Month: August 2020

New Deals 13-05 (Summus Proelium)

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In case you missed it, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on a certain very special termite colony posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

I’d seen casinos in person before. Not that I’d actually stepped inside them, of course. But my family and I had stayed at hotels where casinos were, and I’d seen the rooms themselves from a distance. This one, though, was far different from those glimpses I’d had of the public versions. Emerging from the elevator, I didn’t see a massive, wide-open area full of bright, colorful slot machines loudly clanging and chiming everywhere. I didn’t see neon lights, scantily-clad women walking around with trays of snacks and drinks, or… anything I typically associated with an idea of what a casino floor looked like from my own experiences and movies. 

Instead, I mostly saw an enormous circular room, big enough to hold a full-size basketball game in. Directly in the middle of that circular room was an equally circular bar that took up maybe one-fourth of the space. There were a bunch of people sitting at the bar, and others serving them from behind it. Or within, rather, given the fact it was a circle. Either way, most of them, employees and guests alike, were wearing masks of various kinds. It wasn’t one hundred percent or anything. I did see a couple people’s faces. And some of the masks were clearly more elaborate or expensive than others. But elaborate or cheap, most people wore something that in some way obscured their identities, just as Paige had said. 

The bar itself seemed to be made entirely of glass in a way that was clearly deliberately meant to resemble ice. It was ‘frosted over’ in places, had actual buckets of ice sitting out with bottles resting in them, and so on. As if the whole thing had been carved out of a frozen block.  

The floor under my feet resembled ice-like glass as well. It was like stepping onto a skating rink, except not slippery at all. Actually, there was a tiny bit of bounce to the floor, making it soft to walk on despite its appearance. And it wasn’t just the floor that maintained that appearance. The walls, the decorations, the soft blue lighting that filled the room, it was all winter themed. 

Meanwhile, in the area immediately surrounding the bar, there were tables where people were quietly playing cards. On the far side of the room, opposite where I had come in, there were the games like roulette and craps. You had to go up a very short flight of about three steps to a vaguely raised area to reach those tables, and there was some kind of guard or bouncer posted next to the steps. What he was there for, I wasn’t exactly sure. But he was definitely a big guy, and it looked like he had a visible gun attached to his hip. So they weren’t screwing around. Like the rest of the people in here, the bouncer over there wore a mask. His was shaped like a bull’s head, with actual horns. He looked like a modern minotaur armed with a Glock or something.

Finally, there were doors scattered around the entire outside edge of the large room, even some up on the raised area where the roulette and craps tables were. Most of the doors had keypads next to them, as well as some kind of intercom. Some were labeled with numbers and names I didn’t know the meaning of, like ‘Starfall’ or ‘Viridescent.’ It was that latter door that I saw Paige pass through, giving me one last look and wave before it closed after her. 

Other doors were more simply named with obvious meanings like, ‘Slots Room 1’ or ‘Karaoke Room 3.’ I didn’t really need to think much about those ones, obviously. 

Curious, I checked the maps and GPS thing that Wren had included in my helmet display. As expected, they were offline. People like me weren’t allowed to know where this place was. 

Just as I managed to take all of that in, a voice from one side drew my attention. “Ahh, Mr. Paintball.” It was a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing a white, form-fitting mask against his face with only his mouth exposed. Even his eyes seemed to be covered, though he could clearly see through it. He was approaching me briskly, his voice quick, yet polite. “Such a pleasure to have you take a look at our establishment. I trust you have been informed of the rules here.” 

“No fighting, no trying to unmask people, no acting like you know them if they haven’t introduced themselves to you, mind your own business, basically?” I offered with a shrug. “I got the rundown, yeah.” And unless I missed my guess, this guy had probably already heard everything that had happened outside from Tell. 

“Very good, sir,” the white-masked man politely replied with a slight nod. “We take such rules quite seriously here, I assure you. That is how we remain in business. I am called Chips. Was there anyone you wished to meet, a game you might like to try? Rest assured, we also have rooms full of the finest and most advanced… ahhh… ‘video games’ if you would like to rent time by the hour.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Pack approached from around one of the nearby tables with a quick, “I’ve got it, Chips. Thanks. Paintball just needed to settle a little bet we made while all that was going on with the boss’s kid.” She had Riddles perched on one shoulder (in lizard form), but her other pets weren’t in view.   

“Very good, Miss Pack,” came the crisp response. “Please do let someone know if you require anything further. It would be our pleasure to provide for someone who was so instrumental in the protection of our princess.” 

