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The pool was dark. Both the lights in the ceiling, and those under the water itself, were turned off. This deep underground beneath the Evans’ mansion, the entire area was pitch black. And within that darkness, a single figure floated on his back on top of the water, staring through the void-like shadows. Not that the darkness mattered in this case. Simon Evans wasn’t looking at anything that existed in the physical world. Instead, he was staring into an unknown and potentially nightmarish future. He was staring at the potential future in which his parents never recovered from what had been done to them.
He didn’t even want to entertain the possibility, of course. He was neither eager nor anywhere near ready to come close to filling their shoes. If it came down to it, there were others in the Ministry leadership who could and would help with that, at least. But so much of their entire organization depended upon both of his parents that it absolutely would not be the same.
Then there was the fact that they were his parents. From a business perspective, it would’ve been impossible on its own to replace them. But from an emotional one, it was so much worse. A portion of Simon’s entire soul had been set aside since the moment he found out what happened. That portion was devoted solely to quietly and privately despair over the horrific possibility of never talking to his mother and father again. He couldn’t allow it to take up too much of his mind, not with everything else they had to focus on. So, he simply took a part of himself, pushed every personal fear and worry he had about the potential loss of his mom and dad into that piece, and set it aside. Every time he found himself thinking about his mother’s touch against his cheek, or the way his father ruffled his hair while giving him a knowing smirk, he shoved those thoughts into that piece. If the time came and worse came to worse, he would deal with it then. He would let that piece of himself out and give it control. But for now, it wouldn’t accomplish anything.
At least, that was the idea. That was what he had been trying to do throughout these past couple days, especially when he was around Cassidy and Izzy. He didn’t want to make things even worse for them. Hell, they didn’t even know half of what was really happening, and it was already bad for those two. If they had known the truth, it would be even worse. So no, he had to keep things together for their sake. And, naturally, because he couldn’t afford to look weak in front of the rest of the Ministry. His parents absolutely trusted the main leadership with their lives, but there were others who could potentially smell blood in the water. He wasn’t going to give them any sort of opening.
Simon knew he was already not a top choice for taking over the Ministry if it came down to it. Besides the fact that he didn’t want that job, he didn’t have the capacity for it. He wasn’t the type to be a leader that way. Hell, even when he was simply in charge of a smaller group, he tended to overcompensate. He tried to make certain no one questioned his ability by lashing out when he didn’t need to. In these private, quiet moments, he could lament those times.
Paintball. That was definitely the kid who had seen Simon that night. How different would the whole situation have been if Simon hadn’t been so angry? He’d let his frustration about the whole thing, the threat to his sister that had led to putting those two in that hotel and executing them, cloud his judgment. Two people who had discovered some of the truth about the Ministry and threatened Cassidy, sending letters about what could happen to her if their demands weren’t met. Of course he had been pissed off about that. And simply shooting them in the head hadn’t been enough to quell that anger. When he discovered there was a witness, someone else who could potentially threaten his family, Simon had overreacted. Now this boy, who could potentially have been an ally if Simon had just calmed down and tried explaining the situation, knew more than he should.
He wasn’t sure why that thought came to him when he was so focused on what had happened to his parents. Perhaps because it was another threat to his family, albeit one less immediate and damaging than what they were experiencing right now.
With a splash of water, Simon straightened in the pool, kicking his legs below him in the darkness while having a long sigh. None of this was helping. Not that he expected it to. He had no medical skills, no science degree, nothing that could actually contribute to getting his parents back on their feet. He’d already made certain the right people were dealing with that, as had the other Ministry leaders. He let them deal with that stuff, simply stamping his okay on anything they brought to him. If his parents trusted those people to handle the day-to-day stuff, then he trusted them too. Not enough to not read through everything they brought, of course. But when it came to making actual decisions requiring expertise and understanding of complex subjects, he took their word for it.
What he could focus on, on the other hand, were all the leads about where that poison had been created. From what Simon had been able to understand out of what the medical people were saying, it had to have been made somewhere in Detroit or in the surrounding fifty miles or so. The concoction had been too unstable to risk being teleported, and it wouldn’t have lasted very long. Fifty miles was their best estimate for how far away the lab could possibly be. Granted, all of Detroit plus fifty miles in every direction was quite a bit of ground to cover when it came to finding a secret lab. But Simon didn’t care if they had to scour every single inch of every building in that area. They were going to find that lab and deal with everyone who had been responsible for this, no matter what it took.
One of the first orders of business, as far as that went, had been to check the backgrounds for every single doctor and scientist who had been brought in to try to fix the situation to begin with. As far as Simon was concerned, they were the top suspects. If they were high enough in their field to be considered as people who could cure this problem, then they were high enough to have created it in the first place. Besides, he wouldn’t put it past them to have done this intentionally in order to be brought in so they could sabotage ongoing efforts to fix it or whatever.
