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Red Line: The Future Part 10

The drive to the base doesn’t take long. Pulling up to an office building just outside of Salina they find a sign proclaiming the Salina Herald is made here. Snow can barely keep a straight face as they pass it. “You’re going to get a kick out of that. This is our cover out here. We’re running a newspaper. Don’t worry, you won’t have to do any writing or anything. That’s all handled somewhere else. We’ll give you a list of what you did each week, just remember it in case someone in town asks. This is a monthly publication so even that won’t be common but it could come up. Buy some clothes that look like a reporter or photographer or something would wear ‘em.”

Jay gets their doors but doesn’t respond to their thanks. Being led inside, they find a large seemingly abandoned building. Desks are everywhere and on each one are pictures of people they don’t yet know. Tara notices Melissa’s desk has a picture of their family that the project people somehow got. “Won’t anyone notice we’re not actually doing any work out here? There’s nobody here.”

“Not really, no. It’s a small town and we’re on the outskirts. The building’s closed up well and we’ll have a security guard at the front once we really get going. Nobody’s getting back here unless we want them to.”

Leading them into the editor’s office which has P. Snow written on the glass, he closes the doors and lowers the blinds behind them. She makes a note to find out what the P stands for later.

Walking to the desk, Snow lifts the receiver of the phone and enters a series of numbers. When he hangs up the wall behind the desk slides away, revealing a door. He then has to enter a pin to open it. “High tech I know. We have some resources around here.”

Stepping through the door, they find themselves in an elevator with three options. Choosing the bottom floor, they slowly creak downward. When the elevator finally comes to a stop with a lurch, the doors open and they step into a giant cavern. The walls are metal and lined with wiring.

Snow leads them to a hall and then a room at the end of the hall which reveals a pair of bunk beds and a chest of drawers. “Temporary accommodations until we can work something long term out. Figured you deserve some input into where you’re going to live. I’m guessing you can figure out who’s getting the bottom bunk.

Tara’s carrying both of their bags and she tosses them onto the bed. Melissa starts to complain about being careful but she ignores her. “When do we get started?”

“Not until tomorrow with the testing. We have to calibrate everything for you ladies. For now though, I’ll give you a little while to rest up. Your sister’s stubborn and won’t say it but she’s hurting. Once you’re ready I’ll have someone give you the tour and introduce you to the rest of the team. Most of them are already here.” He starts to walk out of the room but as he’s about to close it he turns around and gives a giant grin. “This is going to be fun.”

Part 9

Part 11

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Toxic Vol. 1 Susceptible States Part 21

For the third day in a row, DeMarcus Dodson stands outside his apartment, his keys in his hand, unwilling to go inside. He knows nobody’s home. He watched Jesse leave this morning, sitting inside the coffee shop across the street wearing a terrible disguise. The disguise isn’t needed. Jesse won’t stop to look inside. He can’t stand those corporate places. DeMarcus wears it anyway.

The second whatever government organization was holding him decided he wasn’t a threat and he could go home he planned to rush to his boyfriend’s side and wrap him in his arms. That was the plan until he was across the street and looking at what’s supposed to be their home. As soon as he saw the place he couldn’t do it. Something about going through that door makes it real. Everything he’s gone through and everything he had to do to make it back here.

There’s bound to be an uncomfortable conversation as soon as he walks through that door. The people who held him for weeks told Jesse he had a major injury and needed surgery across the country. On it’s own that wouldn’t have been so bad but since they weren’t able to produce him they said he wouldn’t see or talk to the man he loves until he was done healing. That wouldn’t go over well with many people and Jesse isn’t an exception.

When he isn’t standing outside this door, trying to convince himself to go inside, he spends his days looking in on the people he knows made it out of Secure Solutions Chemical. People ranging from his friend Layla who he locked securely in a lab, to Jerry, the voice on the phone who saved him and who may or may not have sold him out. They’re both in good shape. Bobby and Kelleigh who he works with are a lot worse but they’re both alive. That’s better than he hoped they’d be at one point. The girl he plucked from a pile of bodies, Alexis, is doing worse. Physically she’s fine but the brain isn’t meant to process watching all of your coworkers be slaughtered in front of you and then having to hide under their bodies for hours to avoid death. She’s alive though. Even Officer Grady who talked him through the experience is doing well. He’s run out of people to look in on.

He considers approaching some of them but ultimately decides against it. What can he say to them? Do they even know he’s alive? Most of them are out of a job as the company’s decided to relocate across the country to try and outrun the stigma of this attack but other than that they’re doing as well as can be expected.

Watching Jesse from afar feels invasive but the only alternative’s approaching him and he can’t bring himself to do it. Not yet. He’s been staying in a cheap motel, using his credit cards to pay the bills, put clothes on his back and food in his stomach. His cards were already run too high and they’re quickly nearing their limits. He doesn’t have much longer to come up with a plan.

If anything his hesitation has made him feel culpable. He couldn’t do anything about the government lying to Jesse but he’s the only one to blame for their not being together the last three days.

His hand trembles as he moves it closer to the door but for the first time since he’s been free it doesn’t stop a foot or two away. The key finds the lock and he’s able to insert it. He tells himself he can still run if needed. Jesse won’t be home for hours. At the very least he can grab a shower, get a change of clothes, and not have to buy more outfits. Even as the thoughts pass through his head he knows they’re lies. Jesse would notice the changes, the missing clothes. If he leaves after that without saying anything they’ll be over and he’s not ready for them to be over.

The key won’t turn. He tries wiggling it but there’s not even a slight give. He looks at the apartment number to make sure he’s at the right place but even before he sees the 27 he knows this is it. He hasn’t been gone that long. Their rubber duck curtains are hanging in the window to his left. This is his home, or at least it was.

He wants to swear, to throw something. The locks were changed. He knew Jesse would be mad but he never thought he’d go that far. He tries to think of other reasons Jesse might have changed the locks. Maybe he lost his key? The office would have made him a copy though. That isn’t the reason and he knows it.

Any semblance of a plan he’s come up with goes out the window. He hoped to tell Jesse the letters he got from the government were actually from him. That his head was messed up and he didn’t want to risk lashing out. It’s not true and it isn’t fair but the alternative’s explaining that he was effected by a mysterious chemical which let him control people with his voice. It’s absurd. There’s a good chance Jesse will think he’s lying and throw him out anyway. Now he has to try something other than the story Jesse’s already heard. That’s the story that made him change the locks.

Considering his options doesn’t take long. He could go to the office and ask them to let him in. He’s almost certainly still on the lease; he’d have had to sign something to be removed unless they thought he was dead. They must have some idea what’s going on though, Jesse would have needed them involved to change the locks. They might call him at work to have him come rushing home. He’d spend the entire drive working himself into a furor which would be hard to overcome with any sort of logical explanation.

Leaving’s always an option. He’s done that for days, no reason he can’t do so again. Is he strong enough to come back again though? Especially knowing what’s waiting for him now, he’s not sure. He could go get some food or something to drink but he has hours to wait. With a sigh, he decides to go visit one of his few friends who lives in the area. It’s not a far walk. She lives only a building away after he recommended this complex to her and without a job there’s a good chance she’ll be at home this time of day.

He pounds on her door and listens. He can hear a small barking inside and something skittering around. That’d be Beast, her little Chihuahua. He’s a sweet dog but full of energy. Something else moves on the other side of the door. It’s slow at first but after a moment there’s a desperation as the chain’s removed and the deadbolt turns. The door’s flung open and Dr. Layla Kanish practically jumps into his arms. She wraps her arms around his waist and he lets out a sigh. Finally he feels at home.