He pivoted on one heel then, striding away. Watching him go, I lowered my voice. “So what did you want to show me? Please tell me it’s not the sick game room you rented out.” 

Instead of answering right away, Pack glanced around before turning. “This way, walk with me.” Turning, she headed around the edge of the room, counter-clockwise. Riddles, on her shoulder, turned a bit as though making sure I was following. 

So, I did. Picking up the pace to catch up with her, I spoke up. “Look at all the people around here. You wouldn’t know it was… wait, what time is it? I’ve lost track. It’s been a busy night.”

On the way, I saw some people look up from their games or drinks. They didn’t pay too much attention, given that was apparently against the rules. But my appearance obviously made them curious. Yeah, I had no idea what they were making of the fact that I was here. How well known was the fact that I had helped Blackjack with his daughter?

“It’s about one in the morning,” came the response, before Pack gestured to a table in a darker area far from any of the games. Her lizards were all spread out over the surface, happily crawling over one another as well as eating and drinking from bowls that had been laid out for them. Except… 

“Hey,” I spoke up, pointing to a tiny (seriously, it was about the length of her finger) lizard with a neon blue body and bright green head. “That one’s new.” 

Pack pulled out a chair, sitting down before kicking the leg of another for me to join her. She put her hand down close to the lizard in question, letting it run up her fingers. Then she lifted her opposite hand, watching as the beautiful thing jumped almost a foot to reach it. “This is Scatters. She’s new, yeah.” 

Taking the offered seat, I smiled behind my helmet, leaning a bit closer. “She’s really pretty.” 

“Believe me, she knows,” Pack drawled, setting the lizard back on the table near a bowl of water. “She’s a daredevil and a show-off.” Shaking her head, she focused on me, her voice low. “Okay, so my thing I can’t really show you yet. People came to talk to Blackjack.” 

“Wait.” I quickly put in. “Should we be saying anything? I mean with–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted. “No surveillance allowed in the casino. And trust me, I know how fucking weird that is. They have ways of checking for cheaters, but they don’t allow cameras, bugs, or any kind of recording devices. It’s the only way this place attracts the clientele it does, and they have lots of people come in to make sure it stays that way. No one wants to have any chance that things they say in here, or even just the fact that they were here, could get out. See those things up near the ceiling?” She gestured to what looked like loudspeakers positioned throughout the room. “They stop your phone from working, any GPS you have, cameras, audio recording equipment, whatever. None of that stuff works in here, even for us. And I had Eits check, just to be completely sure. If it ever got out that La Casa did keep any kind of surveillance here, this place would be completely dead. And everyone else in the city would probably unite to attack us.” 

“What about people with eavesdropping powers?” I pointed out quickly. “Enhanced hearing, that kind of thing.” Even if they couldn’t record what we were saying, I really didn’t want to take the chance of anyone even hearing it. There was too much at stake, too many ways someone having the slightest idea of what we were doing could totally fuck all of us over, evidence or no.

“Stand up,” Pack urged, gesturing for me to move. “Take a step over there and look at me.” 

Uncertain, I did so, rising from the chair and taking a few steps away. Again, I could see a few people glance over, some clearly more interested than they actually wanted to show. I was a young boy (as far as they knew) Star-Touched sitting in this secret casino. Obviously, they were a bit curious. Which, again, made me wonder just what they thought was really happening here.

Either way, I took those few steps away before looking at Pack. She pointedly reached up, lifting the black, featureless mask enough (revealing dark skin) that I could see her mouth open as she started to speak. And I heard… nothing. Her mouth was moving, but no sound was coming out. Or– she beckoned for me to come closer. So I did, and she held up a hand to stop me, reaching up to take my arm. Mouth still moving, she pulled me forward and down to be within a foot of her. Instantly, I heard her reciting some monologue speech. It sounded like it was from a play or a movie or something. Whatever it was, she was reciting it carefully. After another word, she gave me a push backward by the arm. The second my head was a few inches further away, the sound disappeared. Her mouth kept moving, but I heard absolutely nothing. 

Pack repeated that a couple times, pulling me forward to hear, then pushing me back to demonstrate that the sound disappeared. Finally, she gestured for me to sit down, tugging her mask back down over her mouth as she explained, “Touched-Tech attached to the tables. Makes it impossible to hear things if you’re not invited to the meeting. No eavesdropping allowed. Again, that’s how this place can function as a place for secret meetings, dude. You think we’re the only ones who would be in deep shit if our secrets got out? This whole world revolves around secrets. Nobody would trust La Casa’s casino as a place to have their meetings at if there was any chance, any chance those secrets might get out. Like I said, they have independents and people from other gangs show up to inspect the place. Blackjack isn’t gonna risk giving up the money all these people bring in just to catch a random secret or two before people figure things out and we all become public enemy number one.” 

