SCORCHED

First in a new urban fantasy series from HarperImpulse


~1~


I'm not a bad person.

I repeat it, over and again until the words scorch into my brain. I'm not a bad person. I don't deserve this.

It's the white room again. I'm strapped to the hard metal chair, my eyelids taped open. A dangling light bulb flickers. My feet are bare, my half-shaved hair a knotted mess under the heavy alloy helmet they've bolted around my skull to neutralize my power. I'm sweating in my gray hospital smock. It itches and stinks of piss. I don't remember pissing myself.

I don't remember much about anything.

But I'm not a bad person. They can't trick me into believing I am. Hour after hour, I repeat the words, so they can't make me forget: My name is Verity Fortune. I'm thirty-one years old. I'm not a bad person.

In the dim control room behind safety glass, the pretty doctor pushes her glasses up on her nose. She's the one I call Dr. Mengele, blue eyes like ice and a thick blonde braid over her shoulder. She wears a clean white coat. She twiddles knobs on her machine and hurts me.

I brace for the next assault, struggling to keep my thoughts untangled. They can't make me forget. I know who she works for. My archenemy, the psychopath who locked me up in this place. He's the evil one, not me. If I ever get out of here…

Mengele presses one of her buttons. Current crackles along my skin, and the tiny hairs on my arms jerk taut. My muscles crunch and twist in agony. An angry bonfire ignites behind my eyeballs, and even after so many days—even though I know it's what she wants—I can't help it.

My power flexes, a warm muscle in my head. I remember that, all right. I can break glass, crush concrete, move objects at will. But nothing happens. The augmentium helmet just heats up, absorbing my telekinetic energy. Electrodes sizzle. My skin burns, the stink of singed hair. I gnash my teeth. Spit bubbles on my lips, coppery with blood.

"Zero point three micra on the left frontal." Dr. Mengele's voice, distorted over the tannoy.

The orderly waddles closer, his grin full of bad teeth. It's the fat one today. The fat one likes to hurt people, and his greasy hospital greens are already pinpricked with blood, mine or from one of the other poor fools they've got locked up in this dungeon. A black expanding baton dangles from his thick waist. The name tag sewn onto his shirt says Frank.

I've been watching the orderlies, while each day they tie and untie me, shove me from room to room, bring my plastic trays of pureed food. Fat Frank is slower and stupider than the others. And today, I'm more awake than he thinks.

Last night I choked up my meds, mashed peas and acid and two little red capsules of mindfuck. Again this morning. I'm feeling more alert, more alive than I have in weeks. And for the past few days, I've been giving Frank attitude. Making wise-ass remarks. Spitting stewed apple in his face. He's already blacked one of my eyes, and he wants to hurt me more. He's easy game.

Frank looms over me, his globular shadow blotting out the light. I whimper, like I usually do. Let myself drool. Fight to keep my senses sharp, though the raw-scraped nerves in my brain scream for silence and surrender.

Keys jingle on Frank's belt. My ears twitch. I can smell the peculiar sweetness of his breath, like spoiled flowers. His sour body heat is an unpleasant caress. His thigh squashes mine. He reaches for my helmet to make the adjustment.

Clickety-snap. The vise-tight band around my skull loosens, just a fraction.

I sink my teeth into his fat wrist.

Blood spurts. Frank howls, and slaps me upside the head. My ears ring, and the helmet knocks crooked, just an inch or two.

Told you he was stupid. An inch or two's all I need.

I let loose with a clumsy surge of power, and rip the buckle from my left wrist. I'm out of practice—creaky, like a rusty cell door in some ancient prison—but the leather tears clean off its studs. A crushing ache squeezes my skull, but I don't care.

Mengele shouts. Frank's already lurching for me like a bleeding ox. But he's too slow. With my free hand, I tear the helmet from my head. Horrid thing, now I see it, wires and clamps and a rusty bolt at the back. I throw it across the room, and I'm free. My power thrashes and screams, a tortured beast released at last, and I pick Frank up with a huge invisible fist and slam him into the wall.

He hits with a splat like the blubbery sack of shit he is, and slumps. Blood trickles from his nose to stain his shirt. Never mind. A few drops more won't make a difference.

I crack my neck, satisfied. See? A bad person would have killed Frank. But Frank, so far as I can tell from the way he's groaning, isn't dead.

