A Second Generation Whateley Academy Story
Maiden Starlight 1: Maiden Voyage
Las Vegas, Nevada
Mutant Commission Office
Saturday, August 6, 2016
I frowned as I walked back to the reception room where my Dad was waiting for me. I could practically feel Agent Darryl Caldwell’s eyes on me the whole time. He was a short and squat man with hard eyes that hadn’t stopped following me since I had finished my Testing and it was making me extremely uncomfortable. He wasn’t watching me in a sexual way but it still had me on edge.
Sure, part of it could have been because he’s an MCO agent and I had just finished registering as a mutant and getting my MID, but I felt like there was more to it than that. Too bad I hadn’t shown a trace of any psychic powers, at least then I would have a reason for this gut feeling that something was wrong. As it was though, there was no real rhyme or reason for it other than I had always been pretty good at reading the room.
I guess that happens when you’re an introvert. It’s easier to watch people and get a read on their behavior and how they might react to things before taking the risk of putting yourself out there. Usually, I’m a fairly positive and relaxed person, friendly when social interaction is required, but this MCO agent and his creepy watching were harshing my mellow.
I was tired and sore from all of the testing, and not really in the mood for being stared at. It was enough to make me wish that I hadn’t manifested the day before. My soccer team had been playing against Arbor View and one of my teammates had broken her ankle in a takeaway gone bad. I wasn’t sure how but I ended up healing her, I didn’t even realize what was happening until it was over and everyone was staring at me. I didn’t know Jenna Salvatore very well outside of soccer but her Dad was a major player in Vegas and the owner of the Golden Paradise Hotel and Casino, where my dad worked as a croupier.
Finally, I entered the reception room and one look at Mom and Dad made me think that my gut instinct was right. I was a bit surprised to see Mom there since I had thought she had gone to work and they both tried to smile as they watched me approach but I could tell that they were both nervous. Dad looked like he wanted to be anywhere but in this room. Usually, Dad is relaxed and friendly, with an easy smile, something that helped him a lot at work. There was no trace of that smile now; he looked like he might never smile again.
As for Mom, she was unable to look me in the eye as she pasted her showgirl smile on her face. I knew that smile, she was nervous about something. “Ummm… hey, Penny, how’d the testing go?” she asked, glancing toward the exit and reaching up to adjust the glasses that she wasn’t wearing.
Yeah, this was really bad. Adjusting her glasses was something that Mom only did when she was upset, a nervous habit that had persisted even after she got corrective surgery in her late teens. Even if I didn’t know that about her, the smile gave it all away. That was the smile that she had used on stage back in her days as a showgirl before she had me. She still used that smile in situations where she had to be friendly but was nervous as hell. Yeah, she was a showgirl; tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and pretty and I guess that I took after her in looks.
Mom was a choreographer now though. She claimed that she was too old to be up on stage doing the high kicks but I think that she just liked being an at-home mom. I wasn’t really a very social person and had trouble making friends so my Mom and I hung out a lot and she supported me with my interest in soccer and other sports even though I had no interest in dancing like her. Usually, right about now she’d be getting ready to drive me to soccer practice. We were here though, at the MCO office and she was smiling that smile as she kept glancing toward the exit.
“See for yourself,” I offered, forcing a fake smile of my own as I took out my freshly minted MID and showed it to my parents. It had my codename listed as ‘Pulse’ and showed my one and only power as ‘Healer 4’. A quick glance behind me as my parents looked over my MID showed Agent Caldwell leaving us to head toward the offices that he had emerged from when I had arrived to be tested.
“That’s pretty impressive, Pumpkin, we should go out and celebrate,” Dad replied, fidgeting with his car keys. He wasn’t looking at my MID card though; he was watching the agent hurry off. Dad was a mutant like me but he was only a TK 1. We were both pretty lucky not to look like mutants or have GSD or something but where I took after Mom in looks, I got Dad’s height, or lack thereof. Dad was only five foot seven and stocky with dark hair and eyes that he got from his Spanish grandfather, so he looked comical standing beside my tall, blonde, and athletic mother.
From the expressions on their faces when their fake smiles dropped though, this situation was anything but humorous. He and Mom quickly ushered me to the exit and out to his car, a red 2008 Ford Focus hatchback. The moment that we were all inside and my Dad started the car, Mom looked back at me. She was biting her lip and looked like she was trying to hold back tears and I suddenly knew that things were way worse than I had thought.
Dad drove a couple of blocks and turned into a random parking garage. When we stopped Mom spoke carefully and slowly as she gave me a serious look. “Hurry, Penny, it’s time for us to go.” My heartbeat quickened in fear and confusion as I got out of the car and Mom went to the trunk, tossing me a navy blue hoodie and a pair of track pants. “Put those on over your clothes and grab your soccer bag. We prepared it last night after you went to bed, there’s money, clothes, and other necessities inside in case we get separated and you have to travel on your own.”
Confused, I quickly pulled the baggy track pants on over my sneakers and rolled up my miniskirt to make them more comfortable. Then I got into the hoodie as well, hesitating to grab the black duffel bag as Mom took a slightly smaller one that was laying in the trunk beside it. “Mom… Dad? What’s going on? You’re kinda scaring me here,” I asked.
“There are… rumors about the Vegas branch of the MCO, that some of the agents are on the take,” Dad said, looking around the garage nervously. The four families have been ‘hiring’ a lot of mutants lately, trying to get an edge over one another and the rumor is that some of them are getting those new recruits not long after they get their MIDs. They’ve been hiring muscle or anyone with useful gifts. You have a very useful power, you manifested in a public place, and you healed Frankie Salvatore’s daughter of all people. Even if that agent wasn’t on the take, it’s only a matter of time before one of the families tries to get control of you.”
“But you work for…” I started to argue.
Dad’s frown only deepened. “Because he’s been holding your mother’s and your safety over me for the past seven years, after having your aunt and grandparents killed to make his point. And all I can do is move small objects a little, just enough to make the roulette ball land on the right number to stop anyone from getting too big of a winning streak or breaking the bank. Just think of what he and the others like him would do to get somebody like you under their thumbs. Someone will make a move soon, and they’ll try to use us and your friends against you. You and Maggie need to get someplace safe, Penny.”
What? Aunt Joanne and my Mom’s parents had died when I was seven and Mom and Dad had told me that they had been in an accident at the time. Were they really murdered by Dad’s boss or some of his goons? I was suddenly so mentally numb that I barely heard my mom say, “Goodbye, David. I love you, honey. Let’s go, Penny.”
“What about Dad?”
“Salvatore’s people are watching me, but I can use that to draw them off while the two of you get away. I have a gun in the glove compartment. If Salvatore or his goons try anything, I’ll do what I should have done seven years ago. I will not let them get their hooks into you too, Penny,” Dad said with a determined look on his face.
I just stared at him for a moment. “Dad, you can’t…”
I was cut off as Mom grabbed me firmly and pulled me toward a black Jeep Cherokee. “We need to hurry, Penny. You are what is important to us. We need to go before they can get organized looking for you.”
“But Mom…” I argued weakly, tears starting to burn my eyes before making their way down my cheeks as my mother half-dragged me toward the jeep. The determined expression on Dad’s face as he got back in the car and drove off told me one thing, I would never see him alive again.
How had my life suddenly gotten so out of control? Stupid mutant power. And I didn’t even have anything that I could protect myself and my parents with. That was the whole reason that they were doing this, to protect me. Because I was too damn tempting a target for the crime families in Vegas and my only power couldn’t stop them from taking what they wanted.
Mom stopped and gave me a hard look. “Penelope Anne Jones! Get in the vehicle! Do you think that I want to do this? That your father does? We’re your parents and we will do whatever it takes to keep you safe and happy. They will use us against you and they will use your friends against you. The best thing that we can do is to put some distance between you and Vegas.”
I did the only thing that I could. I swallowed the lump in my throat, wiped away my tears, and got in the damn jeep. If only I had thought of something else, anything else. If I had been braver or smarter then maybe I could have prevented what happened. But I wasn’t, and my mom paid the price.
Just outside Kingman, Arizona
Saturday, August 6, 2016
We were traveling southeast along Route 93, heading to Phoenix, Arizona. Once we got there we would see if we could talk to the Phoenix Warriors. There was one notable solo hero in Vegas called BlackJack and a hero team called the Neon Knights but they were small at only three permanent members, not very organized, and would probably have trouble standing up to the Families with all their newly acquired superhuman muscle. Mom and Dad had heard good things about the Warriors though so we were heading there to see if they could protect me and maybe help me learn to control my powers, they would probably welcome a healer, right?
It was hot and even the AC in the jeep wasn’t very good so we had the windows open to provide a little bit of relief. The air was just as dry outside of the vehicle though so it wasn’t helping a lot by the time that we were near the halfway point and approaching Kingman, Arizona. We hadn’t stopped for anything so far but there was a lone gas station and convenience store on the side of the highway outside the city limits and Mom signalled to turned into it.
“We need gas,” Mom explained with a grim expression. “And I thought it might be a good idea to get some cold drinks… and to see if that SUV behind us keeps on going or stays on our tail.”
I turned around in my seat and saw a black SUV behind us, just barely close enough for me to make out what it was. “You think it’s following us?” I asked, my chest tightening with sudden anxiety.
Mom nodded, keeping her eyes carefully ahead of her and on the mirrors as she turned into the gas station. “This is a busy highway, so it’s possible that they’re just going in the same direction, but they’ve been behind us since we left Vegas and they’ve kept that same amount of distance the entire time. I would keep going until we hit Phoenix but we’re running on fumes right now.”
To my surprise, Mom didn’t pull up to the pumps, instead backing into a parking spot facing the convenience store. “What’s up, Mom? I thought we needed gas.”
“Let’s make sure it’s safe first,” she replied, still frowning as she looked at the SUV turning toward the parking lot. “Quick, go inside and get some drinks and snacks but stay in sight of the cashier. If anyone approaches you, yell ‘Mutant!’ and make a run for it. I’ll keep the engine running like I’m just waiting for you. We can probably make it into the city on the gas we have if we have to, and maybe we can lose them there if we can get a head start here.”
I practically jumped out the door and made my way into the store, my hands shaking and my heart hammering in my chest as I reached out to pull the door open. The store was empty except for the cashier and I forced a smile and a wave as I tried not to look as terrified as I felt. He looked bored and barely looked up from his phone though. I had just gotten a couple of large bottles of water out of the cooler when the bell above the door rang, and I looked up to see a man in a black hoodie, jeans, sneakers, and sunglasses enter.
The man’s hood was pulled up and as soon as he was inside, he came straight for me. As I got a closer look, I saw that he didn’t look much older than me. He had long black fingernails, almost like claws and there was a hint of red scales on the back of his hands and along his cheeks that were mostly covered by the hoodie. He had his right hand halfway in the pocket of the hoodie and there was a far bigger bulge in there than could be accounted for by his hand. He had a gun.
