(Note: The text that appears below is a pre-release preview which is taken from a version of the manuscript prior to final proof reading and formatting. As such, it may contain minor errors or typos which will be corrected in the final version of the novel.)
HER TENDANCY TO TURN into a gibbering idiot around pretty women aside, Danny tended to think of herself as fairly level-headed. Her mom was the quixotic civil rights lawyer who spent her time trying to move mountains. Her sister Max was the social worker out to save everyone, and her other sister Sam was the one who was trying to turn abandoned warehouses into organic farms in the middle of San Francisco. Danny always thought of herself as more like her dad. Practical and rational, and yeah, maybe easily led by a woman flashing a bit of cleavage, but no one was perfect.
She liked to think of herself as level-headed, but when Focus stepped into the room and their eyes met for a moment, just a moment, Danny believed in soulmates and love at first sight. She looked into those gorgeous, inhumanly vivid cobalt blue eyes and it felt like coming home after a long day. It felt like peace and calm. It felt like all was finally right with the world. She was overwhelmed with longing and relief and joy and anticipation.
She looked into those eyes, and it was like seeing someone she’d longed to hold in her arms for decades. It was the moment before you stepped into a hug, when you couldn’t feel their arms around you yet, but you knew they were coming. It was the moment before the kiss, when your lips parted and you just started to lean in and the moment was full of possibility. It was the moment just before you crawled into bed with the love of your life and fell asleep in her arms. It was the moment you slotted the last piece of a puzzle into place.
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t look away. She wanted more than anything to reach out and pull the woman in front of her into her arms and kiss her like the world was about to end. It had been so long, and she’d been so alone, but here she was, close enough to touch.
“Focus?” a voice called out, and the eye contact was broken. As soon as it happened, Danny felt like a part of her had been ripped away, and it burned so badly that Danny’s knees buckled. Strong arms caught her as she fell, and she looked up to see a vision. Those same blue eyes as before. Full lips that looked pillow soft. Golden blonde hair that seemed to shine like burnished metal. A jawline that could cut glass. Impossible beauty, a breath away.
“Gotcha,” Focus said, her voice soft and gentle as she lifted Danny back to her feet. It took a moment for Danny to steady herself, but once she did, Focus smiled at her. “There you go.”
“Thanks,” Danny said.
“Are you okay, Martin?” someone asked, and Danny finally remembered they weren’t alone. She turned to see Perez on her feet, a worried expression on her face.
“She’s fine,” Focus said. “That was my fault.”
“What do you mean?” Perez asked.
“It would seem our Danny here is just a teensy bit empathic,” Focus said, holding up her thumb and forefinger so close they almost touched.
Perez turned to Danny. “You’re a meta?”
“No, ma’am,” Danny said. “At least, I don’t think so. I’ve never been tested.”
“Easy, Deputy Marshal,” Focus said. “I didn’t say she was a meta. I said she was a bit empathic. It’s a naturally occurring ability in baseline humans.” Focus turned back towards her. “I apologize.”
“What just happened?” Danny asked.
“I’m more than a touch empathic,” Focus said. “It’s not an ability I use often because it can be a bit overwhelming, but I was using it today to help track the Kaiju in the bay, and I hadn’t completely closed off the empathic connection because I wanted to be able to sense it if it came back. I didn’t think anything of it because we only have one other empath on the team, and I knew I wouldn’t run into them. When our eyes met, you probably caught a bit of my emotions. It wouldn’t be something unusual for you, but because of my empathic abilities, it would be a bit like if you’ve got a pair of headphones on, and someone walks in and cranks the dial all the way up.”
“That’s…” Danny stopped. She was about to say that wasn’t what happened, but honestly, she didn’t want to explain what did happen to Perez or Lori. “That’s a good way to describe it,” she said.
Focus flashed her another one of those smiles, then turned to Perez. “I have some information about the Kaiju. I spotted it right away, but I didn’t want to broadcast it, even on a secure channel.”
“Why not?” Perez asked.
“Because it’s something that could be weaponized,” Focus said.
“Ahmad, take Martin down to medical. I want her checked and a meta-analysis done. If she is actually a meta and we put her in the field without approval, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lori said. She turned to Danny. “Come on. Let’s go see the vampires.”
Danny didn’t want to go. She wanted to stay and talk to Focus about what had just happened, but that didn’t seem to be an option, so she let Lori lead her out of the office with one more mystery on her plate.
No one was quite sure where the meta gene came from. Scientists knew it was unique to humans, and dated back at last a hundred and twenty thousand years, but beyond that, the origin of the gene was a mystery. They did know that until 1908, the activation of the gene was a fairly rare phenomenon. It was widely assumed that legends of heroes like Hercules, Achilles, and Beowulf were based on historical meta humans. The modern surge in meta gene activations had started after an alien spaceship had exploded over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Yeniseysk Governorate, Russia. The “Tunguska Event” was the start of the age of Superheroes.
