The second in a new series by popular urban fantasy author Kelly Meding, about an X-Men-like group of young people with superpowers who must find a way to work together.
Five months ago, Dahlia Perkins was a struggling newspaper journalist whose biggest responsibility was paying her rent on time. After learning she has the ability to absorb and deflect massive amounts of heat and fire, Dahlia is struggling to find her place as the newest hero in an established team of former Rangers freelancing their abilities in post-Meta War Los Angeles. The team’s first major case: two discarded human skins. One is a John Doe, the other was a janitor for Weatherfield R&D, a scientific research and development firm Dahlia once investigated—and she’s itching to investigate them again. The ability to use and shed another person’s skin isn’t a power any of them have encountered before, nor something any of their former Meta enemies possess. But when a third skin appears and one of Dahlia’s teammates is nearly killed by an assassin’s bullet, it’s clear someone else besides Weatherfield is targeting the Rangers—and their killer may not be Meta at all.
Renee’s shout echoed all the way down the main staircase, punctuated by a foot stamped down on the ceiling above me. I dropped my paint-soaked roller into its pan a little too hard and splattered eggshell interior latex all over the legs of my jeans, adding to the preexisting splats of burgundy, sage, white, navy blue, and two different wood stains.
I was downstairs in the foyer of the mansion we were hip deep in renovating, trying to get a second coat onto the walls of the spacious entry. Even after a primer and first coat, the garish blue-green paint job the home’s previous owners subjected themselves to—in a fit of drunken misguidance, one can only hope—continued to peek through. The home in mostly deserted Beverly Hills had been on the market for seven years before we bought it; real estate in California anywhere south of Santa Barbara was hard to sell. Everyone was moving north, just as they had been in the twenty years since the outbreak of the Meta War, which had ravaged Los Angeles, among other major cities. With the last four major film studios located in Vancouver, half of the city’s population had defected to Canada.
Several million residents remained, though, including us six—the last of a defunct group of superheroes once called the Ranger Corps.
The house we settled on—and after much discussion named Hill House, in memory of a fallen friend—was huge. More than twenty rooms, a perimeter fence with a built-in security system, an interior courtyard, outdoor pool and tennis court, and plastic pipes that didn’t need replacing. Everything else was superficial and could be fixed with time and patience.
More foot stamping above. Renee and Ethan had gone upstairs to work on the front room, which was destined to be our common lounge. I darted toward the main staircase on my right and took the steps two at a time, past the first landing and up to the second floor.
The lounge was on my immediate right. Its floor was bare, stripped of its old carpeting, and sanded smooth of ancient carpet glue. The walls were painted a pleasant lemon yellow and trimmed with walnut molding. It was a large, L-shaped room, and I stood at the entrance to the short end.
Ethan “Tempest” Swift sat on the floor by the far wall, next to the open balcony doors. Morning sunlight glinted off his red hair, seeming to set it on fire. He clutched his left hand to his chest and scowled at the far end of the room. I rounded the corner to the longer end of the L and was assaulted by the odor of scorched plastic. Renee “Flex” Duvall hovered in the center of the room, staring up at the ceiling. A dusty, broken light fixture lay in pieces at her feet. Above her, exposed wires dangled and sparked, and light gray smoke twisted out of the hole in the ceiling.
“Are you two trying to burn us down?” I asked. I strode over, accidentally bumping Renee sideways with my hip. She grunted. I extended my hands toward the exposed wires and concentrated. The heat pulled into my body, absorbed through my fingertips to settle deep in my belly. A warm flush filled my cheeks. A few sparks leapt from the hole to me—little caresses of warmth—and then the threat passed.
“Yeah, we were hoping to cause a nice fire,” Renee said. Her berry-red lips twisted into a wry smile, the only bit of her skin that wasn’t ash blue. “Because I love burning down the headquarters I’ve barely had a chance to live in.”
For a moment, I didn’t know if she was serious. Renee and I had an awkward relationship, to say the least. I discovered the awesome extent of my powers during the same fire that killed a good friend—possibly a lover—of hers. I hadn’t grown up with her and the others, and she often seemed to view me as an annoyance, rather than a teammate.
“My fault,” Ethan said, hauling ass to his feet. “I should have turned off the circuit breaker before I decided to try some rewiring.”
I blanched. “You think?”
“I’m just trying to be helpful with this whole renovations thing, Dal. I like to think I can do more than just help the paint dry faster.”
Renee’s mouth twitched. “You know, people might line up for that kind of assistance. Blow a lot of wind, dry the paint in ten minutes flat. Contractors would pay good money for you.”
“Not contractors who get paid by the hour.”