So, he’d ordered the Ministry people to dig into those backgrounds, looking for absolutely anything out of place. They scoured bank records, receipts, broke into homes and went digging through personal belongings, checked every piece of property that was owned, rented, or repeatedly visited by everyone who had been brought in to deal with this. It was a lot of work, and it meant that some of their people were pulled away from keeping a lid on various gangs. Simon didn’t care. Yes, they had to keep the city somewhat together so there would still be a Detroit when his parents woke up. But he also had to get to the bottom of what had really happened. And he was convinced that this was the best way to do that.
Shaking his head, Simon struck out to swim through the darkness until he reached the side of the pool. His grasping hand found the edge, and he hauled himself out before turning to sit there with his legs still in the water. So much of this didn’t make sense. They were missing something important. Probably several important things.
The Banners. They were the ones who had been transformed into those bio-weapons. But how? And why? Did Flea ending up on Breakwater have a direct connection to this? It had to, right? There was no way it could possibly be a coincidence. But had someone simply taken advantage of the fact that the Banners would be able to get into the Conservator headquarters to do that much damage?
No, the Banners had disappeared before Flea did. She had gone off to find them when she vanished. Their adopted daughter, that Paige girl, said that her father was paranoid about business rivals or something. Paige herself was an enigma. She knew so much about the Ministry already that she was a danger just for that. She’d convinced Simon’s parents to leave her alone based on the promise not to release any of the files she had. Honestly, Simon was pretty sure if they really tried, the Ministry could deal with that and silence her. But his mother had been curious about the girl and the potential she had. His parents were always looking for people they could recruit for the future. This Paige chick probably already would’ve been recruited if she didn’t have that history with Cassidy. As far as Simon knew, his parents were waiting to see if that could be resolved before extending an offer to join them.
Reaching out, the boy grabbed a nearby towel from where he left it, then rose and dried himself off. Maybe he should go find Paige himself and talk to her. Not as Simon, of course. His mother wasn’t awake to use her illusion power, but he could still disguise himself. If he found the girl and got her to tell him everything she knew or even suspected about what was going on, that could lead to some answers. Yeah, it was a long shot, but those could pay off sometimes. Drying his hair while making a thoughtful noise under his breath, Simon pivoted and walked toward the locker room. On the way, he spoke clearly. “Lights fifteen percent.” The pale illumination came up as ordered so he could find his way out of the pool room without breaking his neck.
If he did talk to Paige and get answers out of her, maybe he could fast forward this whole recruitment thing. He honestly had no idea what the hell her problem with Cassidy was. From everything he’d heard about the girl besides that, she was perfectly pleasant to others. She just seemed to have some completely irrational hatred of Simon’s little sister. Hell, maybe he could do Cassidy a favor by ending that as well. It was definitely something to think about.
He finished drying and dressed himself in the locker room, then took the elevator back up to the main floor of the house. No one was awake at this point. At least, he didn’t think they were. Then the boy stepped into the dining room to get a late snack and almost jumped at the sight of someone else already sitting at the table with the lights turned almost all the way off. They were simply a silhouette that his eyes snapped to. “Fuck, Cassidy? You scared the shit out of me.”
For her part, his little sister simply took another bite of the sandwich she was eating and eyed him curiously. “You’re up late,” she remarked.
“Me?” Simon recovered from his surprise and gave her a look while ordering the lights to come up a bit so he could see her better. There was something different about the girl, something slightly off. But that was stupid and ridiculous. He was just jumpy thanks to what had happened to their parents. It made him confused and paranoid. And God, how would Cass react if he knew what he was thinking? She already had enough to deal with. So he firmly pushed that entire thought aside and added, “Don’t you have school to go to in the morning?”
Oh, fuck. What if that was the wrong thing to say? Quickly, he added, “I mean, it’s no big deal if you want to stay home. I think we can deal. I mean–” Fuck! What was he supposed to say right now? How could he make this better? Hell, how could he possibly stop screwing up this conversation? If Cassidy couldn’t deal with school right now, who was he to try to say she should?
Finally, the girl shook her head and spoke clearly. “It’s okay, I’m going to school. I’ll get to bed soon. I just couldn’t lay up there anymore, you know?”
Simon sighed and moved to sit next to her. After a bit of hesitation, he put his hand on her shoulder. “Trust me, I get it. But Mom and Dad are going to be okay. They’ve got the best people in the world helping them. There’s no way whatever this stuff is could ever beat that.” God dammit, why did he say that? What if the worst did happen? He’d basically just promised Cassidy it wouldn’t. How could he get her hopes up like that when it really could still go badly? But what else was he supposed to say? Was he supposed to tell her to be ready for their parents to die? That would be even worse.