I rip off my restraints. Tear the tape from my eyelids. Blink, one-two-three-four-five-six. Ah, sweet relief. In the control room, Mengele's reaching for the alarm, calling for her heavies to come pin me down.

The glass pane judders in my unseen grip, and the window explodes. I dive through headfirst, hit the console and tumble onto the floor in a glittering hail.

Mengele backs off, stumbling for the door. I slam the bolts shut and jump up.

She cowers, alone. In close-up, with no glass separating us, she looks slender and breakable. Her fear smells rotten, like she's crapped herself. Maybe she has. But that sly headshrink's guile still glints in her gaze. "Okay, I can see you're upset. Would you like to talk? We can talk about whatever you want—"

"Shut up!" My voice is rusty, too, like I've forgotten it or screamed too long. "Give me my files."

"I can't divulge personal information."

I fling out my hand, palm outwards, and invisible force rams her against the wall. My hands quiver in memory of everything she's done to me, the machines, the voltage jerking my muscles tight, the agony chewing in my skull as she tortured me. I'm sweating, shaking. My breath's on fire. My power is starved and vengeful, hungry for prey. A bad person would squeeze the life from her.

I ease up, just a fraction. "Give me the goddamn file before I crush your throat."

"Okay." Mengele's voice strangles. Her face gleams bloodless. She believes me. "On the shelf, white document box. Just let me go."

I let her go and tear the box from the shelf. It's empty, but for a single pink slip of paper, duplicate to a form headed INPATIENT ADMISSION. The carbon-copy handwriting is dusty and black. I blink stinging eyes, confused. I don't recognize the name or birthdates. My thoughts swirl and tangle, sinking into chaos…

No. I grit my teeth. I know who I am. I'm Verity Fortune. I'm thirty-one years old. These details are fake. They just don't want anyone to find me.

Date of admission: October 2nd. Must be what, three weeks ago now? Addresses, phone numbers, none of which I recognize. Ten square boxes for my fingerprints, but the ink doesn't show on this copy. A scrawled signature at the bottom that I can't read. The space for Discharge Date is blank.

My knuckles crack white, and the paper crushes in my fist. It's not enough. I need details. Proof. Once I'm gone, they'll deny everything. "Where's the rest of it?" I demand.

Mengele swallows. She's stalling. "It's digital. That's the only paper copy."

"Then download it—"

The door implodes, and her heavies pile in. Six of them, armed with batons and capsicum spray and hissing tasers. One of them's holding an iron-ribbed strait jacket.

Fine. Screw details, if that's the way they want it.

I stuff the paper into my itchy gray scrubs—no pockets—and fight.

Ten minutes later, I'm done. Outside, on the mountainside, it's nighttime, the wispy fog drifting though fragrant eucalyptus trees. It's warm for October, and in the valley, Sapphire City's towers glitter like frosted flames. Smoke roughens my throat. Shadows flicker, and behind me, someone screams.

I leap the fence and run into the forest. The dirt feels good under my bare feet.

Before I left, I opened all the doors and set the asylum on fire.


~2~

By the time I reached the city, it was long past midnight. Behind me, fog wreathed the tree-lined hills, grasping wispy fingers down into the valley. Stars wheeled overhead, their constellations strange and lopsided. Street lights burned oddly bright. Even the air smelled weird. Freedom. I never wanted to forget it again.

I stole some clothes from a hobo's shopping cart in some alley off Castro Street. Distant sirens howled. A painted mural rainbowed the wall where the hobo slept, and he muttered and rolled over, wrapping in his greasy jacket and a mist of stale rotgut whiskey. Rats scuttled under a trashpile as I rifled the cart. It was very warm for October, and shorts and a T-shirt would have done. But I needed to stay hidden, so I chose a dirty black hoodie, grimy jeans and a pair of flip-flops, and threw my piss-stinking hospital gear in the dumpster.

A discarded pizza box lay half crushed in the gutter, a rat poking his long nose inside. My stomach grumbled, but I left it alone. Not quite that desperate, yet.

Clothes sorted. Nothing I could do about my beaten-up face, or the ragged state of my hair. I looked exactly like an escaped mental patient. I stank like one, too, and my head ached like… well, like I'd had a metal helmet bolted to my skull for three weeks. But I couldn't go home. His goons would be hunting me. I had no cell phone, no cash, not even a dollar for a phone call.