In the hundred and thirteen years since, a number of tests for the meta gene had been developed, but Danny’s mom was paranoid about anything to do with the government and had carefully avoided having her or her sisters tested. Which was why Danny was sitting on an exam table in a plain looking exam room, downing her third bottle of orange juice and munching on a protein bar while Lori sat in a chair playing a game on her phone.
“I can see why you call them vampires,” she said between bites.
“That was nothing,” Lori said without looking up. “They took a whole pint from me once.”
“We get exposed to all sorts of weird shit. I think that time they were afraid I was going to turn into an alligator. Or maybe it was a crocodile. Honestly, I don’t know the difference.”
“Has that actually happened?” Danny asked.
“No,” Lori said. “But my ex-boyfriend did get turned into a giant turtle.”
“Are you serious?”
“About having an ex-boyfriend, or about him getting turned into a turtle?”
“Yes. He’s one of the photo techs on the forensics team. He touched something he shouldn’t have. You learn pretty quick not to touch things around here.”
“Noted,” Danny said.
“I bat for both teams, if you’re wondering,” Lori said.
“Not my business,” Danny said.
“It will be.”
“We’re partners, so we’ll be all up in each other’s business.”
“That a problem?”
“No. I just hadn’t realized.”
“No reason you should,” Lori said. She locked her phone and put it away. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” Danny said.
“Did you really get a look inside the ice queen’s head?”
“The ice queen?”
“Why do you call her that?”
“Because she is,” Lori said. “Seriously, I have been on this detail for six years. I’ve seen people come. I’ve seen people go. I’ve seen shit that would make most people pee their pants. I’ve seen things that reduced some of the hardest bastards I’ve ever met to tears. None of it affects her. Out in public, she’s nice enough. She shakes hands, she hugs kids, she signs autographs, she’s gone to the Pontian Pride festival every year for the last twenty-eight years. Even in here she’s polite enough. She knows everyone’s names. She keeps up with their kids and spouses and stuff, but she’s just cold. There’s no warmth. She doesn’t seek anybody out. Always eats alone. No one knows anything about her. Her first name, where she’s from, how she got her powers, why she became a hero. She doesn’t tell anyone anything.”
“Seriously?” Danny asked. “She seemed friendly enough to me.”
“Yeah, which I don’t get. You got more of a response out of her in thirty seconds than anyone else on the base has gotten out of her in the entire time I’ve been here. So, what’s the deal?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did you see inside her head?” Lori asked.
Danny thought about it for a minute, about the rush of feelings that overwhelmed her, and the moment of…Pain wasn’t the right word. When she thought back on it, it felt more like grief. So, the moment of grief she felt when the connection broke. Even now, when she poked at the memory, it felt like she’d lost something irreplaceable. The thought of trying to put that feeling into words was unbearable.
“I don’t think I should talk about it,” Danny said.
“What I saw…It felt private. I don’t think she meant for me to see it, and I don’t think she’d want me to talk about it.”
“Please tell me you’re kidding,” Lori said. “She’s one of the most powerful Superheroes on Earth. She’s a freaking gay icon. She’s gorgeous. And no one knows a damn thing about her. Then you come along, and you get a look in her head, and you’re not gonna share?”
“Afraid not,” Danny said.
Lori let out a deep sigh. “Fine,” she said. “So, what about you? You gay or bi?”
“How do you know I’m not straight?” Danny asked.
“You literally swooned when you met Focus,” Lori said. “And that was before the mind whammy.”
“I did not swoon.”
“You swooned,” Lori said.
“Yeah,” Lori said. “We can pull the security footage from Perez’s office if you doubt me.”
“No,” Danny said. “I think we can skip the humiliation.”
“So, answer the question.”
“Gay,” Danny said.
“Damn it!” Lori snapped.
“I was hoping you were bi.”
“Because we’re still one person short of a softball team. The lesbians have three teams, and even the straights have a team, but us poor bi ladies can’t scrape together enough players.”
“You should be.”
After receiving the test results and finding out that no, she was not, in fact, a metahuman, and a quick pee break to take care of the seven bottles of orange juice she drank while waiting, Danny followed Lori to the quartermaster’s office. There, she was measured, issued fifteen uniforms, three thigh holsters for one of the cut down ARs everyone seemed to carry, three new tac vests, three US Marshal Windbreakers, and a handful of other bits and pieces. There was at least three of everything, including the duffle bags to put it in. She watched as all of it was inscribed with her name and badge number and then carefully packed in the bags. She slung one over each shoulder, and Lori slung the third one, and led her towards the armory.
“Why three of everything?” she asked as they walked down the hall.