Ethan’s particular power was control over the air. His code name, Tempest, fit the ability perfectly. He could concentrate a whirlwind to drill a hole into the ground, and aim a blast of air at an object to knock it loose from a great height. His most impressive (to me) talent was gliding on air currents to simulate flying. He looked so free when he flew, as close to happy as he ever seemed to get. Ethan often played peacemaker among our disparate personalities, but he never seemed to find any peace for himself.
I blew air out through my nose. “Look, guys, I know that Teresa is all gung-ho about us doing as much as possible ourselves, but there are reasons people hire professional electricians. Painting is one thing, but electricity is tricky. Let’s just pay someone and get it over with. We can—”
“If you say we can afford it one more time, I’ll gag you,” Renee said. She planted her hands on her hips, and I half expected her to stretch her limbs into crazy proportions in order to intimidate me. I admired her power. She could stretch her body like taffy, at least ten times its original length. All I did was absorb heat.
“Well, we can,” I snapped. Our decision to break away from government oversight and go freelance had hinged on accessing the trust fund my father left in my name. It was money I’d ignored my entire adult life, until I finally found a way to put it to good use. “What we can’t afford is Ethan constantly electrocuting himself, or us burning this place down around our ears. He’s not an electrician.”
“Just a windbag.”
Ethan grunted. “Funny.”
Renee blew him a kiss. “Look, Dal, bring it up with Teresa again. If she wants to hire out, fine. Great. Go for it. Just don’t get your hopes up.”
“I just don’t understand why she’s so averse to using the money,” I said.
“It’s not about the money.”
I stared. “What do you mean, it’s not about the money?”
They had both known Teresa “Trance” West longer than I had; they had grown up together, along with Marco “Onyx” Mendoza and Gage “Cipher” McAllister. The five of them, elder heroes by all rights, worked together like a single entity. As much as I tried, I never felt like one of them. Yes, I was MetaHuman just like they were, but I wasn’t part of their shared history. It made me an outsider.
They knew what else bothered our venerable leader, and I hadn’t a clue.
“Well?” I asked. “Throw me a bone here, guys.”
“She’s being cautious, is all,” Ethan said. “Any electrician we hire would be a stranger. This is our sanctuary, Dal, and we can’t let just anyone inside.”
I understood Teresa’s reasons for extreme caution, having lived through the events that culminated in our separation from the MetaHuman Control branch of the ATF. Her sense of betrayal over the fail-safe plan. The literal betrayal by Dr. Angus Seward, who was once considered a valuable ally and had, in the end, tried to annihilate all Metas. Knowledge that attack could come from any direction, as it often did when we ventured into the city. Heroes to some, villains to others, but feared by all—this is what we had become to the people of Los Angeles.
“I’m not suggesting,” I began, picking my words carefully, “that we grab contractors off the street and give them a key to the front gate. We check them out, they have escorts while on the property, and no access to certain rooms.” Rooms that housed our personal history and, like the War Room, were not for public viewing.
“I could agree to that.”
We all turned toward the door nearest us, at the top of the L. Teresa stood in its frame, arms tight across her chest. Her violet-streaked hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, the tips frozen with blue paint, and more blue paint decorated her cheeks, forearms, and jeans. It created a palette contrast with the natural violet hues that framed her forehead, jawline, and elbows, and sunk deeply into the wells of her collarbone.
The coloration made her look like a domestic abuse victim—a laughable thought to anyone who knew Gage McAllister. They loved each other in a messy, passionate, eyes-wide-open way I thought existed only in the cinema. Few people found that kind of love, and being around them made me alternate between sugar shock and longing for it in my own life. I had low expectations; relationships and I did not go together.
Teresa smiled at me, brightening up the room with such a simple gesture. She was only three years older than me, and the youngest among the others, but her leadership was unchallenged. She created intense energy orbs that could knock someone senseless, or shatter entire brick walls. Power led, and she possessed great power, tempered by equal amounts of humility. Her gentle approval was worth more to me than a thousand words of encouragement.
“I take it you have someone in mind?” Teresa asked.
Oops. “I’ll find someone we can trust.” The haziest bit of memory poked at my brain without coalescing into something useful. It would come to me.
She nodded, taking me at my word. Her violet gaze turned past me, to Ethan. “Let me see it,” she said, walking to him.
He held out his hand, frowning like a kid who’d had dessert taken away. The tips of his fingers were red, his index finger starting to blister. She held his hand gently, gazing at the burns with a mother hen quality she’d displayed more and more frequently these last few months.
“Just don’t say I told you so,” Ethan said.
She quirked an eyebrow. “Would I say that?”
“You’re thinking it.”
“There’s some burn ointment downstairs in the infirmary.”
“I’ll patch him up,” Renee said. “Come on, Windy, I’ll give you the hot-pink bandages.”
Ethan blanched. “That’s supposed to be an incentive?”