And truth was, I felt naked and helpless without my mask. Sure, that foul helmet was gone, and I was strong again, but these days you couldn't just flash your powers around in Sapphire City and expect to avoid attention. There's a reason we augmented folks have secret identities.

In the real world, we're called augmented, see. Life isn't a comic book. I'm not from another planet, and I didn't get bitten by a mutant spider or drown in toxic waste only to be resurrected with super powers. I was just born this way. It didn't make me good or evil. That's a choice we all make, one way or another.

But wielding powers attracted unwanted attention, whether from the villains, the lynch mob or the press, all equally dangerous in different ways. That's why we wear masks and costumes to work: what we do isn't safe. And without my mask—or any idea of what had been going on since I'd somehow pissed the villains off enough to get locked in some prehistoric loony bin—I was trapped like a bug in a jar inside my own cover story. Hi, I'm Verity Fortune, freelance journalist. Who's that, you say? The Seeker? Black vinyl catsuit and mask? Fights crime? She's just a rumor, friend. She's not real. Trust me, I'm a reporter. If she was real, I'd know, wouldn't I?

No, I had to stay incognito until I got a grip on the situation. For the moment, I was just plain Verity, but I still had villains on my trail who'd happily carve my brain into cat food, or worse. Which meant I needed to see my father, and pronto.

My father was Thomas Fortune, owner and chairman of Fortune Corporation, a multi-million-dollar company specializing in security and weapons technology. By night, he was Blackstrike, Sapphire City's best-loved crime-fighter, wielding his dark mastery of shadow to defeat the Gallery, our local gang of villains. Only our family knew that Tom Fortune was Blackstrike (for a guy his age, I've gotta say, Dad still looks rockin' in that black trench coat) and that FortuneCorp was just a front for the real family business: fighting evil.

Augmentation came with the Fortune blood: me, my two brothers, my sister, my uncles, our cousins. Though we didn't always get along—big sister, in particular, had the mother of bad attitudes—Dad kept us in line, and he didn't risk unmasking himself without good reason. Still, the bad guys had just benched me for three weeks in the middle of a cease-fire, and FortuneCorp couldn't take a hit like that without fighting back. Dad would know what to do.

But my wits spun in drunken circles, and my vision blurred with fatigue. I couldn't remember Dad's phone number. And I couldn't just turn up at FortuneCorp HQ without being sure I wasn't followed. I'd just have to stick with what I did remember.

I tugged my hood forward as far as it would go, and walked on.

Broken glass littered the sidewalk on Market Street, where galleries and colorful boutiques squeezed in beside restaurants and crowded bars. Garbage piled in the gutter, spilling onto the street, and a few pale people in shapeless clothes picked through it for food. Yellow hybrid taxi cabs cruised for customers, amongst zipping traffic, bicycle couriers, rattling painted trolley cars.

I passed some drunken guys in suits, a gang of teenagers riding skateboards, and prostitutes, the expensive ones in thigh boots and fishnets, as well as their poorer, more desperate sisters, wearing whatever skimpy clothes they could scrounge. Homeless dudes harangued passers-by for change or booze. Graffiti on the brick alley walls read U.S. OUT OF IRAN and SAVE OUR CHILDREN: VOTE NO TO PROP 101 and GOD HATES AUGMENTS, but most often…

It was everywhere. Scrawled in chalk on the broken sidewalk. Spray-painted in fat scarlet letters like blood-soaked balloons. Etched on a window with bold, sharp strokes beneath a blotch of melted glass:

BURN IT ALL

My thoughts melted like ghosts, a haze of glassy memory come alive. Flames lick the hot metal walls. Radiant heat scorches my face, inexorable, hungry. No. I fling out my hand, grasping for my power. Chilling laughter taunts me, and flame stings my palm in warning, a threat or a caress…

My shoulder bounced hard off a lamp post, and I stumbled. I blinked to clear my head and walked on.

I stole some change from the tip jar in a fire-bright trance bar and caught the trolley car, downtown where neon-lit doorways beckoned and people spilled out onto the streets in their clubbing gear, tight rubber dresses and high-cut leather jackets and the silky slide of Lycra. Searchlights split the sky between skyscrapers and old town houses, amid sirens and thudding helicopter blades. One of the clubs was gutted by fire, just a charred shell, sprouting twisted metal and glittering with broken glass. Yellow crime scene tape strung tight across the gaping hole, and black-uniformed cops with truncheons moved people along.

