So, there I was. Standing in an alley facing twelve men with Tech-Touched guns, my hand held by the teen girl that I’d been rescuing from what I thought were normal (if well-armed) kidnappers. The space was wider than a typical alley given it opened up into the space behind these buildings. But the part where the men were standing was still narrow enough that they were all bunched up. Actually, bunched up as they were, maybe I could get some blue paint at their feet and really throw off–
“Don’t do it, Paintball.” That voice came from behind me, and I spun quickly, putting myself beside the girl with my right side mostly facing the group of armed men so I could keep track of what they were doing out of the corner of my eye. To my left as I glanced that way, I saw a single figure. He stood about seven feet tall, but that was deceptive, because his legs and arms were both very clearly artificial. They looked like the limbs from the endoskeleton of the T-800 Terminator from the Schwarzenegger movies. He’d replaced his limbs with robotic prosthetics.
While the man’s metal arms and legs were exposed, his torso was covered in black armor sculpted to his muscular body (or at least made to look like his body was muscular) with the insignia of an F slightly in front of a W on the upper left portion of the chest, both letters looking like they were made out of girders. Given they were kind of silver against a black background, you had to squint a bit to make them out. Finally, his face was covered by a black helmet with three glowing red dots on the front, two where his eyes would be and one where his mouth would be.
I knew this guy. Well, not personally, of course. But he was called Framework. His whole deal was attaching Tech-Touched devices and weapons to his body and deploying them as needed. When he was in battle, he tended to appear in any of several full-on personal mech suits, which ranged in size from basically what he was now, all the way up to his full twenty-foot tall version.
Oh yeah, he was also one of the Fell-touched of Braintrust, the Tech-Touched gang. Which made sense, considering a bunch of their minions were currently blocking my exit from the alley.
“Gee,” I started quickly while glancing back and forth between the assortment of troops and the Fell-Touched man himself, “are times really so hard for you Tech villains that you have to resort to using a whole army to kidnap one girl? I bet there’s an online training course you can take to learn how to be competent villains and get all the way up to robbing banks in no time if you try.”
Shockingly, that was apparently the wrong thing to say, as all the men to my right abruptly raised their weapons with a collective sound of annoyance and anger (though I swore at least one guy snickered a little bit before it was quickly cut off at a look from his companions) at the insult.
Thankfully, Framework raised his voice. “Stop.” He looked to the troops sharply, waiting until they relented before turning his attention back to me. “We didn’t come to start a brawl with you, Paintball, though we’ll finish one if we need to. We came to get our property back, that’s all.”
Feeling offended on behalf of the girl who was still tightly clinging to my hand, I glanced to her with what I hoped was a reassuring look despite the blank visor of my helmet before snapping at the man. “Yeah, you know what? Maybe if you keep calling the girl you were trying to kidnap your property, I’ll just go ahead and jump right into that brawl you were just talking about.”
There was a very brief pause as Framework’s head tilted. The red dots on his helmet dulled, flickering briefly before flashing a couple times as the sound of what I belatedly realized was a chuckle came. “No,” he replied flatly. “I wasn’t talking about the girl. We don’t even know who she is. Take her, return her to her school, do whatever you like. We came for that.” He raised a hand, pointing at the ground to one side. Looking there, I saw the Tech gun I’d tossed out of the car.
Blinking a couple times, I tried to catch up. “Um. Excuse me? You brought a bunch of armed men to grab the gun just because I threw i–wait, no.” Turning, I pointed at the guy who was still in the car and hadn’t moved to get out. “Them. That guy and his friends. You were after them because they weren’t with you, and they had a gun that–that they stole from you, right?”
Framework inclined his head, regarding me while those lights flickered a bit once more. Then he gave a short nod. “Smart boy. Like I said, we’re not here for the girl. We don’t care about her. We’re here for our property. It was taken from us and we’re taking it back. Stand aside from that and we’ll have no issues. This time, anyway.” He added the last bit after a momentary, pointed pause. “Any future conflict can be saved for just that. The future.”
I thought about it for a second, but honestly… yeah, I couldn’t see any real point to insisting on a fight right now. Not for something like this. I wasn’t arrogant enough to think I could easily take on a whole group of Tech-armed soldiers who could have had any number of tricks, and a Fell-Touched guy whose entire deal was bringing mech suits into play. Pushing for a fight just to stop them from taking one of their guns back? That actually seemed pretty stupid, honestly. Especially with this innocent girl standing right next to me who would end up in the crossfire.
So, I slowly nodded. “Fine, take your gun and leave. We’ll save the fighting thing for later.”