While those thoughts were stampeding through his head, Cassidy moved her own hand to rest on top of his on her shoulder. “I know. If it’s possible to fix this, they will. There’s a lot of really good people dealing with it. And probably some bad ones too.” She added that part with a small smirk before adding, “I mean, it’s the government, right? They probably aren’t exactly discriminating about who they hire to deal with this.”
Shaking his head as he pondered how the girl would react if she had the slightest idea how right she was, Simon replied, “Yeah, something like that. Personally, I don’t really care who they hire, as long as Mom and Dad come back. And all those other people, of course.”
The two of them sat together for another minute in silence before Cassidy passed off the remaining half of her sandwich to him. “I’m gonna try to sleep some more,” she informed the boy before heading out.
Simon watched her go before taking a bite of the sandwich. It really was pretty good. When had Cassidy gotten so skilled at making sandwiches? He took another bite and smiled, though it was mostly a humorous, sad smile. She had been holding out on him when it came to her sandwich making skills, but look at how much they were holding out on her. She probably still had the high ground when it came to that.
While he was finishing up that sandwich, the phone buzzed in his pocket. Taking it out, Simon checked the ID, then answered. “Tell me you have something useful.”
“Squire,” the voice on the other end first addressed him, “yeah, I think we might. Even if it’s not the main lab, we found a place that probably did some of the work on that thing. We haven’t gone in force yet–”
“Don’t,” Simon interrupted. “Wait for me to get there. And call up some more guys. I don’t want to take any of this lightly. We go in force and deal with anything inside. I want every person in that building taken alive. Don’t let them trick you into killing them, and don’t let them commit suicide. I want them secured and ready to be interrogated.”
He got the address for the place, a small building about thirty miles west of the city, then disconnected so the other man could start arranging the full force. Looking around the kitchen once more, Simon brushed off his hands and headed for the garage. Cassidy and Izzy would be fine here without him. Security was outside and there were still a few house staff sleeping in their own quarters just in case.
Still, he had a moment of hesitation. He might not have been fully in charge of the Ministry, thank God, with the other leaders stepping up. On the other hand, he was in charge of his little sisters. If anything happened to them while his parents were hurt, he would never forgive himself. But why had that even occurred to him? This place was safe. No one was after the two of them. It was fine.
This whole situation with his parents had made him paranoid, that was the only explanation. That and the fact that he had been thinking about those people who had threatened Cassidy before, the ones that led to the whole thing with Paintball. Maybe that was why he had that stupid, morbid thought. Either way, it wasn’t something to deal with right now. Cassidy and Izzy would be fine here for a few hours. They were safer in this house than they would be absolutely anywhere else.
So, Simon headed for the garage and chose a car. He didn’t want to stand out when they pulled up to that place, so he chose a nondescript dark sedan. It was still a hell of a lot better than it looked from the outside, with enough secret upgrades that it could blow most other cars off the road. But anyone glancing at it would simply see a random car.
Sitting behind the wheel, Simon glanced toward Royal Thunder, the 71 Cuda that he had driven that night when Paintball had witnessed what happened. What if it was driving that car that brought this whole thing about? For all he knew, the entire reason that boy had come anywhere near that hotel in the first place was because he saw the car. Fuck, why didn’t he drive a nondescript car like he was now? He’d just had to show off by going out for a job like that with a car that called attention to him? If the whole situation would’ve been different just from him keeping his temper under control, how different would it be if he’d taken a different vehicle?
More importantly, why was he still thinking about that? Paintball had nothing to do with this situation. Was it just because the potential threat to Cassidy was similar to his parents being hurt?
Yeah, that was probably it. Brains were weird that way.
Shoving those thoughts firmly aside as hard as he could, Simon shifted the car into gear, hit the button to open the garage, and headed out. Maybe this wouldn’t lead anywhere useful, but it meant he was doing something, at least. He wasn’t just sitting around waiting for word. And if it did lead somewhere, well, he was going to make damn sure they got every answer they needed.
No matter what sort of damage they had to do in the process.
“I’m just asking, if it came down to it and there was no other choice, is that something you could deal with?” The man who was talking, a dark skinned figure in a black suit and cheap sunglasses, stood in a large garage area. He was staring intently at the tiny figure on the table in front of him.
That figure focused on her work for a few more seconds. The tiny mouse known as Lion wore a pair of protective goggles over her eyes that had been specially made for her. In her mouth was an equally tiny blowtorch with an attached protective shield she was carefully using on the circuit board she had been adjusting. Her hands were dexterous enough to use something like that themselves, but doing it with her mouth allowed her to get right up close and personal with her equipment and see things from that perspective. She very pointedly didn’t respond to the man’s words until she’d taken the time to adjust the board the way she wanted it. And, of course, given herself time to think.
