Leaving Paintball waiting outside, the girl known as Paige Banners walked into the internet cafe. The distracted clerk idly muttered what the cost per hour was, and Paige produced a folded twenty dollar bill on her way past, leaving it on the counter while the clerk took it and told her which computer to use. All without looking up from the phone she was busy texting on.
Pulling the seat out, the girl perched on the edge of it, hands finding the keyboard and mouse. She clicked a couple times to bring up the cafe’s internet services, fingers dancing across the keys as she disabled their site limitations and the monitoring service that would allow them to track what she was doing. Logging in as an administrator after a couple of attempts, she brought up the control screen for the cameras in the cafe and set them to erase everything from five minutes before she arrived to roughly ten minutes from the current time. That would be enough to ensure that the Ministry couldn’t get anything useful from watching what she did.
And it was incredibly important that they not see the things she was doing. As far as the Ministry was concerned, Paige Banners was an ordinary teenage girl who happened to have tripped over information she shouldn’t have. It was important that they keep believing that.
Once she was convinced that the cameras were taken care of, the girl navigated to a private and incredibly secure cloud server that had been set up much earlier. Then Paige paused. Casually, she turned slightly to let her gaze pass over the room. The cameras were no longer a problem, but the need for being careful was practically hard-wired into her by that point. She took that moment to make sure no one was paying attention, eyes scanning the room while she produced the small USB drive from its hiding place and inserted it into the computer.
The files were there. Taking only a second to assure herself that everything seemed to be intact, Paige set them to copy onto the cloud server. From there, the service itself would automatically copy them onto a dozen other servers, some equally private and some known to the public. The services all had their own redundancies and security, which included checking on the status of their companion clouds every few minutes. If anything went wrong with one service, Paige would be alerted. From there, several possible events could happen depending on what she did, what exactly was wrong with the suspect cloud server, and whether or not she responded.
Paintball was busy dealing with people who wanted autographs. Watching that for a moment while the files uploaded, Paige waited for the confirmation beep. Then she tugged the USB out, returned it to its hiding place, and quickly typed up a note for the Star-Touched waiting outside. At the last moment, she used her administrator access into the building’s security to disable the alarm on the back door, quit out of everything save for the note she’d left, and pushed up from the chair. With one last glance to make sure Paintball wasn’t looking, Paige moved through the room, passing a few other people on the way. No one looked up, assuming, if they noticed her at all, that she was going to the restroom. But she moved straight past, heading quietly through the back door into the alley. It was dark, and she immediately pivoted to the right, heading to the exit and onto another street before turning left to move away from the building.
She didn’t go far, at least right away. First, Paige had to make sure Paintball wouldn’t easily find her if he chose to try. He was awesome, and even if he hadn’t exactly saved her life (maybe… probably), he had made it so that Paige didn’t have to expose more of her secrets. And that was important. The Ministry could not find out what was really going on with her. That was beyond vital. They couldn’t even suspect she might be more than they thought, or find the link back to…
The point was, the more clueless they were, the better. And to make sure they stayed as clueless as possible, Paige was going to make them think that all she wanted was to be left alone. They wouldn’t totally abandon their efforts to silence her, she knew. Being caught in the first place had been a mistake that she was going to have to scramble to make up for. But if she could make them believe that she wouldn’t go to the authorities unless they forced her hand, they would at least turn to more subtle routes of getting what they wanted. That would give her time, and time was important right then. Part of that whole ‘making them think she wasn’t going to push further on this’ involved keeping Paintball out of anything else. Having a superhero hanging around wasn’t exactly conducive to making a bunch of supervillains think you were going to leave them alone.
So, instead of continuing down the street where the boy could possibly spot her, she turned almost immediately to step into a nearby Chinese restaurant. Smiling politely at the nice woman by the front, Paige asked, “Xǐ shǒu jiān zài nar?” In response to the question of where the toilet was, the restaurant host turned to point toward the back of the restaurant, and Paige quickly thanked her with a nod before walking on through.
Moving through the room full of people, she kept her eyes out before finally spotting something useful about three-quarters of the way. Slowing by a table with a group of teenage boys, she put on a bright, somewhat embarrassed smile before speaking up. “Um, sorry, excuse me?”
