“Get the kid, get the fucking kid!”
That frantic voice came from behind me as I ran down the narrow, dimly-lit corridor of a mangy motel that probably did more business by the hour than by the night. The short reply, that they were trying to ‘get the kid’, was much closer than the first. It came from the heavy, hulking man barely three good steps from being able to snatch the back of my raised hoody with his outstretched hand.
Yeah, I was the kid. Well, not really a kid. I was sixteen years old. But I was the one they were talking about. The one they were chasing. The one who really didn’t want to be ‘got’.
Open window at the end of the hall, leading out to a fire escape. With the big guy literally right on my heels, I didn’t have a choice. With the same rush of panicked adrenaline that had been fueling my every step since… since the moment that had burned itself deep into my mind a handful of seconds earlier, I hurled myself at the open window. Leaping and diving, I passed through, sprawling out on the rickety fire escape, which shook dangerously under my impact.
But I was out. I was out of the building. I was–
The man reached through the window, catching hold of my sneaker-clad foot. With a panicked yelp, I kicked out. My shoe came off, and the man stumbled back a step. It was enough for me to scramble back to my feet. As I fled down the fire escape, two more men came into view by the window. I saw them from the corner of my eye, though with my hoody up, they didn’t get a good look at me. Which was a good thing, because I really, really didn’t want them to recognize me later. Not when I had just seen them murder two people.
Yeah, murder. That’s why they were after me, why they wanted to… to stop me, to catch me. And probably kill me too.
Why did I follow Simon? Why did I hide in the car? Why, why was I here?!
I was crying, sobbing, throwing up in my mouth even as I ran, spitting some of it out in a violent, disgusting cough even as part of me screamed that I had to find Simon. I had to find my brother. He wasn’t in that room back there, he wasn’t… he wasn’t one of the dead people. I knew that much, so where was he?! Did he–was he hiding? Where was he?! I needed help. I needed my brother! Oh God, please, please let him be okay. Please, please.
My feet, one of them bare, made the fire escape rattle loudly with each motion as I scrambled my way down it. Above, the three men emerged as well and began to rocket their way down after me. They were coming fast, too fast. I had to go, go! Had to ignore the pain in my right foot from running without a shoe on and run!
Hitting the last landing, I shoved the ladder out and let it fall into place before dropping onto it to scramble down. My head had just dropped below the level of the landing when the world suddenly erupted, an explosion of sound so terrifyingly loud that I lost my grip on the ladder in mid-climb and fell.
My back hit the pavement hard enough to almost knock the wind out of me, pain shooting its way through my body while I came to terms with what that noise had been.
A gunshot. One of the men had shot at me. They shot at me, hitting the landing where I had just been. It was so loud, that single gunshot had been like thunder from a lightning strike that came right next to my ear.
It wasn’t the guy who had shot the two people inside that motel room, not the one I had just seen murder a couple helpless victims tied to chairs by shooting them point-blank in the head. That guy had used a silencer. It hadn’t been completely quiet. Each shot had been accompanied by a sound like someone coughing. But it definitely wasn’t anything like the explosion of deafening thunder this shot had been.
Shot at me. They shot at me. They were going to shoot me. They were going to shoot me.
The thought barely had time to fully register before I was back on my feet and running across the parking lot. The pavement was rough under my single bare foot, but I didn’t care. Getting shot, that would probably hurt a little more than a few bruises on my foot.
Run, Cassidy! I screamed at myself, even as the sound of the men lunging off the fire escape behind me with a chorus of grunts penetrated the steady buzzing that had been in my ears since that single gunshot. Run!
I ran, hitting a sharp stone on the way that cut my foot, making me stumble. Just as I did, something sharp cut right through my hair, taking a chunk out of the brick wall ahead of me. A bullet? But there was no deafening bang that time. That one had come from the silenced gun.
I was still crying. The realization struck just as my eyes blurred from the tears of panic and terror as I hit the alley next to the motel lot. The men were shouting, one of them bellowing something about stopping. I was sobbing, running, hurtling myself through that alley, around the stack of overturned trash cans, through the shallow puddle, past the enormous dumpster, to the chain link fence. A fence that was too high to climb before the men got to me. Too high to climb before they shot me. Too high. Too high.
