“Dude, this is creepy”, said a boy’s voice.
My head hurt.
“I mean, she looks just like her!” The speaker didn’t sound like he’d gone through puberty yet.
“Not quite. She’s more buff. And her hair’s different”, drawled a slightly accented girl’s voice. She sounded like honey and cherries, and I must have hit my head pretty hard because I normally did not make that kind of comparison.
My arms were numb, but I could feel that they’d been twisted behind my back and tied. Around some metal pipe or something, which was pressing into my back. Someone had taken my hoodie off, leaving me in my sports bra. The pipe was cold against my back, helping me focus. My shoes were off, too.
“Twitch never talked about a twin sister.” An older voice, a young man with the slightest hint of a lisp. It was unreal how sharp my hearing was right now.
“She never talked about her family, period,” replied the girl.
“What if this is a shapeshifter or something?” asked the boy again.
“She went down with one hit of Fox’ ball. That speaks towards her being a normie. Plus, she didn’t turn back to a real form when we knocked her out and I think a shapeshifter would have changed to look exactly like Twitch to sell a twin or something.” A new, rather nasal voice.
“I’m not a darned shapeshifter…” I said before coughing hard. I looked up and saw four teenagers stand over me, giving me suspicious looks. One girl, three boys. “And why did you take my hoodie off?”
A guy in his late teens – older than me, but most probably too young to drink – was the first to respond. He was really tall, at least as tall as the officer earlier, but so thin he looked like a stiff wind would break him in half.
“Do you have any idea how many weapons and traps a contriver can hide under or in a garment like this?” he asked with just the barest hint of a lisp, “If we were really professional, we would’ve stripped you naked and done a cavity search, too.”
I shivered, damn it. “Thank you for sparing me that. How long was I out?”
“Just about fifteen mi-“
“Who the fuck’re you?” interrupted the nasal voice, coming from the mouth of LagForward. It really didn’t fit his buff body. His open vest showed off the kind of sixpack and upper arm sculpting normal people had to work a decade for or so. “And why’re you here? Why did you attack us!?”
Now I looked down again, ashamed. Why did I attack? Even disregarding the fact that I could never stand a chance against four metahumans at once, even if they might be at the bottom of the power chart. Even disregarding the fact that I’d never been in a serious fight outside of fight training. I’d never even hit anyone with intent, not outside training, again.
Was I that angry at Linda and my parents? That unbalanced?
“I’m sorry about that. Really, I just…” I didn’t look up at them, “I’m just so angry. My sister is dead, and no one seems to care.”
They didn’t respond, and I looked up at them, taking a closer look at each for the first time. The only one I hadn’t really gotten a look at yet was the girl, Foxfire. She was a gorgeous half-Asian girl with waist-length black hair in a somehow very naughty style, bright golden, slightly slanted eyes and a rather slim body for a meta-girl, at least going by what I’d seen on TV so far. Her clothes… didn’t really deserve that description, especially in the current winter weather – she was wearing a red bikini top, cut-off jeans and a black hoodie with an open zipper, as well as red training shoes. And she had a Japanese fox mask tied to her belt.
She had heavy black circles around her eyes, and in general looked dead tired. The others looked no better really. The short one – a curly-haired blonde boy who couldn’t be more than thirteen years old – looked like he’d been crying until a short while ago.
“You spoke about Linda. Twitch… that was her name, right? I mean, her supervillain name?” I asked, even though I knew the answer already.
The girl took over talking. “Yup, Twitch. Never told us she had a twin sister, though,” she answered.
I looked down, clenching my hands. There was some feeling returning to them, if only barely. “Yeah well, she didn’t tell me jack. Not that she had powers, not that she was a supervillain, nothing. Last week I wake up, get ready for school and then I find out, joy oh joy, my twin sister was not only a supervillain, she’d also just gotten herself murdered.”
“Man, that sucks,” commented the blonde boy. Razzle, going by the power he’d shown off earlier. Then he scowled at me. “What’d you do to her that she wouldn’t tell you?”
