, a demon appears and you vanish. You can’t fight, you can’t negotiate. You vanish. You don’t fuck with demons.”

“What are they?” asked Rob.

“No one fucking knows.”

“What? How?” asked Amanda.

“They appear when someone fucks with a soul. That’s all I know. That’s all anyone knows. That’s why I don’t use dead human bones for anything. That’s close enough to their domain for them to take notice. They’ll latch onto any magic streams and lash out.”

Cyrus nodded. “That would make sense. He was not truly dead, then.”

“Why you tellin’ us this?” repeated Ben. “The fuck can we do?”

“I am warning anyone who will listen. Taauth was the greatest threat of our time before. His malice knows no bounds. The greatest weapon is surprise. He learned this lesson long ago. I may have been an acne ridden teenager when we first me, but he will account for the passing of time. I need to think and reach outside the box.”

“You mentioned you’d talked to him recently,” said Ben.

“Yeah, why is that?” said Rob.

“Taauth wanted Overlord dead. Overlord had begun experiments into magic. Maybe he was close to something, though how Taauth would know would be a concern is yet another thing I do not know.”

“So what you want from us?” asked Ben.

“Recruitment.”

Olivia’s eyes widened. “Wait, Slim Jim…”

“Hopefully, yes, he will assist me. Hopefully. If not I’m dropping him in a volcano.”

“You’re being very open about all this,” said Amanda.

“Yes, I enjoy things not blowing up in my face. It’s one of my favorite pastimes,” replied Cyrus with a wry smile.

Ben and Rob burst into laughter. “I knew there was a reason I liked you,” said Ben. Why are you two laughing?

Amanda shared her concern. “What are you two laughing about?” she asked. Do you two need a hug?

“There anythin’ we can do ‘bout Taauth, right this moment?” Rob asked Cyrus, ignoring Amanda.

He blinked and replied, “Not currently.”

“Then there’s yer answer,” Ben said to Amanda. “Nothin’ we can do ‘bout it right now, no need to get ourselves down over somethin’ outta our control.”

“I ain’t happy, don’t get me wrong,” continued Rob. “But if somethin’ else is funny, I laugh.”

“Weird,” muttered Miya under her breath.

Amanda shook her head. To Cyrus, she said, “Any other bombs you want to drop on us? Is the president a shapeshifting lizard?”

Cyrus smiled. “Not to my knowledge. Though I must ask a favor of you. I need to spend the night somewhere. I’ve spent hours fighting Overlord and making sure no one tracked me. I have no desire to be poked and prodded in some government facility under a mountain. I’ll be out of your hair come morning.”

Olivia nodded. No kidding. Miya and Amanda shrugged.

“Pick a bed, fall in it,” said Rob.

“We jus’ got up,” said Ben. “We ain’t sleepin’ for a while.”

Cyrus nodded to the group at large. “Thank you.”

The group dispersed. Olivia and Rob stayed by Amanda side. You look really pale. She looked at the two of them as Cyrus disappeared behind a curtain.

“You two want to help me with something?”

***

“You sure ‘bout this?” asked Rob, as everyone, sans Cyrus, gathered around Amanda’s workbench a few hours later. “What if you accidentally downloaded some crazy Overlord murderbot thing?” That sounds bad. That sounds very bad. Olivia stood off to the side, letting Red and the nameless girl get a good view of the screen. Buddy stood off, trying his hardest to look uninterested in the proceedings. Why doesn’t he want to know who he is? I would kill for this.

Amanda sighed. “These flash drives, brand new ones, have been in a pouch this whole time. This laptop I’m plugging them into is also brand new. It has zero information on it. And I’ve stripped it of all hardware that could be used to connect to anything on the outside. It is physically incapable of sending or receiving a signal. I will microwave it and the flash drives once we’re done. I know what I’m doing.”

“Why’s its battery over there?” Ben pointed to a black plastic box looking thing behind a low barricade Amanda had built out of scrap a few feet away. A couple cords over the top connected it to the laptop.

“If there’s some Overlord malware that tries to make it explode, it won’t damage the laptop or the flash drives,” replied Amanda.

“Batteries can explode?” asked Olivia. How? Why?

“Yep.”

“Shit. Go for it, then,” said Rob. Amanda plugged in the two flash drives, one after the other.

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