Something caught my eye, a flash that made my head jerk that way. An orb of light hovered just by the end of the dumpster I had passed. It was a little larger than a softball, glowing blue with little specks of white that alternated in an almost hypnotizing pattern of what looked like a cross between hieroglyphics and lightning. And, in an odd way, the thing seemed to be calling to me.
In that moment, my terror vanished for just a few seconds. My confusion, my horror, the revulsion that had taken over me from the instant that I had seen those people murdered right in front of me, all of it disappeared. All I was left with was a sudden and intense fascination with that orb.
Slowly, my hand reached out toward the orb. From the corner of my eye, I could see the three men running toward me.
Except they weren’t running. They weren’t moving at all. They were frozen in mid-step. Some part of me, in a distant and quiet part of my mind, registered that as wrong and strange. But it couldn’t penetrate the supernatural fascination that kept my eyes rigidly locked on the glowing blue and white orb. My rising hand finally reached it, my fingers brushing its warm structure before my palm settled against it.
And then I was somewhere else.
I was standing in an empty world, the dirt under my feet gray and the terrain itself utterly featureless. Fog surrounded me, fog that made it impossible to see very far. Yet everywhere I could see, no matter which direction I turned, was the same blank landscape anyway.
Where was I? What was going on? What… how…
Taking a few hesitant steps, I felt the tickle of something in the back of my mind. I knew this. I had heard plenty of stories of this. But it couldn’t be real, not now, not for me. It couldn’t be happening to me. No, not me. Not…
I thought of Simon. An image appeared in the fog ahead of me. I saw him the way I’d seen him only a few minutes earlier, getting out of the car after stopping in the parking lot of that motel. The motel that neither of us should have been anywhere near. We went to private schools, our family had like four houses in three different countries and a permanent residence in a few penthouses. Yeah, I was from one of those families. We did not go to fleabag motels in the middle of one of the worst parts of town.
I wouldn’t have been there, except for the car. The car… God, the car. The image in the fog changed until I was looking at the beautiful thing. It was a blue 1971 Plymouth Hemi Barracuda. Worth around four hundred thousand dollars. Which, to a man like Sterling Evans, my father, was basically chump change. He was one of those guys whose job was basically to be rich and invest money into other companies to make him even more rich.
So the 71 Cuda wasn’t the most expensive car in our garage. But it was my favorite, the one I desperately wanted to drive. At sixteen, I was obsessed with getting a chance to drive Royal Thunder, as Simon and our dad called her.
So desperate, in fact, that I loved just spending time in her. That evening, long after I was supposed to be in bed, I had snuck down to the garage, using the alarm code Dad didn’t know I had to get out into the garage, past the line of other vehicles, to sneak into the back of Royal Thunder. For awhile, I’d sat there behind the wheel, imagining driving through slick streets with my friends, hanging with boys… God, I’d wanted that so badly I could taste it. Dad would let me take the car in a few more months, once I passed drivers ed. Just a few more months.
The sound of the door opening, the same one I’d come through from the house to get into the garage, had snapped me out of my daydreaming. Just as the main lights came on, I had scrambled into the backseat, panicking as I dropped down to hide under a blanket back there.
I’d heard footsteps approaching, a voice talking on the phone. Simon. It was Simon. My brother, four years older than I was, ignored all of my silent, mental pleading and got right into Royal Thunder, sitting in the same seat I’d been in moments earlier.
Unlike me, Simon was allowed to drive the car. He had the keys from the pegboard near the door, and a moment after sitting down, clicked off his phone call, started up the car, and drove off.
I had stayed quiet throughout the drive, terrified of being caught in the car after Dad had warned me repeatedly to leave it alone. I kept my head down, praying Simon wouldn’t hear my too-heavy breathing.
We drove to that motel. The image of the car in the fog ahead of me faded into the building, then became the cracked open door once more. The same cracked open door I had first walked up to back then, a lifetime and three minutes ago. I’d been looking for my brother, trying to see what he was doing. Wherever he was, it wasn’t that room. That awful, evil, horrible room.
I couldn’t help myself. My feet walked across that featureless dust, and I looked through the crack. Just as I had before. Just as I had minutes earlier.
And, just as before, I saw the three men standing there. I saw two figures seated on chairs. My brain barely had time to comprehend that they were tied to them before one of the men lifted something in his hand. A gun. He was holding a gun.