She was attractive enough that none of the boys minded the interruption. Paige waited for them to give her the brief once-over that every interested person did before pushing on. “Hi, sorry, again. This is kinda dumb, but umm… I’m sort of on a scavenger hunt with my idiot… idiot friends right now, and the next thing on my list is a used jacket for any sports team that is not in Michigan. Like that.” She pointed to the New York Jets coat draped over one boy’s chair. “And I know, this is stupid and everything. But I swear, I really have to beat Tina this time. So if I could just get that jacket, you can have this.” With one hand, she held up two hundred dollar bills. “That should cover getting a new one, shipping, everything.”
Thankfully, the jacket apparently wasn’t some important keepsake, because the boy readily agreed to trading it for the two hundred dollars she’d offered. And two minutes later, Paige emerged from the restaurant, flipping the hood of the jacket up over her head before continuing down the street. She saw no sign of Paintball, or anyone else watching her. But the jacket wasn’t just for staying out of the Star-Touched hero’s sight. There was more than one reason to want a disguise right now. The Ministry wouldn’t give up that easily, until they knew it was too late. She had to contact them. But she would do it on her terms, not theirs.
Three blocks later, Paige made one more stop inside a convenience store to pick up a disposable phone and added minutes to it. On the way out, she used the phone to connect to a different cell phone on the other side of the city. The second cell would forward the call, making it impossible for the people she was contacting to trace where her signal was actually coming from.
That done, Paige dialed a number from memory, turning to continue walking along the sidewalk as it rang. Her eyes scanned the road ahead of her, taking in everyone in the area. No one was paying attention. There were no familiar faces. She turned right, crossed the street, and moved down an alley. By that point, the other end of the line was finally picked up, as a voice spoke with a simple, “How may I direct your call?”
Taking a breath before letting it out, Paige turned to slump against the nearby wall. She let fear, uncertainty, and confusion enter her voice. “I… I got this number. I think… I think I need to talk to… to one of the Ministers? I–that’s what the files that I–” Cutting herself off, she forced a soft, barely audible choked sound out of her throat to make it sound as though she was barely holding herself together. Then she gave it a three-count of silence before continuing with, “One of the Ministers. Please. I need to talk to them. This is Pa–I mean… I don’t think I should say.”
There was a pause from the other end of the line, before the simple voice replied, “Please hold.” The line was then filled with soft, pleasant piano music. Just like any ordinary company. But Paige knew they would still be listening and recording. So she made herself breathe rapidly, exhaling in repeated shudders. Once, she murmured a very soft, “Please, God.” Not too much. She didn’t want to overdo it and make them suspicious. But she did want them to believe that she was right on the edge and terrified. That way they would think they were still in control.
Eventually (and long after he had actually begun listening to her, Paige assumed), a male voice answered. “Hello, Miss Banners. This is Minister Gray. You don’t seem to be with your rescuer.”
He was making a guess based on what he’d heard through the phone, she knew. The Ministry was good, but not good enough to track her down just like that. Not given the measures she had taken to redirect her call. Certainly not in a way that would let them see her without her seeing them. And if they had seen the girl who had given them so much trouble, they would have tried to grab her by that point. So he was absolutely bluffing.
Still, she couldn’t react as though she knew that. So Paige adopted an even more fearful voice. “Wh-what–how do you…” Holding that to let the man on the phone think that she was looking around while terrified, she instead drew a P in the dirt on the ground beside herself before deciding that was long enough. “Pl-please, just… just… listen, you can’t… I have the files I found. I have the files.” Don’t push it. Don’t be too eager or competent. Not straight off.
“Yes,” Minister Gray replied smoothly, sounding far more in control than Paige did. Good. He was calm and collected, already dismissing her as a real threat. “You have the files, and we want the files. I’m sure we can all come to an understanding and no one else has to get hurt.”
“Y-you people tried to shoot me in the head!” Paige squeaked indignantly, making a show of her voice rising to a high pitch before shushing herself. “Yo-you tried to kill me. You–your people, you were–y-you were going to–you can’t just–I–you–I don’t want t–you were going to… you–” She made herself babble completely incoherently, as though she was barely holding on. The whole time, she idly checked the dirt on her nails from tracing her finger on the ground and made a face. Gross. Would this guy interrupt her already?
Finally, he did. “Now, Miss Banners, calm yourself. I’m sure we can come to a suitable arrangement. After all, you still have our files, don’t you?” A dangerous, yet still calm, note entered his voice. “I do hope you haven’t shared them with the boy who saved you.”