“Act casual and come with me. My partner is outside the store watching your mother and can kill her before she has time to react. If you come along quietly to meet Mr. Del Rosa, we won’t have to kill her and you can both live somewhere nice and secure with every luxury provided for both of you, so long as you cooperate and use your powers when Mr. Del Rosa needs you to. It’s a better deal than others like us get and we’ll keep you safe. You’re not going to get an offer like that from the other Families. Salvatore’s men already killed your father in a shootout an hour ago,” he told me quietly and without preamble.
My shaking hands couldn’t hold the bottles and they fell to the ground with a clatter. I was barely conscious that I had fallen to the ground along with them, my knees weak and suddenly unable to bear my weight. Tears stung my eyes and I couldn’t breathe. He hadn’t said it out loud but it was fairly obvious what would happen if I didn’t cooperate.
Dad was dead and Mom would be too if I didn’t do what they said. I couldn’t lose both of them, I didn’t think that I could bear that. Now I had to choose between two types of prison, sharing a gilded cage with my mother or losing her and being a prisoner alone in whatever hole that they decided to stick me in until I was needed.
The man in the hoodie didn’t give me time to think about it as he grabbed my arm and pulled me to my feet while I was still sniffling and hemorrhaging tears. “Come on, Pulse, be smart and come quietly. I’m Riptile, and I’m trying to help you here; you can have it a lot better than most of us. We need to go now. Before anyone else gets here. If Mr. Del Rosa can’t have you, he’d rather nobody else does either.”
I was too shocked to do more than follow along at that point. I’d lost my Dad, I was in a no-win situation, they were threatening my Mom, and now it was certain that Agent Caldwell really was on the take, as well as who he was working for. Nobody but him, me, and my parents knew the codename that I had chosen for my MID. The only good thing about the whole situation was that my captor seemed to be somewhat sympathetic.
Riptile didn’t say much else after the implied threat on my life as he grabbed the water bottles from the floor and pulled me along to the cashier. I almost thought that he was going to pay for them before I heard him mumble in a sad tone, “No witnesses.” The cashier looked up from his phone as we approached, just in time to take a bullet to the head as Riptile quickly pulled the gun from his pocket and shot him at point-blank range.
I don’t know how I held back the need to scream. I had just seen him murder a man in cold blood and despite his apparent sympathy; I knew that he’d do the same to me if he had to. So, somehow I kept myself to quietly sobbing and shaking as we stepped outside to where an older man, perhaps in his twenties was standing outside the doors and watching our jeep from across the parking lot. His eyes were glowing a sickly green and it looked like they were ready to burst with energy at any moment.
Riptile nodded to the man and then told me almost gently, “Go to the vehicle and approach from the driver’s side. Convince your mother that you need to come with us quietly and then you both get in the SUV with us. I promise that neither of you will be hurt or mistreated in any way if you do that.”
“O…okay,” I croaked in reply, biting my lip and trying to hold back more tears. I walked to our vehicle and did as instructed and Mom was frowning as she watched me.
“Penny, what are you doing?”
“M-mom… Dad’s dead… and these people… promise that we’ll be treated well and… nobody will hurt us if we come with them. I… I think one of them is an Energizer… he could kill us both before I could get inside.” I could barely get the words out from the tightness in my chest and my anguished sobbing and sniffling.
Mom looked like she was willing to risk it for a moment but then she looked away, her hands tightly clenching the wheel for a moment before finally releasing it with a sigh and a helpless look on her face. She had unbuckled her seatbelt and was about to turn off the ignition when all hell broke loose, including the fire.
A man dropped from the sky and into the parking lot, his hands and feet covered with flames that I could feel the heat of from over twenty feet away. The instant that he hit the ground, gouts of flame shot from both of his hands in a conflagration that consumed my two would-be captors as he yelled, “The Healer belongs to Mr. Salvatore!”
The two men screamed as they were burned alive and reduced to charred corpses without even enough time to realize what happened, let alone fight back. Mom did have time though, and she didn’t hesitate or waste a single second of the time that the new arrival was focused on the others. She floored the gas and with a squealing of tires, the jeep launched forward to hit the flaming asshole as he was turning toward us.
He barely had time to utter a surprised, “Oh, fuck,” before the jeep barrelled into him and then the concrete wall of the convenience store. Mom hadn’t gotten up enough speed to break through the wall, but she had definitely broken through him, crushing him between the wall and the grill of the jeep and leaving him a limp and bloody mess.
I ran forward, choking on the smell of burnt human flesh, panicked, still crying, and frantic as I made my way to the crash site. The fiery man wasn’t moving and his flames had gone out but Mom wasn’t moving either. She hadn’t had her seatbelt on and had gone headfirst through the window and into the wall. She was sprawled over what was left of the hood, her head a bloody mess, and when I got close enough to check her pulse it was too quick and erratic.
“H-hang in there, Mom,” I said, my voice and hands both trembling as I reached out to her. I could save her; this was the one situation in which my powers were actually useful. The moment that I placed my shaking hands on her I could sort of feel what was wrong with her, just like I had when I had instinctively healed Jenna’s broken ankle, or an MCO Agent’s sprained wrist during my testing, but I needed to learn more about biology and anatomy if I was going to make a habit of this.
What I sensed wasn’t good. Aside from multiple cuts, bruises, and other damage from the remains of the windshield and hitting the wall, Mom’s neck was at an impossible angle, she had some internal injuries, and her head was a mess. Her skull was practically caved in and she was bleeding all over the place. There were a few broken bones and maybe something with her spine as well but I needed to hurry and prioritize the worst of the damage.
I had a feeling that this gas station didn’t see a lot of business from both how bored the cashier had looked and the fact that we weren’t that far out of Kingman. Most people would just keep pushing on until they got to the city rather than stopping at this little out-of-the-way place. Not many cars had gone by either so far but I probably didn’t have long. With that in mind, I tried to concentrate on focusing on her broken neck, the head injuries, and any internal damage while ignoring the broken bones and minor external injuries.
I don’t know how long I was at it, but I thought that I had managed to stabilize her. This was only my third time doing this though so I was still kind of grasping in the dark, desperate to save her. I couldn’t let her die, not after everything that had happened. Mom’s neck and the internal injuries healed up as well as I could make them and the inside of her head was feeling a lot less wrong to me when her eyes snapped open. I was so startled that I jumped back, taking my hands off of her and breaking the connection.
She was looking at me in confusion, with no sense of recognition in her eyes, and at that moment, I realized that I could heal her brain but her mind wouldn’t be as easily mended. She tried to speak but it all came out a garbled mess and whoever was looking at me now, it wasn’t my mom. At least not right now. Maybe with time but I knew that my time was quickly running out. I needed to leave.
She was alive and that was the best that I could do for her, except for getting as far away from her as possible. If this had proven anything, it was that as long as she was with me she was in danger as much as I was. She had been right that they would use my loved ones against me, and that meant that I couldn’t get close to anyone while they were still looking for me, and I had a feeling that they would never stop.
I needed to change plans. They were onto us or we wouldn’t have been followed. I couldn’t go to Phoenix; someone might be waiting for me there. I needed to find some other city where I could lay low and maybe try to change my identity. I needed to leave Penelope Jones behind and become someone else, someone so different that even those who knew me well wouldn’t think it was me.
With my decision made, I looked down at Mom one last time, holding back the tears that threatened to flow again and clutching my chest as if that would help ease the self-inflicted emotional knife wound to my heart. I tried to tell myself that she was alive and that was the important thing but I couldn’t help but feel that I would never see her again, it would be too risky for both of us. “I’m sorry, Mom, but I have to do this. For your sake.” Then I turned away and grabbed my soccer bag from the back of the jeep.
I threw the bag over my shoulder and then stepped inside the store to call 911 since I no longer had my cellphone. Mom had had me throw it on the ground and stomp on it before we got in the jeep to leave Vegas. She was worried that things like that or a tablet could be used to track us, so she made certain that neither of us had anything like that. No credit cards either. She had withdrawn all the cash that she could after renting the jeep.
I was breaking down in tears and could barely get the words out when the operator answered the phone. “A-accident… Gas n’ Go… route 93.” Then I dashed outside and started hoofing it along the highway as quickly as possible in the lingering heat as the sun touched the horizon, staying far enough from the road so I could hide from oncoming traffic if needed.
Once I got far enough away, when the adrenaline faded, I couldn’t stop the tears. I cried for the next two days straight, barely aware of anything else except the need to get away and the raw, festering pain and loss that ate away at my heart. I made my way to the bus depot in Kingman in a shattered and teary daze and got a ticket for the first bus that would take me away. It couldn’t take me far enough, I’d never be able to get away from what had happened and what I had lost.
I was too overwhelmed to eat, or even move more than was necessary to get on the bus or find a motel room once I arrived in Los Angeles. I was running on autopilot, too broken to care consciously about where I might end up. It was a devastating, debilitating grief that filled my body and soul to overflowing, leaving no room for anything but pain.
Los Angeles, California
Monday, August 8, 2016
I looked around tiredly as I ate my lunch at McDonald's, I had gotten the cheapest value meal that I could, not really caring about much other than taking the edge off of my gnawing hunger for the moment. I hadn’t been able to eat since leaving that damned Gas n’ Go, or rather I hadn’t cared enough to eat. As hungry as I was, I also knew that I had to save what money I did have if I wanted to find a decent place to stay.
There had been a little over two thousand in cash, and other necessities, stuffed inside a small purse in my duffel bag. I had already used a good chunk of that money for the bus trip to LA and a few other things. I was going to have to be frugal with the rest until I could find a place to stay and some way to increase my funds.
I had been searching for a place to stay since I arrived yesterday morning in a depressed daze and had settled on a cheap motel to stay the night in. I hadn’t really cared as long as it was safe enough to curl up in a ball and cry myself to sleep. The night manager hadn’t been willing to rent to a minor with no ID, at least none that I was willing to use openly. In the end, I had to bribe him and ended up paying double the usual price for a cheap room, using up another chunk of my dwindling funds so I didn’t end up sleeping on a park bench or something. The room was cheap, the bed was hard, and as a result of that and the nightmares, I hadn’t slept very well.
I hadn’t felt like even getting out of bed this morning but I forced myself to start searching for someplace more sustainable to stay, and any kind of work that I could do under the table, but I was starting to notice a trend. People weren’t willing to hire or house a fourteen-year-old runaway. Sure, I would be turning fifteen in three weeks, but I doubted that that would help my case any since I didn’t dare show anyone my legal identification. I had at least two crime families looking for me and it was possible that I had been caught on camera during the whole thing at the Gas n’ Go. For all that I knew, I could be a wanted fugitive now too.