Had I not been tied up at that moment, I would have jumped up and punched him in the face. I tried to, even, despite my chance to even reach him being… low. But the restraints held. So I just ground my teeth and replied, “I don’t know. She just… shut me out. I can get why she wouldn’t tell our parents, but… why not me?” I looked up at them, as if searching for an answer. I doubted they knew. They hadn’t even known that their friend had had a twin sister. Linda had not spoken to them about me… ever.
They all gave me looks full of pity, which only made things worse.
“Twitch was a dear friend of ours, even though we only knew her for a month and a half,” said Foxfire as she nodded towards LagForward. He knelt down next to me and untied my hands. The other two didn’t seem to like it, but Foxfire was apparently their leader. “We met her shortly after she got her powers, though she never told us how she got them,” she continued, offering me a helping hand.
I shook out my hands, getting some feeling back into them, and took it, letting her pull me up. She was stronger than she looked.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” she said.
“A whole lot,” I replied, brightening up. Someone willing to talk and answer my questions? Could I have this much luck?
She smirked. “Well, so do we. How about you answer ours and we answer yours?”
That’s only fair, I guess. I nodded. “My name’s Terry, by the way. How should I call you?”
“Laura. And these are Jimmy, Cad and Fletch,” she answered, pointing out the tall guy with the lisp, the buff Asian boy and the short one. “Nice to meet you, Terry.”
“Likewise, Laura,” I replied, only half-sincere. They were very nice, especially Laura, but I didn’t trust them yet. And there was still the matter of my dead twin sister – if they were responsible…
* * *
They gave me back my hoodie – I’d barely noticed how cold it had been, but now I was thankful for being able to put it back on. I wouldn’t vouch on it, but I think Fletch and Cad were disappointed that Laura gave it back to me.
We went into the staircase and up, until we were on the highest level of the old parking garage, just one level beneath the roof. I stopped and stared from the entry.
The place had been turned into the most awesome hangout a teenager could want, at least in my opinion. There were thick cloth curtains in various colours hanging all around it, covering every opening to the outside – keeping the light in, and the warmth. Keeping the wind out. They obviously had electricity because they had a series of electrical heaters keeping the place not quite toasty warm, but warm enough to justify even Foxfire’s ensemble. Pillows, blankets, love seats – all second hand apparently, and many having been repaired rather haphazardly – covered nearly every inch of the floor that wasn’t taken up by at least two layers of all kinds of rugs. There were several flatscreens spread around the place, with every gaming console ever hooked up.
“Holy Shit,” I whispered. “I thought you guys were supposed to be smalltime.” Then my brain caught up with my mouth and I felt the heat rise in my face. “Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Great move, Terry. Insult the only persons who might know what actually happened to Twitch.
Laura smiled sweetly, showing off a pair of rather long canines. They looked strange, but I guess boys probably liked her smiles a lot. “Don’t worry. It’s a compliment – we’ve managed to keep a low profile so far. And we’re not that big – most of the stuff here is second-hand, if that. And the tech is all self-made from scrap.”
That gave me a start. I looked at the flatscreens, the consoles and the heaters. The lighting, too. It all looked completely functional but… yeah, you could tell there’d been damage. A few pieces of equipment were also quite clearly cobbled together from parts that had originally belonged to several different appliances.
You’re getting distracted again, dummy.
I shook my head. “Anyway. Anyway… let’s get to the important subject, alright?”
The boys walked past us, Cad and Fletch throwing me suspicious glances while Jimmy just seemed to ignore me. They all sat down on the largest couch in the room, which was arranged along with three others in a half-circle in front of a flatscreen the size a house wall. That definitely looked handmade – there was the screen and a frame holding it in place, but no casing, and I could see wires emerge from behind it and up to the ceiling, where they joined a lot of other power lines.
“One question first, though. How do you power this stuff?”