Part 20

Part 22

Serenity Vol. 2 Going Under Part 5

Jia’s head’s still pounding Sunday night. She’s tried more liquor, she’s tried pills, she’s tried spending most of the day sitting quietly in a dark room. None of it helped. Carly definitely can pick a club but last night got crazy even by her standards. Jia’s been trying to cut back on alcohol in recent weeks and that didn’t help. As she rides to Henry Fontana’s bar the thought that another drink might help keeps popping into her head.

Her phone buzzes and she’s excited to see a text from Cassie. It’s a picture of her in a nice dress, showing a nice amount of cleavage. She’s making a kissing face and looks both adorable and sexy. Jia sends a heart emoji in reply. She considers sending a picture of herself back but decides she isn’t ready to reveal her newly shaved head yet. She’s worried her girlfriend won’t approve. She’d probably like her outfit tonight at least. A smart ankle length skirt and a yellow blouse make her look like a young professional. She borrowed both from Carly. That means they’re slightly tight but she can move. She just hopes she doesn’t have to fight in them.

Entering the bar, she finds a very different scene from the night before. It’s still dimly lit but everyone here seems to be wearing business casual attire. Most are drinking wine though there’s certainly plenty with beer or other drinks. This is the kind of place young business people wind down after work, not a place people go to get drunk. Carly probably would have liked it after all though it wasn’t the place she needed last night.

Not as dark as the other bars she’s been to recently, Jia can immediately tell Jillian isn’t here. There’s nobody who looks anything like her. If her hair’s still pink she’d stand out. Because the bartender said she’s only supposed to come in from time to time Jia decides to get a table and wait.

The bar isn’t busy but for a Sunday night they aren’t doing bad. The waitresses are running around getting drinks and bringing food. Her waitress drops a menu off and takes her order for a scotch and soda. She promises to come back as soon as she can to take any other order but she’s got a tray loaded with drinks in her hands.

When she returns carrying Jia’s drink the waitress looks calm. “Sorry about the wait, that table needs everything yesterday. What can I get for ya?”

Downing half of her drink before replying, Jia orders a set of breadsticks from the appetizer menu. “I actually have a question. Someone told me a friend of mine comes in here sometimes. Jillian? Pink mohawk, kind of a punk look.”

The waitress nods. “I know her, she’s friends with a girl named Victoria. I think she’s staying with her upstairs. The mohawk’s gone by the way, or at least not put up. They come in a lot of nights, usually not until later. Stick around and there’s a good chance they’ll show up.”

Thanking the waitress, Jia orders another drink. No need to hold back when she has Shin’s credit card. Shortly after her fourth drink arrives she notices a girl with short pink hair split down the middle sitting at the bar. When did she show up? She can only see her from behind and if not for the pink hair she’d never make the connection since the girl’s wearing a knee length pink dress she can’t imaging Jillian in. It’s possible she is a different person but when the bartender drops off a cup of tea Jia feels confident she’s found her target.

Before approaching the girl she hopes is Jillian, Jia pays her check in case things go bad. Standing up, the alcohol hits her all at once. Taking a moment to steady herself, she walks over and taps the woman on the shoulder.

The woman turns her head and it’s definitely Jillian. She looks calm, even happy. At first she doesn’t seem to recognize Jia. “Can I help you?” She looks back to her tea and takes another sip. Her head suddenly snaps back and her eyes go wide. “Oh hell, what are you doing here? I did you a favor.”

“We need to talk.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. I helped you out as a favor to a friend. You were out and I made sure they weren’t going after Shin. Now you need to leave me alone and go back to your life.”

“My brother’s kind of involved here.”

“He doesn’t need to be.” Jillian rubs the side of her face. Jia notices how far she has to sit from the bar with how much her stomach’s grown.

“He wants to be.” She gestures to the seat next to Jillian. “Can I sit?”

“No, I don’t want us being seen talking here. Meet me out back if you have to talk. Ten minutes. Now go away.” She doesn’t say anything else. Her wide eyed stare follows Jia until she’s back at her table.

Keeping an eye on Jillian, Jia sees her pay her bill and head out the back. She almost waits but ten minutes seems like a long time if the woman’s already leaving. She still doesn’t trust her. Following immediately, she finds she was right not to. Standing, it’s clear how pregnant Jillian is. She’s not full term yet but she’s put on enough weight that a casual observer would know. She’s booking it for the stairs in the back of the bar.

Following her upstairs, Jia can’t see her after the first turn. That’s where she finds you can access the apartments above them from in the bar. Unable to see her target, she listens until she no longer hears steps on the stairs. That’s when she knows what floor to stop on. On the fourth floor she turns and sees a door at the end of the hall closing. She tries to open it without knocking but Jillian was smart enough to lock it.

She pounds on the door. “Let me in Jillian.”

“Go away, I don’t want to deal with you.”

“I’m not giving you a choice.”

“I will kick your ass. I can hit you but we both know you won’t hit me.”

Trying to see in through the peep hole Jia says, “Look, let me in, otherwise I’ll make a scene. You don’t have to deal with me for long, we’ll talk and then I’ll go if you want.”

There’s no response for another thirty seconds. When Jia’s about to start pounding on the door again it opens a crack. Jillian stares out at her. “You’re really not going to leave, are you?”

“Nope.”

The chain’s removed and the door opens. “Get in here then before I change my mind. You’re only staying a few minutes.”

Walking into the apartment, she finds a complete mess. There’s a couch with clothes piled on it but no other furniture. A TV sits in the corner. Looking into the kitchen, the sink’s piled high with dishes and there’s food on the counter. A cat sneaks out of a bedroom to investigate the new person but after being noticed sneaks back into the room.

Jillian grabs the clothes off the couch and throws them on the floor. She sits on the couch and Jia joins her. “Thanks for not making me break down the door. Is this your place?”

Jillian shakes her head. ”A friend’s. I’m watching it for them, needed a place to stay. You picked the right night to stop by. Pregnancy takes it out of you and I didn’t want to have to fight. Say what you want to say though because I’m ready for you to be gone.”

“Okay, Shin wants to be involved. He knows that’s his baby and he doesn’t want to leave you alone to handle it. He suggested you might even come back to Napa and stay with us for awhile so he can really help.”

“Sounds great, except I’ve been told to stay away from Napa. By the way, I smoothed over most of his debt. Rocco took off after he messed up so I threw him under the bus. Your brother can go wherever he wants as long as he stays out of San Francisco. The problem’s they don’t want me leaving town. They’ve got me running some things and they won’t let me out. So if he can’t come to the one place I have to be, it’s going to be hard for him to be involved.”

“Who can I talk to about getting you out?”

Shaking her head, Jillian fights back a laugh. “Because that went so well when you tried to get Shin out. If I hadn’t saved your ass you’d be dead.”

“That was poorly planned, we can do better this time. You know how they operate, you can help me find a way out for you. Together.”

Jillian puts her head in her hands. “You think I want to be involved in this still? This isn’t a life for a baby, I get that. They aren’t letting me out though. The whole organization would need to collapse from the top and the boss isn’t going anywhere right now. He’s in the middle of something big.”

“Anyway we take him out? Maybe throw him to the cops?”

“No, but you don’t want to be in San Francisco when this happens. You really should go home now. You know I’m alright. If you don’t give me a hard time I’ll even send Shin some pictures after the kid’s born. Maybe you can stop by and take him for a weekend. I’m surprised he wants to be involved but if he does I’m willing to let him try. I need you to go though.”

“What if your boss’ plan went bad? Would that make any difference.”

Jillian’s eyes close and she lets out a sigh. “Probably, but getting involved with that is more or less suicide.”

She thinks of her niece or nephew and what it’s going to take to keep them safe. “Sounds like fun, sign me up.”