Without moving from where he was standing, Framework gave a short nod to one of the men. That guy stepped forward carefully, leaning down to grab the gun from the ground. As it was stowed away, he asked his boss, “What about him?” He was looking toward the guy still inside the car.
“He stays here,” I quickly put in. “You can take your gun, but the guy stays. He’ll go to jail for kidnapping… ummm…” Trailing off, I glanced toward the red-haired girl beside me.
“P-Peyton,” she provided, eyes wide as she kept staring at the assorted weapons around us.
“Peyton,” I echoed with a nod. “He’ll go to jail for kidnapping Peyton. That’ll have to be enough.”
Framework simply shrugged. “Is that really a fight you want to have right now? You’re really willing to throw down with all this over protecting a guy who kidnaps some innocent girl?”
“I’m definitely not willing to just let you take justice into your own hands,” I retorted. “He’s here with me, he’s going to the authorities. The question is, are you willing to start a fight right now when other Touched could show up any second. Not to mention cops. I mean, the news chopper was–” As I said that, my eyes glanced up toward the sky, only to pause. There was no chopper in sight. Which was weird, because I was pretty sure they should’ve found us by now.
“I wouldn’t worry about the authorities or anyone else showing up to start, or finish, any problems,” Framework informed me. “We’ve got nothing but privacy for the moment.”
As he said it, the man looked pointedly toward one of the rooftops. I glanced that way, only to see another of the Braintrust Touched. This was a man with sleek silver body armor that had dozens of scenes from various TV shows and movies playing across its surface in a collage of random images. It was Fabulist, a guy whose inventions were able to create illusions, elaborate special effects, that kind of thing. He was clearly making sure that the news chopper didn’t find us. Hell, he’d probably created a whole separate chase scene for them to keep following. I was alone.
Swallowing slightly, I straightened. “You’re still not taking him without a fight. I can’t just let you walk away with that guy. Not when I’ve got a good idea of just how he’ll be treated.”
For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure how Framework was going to take that. He regarded me in silence before holding up one finger as though telling me to wait. His head turned and he spoke aloud, “Glitch, slight issue.”
Glitch. That was the leader of Braintrust. As I understood it, she was able to identify problems or flaws in technology, even of the Tech-Touched variety. She could even improve them, basically allowing her to upgrade the work of everyone in her gang. Beyond that, she could also make specific technology within her vicinity fail to work, or install ‘glitches’ into it that would flare up now and then for awhile even after the tech was away from her.
So yeah, there was a reason she got to be the leader of a group entirely focused around technology and inventions. I just hoped she was also the leader because she was capable of making rational decisions.
While the man in front of me was having a murmured conversation with his boss, I turned slightly to look at Peyton. “Are you okay?”
She was staring at the assembled group, who weren’t exactly pointing their guns at us, but hadn’t lowered them either. “Um.” Her voice was very tentative and uncertain. “I… I don’t know. I just wanna go home.”
“Do you have any idea why those guys grabbed you?” The fact that they had used what was apparently a stolen Tech-Touched weapon made me doubt that it was a completely random abduction. And I was really hoping this wasn’t about to turn into a whole new mystery. I had enough of those.
There was a brief pause before the girl explained, “I was chatting with this guy online. We really hit it off. He was funny and everything. Then I found out that he was using his little brother’s pictures. He was a lot older. So I broke it off and he got all upset. I never told him where I lived, but I guess he picked up on my school.”
Turning a bit, I stared at her. “Hold on, you’re saying this whole thing is because one of those idiots that was in the car catfished an underaged girl and his response to that being broken off was to steal a super gun and kidnap you in broad daylight and then have a high speed chase?!” My voice got louder and more incredulous by the word. “Which one was it, Larry, Curly, or Moe?”
Coughing quietly, the girl nodded toward the vehicle. “The… um, idiot that’s still in the car.”
Before I could do more than give a sharp look that way, Framework cleared his throat for attention. When I turned to him, he announced, “Mmmkay, you can take the genius. We’ve had our pound of flesh.”
My mouth opened, but said genius blurted from the car, “What’s that supposed to mean?!”
Framework was all too happy to explain. “We found your address and torched your apartment.” To me, he added pointedly, “Made sure there were no living things in it and contained the burn to only that apartment. Also put up a nice sign letting his neighbors know that this whole thing was because he tried to diddle a fifteen year old. Including pictures of their chat transcripts. Oh, and we sent the same thing to his employer, family, and university. So, you know, we figure we’re even on the whole stealing our equipment issue.” After a brief pause, he asked flatly, “We good here?”