I stared, pressing my nose to the trolley car window. The Gallery's work, no question. One entire corner of the building had been chopped off and burned debris littered the sidewalk. The exposed steel beams had bubbled at the ends, the ragged brickwork melted. Cauterized. Like a white-hot razor had sliced it clean through.

BURN IT ALL

I shuddered, and looked away.

The sidewalk was crowded with street performers and food carts selling pizza slices or hot dogs. Mmm, real food. My mouth watered at the delicious salty scent. We passed a police blockade, then another, the cops with their holster-locked sidearms and polycarbonate riot shields checking IDs. Gangs of youths in baggy jeans and hoodies slunk around and glared at each other. No one walked alone.

I frowned. Tense. Had the war erupted again? More work for FortuneCorp?

The tram turned right and rattled along the waterfront where, through the palm trees, the double-decked Bay Bridge suspended creaking across the water, its sweeping neon arcs glistening in misty moonlight. Overhead, seagulls wheeled and squawked. On the opposite shore, suburban lights sparkled like scattered jewels.

I hopped off and walked two blocks south, to an ornate redbrick apartment building, its gilt-etched windows hidden behind security mesh. I strolled casually to the next corner. Didn't see or hear anyone. No one did a sudden double take, or grew a lizard's skin and attacked me, or carved the street open down to the subway with burning razorwhips. When the Gallery are involved, you have to guard against everything.

I slipped alongside the building and jumped up to the second floor fire escape. My flip-flops slapped on the metal landing. Inside, a shadowy living room beckoned. No lights. No movement. No one was home. Fine. I'd just go inside and wait.

I twisted the security screen aside with a swift tug of mindsense, unlocked the window and quietly slid the sash upwards.

Cold hands grabbed my throat, and dragged me inside.


~3~


Lights flared, blinding me. I hit the floor, my bones jarring, and scrambled to my feet, ready to fight by ear and scent. A steely arm caught me across the chest, and slammed me into the wall. My breath sucked away. Struggling, I grabbed an invisible handful of power and prepared to throw it, hard.

"Verity?" The grip on my throat loosened. My vision cleared, revealing curly blond hair, broad shoulders. I smelled leather and cologne, and memory twinkled bright. "Is that you?"

I choked, eyes watering, and let my power ebb away. Damn, his voice felt good in my ears. "Christ on a cheeseburger. That's no way to greet your sister."

My big brother wrapped me in a hug, crushing my breath away all over again. I clung to him, overcome. He was so warm. So human. His voice muffled against my hair. "Verity. Holy Jesus. I can't believe it's you. Where the hell have you been?"

"Steady on," I grumbled, and pushed him away, but I couldn't help a tired grin. Adonis Fortune is sixteen months older than I am and, unlike me, he inherited Dad's patrician good looks: six foot two, blond and blue, with a smile that kills at twenty paces.

No joke. Adonis works for FortuneCorp in public relations, but he's also Narcissus, vigilante crusader for peace, wielding the power of charisma. Which sounds like a pretty lame augment, until you consider all the crazy things people will do if they think they're in love with you.

I've seen Adonis charm hardened criminals into giving up their weapons, talk suicidal teenagers down from the edge with a wink and a smile. Once last year, when Razorfire and the Gallery were terrorizing the dockyards, we were holed up in this greasy warehouse and—

The world blotted black, and I stumbled to my knees in a dizzy whirlpool of misery.

Razorfire.

Goddamn it. I said his name.

It pierced my ears, mocking me, echoing like his eerie laughter, and jagged memories hacked deep into my brain.

I cling to the side of the skyscraper, my fingers wrapped tight around a glassy ledge. Raindrops sting my face, the October breeze chilled with the promise of winter. My hair blows wild. I grit my teeth and climb. My feet slip on the glass. Only seconds now, until the weapon goes off…

Dad calling my name, his shadows curling…

…silvery metal glints in the spotlights, a glass canister of poison gas on a cell phone timer. It's an aerosol weapon, ionized particles for maximum adhesion. The building is fifty-six stories high. From this altitude, the poison will spread rapidly, blanketing the city center within minutes. Maximum loss of life. Not a moment to lose. My hands shake. I reach for it, grasping…

…don't hurt her… last chance…

Something slams into my face, and I fall into iron-strong hands. Coiled lightning whips, an inch from my cheek, searing me. I struggle, blood streaming into my eyes, but it's no use. They grab my legs, my arms, wrap a fist in my hair. I'm taken…


"Verity, stay with me." Adonis gripped my shoulders, dragging me from the shattered mess of my mind. His cool fingers stroked my face. "My God. What happened to you?"