Part 4

Part 6

Rebel Rebel Vol. 2 Heroes of the City Part 1

His dad’s going to kill him. Looking down at his chemistry test, Ryaan Asfour can’t take his eyes off the large, “C,” circled several times in red pen. It’s easily the worst grade he’s gotten this year. When his dad checks the web portal to see his newest grades and sees it he’s likely to end up grounded, again.

Something had to go wrong. Things have gone too smoothly the last few weeks. He’s settled into a routine that’s helped him consistently get out in the neighborhood and try to keep it safe. People have started talking about the guy in the green mask. It’s still a weird wrestling mask that looks awful but if his friend Mina does what she’s promised his costume’s going to be a lot better very soon.

Chemistry class is dismissed and he’s excited to get to lunch. Today’s taco day and he’s starving. Caught in the stampede out the door, Ryaan almost doesn’t hear his teacher say, “Can you stay behind for a minute Ryaan?” He considers pretending not to hear her and getting out but with a sigh he peels away from the pack and walks to his teacher’s desk.

“What’s up?”

Her eyebrows go up but she doesn’t say anything about his address. “I wanted to check in after that test. That’s your lowest score ever. By a lot. One C isn’t the end of the world but I’m used to you pulling in way better grades. Anything going on at home?”

Cringing, Ryaan doesn’t want to get his dad involved. “Thanks for asking but I’m okay. Struggled a little with the thermodynamic stuff but I think I’ll be good going forward.”

She frowns. “If you think so that’s fine, but we have an excellent tutoring program if you’re interested. It’s helped a lot of students who needed an extra boost. You have another test coming up at the start of next week and it’s a big one.”

“I’ll be okay. I’m going to put more time into studying.”

She seems to realize he isn’t going to take the bait so he’s dismissed with a warning to study harder. Ryaan usually would stuff his bag in his locker before lunch but there’s no time. The lines for the taco bar are already going to be huge. Charging toward the lunch room, he turns the corner to the seating area and his jaw drops.

Hundreds of students are separated into their little cliques at various tables. Almost all of them have a set of goggles either on their head or sitting on the table next to them. A large, cheerful hall monitor sees Ryaan coming and jogs over to press a pair into his hand. Turning them over a few times, they’re a cheap plastic set but they’re definitely goggles. The monitor’s already moved onto other students entering the cafeteria so Ryaan follows, tacos now the furthest thing from his mind. “Hold on, what’s with all the goggles?”

The large man has goggles running up and down his arms. A box overflowing with them sits on the floor a few feet away. “It’s Goggle weekend, the mayor made the announcement a few hours ago. We’re honoring the Goggle Guys. They saved the aquarium yesterday.”

Lost for words, Ryaan stands there staring at the man. He has to shake his head, wondering if this is a dream. Can he mean the Goggle Guys? The same ones from their neighborhood? The same fools who inspired him to become a vigilante because they were doing such an awful job? He starts to walk away before turning back. “To be clear, you mean the Goggle Guys from around here? Pair of guys wearing aviator goggles, tons of leather, always have shotguns on them?”

Grinning ear to hear the man says, “They’re the ones. That’s why the school decided to celebrate today. Not very often we get to celebrate local celebrities in Bridgeview.” The man digs through his pocket and pulls out a crumpled page from the morning paper. This was in the paper? He really needs to start paying more attention to the news. Unfolding the page he reads:

Hundreds of students on a field trip were saved from certain death yesterday when local vigilantes the Goggle Guys located a bomb set to explode at Shield Aquarium. Authorities are investigating the bomb but so far have no leads.

The Goggled vigilantes were at the aquarium enjoying the exhibits but their leader Jimmy was still ready to take action when they noticed something seemed off. “We don’t get days off. That’s okay I guess, we brought our guns for a reason. We’d have blown right up along with everyone else. Important thing is everyone’s safe and sound.”

Mayor Blaze has declared this weekend Goggle Weekend and will be honoring the heroes at a special festival in Millennium Park Saturday afternoon.

President Hughes tweeted his support for the pair. When asked about it during a meeting with the press last night he said, “Terrible that people would target a place where families have gone to spend a nice day with their kids. We’ll find whoever’s behind this. I’m giving the authorities in Chicago whatever they need. Terrible as it is, this is another example of how the Vigilantes Making Us Safe Act works. Those men were prepared and able to help in time to avoid disaster.”

He’s read enough and hands the paper back to the hall monitor who already is back to tossing goggles at students. Turning them over in his hands, something seems off. “Don’t they wear aviator goggles? These are swimming goggles.”

The man shrugs and keeps handing them out. Between students he tries to juggle the goggles but keeps dropping them on the floor. “Aviator goggles are expensive. We’re on a budget. We want to get the point across, not spend a fortune.”

The line for tacos stretches twenty students deep by the time he gets there and too much of his lunch period’s already wasted. Not hungry at this point, Ryaan shuffles over to the empty pizza line and grabs a slice of cheese pizza. After paying he scans the cafeteria for his basketball teammates and finds them sitting at a table in the back corner by the fire exit. A few seats remain at their table so he plops his trey down at one and slumps into a seat. The sight of every one of them having a taco platter makes his stomach grumble. He knew his hunger would return.

Of the six guys sitting here only two are wearing their goggles. Three pairs are tossed on the table while one of his teammates doesn’t seem to have a pair. His friend Jesse’s got his pair on and he looks at Ryaan’s pizza. “Since when don’t you get tacos man?”

He shrugs. “Line was too long. Why are you wearing those things?

Taking the goggles off, Jesse spins them on his finger. “Dunno, they were free. Did you hear what these guys did? Someone was gonna blow up the aquarium and they stopped it. Someone told me they blew through three guys.”

James, one of their senior teammates throws a piece of lettuce at Jesse. “Don’t go spreading that, the news didn’t say anything about blowing through anyone.”

Jesse grabs the lettuce and tosses it back. “You believe everything the news tells you man? They keep a lot of stuff quiet. Probably don’t want people to know how dangerous it was. We’re lucky the vigilantes were there.”

Biting into his pizza, the crust is so grease soaked that it actually squishes. The cheese has a nice crust at least. Ryaan wants to push it away but he’s too hungry for that. “What do you all know about these guys? They’re always running around my neighborhood and I’ve heard nothing good. Apparently they’re harassing a lot of people and shoving guns in people’s faces.”

Shrugging, Jesse tears into his tacos. With a mouth full he says, “Can’t believe everything you hear. These guys may not be angels but I’m glad they’re around. Better than hundreds of people blowing up. They’re heroes.”

Awkward looks circle the table. James runs his hands through his long hair and shakes his head. “Man, I’ve heard too much for it to be nothing. Someone down the street from me was stopped and frisked because they looked suspicious. They weren’t doing anything but the guys still threatened them before letting them go. Of course they were middle eastern.”

“Hold on,” Jesse says. “I ran into them a couple weeks ago and they were cool to me. I think you’re all blowing this up.”

Finishing his tacos, James starts to get up, snorting as he does so. “Of course you wouldn’t, you’re never going to have trouble with them. These guys are bad news though.” Walking away, Ryaan notices he doesn’t take a pair of goggles with him.

Jesse looks back and forth between his remaining teammates with confusion painted on his face. “How do you guys know they’re bad? Have you seen them? Have they done anything to you or anyone you know well?”

Tossing his goggles on the table, Ryaan starts picking the toppings off the pizza since the rest isn’t edible. “I have actually. They hit me with their gun after threatening me. A girl I know was chased into an alley and they wanted to feel her up. These guys are gross and its gross people are celebrating them because they did one good thing.”