Finally, the small yet brilliant mouse let go of the torch and straightened up. “You’re asking if I can put a protective shield over the entire city of Detroit just to make sure whatever contagion was unleashed there doesn’t escape into the wider world. You want me to plan out how to trap over a million people, is that right?”
The man, a representative from the government, sighed. “None of us want that at all, Miss Lion, I promise. We’re just saying, if this situation gets worse and the only solution is to block off the city, how difficult would that be?”
Somehow, that tiny mouse was able to give him a look that would have withered stone. “Difficult physically or morally? I don’t like that idea. I don’t want to think about it.” Then she gave a soft sigh of her own while drumming her tiny paws against the table. “But, I suppose it would be possible. It wouldn’t even be that difficult, at least with the resources you’re talking about.”
“If it came down to it,” the man assured her, “resources would be no object. Like I said, this isn’t something we’d want to do lightly. We’ve got the city locked down as much as we can without taking permanent action. But if this is the sort of thing that’s going to escalate, we have to explore every possible option, even if it remains in hypotheticals for the moment.”
Lion promised the man she would think about what he said and conceive of a possible solution. What she didn’t tell him was that she was also going to think about other ways to deal with it besides sealing up the entire city.
Once he left, she lost herself in her work for another hour or so, though her heart wasn’t really in it. All she could think about were the people she knew in Detroit. Lucent was there, as was that brilliant young Tech-Touched she had helped out so recently. Could she possibly even think about finding a way to lock up all those people in that city so no one could get out? No, there had to be another way. They had to be able to identify and eliminate this disease. It wasn’t the first time Lion had wished that her specialty lay in some other category, but this particular moment was stronger than most. Yes, she usually loved the fact that she could build such incredible defensive structures, yet right now she would have given that up for a focus on diseases and medicine. Not only would that mean that she wouldn’t have been asked to think about this sort of thing, she actually would’ve been able to contribute to fixing the actual problem.
Wait, maybe she actually could do something about the problem. After all, she did have friends in Detroit. It was possible that one of them would know more about what was going on, or be able to find some information.
That line of thought led the small mouse to another important one. Wren. The girl’s specialty was on transportation, on movement. In some ways it was almost the opposite of Lion’s. While her own inventions were centered on creating things that were stationary for the most part, or at least hard to move, Trevithick’s were all about moving. If anyone could potentially explain how Flea and Trivial have been transported to Breakwater in the first place, it was that girl. And Lion was positive that those two ending up where they did had a big part to do with what had happened. She wasn’t sure exactly how those pieces connected, but it was definitely important. It was entirely too much of a coincidence for the attack to happen right as they were being welcomed back to the city, in the same building no less. She’d heard rumors that the attack was connected to Flea’s family somehow, but people were being tight-lipped about the details for obvious reasons.
Yes, that was how she could help with this. Some part of her brain would work on that whole containing the city problem just in case. But if Lion had her way, it would never come down to that. She was going to find out the truth about what really happened to those two, how they ended up on Breakwater, and what that had to do with the biological attack. And that whole thing would start with contacting Wren Donovan and finding out if there was anything the girl could tell her about the situation.
Lion just hoped she wasn’t putting too much pressure on that poor girl.
Young Flea – 2004
Irelyn Banners didn’t care about Ricky Pickerson. All her friends thought she did, because he was the cutest boy in school. Which was a thing that they, as the very mature twelve-year-olds they were, had to be very aware of. The very idea of being seen as a child who was too young to notice such things was utterly mortifying as far as they were concerned. Of course, there was always the chance that she would have been more interested in Dinah Ollers instead, an option that adults in general got so weird about for reasons very few of those in her grade level could understand.
But no, Irelyn didn’t care about Ricky or Dinah. She didn’t care about any of that stuff, and she didn’t have to play games to pretend to be more mature than she was. She had responsibilities, real ones. Responsibilities she herself had chosen in most respects, but responsibilities in real life. She couldn’t just walk away from them. Even if she wanted to, there was no way her father would allow it. This might have been something she chose to do herself at first, but now that her dad was involved, it was all regulated and controlled. And, of course, her father’s primary focus was on how he could make money off of it. Off of her.
All those thoughts weighed on the young girl’s mind as she sat at the cafeteria table in the school listening to her friends chattering away about Ricky and Dinah. She had no idea why they were so interested in making her declare who she was interested in. It all seemed so pointless, but she kept an easy smile plastered to her face and replied as mysteriously as she could, as though she was simply keeping the subject of her interest a secret. That didn’t exactly discourage them from pushing the issue, but it kept them busy and occupied.
Finally, she could take it no longer and excused herself. Of course, her friends decided she was heading off to meet someone and giggled to themselves about who it could be.That was the only thing on their minds, it seemed like. What boy (or girl) was Irelyn making time for?