I throttled down a scream, and forced my eyes open, willing the nightmare to leave me be.

BURN IT ALL. Razorfire, archvillain, wielder of flame and poison. My nemesis. Hell, that raging psycho was everyone's nemesis. Ruthless, rage-riddled, driven by indomitable conviction that he was smarter and stronger and better entitled to be alive than everyone else. But us augmented folks at least rated a fight and a wise-ass remark or two while he preached his hatred. Regular people weren't even fit to breathe the same air.

I'd crippled his weapon at the last second, stopped his insane poison plan. But I hadn't gotten away clean. Oh, no. I'd swallowed the full, sick force of his vengeance. Three endless weeks in that mediaeval torture chamber…

Adonis shook me gently. "Listen to me. Stay with me. What did they do to you?"

"What happened?" I gasped, blood trickling hot from my nose. "That night. Tell me. Did he… did Razorfire…?"

"He got away, Verity!" Adonis's words cracked like whip leather. "Don't you remember? We looked everywhere for you."

"They locked me up!" My scream broke, glass shattering on iron. I twisted from my brother's grip. "They bolted my head in augmentium so I couldn't do anything, and they tortured me. There was no point to it. They didn't ask me any questions. They just…"

Adonis stared, pale. He'd cut his hair, I noticed, and grown a short beard. Since when?

"Don’t stare at me like that! Why didn't you come for me?" Hot liquid rage welled in my eyes. I knew it wasn't Adonis's fault. Razorfire was clever. He'd hidden me well.

But that didn't quench my anger. And I couldn't bear my brother's silence. I needed him to talk to me, to prove I existed in the real world, and not just in a rusty white cell, or the broken wasteland of a tortured mind. "You left me there," I accused, shaking. "You left me in that forsaken place—"

"Everyone thought you were dead." The dimple in his handsome chin tightened. He was just as furious. "You were gone so long, and we looked everywhere…"

"So long? You gave up pretty damn fast. It's only been three weeks!"

Adonis eyed me, incredulous. "Three weeks? Verity, it's July."

My vision doubled. "Huh?"

"It's July. You've been gone for over nine months."

Flame flashes, the dark depths of a pit, the agony in my head flaring like a supernova…

I swallowed, sour. "Th–that can't be right. I counted. It was only…"

Oh, shit.

I stalked to his computer, and swiped the screen to wake it up. The date glared at me like an evil eye from the top corner. July 12th. I scrabbled through the glossy marketing magazines on his desk. June issue, a year I thought hadn't yet begun. The Financial Times, July 12th, the Dow Jones down again, the new deutschmark tumbling, riots in Zurich, some crisis in Chinese fusion energy production.

The sweat slicking my forehead suddenly taunted me, cackling in my head like a witch. Stupid me, I'd thought the warmth unseasonable. Evil laughter, clanging in my ears, metal clamps grinding tighter and tighter…

Panicked, I sucked in air, hyperventilating, the taste of rust invading my lungs, stewed apples, my bitter medication, the saccharine moisture of Frank's breath…

"I am so sorry, Verity." Adonis's face was wan with shock. "If I'd known, I never would have… Hey, easy. It's all right." He stilled my twitching hands, tried to make me sit. "I'm just happy you're alive. Let's get you a shower and some food and we can talk."

My tired body whimpered in response. Food sounded great. A shower, even better. But I didn't have time for comforts. "Look, I just need to talk to Dad. He can sort this out. I've lost my cell phone, my memory's a bit hazy, can you…?"

My brother's gaze blackened like a thundercloud.

"What?" The word parched my throat.

"Don't you remember?"

My pulse squirted cold. "What? Tell me!"

"Dad's gone, Vee." His eyes glittered, sky-blue to the brim with anguish and rage. "The night you were caught. He tried to help you, and Razorfire killed him."




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