Laura sat down on the couch along with the others, too. “Solar panels on the roof – it gets quite a bit of sunlight, so high up. And we also have a few bikes wired up to a bigass dynamo, for when we don’t get sunlight for a while,” she explained. “Now sit.” She nodded towards the couch next to the one the StreetBadgers were sitting (lounging, in Laura’s case) on, and I sat down, turning to face them.
“Do you want to start, or should I?”
Jimmy spoke up first, “Wait. We got one more member, but he went out to get food right before you arrived here.”
“I thought it was only you four, after… after Linda died.”
“Where did you get your information?” he asked.
I looked down at my feet, rubbing my hands. Hope they won’t overreact. “Well… the police. I asked a police officer what he knew about… about the case.”
“You’re working with the fucking police!?” Fletch screamed, jumping up and into fighting position, fists raised. “If ya think ye can sell us o-“
“Fletch, sit.” Laura barked those two words like a well rehearsed line, and Fletch immediately dropped down onto his seat, though he still gave me the evil eye.
And who the hell names their child ‘Fletch’ anyway?
“I’m not working with the police. I just… got picked up by a police officer. He wanted to take me home, I got him to talk then bailed,” I explained in a single breath.
Their eyebrows shot up in an almost coordinated motion. “Really?” asked Laura in a curious tone. “However did you get away from him?”
Looking down, I felt the heat rise to my face again. The officer had been really nice and understanding, and I’d… but it might help me break the ice here. “I uh… I pretended I felt sick, and when he stopped and got out with me, I… kicked him in the balls and ran.”
They looked at me, stunned for a moment… then they broke out into laughter, which only led to my face feeling even hotter than before.
It took a while for them to calm down again. “Man, do you know how to treat’em,” Laura gasped, wiping a tear from her eye. “How did you find us, after you bailed from the cop? I’m pretty sure they don’t know where we hide, on account of them not storming our place to lock us up.”
“Uhh, honestly, just by chance. I got lost in the Shades, and then I followed this big cat over here,” I replied, glad she wasn’t focusing on the officer.
“What cat?” Jimmy asked, suddenly serious again. “Where is it? I saw no cat!”
“Whoa, dude, calm down!” I said, inching a little away from him. “It’s just some cat!”
Laura gave me a hard stare. “In our world, there’s no such thing as just some cat that just happens to lead the twin sister of our just deceased team member to our secret hideout! Where is it?”
“Um, it was searching through your trash cans last time I saw it…”
Laura threw Jimmy and Cad a look and they both left immediately.
“Can I ask a quick question?” I asked her.
“You already did,” she replied with a mischievous glimmer in her eyes.
I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”
She nodded and waved her hand in an approving motion.
“When I woke up, you said that me being taken down with one hit from your ball is an indicator for me not being a metahuman. How come?”
“Well, that’s the Coltenhagen effect, duh!” She looked at me like it was obvious.
“The… Coltenhagen effect? I think I heard that somewhere…” I raked my brain, but all I came up with was the word being used, once, regarding ‘Humanity First!’ demanding more non-powered superheroes. But nothing else.
“Well, it’s kinda the reason why there are no non-metahuman superheroes or villains. Or why the military is so damn paranoid about even low-level enemy metas. Simply put…” She thought about it for a moment. “It’s kinda like this – every metahuman has a kind of real low-level power resistance. Not enough to really block powers, but enough to make it possible for them to resist, so to speak. Or at least resist to a meaningful degree.”
“So a metahuman could take more than one hit from your ball?”
She nodded, “Yeah. Or like… take that freak Mindstar, or the fortunately departed Mindfuck. A newly manifested, untrained teenager could resist their powers just as easily as an adult professional soldier with mental training. Doesn’t make us tougher or anything, it just… gives us a better chance to resist the really bad powers. Transformations, mind control, possession, that kinda stuff. The things that really give you nightmares.”
“And how does that apply to your taser ball? I mean, are you guys like, more resistant to electric powers?”
“No no, my ball doesn’t use electricity at all!” she said. “That would be way more dangerous. No, it’s a mental move. It just works LIKE a taser, but it’s not a physical effect, really. Otherwise, you’d be having cramps and burns where it hit you.”