At least the motel had been good for something. I had been able to use some hair dye and an electric shaver, among other things that I had picked up at a mall that morning, to change my appearance a bit before checking out. My blonde hair was now black and in a crew cut, and with my small breasts bound and the right clothes I made a convincing boy, though I probably looked even younger than I was. I was also now down to less than fourteen hundred dollars after my lunch but it was worth it.
I finished eating and I was sipping at my drink at one of the outdoor tables when the sound of shouting brought my attention to the alleyway across the street. There were six boys of varied ethnicity dressed similarly in jeans and t-shirts with bright red bandannas covering their heads who were shouting obscenities and beating the living crap out of somebody that I couldn’t see well. For a moment, I was torn on what to do until the siren of a police car in the area caused the boys to scatter. I figured that it was probably passing through the area on its way somewhere else but they probably didn’t want to risk getting caught in the act.
I knew that it was probably a bad idea but I quickly crossed the street and approached the person who was sprawled on the ground. He was a Latino boy who looked close to my age and he probably would have been pretty average-looking it if wasn’t for the bruises all over him at the moment. Taking a quick look around to make sure that nobody was watching, I carefully placed my hands on him and I could sense the connection being made.
Fortunately, I couldn’t sense any broken bones or other internal damage and his bruises and scrapes were relatively easy and quick to heal. As I was doing that though, I felt something strange that I had never experienced before when healing someone. It was like there was this warmth inside of him and as I healed him, I could feel it start flooding into me.
The warmth flowed through me and I could feel it settle into place in the back of my mind. It was like there was some sort of slot in my brain that I didn’t know about before and whatever this warmth was, it just clicked into place as if it belonged there. Now that I knew it was there, I could sense that three other slots remained empty, though for some reason two of them felt slightly different than the one that had been filled, and not just because they still felt empty.
It was a moment before I snapped out of it enough to realize that we were staring at one another. “Y-you…” he started to sputter before I placed my hand on his mouth to shush him.
“I don’t suppose that you could keep quiet about that?” I asked uncertainly. “I really shouldn’t have done that in public. I have enough problems as it is and I was trying to keep a low profile.”
The boy seemed to consider it for a moment before nodding. Once I removed my hand from his mouth he said, “Um… thanks. Those assholes don’t like me picking through the garbage on their turf.” He looked dejectedly down at some rotten and moldy fruits and veggies that had been mostly crushed by the boys who had attacked him.
I looked down at the garbage with distaste. “Look, if you’re that hungry, I can spare a bit to buy you something at the McDonald’s across the street.” Despite just eating, I was getting hungry again. I had noticed that healing people made me hungry and even though this hadn’t been as near as much effort as when I had healed my mom, I had only really eaten enough to take the edge off two days worth of hunger before doing it.
“Thanks, but how about a counteroffer? If you help me take those shelves there home, then I’ll treat you to a meal,” the boy said with a grin after looking around for a moment, his gaze having landed upon a bunch of discarded wooden shelves by the dumpster where he had apparently been looking for lunch.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to share whatever meal that someone who rooted through garbage for food could provide. I needed to think of a way to politely decline so I could continue my search for work and a place to stay. “I could help you get them home, I guess, but I really need to get back to what I was doing. I need to find a place to live and some work…” I trailed off, not quite sure how to address him.
“Call me Feast,” he offered as he started gathering as many of the shelves as he could carry. I thought that was a pretty strange name as I started grabbing the rest of the shelves but then I was distracted as he added, “If the others like you, you could stay with us. Mutant runaways need to stick together, amigo. It’s not much but it's shelter, and nobody bothers us.”
“I… uhh… thanks for the offer, Feast. I might take you up on it, at least until I can get on my feet. I’m… not really comfortable giving my name. I… can’t be that person anymore,” I replied awkwardly.
“Hey, don’t worry, it’s all cool. We can totally get that, we’ve all left shit behind that we’d rather not get into. Do you think Feast is my real name? Secrets come with the territory. We’ll figure out something to call you, amigo,” he offered as we finished gathering the shelves and he started leading the way.
It was a bit of a long walk and a quiet one too since neither of us felt very talkative. Finally, we arrived at an old three-story apartment building with boarded-up windows and Feast led me around to the back alley where he gestured to a rickety old fire escape ladder as he said, “It’s just up here, we’re on the top floor.”
“This place looks like it should be condemned,” I muttered. Then I shuffled my armload of wood scrap and asked, “How are you planning on climbing this ladder while holding these.”
“Oh, it is condemned, but it’s home,” he told me with a grin. Then, after a quick look around to make sure we weren’t being watched, he shouted upward, “Hey, Az! Can you give us a hand?!”
I looked up and saw some canvas or some other thick material that had been draped over a balcony window that wasn’t boarded up. After a moment, it parted and a dark figure floated down toward us. He was easily six foot four and I was pretty sure that he was male but his hair and skin looked pitch black and seemed to swallow up any light directed at him. Even his clothes were black; sneakers, jeans, and a leather jacket. The only thing that stood out from that inky darkness was his eyes, which seemed to glow red-hot.
When those eyes turned to me, I couldn’t help but shrink back. This was possibly the most terrifying person that I had ever seen, and that included Riptile and the fiery dude that had burned him alive. His voice was distorted to the point of sounding raspy as those eyes seemed to burn through me and he asked, “Who’s the newbie?”
“We’ll have to figure out something to call him, he’s like you, I think. Running from something, but he can’t be too bad. He healed me after some assholes beat me black and blue,” Feast offered.
“They call me Asphalt, but you can call me Az,” the obsidian giant offered as he took the wooden shelves from us. “No need to be scared, kid, I won’t hurt you.” Then once he had relieved us both of our burdens he flew back up to the window he had exited from and went back inside.
“Don’t worry about Az, he wouldn’t hurt any of us,” Feast promised as he jumped up to grab the lowest rung of the fire escape ladder and pull it down for us. “He just has a PK shell that he can’t turn off and it makes him hella intimidating. The laser eyes help too. You’ll meet Tresse and Slider later, they’ll both be out panhandling to try to stretch our limited funds. They’ll be back before dark though. This is Skid Row; it’s not safe to be out after dark and that goes double for Tresse, being a girl and all, but she’ll need to be back well before dark to cut her hair anyway.”
Once again, I considered just leaving, now that I’d helped Feast get his haul here. I needed a place to lay low while I made plans though and they didn’t seem pushy or intrusive. It was probably a better place than I was going to find on my own and there was safety in numbers, as long as I didn’t reveal too much about my past. Feast was already climbing the ladder when I sighed and followed him up.
Once we had pushed aside the thick canvas sheet across the large window and stepped inside, I found myself in a decent-sized kitchen that had a worn fold-up card table and four folding chairs that had seen better days. There were a few propane camping lanterns that were off at the moment on the counter but other than those there were no furnishings to speak of. I was still looking around the room as Feast went to one of the cupboards and opened it, pulling out three plates from a stack.
Once Feast had put the mismatched plates on the table, he retrieved some equally mismatched cutlery from a drawer, followed by some cans of soda from another cupboard. “So, I promised you a meal, newbie.” He gestured to the wooden shelves that we had brought with us and looked toward Asphalt. “Az, if you would be so kind? And what are you hungry for, big guy?”
Asphalt broke three good-sized pieces off the wood and then placed them on each of the plates as Feast watched. “I could go for a double bacon cheeseburger and fries,” Az said thoughtfully, prompting Feast to touch the wood on one of the plates as a look of concentration passed over his features. Before my eyes the wood seemed to get hazy and bubbled, changing its shape and form until there was a double bacon cheeseburger and fries sitting there, it was even hot enough that there was steam coming off of it.
I just gaped in awe and tentatively touched the wood on the plate in front of me as I sputtered, “How…” What the hell kind of superpower was that? It smelled so good too, reminding me that I was still hungry. “Damn, I could really go for a grilled chicken burger with smoked bacon, Swiss cheese, and Mom’s special hot sauce right now. Oh! And chili fries!” I thought to myself as my stomach growled.
Feast was looking pretty smug as he explained to my suddenly food-distracted self, “I can turn trash into food. I can’t do a lot but it helps keep us fed. It has to be something that I’m familiar with and have eaten before though and it’s better if the trash is organic, it makes it easier and the food ends up tasting better. I can do drinks too but it can get messy if I’m not careful. So, what would you like to…”
It took a second before I realized that he had stopped talking and was staring at my plate, where there now sat a piping hot grilled chicken burger exactly how I wanted it, and a small side of chili fries. “Whoa, cool! Can you read minds too?”
“I… didn’t do that. I need to be touching it to…” Feast continued to sputter as he stared at my plate. “How did you do that?”
“I had nothing to do with this, I’m a Healer, not a…” I started to object before remembering the strange sensation that I had felt when healing Feast earlier. I had never healed a mutant before, nobody that I had used my power on had had powers of their own and I had never felt that with anyone else I healed… until I healed Feast. That warmth that had gone from him into me, that strange sense of still empty slots in my mind. “Holy crap. I… I think I copied your powers...”
The kitchen was silent for several minutes in the wake of what had just happened. Finally, Asphalt’s rasping voice broke the silence as he asked, “Have you ever done this before?
I shook my head so quickly that I made myself a little dizzy. “No, I didn’t manifest that long ago but I was tested and nothing like that came up. Feast was the first mutant that I ever healed though, that I know of. None of the others had powers. When I healed him, I felt something that I haven’t felt before, like some warm energy flowing from him into me.”
The other two looked thoughtful and Az started eating his lunch. I started doing the same since I didn’t want to waste a good meal. Feast managed to shake off his shock and made himself something to eat after a moment and then it was silent again as we were all lost in thought as we ate. It wasn’t until we were finished eating that Az said, “We should test this and try to figure out your limits.”
We did try that for the next hour or so but I already had Feast’s power and I was getting nowhere with Az, which was a damn shame because not much could hurt him with his PK shell, and laser eyes are just cool. Finally, Az suggested that I stay with them for a while and they gave me a tour of the rest of the apartment. Not that there was much to see, but it was better than I had before I met them.
The bathroom was surprisingly clean and the living room contained a sleeping bag for Az, atop a cushion of what looked like hair, along with his few possessions. He slept there so that if anyone tried to break in, he would be the first line of defense. He was the oldest among the group at eighteen and he took protecting the others very seriously. There were two bedrooms as well; one shared by Slider and Feast while the other was for Tresse since she was the only girl.
Thankfully they had managed to get the water running so the bathroom could be used but the water was cold and not anything that I’d trust drinking, which was why they used the money that they didn’t have to use on food for bottled water, soda, and juice. Since there was no electricity, they used camp lanterns or candles for light. After they had given me a peek inside the boys’ room, which held two sleeping bags upon cushions like Asphalt’s, I realized that I was going to need a sleeping bag as well.
