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Maya hadn’t been looking where she was going. She just wanted to be away. The nebulous sort of ‘away’ teenaged girls often wanted to be.
There were differences in her case as opposed to normal teenaged girls, of course: They worried about pimples and looking stupid in front of boys, or parents that didn’t understand. Maya’s worries of eruptions were closer to the volcanic variety than blocked pores, she was much more afraid of accidentally incinerating the boy she liked than being caught in the wrong outfit by him, and…
Well, she usually tried not to think about her parents because it upset her and being upset seemed to make her lose bits of her control. But now she was completely out of control and streaking away from the resort as a fireball, so there was no reason not to.
Her teachers, those who talked to her about it like Ms. Brant and Ms. Masters had told her their death wasn’t her fault, but she’d secretly believed they’d been lying to her; trying to make her feel better. It was easy to blame her powers and go on fearing them than it was to consider that someone had murdered her family and that the macabre singing of the flames she’d heard as they consumed her life was an unrelated thing entirely.
Now, not only had that truth been ripped away from her, but a new and confusing one put in its place. Her father had been involved with… something. Something top secret and possibly illegal that caused those people he was involved with to try and get rid of him by killing his family in a fire. Only as it turned out, Maya herself might have been the very thing (and she mentally hit the word ‘thing’ like a compact car might hit a brick wall) they were after. English wasn’t her best subject, but she was pretty sure that was irony.
And if she had been paying attention and her mind had been in the right place to think of where she was going, she might have thought to gain altitude as she neared the mountain’s broad shoulders, or at least listen to Soot’s sudden, panicked squeals.
As it was, she was unaware of the approaching treeline until she actually hit it. What she hit, in a more specific sense, was an ancient pine tree with a trunk bigger around than she was and a spread of needle-clad branches thirty feet across. She burned a hole though the branches without even touching them. Then she hit the trunk and, for lack of a better word, exploded again.
Smoldering chunks of wood sprayed out into the snow in all directions and the great tree itself bounded upward a fraction of an inch as the living missile that was Maya excised a five foot section of its trunk right out form under it. With branches and needles bursting into flame despite the dusting of snow on them, the old tree crashed down among its fellows and slid in the snow several feet before coming to rest on a protruding boulder and another old pine.
Maya landed not far from the other side of the stump, having managed to get all the way through it before her forward momentum was spent. The impact jarred her once more into solidity and she sprawled in the snow, rolling and bouncing ass over teakettle until finally landing flat on her back.
By the time her senses returned to her, she was merely on fire instead of being made of it. The intense heat of the flames that surrounded her had melted the snow and was cooking it off into steam. Soot, his globe broken either in the initial impact, or the fall that followed, was cavorting round her, playing in the now-dry pine needles around her.
As she watched, half drunk from dizziness, he picked up a bunch of needles and threw them into the air, absorbing and burning whatever landed on him. And all the while, he was making the equivalent of yummy noises in her head.
Somehow, him being happy, made her happy—or she had a concussion; one or the other.
Maya looked up at the gray sky and somewhere in the back of her thoughts, the part of her that loved science so much that she had dreams about proving hypothesis more often than she did about being the most popular kid in school, made a sudden, but obvious connection.
SD-108, whatever it really was and assuming it even really had anything to do with her powers, had entered her family tree after World War II, more than a hundred years and six generations of her family ago. Regardless of if It had come from her mother or her father, it had been a part of her family since before even her parents were born.
If that made her inhuman, it would have made everyone in the family tree inhuman too: including one parent who she loved very much. And on a more practical level, even if the USE that SD-108 originated from really was some kind of monster, Maya was far, far more human that monster just by virtue of all her fully human ancestors.
She let out a long breath, sending with it some of the stress and anxiety that had been inside her. Things were still scary, but they weren’t the end of the world.
In fact, now that she was thinking like the scientist she wanted to be, she realized she’d been very unscientific in her panic. Alice had only told her that she was a candidate for having the gene sequence. Everything else was based on informal observations and letting stress get to her. Nothing concrete yet said that she even was one of the SD-108 descendants.
By then, she was feeling much better. Still in maybe mortal danger from a shadowy organization, still possessed of powers she clearly didn’t have a handle on (as the increasingly heavy scent of burning pine told her), and in need of a very, very long talk with Ms. Masters later… if she got the nerve up—but better nonetheless.
Science: it was better than a good cry.
With a force of will, Maya put out the flames encircling her. A fraction of a second later, she regretted it, because while her hoodie and snow pants remained, she was now sitting just below the treeline on a frozen mountain barefoot, hatless and with no gloves.
