“Um.” Raising one finger, I hesitated for a second before asking, “What do you mean, after we catch the bad guys? Isn’t that when we say woo hoo or whatever and celebrate?”
Staring at me through that stylized and sleek-looking samurai bug mask, the woman dryly replied, “Woo hoo indeed. But there is more to it than that. At least, there is if you wish to be effective. Cuff the man there and we shall discuss it.”
Realizing that I had basically, however briefly, forgotten about the man lying at my feet, I quickly knelt beside him. “Sorry,” I murmured to him without really knowing why. “I’m still new at this.”
The look that he gave me seemed incredulous. “It’s okay,” he informed me. “I’ve been here a few times, we’ll get through it together.”
“See, I know you’re being sarcastic,” I replied, “but thanks.” With that, I pulled the man’s hands behind his back and put the cuffs on him. As I did so, they changed from plain silver to blue.
“Do you know what those are?” Flea asked idly. I noticed that she had already cuffed the other two guys. “And what the color means?”
Belatedly, I realized I did have an idea. I’d just been surprised that she would give me one of them. Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I slowly nodded. “I think so? It’s Touched tech, right? When the cuffs are hooked up to someone it makes it hard for them to move? I don’t know what the color means, though.”
“Yes,” she confirmed. “They’re called stay-downs. When they are attached to someone, that person cannot move more than a foot or so from their original position. If they do, the stay-downs will gradually magnify their weight up to many times over, dragging the person back to the ground. When they are on the ground and still, the weight will decrease. The cuffs can sense the amount of strength being used and adjust accordingly, up to a thousand pounds or so. It’s enough to keep most down once they’re applied. Not perfect, but it helps against basically all but those who are Brawn-Touched, and there’s special cuffs for them.”
“Brawn-Touched?” I echoed. “People with strength powers?”
Flea gave me a brief look of curiosity, nodding. “You really are new to this. Yes, we use the something dash touched descriptor to explain what people are. Or at least to give a very slight overview. There are eleven basic categories, including Brawn, Tech, Mind, Travel, Bang, Form, Vary, Psy, Field, Crowd, and Friend.”
“Wow.” Blinking, I thought through it. “Okay, so Brawn-Touched are strong, tough people. Tech-Touched are people who make things. Mind-Touched are… people who affect other people’s minds?”
Her head shook. “That’s Psy. Psy-Touched affect other people’s minds in some way. Mind-Touched are people with mental gifts that affect themselves, like enhanced intelligence, knowledge that just pops into their head, an understanding of people, future knowledge, things like that. Enhanced senses tend to be classified under that too, even if some people think they shouldn’t be.”
“Oh, right.” Nodding to that thoughtfully, I continued. “Travel-Touched are obviously people with like… super speed or flight or whatever. Bang-Touched… umm… I wanna say explosives but… maybe like lasers and stuff?”
“Correct,” she confirmed. “The second part, I mean. Bang-Touched are people who project any kind of obvious outward attack. Lasers, fire breath, ice blasts, they’re all Bang-Touched.”
“Got it.” Thinking for another second, I guessed, “Form-Touched are probably people who can shapeshift or, you know, alter what they look like in some way.”
At a nod from her, I winced. “But uh, I have no idea what ‘Very-Touched’ could mean. Unless it’s like… they’re very powerful.”
I heard a very slight snicker from her before she caught herself. “No, ahh, vary. As in with an A, not an E. A Vary-Touched is someone whose powers change based on… well, various things. Someone who gains different powers based on the situation, or who can change their powers a lot.”
“Lastword,” I blurted. “His powers change based on what he last said, so he’d be a Vary-Touched.”
“Exactly,” she agreed. “And that leaves Field, Crowd, and Friend.”
Those three I considered for a couple seconds before offering, “Field is someone whose powers affect the world around him?” Glancing to the woman to see her nod again, I added, “Crowd must be affecting other people in a way that’s not just like blasting them.”
“Correct,” the woman confirmed. “Crowd-Touch powers are those that affect one or more living targets in a way other than direct damage or the mental effects that Psy covers. Healing, for example. Or petrification.”
Slowly, I nodded before finishing with, “And Friend is someone whose powers summon things, or in some way create like… minions for him to use?”