Feast was able to suggest a place where I could buy camping gear and I headed off on my own to do that. It took a while for me to find the place but I managed to get a decent sleeping bag, a flashlight, and some spare batteries. Since I was out anyway, I also spent a couple of hours looking for work but it was a wasted effort.
It was almost five o’clock as I headed back to the condemned apartment building in Skid Row and it was as if I could feel people’s eyes on me, assessing me. That was when I lost my grip on Feast’s powers as well and that slot in my mind felt empty once again. I tried not to look nervous as I hurried back toward the apartment.
Since I was shorter than Feast, it took me a couple of jumps before I could reach the bottom rung of the fire escape ladder and pull it down. I managed it though and made my way upward, careful to pull the ladder back up once I reached the first-floor balcony. Then I hurried back up to the apartment on the top floor and stepped through the curtain, where I found a pretty girl around the same age as me sitting at the table and hacking off her dark brown hair with a knife.
The hair was long, long enough that what was still uncut pooled on the ground while she was sitting, and she paused in her hacking to look up at me and give a wary smile. “Hi, you must be the new kid that Feast and Az were telling us about. It’s nice to meet you, I’m Tresse.” She caught me staring at her as she restarted her hacking again, pausing briefly to shrug before going back to it again. “I’m a high-level regenerator and for some reason it makes my hair grow really fast. I have to cut it off every six hours or so if I don’t want to be tripping on it.”
“I’m… uhh…” I stammered, not quite sure how to introduce myself.
“We should call her Cat, short for Copycat,” an unfamiliar voice suggested from the door to the living room. “Feast said she copied his powers.”
“She?!” I heard Feast and Az exclaim in concert as I turned to see them crowding the doorway behind the source of the unfamiliar voice and staring at me. The boy standing in front of them was maybe sixteen or seventeen and handsome with blue eyes and blond hair, even if he was a bit dirty like the others. I wasn’t staring at him because of his looks though. Was he psychic? How had he seen through my disguise so easily?
“It’s about time that we got another girl here, there is waaay too much testosterone in this apartment,” Tresse contributed casually as she finished hacking off the last of her long brown hair.
The blonde guy didn’t seem overly concerned either. “I’m Slider, no need to freak out, Cat,” he said with a reassuring smile as he called me by the name he had suggested. “Your disguise isn’t bad, it’s just that you still move and talk more like a girl than a boy. It is about more than just physical appearances though. I’m guessing that you were a tomboy and you thought that pretending to be a boy would be easy for you and help you blend in while looking different? I was an actr… actor before I manifested and I can read pretty well when someone is new to playing a role. If you need to pretend to be somebody else that badly, maybe I can give you some pointers.”
“We can talk more about stuff like that over dinner,” Asphalt suggested. “Tresse, can you show her your room?”
“Sure, Az. C’mon, Cat, grab your stuff while I gather up all this hair and I’ll take you to no man's land.”
With that, Tresse quickly gathered up her sheared hair while I grabbed my things. Then she lit one of the lanterns on the counter and led me into the girls’ room where I would be staying with her, adding the hair to a large pile on the floor. It was the second of two piles while the other was spread out with her sleeping bag atop it. I gave her a curious look and she shrugged, “It’s more comfortable than sleeping on the hard floor and I have to do something with all this hair. Everyone else already had a nest and I’ve kinda been wanting another girl around here for a while.”
I sighed as I put my things on the floor beside the empty nest of hair. “I don’t think I’ll be staying long… only until I get on my feet.” I couldn’t let myself stay too long or get too close to these people. If people from Vegas tracked me down or the wrong people learned what I could do, I would only be placing them in danger.
“Good luck with that, Cat,” Tresse replied sourly. “You’re a kid, homeless, and a mutant who isn’t cut out to be either a hero or a supervillain. We’re the lowest of the low in this cesspool city. That’s our place and nobody is gonna let us forget it or crawl out from this hole; not the rich, not the gangs, and for sure not the MCO.”
My mind flashed back to Agent Caldwell, the man who had sold me out and ruined my life and I clenched my fists tightly by my sides. “Is the MCO that bad here?”
Tresse shrugged. “Not as bad as other places, I guess. They’re twitchy and tend to go too far, especially since that whole thing with Bastion.” She must have seen the confused expression on my face because she quickly explained, “He was a hero, one of the Hollywood All-Stars. Then one day a couple of years ago, he snapped. He just dropped down in the middle of suburbia in full view of the public and killed a young girl and her parents in cold blood. After that, he went completely off the rails.”
“So… what happened?” I asked as the color drained from my face.
“It took his whole team and some former villain named Proteus to take him down. I guess Proteus joined them after that and I heard that Bastion got sent to The Rock,” she replied with a shrug.
The Rock. Just the name made me shiver. It was one of several ultra-max prisons but this one was where they sent the worst of the worst mutant criminals. The ultra violents, the lifers, those too dangerous to ever be freed, and anyone else that they didn’t want to ever see the light of day again. It was an orbital ultra-max prison built inside of an asteroid, high-level gadgeteers and mages designed its security, and there were power-armored guards to keep the inmates in line. Then there was the last resort. In case of escape attempts or riots, they just would just vent the air in an entire cellblock to take care of the problem permanently.
With that less than cheerful thought lodged firmly in my mind, we went back to the kitchen to join the others for dinner. I tried to copy Feast’s powers again so I could help with ‘making’ dinner but I couldn’t seem to sense that warmth inside of him anymore. In fact, I wasn’t able to repeat it with anyone that night. Since I couldn’t help with dinner, I offered to help Tresse with the cleanup afterward.
As we ate, the others told me a bit more about themselves. I thought that they were trying to get me to feel comfortable with them and come out of my shell a bit but the less they knew the better. I didn’t want to get more comfortable around them either, it would just make it harder when I had to eventually leave them. As long as I stayed, or allowed myself to care about any of them, they were in danger.
Feast was the most talkative of the bunch and his only power was the garbage to food thing. Using it too much drained him though and creating even two meals per day for the five of us was going to push his limits. When he mentioned that, I felt really bad about losing my grip on his powers and was determined to figure out this new ability of mine. Still, he seemed unfailingly cheerful and friendly and treated the others like siblings.
Az was the only one of the group that could really defend himself as a PK superman with laser eyes. He could also fly and was the only one of us who couldn’t go outside, at least not in daylight. He was too easy to identify since he couldn’t get rid of his PK shell and he was wanted by the MCO. He had been in the wrong place at the wrong time when he manifested and they thought that he had helped with a bank robbery just because he was an ominous dark figure with glowing red eyes. Slider called it typecasting, and Az had been hiding out in dark places for years before he met the others and they found the apartment.
Slider had been a child star, though he wouldn’t tell us which one, only that he had changed quite a bit when he manifested. He seemed friendly and helpful but like me, he didn’t like to share personal information. I couldn’t blame him for that since his parents and agent had cast him aside when he manifested and that had to hurt. I may have lost my parents but at least they had been supportive when I manifested. Like Feast he only had one power, he could levitate a foot off the ground but to him, it felt like standing on a slippery surface that he could skate along.
Tresse was an Exemplar 1 and Regen 5 so she healed super fast and she warned me to stay away if she was bleeding since her blood was technically a biohazard. Since she was just barely classified as an Exemplar though, only because of her BIT, her only real power was her regeneration. Her physical abilities weren’t much better than a healthy and fit baseline of her age and size. So while she could take a beating, she was like me and had no real way to defend herself. Like Slider and Feast, her parents had freaked out when she manifested and she was forced to run away, but that made sense with them being members of Humanity First.
Although Tresse could heal from just about anything, the boys tended to be overprotective of her, and now me as well, and didn’t want either of us out after dark, especially alone. As Slider said while we were eating, “There are worse things that can happen to a girl out there at night than just being beaten up or robbed. Living in Skid Row just makes it more likely.”
Los Angeles, California
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
“Cat, what’s wrong?” Tresse asked looking at me in concern as she chopped off her hair and I tried to come up with a convincing reason to get out of my sleeping bag and get dressed. I didn’t answer. It was another morning overshadowed by overwhelming, paralyzing grief. I wondered if these bouts would ever end. I couldn’t talk to any of them about it either, I couldn’t risk getting too close.
She tried again. “You’ve been acting more depressed than usual for a couple of days now. I know that it’s not your period, you finished that last week. I get that you’re all private and paranoid about whoever it is after you, you’ve made that clear enough to all of us, but you’re my friend and probably the closest thing I’ll ever get to a sister. I want to help. Look, Cat, you don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to; just tell me how I can help make it better.”
It had been three weeks since I had come to stay at Az’s Home for Wayward Mutants, as we called it. During that time, I had tried to find some other place to live and to keep my emotional distance from the others but it wasn’t going well. It was for the best, for both them and me, that I didn’t become attached. At least that was what I kept telling myself. It would only make it that much harder when I was found and had to leave or when someone found out what I could do and tried to use them against me.
During my time with them, they had been making that really difficult. They acted as a family of sorts and the last thing that I needed was to lose another one. Still, I fell into a pattern and spent my days begging and wandering the streets downtown with Slider and Tresse or scavenging with Feast. When I was with Tresse and Slider, the former would just chat with me happily about everything and anything while the latter often gave me tips on acting, getting into a role, and making others believe it. When we got home, we would enjoy a nice meal together and Asphalt would keep us all safe at night. It was making it hard for me to keep my distance.
I had also been trying to figure out my ability to copy powers during that time and had learned a couple of things. First, I could only copy the powers of somebody that I was healing. It was as if my healing ability was what allowed the connection to form. Since Feast and Slider were the only ones who ever seemed to get hurt easily and I couldn’t copy my own powers, those were the two that I ended up copying.
Second, I could only seem to hold on to the powers for around four hours and I had no control over what ‘slot’ they occupied when first copied. I had a feeling that I could move them to another slot but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do that yet since I had no idea why the third and fourth slots ‘felt’ different than slots one and two. I wanted to try copying other powers but I couldn’t risk exposing myself to others and if a person looked like a baseline I wouldn’t even know if they had powers or not until I tried to heal them.
“It’s just… personal stuff,” I finally told Tresse morosely as I crawled out of the sleeping bag and looked dispassionately over my clothes. We had gone to a laundromat last week but it was almost time to go again since none of us had a lot of variety in the clothing department. I didn’t want to tell her that the reason that my depression had been worse the last couple of days was because yesterday was my birthday and that just made me think of everything, and everyone, that I had lost even more than usual.