A cough sound. One of the people jerked backward, a hole in their forehead. The man turned the gun to the second figure, who was screaming, pleading for his life. Another cough, and he was dead as well.
I had made a noise then, a soft gasp, a cry, a panicked sob of fear and confusion. Whatever it was, it caught the men’s attention. Their gazes had jerked my way, where they saw… something. Not enough to know what I looked like, because I had already been falling back from that crack. Voices had started shouting and I had been running.
Running down the hall. Jumping through the window. Climbing down the fire escape. Sprinting through the alley. Hitting the fence. Finding the glowing orb.
The images in the fog changed rapidly, spinning through every thought I had like a kaleidoscope of memories, before settling on that single picture, of the glowing orb.
A voice from nowhere, yet everywhere spoke two words.
I knew those words. Everyone knew those words. Or at least everyone who paid even a little bit of attention to the Touched scene.
The ‘Touched’ were people who… well, touched those orbs. They had started to appear here and there about twenty years earlier, in 1999, right before the new millenium. Some people thought they were sent from God, others thought it was some kind of tech experiment gone wrong, while still others were absolutely convinced that it was aliens trying to reach out.
Whatever the orbs were from, they tended to show up around intensely emotional moments, as if drawn to them. But that wasn’t a hard rule. Sometimes they just… appeared. And anyone who touched them became one of the Touched, someone with unnatural powers. Superpowers. Yeah. If you touched one of the orbs, you got powers. That’s how it worked.
People who had been interviewed about their own Touching experience had described basically what I just went through. You ended up in a vast, empty world full of fog. You saw images in the fog, usually related to what was just happening that brought you to that point. And then… then you ended up back in the real world with some kind of gift.
Some people went on to use that gift for really good things, others used it for bad things. Superheroes and supervillains, to put it simply. Though some people didn’t like those terms. They preferred ‘Fell-Touched’ for villains and ‘Star-Touched’ for heroes. But whatever, they were mostly interchangeable. Those and a few other terms.
Either way, whatever they were called, everyone who went through the orb thing said you heard a voice say those two words. Summus Proelium. Which was Latin for something like Highest Warrior. But no one knew why those two words, why they were in Latin, or anything else. It just happened that way.
The image of the orb faded, along with the words that had echoed in my mind. I saw… myself then. I was standing there, staring at an image of myself in the fog. It was basically like any other time I’d looked into the mirror. I saw Cassidy Evans as everyone else did. I was skinny, with too-pale skin and black hair that was cut long on one side and very short on the other. Black, that was, aside from the pink bangs that fell almost to my eyes and often had to be blown out of them. I alternated those between pink, green, blue, whatever I happened to be feeling at the time. Sometimes I did the ends too, or a streak.
I really couldn’t blame the goons for calling me a kid. From the back, it was understandable, considering I was barely five feet tall. Hell, from the front it was understandable. I wasn’t completely bereft of a chest or anything, but… well, let’s just say that with the baggy clothes I liked to wear and the way I slouched, I’d often been told I looked more like a thirteen-year-old boy than a sixteen-year-old girl.
Standing there, staring at myself, I had a moment to wonder how exactly I could possibly look any more different from my brother, who was basically the definition of tall, blonde, and handsome. Like our father. They were cut from the same cloth, with piercing blue eyes unlike my own dull brown, and the kind of rippling, perfect muscles that made basically all my friends fall in love with one or both of them. It was gross.
God, I hoped he was okay. Please be okay, Simon.
All the images in the fog faded away, and I had time for the idea of what my touching the orb actually meant before I was suddenly thrust back into the real world. The world snapped into the same scene it had been in a moment earlier. I was half-hidden by the dumpster as the three men raced down the alley.
They shouted as they came into view, and my hands reflexively jerked upward as a panicked scream tore its way through my throat. It was some combination of a wordless cry, a plea for them not to shoot, and an angry bellow. It was a lot of things. Other than coherent. It definitely wasn’t that.
My scream did nothing. My hands however… I felt something warm and wet erupt from them, spraying out, like a hose. It felt weird, and my scream turned to a squeal of surprise.
I wasn’t the only one squealing. Looking that way, I saw… paint. Yeah, paint. It was everywhere. There was blue paint all over the nearby fence, yellow paint on the ground, green paint near the yellow, orange paint on the far wall, and red paint all over the men themselves, including their faces. They were all screaming right alongside me, blindly flailing and cursing. They couldn’t see what was going on. They couldn’t see me standing there, hands raised as I stared at them, utterly terrified.