Silence fills the table. People at the closest tables to them shut up as well and Ryaan can feel their eyes on him. Jesse’s jaw drops and he puts his hand over his face. “I’m sorry dude, I didn’t know. That’s messed up. Who’s the girl?”

He looks at the ground. “Not my place to say, that’s her story.”

“Fair enough man, is she okay though?”

Is she okay? He hasn’t even thought of how Mina must be handling this. She’s terrified of these guys and now their school’s a shrine to them. He stands and grabs the remainder of his food. “She’s alright, but remember who these guys are.”

Darting away from his table, Ryaan searches the cafeteria for any sign of Mina. She has a group of friends she usually eats lunch with but when he finds them she’s not there. He ducks down at the end of the table. “Any of you seen Mina?”

A tall blonde freshman smiles at him, flashing a set of colorful braces. “She was in class earlier but I haven’t seen her since lunch started. Maybe she went home sick?”

Another girl at the table shakes her head. “Seemed fine last period.”

Nobody knows where she is so Ryaan thanks them and heads out of the cafeteria. Pulling out his phone he decides to text her.

Where are you?

It doesn’t take long to get a reply.

Leave me alone.

Where are you?

I’m in the girls room, leave me alone.

Come talk to me.

No.

Meet me near Bushman’s class.

There’s no further response which he takes as acceptance. He walks to Mr. Bushman’s class and waits outside. A hall monitor walks by and gives him a smile but they don’t bother him. Mina doesn’t show up after a few minutes. He considers texting her again right when he sees her pass by the next hall over. She’s unable to resist glancing his way and when she sees him waiting her shoulders dip and she throws her head back. Ryaan jogs down the hall to catch her.

Deciding not to run, Mina waits for him but crosses her arms while doing so. “I told you to leave me alone Ryaan.”

Coming to a stop, Ryan puts his hands up in a show of surrender. “I know, and I will. First I want to make sure you’re okay though. When I saw all the goggles I thought about how you’d be doing and then you weren’t at your normal table.”

“Well I don’t much feel like sitting around celebrating those jerks. Figured you’d get that.”

“Absolutely, I didn’t either. You know what they did to me. I can’t even imagine those guys stopping a bombing.”

Closing her eyes, a small smile forms on Mina’s face. “The only way I can see it is if the big one sat on it.”

They both laugh but it doesn’t last long. “Are you handling things okay? Any problems with other vigilantes lately? Things are running smooth but you haven’t told me much.”

“You haven’t asked.”

“I’m asking now.”

Sighing deeply, tears start to form around the edges of Mina’s eyes. “Well I’ve had like five nightmares about them. I’m afraid to go home any way except on the bus. Even then I see them at least once a week and feel like I have to run every time. If they notice me though they’ll use that as another reason I’m suspicious. I don’t know what to do. I can’t talk to my parents about it without telling how you helped me. I don’t know who I can talk to.”

He wants to hug her but they don’t have that sort of relationship. Instead he pats her on the shoulder which feels more awkward. “You can talk to me. If you want to talk to your parents you should do that too. Don’t worry about them figuring out who I am. Don’t tell them if you don’t have to but that’s really my problem to worry about.”

Uncrossing her arms, Mina wipes the last tears from her face. “What if I was to talk to Nadia about it? I don’t want to make things weird for you but she’s one of my best friends and I know she won’t sell me out.”

“If that works for you then talk to her. Nadia’s a good listener.”

Mina frowns. “I know she is. Mostly I’m afraid she’d figure out you’re the vigilante who saved me. Especially with us talking a lot lately.”

“She doesn’t know that, we mostly do it by text or here at school. The only time we hung out anywhere else she came along and my dad made me go. Even if she figures it out, that’s for me to deal with. Might not be the worst thing.”

Mina’s eyes go wide and she looks like she wants to jump up and down, smiling for the first time since they started talking. She grabs him by the shoulders but when she realizes she’s done so her hands shoot back and go rigid at her sides. Her grin doesn’t go anywhere. “You should tell her. You should totally tell her. She wouldn’t sell you out and she can help with your dad. Plus then you’d have someone to talk about this with.”

“I have you.”

Blushing, Mina looks down at the floor. “That’s sweet, but you need someone else to talk with. She’s a good choice. At least think about it.”

Bells ringing signal the end of lunch. They’re on the clock with only five minutes to reach their next classes. Ryaan promises to consider her suggestion before the pair say an awkward goodbye and head to their next classes. Should he let his sister know what he’s doing? He’s terrified she’d run to their dad but she’s kept secrets for him before. If he’s going to take a risk on anyone, she might be the best choice.

Part 2

The Law Vol. 1 Serve or Protect Part 9

Pulling into a parking lot in the western suburbs of Chicago, Martina sees a large brick wall surrounding what appears to mostly be an outdoor facility. A small indoor area sits in the center of the building but the outdoor area is huge in comparison. Only a few other cars are in the parking lot in the middle of a weekday so she hopes she won’t have much of an audience.

Taking her gun from it’s holster, she slips it into the glove box of her car. She was informed when signing up to take this test that only non lethal weapons are allowed. Now she has to hope a pistol firing rubber bullets is enough to take down a group of armed volunteers. It hardly seems fair but she knows several people who passed this test and if they’re anything to go on, it can’t be that hard.

She takes a moment to consider how important this is as she gets out of her nearly twenty year old four door sedan. There’s already a huge list of repairs due on it which she’s been declining every time she goes to the mechanic for an oil change. If this doesn’t work she doesn’t have a backup for her backup plan. She won’t be able to afford her parking spot, let alone keep this thing running.

Entering the front door, she finds herself in a poorly lit room with a couple of bathrooms off to one side and a tall front desk ahead. A couple of bored looking employees sit there staring into space. They barely seem to register she’s entered. She walks up to them and tries to appear happy. “I’m here to take the vigilante test. How do I get started?”

The young man sitting behind the counter doesn’t even take the time to remove his head from his hand. He just tilts his face up at her. “Do you have an appointment?”

“Yes, for Martina Alvarez. Should be for one thirty. I might be a few minutes early. Traffic wasn’t as bad as expected.”

With a sigh the man stands and takes a look at his computer screen. It seems to take him a long time to find anything. “Martina you said?”

“That’s right. Is there an issue?”

“Nah, you’re here. Do you need to get changed or anything?”

“Figured I’d wear this.” Jeans and a tank top with a good pair of boots seemed appropriate. She’s got a leather jacket on over it but depending on what the course is like she can take it off.

“Whatever, your deal. Lot of people like armor or something. I’m sure you’ll be fine though. What weapons do you plan to use?”

“I can’t use a regular gun, correct?”

The man starts laughing at this. “Not a lot of volunteers would stick around long if we let you shoot at them. Sorry. Some of these guys could use it but that’s another issue. We have a gun that fires rubber bullets you can use after signing a waiver. Rubber bullets shouldn’t hurt too bad but it can still be dangerous up close.”

“I was a cop, I know the drill.”

His face comes to life with astonishment. “Then what the hell are you doing here?” She doesn’t have an answer ready for him. After a moment he shrugs. “Whatever. The test is pretty simple. You have thirty minutes to take down however many guys are in there. Or girls, could be girls. There’s going to be between six and ten and you’ll be notified by loudspeaker when the test ends. Take them all down. If you shoot them in a place that would likely put them down they’ll go down. If they shoot you in a place you’d likely go down, test’s over.”

Taking the pistol, she’s led into a small room with only what appears to be a garage door ahead of her. She’s left alone to sit and wait for whatever comes next. A few minutes go by before the door fights its way upward. A beautiful green field filled with massive trees sits ahead. Her gun’s already drawn and ready for anything. She turns left and tries to stay near the wall so they can’t sneak up on her.