I checked. True, my stomach was completely unharmed. I let my hoodie fall down again and looked up just in time to see Fletch look away from me. I ignored him, again.
“So that’s why there’s no non-powered heroes?”
She nodded. “For example, the Drakainas – they could easily shore up their numbers with non-powered pilots in suits, but they’d be highly susceptible to those kinds of powers I just described, and many others. Like emotion projection. People who make others feel fear, or lust, or apathy. Quite common, all things considered, and really lethal against normies.”
“I see. That certainly explains a lot.”
Just then, the boys came back up, Jimmy holding the big tomcat in his arms.
“Looks like a normal cat, if really big, Fox,” he said as he handed the purring tomcat to Fox. She took him into her arms and scratched him behind his ears, sniffing him while he purred contently.
“Smells normal, too,” she said. “D’awww, he’s just a big cutie!” She lifted him up over her head. “A really big cutie. Can’t smell anything strange about him, though he’s strangely clean for a cat that apparently belongs to no one.”
“Can we keep him?” Fletch threw in. “I mean, it’d be nice to have a pet here!”
We all looked at him and he blushed a little. But Laura nodded and handed the tomcat over to him. “But you have to make sure to feed him. And train him not to do his business all over the place.”
He nodded, eagerly, and took the tomcat onto his lap. It was really quite cute.
And then, there was the sound of a ringtone, and Laura checked her cellphone. “Oh, food’s here! Go and help Peter haul it up, boys!”
And just like that, Jimmy and Cad left again for the staircase.
Whoa, she really got them whipped right. I felt jealous. I never could get boys to do what I tell them so easily. Maybe she can give me lessons?
Soon, the boys returned along with this Peter. He turned out to be… a normal boy around my age. The kind I usually didn’t notice at school. Not fat, but definitely overweight, with his brown hair in a bad haircut, sloppy clothes under a thick coat and oversized glasses.
He came in looking quite serious, and immediately looked at me, apparently having been briefed by the other two. “So, Twitch had a twin sister,” he said in a rather soft, weak-sounding voice. “Hello, I’m Peter. I’m kinda the tech guy for this team.”
He put down the stack of pizza boxes he’d been carrying (five boxes, five more in Jimmy’s arms and ten in Cad’s. How much did these people eat?) and offered me his hand. I took it and we shook hands. His was sweaty. He let go quickly and sat down on another couch, keeping his teammates between himself and me.
They quickly spread the pizza boxes around… and my stomach growled the moment their smell hit me. I blushed as I was reminded that I hadn’t eaten since… well, apart from the donut earlier, I hadn’t eaten since morning.
Laura gave me a look and handed me one of her boxes (she three stacked in front of her. Fletch had two, Jimmy and Peter three, Cad four). “Here, eat.” I was way too hungry to protest.
The pizza turned out to look even better than it smelled. It was obviously from a real Italian restaurant. And it was loaded with yummy stuff. Well, except for the broccoli. Yuck.
While the others dug in, I carefully removed the green abominations from my pizza, then started to eat. Mmmmmm…
We ate in silence. Cad pretty much breathed his pizzas in, while the others took more time. Fletch fed the cat, too.
Then we relaxed and leaned back. They’d all been jumbo pizzas, and I usually didn’t eat this much, so I was quite… floored.
After about ten minutes though, I started to… recover my earlier impatiance. Maybe I’d just been too hungry and groggy to feel it, though. “Um, now, about Linda… I mean Twitch.”
That got their attention. “Can you tell us some about your background? I mean, Twitch always refused to,” Laura asked, and I nodded. It might not have been smart, but… this was my chance to learn something. So I’d play nice.
“Well, we’re twins, obviously. We have a little brother, and live with our parents in the Oak Leaf community,” I began.
“Shit! Oak Leaf! That’s one of the richest places in the entire Esperanza area!” shouted Peter. The others seemed similarly surprised.
“Why, in the name of God’s green earth, did she become a supervillain and hang out here with us?” asked Cad. “I mean, she even ran away from there two weeks ago – why?”