Wait, that was my amazing new superpower? Paint? I made paint?
Even as I had that thought, my eyes settled on the flailing men covered in red paint. A thought touched my mind. An instinct, an… understanding. And in the next instant, the three figures were yanked together. They slammed into one another, colliding hard as the red paint was drawn to itself. That was what the red paint did, it pulled parts of itself together, like magnets mixed with glue. Or something like that. Really powerful magnets and glue.
The flailing, stumbling group that was the three gun-toting thugs all stuck together stepped onto the yellow paint on the ground. As they did so, all three of them suddenly started moving slower. Like, noticeably slower. They were moving at about half speed, a gradual slow-motion stumble.
Then they hit the green paint, and they weren’t slow anymore. In fact, they were really quick. Twice as quick as they should have been. Suddenly, they basically flew right past me, like someone had hit double speed on the video. One second they were moving like they were underwater, and in the next, they were hurtling past me, right at the fence.
The fence, where the blue paint was. The men hit it and were instantly hurtled away, as if a giant hand had come up to smack them off of it. They bounced, like hitting a trampoline. A sideways trampoline that sent them rocketing off down the alley to sprawl against the ground, still stuck together.
Red paint stuck things together. Yellow slowed things down. Green sped them up. Blue repelled things, or made them bounce, or… or… something. Orange, I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I… I…
The men were getting up, unsticking themselves. Apparently the paint didn’t last that long. Worse, I could hear more footsteps arriving.
Eyes wild with terror, I spun to the fence and pointed down toward the base of it. Blue paint. Blue paint. I could make the jump with blue paint.
Nothing happened. Why? Why was nothing happening?! How did I work it? What was I supposed to do?! How did I make the powers work, how could I get out of here without the paint!?
The men were getting up. More were coming. No time. I had no time. None.
With a choked sob of confusion and fear, I did the only thing I could do. I dropped to my stomach and rolled under the dumpster. It was a raised version, the wheels high enough to leave a little bit of space. Not much, but enough for me to barely shimmy my way beneath.
Right, some amazing superhero (or Touched, whatever) I was, huh? Two seconds after getting my powers and what was I doing? Hiding under a dumpster because I couldn’t figure out how to make them work enough to get over a damn fence.
Hiding there, cowering while trying not to cry, I heard someone snap at the men who had been chasing me. The alley, distance, and my own terror distorted the voice a bit, but I could just make it out. “Well? Did you find the fucking kid, or what?”
“Th-the paint, man,” one of the men stammered.
“What paint?” the first voice snapped.
I looked, turning my head. Sure enough, all the paint along the wall, fence, and ground had vanished, just like the stuff that had been on the guys themselves. It was temporary, apparently.
The men mumbled something, and I heard footsteps coming closer. The one who had just caught up, who had barked demands, stood just on the other side of the dumpster. “No paint,” he snapped. “There’s no paint here. And for the record, when my father asks why the witness escaped, if I were you I’d try to have a better excuse than invisible paint. Something tells me he won’t react well to that. And, you know, quite frankly, I’m kind of annoyed too.”
One of the other men tried to say something, before the first voice interrupted. “No, no, wait. Wait. I was talking to my therapist and she said that I have a tendency to lash out without thinking things through. You know, I get mad and then I just… explode. She said I should count to five before I do anything rash. Right. Okay. One…. two… three… four… five.”
On the tail end of that last number, there was a sound just like the coughing I’d heard. Another silenced gun. It was accompanied by a scream from one of the men.
“Nope,” the voice cheerfully announced, “still had to shoot one of you. Maybe next time I’ll try counting to ten. But you know, who has that kind of patience?”
His voice darkened then. “Take him to the doc, get that leg patched up. And do us all a favor. Ask around, find the kid, get it taken care of. Because I really don’t want to tell my father what you did. Okay? Okay.”
He walked away then, moving back past the other men before leaving the alley without crouching to look under the dumpster where I was cowering, one hand over my mouth as tears streamed down my face.
He didn’t find me. Which was a good thing, because I knew his voice. I knew him, and he definitely would have recognized me if he had bothered to look. Or he should have, considering I sat across the breakfast table from him any day that he happened to bother eating before going off to his college classes.
And now I knew where Simon was.