Disappearing between the trees, she doesn’t see any sign of people. This place looks huge. From where she is the far wall can’t be seen and she starts to worry about how she’ll find anyone with so little time. She can’t hear anything except the sound of her own footsteps and tree branches flapping as a light breeze pushes them around.

Emerging from the wooded area, a few rows of buildings stand ahead. She slowly moves toward them. The first building she reaches works as cover and she glances around the corner for any sign of the volunteers. Still nobody. Moving from building to building, she looks inside each for any sign of people. In the last building of the first row she sees a woman sitting at a table through a broken window. Inside the lights reflect off the broken glass piled on the floor. The woman’s facing the door and doesn’t seem to notice her yet. She ducks down to keep things that way.

Creeping around the other side of the building, she looks for any other way inside. Nothing stands out. With the door being out as an option, she returns to the window. A doorway between them makes it a difficult shot but the only other option is rushing the front door and hoping to dodge the woman’s shot.

Lining her shot up and hoping this gun fires straight, she squeezes off three shots. The woman isn’t expecting them and is knocked back when the first connects. She looks back and forth for the shooter and when she sees Martina in the window she gives her a dirty look before laying on the ground.

A shout goes out in the distance as the sound of several people running reaches her. There’s no cover in sight so she starts moving away from the noise. Ducking around the corner, she waits for anyone to show up. A man runs past the gap between buildings ahead but doesn’t seem to notice her. There’s a rustling to her left and she turns in time to see another man turn a corner and raise his gun. Ducking back between the buildings, rubber bounces past her and falls in the dirt.

Running to the other side of the building, the first man she saw comes back around the corner. She lets off three shots and they bounce off the man. His momentum carries him for a few more steps before he can process what happened and drop. Martina keeps moving. The other guy has to be close and he’ll catch her if she stays still. There could be another seven just like them right behind.

Reloading the gun, she sees a staircase ahead of her leading to the roof. She races toward it and takes the stairs two at a time. Maybe from the roof she can find some sign of the other man. Her head rises over the side of the building.

Another man’s sitting there. He’s already turning to her when she manages to squeeze a couple of shots off to take him down. On the ground she can hear legs coming toward her and the man from before pops into view. His gun’s pointed up at her and he squeezes shot after shot off but his aim sucks and most of his shots bounce off the side of the building. One does connect with her left shoulder though and the pain’s fierce. No announcement comes on to end things though so she has to assume it isn’t lethal. Through gritted teeth Martina fires a few shots at him and he gives up and lays down.

Four down’s a good start but there could still be a lot left and she has no clue where the rest of the group are. The world around her is quiet and she assumes there’s no more in the immediate area. Catching her breath, she realizes she shot more people in the last ten minutes than she has in her entire career. That nobody’s seriously hurt helps but hopefully shooting people won’t be the only way she can protect people or use her registration to make a living.

Returning to the ground she checks the rest of the buildings here but there’s no sign of other volunteers. She reaches the far side of this area and looks back to the woods. The rest have to be out there. She rushes into the trees, hoping something will catch her attention.

At first she methodically darts from tree to tree but soon she realizes that’s taking too long. If she keeps this pace she won’t cover half the distance needed before her time runs out. She starts to run, her head darting from left to right, hoping to see any further attackers before they see her.

Her wish is granted. Ahead she sees two more men working their way between the trees. She takes cover and watches them move. They’re not that big and she starts to think of ways she could take them down without firing a shot. Thinking of Zoe gets that out of her head. She needs to pass this so she can start applying for jobs as a vigilante. She told her daughter things would be okay but in truth if she’s out of work for any significant amount of time they won’t be able to make rent.

They’re coming her way so she waits for them to reach her. When they pass the tree she’s standing behind, she jumps out. One of them must see her out of the corner of their eye because they turn and start firing. Martina’s already moving by that time though and she manages to get the second man between them. His partner shoots him right in the chest.

The shooter and his partner both have their mouths drop. They pause, seemingly unsure what to do. Martina doesn’t stop. Shooting, she hits the man who shot his partner. He goes down and tosses his gun. The man who was shot doesn’t seem to know what to do. The loud speakers do. “This vigilante test is over. Congratulations on taking down all volunteers. Please proceed to the entrance.”

The last man standing never bothers going to the ground. He kicks at the dirt as he walks away, clearly not liking the speakers’ verdict.

When she reaches the front of the facility, everyone seems to be smiling and clapping. She has to fill out a bit of paperwork but soon the same man who walked her through how the test works hands her a certificate telling her she’s a federally authorized vigilante. “You’ll get a permanent card in the mail in two to four weeks. For now, try to keep this on you. If needed the cops can look you up but its a lot more work.”

“I know, I was a cop.”

Blinking a few times, the man stares through her. “Why the hell are you doing this then?” She still doesn’t have an answer.

Part 8

Part 10

Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 3

Nowak calls his driver Beth and she’s soon waiting outside. She gives him a nod as he climbs into the limo but doesn’t say anything else. Nowak’s already told her where to take him. They ride the entire way to the hospital in silence. He thanks her for the ride and asks her to stay close.

Crowds are everywhere as Zach pushes his way through the lobby. He feels them push in from every side and his first thought is escape. He’s not needed here. He can’t do anything for Sami or Lorelei. Retreating to a corner of the room, he wants to close his eyes and walk away. His head’s pounding. They aren’t going to want to see him. He messed up.

Pushed around the room, he fights to reach the reception desk. Knowing this isn’t going to get easier if he waits, he asks the receptionist for the room of Sami Sadik, mentioning that he’s related to Dr. Sadik. She doesn’t look it up when he mentions Lorelei’s name. She asks a young looking man in a white coat to guide him to Dr. Sadik. He nods and leads the way.

Zach follows at a distance, his hands white from how hard he’s squeezing them together. He’s led to a private room where Lorelei’s sitting on the edge of a bed, though her feet are hanging down. She’s in a hospital gown and wearing a wristband.

When Zach walks into the room a small smile spreads across her face. She tries to stand but thinks better of it. Instead she waves him closer. She motions for him to sit. “I’m glad you’re here. Didn’t know if you were going to come by tonight.”

Why is she in a bed? He tries to stay calm. The last thing she needs right now is more stress. “Figured I should. Where are Heather and Hammer?”

She lays back down. “They were here a little bit ago but Hammer had a meeting and he was Heather’s ride.”

“Didn’t expect to find you in a bed. Are you alright?”

With a wave of her hand she says, “I’m fine, they’re just being cautious because I was knocked out. They insist on running a few tests to make sure I’ll be okay. Nothing to worry about. I’ll be out of here tonight. Tomorrow at the latest. How’s your knee?”

She doesn’t have time for that right now. “I’m fine, don’t worry about it. How’s Sami?”

“We’ll get to that. Seriously though, how’s your knee? I didn’t spend months healing you to mess it up today.”

Rubbing his knee instinctively as he talks about it Zach says, “It’s okay. Hurts a fair amount, but no signs of damage. Just a bit red. I probably pushed a little too far too soon but it’s nothing to worry about.”

“Keep an eye on it. Tell me if the redness doesn’t go down in the next couple days. Until that happens I want you taking things easy too.”

“I will. Seriously though, how’s Sami?”

Her hands cover her face. “Bad. Really bad. He’s on life support now. There’s some brain activity but they don’t know if he’s going to come out of this.”

“Shit.”

Finding his way into a chair, Zach slumps and puts his head in his hands. He hates hospitals. He never wanted to be in one again. “I’m sorry. I should have let you shoot them. If I had…”

“Get over yourself.”

Looking up, surprised, Lorelei’s smile’s long gone. “What do you mean?”