It hadn’t even been a month yet and it was all still too raw, too much. A month ago, I had been a normal kid with parents who cared and actually tried to understand me and things were pretty good. Now I was a mutant, my parents were either dead or impossible to see again, I was on the run from at least two crime families, and I was homeless and trying to figure out yet another power that I had never asked for or wanted.
Tresse sighed but didn’t press. “Okay, Cat. If you want to talk about it, I’m here for you. You seem to think that you have to handle everything alone but you don’t. I’ve got your back anytime that you need it, that’s what sisters do. I’m going to go have something to eat before we go out for the day, you should hurry and get dressed if you want to do the same before Feast leaves to go scavving.”
I sighed and started to get dressed in something semi-clean. I knew that Feast wouldn’t leave until we had all eaten but I didn’t want to keep everyone waiting on me before starting their day, it was bad enough that they had to put up with my moodiness. When I finally made my way into the kitchen I found the others all eating and talking in low voices over the table. They all tried to look cheerful as they said their good mornings but I could tell that they were worried about me.
The rest of breakfast was quiet and then everyone but Asphalt left to get started on the day. We started toward downtown and then split up so Feast could start searching for organic trash and the rest of us could find good spots for panhandling. As usual, when the three of us set out together, the plan was for Slider to pick a spot first. Then Tresse and I would choose spots on the opposite side of the street a good distance away but not far enough that he couldn’t see us, in case we needed help. He’d also be coming to check up on us once in a while to make sure that we were doing okay and that nobody was harassing us too much.
Slider didn’t usually get as much for ‘donations’ as Tresse and I did since he was a bit older and too handsome to look really worn down, so we had come up with this system so he could keep an eye on us both when I had started joining them on the streets. I was small and I guess that I looked underfed so people took pity on me. Tresse usually made the most of the three of us though.
Tress was very pretty but her clothes were a lot dirtier and more worn than mine, and her hair made her get a lot of sympathy too. When we started that morning, it was haphazardly chopped close to her scalp and looked messy and by lunchtime, it looked like she hadn’t been able to get a haircut in years. People hardly even noticed that it was clean, and she often frizzed it up when nobody was looking to make it appear more scraggly and tangled.
During the day, I lost sight of Slider a few times but I figured that he had gone down the street to check on Tresse. He did the same for me a few times and it wasn’t that unusual. Around three o’clock we needed to head back to the apartment so Tresse could cut her hair but neither she nor Slider seemed to be in a big hurry so as we walked, Slider gave us another impromptu acting lesson.
He suggested that instead of pretending to be a boy, I use makeup to change my appearance a bit and go more feminine instead. “Looks are easy to change, Cat,” he said with a shrug. “The real challenge is making others believe a role by selling the personality. You don’t need to look like a different person but act like one. You’re an introvert, a tomboy, and a bit paranoid from what I’ve seen. I’d suggest making people believe the opposite, that you’re perky, outgoing, feminine, and maybe a little naïve and go with a look and attitude that sells that image.”
“Yeah, if you can manage to both look and act different from your old self, you shouldn’t have to worry about people you knew recognizing you, at least not easily,” Tresse agreed as we walked slowly along and she tried to look like the heat wasn’t getting to her.
Something wasn’t right, it was hot outside and usually, Tresse was sweltering under the weight of all of her hair by that time and in a hurry to get home. By the time we were climbing the ladder to the apartment, I was wondering what was going on. I didn’t have to wait long to find out though since the moment that we stepped through the tarp blocking the balcony window everyone yelled, “Surprise! Happy birthday, Cat!”
“How… I….” for a moment I just stood there staring and babbling incoherently in confusion. How had they known? Sure, my birthday was actually yesterday, but how did they find out, and what else did they know? Az and Feast were standing behind the table, which was loaded up with chicken tacos. Feast’s mother had made those for him and his siblings when he was growing up and he had introduced me to them not long after I arrived. They were one of the best things that I had ever eaten and had quickly become one of my favorites. There was a cake too, big with chocolate icing and a candle on top.
As I was trying to form words and figure out how much they knew Tress put her arm around me in a hug. “We… uhh… didn’t know when your real birthday is but you’re one of us now, so we figured this morning that you needed one and today was as good a day as any. We were hoping that it might cheer you up from whatever has you so depressed.”
“Uhh… thanks… I…” I stammered in relief. They didn’t know. Maybe Slider was right about me being paranoid but I couldn’t help but feel that I was putting them all in danger just by being there and that the more they got to know me, the greater the risk they faced. I appreciated what they had done and that they had cared enough to do it, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that we would all be safer if I just left.
Still, I tried to enjoy it while it lasted and show them how much I had come to care for them all over the past few weeks. One last good memory with them wasn’t being selfish, was it? They had even gotten presents. Feast gave me one of those plastic balls with a toy inside that he had gotten from one of those vending machines where you get gumballs and stuff. Inside was a keychain that looked like some character out of an anime that I wasn’t familiar with.
Tresse had managed to slip into the dollar store earlier in the day and got me a package of colorful and sparkly hair ties as a joke. Neither of us could use them right now since my hair was still short and hers grew too fast to make them practical. Asphalt on the other hand said that since I was trying to learn more about my ability to copy powers, he would take me to a place where I could meet people with a wide variety of powers to try to copy. It was hard to tell him that I looked forward to it when I was planning to leave that night.
Slider’s gift was the biggest surprise, a pair of silver star-shaped earrings. He looked sheepishly at the floor as he offered them to me. “My mom bought these and a pendant for me when I landed my first big role when I was eight. I thought that they were too grown up at the time and they… well, they don’t really suit me anymore. I thought that they should… umm… stay in the family, so I gave Tresse the pendant for her last birthday and… uhh… here you go.”
I realized then that the only time that I ever saw Slider appearing uncertain or upset was when he talked about his past. Was all of his advice on adopting a role for people to assume was the real me from experience, and just not his former profession? What had he lost besides his family to have that pained look in his eyes whenever he mentioned his past? The earrings were very feminine and pretty and so was the pendant that Tresse kept hidden beneath her clothes every day. It was almost as if Slider had been a girl but that just wasn’t possible, he was a guy and people couldn’t just change like that, could they?
I guess every one of us had a certain look of loss while talking about our pasts but Slider’s seemed to say that he had lost a lot more than his family and career. Asphalt’s expression couldn’t be read with his PK shell up but his voice said that he had lost a lot. Feast talked about his past the most, he had been the eldest sibling in a big family and I thought that he might have been using this substitute family to make up for the brothers and sisters that he had lost.
Of us all, Tresse seemed the happiest, or at least unbothered by the loss. When she spoke of her family, there was no sense of loss, just anger, hate, and an entirely different type of pain in her eyes. From what I gathered, she probably would have run away eventually whether she had manifested or not. As she hugged me and gushed about how we would somehow have to get my ears pierced, I tried not to feel guilty about my plan to leave them all.
Los Angeles, California
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
It wasn’t until we had all gone to bed and I thought that everyone was probably asleep that I got up as silently as possible to pack my things and leave. “Where you think you’re goin’, Cat? Too dangerous out at night,” Tresse asked looking up at me blearily from her sleeping bag.
I took a deep breath to steel myself before answering, “I have to go, Tresse. There are bad people after me; people who would hurt anyone that I care about to get me to do what they want. The longer I stay here, the more likely it is that they’ll find me and the more danger I’m putting all of you in.”
Tresse frowned, now seemingly wide-awake as she climbed out of her sleeping bag. Then she walked over to grasp me firmly by the shoulders and look me dead in the eyes. “So, you’re gonna let them win by not letting yourself get close to anybody? We stick together because we’re the closest thing to family any of us can have, and I’m not gonna let my sister cut herself off from the people who care about her.”
“But, I’m putting you all in danger,” I argued.
“Do you really think we’re in any more danger now just because you’re here?” she asked, her eyes not leaving mine. “The gangs around here take any chance they can get to jump any of us who are out alone, you’ve had to heal Feast like four times this week alone. H1 has probably been searching for me since I manifested and ran away and the MCO and local heroes think that Az is some sorta supervillain. We were in plenty of danger before you showed up, we all knew that you were running from someone, and we don’t give a crap. We choose to take that risk, we stick together, and we help each other, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard, because that’s what family does, Cat. Family gives a shit and watches your back.”
I fell to my knees, already feeling the sting of hot tears forming in my eyes as my gut twisted in knots. “But you’re not… My… Dad died to give me and Mom a chance to escape. Mom got hurt… really bad… while trying to protect me. I healed her as much as I could but her mind… she didn’t know me. I… I had to leave her there to get away... to keep what was left of her safe.”
Tresse knelt on the floor beside me and wrapped me up tightly in her arms. “You had good parents, Cat. I wish that mine… They treated me like shit long before I became what they hated the most; I was never good enough for them, and when I wasn’t good enough I was punished. Heh, I guess that’s the bad side of my regeneration. The physical scars healed completely and left no trace behind but it feels like they should still be there because the memories and the emotional scars never go away, no matter how much I want them to.”
“Tresse, I…” I wasn’t sure what to say. Tresse made no secret that she had had a difficult childhood and I had seen the state that she was in whenever she woke from the nightmares. Yet here I was, fighting back tears over the loss of my loving parents while hers had been scum and were probably looking for her so they could kill her. I felt like I was rubbing my former happiness in her face.
She seemed to shake off whatever memory had had her in its grip and whispered in my ear as she held me even tighter. “Do you really think that your parents wanted you to spend the rest of your life alone, not letting yourself get close to anybody? It doesn’t sound like they were the kind of people who would wish that on their daughter. You can choose family, Cat. Me, Az, Slider, and Feast all chose each other, just like we chose you.”
“But I…” Once again, I wasn’t sure what I was going to say as I sniffled into her shoulder, there were too many things that I could have. That I was putting them in danger. That it was better if I was on my own. That I didn’t deserve them. That it was my fault my parents were gone and I didn’t want that to happen to them too. Why the hell did I have to live? Those monsters were after me and the people who were most important to me paid the price, and likely always would. Those were the thoughts that kept trying to drown out her voice.
“Promise me, Cat. Promise me that no matter what happens that you won’t leave your family behind again. Promise me that we’re in this together from now on, and we’ll have each other’s backs no matter what happens.”
I hesitated. “I ca…”
Tresse didn’t let me finish, pulling away a bit to cover my mouth with a hand and look at me intently. “That’s not what I want to hear, Sis. Promise.” She wasn’t going to let me back out of this. If I had learned anything while sharing a room with her, it was that Tresse wasn’t the type to back down, especially when it was something that she thought was important. I could see it in her eyes that she thought this was important. She thought that I was important.
“I… promise,” I told her through the tears and pain that I had been trying to keep buried deep inside since the day we had met.
It was barely more than a whisper but Tresse had heard it and we both knew that she would hold me to that promise. “Good, now let’s get some sleep, Sis.” She guided me back to my sleeping bag but instead of going back to her own, she laid down with me and held me until I had cried myself to sleep.