“We prefer you come and go in civvies. Leave your work kit here. Sometimes though, you get called directly to a hot site when you’re not at work, so we give you enough kit to keep duplicates of everything at home and in your vehicle. Everything is stamped with your name and badge number because we offer full laundry service. There are bins in the locker room. You just drop your dirty uniforms in them, and they’ll be laundered and returned by the next morning. There are separate bins for normal dirt and grime and blood and gore. Do not drop a bloody uniform in the regular bin. If your uniform is damaged, destroyed, or exposed to unknown contaminants, we will issue replacements.”
“Does that happen a lot?”
“Enough that we cover it instead of making you buy your own gear,” Lori said as she led them through the door to the armory. “Our budget comes out of Metahuman Affairs instead of Justice. There are perks.”
“Good to know,” Danny said.
“Hey, Lori,” a short, red-headed man behind the counter called out.
“Hey, Matt. I need a full issue for our newbie here.”
Matt looked at Danny. “You worked MERT support before?” he asked.
“Nope. I was fugitive retrieval.”
“Oh, you’re in for a treat,” he said as he turned to the computer sitting on one end of the counter. “Badge number?”
Danny gave him her badge number and he keyed it in, then asked her a couple of other questions before disappearing through a door behind the counter.
“Have you ever fired an AR pistol before?” Lori asked.
“A few times,” Danny said. “Always seemed more like a range toy than anything useful.”
“Yeah,” Lori said. “I used to feel that way too.”
Before Danny could say anything else, Matt came out of the back pushing a cart. There were six molded plastic gun cases on it. Three were large enough to hold full-sized rifles, and three were smaller, but big enough to hold the cut-down ARs. Matt put one of the smaller cases on the counter.
“Standard issue battle rifle is a select fire AR-10 pattern. I’m going to assume you know how to use one of those. But this is something you probably haven’t seen before.” He popped the case open. “This is a bufferless AR-15 pistol chambered in 300 Blackout. The recoil system has been moved from the buffer tube to the bolt carrier group to allow a shorter weapon, and we slap on a five-inch barrel. The accuracy is shit at anything over a hundred yards and it kicks like a motherfucking elephant on PCP, but if you shoot someone with this, they will, by God, know they have been touched.”
“Wait, you’re issuing 300 Blackout side arms?” Danny asked.
“No,” Matt said with a wink. “Of course not. That would make all the little Congress Critters shit themselves. We’re issuing 300 Blackout personal defense weapons. As a US Marshal, you are, of course, still responsible for purchasing and maintaining your own duty weapon. We use the same Glock 22s as the rest of the Marshal service, though if you want to upgrade to one of the new G5s, we do have a discount program worked out with a gun store a couple of blocks over, and they hold back some of their stock just for us.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Danny said.
“Good. Now comes the fun part. Let’s get your paperwork filled out.”
By the time Lori led her into the cafeteria for lunch, Danny was pretty sure she’d signed away her soul, her first born child, and maybe the book rights to her life. She also had enough weapons in her locker and the trunk of her car to invade a small country. She was a little surprised that they had her keep her rifle in her locker instead of the armory, but Lori had explained that it was a speed thing. It was faster for a squad to file through the locker room and grab their already-issued weapons than to go to the armory and sign out gear. Danny saw the logic behind it, but it made her a little nervous that they needed to move that fast.
There was a lot that was different about this assignment. For one, the office seemed to function more like a military base than a Marshal’s office. Then there were the people walking around in brightly colored costumes, or in one case, floating around. Hell, there was a guy wearing what Danny was pretty sure was power armor sitting in one corner of the cafeteria.
“You get used to it,” Lori said as they got in line.
“The weird. You get used to it. It takes time, and every once in a while, you will have a moment where you go ‘how is this my life,’ like when your boyfriend picks up an ancient Egyptian medallion and spends a week as a sea turtle, but most days, it’s just part of the job.”
“I’m not sure I want to get used to people turning into turtles,” Danny said.
Lori shrugged. “You’ll last or you won’t,” she said. “Either way, just try not to get dead.”
“That, we can agree on.”
“First lesson in not getting dead. Don’t get the fish. The French fries are fine. The Salisbury steak and the meatloaf are delicious if you don’t mind mystery meat. If you do mind mystery meat, the chicken and the wings are both good.”
“What about the pizza?”
“God, the pizza is to die for. They use whole milk cheese.”
When they got to the front of the line, Danny got two slices of pizza, an order of onion rings, honey glazed carrots, and at Lori’s insistence, something called collard greens. She was a little surprised when there was no register.
“Yeah,” Lori said. “The cafeteria is open 24/7. You can eat as much as you want.”
They grabbed a table near the door, and Danny reached for the hot sauce, splashing a bit on her pizza.