“You aren’t my boss Zach. I thought you two could handle them so I let you. I made a choice, you didn’t make it for me. Do I wish you hadn’t let them grab that grenade? Sure. I also wish Sami hadn’t gone rushing off after them alone after I got knocked out. I wish I hadn’t gotten knocked out for that matter. There’s plenty of regret to go around. you don’t have a monopoly on it.”

Nodding, Zach wants to believe she’s right. That this isn’t all on him. That’s hard to accept though when he could have done more. The shame makes it hard for him to breathe. “Whatever he needs, any procedures or medicine or whatever, please let me help.”

She purses her lips. “Fine, but only because this is his life. Don’t get used to me taking money from you.”

“Can I see him?”

Pressing her call button, Lorelei summons an orderly to take Zach to see Sami. He’s laying in intensive care, looking incredibly frail with what feels like every tube in the world sticking out of him. His chest rises and falls but there’s no life to him. He looks broken.

Zach’s seen far too many people like this in his life. He watched a man who survived the sinking of his yacht slip away, unable to help him. He can’t go back and undo this. All the money in the world might not be able to bring Sami back to them. Unable to keep looking, he instead turns his attention to the monitor showing his heartbeat. As he watches the line on screen rise and fall, he vows to do for Sami what he could never do for his parents. He’s going to find the people responsible and make them pay.

Part 2

Part 4

Red Line: The Future Part 9

The car that comes to pick them up is a nondescript blue sedan with Louisiana plates. The driver dresses a lot like Captain Snow in a black suit with black glasses. He’s a man of few words. He doesn’t bother to introduce himself, only asking if they have everything they need. Once they’re situated in the car he speeds down the back roads near their house like he’s on the freeway. The sisters exchange nervous glances, though their nerves aren’t entirely due to his driving. A week ago they knew where their lives were going. Now they don’t even know where they’re being taken.

Reaching the nearest airport, Melissa’s mouth falls open. The plane before them’s a tiny private one and not at all what she expected. Tara flew back and forth from her single year of college but Melissa’s never been on a plane. She’s nervous about any plane but all the stories she’s heard about turbulence in small aircraft leave her shaking.

The stairs leading inside are narrow and there isn’t room for her crutches. At first she declines offers of help from her sister and the driver but realizing there’s no other choice she relents with a grunt. She wraps her arm around Tara’s shoulder and uses the support to slowly hop up.

Inside they find themselves in a small tube with red carpeting. There’s only four seats and Captain Snow’s sitting in one with a glass of wine. “Glad your trip went well ladies.” Noticing Melissa needing help up, he jumps up to offer a hand. “Sorry about the accommodations, this is the plane we had in the area though.” Tara and Melissa try to salute but he waves them off. “In our group we don’t hang on all the procedures, you can give that a rest if you want. Remember it for when the big wigs show up but day to day there’s no need. You ladies want a drink? I brought some excellent champagne for the flight. It’s going to be a couple hours.”

Looking at each other nervously, the sisters shake their heads. “Neither of us is old enough sir.”

Snow slaps his knee. “Shit, I know that. We’re not in a restaurant though and I don’t care. I’m not going to get you drunk or anything but these little planes can have a bit of a kick and a drink to take the edge off doesn’t hurt.”

Pointing out Melissa’s medicine can’t be mixed with alcohol, the sisters still decline. Tara wants a glass but she’ll feel guilty having one when her sister can’t. The driver of the car climbs into the plane and closes the door behind him. Once everything’s sealed he disappears into the cockpit. “Is he coming with us?” Melissa’s still standing and pointing at the cockpit.

Finishing his drink, Snow starts to pour another. “We kind of need him unless one of you knows how to fly a plane. Our little organization still has a pretty bare bones staff outside of the science nerds. Jay’s a master of many disciplines, not much of a people person but useful.”

Taking seats next to each other, the sisters clutch each other’s hands until their knuckles turn white during takeoff. Tara’s ears pop and suddenly hearing feels wrong. She experienced the same the last time she flew so she knows it isn’t abnormal but it feels worse than last time. When they level out the turbulence dies down but the plane never feels entirely stable. She really wishes she took Snow up on that drink.

When he feels the plane’s calm enough Snow gets up and stumbles to the back of the cabin where a briefcase sits. He opens it and pulls a few folders out. When he returns he hands one to each of them. Removing his sunglasses, he slips on a pair of reading glasses which Melissa finds hilarious. She can’t stop apologizing as he glares at her. “Ladies, we have a lot of paperwork to sign before you can enter our base or even know where it is. You’re basically agreeing that you’ll complete your term, that you understand how confidential this all is. Fairly standard stuff but we need it on paper.”

Skimming the fine print doesn’t provide any revelations so both of them scratch their name out again and again. When they’re done they look up to find Snow has already changed back into his sunglasses. The reading glasses are nowhere in sight yet he never stood up.

“Welcome to Project All American ladies. That’s our name if you were wondering. You get more details now. The All American Formula is something our government’s been working on since the forties. We’ve tried it many times but never felt it was ready for human testing. Too many risks. We think they’re all ironed out but only certain people’s genetics are compatible. When we arrive you’ll both go in for some much more in depth testing. We’ll announce our choices for the main team in a few days.” Melissa raises a hand. “You’re not in school Ms. Chance. If you have something to say, go ahead.”

“Sorry sir, I just wanted to ask how the team’s going to be chosen.”

“That’s an excellent question, no need to be sorry. It’s going to be based primarily on degree of compatibility. There’s a decent chance all twenty five of you can take it but the closer the fit, the better the odds are that there won’t be any negative side effects. We don’t expect any but we want to be cautious.”

“Can you give us more details about what this will do?” Tara listens to her sisters question and feels pride. She’s remembering to ask everything Tara would otherwise ask. Melissa needs this more so she’ll let her lead the way.

“I can give you some. Your muscles will strengthen to an extraordinary degree. That’s almost certain which means you won’t get tired. You’re going to be incredibly strong, incredibly fast. Probably run over a hundred miles an hour. Lift hundreds if not thousands of pounds. You’ll be nearly invulnerable. Your skin will be so strong bullets, guns, even explosions won’t be a threat. Except your eyes, they don’t seem effected for some reason. Your hearing, smell, sight, all that will improve. You’ll be able to jump really high and really far. That’s a start. Other effects can vary a lot by person but it’s going to do a lot.”

The sisters sit there with their jaws resting on their chests. The more specifics they hear, the more this sounds both exciting and terrifying. Melissa seems frozen so Tara decides to take over for now. “Where are we going anyway?”

“You’ll like this. We’re actually based in the middle of Kansas of all places. Non descript little place. Our job once we have the program running will be to handle major national security issues. Being based in the middle of the country makes us uniquely situated to respond to any location. Well, except Alaska or Hawaii but who’s going to have issues there?”

“Doesn’t a lot of stuff happen on the coasts? We haven’t had a lot of emergencies in Louisiana over the years.”

“A lot does but nowhere near all. Besides, which coast would we pick? If something happens on the opposite one we’d take forever to get there. This isn’t perfect but it’s the best choice we decided. When we arrive I’ll show you to our base of operations.”

The rest of the flight’s non eventful. Snow drinks wine and offers stories about his past, most of which he leaves crucial details out of. The sisters both read the books they’ve brought with them for awhile but they eventually abandon them. At one point they’re reduced to playing tic tac toe to pass the time. They’re all relieved when after nearly five hours Jay pokes his head out and announces they’re getting ready to descend.

The landing’s almost as terrifying as the flying but soon they’re thankful to be on the ground. Tara helps her sister slowly descend the plane’s stairs. A non descript car almost identical to the one they took in Louisiana’s waiting for them. The only difference she notices is the plates are now for Kansas.