She had a point. I knew that. Everything she said made complete logical sense. Still, I didn’t like it. It was too risky. Which maybe made me too paranoid. All the stuff Pack told me about how protected everyone’s privacy was in this place, and I still didn’t trust it. Because the real problem was, the second I trusted something like that and was wrong was the second everything fell apart. I couldn’t take that kind of risk, not with something like that. The thought of any of these bad guys, even Blackjack, finding out who my parents were was just… bad. Very bad. 

So, I wasn’t going to say anything too dangerous, just in case. But I supposed the bit about Wren wasn’t the worst possible thing for anyone to overhear if the privacy measures failed or whatever. With that in mind, I explained everything that had happened with Cavalcade and Glitch, how Braintrust wanted Wren to start paying her way in one form or another. Though I still used the kid’s chosen Touched name instead of her real one. I also made a point of not outright talking about how this was obviously related to the Ministry tax thing, but the implications between my words were obvious enough that I could tell the other girl picked up on it. 

When I was done, Pack gave a long series of muttered curses. “Those guys are pretty arrogant fucks, huh? I don’t suppose just going in there and beating their asses is an option.” 

“I don’t think I’m quite ready to challenge a gang like that, even if you helped,” I murmured dryly. “Kinda got a lot going on as it is. Besides, they’d be after Trevithick, not me. And I can’t be there to help her twenty-four seven. I don’t wanna put her under that kind of pressure.” 

Shrugging then, I added, “I mean, sure, working on getting rid of Braintrust is a noble goal and all. Probably more noble than you care about. But that’s a long term thing. Short term, keeping them happy and away from Trevithick is the best way to go.” 

“She’s not gonna make stuff for them,” Pack observed quietly, leaning back in her seat as she watched me for a moment. “All the time I spent with that kid during that whole thing… yeah, she’ll never go for that part. She is not gonna make toys for the evil, terrible supervillains.” I had a feeling her eyes were rolling a bit as she over-stressed those last few words pointedly. 

“You’re right,” I agreed. “She won’t make stuff for them and she won’t consult on any of their projects. That’s just… that’s not her. I–well, maybe she would. If she thought it would help us, if she thought her uncle or one of us was in danger, she might do what they said just to protect them. But it would… it would hurt her. She’d hate it. She’d–I don’t want to do that to her.”

“So what are you gonna do?” Pack asked curiously, fingers idly brushing the head of Mars Bar.

“I think the best thing to do is to tell her about the tax part, about paying them out of money that she makes selling her stuff,” I carefully answered. “I can help a bit.” I could help more than a bit, but I didn’t want to be too cavalier about the money I had access to. It felt like that might be a bit risky as far as maintaining my secret identity went. “But the point is, it’ll take time to set all that up. Meaning I need to make sure the Braintrust people understand they’re only getting a little bit and that it’ll be awhile before they start seeing any of it. And that if they start playing hardball, it won’t go well for them.”

“You want backup for that,” Pack realized. “You want someone to help you make sure Glitch and her people know if they pick a fight with the kid over this whole thing, they’ll be biting off a bigger piece than they think.” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. They’re playing relatively nice now, but the… implications were pretty obvious. I want them to know there’s a bigger fight than they might think if they try to push too hard, too fast. They’ll get something out of it, but they have to back off until Trevithick’s damn good and ready.” Even as I said that, a sigh escaped me. “I’m a shitty Star-Touched, huh? Look where I am. Look what I’m doing. I’m talking about getting some innocent–I’m talking about getting Trevithick to pay taxes to a fucking supervillain gang instead of just fighting them.”

“You’re talking about not throwing her under the bus to satisfy your ego,” came Pack’s retort. “You already said taking them down or whatever is a long term goal. Which is pretty damn ambitious on its own, for the record. But keeping them off Trevithick’s back for now, that’s not a bad thing. Like you said, you can’t be there twenty-four se–wait, here we go.” 

Before I could ask what that last bit meant, she urged, “Don’t look up too fast or too obviously. Use your helmet to cover it, just turn your eyes as much as you can. Like I said before, some people came to talk to Blackjack. They were in one of the private rooms over there. Very carefully, just turn your eyes to look a bit to the left, that way.” 