By the time she got into a sitting position, Maya’s teeth were chattering. Soot responded by scurrying over, leaping into her lap, and from there, hopping onto her left hand, where he stuck like gum to the underside of a desk, shedding heat.
The adorable little fireling was a comfort, but a very small one, so Maya scooted over to the stump of the sundered pine. It had kindled into a nice sized campfire, which Maya leaned against so she could get her thoughts together in relative warmth.
Not long after, she heard the approach of an engine.
By then, she was cold, tired and hungrier than she’d been in weeks thanks to all the energy she expended over the past few minutes, so she was just glad that someone had found her. Answering the questions of some snow patrol officer would probably give her nightmares, but at least that would come with a ride down the mountain and at the moment, that sounded like a fair trade.
The engine noise grew closer and she realized there was more than one.
Twisting around a bit, she spotted the source: three snowmobiles were making their way between the sparse pine trees and less sparse boulders that littered the slope, no doubt converging on the columns of smoke and steam rising from the scene of her landing.
All three snowmobiles were dull white, the color of an egg shell, and had no markings. The riders were dressed in whites and grays, making them hard to pick out against the snow. This made no sense to Maya: wouldn’t the snow patrol want to be as visible as possible for the sake of lost skiers?
Unless they weren’t the snow patrol.
Maya’s actual situation came crashing into stark clarity. She was the target of something clandestine, hounded by the kind of people that looked an instance of Nazi mysticism and thought that would be a great foundation for over a hundred years of dedicated work. Work that culminated in convincing a teenaged girl that she’d burned her parents to death.
They had sicced Ambrose on her and he’d hounded her until she left Canada entirely. And in the US, they sent fake FBI agents and presumably kidnapped her uncle. And on top of that, they were responsible for Steampunk being the way she was: socially maladjusted, distant, and confused by humanity.
People like that were exactly the kind of people that would send a hit squad out in stealth snowmobiles to capture her.
Maya tried to transform again, the escape, but blasting through the tree had expended too much energy and all she could do was smoke fitfully as the snowmobiles came closer.
Soot picked up on her fear and attempts at escape and chirped at her. She didn’t know how, but her brain interpreted it as a cheerful little ‘I’m being helpful!’ before he stopped pretending to be her mitten and raced up her arm to her shoulder. Before she could figure out what he was doing, the fireling had hopped from her shoulder to the stump.
The flames on the burning stump were all leaning toward Maya like plants leaning toward sunlight, but when Soot climbed up the long to stand among them, they leaned toward him instead. Aggressively.
What had been a muted but content sound of fire singing as it consumed wood transformed into the fire equivalent of the fierce and affronted howled of chimpanzees whose territory was under the attack. All of the fire that had been chewing through the log a moment before, seemingly all a single flame, suddenly fractured into dozens of tongues of fire before mobbing Soot en masse.
For a moment, Maya felt a stab of panic in her heart for the little creature, but it was unnecessary: Soot took all comers.
‘Took’ in the same sense that he ‘took’ the pine needles earlier. The (and Maya’s mind finally settled on ‘primitive’ here) flames slammed into him in a territorial whirlwind and were absorbed just as easily as they would have done to a bit of flash paper. In a moment, the only flame on the stump was Soot, his little belly analog a bit rounder for the effort.
Maya blinked at him. Not only was she unsure of if she should be disturbed by that, but she also hadn’t the foggiest idea of how that constituted helping her.
The snowmobiles arrived over the last dip in the slope and came to a halt several yards away. From that distance, it was easy to see that they weren’t there to help anyone. Over arctic camouflage thermals, they wore light gray tactical webbing with shoulder holsters. The webbing held some sort of grenades among other, less recognizable devices.
Two of the riders dismounted instantly and took up assault rifles with under-slung grenade launchers from racks on the back of their respective snowmobile. The third took his time clipping something heavy on the back of his vehicle to his reinforced webbing. Their faces were hidden behind helmets with opaque visors.
“Don’t move!” One of the first two ordered in a loud, male voice as he trained his gun on Maya. “The second I see flames, I’m gonna open up on you.”
Maya looked at him with wide, frightened eyes and hoped that Soot understood enough to stay hidden behind her.
The second rider grunted and lowered his rifle slightly. “You mean to tell me this kid is what they’ve been looking for all this time? She’s what? Ten?”
Fear started to ebb with annoyance. She really wanted to correct them. Maybe she was small for her age, maybe she came off as meek, and maybe people said she had a baby face, but she did not look like she was ten.
“Dangerous things come in small packages these days.” The third man finally stepped away from his snowmobile. Attached to his harness was a machine that looked like a heavy duty chainsaw without the trademark toothy appendage. It was matte black with a few green, glowing lights on the side and an LED read-out facing him. As he stepped forward, the front unfolded and extended two flattened prongs like an overbuilt tuning fork. With a few touches of the screen and he had a field of blue electricity cracking between them.