Part 8

Part 10

Toxic Vol. 1 Susceptible States Part 20

There aren’t any other tests. For the next several days DeMarcus is left alone in his room. His gag only comes out when they feed him and the guards are openly pointing their guns at him while he does so. No more steak, now it’s mostly just sandwiches. What did he do that was so wrong? Was getting tired of this really a big surprise?

On the third day, Sean comes to his cell. He whispers something to the guards and all but one of them exit the wing, slamming the metal door down the hall on their way out.

It’s a surprise, they’ve never met anywhere but the dark room. He can make out details he never noticed before, such as how old the man really is. The lines around his eyes were hidden somewhat by the darkness but here they stand out. He’s at least eighty. He looks to be in good shape for his age but he’s thin to the point you start to wonder if he’s sick. He’s let into the cell by the one guard who waited; a guard who promptly locks the cell after they’re done before following the others out of the wing.

The man stands, waiting for DeMarcus to offer a seat. The only place to sit other than the floor is on his bed and he’s not really in the mood to share it at the moment. He’s sitting right in the middle and hasn’t budged.

“Feel like making room? Standing’s torture on my knees.”

He considers telling the old man to kick rocks but he can’t tell him anything and while he could flip a few gestures, fighting probably isn’t the best way to get back in their good graces and get home. He moves to one side of the bed.

“Thanks, I appreciate it.” He sits on the bed, trying to move himself against the wall. After a moment he groans and stands back up. “Forgot something.” He reaches around behind DeMarcus’ head and releases the clasp on the back of the gag. It slides free from his mouth. Gasping, he greedily sucks in air, happy not to have to fight for every breath.

When his head starts to feel better, he looks at Sean. “Guess you figured out that I’m not a threat at this point.”

Sean sits back on the bed, moving back against the wall. He puts his hands behind his head, trying to get comfortable. “Something like that. I want to talk to you anyway and I’m pretty sure you aren’t going to be an issue. I want to talk about that opportunity we discussed. I’d really like you to come work for us. If this goes well, it could even turn into a permanent thing. You need a job, SSC isn’t reopening anytime soon I can assure you. There’s massive media coverage about how the security wasn’t good enough. Personally I don’t think that’s fair but nobody’s asking me.”

Is he still having issues with oxygen? None of this makes any sense. “How can I work for you? My power’s are gone. That’s why I’m not wearing a gag right now.”

Laughing, Sean reaches up and takes off his glasses. His eyes are icy blue, startling on a man his age. Maybe that’s why he wears the glasses. “You’re not wrong, but we think we can change that. We’d reintroduce you to the chemicals. It wouldn’t be the same as last time where you breathe it for hours. We’d do it gradually. Now that your body’s used to it we think it’ll take to it easily. Shouldn’t even make you uncomfortable. We’ll keep the amounts low enough that it wears off easily. You can have a normal life, we’ll just get you going before missions.”

There’s a part of him that wants to consider the offer. Now that the powers are mostly gone he kind of misses them. He can think of a lot of ways they could be useful. That’s more power than any person needs though. He wouldn’t trust himself with them long term. As soon as he thinks about Jesse the decision gets easy. “I don’t want my life getting messed up worse than it already is. I have a good record. I figure I can get a job easily enough. Plus, you don’t know that stuff won’t kill me this time. I got lucky last time but no one should survive that level of those chemicals.”

“We really don’t think it’s all that dangerous. If I thought you’d likely end up dead I wouldn’t ask.”

“Thanks, but I have too much to go back to, not taking the risk.”

Sean sighs, stretching out more. “That’s pretty much what I figured but I had to try. You’re valuable. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve learned a lot from studying you and studying this stuff but there’s no guarantee someone else reacts the same way. We’re considering giving a couple of agents a chance to try it but that needs approval.”

“That’s your thing. Do you all agree I’m clean though?”

“Oh ya, no issues there. All the tests we’ve run have consistently shown the results trending downward and this last week we didn’t pick up anything. The higher ups wanted to keep you longer and see if they eventually came back but all our scientists think there’s very little chance. It hasn’t been bouncing up and down in effectiveness, it’s been a straight line down. You might have a tiny bit of persuasive ability left in you but nothing major.”

“When do I get out of here. Where even is here anyway?”

“You’re still in San Francisco. We have facilities all over the place. No reason to take you somewhere else. As for when you get out, today.” The man reaches up and pulls the ear plugs from his ears. “I appreciate you cooperating. I know you didn’t have a lot of choices but you really have helped your country just by going through the tests and letting us learn from you. If you ever change your mind on that job, get in touch. I’ll give you a card. It’s just a number to a burner phone but you can call it.”

He takes a set of keys out of his pocket and starts unlocking the handcuffs keeping his wrists together. He can’t believe for the first time in weeks there’s nothing locked to his body. He’s finally free to move as he sees fit.

“Thank you. I know there was probably pressure to hang onto me. I’m almost sorry I can’t help you with it. Almost.” He climbs to his feet but Sean’s still sitting. The older man glances at his feet and groans. He holds out a hand to ask for help and DeMarcus grabs it and pulls him up.

“Easy. Don’t pull my shoulder out of it’s socket. Otherwise someone else might make you stick around. Let me walk you out.”

He follows the man through hallway after hallway until they finally reach a front door. There’s a set of clothes that are surprisingly big enough to fit him laying there in a nice stack. His wallet and keys are stacked next to it with one of Sean’s cards sticking out of the wallet.

Sean smiles, and offers a handshake. “I’ll give you some privacy to get changed. Then you can see yourself out the door right there.” He points at a large metal door. “There’s a few hundred bucks in goodwill money in the wallet. There’s a cab waiting outside which can take you home. Tell Jesse I said hello. You can tell him whatever you want about this but if you do want to stick to the story, you’ve been in New York getting treatment for a head wound which is now healed. You couldn’t talk with the injury. Your call.” They shake hands and Sean walks out of the room.

He’s alone with only the entrance before him. He changes into the clothes. The tank top’s a strange fit but it’ll do. The shorts are a bit tight but he can make it work. There’s no shoes. Apparently he’s supposed to stick with the terrible ones he’s had for weeks. He can always change at home.

Stepping out the front door, his eyes almost can’t handle the sun. It shines incredibly brightly. It’s warm out. There’s even the sound of birds in the distance. He can see the cab sitting at the far end of the parking lot. Crossing through the lot, the wind blowing through his hair, he decides today’s going to be an awesome day.

Part 19

Part 21

Serenity Vol. 2 Going Under Part 4

Walking into the dimly lit bar, Jia can feel Carly pull closer to her, practically hanging off her arm. This isn’t her normal kind of bar and while she seemed up for it earlier, now that she’s sobered up some she seems nervous. Jia’s spent enough nights in bars like this to feel comfortable and the bartender nods at her. Nodding back, she realizes how weird that feels without hair.

Dressed in torn jeans, a leather jacket and a shirt featuring her favorite band, Jia fits in. Her newly shaved head completes the look. Carly can’t stop staring at it. She oiled it after they finished shaving and it shines even under the low lights here. Jia feels lucky her head’s not a weird shape. She thinks she pulls the look off rather well.

Packed on a Saturday night, there’s no cute boys Carly wants to meet here. A few good looking stoner guys are in the back but they’re not her type. Most of the guys are older, bigger, with more tattoos than they have fingers. Heavy metal screeches off the jukebox and it plays so loud that conversations aren’t practical. The only noise that seems to fight through the music is the occasional breaking of balls on the pool table.

There aren’t any tables available so Jia leads the way to the bar. They find a couple open stools on the far side but a bartender isn’t quick to get to them. Carly gets right in Jia’s face so they can hear each other. “I hate you right now.”

