Carolina Smith hunched alone on the jail cell’s cot, gently running a finger across the throbbing gash across her forehead. It’d scar real bad. The Pariah’s scars always stayed, and hers was long and low. She’d wear it forever, marked with the brand of a cause she barely even cared about. The drug habit that had gotten her into this mess in the first place had just sunk its talons even deeper.
She once thought she’d find a way to get out of the game, quit Jorja’s crew and just be a god damned accountant, but her last chance at that future had just leaked out of her forehead and scabbed over. She’d be no good as a face any more, and she was a good enough shooter and brawler—how did she ever end up being a good shooter and brawler?—that she was probably looking at life as a hitter until her body gave out.
Damn paras. Damn humans. God damn everybody.
“Thinkin’ about what you did? Did we learn a lesson?” Someone’s voice, sickeningly familiar, broke Carolina from her reverie. She blinked her eyes clear of oncoming tears and looked up into the smirking, scarred face of her boss’s boss’s boss, flanked by two very muscular men and a tall woman wearing a long coat.
“J-jorja?” Carolina stammered. “What… uhm.”
“Get ‘er out,” Jorja jerked her head to one of the goons, who produced a keyring and unlocked Carolina’s cell door. “It’s debriefing time, Miss Smith.”
“I dold you,” Carolina wailed, blood running freely from her broken nose, “I don’d know how dey foud out! Id wad juzd da shapeshivter ad da Bariah id a self-dribing ban!”
“Yeah, I know,” Jorja looked up from the chair across from her, filing her nails. She glanced over at the hulk of a man nearby, who was wiping blood from one glove with a rag, then looked back and smiled. “I believe you. Thing is, Carolina, I’m not really inclined to ask John here to stop hitting you. I kinda think he should keep doing it.”
“You’re an accountant, so let me spell it out in terms you can understand.” Jorja dropped the smile and leaned forward, pointing her glass nail file squarely at Carolina. “Your life, to me, is basically a ledger. A series of transactions to and from the movement. Things you have done for us, things we have done for you. We have saved you from arrest, we have given you drugs, we have placed you at a comfortable job. The HS movement really took a chance on you, Miss Smith. Some of us, I guess, thought that you’d be an asset.”
Carolina gaped, stricken.
Jorja continued. “In the end, though, you just weren’t paying off, though. Lukewarm results, slow progress. You didn’t even play to your talents by icing paras because you really wanted a face role. And we let you try. We took a chance. It was simple, you could handle it. But somehow—somehow! The Pariah figures out about you, hires a shifter, replaces you, and does irreparable damage to our relationship with The Family?”
Shifting her weight suddenly, Jorja lashed forward and pressed the thin tip of her nail file against Carolina’s forehead cut, eliciting a cry of pain. “You fucking fucked up!” She shouted. “You’re walking debt, Carolina, and consider this your notice of default!”
Jorja stood up and stepped back. “I’m getting the fuck out of here,” she snarled at the woman with the long coat. “Make sure she doesn’t die for at least an hour, but don’t let her live for more than six.”
“You got it, Jorja,” the woman said, smirking at Jorja’s retreating form. She pulled something from her coat that glinted in the light. As she drew closer, Carolina saw that it was a scalpel. “Step aside, boys. It’s my turn.”
Twenty minutes later, a massive explosion wiped the entire building off the map.
FREELANCER HQ, ARCHAVEN
MICHAEL CHENEY’S OFFICE
It was 8am and Michael Cheney was waiting for a phone call.
Michael Cheney was not terribly used to waiting for phone calls. As the lead public relations officer of the Freelancers as well as one of their chief overseers in administration and hiring, he was almost always someone who made calls, and those who wanted his attention could be the ones waiting for it.
Not today. One of his most valuable and expensive connections was in fucking Detroit, of all places, as was a promising but troublesome potential new hire. Detroit was an awful place for a Paranormal to be at the best of times, and that Pariah character (to whom he had very kindly extended a job offer) was only making things worse.
The phone rang. Michael recognized the number and picked up immediately.
“Jace! Talk to me. How’s our applicant?”
“Um, still no good, Mister Cheney,” the HR rep on the other side of the phone said, voice nervous.
“What? Is the Doc not there, or what? Can’t she heal anything?” This was not the phone call he wanted.
“She says that the… applicant’s body is literally burning and healing itself. Constantly. Also, the hospital staff says that she wasn’t burned when she came in, that happened after she got here.”