She slung her arm over his shoulders and steered him toward the door. Their idle teasing followed them out of the room, leaving me and Teresa alone. She gazed up at the dangling wires and blackened hole. A shadow of fatigue stole across her face, and then disappeared behind a mask of thoughtfulness.
“Was this Renee’s brilliant idea, or Ethan’s?” she asked.
“You got me. I just came when someone yelled for a fire extinguisher.”
Laughing, she said, “Good thing you were home, then, because I don’t believe we own an actual extinguisher. Something else to add to our growing list of needs.” Her voice dropped on the last bit, humor overtaken by frustration. No one, least of all Teresa, had believed striking out on our own would be so exhausting.
Give her something positive to think about, Dal.
“The lobby is almost finished,” I said. “I have one more wall to cover and then we can lay down the new floor. The laminate arrived at the store this morning, it just hasn’t been delivered yet.”
“Good news.” Something still distracted her. Couldn’t be a fight with Gage. They didn’t know how to fight without resorting to makeup sex within ten minutes of the argument. The upstairs walls were pretty thick, but not the doors.
“How’s your room coming along?” I asked, trying again.
“Almost done.” The edge in her voice softened at the topic of her shared room. Definitely not a fight with Gage. “I never thought I’d be the type to spend so much time picking out curtains, especially at twenty-five. Literal curtains and metaphorical ones.”
It was a simple statement that said so much about her, probably without meaning to. She rarely gave up details about her life during the last fifteen years she and the others had spent without powers. Fifteen long years separated from her childhood friends, from anything remotely like her old life, forced to pretend she’d always been normal; had never been the daughter of two decorated heroes.
From idle conversation, I knew she’d done things she wasn’t proud of in those years, even spent a little time in jail, and she hadn’t found happiness until getting her powers back. It had been a rebirth for everyone, including me.
She had lost her powers as a child of ten, torn away by a pair of mysterious Wardens, then restored when the Wardens were murdered. I discovered my powers during a freak accident at my old apartment, two days after. I spilled sesame oil while attempting a stir-fry and caught the pan’s contents on fire. It sizzled, splattered, and ignited the sleeve of my blouse.
I had screamed, startled less by the fire than by the lack of heat on my skin. The flames licked at the blouse and my hand. As I watched, the fire absorbed right into my body. It remained hot for the next hour, and then faded completely. I’d explained it away as a panic-induced hallucination—even after news began to spread of the Meta reactivation. I hadn’t entertained the idea that I was a Meta until the day the Channel 9 broadcast station blew up, and I really came into my abilities.
No, I couldn’t compare our pain, or hope to understand her feelings of alienation and isolation. Trying to was patronizing.
“I haven’t even thought about wallpaper,” I said, “much less curtains.”
Teresa laughed, and I basked in the warmth of her smile. “You have time to settle in, Dahlia. With any luck, we’ll be here for a very long while.” She picked at a fleck of dried paint adhering to her arm. “So, do you know any good electricians?”
An alarm clanged in the hallway, like an old-fashioned school bell. We turned toward the door in perfect unison.
“Something tripped the security system’s perimeter alarm,” Teresa said, then took off running.
I dashed after her through the door, around a curve in the short hallway, and back down the main staircase. She took them two at a time, moving faster than me, and disappeared. I crossed the lobby, still running, and turned down the left corridor. I ran past the interior courtyard exit on my right, to the first door on the left. Our appointed War Room housed a long oak table and eight chairs. A digital monitor took up four feet of the opposite wall, situated between the room’s two windows. Maps and a dry-erase board decorated the wall on my right.
To my left, another door stood open and voices filtered out. Research and security. Half the size of the previous room, it contained only two computer systems so far. More were expected to be delivered next week. At the moment, the monitor on the right desk was for online research and connecting to our intranetwork, a program that Marco had written for us, after admitting his pre-repowering job was as a computer programmer (it still felt odd to think that any of us once had real jobs). It collated and integrated all of our combined information about known Metas, unsolved crimes, and even allowed us access to certain protected government databases.
On the left desk, the computer displayed eight different camera angles of our property. The perimeter fence had twenty-four different views and it monitored almost every single inch of the fence line. With that much acreage, it was quite a feat. The display monitor switched views every four seconds, recording everything into our database. I knew the views by heart, since I’d helped Marco install all of the cameras two months ago—right before that friendship went all to hell.
Teresa, Renee, and Ethan were hunched over the monitor.
“Did something trip the alarm?” I asked.
Teresa had taken the desk chair, and she punched a series of command codes into the keyboard. A search box came up. Moments later, the eight angles disappeared and were replaced by one large scene. I recognized the length of fence behind the pool house. A grove of trees created a natural curtain between our property and our rear neighbor. Teresa pressed Play.