She knew why they thought like that, why their minds were so focused on who she ‘liked.’ She was Irelyn Banners. Her parents were the richest people in–sorry, second-richest people in the city. That amendment weighed heavily on her father, as it had since the very moment their status had changed. For over a decade, her family had been the richest people in a failing city. Her dad had enjoyed a sort of special status where everyone who was anyone in the city paid attention to him and asked for favors. His money was tied to businesses outside of the city, but he was more than capable of benevolently donating to whatever he wanted to. Some people said that Detroit was only kept afloat thanks to the kind donations from Aaron Banners. Even when she had been as young as a first-grader, Irelyn had understood how that made her father feel. It had been everything to him. And losing that status to the Evans had become everything.
As she made her way through the wide corridors of this school, which had only been built about a year and a half earlier thanks to donations from both her family and the Evans (her dad had been angrily matching everything they donated in an effort to out-do them, so the building was completely state of the art in every respect), Irelyn thought briefly about what things had been like just a few weeks earlier. That was before her parents had found out about her extracurricular activities.
A few days after her twelfth birthday, Irelyn had run out of the house to hide within one of the fountains on the grounds. There was a problem with the pipes for that particular fountain and it had been empty for almost a year, becoming her favorite spot to sit and think. Or, in this case, stay away from her dad while he was angrily ranting about Elena and Sterling Evans. He never got violent or anything. Her dad wasn’t that sort of man. But she didn’t like to hear him so upset. Hiding out in her fountain, the young girl had been startled by the appearance of a strange glowing orb. She touched it, had seen images from her life in a gray, formless void, and had come out of the situation with incredible powers.
At that time, it had only been a few years since those orbs first started showing up. But even as young as she was, Irelyn had known what it meant. She was a superhero. Or she could be. For those first few seconds, she had almost immediately gone to run inside to tell her parents what happened. But in her excitement, she ended up using her new powers for the first time to jump all the way from the back patio to the balcony outside their window, a nearly one-hundred-foot leap. Clinging there, the startled girl had heard her dad going on and on about what they could do to take the Evans down a peg. Hearing how angry and vindictive he was about something as silly as who the richest family in town might’ve been made her realize that telling him was a bad idea.
So, she hadn’t. Instead, the young girl had begun sneaking out of the house using a cobbled-together costume. One piece of that costume was an old samurai mask she found in storage. But even with the costume and her powers, she didn’t go out to fight crime or save people, not at first. No, her primary goal in leaving the house was to get away from her angry father and experience true freedom. For her entire existence up to that point, so much of her life had been completely planned out for her. Her parents scheduled every minute of her day, filling it with activities that were supposed to make her look good to future prospective universities. Even the girl’s leisure time was carefully scheduled. Her only real time alone, where she could do anything she wanted, was when she was supposed to sleep. Which, of course, she couldn’t do much with.
At least, not until the orb happened. Because with those came one very important power. Not her jumping ability, not her enhanced strength that made her the equivalent of most adults, not even the speed boost that meant she could run almost thirty miles per hour. No, all those were really good, but they weren’t what kept her going for so long. That was entirely thanks to her stamina-drain power. Anytime she used it, people close to the girl got tired, and she felt more energized. It wasn’t exactly a one-for-one exchange, as she only gained a bit of energy for everything she drained, but it still helped. She could use it just a little bit while walking through a crowd, make a lot of people just a tiny bit more tired than they would have been, and be fully energized after a few minutes. As long as she spaced out who she was affecting, no one really noticed or was hurt by it.
Which had meant that she could go through her family’s whole daily schedule for her, make sure to drain enough people just a little bit over the entire day so she wouldn’t get tired, then sneak out at night and have some actual fun. With that boost, all she needed was an hour or so of sleep. Other than that, she was free. And for hours and hours through those first nights, the young girl had reveled in that freedom by tearing through the city. She leapt from building to building, her speed and jumping power opening up the world to her in a way it had never been before. She’d had all night long, night after night, to explore, to learn about the city she lived in, to escape the responsibilities and expectations of her family.
It was only after about a month of that exploration and freedom that Irelyn had first used her powers to help someone else. While sitting on the edge of a roof watching the city around her, she had seen a man being dragged down an alley by some really bad-looking people. So, Irelyn jumped down there. The men had laughed at her samurai mask and tried to grab her, but she avoided them. Her speed combined with the fact that she was as strong as they were, even if she lacked any real training, allowed the girl to escape their grasps and keep them moving until her draining power, which she had cranked up as high as it would go, knocked them out.
Of course, that meant the man she had jumped down there to save in the first place had been unconscious too. But Irelyn dragged him away from the bad guys, then called the police using his phone. When they showed up, she ran away, afraid that they would try to detain her and call her parents.