Flea gave me a thumbs up. “You got it. There’s more specifics to it, but that’s the basic idea. Also, they’re often given other descriptors or combined to make things more understood. Like, someone who can control plants might be called ‘Nature-Field-Touched.’ Or someone who can shoot lasers that change the emotions of the targets they hit would be ‘Psy-Bang-Touched’. If you see two of the categories together like that, it means they’re connected in the same power. If, say, someone had lasers and flight, there would be an ‘and’ between them. Bang-And-Travel-Touched. That’s common enough that people will use BAT as a descriptor. Or BABAT.”
“Bang-And-Brawn-And-Travel-Touched?” I guessed. “For someone with flight, lasers, and super strength.” When the woman nodded, I added, “So people like Carousel and Raindrop would be considered Field-Touched, because their powers affect the things around them.”
“Technically,” Flea amended for me, “Raindrop is Crowd-And-Field-Touched because her power can affect living people as long as they’re wet. That’s also a common enough combination that people abbreviate it to CAF-Touched, or CAFT. Carousel is only Field-Touched because her power doesn’t affect living beings.”
“What about the ones that start with the same letter?” I asked. “How do you tell the difference between, say, someone who is Bang-And-Travel-Touched or someone who is Brawn-And-Travel-Touched? Both abbreviate to BATT.”
“Good point,” she agreed. “That’s why they usually say it all out at least once to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Every group is different about how they abbreviate them, or even some of the exact terms they use. It’s a good idea to get clarification.”
As I was nodding to that, the guy I had cuffed muttered, “Spiffy, do I get credit for class attendance too?”
“Yes,” the woman informed him. “I’ll be certain to note your interest in attending academic courses to the warden of your prison.”
With that, she made sure I had the guy properly cuffed, then turned to walk back into the store while gesturing for me to follow. On the way, the woman continued. “In any case, the colors of those cuffs refer to what kind of person is authorized to properly move that person. An authorized person can touch the cuffs and they will allow the prisoner to move normally as long as they stay close to that person. Blue is the most common, and it means uniformed police officers. Or anyone above them. All members of the government sanctioned Touched teams are authorized for them as well. Or, of course, the person who applied the cuffs.”
By that point, we’d gotten into the main part of the store, and I could see the damage that had been done. There were several racks tipped over, bullet holes in the walls and shelves, a pile of discarded shopping carts, and about four or five unconscious figures lying around. Flea had been busy. Actually, her power to make people tired probably really helped with the whole ‘making sure they stayed down’ thing. She just drained them until they fell asleep.
The two of us pulled all the unconscious figures to the middle of the room, cuffing them. They were still unconscious by that point, as Flea straightened up. “Now what?” she asked while looking to me. “What do you think we do next?”
“Um.” Shrugging, I offered, “Call the cops and let them know? Just leave seems pretty bad.”
With a soft chuckle, she agreed, “Yes, pretty bad indeed. I assume you already know how to use the Doephone app from Ten Towers.”
For a very brief second, my mind instantly flashed into panic mode, as I reflexively wondered if she somehow knew that I was the person who had sent the message the other night about the dead guys back in that motel. But that was dumb. Even if she did guess that much (like, say, if she had contacts who told her about the whole paint thing), it didn’t mean anything. The Doephone was anonymous. There’d been actual court cases about keeping it anonymous. It was a whole big deal.
“I’m aware,” I confirmed simply, trying to keep it somewhat vague. “I’m pretty sure you guys don’t use it, though.”
“You’re right, we don’t,” she agreed. “But it works just fine for you. Unless you’ve changed your mind about joining up.” Letting that hang very briefly as she glanced to me, the woman then went on without making me answer. “Regardless, you can use the Doephone to report the situation, or call the number That-A-Way provided if you need assistance in containing a more… imminently volatile situation. For something like this, you use the Doephone. And then?”
Biting my lip, I offered, “I’m guessing ‘and then leave’ still isn’t the right answer.”
I had the feeling she was smiling slightly while replying, “It can be, if that’s your choice. But that also risks the people you’ve stopped being released fairly quickly, without some kind of testimony.” As I flinched, she went on a bit quicker, reassuring me, “It doesn’t require you unmask. Simply put, if you want to be more effective, set up a case logger.”
“A case logger?” Frowning a little uncertainly, I asked, “What’s that?”