The Drunken Valkyrie
Wednesday, September 1, 2016
“Umm… Az… are we there?” I asked as I looked uncertainly around the dark and unfamiliar alley and tugged at the hem of my dress. Asphalt had flown us to Anaheim as soon as it got dark and being carried as he flew through the night sky had been both exhilarating and terrifying. I was glad to be back on the ground and my own two feet though.
“Yeah, Cat. I’ve only been here once before but Crackpot showed me what landmarks to look for from the air. There should be a steel door in this alley with some graffiti on it; it looks like a woman with wings holding a beer mug. That’ll be The Drunken Valkyrie, it’s where supervillains in the area go to have a drink and a meal, network, and plan jobs,” Asphalt replied as he looked around for the door in question.
I didn’t mention how I wasn’t sure if we should be trusting the word of someone who willingly called themselves Crackpot, since that goes without saying, but Az had been here once when the supervillain had mistaken him for a rookie in the trade and offered to help him make some connections. Az said that was almost two years ago, before he had met any of the others and when he was hiding from the police, MCO, and local heroes in any dark place that he could find. For all we knew the place could have been closed during that time but Az figured that it might be a good spot for me to copy some powers.
I had spent most of the day preparing for this instead of going out panhandling or scavenging with the others. I had cleaned up as best I could and ended up using most of the rest of my stash of money on my current outfit, in an attempt to look like I was Az’s ‘minion’ so I wouldn’t draw too much attention. Under Slider’s advice, I also had a persona to play tonight to get in some acting practice, and I had kept that in mind while doing my shopping.
Instead of introverted and tomboyish I was going for confident, somewhat aggressive, and a bit slutty. It would help sell the backstory that we had created for me in case anyone asked. With that in mind, and in an attempt to look like a proper minion, I was dressed all in black; a black minidress, fishnet stockings, knee high combat boots, leather jacket and gloves, and a domino mask with red tinted lenses.
I was also wearing a long black wig, a headband with black cat ears, and some inserts in my bra to push up my meager breasts and give myself some cleavage. Between that and the hunting knife that I was brazenly wearing on a thigh sheath, nobody would ever mistake me for Penny Jones. Tonight, I was Copycat.
It took a few minutes but we finally found the door and paused outside. “Remember, Cat, stick with me and play your part but try not to do anything that’ll get you hurt,” Az said before taking a deep breath and opening the door for us to enter.
We entered the door and followed a flight of stairs downward and the smell of stale beer and cigarettes hit me as soon as we hit the bottom and looked around. The seedy looking bar was a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be and it looked like they served food as well as drinks, judging by the waitress who passed in front of us with a tray covered in beer mugs and plates with what I thought was typical pub food. There was a bar to our right with stools lined up in front of it and a very large blonde woman behind it, and the rest of the large room held close to twenty round wooden tables with a varying number of chairs at each.
I guessed that it was a slow night since only four of the tables were currently occupied, but Az led us right up to the bar. The lady behind the bar spoke before either of us could say anything. “I haven’t seen either of you before, I’m Valkyrie and this here is my place.”
“Asphalt, and this is Copycat,” Az replied with a lot more confidence than I would have had. “We’re looking into options and heard that this is a good place to make connections.”
I gave Valkyrie a nod and a curt, “Hi.”
She nodded in response as she gave me a long onceover with her eyes before shrugging. “I have three rules here. Number one; what I don’t hear, I can’t report to anyone taking an interest in what goes on here, so keep your business to yourselves and whoever you work with. Number two; I don’t care if you all beat the shit out of each other, but if you damage the place then you pay for the repairs. Rule three; if I even think that you’re underage, you don’t get alcohol. That means you, kid,” she said while looking straight at me.
I shrugged right back at her and gave an unladylike snort as I looked over at the occupied tables. “I’m not here to drink; I’m here because my boss is here. I wouldn’t mind sampling the menu though.”
To my surprise, Valkyrie laughed. “Power mimic, huh? The name gives it away. You’ll find that most of the people here won’t take well to having somebody trying to steal their thunder but you’re welcome to try.” She paused thoughtfully before looking darkly to a corner table. “A little advice though, stay away from Stockholm, he likes ‘em young and you don’t want to become one of his thralls.”
I followed her gaze to the corner as Az asked, “Stockholm?” The man sitting at the corner table was scruffy and dressed casually in jeans, sneakers, and a ratty t-shirt. His hair was a dirty blond (emphasis on dirty), he hadn’t shaved in days, and he looked like a total slob but even from where I was standing I could see that he had captivating eyes. The three young women with him certainly looked captivated; they had this look of complete bliss on their faces.
A hand on my shoulder shook me out of my staring as Valkyrie turned me to face her and gave me a serious look. “Avoid him. I won’t even charge you or your boss for damages if one of you puts him through a wall or something. He’s a professional kidnapper, high profile victims, and, he likes his girls young, as I said before. He’s a psi and stimulates the pleasure center of the brain when interacting with people to make his victims more compliant. It’s highly addictive and by the time the ransoms are paid, the victims are usually like those girls there. They refuse to leave him and will do anything that he asks for a fix.”
I shivered at the thought, reaching down to touch the hilt of my knife as I vowed to keep as far away from Stockholm as possible. Valkyrie’s hand on my shoulder squeezed slightly. “Don’t worry, kid. I’ll keep an eye out for ya when you’re in here. If you’re looking for something interesting though, NightHawk usually has some heist or another in the works. He prefers to keep a low profile and have minimum casualties, good if you’re starting out. He also has at least three different powers that I know of and might be willing to let you show off a bit.”
“Is he here now?” Az asked in interest.
“No, but he’s a regular. He should be here fairly soon if he’s planning a job or looking to drink. If he comes in, I’ll point him in your direction. What can I get you both while you wait?”
We ended up ordering a large order of hot wings and fries to share between us and, while Az nursed a beer, I drank a soda. We were nearly finished eating when a large redheaded man in a black and dark purple costume approached the bar and was then directed to our table by Valkyrie. He was easily as big as Asphalt and extremely muscular but when he sat down at our table he wore a good-natured smile. “Hi, I’m NightHawk, Valk tells me that you two are new on the scene and looking to make some contacts.”
“I’m Asphalt, and this is Copycat. Yeah, we’re looking to make some contacts and she’s looking to get some more experience using her power,” Az replied with a nod.
NightHawk’s masked face adopted a pensive expression for a moment before returning my friend’s nod with one of his own. “Well, I’m not planning anything at the moment but I may be able to use someone like you at some point. PK superman, right? What’s the kid do?”
“Yup, I can’t turn it off though so low profile isn’t in the cards for me,” Az replied before gesturing to me. “Copycat is a power mimic, but she’s new to it. She has to draw blood to use the ability and we’re not sure what her limits are yet.” Since we didn’t want to announce the fact that I was a Healer we had decided to say that I copied abilities when I drew someone’s blood. If I was careful, it would give a small wound for me to heal partially or, at worst, people might think that the wound healed as part of my drawing out their powers.
NightHawk looked me over thoughtfully then shrugged and rolled up the sleeve of his costume before holding the arm out to me. “Show me what you got, kid.”
I tried not to look nervous, or nauseous, as I reached down to take my knife from its sheath and then delivered a shallow cut to his bared arm and placed my hand on it. With my level of healing, it only took a couple of seconds for the cut to mostly heal and to make the connection. It was strange, I could feel four different sources of warmth inside of him but I didn’t absorb all of them as I had been hoping, I couldn’t even make myself control which one I latched onto, I seemed to just randomly draw one of them inside of me.
Well, that sucked. Not only could I only copy a power for four hours but also I could only seem to copy one at a time from a single person, and I had no idea which one I’d get. I sighed and allowed my disappointment to show. “I could see that you have four different powers but I can only seem to copy one, and I have no idea which one. Thanks for letting me try though, NightHawk.”
The supervillain cleaned the small bit of blood off his arm and shrugged as he rolled his sleeve back down. “No big deal, kid. I remember when I was just starting out; making contacts isn’t easy since most of us ain’t the trusting kind. I’ll keep you both in mind if I need a distraction for a job though.”
NightHawk stayed at our table to eat with us and talk for a bit before we decided to call it a night. He even helped me figure out which of his powers I had copied and gave me an idea of how to use it. As supervillains go, he wasn’t a bad guy. In addition, thanks to him, I was able to fly home under my own power instead of Az having to carry me.
Los Angeles, California
Wednesday, September 1, 2016
Even with NightHawk’s advice on how his flight power worked, it took me a little while to get used to flying, and then it took even longer to make our way back into L.A. Too bad superpowers aren’t plug and play, I would have never figured it out within the time I had if he hadn’t helped. By the time our neighborhood came into sight, I was sorely tempted to just stay outside and enjoy flying for the next two hours or so. Then I noticed the ominous orange glow ahead of us and heard gunfire in the distance.
Our building was on fire, I could feel it even before we got close enough to confirm. There were people moving down there though and I could hear sirens approaching, so it wasn’t until we got closer to the ground that we could hear and see what was going on. A group of teenagers wearing familiar red bandanas on their heads were standing around laughing. “See, these freaks weren’t nothin’, too bad we didn’t get all of them. I knew that followin’ one of them would lead us to wherever they were holed up,” one of them said.
“We should go, Leo, cops are comin’,” another said nervously. I barely heard him because I was focused on the three figures sprawled on the ground. I couldn’t tell what condition they were in but I recognized Feast, Slider, and Tresse.
“Fuckin’ pigs should be rewarding us for gettin’ rid of a mutie infestation,” ‘Leo’ replied. “But yeah, let’s get the fuck outta… the hell? How the fuck is that bitch still alive after all that?” He pulled something from his pocket and I could see dark metal glinting in the light of the flames.
“You bastards!” Asphalt screamed as he hit the ground and then Leo, sending him flying with a punch and the sound of bones breaking. The other seven guys barely had time to register what had just happened before Az laid into them as well. While he was beating the crap out of them, I landed beside the still forms of our friends. Slider and Feast both had mild burns but the broken bones and gunshot wounds looked really bad. Tresse wasn’t as bad off, her regeneration seemed to be healing the gunshot wounds fairly quickly, but it looked like she had broken both legs and she was half laying on our bolt bags from our bedroom.
Tresse could regenerate but the others couldn’t so I tried to heal them first, stripping off my mask and tossing it aside. The lenses were getting gritty from the ash blowing out of the burning building and making it hard to see. I touched Slider first but my healing power didn’t want to make a connection. The same thing happened with Feast. I tried again, and then again. “Goddammit! Why won’t you work?!”