Uncertain, I did so. And immediately almost fell out of my chair. Because she was right, Blackjack was there. And he was standing with my parents. They were just… there. No masks or anything. Standing right in the open. 

I was so shocked in that moment, that they would be so brazen, that I didn’t say anything for a second. And with my helmet, that meant Pack couldn’t see my reaction. Which turned out to be a good thing, as she noted, “I just wish I knew who they were.” 

Wait. Wished she knew who they were? My parents were… kind of famous, especially around Detroit. It was possible she might not recognize them, but… “You don’t know who they are?” I asked carefully, trying to keep my voice even instead of letting it shake. My gaze was locked onto my parents, who were deep in conversation with Blackjack. 

“Nah,” came the response. “Do you? They seemed important when they showed up, but I’ve never seen them before.” She chuckled then. “Too bad we can’t take a picture and put it out there like, ‘Does anyone recognize these two guys?’” 

My head started to nod, then I stopped. “Two guys?” 

“Uhh, yeah, dude.” Pack sounded slightly confused. “Those two men standing right over there with Blackjack. The tall guy with the black crewcut and the red-haired guy next to him.” 

Was… was she blind? Neither of my parents had red hair, and my mother certainly wasn’t a guy. Unlike me, she could never have been mistaken for a boy. She had long black hair, while my father’s hair was dark blond with just a bit of distinguishing gray to it. They… they didn’t look a single bit like what she was describing. And yet, they were very clearly the only people standing there talking to Blackjack. 

So why the fuck was I seeing my parents talking to him, while Pack saw two entirely different people?

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Commissioned Interlude 4 – Merit, Kansas (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a special commissioned interlude. The next chapter of the main storyline will be out tomorrow as scheduled. Thanks! 

Bird-Chair-One. That was the designation of the termite who bustled his way along the sidewalk. He was named, as all members of the Sphere Colony, via the convention of ‘animal-object-number.’ Most termites weren’t given names, of course. Most wouldn’t have been capable of comprehending anything resembling the basic concept of a name. Or any idea of individuality, for that matter. They were simply cogs within a machine. 

But Bird-Chair-One was no ordinary termite. Oh, on the outside he would look like a fairly typical representative of a soldier member of the Coptotermes formosanus species. That was the scientific term for the commonly known subterranean termite, a species often referred to as the super-termite thanks to a reputation for building enormous, expansive colonies and the speed at which they could consume wood. They were considered an invasive species of insects, capable of doing untold damage to homes and structures, particularly if not caught and contained in time before the colony spread too much. 

And that was before you gave them human-level intelligence and superpowers. 

There was one slight difference, physically, between these termites and most members of their species. Unlike typical Formosan termites, these possessed two tiny black nubs, barely visible, at the end of their heads. Nubs which provided them with one of many advantages they had over others of their kind: the ability to see. Those tiny, almost imperceptible bumps on each termite’s head, were eyes. 

On his way down the cracked and broken pavement, the termite passed a small swarm of his fellow hive-members, who lined up together. A stream of thick fog emerged from the gathered insects, drifting out in front of them before forming itself into a series of sharp, angled spears. Though spears made of thick fog were hardly going to intimidate anyone, in a moment, they changed. The fog vanished, replaced by metal in the same shape. Several six foot long iron spears appeared, before clattering loudly into a low, wooden wheeled cart that lay nearby. A harness made of wood and rope attached the cart to four dogs who lay dozing in the sun. Atop the cart, at the front, was a glass orb the size of a hamster wheel, where a single termite perched. 

Seeing (and feeling) the load of metal spears fall into place, the driver termite walked forward to stand on a small button, sensitive enough that even that miniscule amount of weight activated it. Doing so made a bell at the head of the cart ring, waking the quartet of dogs. Trained as they were, the dogs hopped to their feet and began to walk forward, pulling the loaded cart. The driver could move slightly left on the button to make a higher pitched dinging sound, which would make the dogs turn that direction, or move right to make a lower pitched donging sound, making them turn that way instead. Or the driver could move backward, creating a rapid beeping sound that would cause the dogs to stop entirely. 

The dogs weren’t intelligent, but they had been well-trained and would expect treats for the work they provided. Treats the colony would provide. 

Watching the wagon pull away briefly, Bird-Chair-One waved his antennae toward a couple termites in particular who were among those creating more spears. They were his friends, Giraffe-Rock-Thirty-Two and Elk-Cup-Fifteen, and he sent what amounted to a telepathic greeting. Members of the colony were capable of communicating with one another by sending and receiving the equivalent of ‘thoughts’ through their antennae. It allowed very complex conversations to be had in a much briefer time than human dialogue. 