She explained readily. “Basically, a case logger is a confidential voice mail system accessible by you and the DA’s office. Whenever you complete something like this, you call in and leave a voicemail giving as many details as you can about what happened. Someone in the DA’s office will listen to the logs and attach them to case files. Once a month, they will also leave you a message about various cases that they need your deposition for. If you agree to it, you can go in and do that. It means sitting in a private room in the courthouse, in costume, they won’t make you unmask. You’ll sit there with a judge, a court stenographer, and they’ll cycle through each of the attorneys for both sides of all the cases involving you. Both sides will have the chance to ask questions, just like in a courtroom. You’ll give your testimony about what happened and have it recorded for potential use at trial, then leave. That’s it.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I murmured thoughtfully. “So they just do that once a month?”
The woman nodded. “Yes. It’s different and more involved for official government Touched, but for someone like you, that’s what they’ll do. If you want, I can help you set up your case logger and get it connected to the court.”
Smiling just a little despite myself, I agreed, “I… yeah. Thanks. That sounds nice.”
Okay, Flea was cool. I really hoped she was actually a good guy and not one of my dad’s secret minions.
That would really suck.
When we were done, Flea gave me a box with a bunch of simple zip-ties, and six of those actual metal ‘stay-down’ cuffs. According to her, I could get more when I needed them from the courthouse if I showed up for those deposition things.
It was probably a pretty good sign of trust that she gave me the things. So I felt kind of bad that I didn’t trust her enough to take them home. Because despite the fact that Flea seemed nice, I didn’t know if those cuffs might have some kind of tracker on them. So there was no way I was going to take them back to the house. Instead, I put them in a safe place for the time being. Namely, back at the half-finished rec center near the school that I’d been training at.
After that, I headed home. I’d been out to practice moving around, but it was getting pretty late by then. The last thing I wanted was for my parents to notice I was gone too long and start getting curious. Besides, it may have been Saturday, but I was still supposed to meet up with Jae and Amber so we could work on our project.
It was even easier to sneak in tonight than it had been that first night. Mostly because I understood my power a lot better now. Waiting until the camera at the gate was faced the wrong way, I used a bit of blue paint to jump to the top of the wall, making sure I was in black stealth mode. Keeping low, I ran along the wall toward the house, passing all the trees, flower gardens, and the fountain on the way. Finally, I reached the spot of the wall just across from the house. I could see my bedroom window up there. All I had to do was red-paint myself there and climb in.
Except just as I was about to do that, I saw shapes moving at one of the other windows, one floor above where my room was and a few rooms down. It was one of my dad’s offices. And the people I could see through the window were him and Mom. My parents were in there, clearly talking.
Did I dare? Would I really push my luck? Was that more brave or more stupid?
Whichever one, I had to hear what they were saying. Telling myself I was being dumb, yet unable (or unwilling) to stop, I shot a glob of black paint over to the spot of roof near the window, then used red to yank myself over there, activating the black just before impact to silence my arrival.
There was a ledge there, running along the wall near the window that I could rest on without having to use my paint to stay. Thankfully, the window was open a crack, so I could hear what was going on. Pressing myself against the wall, I leaned closer and listened.
“But until then, we’ll just have to wait and see what he does,” my mother was saying.
“I don’t like being passive when it comes to new Touched,” my dad replied. “Especially new Touched who might know more than they should about our business.”
Wait, they were talking about me. Did I get here just after they said something important and relevant to my situation? What the hell? That’s not how this was supposed to work. TV lied to me.
My mother was talking then. “Of course not, but we have been over this. Spilled milk and all that. Focus on what we can affect right now. Namely, this bounty.”
“Blackjack just tripled it,” Dad replied. “It’s up to three million now. He wanted to go as high as fifty, but I convinced him to leave it at that. He’s desperate and not thinking straight.”
“Would you,” Mom asked, “if it was Cassidy’s life on the line? This is his daughter, Sterling. I’m surprised you convinced him to keep it at three million.”
Blackjack? The leader of La Casa? Dad had enough pull to convince him about what to do with the bounty on that Ashton guy? And whatever was taken from that safe deposit box had to do with the guy’s daughter? Apparently something that was worth her life, from what they were saying. But what could’ve been in a bank that put her life in danger when it was stolen?