“But don’t worry. Just hold her still and the electro-static net’ll take care of the rest.”
“I-I’m not who you’re looking for.” Maya said quietly. It was all she had, the stalling. She was too drained to flee and she couldn’t bring herself to throw fire at a living person even under those circumstances.
“Nice try.” Said the first gunman. “We’ve all seen pictures. We know who you are. Now get up nice and slow and start walking toward us.”
What she really needed was to think. Given enough time, Maya was pretty sure she could have gotten out of what was going on. Or at least she thought she could. Only the guns pointed at her and the promise of a life being studied by the modern era’s answer to the Thule Society weren’t a big help in the ‘clearing her head’ department.
Neither was the engine noise.
Again, she found herself blinking. Because that noise wasn’t coming from the snowmobiles. In fact, it was much bigger. Considering her luck of the last day, Maya figured that the noise meant that some other evil organization had arrived and they would fight over the right to be the one to dissect her.
Her attackers took notice of it too. The first turned to the third and said, “Hurry this up. Sounds like someone’s coming this way.”
He was too late, however, if he intended to get away unseen, because at the moment, a big, yellow snowcat appeared between the trees on the other end of the slope, it’s big, flexible treads easily surmounting boulders and fallen logs the snowmobiles had to negotiate.
“Looks like there’s no way we’re doing this quietly anymore.” said the man with the net device. “Ross, flashbangs.”
“No names.” the second gunman growled. He tugged one of the grenades off his vest and loaded it into his rifle’s grenade launcher
The first man still had Maya in his sights and never looked away as he spoke. “Forget the flashbangs, waste ’em. We only need this one.”
The other gunman snorted and flicked the safety off his rifle. “Whatever.”
Below them, the snowcat came to a stop beside a rock outcropping too large for it to climb. The passenger door opened and someone jumped out of it, a slight figure bundled up in winter clothes Maya recognized. They waved up at the gunmen as if they couldn’t see the weapons.
“Hey there boys!” Olivia called up in what she might have thought was a passable Midwestern accent. Maya’s breath caught in her throat. “Snow patrol! You’re a little far off the trail there—you lost? Need some gas for yer snowmobiles there? I got a girl her in the truck that’s pretty handy with a wrench.”
The three men exchanged looks, confused as to how the girl could possibly not notice that they were armed to the teeth. The first man, probably their leader, shouted back, exaggerating a Canadian accent for her benefit. “Oh, golly no! We just came up here to see the sights. Don’t you worry, we’ve got a real good map on out palmtops, honey.”
“Really?” Olivia turned back to the open door of the snowcat and rummaged around in it, banging things about loudly. “Well that’s swell! Hey, do you guys want a mug of cocoa? I’ve got a thermos.”
Maya closed her eyes and concentrated on her fire sense, willing it to expand outward to detect flammables further away from her—specifically her friends. She picked nothing up from the snowcat besides the upholstery, fuel and Olivia’s clothing.
Just Olivia’s clothing.
And suddenly, she knew what was coming.
“Um… not thank you.” the leader said glancing down at the truck, a nervous tic in his eyes.
“Oh nonsense.” said Olivia, coming out of the snowcat’s cabin with a large, metal thermos. “Everyone loves cocoa, especially how I make it. At least give it a try.”
She got maybe five yards up the slope before the second gunman’s nerves got the better of him. He fired a three round burst into her, only to be stunned into temporary inaction when all three rounds ricocheted off metal.
Olivia raised the thermos in her ungloved hand, a hand that was shiny and metallic itself, and raised her cap to show a smiling, metal face. “Stainless steel thermos.” She said for Maya’s benefit, then added for the gunmen, “Stainless steel me.”
“Maya, don’t look!” Kura’s voice echoed from somewhere above the treeline, up on the frozen shoulder of Walking Bear Mountain.
As is natural for people, when someone says ‘don’t look’, everyone, including Maya looked up in the direction of Kura’s voice. For a second, it was possible to see her, Tammy and Steampunk, all holding gloveless hands, up on the slope. They were all white, streaked with gray thanks to Kura’s power.
In the next second, Kura extended her power and the entire, pristine mountainside was overtaken by a growing stain of twisting, shifting color. The display seemed to grab the eye, but more importantly for Kura’s intentions, the unnatural undulations twisted the stomach.
The leader of the gunmen retched and doubled over. His second and the man with the net device tried to fight down the same feelings and looked away.
Then a bolt of purple lightning came down from the slope and blew a branch off a tree near them, and the fight was joined.
To Be Continued…