Wind rustled the leaves of the trees. Seconds passed and nothing happened. Two birds, about the size of wrens, swooped down from the trees. They chased and danced back and forth across the screen. Then they angled sideways and flew right between the narrow iron bars of the fence. Red letters appeared on the bottom of the screen: Perimeter Breach Detected.
“Hell, T,” Renee said. “I thought it was some kind of emergency and it’s just a goddamn bird?”
“It’s a sensitive system, Renee,” Ethan said. He tapped a few keys and new words popped up: Perimeter Sensor Eight Deactivated. “We need to find a middle ground with the sensors so it doesn’t get tripped by birds but will still pick up on small objects being lobbed at our house.”
“Yeah, we don’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night by a runaway parakeet.”
“It’s fixable, okay?” Teresa said. “There are going to be glitches, folks, we’re still feeling this out. But we responded to the alarm, which is its purpose.”
“What about the earthquake that set it off two days ago?” Renee said.
“The earthquake, really?” I said. I wasn’t home for the 5.2 that shook the town. Earthquakes set off car alarms and such, so our system really wasn’t a stretch.
“We’ll have false alarms, guys,” Ethan said, stepping in as peacemaker. “I’d rather have false positives than a system unable to detect a real threat. Am I alone?”
“No, you’re not,” Teresa said.
Renee grunted, and the others took that as her agreement. Their scrutiny fell on me, and I nodded.
Teresa’s intense, violet-eyed gaze continued to study me, until she finally asked, “So what are your afternoon plans, Dal?”
“Hadn’t really thought much past painting the—” Oh, wait, I had a new assignment. “Electrician hunting, right?”
“I’ll get on that,” I said, and darted from the room.
As I passed through the lobby I tossed a guilty look at the paint pan and roller, drying to a tacky mess by the wall. Someone would finish it later. Half the house still needed fresh coats of paint. Thank goodness it was June and not the middle of L.A.’s rainy season. We had the windows wide open and box fans blowing fresh, if somewhat humid, air around to rid the place of the cloying odor of new paint.
My room was on the second floor, like the others. Unlike them, I’d chosen a room in the front of the house, second door on the left, on the opposite side of the house from the rooms of my elders. It’s funny that I still thought of them that way, even though, at thirty, Gage was as old as we got. Unless you counted Simon Hewitt, a former bad guy and current Teresa West Pet Project. He lived and worked in New York, though, with his son, Caleb, and wasn’t technically part of the team.
They were all elder compared to my experience, I supposed, and in bloodline. My mother hadn’t been a Ranger, nor had anyone else in her family. My father—such as he was—had no powers. Someone in one of their family trees had to have been Meta, but I had no idea who and really didn’t care enough to research it. The direct descendants of the Ranger Corps were the five people I worked with every single day. Stories circulated about newly powered people popping up across the country. We’d publicly invited them to contact us. So far, they were keeping to themselves.
I popped into my bedroom to change. Its meager contents included a well-made bed, littered with overstuffed pillows, and a matching dresser. My favorite wicker rocking chair had followed me from my old apartment. An oversize, peeling white monster with a flat, faded cushion, it was the only thing from my mother’s house I’d kept.
Sentimentality wasn’t my strong suit. I had a shoe box of snapshots packed up in a carton along with the rest of my meager belongings—mostly books and a few academic award certificates. Spiffing up my personal space was less important than getting the rest of the house in order. No one would ever see the crappy interior of my bedroom, but the lobby and downstairs rooms presented an image to others. It had to be a good one.
I stripped out of my paint-splattered jeans and tank top, then did a quick skin check in the closet mirror, as had become a habit. Teresa had smudges of purple on her body, some more noticeable than others. Renee was completely blue. Marco had black and brown patches of velvet-soft fur all over his face, torso, and legs. Sections of Gage’s hair reflected the same silver in his flecked eyes. Only Ethan had escaped noticeable discoloration.
So far, I had an orange streak that no brand of hair dye managed to hide, but no other major colorations on my body. Thank God. Even my eyes had remained light blue.
I slipped into a pair of clean, dark blue jeans and a white silk camisole. A brush through my hair separated the dried-together bits. I twisted the orange section into a rope, tucked it behind my right ear, and secured it with a barrette. Not too bad. Nothing like the timid journalist I’d been last year.
I opened the door and jumped back, barely missing Ethan’s fist knocking into my nose. His other hand sported bandages on three fingertips.
“Hey,” he said, “change your clothes. We’ve got a job.”
A native of the Delaware seashore, Kelly Meding lives in Maryland, with a neurotic cat that occasionally meows at ghosts. After discovering Freddy Krueger at a very young age, Kelly began a lifelong obsession with horror, science fiction, and fantasy, on which she blames her interest in vampires, psychic powers, superheroes, and all things paranormal. When not writing, she can be found crafting jewelry, enjoying a good cup of coffee, or scouring the Internet for gossip on her favorite television shows.