While I was still staring, Peyton leaned over and whispered, ”I’m not supposed to root for the bad guys. Help.”
Shaking my head, I muttered that I wasn’t doing any better on that (and not just from today) before meeting Framework’s gaze. “Yeah. We’re good.”
He held the look, then twirled his finger in a quick circular motion. “Pack it up! We’re gone!”
And just like that, he, the rest of the troops down on the ground, and Fabulist all left. They simply walked away. I stayed tense for another couple seconds while watching just in case. But they didn’t come back.
Then a brief sound caught my attention. Turning quickly, I saw the man in the car starting to scramble out. Before he could get very far, however, Peyton stooped, picked a chunk of concrete off the ground, and smacked him in the face with it. It was an awkward swing that made it clear the girl had probably never thrown a punch in her life. But the sound of the smack was still satisfying. As was the man’s yelp as he fell back into the car and held his nose.
“Yeah, I’d stay there if I was you,” I informed him while taking out my phone to call the authorities.
“Or don’t. I’m not averse to her hitting you a few more times.”
Eventually, that was done with. Peyton was in the hands of the authorities, who could take her home. And her abductor (plus his buddies) were in custody.
So that was one problem dealt with. I thought to avert another possible one by contacting the Seraphs to let them know why I was late. Not that I actually needed to, considering the person on the phone just said that they saw the news.
I was in the midst of my third task, calling Wren to fill her in and thank her, when a voice spoke up from the side of the roof where I was standing. “So who are they?”
Turning quickly, I saw the figure from before with the television shows playing all over his silver costume. Fabulist, the holograms and illusions Tech guy. “What? What do you want?” I snapped, suddenly wary.
The man held up both hands, not that that made me feel any better. “Easy. We’re just curious where you’re getting your tech from.” Turning his arm a bit, he showed me a screen on it that appeared to be a series of meters. “We detect Touched-Tech. Scanner works even when you’re not actively using it or just when you’ve been around it recently. Makes it easier to track down our stuff. And you… you’ve been around very advanced stuff. We don’t know what. Just that it’s impressive. Cutting edge. But who makes it for you? It’s none of us.”
Wren. He wanted to know about Wren. Well, fuck that. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, that’s on a need to know basis, and I don’t see any reason you need to know that.” Oh, please don’t let this turn into a fight now after I’d managed to avoid one with these guys just a few minutes earlier.
Thankfully, the man simply considered me for a moment longer before offering a shrug. “We will find out in time. We are very interested in this tech.”
I started to reply that he could go ahead and be interested, but the man simply vanished in a cloud of smoke. Given his particular proficiency, I wondered if he had even actually been standing there at all.
Speaking of his proficiency, I quickly left the roof and made my way several blocks without saying or doing anything. Reaching a small park, I made my way into the outdoor restroom, locked the door, and stripped myself down. Then I spent ten minutes poring over the entire costume and helmet looking for any possible thing he could have stuck to it that could be a bug or something. I went over it with a fine tooth comb several times in my paranoia before then turning my attention to my phones. I carefully checked them as well, running virus checks and everything. Only then, after dressing once more, did I relax a little bit. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t bugged. I’d hoped not, considering as far as I knew, he never got near me. But given his powers and Touched Tech in general… yeah. I was being careful.
But the tech gang knew about Wren. Or at least that she existed. And it probably wouldn’t take them long to find out more. I was going to have to warn her to be careful now that she had their interest. That whole thing could get really complicated really fast.
When I called, she wanted to know everything that happened from the moment the news chopper lost sight of us. Apparently the holograms had led them on a wild goose chase far from the actual confrontation.
So, I explained everything, including how it was resolved and that they had detected her technology.
“Wren, you better make sure you focus on your defenses now,” I insisted. “You know how Braintrust is about recruiting. Make sure you’re safe.”
“I am, I will!” she chirped. “Don’t worry, Paintball, I’ve got lots of ideas. It’s gonna be great. Oh, and really safe, obviously. Those guys don’t get to tell me what to do, or what to build, or who to build it for, or anything! I don’t build for anybody but me! Um, and you! And people who buy stuff from me! But not bad guys! That’s the important part. No bad guys.”
Chuckling a little after extracting that promise for her to take care of herself, I thanked the kid a few more times for letting me know about the abduction. Assuring her that Peyton really was safe, I promised to come see her soon. Then I disconnected and exhaled. That was over. It had been a brief, no important distraction. But now I had to focus on the actual reason I was out here in the first place.
Time to go see the Seraphs. And hope that I didn’t run into any more kidnapping victims along the way.