But from that moment, seeing that she could make a difference, Irelyn had continued to do so for a while. Equipping herself with a Y-style slingshot that she could use to hit people from various heights and distances, the twelve-year-old had spent almost two months stopping small crimes here and there. She didn’t find problems every night, and if they looked too dangerous, she simply called the police using a disposable phone she had taken from one of the first muggers she’d helped catch. The mobility of her powers meant she could get into areas they didn’t expect her to be, where she could hide and describe everything they were doing for the incoming authorities. Often, she used her slingshot to make them angry enough to stick around trying to catch her if they were about to leave, occupying them long enough for the police to arrive.
All of that had worked well enough until one night a few months after she first gained her powers. She had misjudged how much weight a crate attached to a chain could hold. When she landed on it, the chain broke and she fell. In most cases, that wouldn’t have mattered. She could fall basically any distance and be just fine, as long as she landed on her feet. But with that fall, she’d landed on her arm and broke it, along with her wrist. Thankfully, the police showed up and took her to the hospital. But that had been the end of her parents not knowing. With those injuries, they’d had to be notified.
To say her father had been angry was an understatement. He couldn’t believe she would keep such a secret from him, especially when he realized that it had been going on for months. And he made it clear that she was not to go out on her own anymore. Instead, he was going to sign her up for a brand new program that had just been started that year. It was called the Minority, a national organization where young people with powers, Touched as they called them, could train with each other and help stop crime. Basically it was a training program, which they could graduate from to join one of the adult teams with some actual experience.
For three weeks now, Irelyn had been with this ‘Minority.’ She was the youngest person on the team, by far. The other five members were all at least fifteen. Three years might not have seemed like that much to adults, but for teenagers, it was an eternity. They all treated her like a child whom they could barely tolerate, more of a mascot than a teammate. And no one wanted her to go out with them. Thanks to her jumping power, they had begun referring to her as ‘an annoying flea,’ a name which had stuck. Now she was and would always be Flea.
Leaving the school through a backdoor while all those thoughts were on her mind, Irelyn checked her phone. There were still twenty minutes left of her lunch period. So she could get a little running in. Finding a place to hide, she put on the samurai-mask from her backpack. It wasn’t the same as the one she’d taken from her family’s storage. This was a special mask that was bulletproof. It was also specifically made so that the shape of the eye holes enhanced her own quarter-Asian features so that anyone who looked at her like that would go away with a much different idea of what she looked like under the mask. That had been the idea of the people who talked her father into putting her into this new Minority. Anything that helped hide her identity. If anyone trying to find out who this tiny girl really was kept searching for an Asian child who matched her physical description, the real Irelyn would stay safe.
With her mask and gloves on to keep her identity secret, Irelyn went for a run. Of course, for her, that meant jumping from roof to roof through the city. It helped the girl clear her head and be ready to be ignored and treated like a pest by her teammates. None of them wanted her there, and being put on ‘Flea-duty’ was seen as a punishment. No matter who she was partnered with for a training patrol through the city, they always complained. It meant they would inevitably see almost no action. When Flea was with them, they had strict orders about where to go and how much to intervene. She was there to train and observe, not to become directly involved in dangerous situations. At most, they could report to the proper authorities and step in only if there was an immediate threat. Which of course meant some heavily exaggerated the meaning of both immediate and threat, but still. They always saw her as an anchor around their necks, a weight chaining them down and stopping them from true heroics. No matter what she did or what she said, no matter how much she tried to be friends with her teammates, none of them wanted her around. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that she wasn’t allowed to let them know who she really was. Her father wanted that kept secret even from the people she was training with, since he didn’t trust ‘some random children’ not to expose Irelyn and her family. The rest of the Minority teenagers all knew each other in their civilian lives and were allowed to hang out. But Flea, in addition to being the child mascot chaining them down, never revealed who she really was. So there would always be a vast gulf between them. They didn’t know her, and they absolutely didn’t want her involved with their lives.
Ten minutes into her mind-clearing run, as she struggled to keep thoughts of her supposed teammates out of her mind, Irelyn heard a loud clang against the edge of the roof she had just landed on. Jumping a bit, she spun and looked down in time to see a figure climbing up toward her. The strange part was that the figure was climbing on nothing. Oh, her motions made it look as though she was climbing a ladder. Her hands reached up and grasped empty air as though it was an invisible rung, pulling herself up and putting her foot down on another one. She just kept climbing on nothing.
Confused as she watched the person climb toward her, Irelyn reached down to feel for an invisible ladder, but felt nothing. Guardedly, she stepped back and watched as whoever it was climbed all the way up and scrambled onto the roof. Only then did she get a good look at them. The person seemed to be no older than she was, an eleven or twelve-year-old. She was also dressed in a costume of her own, one consisting of a blue turtleneck, mismatched blue and white gloves that clearly came from very different sets, baggy white pants, simple tennis shoes, and a blue ski mask. It looked like something she had put together out of a lost and found box. Straightening up, the girl waved both hands and cheerfully greeted Irelyn with a quick, “Hiya! You’re that Minor girl, right? Flea.”