It was a rhetorical question because I knew damn well why it wouldn’t work. Neither of them were breathing, both of them just stared at the sky above, the light from their eyes gone. With shaking hands, I reached out to close their eyes, sobs burning their way out of my chest as I turned to look at Tresse with eyes filled with tears. I lifted her slightly to cradle her in my arms and whispered, “You’re gonna be okay, Sis.” I felt my healing ability kick in as soon as I made physical contact. I ignored the power that made its way into the second slot in my mind and tried to assess the damage.
She had almost fully healed in the time that I was trying to revive the others. The burns were gone and the bullet wounds had closed, though it felt like one of those was going to have to be reopened later. I could sense a bullet lodged just beneath her right shoulder blade but it seems like the other bullets had gone through her. The broken bones in her legs and a few other places were taking longer to heal though so I tried to push that a little bit faster if I could.
Az placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed just hard enough to get my attention. “Cat, just let me grab her, she can heal on her own. We need to get…”
“You’re not going anywhere. Give up quietly and nobody needs to get hurt.” a man’s voice said as three figures landed in front of where I was still trying to help Tresse heal faster. The man who was speaking was tall and dark-skinned, wearing a white and gold costume with a cape. Another was a skinny man in a blue costume and mask, and I assumed that the last one was a woman, by the shape of the power armor that she was wearing.
Shit. They were members of the Hollywood All-Stars. I recognized them from some newspapers and magazines that we had scavenged and read before Feast did his thing with them. The one who had spoken was a package deal psychic called Psi-napse, the other guy was some sort of water manifestor and manipulator called Hydrax, and the woman was Proteus. Asphalt looked warily from the heroes to me and Tresse, and then to the emergency vehicles arriving on the scene. Then he sighed and raised his hands. “Don’t hurt the girls, they haven’t done anything wrong.”
Psi-napse looked relieved. “Proteus, get some of your inhibitor cuffs on him. Hydrax, see what you can do to help fight that fire.” The man in blue went toward the burning building while Proteus placed a pair of clunky-looking electronic handcuffs on Az, causing his PK shell to disappear and leaving a very confused African American young man staring at his now unarmored hands. Psi-napse knelt before Tresse and me and gave a weak smile. “I’d like to know what happened here, would you allow me to read your minds?”
“Read mine, I was here for the whole thing,” Tresse offered, gritting her teeth and wincing as she tried to move. “You don’t need to touch us, do you? I am a regenerator and my blood is all over both of us now.”
I pushed her back down and turned to look nervously at the psychic, Could he be trusted? What if he found out who I was? What if he wanted to send me back to Vegas? “No moving, you’re still healing. She’s got a bullet buried in her right shoulder that’ll need to be removed.”
The large psychic nodded. “You can let the EMTs know about that. Reading your mind won’t hurt, I won’t need to touch you, and I’ll try to only probe your recent memories. What I learn is between you and me, unless you’ve done something criminal, and even then I’d need physical evidence to back up any charges.”
“You can read mine too, I just… there’s private stuff in there,” I told him, my heart beating a mile a minute. I was barely keeping it together right now. Feast and Slider were dead, Tresse was hurt, and it looked like Az might be going to jail. If I ended up losing Tresse too or was sent back to Vegas, I wasn’t sure what I’d do.
I felt a slight push in my mind, it didn’t hurt but it felt sort of uncomfortable. Finally, the sensation faded and Psi-napse gave us both a weary look as he glanced toward Slider and Feast. “I’m sorry for your losses. Your friend will be treated well, and we’ll do what we can for all of you. Pul… Cat, I’ll let you talk to the EMTs, and I’m going to trust you not to run. Normally with runaways, we would talk to the MCO office where you registered to see if you might be dangerous but I think that I saw enough of you in your thoughts to skip that this time around. I need to go talk with Proteus for a moment.”
My eyes widened at his quickly aborted near-use of my former codename. He knew. And he wasn’t going to send me back. At least it seemed like he wasn’t. I needed to stay on guard though, at least for now. Tresse and I wouldn’t be able to run until she had that bullet removed and I wasn’t going to leave her behind. I watched as he went to talk with his teammate in hushed tones and it was hard to tell with the mask of the power armor covering her face but it was like she was staring at me.
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles General Hospital
Thursday, September 2, 2016
After Tresse and I had been decontaminated, we were wrapped in blankets and placed in an ambulance with Proteus acting as an escort, probably to make sure I didn’t bolt. My bolt bag was brought with us but Tresse’s had blood all over it and most of her stuff wasn’t worth keeping anyway, except for the pendant that she had gotten from Slider. She had been wearing that and it had been decontaminated along with us.
Now I was outside the operating room where they had just taken Tresse to remove the bullet, trying not to think about how disastrous this night had been. Tresse and I had cried over our lost friends for the entire ambulance trip and she occasionally hissed in pain or held back a yelp of pain as her broken bones finished healing. She also let me in on what had happened. Those jerks had shown up as Tresse and the others were going to bed and set the building on fire. They grabbed their stuff and headed for the fire escape but the bastards shot them while they were on their way down.
If only Az and I had been there, maybe then Tresse wouldn’t have gotten hurt, and the others wouldn’t have died. Tresse would have been dead too if she wasn’t such a high-level regenerator. I didn’t have so much as a scratch on me though and, even if I had, it would have healed up quickly since it seemed that I had copied Tresse’s regeneration ability. I got the side effect too, and my formerly buzzed blonde hair was almost to my shoulders. My wounds were mostly of the emotional variety. I should have been there. Why did everyone around me have to suffer and die while I continued to live?
I was hungry, tired, heartbroken, and trying to find a comfortable place to sit and collapse into a sobbing mess when Proteus said, “Psi says that Asphalt didn’t kill any of those gangbangers but they’ll be spending some time in the hospital before their court dates. Psi is pretty sure that the only crimes that your friend committed were running from the MCO and trespassing. Maybe assault, but he was protecting you and Tresse against armed opponents. We may be able to get him a plea deal.”
“What kind of plea deal? I asked nervously as I sniffled and wiped at my eyes.
“He’s not a bad person; he proved that by trying to take care of you kids. We’d like to try to get him off with some community service and have him work as a member of the All-Stars. If he does well, we’d take him on as a permanent member,” she said in a soft tone.
That would be good for Asphalt. I thought that he could do a lot of good if he could learn to better control his PK shell and if people didn’t judge him on his appearance. “W-what about us?” I asked, looking toward the operating room.
“Psi was concerned about what he saw in your mind, he said that you have a lot of worries and fears hovering in your surface thoughts,” she admitted. “We’re not going to send you back to Vegas. There is a chance that they may find you here though so we’re thinking protective custody. I have a couple of extra bedrooms and a custom-built security system at home. You and Tresse can stay with me until we can figure out something permanent for you and I can contact some old friends about getting you a new identity.”
My jaw dropped as I stared at the armored woman in front of me. “But we can’t, I…”
“I’m a cape who used to be on the other side of the law, kiddo. I’m used to being in danger, so don’t try pulling that with me. There are going to be rules though. You’ll both be homeschooling until we figure out something permanent and since I’ll be acting as your temporary guardian you’ll have to act like it. No running wild, you’ll have curfews and you’ll help around the house when needed. Not that it will be needed much, I have gadgets or devises for just about everything.”
I started to argue. That would be too much like family and I wasn’t sure that I could handle that, just the thought made my chest tighten in anguish. I was still having nightmares about leaving my dad and mom behind and I was sure that Feast and Slider would find their way into my nightmares now that I had failed them too. “I appreciate the offer but I can pay for our rooms somehow…”
“How? You’re a kid. I won’t object to you making money for yourself so long as you aren’t breaking any laws but while I’m your guardian, room and board is part of the deal. That’s non-negotiable. This isn’t your fault, neither is what happened to your parents. It’s on the assholes who pulled the triggers,” she told me sternly.
Then the armored woman knelt in front of me and put her arms around me as her tone softened, becoming almost hesitant. “I… I’ve been where you are before. It’s taken me a while to get to the point where I’m not blaming myself every day and wishing that I had died in their place. I’m trying to live the kind of life that they would be proud of, and that’s why I offered to take you in when Psi told me about you. If you really want to earn your keep though, I would like to ask for a personal favor.”
I found myself unable to fight back the tears. They once again ran freely but I did hold myself back from returning the awkward hug. “Wh… what kind of favor?” I asked through pained sniffles.
“Psi said that you’re a healer. Please, come with me, there is someone that I’d like you to try to heal,” Proteus asked in a pleading tone, her voice nearly breaking. “You don’t have to; it won’t change anything that we’ve offered. I would just really appreciate it if you could try.”
She could have made me help, she could have made threats, but she was asking. From the sound of her voice coming through the speaker in the faceplate, this was important to her. She was trying to help us; shouldn’t I at least try to do the same for her? I wiped my tears on the blanket and then wrapped it more tightly around myself as I choked out, “Okay.”
Proteus led me outside and we flew the short distance to the intensive care facility. The building was quiet and since normal visiting hours were over, we were only allowed in because Proteus was a superhero and a regular visitor of the patient in question. Once we were approved, she led me to a room and opened the door.
The lights were off but somehow the room was bathed in a pale silvery blue light and it took a moment for me to realize that it was coming from the person in the bed, or rather from her hair. When Proteus turned on the light, I could see the girl in more detail as we approached the bed. She was pale from a lack of sun and had long ice blue hair with a slightly silvery metallic sheen to it. Even with the lights on it still had a noticeable glow to it.
She looked like she might be sixteen and she was gorgeous in a way that made my breath catch in my throat. She had to be an Exemplar with a face that pretty, and the freckles dusting her cheeks seemed to add to her ethereal beauty rather than detract from it. They also glowed with silvery blue light, like tiny stars. I couldn’t really see any other details since she was covered with blankets, but she was hooked up to a bunch of machines.
I was mesmerized and only managed to shake it off when Proteus said, “She’ll be fifteen in December. She’s been in that bed for over two years now. Since Bastion killed her parents. She manifested during the attack and she’s technically still alive but there was significant brain damage. If she wasn’t on these machines, she’d be dead. I’ve built devises and machines to try to help her… I’ve tried everything in my power.”
I nodded and took a deep breath before stepping forward to take the girl’s hand and try to connect with my power. There were little things, like where the IV drip was penetrating her skin and a slight case of bedsores and I tried to heal up the latter but I couldn’t sense anything in her brain. Whatever was going on there, it was worse than what had happened to my mom.
I was dimly aware of latching on to one of three different powers that I could feel inside of her as I healed what I could. I briefly wondered if I should just drop the flight power since it would probably be fading soon anyway but I ignored that thought to focus on trying to help her, so the power that I had copied went into slot three. I was far more concerned about why I couldn’t get my powers to work on her brain. Whatever damage there was had long since healed as well as it could. It was as if her brain wasn’t working at all, at least not on its own.