Michael pinched the bridge of his nose. “Let me get this straight. This lady levels half a city block when she Emerges, walks out unscathed somehow, then goes to a hospital ER for no reason, asks to be admitted, and burns herself from the inside out for a week? I thought she’d been burned by the explosion, but, what, this is her power? Really?”
“I… I don’t know, sir, I—”
“Let me talk to Sawbones.”
“She’s… not available, Mister Cheney sir.”
“Why not?” Michael’s blood pressure was rising rapidly by the minute.
“Um, I’d rather not say. She wasn’t very polite.”
“Jace.” Cheney took a deep breath, then let it out. “Jace, I’m not very happy right now.”
“I know, sir. I’m sorry, Mister Cheney.”
“I don’t need apologies, Jason, I need results! You know what? Forget it. Let her burn alone in a bed. Tell the doc to pack up and get your ass back here.”
There was some confused background talk on the other end of the line.
Cheney frowned. “You still with me, Jace? I need you to pay attention.”
“Sor… sorry sir! It’s—Miss Smith! She’s up and—and the burns are all gone!”
Michael Cheney stood up so fast that he nearly upset his office chair. “Bring her here. Now.”
SIX HOURS LATER
“I… I don’t know why I checked in,” Carolina stammered, able to dredge up the memory easily but unable to make sense of it. “I just knew I’d done something big and was going to pay for it, like I had some kind of… cosmic debt. I knew it’d hurt, and it’d hurt worse the longer I waited to pay it. My… I’d just been tortured, cut. I’d had a gash on my head. When I came out of the wreckage, they were all gone. I was totally healed.”
“Emergences are disorienting even at best,” Dr. Meda’s voice was even but sympathetic, “and yours was particularly traumatic. I understand that you’re having trouble accepting your status as a Paranormal.”
“This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen,” Carolina clutched her head with both hands. “I feel fine. Good, even. I just. Paranormals are… they’re…”
“You should consider starting to break down your preconceived notions about Paranormals, Carolina,” Dr. Meda looked at her head-on, cybernetic eye whirring as it focused. “As a psychologist who works with both Paranormal and human patients, we really are all just people.”
“Mind if I cut in?” Michael Cheney poked his head through the door, and Dr. Meda stiffened visibly. Without waiting for an answer, he stepped into the room and extended a hand to Carolina, wearing a grin that didn’t reach his eyes. “Hey there, Miss Smith! Michael Cheney, great to meet you. Nami, can you give us a few minutes?”
“This is my office,” Dr. Meda’s voice was ice-cold. There was silence for a moment, and Cheney gave her an even wider, brittler smile. Finally, she stood and said, “I will be back in twenty minutes.”
Dr. Meda walked out and shut the door firmly, leaving Carolina alone in the room with a man who reminded Carolina strongly of Jorja’s PR lieutenants.
“So glad to see you’re recovering. And taking advantage of our top-class treatment facilities. Great!”
“Why did you bring me here?” Carolina frowned. “What do you want?”
“Well, you seem to be a resourceful woman with a fascinating set of esoteric skills!” He shrugged. “Concealed carry license, marksmanship trophies, dabbling in amateur MMA fighting. All that from an accountant! Impressive.”
“I like to keep busy,” Carolina muttered.
“Really seems like it, given that you were being held on drug charges and suspicion of involvement with the human supremacist mob. Busy indeed.”
“Are you here to blackmail me?” She asked through gritted teeth. “Just turn me in, if you’re so justice-minded.”
“Do I look like the kind of guy who’d interrupt your therapy session to blackmail you?” He grinned, then continued before she could reply, probably intentionally. “No, Carolina, I am here to offer you a job. A job that will keep you out of trouble, pay down those shockingly high medical bills—a bit surprising that your employer didn’t insure you—and might even make you famous, if you play it right.”
Carolina blinked. “You want me to become a hero for hire?”
“It’s a hell of a living, Carolina,” he offered a fake-sheepish smile. “Lots of benefits, plenty exciting, and none of the many people who want a pound of your flesh will be able to get at you.”
She stared at the floor for a while, then looked up. “All right, fine. I’ll do it.”
“Great! Talk to my assistant Jace about evaluating your powers and skills, and we’ll get you rolling. You can even start thinking about what you want your codename to be!”
“Hmm?” Cheney raised his eyebrows. “Say again?”
“My codename,” Carolina folded her arms. “It’s Ledger.”