I looked down at my feet, but thankfully, Laura took over explaining the obvious.
“Cad, think about it. What is Oak Leaf known for?” she said.
I heard Jimmy gasp as he got it. The others didn’t, I think. Not that I looked to check.
“It’s the biggest ”Humanity First!” community in the entire world,” Peter explained. “Among other things, Richard Svenson lives there. Current leader of ‘Humanity First!’…”
“And a regular dinner guest at our place,” I added without looking up. “My parents are deep into it. That’s why Linda never told them, I think. Not that it explains why she wouldn’t tell me. But… my parents seem to be more shaken up about her being a metahuman than her being dead,” I continued, spitting the last word like poison. I didn’t look up at their faces. I didn’t want pity.
“She started acting strange about two months ago, and wouldn’t talk to us. Two weeks ago, we kind of made an intervention, but she just… blew a gasket and stormed out of the house…” I still remembered the feeling of betrayal, when she just left instead of talking to me. I could have understood if she wouldn’t talk to my parents, but why not to me.
“That was when she moved in with us. Do you want to see her place?” asked Laura, her voice full of… sympathy.
I nodded, quietly, and she took my hand (hers was unnaturally warm – suddenly it made sense that she’d run around in light clothing) and all but dragged me around the staircase. There were several “rooms” partitioned off from the rest of the space by way of heavy curtains and wooden screens acting as walls. She took me into one of them. It turned out to be a small bedroom, with a bookshelf loaded with books, a laptop on a desk and a small dresser drawer.
The curtains were all blue, and there was a pressed tulip in a frame, hanging over her bed. And a picture of me, from five years ago (we’d still looked identical back then, but I remembered that photo being shot, and besides, I was wearing a yellow dress in it. She’d always worn blue). I just stared at the picture.
“What… what can you tell me about her?” I said, not taking my eyes off of it. Why didn’t you tell me? Why do you have a picture of me here, but you never told me?
“She was what we call a ‘Brain’ in the business. Mental powers. Perception. She had a kind of danger sense, except she could spread it to cover others. Give her a warning when others were in danger. She also got a boost in her reaction speed and all. Mental only. And only when her Danger Sense was set off.”
“Who killed her? Why?” I turned to look at her. I might have been crying.
She looked uncomfortable. “We… we’d gotten a commission, to steal a package that was being transported by a bunch of mobsters,” she said. “Job went well, we stopped their car, took them out, got the package… but then everything went to shit when the Hellhound appeared.”
Oh no… Everyone in Oak Leaf knew the Hellhound. He was a kind of hero to ”Humanity First!”. Unofficially, of course. I’d never paid much attention to it, beyond the basics.
“I heard that he’s a metahuman hater. I mean, real hate. Hunts and kills any he finds,” I said, my voice strangely monotone. “Something about his family being killed.”
“Yeah, his wife and daughters were eaten by a cannibalistic villain team,” Laurel explained. “Guy’s major badass crazy. Goes after metahumans with heavy weaponry, sniper rifles, you name it.”
“How come he’s still around? I mean, the Coltenhagen effect…”
She shook her head. “He’s a metahuman, too, though most don’t realize it. Some kind of resurrection ability – no matter how many times you kill him, he always comes back.”
“So he killed Twitch because…”
“He was after the package. Someone sold us out, maybe, or sold the same information twice. We dropped the package and ran – guy’s too dangerous for us – but he pursued. Twitch…” She choked, wiping her eyes. The others, who’d followed us, looked utterly miserable. “She… she convinced us that someone needed to distract him. That we needed to split up. We did that, and he pursued her, and…”
I looked down at my feet.
My sister had died just because some guy had a hate-on for metahumans. Oh, the irony.
The fucking Hellhound.
My sister had died to save her friends. Because that guy couldn’t swallow his hate.
The Hellhound murdered my sister.
I felt the rage rise up inside me. When I raised my head, the StreetBadgers all took a step back.
“I want to go after him. Are you guys in?”