I wasn’t sure how long I kept trying, only that I didn’t stop until well after the flight power had flown the coop. I couldn’t help her. I could feel tears stinging my eyes as I opened them and turned to look at my armored companion. “She… she’s braindead, isn’t she? I’m sorry, I can’t do anything for that. I tried but… it’s sorta like with Slider and Feast, there’s no life in there for me to work with. Her body is alive but there’s nobody in there.” At least my mom had still been there, even if her memory was gone, but with this girl, there was nothing, nada, zilch.
“You… you’re…” Proteus sputtered in shock.
Well, of course, she was in shock. I had just cruelly taken away any hope that she might have had to save this girl. I would have kept trying but I was so hungry and tired now, and I was feeling really weird. There was something wrong with me and my healing ability was aching to fix it but I was just so tired and I had no idea what needed fixing. “I’m sorry, I tried to…” I managed to get out before I fainted.
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles General Hospital
Thursday, September 2, 2016
I still felt strange when I woke from a thankfully dreamless sleep. I had barely returned to consciousness when I felt my healing power trying to kick in and heal something that felt wrong. It wasn’t just one thing that I could identify though it was like most of my body felt off somehow. I gritted my teeth and tried not to give in to the urge as I took a cautious look around.
I was in a hospital room and Tresse was in the bed beside me, her dark brown hair recently cut. It wasn’t haphazardly hacked off like usual though, it was all pretty even and looked nice instead of wild like it usually did. At the sound of my movement, she shot up in her bed and turned toward me gushing in relief, “Sis! You’re awake!”
“You okay?” I asked, just as concerned about her.
“Yeah, well as good as I’m going to be,” she replied sadly, as she gripped her pendant tightly. “They got the bullet out and I’m all healed up and ready to go. I’ve been more worried about you. You’ve been out for almost eleven hours, going by when Darcy said you passed out. She was worried that you overdid it with too much healing in one night, and when I told her that you mimic powers when you heal someone she got a little worried. She went to go get some coffee; she stayed up watching us most of the night.”
“Darcy?” I asked at the unfamiliar name.
“Darcy Greene, I guess she’s gonna be watching us for a while. I guess since we’re gonna be staying with her, she’d rather we call her Darcy when she’s out of her Proteus armor. She seems okay; I mean she didn’t throw any of us under the bus or hand us over to the MCO or Child Services,” Tresse replied with a shrug.
“I have the space at home, and you’d both probably be in danger if we put you with Child Services. Mutant kids take their chances with them at the best of times and I don’t trust them to keep your files sealed if we went that route,” explained the woman in the doorway. She looked to be in her late twenties, around my height, was tanned with shoulder-length honey blonde hair, had a slightly curvy figure, and wore a look of relief as she looked my way. “It’s good to see you up. You gave me a scare there.”
“Sorry, I probably should have eaten or something before I tried to heal that girl. I think the rest helped since I don’t feel as drained. I feel kinda weird though,” I admitted sheepishly.
“Well, if you’re feeling better then we can leave anytime. I’ve already done the paperwork. Don’t worry, as far as the administration is concerned you’re both Jane Does. I made sure that you got a private room and covered the costs myself to keep your identities as secret as possible, not that Tresse had any ID for us to figure out who she is. Before we go, there are some things we’ll need to talk about though. Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” Darcy looked directly at me as she said the last part and then took a long sip of her coffee.
“The bad news?” I more asked than answered. Maybe hearing the good news last would soften whatever blow she was worried about delivering. I was also a bit distracted, as I had to keep up a constant effort not to use my healing power on myself. I was concerned that one of my power slots seemed to be missing too, I could only feel three in the back of my mind and right now, they were all empty.
“The bad news is that when you tried to heal my… glowing friend, you copied her Exemplar trait… along with her BIT,” she said quietly. Then she put on a nervous smile as she took what looked like an MID out of her pocket and gave it a long look. “The good news is that by the time you’re done changing, nobody is going to think that you’re Penelope Jones. I’m starting to have trouble seeing it already.”
“Wait, you’re saying that I’m going to change to look like that girl?” On one hand, that could be a good thing since it would make it harder for people looking for Pulse to find me, but on the other hand, I would really stand out among the baselines. I would probably need to wear a disguise whenever I went out in public.
“The regen power you got from me already made some obvious changes while you still had it,” Tresse added, making me wonder just what had changed. “I had trouble believing that it was you when I woke up until I got a good look at your face under those freckles and hair. Speaking of your hair, we should cut it. Darcy did mine for me earlier and she figures that we can donate my hair to a place that makes wigs for cancer patients.”
Darcy nodded as she took another sip of her coffee; she looked like she hadn’t slept at all. She turned her gaze back to me though and asked, “What can you tell me about your mimic power?”
“Not a lot,” I replied with a shrug as I tried to organize what little I did know in my mind. “It happens automatically when I heal someone with powers but I can’t really control which power I get if they have more than one. Until now, I had these four slots in the back of my mind and usually, there’s this feeling of emptiness there until I’ve copied a power.”
“What do you mean by, ‘until now’?” the blonde woman asked with a concerned frown.
“There’s only three there since I tried healing the glowing girl. I used the first two slots before that and usually, the powers fade away after four hours or so, but the last two always felt different. I never used the last two until now and I guess they felt more stable? Like a sense of permanence, now that I think about it. As I said though, the third slot isn’t there anymore. Maybe because it served its purpose and has become a part of me now?” It was more of a question than an answer.
“We’ll need to test this aspect of your powers and find out what you’re capable of,” Darcy said thoughtfully.
“Yeah, I had some ideas about that but I want to make sure that I don’t use the last slot for now. If I have one more power that I can make permanent, I want it to be the right power. I want something that can help me fight back if anyone comes after me or the people that I care about again,” I told her clenching my fists at my sides as I thought of the people I had lost since manifesting.
Our new guardian nodded. “Good, I’ll try to think of some ways to help test your limits. I can’t be calling you by your codenames in public though, even if we can figure out a way to obscure some of your more unique features. It’s going to take time to get you a new identity that will hold up to scrutiny so you can get registered for a new MID though.”
“I guess you can call me Cat until then,” I suggested with a shrug.
“My real name is Lily Pond, so I guess you can call me Lily,” Tresse said with a long-suffering sigh as if she expected that name to get a reaction.
I didn’t recognize the name but Darcy did. “Wait, Lily Pond? As in the daughter of Arthur Pond, the CEO of Pond Technologies in Silicon Valley?”
Lily nodded, wearing a disgusted look on her face. I on the other hand had no idea who Darcy was talking about. “What? So they’re famous or something?”
“They’ve been in bed with the Goodkind family for over a decade; Pond Technologies is one of the major contractors of processors and other computer components for Goodkind International. More importantly though, six months ago Arthur and Evelyn Pond had a funeral for their daughter, Lily. They claimed that she was killed during a botched kidnapping attempt by mutant terrorists. Claimed that she was cremated.”
“Well, they certainly didn’t wait long after I ran away to sweep our family’s dirty little secret under the rug,” Tresse spat bitterly. “I’m half tempted to come back from the dead, publicly reveal that I’m a mutant, and claim my trust fund so I can hit them where it hurts.”
“We can discuss that later, Lily. If you do decide to do that, we’ll need to find you a good lawyer,” Darcy advised. “For now, let’s get you two ready to get out of here. I went and bought you some clothes to wear out of here while you were both asleep since I doubt that any of Cat’s will fit you. I had to guess on the sizes though.”
With that decided, Darcy brought in a nurse to detach the IVs and other stuff that we were hooked up to or had inserted in us. Then, once we had some privacy again, she cut off my excess hair while Tresse… Lily got dressed. My hair had grown down to my thighs and the tips were black while about eight inches above that were my original blonde shade, and the rest looked like the hair of the glowing girl. At my request, Darcy kept it long, just trimming off the blonde parts and promising to take me to see a hair stylist so we could get it properly styled later. That long wavy hair would be another thing to separate me from Penny, though it would take some getting used to.
Darcy had gotten us both sundresses with built-in support to wear, along with some panties and sandals. They fit okay, they were clean, and that was what was important to me. I could have tried to wear some of the clothes from my bolt bag but I had done a little growing last night under Tresse’s borrowed regeneration. I still wasn’t close to where my new BIT seemed to want me to be since I still felt really wrong to whatever sense it was that came with my healing, but there were some noticeable changes already.
I felt like I was a bit taller for one thing. I had been five foot one before and, since Darcy was a shade over five foot two and I could look her straight in the eyes, I discovered that I was maybe an inch taller. My hips and breasts seemed a little bigger too. Tresse was roughly five foot eight and I wondered if I would get as tall as she was. It was hard to tell with her in the bed and covered up but it looked like the glowing girl had been fairly tall.
I placed anything important to me into the purse that Darcy had given me. There wasn’t much since the clothes would need replacing soon, were dirty and worn, and we planned on tossing the lot along with my bag into the nearest dumpster. All that I planned to keep were my ‘birthday’ presents from Tresse and the others and my MID for Pulse, but I only kept the latter because I wanted to burn it as soon as I didn’t need it anymore.
Before we left the hospital room to get some lunch and shop for some necessities I went to go look in the bathroom mirror. I needed to see this. I could still see some of the old Penny if I looked hard enough but it wasn’t easy. My face was already starting to look a bit different, especially with those glowing freckles on my cheeks that matched the color of the wavy ice blue hair with a silvery metallic sheen that fell to my hips. My eyes glowed too and their original baby blue color had become a bright and unnatural turquoise.
This was not going to be easy to get used to, becoming a different person. I needed to put Penny behind me for good though and this would help, especially if I acted differently as well. I hoped that we could get me a new identity too, Pulse needed to disappear and I would need a new MID eventually. I thought that maybe I should start thinking of a name for that. Something to suit the new me. Something perky, outgoing, feminine, and a little naïve.
That made me think of Slider and Feast since Slider had been the one to suggest that role, and then I needed to compose myself and wipe away the tears before I left the bathroom. I looked at the star-shaped earrings and the little anime girl keychain in my purse and had to swallow a sudden lump in my throat as I fought back more tears. I wasn’t a huge anime fan but the anime girl looked like one of those magical girls; she even had a little wand. The tears came again despite my best efforts and I clutched both gifts tightly in my hand as I looked in the mirror once more.
I tried to put on a smile and look perky and outgoing as I looked at the strange girl with glowing hair, eyes, and freckles in the mirror who had tears running down her face. It was the earrings nearly cutting into my hand and the glowing freckles like stars on my cheeks that made the name come to me. I laughed as I looked at my reflection and extended my hand. With a smile and as bubbly a tone as I could manage through the tears, I said, “It’s nice to meet you, I’m Maiden Starlight.”