“Minority,” Irelyn reflexively corrected. “But, um, who are you? And what was that?” She gestured toward the edge of the roof.
“Oh that? That’s my power!” the other girl informed her with obvious excitement. “Watch this.” Looking around quickly, she bent to pick up a small rock and gave it a light toss toward Irelyn. It bounced off the girl’s chest and fell to the ground.
“Uh.” Confused as to what that was supposed to mean, Irelyn looked down, then back up again just in time to see the stranger make another throwing motion, this time with an empty hand. And yet, once again, she felt the rock bounce off her chest just as it had before. A second later, the girl made the same motion but adjusted her aim, and Irelyn felt the rock bounce off her arm and stomach. It didn’t hurt or anything, it was just surprising. And confusing.
“I’m Echo!” came the quick and cheerful explanation. “That’s what I decided to call myself, anyway. I hear things really well. Like, super-well. And whenever I hear an object doing something, I can make a… sort of copy of it. My friend said it’s like having telekinesis but instead of moving things around, I make telekinetic shapes out of the stuff I hear. Or something like that. It has to be pretty close to what I actually heard. Like when I heard my dad put a ladder against our house, so now I can make an invisible ladder against buildings. Or just now because I heard the rock fly over and hit you, and I can make invisible rocks fly at you as long as I make the same sort of motion. I guess it’s sort of like being a mime? I hear something and see what it was, and then if I make the same motion I saw that made that sound, I can make the same effect. Does that make sense?”
“But I felt the rock,” Irelyn pointed out. “I couldn’t feel the ladder.”
“Yeah, it’s kinda weird like that,” Echo agreed. “I think other people can only feel the things I make if it’s really quick, like being hit by the rock. If it’s something long-term like a ladder or a bridge, only I can use it. Watch this!” She held her hand and gave the other girl a high-five. Then she stepped back and made the same motion with her hand from a few feet away, and Irelyn felt that quick hand slap once more.
“Or uhh, this.” Moving her hands as though holding a bucket, Echo made a motion to throw the contents toward Irelyn. Immediately, the other girl felt what she could have sworn was a buckets-worth of water splashing all over her front. It should have left her soaked. And yet, a second after it happened, she wasn’t wet at all.
“It feels real, huh?” Echo happily put in. “I did it to myself a few times too. If I heard some guy throw a brick at someone really hard and then copied it, you’d have a bruise. But if it’s something like water, you only feel that first bit before it goes away. I guess because there’s not actually any water to keep you wet? So you get the first feeling of it, but it only lasts for a second.”
This was a lot to take in, to say the least. But above everything else, Irelyn was simply ecstatic to meet another person her age with powers. The two of them moved to the edge of the roof and sat down to talk. Which they did for hours, through the rest of the school day. Her dad was upset when he found out about her skipping afternoon classes, but he got over that very quickly as soon as she told him about Echo. The idea that he could potentially be responsible for introducing two full Touched into the city made the man forget all about the classes she had missed. And so, very soon, Echo joined the Minority as well. Which meant Irelyn had a friend to hang out with. Soon, the two of them were all but inseparable. Together, they learned how to be real heroes.
Until all of that changed.
Four Years Later, 2008
“Echo, stop! What are you doing?!” Now sixteen years old, Flea stood on the edge of a tall hotel deep in downtown Detroit. She had her sling extended from one hand. After the past four years, she was no longer considered a helpless child, and hadn’t been for quite some time. As soon as she had been allowed to involve herself in fights regularly, the girl had been given the proper equipment for that. But rather than go back to using a slingshot the way she had while on her own, she had been taught to use a real old-style sling. That allowed Irelyn to use her actual enhanced strength properly. The sling itself was attached to her glove, retracting back into it when not needed and extending out into place, attached via her index finger, whenever she squeezed her hand a certain way.
Of course, she had broken several peoples’ bones with that sling. Jumping around to good vantage points, producing a piece of ammunition from her belt, and then whipping it at arms and legs, had done more than her fair share of damage. So she had also been taught to use a blunt sword to protect herself close in. When it came down to it, being close enough for her stamina-draining power to kick in was actually safer for the bad guys than hitting them with her sling was. That simply put them to sleep. But she had to be within grabbing range to do so. Thus, learning to protect herself at close range. And after four full years of training, she was very good at that.
The sword may have been dull, but she could still do some damage with it by hitting someone in the right place. Right now, she definitely wanted to hit someone, she just wasn’t sure who. The sword was gripped in her left hand while she kept the sling in her right, already loaded with a piece of hard plastic ammunition. On the far side of the roof stood the girl who has been her friend for the past several years, her closest confidant in the Minority, even after the rest of the team had opened up to them more and others closer to their age had joined. The two of them had planned on going into the new security team Irelyn’s father was putting together. He’d already promised them the top positions. They would leave the Minority once they were eighteen, and step right into leading the field team of a private security firm.