“N-no, sir.” Paige included the honorific, waited a second as though just then realizing what she had said to a villain, then amended, “I mean… no… no. He’s gone. He’s gone, he’s not i-involved anymore. I have the files.”
“Good, good,” Minister Gray praised. “That’s very good. So we can still work this out. How about you bring the files to a neutral location, let us take them off your hands, and then we can all go back to living our lives without this terrible complication?”
Afraid, innocent, but not stupid, Paige reminded herself. The character she was playing might have been a normal, though snoopy, teenage girl. But she was not stupid. No one that wasn’t a complete idiot would fall for that. And given how far she had gotten to get their files, they’d never believe she was a complete idiot. Playing this as someone with a mixture of luck and intelligence who was still in way over her head was the way to go.
And it wasn’t that far from the truth. She was in over her head, in many ways. If only her father wasn’t–
Okay, that was a long enough pause. Stopping the silent count in her head, Paige hesitantly answered the man. “I… I’m not doing that. I’m not going to give you back the files. If I do that, you’ll just… you’ll just kill me.”
There was a brief pause before Minister Gray carefully replied, “We can’t let you keep them, Miss Banners.”
“Yes, you can,” she said quickly, injecting her voice with a note of urgency. “Because I won’t go to the cops. You know what’ll happen if I do. By the time anyone believes me, one of your people’ll be able to get to me. And you’ll have no reason not to kill me. Not if I’ve already blown your secret. L-look, I know how this works. I’ve seen the… the files, remember? If I try to tell anyone, no one will believe me in time. You people will kill me and–and it won’t accomplish anything. Even if it does, I’ll be dead. And I don’t wanna die.”
“You may find this hard to believe, Miss Banners,” the man informed her, “but we would prefer not to kill you. Still, it seems we are at an impasse.”
“I’m not going to the cops,” Paige reiterated. “Or anyone else. All Paintball knows is that he saved me from some dressed up thugs. I’m not–” She exhaled, again making herself shudder to inject the fear and sense that she was barely keeping it together into her voice. “I’m not stupid. It’s called Mutually Assured Destruction. If I tell anyone, you’ll find out and kill me. But I uploaded those files and if I don’t check in and give a password to all the servers I uploaded them to at the right times, they’ll be sent to every news station in the country. Even you can’t lock that down. You kill me, your secrets get out. I put your secrets out, you kill me. Mutually Assured Destruction.”
Another pause came, one that lasted almost thirty seconds before Minister Gray spoke again. “Your suggestion then, Miss Banners, is that we agree to leave one another alone?”
Making a point of exhaling hard with a choked sob that must have sounded like relief, Paige hurriedly agreed. “Yes, yes. I saw the–the files, I know what you can do. I know–just… just leave me and my family alone. And Paintball. He doesn’t know anything. I didn’t tell him about any of this. Leave us alone, your secrets stay secret, and… and we can all just… just…”
“Just be happy,” the Minister finished for her, sounding thoughtful. “Agreed, for the moment. You can rest easy, Miss Banners. You have proven yourself quite capable, despite your lack of powers or resources. We will monitor the situation. As you say, should you attempt to contact any authorities, we will execute a scorched Earth policy. Keep what you know to yourself, and you will live a long and quite happy life.”
“Just leave me alone,” Paige replied, using a voice of mixed terror and relief before she disconnected the call. Taking the phone in both hands, she snapped it in half, tossing both halves to either side of the alley before straightening up. That was done. Now to get out of here.
Unfortunately, she’d barely dusted herself off and turned before finding herself facing six men. Not Ministry people. These were random thugs. Ninety-Niner people, from the look of them. Not even that high up either, just street toughs, lowest of the low. In more than one way.
“See, boys?” The clear leader of the group announced slyly while strolling closer. “I told you there was some hot bitch hanging out back here. Is it our lucky day or what?” To Paige, he added, “Lemme guess, you got separated from the tour group. But that’s okay, cuz we have got a fun tour for you.”
Shaking her head as her shoulders hunched, Paige fearfully replied, “I d-don’t want any trouble. I was just–I just had to make a phone call. I’ll leave you alone now.”