“You’re going to want a splash of that on your greens, too,” Lori said. Danny took her advice, still a bit dubious about the collards.
“This is the weirdest assignment I’ve ever had.”
“I know,” Lori said. “It runs more like an army base than anything else. Truth is, they probably should have given this gig to the army, but Posse Comitatus and all that. The FBI has been trying to take over since Hoover, but absolutely no one thought giving that fascist asshat access to metahuman assets was a good idea, and by the time he did everyone a favor and died, both the Department of Metahuman Affairs and the Marshal service had dug in their teeth and neither one has shown any sign of letting go. Now, try your greens, because if you side-eye them one more time, I’m going to shoot you.”
Danny laughed and got a fork full of collards. She honestly expected them to taste like grass, based on the way they looked, but they were delicious. Rich and earthy and flavorful, with a hint of smoke from the pieces of ham cut up in them, and a bit of a kick from the hot sauce.
“Oh, wow,” Danny said.
“They’re good, huh?” someone asked.
Danny turned towards the sound of the voice, and found Focus standing beside her.
“Mind if I sit?” Focus asked.
“Um…uh…No! No, of course not,” Danny said. “Go ahead.”
Focus took the seat next to Danny and set a large bowl of noodles on the table with a pair of chopsticks sticking out of it. She smiled at Danny, and Danny felt her heart skip a beat.
“I hope the doctors weren’t too rough on you.”
“No,” Danny said. “They only took eight vials of blood.”
“Oh. Only eight vials. I suppose that’s not too bad. I hear if you get slimed in the field, they take a whole pint.”
Danny felt a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “I had heard that,” she said. “I guess they don’t want anyone else turning into a turtle.”
“You heard about that?” Focus asked.
Focus shook her head. “Poor Osborn. He was fine once we figured out how to break the curse, but I can’t imagine living in a kiddy pool for a week.”
Danny laughed, and Focus smiled a little wider.
“I remember the first time I ever had collards,” Focus said. “I’d been in the field all day, and I came home and my girlfriend…Well, she wasn’t my girlfriend yet, just my roommate, but she had made me dinner. There was cornbread and collard greens and pan-fried chicken, and chocolate cake and macaroni and cheese. It was such a sweet gesture, and I just about broke down when I saw it.”
“Why?” Danny asked.
“We’d been fighting. Well, no, that’s not true. The truth is, I had been a complete bitch to her.”
“I know,” Focus said. “I’m supposed to be a hero, right. But I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m a bit of a hermit.”
“She must have forgiven you if she ended up being your girlfriend,” Danny said.
“She did,” Focus said. She reached out and picked up her chopsticks and started stirring her noodles. “When she first showed up, I didn’t really want a roommate, but I kind of had to take her in since it was my fault she didn’t have anywhere to stay. But suddenly I have this gorgeous, incredible woman living with me, and I was trying to do the right thing and keep my hands to myself, but I ended up hurting her, and I was terrified that I was going to come home and find her gone. That I’d messed up so bad she’d never speak to me again. But instead, I came home and found her putting dinner on the table.”
“So, everything worked out?”
“It did. That was actually the night we finally got together.”
“Was that Scatter?” Danny asked.
“It was,” Focus said wistfully. “God, I miss her.”
“What happened to her?” Danny asked. She’d always wondered, but the Marshals had never issued any sort of official statement. They’d just removed Scatter from the list of active Metahumans the day after Christmas in 1992 and refused to comment on her whereabouts.
Focus looked up from her noodles. “She had to go back home, and I had too many responsibilities to go with her. You should eat before your food gets cold.”
Danny turned back to her plate, and picked up a piece of pizza, taking a bite as she watched Focus start eating.
“What are you eating?” Danny asked when Focus had finished chewing her first bite.
“Peanut butter and spaghetti,” Focus said.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I heard that right,” Danny said. Focus laughed, and Danny was sure her heart was about to pound its way out of her chest.
“Sorry,” Focus said, but the amusement in her voice didn’t make her sound the least bit sorry. “They’re sesame peanut noodles. They’re one of my favorites. My girlfriend came out of the shower one morning and saw me dump a huge spoon full of peanut butter into a bowl, stir it for a minute, and then add a pot of noodles to it, so after that, she always teased me about eating peanut butter and spaghetti. I got the lady who runs the cafeteria to add it to the menu for me back in ‘92. You should give them a try sometime.”
“Maybe next year,” Danny said. “I’m not really adventurous when it comes to food.”
Focus laughed and shook her head before going back to her noodles, and Danny went back to her pizza. She actually tasted it this time, and Lori was right, it was fantastic.
That thought made her freeze as she realized Lori was still at the table with them. She turned slowly towards her partner, who was looking at her and Focus like they’d both grown a second head.
Lori mouthed, “What the fuck?”
Danny shrugged and went back to her lunch.