At least, that was what was supposed to happen.
“Hey, sorry, babe. You weren’t supposed to find out like this.” Echo–or Haley as she was known in their civilian lives, wore a much better costume than she’d had that first time they met. It consisted of a similar color scheme, with a white turtleneck that was actually reinforced to protect her from most impacts, a blue jacket, white full face-covering helmet with a blue visor, black cargo pants, and combat boots. She held a baton in one hand, while the other was free.
“Find out what,” Irelyn shot back, “that you’ve been helping the bad guys for… for… how long?” She gestured toward the unconscious detective and the bag of money laying nearby. “I thought he was lying. I was going to prove he was wrong about you, that you hadn’t actually been taking bribes all this time. How many criminals got away because you let them go in exchange for a quick buck, Haley?”
“Hey, don’t judge me!” the other girl shot back. “You’ve been rich as fuck your whole life. You don’t know what it’s like to need something and not be able to–”
“Don’t try that!” Irelyn interrupted. “You’re my best friend, you know I would’ve given you anything you asked for.”
Echo’s head shook rapidly. “Given! Given me anything?! Don’t you get it? That still wouldn’t be mine, it wouldn’t belong to me. It’d be charity from you.”
“And taking dirty money is better?” Irelyn was aghast. “Detective Deeks said it was more than that. You didn’t just accept bribes, you stole stuff yourself. You used your connections through the Minority to find out where patrols would be, where security was light, even how to break into places without getting caught. Is that true?”
Instead of directly answering, which was an answer in and of itself, Haley chuckled softly. “Look, I’m not gonna fight you. I’ll never fight you. I might not be into this hero thing as much as you are, but you’re still my friend. You’re like a sister to me. But I guess you won’t keep this to yourself. So I’m gonna walk away now, Irelyn.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Flea, she had to be Flea right now, and the person in front of her had to be Echo. It hurt too much to think of herself as Irelyn and the other girl as Haley. “You’re coming with me, and–”
Before she could finish the sentence, Echo moved one hand up, shaping her fingers in the pantomime of a pistol. A second later, a loud gunshot filled the air. Another use of her power. Flea had seen her friend ‘echo’ guns in order to actually shoot things before, though in this case she was only using the sound to interrupt.
“I’m sorry, I really am.” Echo certainly sounded like she was. “I never wanted it to turn out like this. I thought I could convince you to come with me, to switch sides. But you just don’t have it in you. You’re not that sort of person.”
“Look, we don’t have to do this,” Flea pleaded. “We can still–”
Again, she was interrupted. But this time, Echo held out both hands, making a motion as though she was holding a hose. The sound of hissing gas filled the air, and Flea’s vision was suddenly blocked. Fog. She’d seen the girl use this trick before. Even though there was actually nothing in the air, she could temporarily blind people by ‘echoing’ the sound of the one time they had encountered a man using a backpack-based fog machine. Her powers had grown enough by that point that she could temporarily induce dozens of effects, including this blindness.
Flea immediately leapt into the air, but even once she was clear of the ‘fog’ it didn’t help. The way Echo’s powers worked, she would be blind for the next few seconds no matter where she went, just because she was within range of the ‘fog’ at the start. Long enough that, once the blindness cleared, her friend was long gone with the bag full of money.
For hours, then days, then weeks, and even months, Irelyn tried to find her missing friend. But Haley had fled the city entirely. She was gone. Occasionally, they would hear about her popping up in one city or another for a job. But she never came back to Detroit. Because no matter what she became, no matter how many bad guys she worked with, there was one promise she kept.
She would never fight the girl who had been her best friend.
“Hey, you don’t have a parachute!” the pilot of the small plane flying as close to Detroit as they were legally allowed to with everything going on right then called over his shoulder toward the figure standing by the open doorway. “You’re gonna die from this height!”
“Oh, don’t worry,” the now-adult Echo replied. She still wore a nearly identical-looking costume to what she’d had during her time in the Minority, aside from the dark blue jacket being changed to a matching trench coat. “I’ll just pretend.”
With that, before the man could react, she jumped from the plane she had hired and plummeted for several seconds. Once she had fallen far enough, the twenty-eight-year-old woman focused on her power. Summoning up the memory of hearing parachutes open in the past, she applied that to her current situation. And just like that, the sound of a parachute unfurling filled the air and her fall was slowed. Gradually, she began safely drifting through the dark night sky toward the lights of the city in the distance.
Haley Torres had sworn that she would never come back to Detroit. But now… now she finally had a decent reason to. She was going to find out who was responsible for hurting Irelyn Banners. And then she was going to kill them.
Even if she had to burn the whole fucking city to the ground in the process.
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