Right, it was even more clear that I should’ve been eavesdropping earlier. Or constantly.
“Yes, his daughter,” Dad agreed. “And even if the other gangs don’t know exactly why it’s so important, they know he’s losing his mind over it. So they’re just as determined to get the vials for themselves. Which is not helping Blackjack stay calm about any of this. If we don’t find the boy or those vials, there’s going to be a war. The people of La Casa will bring hell to this city to save that girl. And you know what it means if things get too out of control.”
Mom sighed. “Attention. Which we don’t need any more of. Brumal already wants to bring more reinforcements in as it is. If a gang war breaks out in the streets, she’ll have the excuse she needs.”
Brumal. She was the leader of the local Spartans, the state-level Touched team as opposed to the Federal-level Conservators. No wonder my parents were concerned about her bringing in more people. Especially if they didn’t have a way to control her.
Wait, if they didn’t have a way to control her, could she be a good person for me to approach?
“Have our people keep an eye on her,” Dad murmured. “If there’s a problem… we’ll deal with it. We know how to bring her in line if need be.”
Never mind. Restraining the urge to sigh, I focused once more.
“Yes,” Mom was agreeing, “but let’s not tug on that particular line just yet. There’s a better solution to this problem.”
I heard Dad chuckle darkly. “Of course there is. All we have to do is find one of the Austin boys. Or this… Paintball.” He said the last bit with distaste. “And maybe tell him to pick a better name.”
Pffft, rude. What did he know? His real name was Sterling and not only did he pick a Touched name with the word silver in it, it even fit his power. He had it easy.
“As far as we know,” Mom clearly reminded him, “neither of the Austin siblings are anywhere in the city. Which leaves the new Touched boy.”
Dad was quiet for a few seconds before muttering something I didn’t hear. He followed up with, “You think he knows anything about where the vials are?”
“Perhaps,” Mom mused softly, sounding thoughtful. “But at the very least, I think he knows more than we do about what happened to them.”
Boy was I going to disappoint her if we ever had to talk. I didn’t even know these so-called ‘vials’, whatever they were, existed until now.
That said, I really hoped we didn’t have to talk. I didn’t exactly trust myself to fool either of my parents in a straight conversation, voice changer or not. I felt like the second I started talking, they would both instantly know who I was. It wasn’t something I wanted to test.
Both my parents were quiet for a few moments, and I thought they were done. Then Dad spoke up again. “Maybe the direct approach would be best.”
“Direct soft or direct hard?” Mom asked. It sounded like she was right near the window, and I silenced the area around me with a shot of black before edging a little bit away, just in case.
“Soft,” Dad replied. “There’s no reason to put him on guard if he doesn’t know about us. But if one of the Minority approaches him and asks about the Austin brothers…”
Mom finished for him, “They could tell him about the impending gang war. They don’t need to know details, only that La Casa is going to burn the city down looking for what was stolen. If the boy wants to be a hero, he’ll want to stop that.”
Dad had moved closer by then, also standing near the window as he replied, “Yes. Which should push this Paintball to tell them what he knows about where either of the brothers went. Or where the vials are. You see, there’s no need to play the hard game just yet.”
Hearing the squeak of the window, I quickly put both hands up, shooting a burst of red paint to yank myself up from that spot to the roof. Clinging there, I looked down as my father’s head appeared. It made me tense up, but he didn’t seem to be looking for me. He was just glancing around.
Before he could happen to look up, I climbed over the edge and laid on the roof for a second. Staring at the sky, I thought about what I’d overheard.
The thing that was stolen from the La Casa bank was some kind of vial. Or vials, rather. And whatever they were, losing them put Blackjack’s daughter’s life at risk. Medicine, maybe? Probably. Either way, it was definitely a big problem. Even if Blackjack was a bad guy, I couldn’t just let his daughter die.
The problem was, despite what my parents thought, I didn’t actually know anything useful about where those vials were. I knew that Josh had a ‘friend who lived in Illinois’ that he was going to stay with. But Illinois was a whole state. It didn’t exactly narrow things down. Plus, even if we found him, he didn’t know where his brother was.
So my parents and I were actually on the same page. They wanted the vials returned to Blackjack to save his daughter’s life and so did I.
But I didn’t have the first fucking clue about how to do that.