A switchblade appeared in front of her face, clicking into position as the man (a tall, pale figure with a thin build and one of those gross porn mustaches) sneered. “I sure hope you didn’t tell whoever you called that you’d be home soon. Cuz we play rough with our toys.”
Paige went still. Her eyes rose to meet the man’s, and every ounce of fear and hesitation in her gaze vanished, as she replied flatly, “So do I.”
There was a flash of confusion in the face of the man she was facing, before her foot collided hard with his knee. It was a sharp enough blow that he stumbled forward. In the same motion, Paige stripped the knife from his grip, driving it up through his throat in a long vertical slice that sent blood spraying everywhere. Blood that missed her face entirely as her head snapped to the side while pulling the knife free.
The man fell forward as she pivoted on one foot to let it pass. Behind him, his five friends were in the initial second of realizing something was wrong. Before even that much could fully settle on them, her hand snapped out, hurling the knife end over end until it embedded itself in the forehead of a second man.
Four left, all of whom were caught between reacting to their leader’s prone form on the ground in front of them, and the other man’s falling body right beside them. All had been caught entirely flat-footed. Two managed to start pulling pistols from their pants, one producing a baseball bat, and the fourth just started bull-rushing toward Paige with a scream.
She juked right, then leapt to the left as the charging man fell for that. In the same motion, she stripped off the jacket she had bought, throwing it into the face of the man who managed to get his pistol out first, making him flail and curse. By that point, the one who was charging swept right past her, grasping fingers missing the girl by inches.
Paige continued her pivot, the motion carrying her to the opposite wall of the alley just as the second man had managed to get his gun out. Her hand caught hold of a trash can lid and she flung it, frisbee-like, into his face as he was trying to aim. His head snapped backward, gun firing twice into the ground by reflex. It was silenced, of course. With all the prevalence of Touched-Tech, you could practically get silencers in cereal boxes by that point.
The metal trash can lid rebounded backward, and Paige was there, catching it with one hand before swinging it hard enough into the face of the man a second time to put a dent in the thing (and probably one in his forehead). Now she was standing between the two men with guns. In front of her was the man she had just hit twice. Behind her was the one still flailing with the coat over his face. To her left was the entrance of the alley, where the man with the bat was. To her right was the one who had charged at her, who was already turning around.
Flipping the lid sideways, Paige slammed it hard enough into the throat of the man in front of her, who had already been hit twice, that he instantly collapsed to the ground while making frantic, desperate choking sounds. His pistol dropped from his hand, but Paige caught it in mid-fall with her left hand, snapping it down and backwards. At the same time, she flung the badly mangled lid toward the ground to her right.
The charging man was on his way back, just as the sliding lid caught his descending foot and took it out from under him. He hit the ground hard.
Meanwhile, the man with the jacket over his face had just managed to fling it off. But by that point, Paige felt the barrel of the pistol she had liberated contact his leg, and she pulled the trigger. A scream erupted from him as he took the bullet into his upper thigh. Still, the man brought his gun up, intending to blow her head off. At the same time, the one with the bat lunged in, swinging for the fences.
Paige ducked and turned, pivoting so that the man with the gun fired a shot that went right over her head. Both of her hands went up, one with the gun and one without. With her free hand, she gave the first gunman’s extended arm a hard shove. With the pistol, she fired a shot into the knee of the man with the bat.
The bat collided with the extended (and adjusted) arm of the gunman with a sickening crunch. That pistol went flying while the man screamed. His scream was joined by one from the guy with the bat as the bullet from Paige’s liberated pistol went through his knee.
Free hand snapping out, Paige caught the second pistol in mid-air, before snapping both up in near-opposite directions. She fired a shot into the face of either man, then watched as their bodies fell. With barely a glance, she put the dying man whose throat she had collapsed out of his misery by shooting him in the head as well.
Straightening, Paige pointed one of the pistols back the way she had come, firing a single shot that killed the man who had slipped on the trash can lid and had just been picking himself up.
The alley was quiet. From the moment she had kicked the first man to make him trip until the flurry of violence was ended, less than fifteen seconds had passed. Stooping, Paige took the coat back from the ground and grabbed the knife she had touched, prying it from the forehead of the man it had killed. She put both pistols and the knife in the pockets while slipping it onto her shoulders.
Then she walked away, her small form quickly swallowed up by the darkness of the city streets, leaving the dead gangsters behind without a second glance.