Rolling her eyes Jia says, “Lighten up, it’s a new experience.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this was where you wanted to go? I stand out like crazy. Everyone’s staring at me. I could have dressed a little better if I knew.”

“Kind of figured you’d pick up on it from how I dressed. Look on the bright side, maybe one of the boys will ask for your number.”

“If they do you’d better kick their ass.”

The bartender stops by and Jia orders a whiskey. Carly orders a glass of wine but settles for a beer when the man stares at her like she’s made of fire. It’s too dark to see the back of the bar and Jia needs to find out if her target’s here. After the bartender drops their drinks off she pulls her friend close again. “I’m going to go see if I can find Jillian. Why don’t you stay here?”

“If you leave me alone in this place I’ll knife you and make you sleep on the street tonight.” With that decided, they grab their drinks and start worming through the crowds. Several times they bump into men neither would want to run into in a dark bar. They’re invariably stared at for a moment before the men wander away.

A lap of the place doesn’t yield results. There’s no sign of a pink mohawk which is the one thing about Jillian she’s confident would stand out. Jia tries to make out faces in case Jillian changed her hair but while it’s hard to be sure as dark as it is, nobody looks familiar. Carly’s already finished her drink so they return to the bar. Another beer’s quickly served up and Carly starts into it. “I wonder why nobody’s coming up to me. Do I look good?”

Jia eyes her friend up and down. She looks very good, if very out of place. A short pink dress, plenty of cleavage, great strappy shoes that make her three inches taller. “I already told you that you look awesome. You’re probably not their type. They don’t come here looking for blondes in pink mini dresses.”

“Maybe not, but some of them have to be into me, right?”

“I’m sure they are Carly, they probably think you’re with me.”

Carly’s mouth hangs open. “Wait, is this a gay bar?”

“What? No, do these guys look gay? Not to stereotype but a gay bar wouldn’t have this many bikers. I don’t think so anyway, I don’t go to a lot of gay bars. It’s San Francisco though. Plenty of gay people to go around.”

Calling the bartender over takes a few minutes since he just dropped a beer off for Carly but Jia’s finally able to order another whiskey. When it’s delivered she holds up a hundred dollar bill. “You able to answer a few questions?”

The man snatches the bill from her. “Depends what you want to know. I’ll listen to your questions for that.”

“That works to start. If you don’t answer you won’t get any more. I’m looking for a girl named Jillian. Pink hair, kicks some ass. You know her?”

He glances around the bar before answering. “I might have seen her around. She’s not here tonight though.”

“Where can I find her?”

“That’s going to cost you more.”

Jia reaches into her pocket and pulls out another hundred dollar bill. This time when he reaches for it she pulls it back. “Information first.”

“You’re in the wrong place to push your luck.”

“You’re talking to the wrong person to push yours with.”

He stares her down and for a moment Jia thinks they might fight. That’s the last thing she needs with Carly in tow. His eyes keep returning to the bill though and when she notices she knows she has him. “Fine, she’s not with them anyway. She’s been laying low the last few weeks since the cops picked her up. Bar fight, she started it. With how big her stomach’s getting I’m guessing she’s lucky the person she shoved had no clue how to handle themselves.”

“That’s nice to know but not what I asked?”

“I’m getting to it, cool your shit. She’s staying at an apartment over by the pier, I think a friend of hers lives there or something. No idea what apartment so don’t ask and no, I don’t know the friend’s name either. It’s above a place called Henry Fontana’s though. More laid back place. Very different vibe. A friend of mine said she’s been going in there a few times a week.”

Waiting to see if he’ll offer anything more, Jia extends the bill when she realizes he’s done. She drinks her whiskey and pays for their drinks. She doesn’t bother to leave a tip, what she paid him for information should be enough.

Grabbing Carly, she tries pulling her friend to the door. They’re almost separated by the crowd and she can see her friend’s eyes go wide. As she hails an Uber she tries to fill her in. It was so loud in there that Carly heard almost nothing they discussed. “We’ll stop in and see if she’s there. If she is, we’ll figure that out. If not we’ll head somewhere more your style.”

Their car pulls up and Jia goes to get in. Carly grabs her by the wrist though and signals to the driver that they need a minute. “Hold on, I did your thing with this place. What’s this next bar like?”

“No clue, we can look it up on the way.”

Carly gets a huge pout on her face. If she hadn’t accepted they were only friends years ago it might drive her crazy. “I don’t want to go to another place where I’m going to feel like a freak. Let’s go have fun somewhere. My kind of place. You know I pick good places. You can check that place out tomorrow night when I have to sleep. This is my one night and I need to have fun.”

She knows there’s no guarantee Jillian shows up any specific night, but she’ll feel stupid if she misses the woman. She also knows her friend needs this. She’s not doing well with the break up. She relents and agrees to let Carly pick the place. She gets a squeeze in response. She doesn’t hug her friend back.

Part 3

Part 5

The Law Vol. 1 Serve or Protect Part 8

“How could you do this? This year of all years.” Zoe Alvarez throws anything she can get her hands on which won’t easily break around her room while her mother Martina Alvarez tries to think of ways to calm her. So far she hasn’t come up with anything. All she can do is try to catch the things that are a little more breakable than her daughter thinks.

“It’s going to be alright. I promise.” As she crosses the room Zoe throws a stuffed rabbit at her. She catches it and sets it on a shelf.

“How can you say that? You don’t have a job. We aren’t rich. How are you going to pay for my camp next month? I can’t be the only one who doesn’t get to go.”

Martina holds her hands before her in surrender. “You won’t be. I promise. I will figure it all out. I already have a bunch of ideas.”

With her eyes tightening, Zoe stops throwing things. The picture frame in her hand threatens that this could be a temporary reprieve. “What sort of ideas? I want to hear them. Now.”

“You do know you aren’t the adult here, right?”

“Now.”

With a deep breath, Martina regrets saying anything to her daughter. She would have found out from her grandfather otherwise though. Better she hears it from her. “I’m going to register for the vigilante act.” Since the passing of the Vigilantes Making Us Safe Act, anyone can register and start walking the streets protecting people. She doesn’t need to be a cop to keep her city safe. With how things are going on the police force she might do a better job as a vigilante.

The throwing doesn’t start up again but there’s no excitement on her daughter’s face. “How does that make you money? They don’t pay people to be vigilantes do they?”

Martina hesitates and her daughter’s hand starts to shake. “No, but there are ways to make money once you register. A lot of people are looking for security help or guards who are registered now. The money can be pretty good. With my experience, I’ll find something. I promise.”

Shaking her head, Zoe flops face first onto her bed. “I don’t believe you. That sounds like its going to pay terribly. What if it doesn’t work out? What then?”

With a deep sigh Martina starts pacing back and forth. “I don’t know, I’ll figure something out. I’m not going to let my kid end up on the street. If I have to I’ll go out on the corner and turn some tricks.” She laughs, hoping to lighten the mood.

Turning over to face her mother, Zoe looks her up and down. “I don’t know mom, I don’t think anyone will pay.”

She has to pay for that. Martina rushes the bed and tackles her daughter before tickling her stomach. The girl can’t help laugh. After a minute she relents, rolling over and laying next to her daughter. Zoe turns to her and still has a concerned look on her face. “I know you keep saying its going to be okay, but are you sure? Maybe you could still get your job back. You could talk to grandpa, he could put in a good word.”

Martina puts a hand on her daughter’s cheek, trying to look more confident than she feels. “Honey, do you really want me to go to a job every day I don’t believe in? To help people hurt other people?”

Zoe looks away. “Not really, but I do want to eat.”

“You don’t ever have to worry about that. I’m going to make sure this is okay, no matter what it takes.”

Part 7

Part 9