Yet, despite how quick and easy communication was, Bird-Chair-One knew he couldn’t stay to spend time with his friends or marvel at how well training their new transport-dogs was going. His mission, at that moment, was entirely too important to indulge in even another moment of conversation. And he knew just how easily Giraffe-Rock-Thirty-Two could distract him with jokes and tall tales if given a chance. No, he had to keep going, hurrying along the broken sidewalk, attached to a broken street, in the middle of an empty field that had, at one time, been a town, if a quite small one. Now there was little to illustrate that humans had ever lived there, aside from bits and pieces.  

One year earlier, the humans had called this place Merit, Kansas. But that town no longer existed in any meaningful way. It was still listed on maps, of course. But every building within the city had been destroyed in a war. A war between humans and the Colony of the Sphere. 

Soon, Bird-Chair-One reached the nearest tunnel entrance, hidden as it was under the remains of a mailbox. Pausing at the misleadingly small hole (which gave absolutely no indication of the sheer size and scale of the structure it was leading into), he lifted those tiny eyes to look around once more. No houses or other buildings still existed in what had been Merit. Every human structure had been stripped down to nothing, including the very foundations. That was what had to be done, both to send a message to their human enemies, and to provide much-needed resources to defend themselves through the ongoing conflict. Resources for the war. 

It hadn’t begun with war. No, it had truly begun a little over a year ago, with the sudden appearance of a foreign object, a glowing orb which had appeared in the middle of an ordinary colony of termites. The glowing sphere had simply popped into existence in the middle of a tunnel, disrupting the work there. In its appearance, part of the tunnel had collapsed. But a moment later, for no readily apparent reason, the tunnel had repaired itself, stretching wide to accommodate its new intrusion. Meanwhile, several termites that had been crushed by the orb’s appearance were restored to their original, intact selves and were safely relocated. 

All soldiers or workers among the common termite lacked truly formed eyes or vision. They navigated using their antennae to detect odors, and could differentiate light from dark. And it was both the strange scent of the orb as well as the light it was giving off (to say nothing of the damage it had done to the colony tunnel) that attracted soldier investigation. One in particular drew itself close enough to reach out and brush the orb. And that was when quite literally everything changed. Not only for that single termite soldier, but for the entire colony. 

The first, most immediate change, was the fact that every single member of the colony immediately developed the ability to see. Those small, black, pebble-like bumps grew on the heads of the termites, awakening the ability of sight within all of them. Even those among the colony, such as the king, queen, and colony-expanding, winged alates they produced, who did technically have a rudimentary ability to see, had that ability expand greatly. Every single one of them, from that instant onward, had the gift of sight as clear as a human’s. Even better, technically, considering how well the vision worked within the pitch-black tunnels.

But the sense of sight, while being the most immediate and obvious change, was far from the most important. What followed, mere seconds later, was the ability to comprehend what that vision meant. The termites, one and all, every member of the colony, could suddenly understand what being able to see meant. They understood the concept of dying, of existing, of building. They knew what they were, what humans were, what other animals were. They were, one and all, as intelligent and aware as any average human. More importantly, the members of the colony were not only given a basic awareness and intelligence, they were gifted with the understanding of language. English, in this case. They knew what the words ‘tunnel’, ‘orb’, ‘dirt’, ‘wood’, and even their own designation of ‘termite’, meant. They knew the meaning of thousands of words, and even possessed at least a basic understanding of the history of humanity. The average termite in the colony, from that moment onward, possessed an equivalent knowledge and understanding of history, language, math, science, and more as, at a bare minimum, the average human high school student. 

As with humans, some were more intelligent and knowledgeable than others. A few of the lowly workers and soldiers developed a level of intelligence on par not only with the average human, but with human scientists or academics. The queen and king, meanwhile, were given the intelligence and knowledge needed to control the colony, including the understanding that the most gifted of their subjects had to be protected and nurtured for the good of the colony. 

It was an awakening, the uplifting of an entire colony of termites to a level of intelligence and understanding on par with any human. They were aware, intelligent, capable of individual personality. From that moment forward, every member of the colony, including those later grown from larvae, were just as individualized and capable of thought, creativity, and even emotions such as anger, compassion, and love as humanity itself. 

And yet, for as remarkable as the colony’s sudden intelligence was, the gift of the orb (which had become a sort of god to them) did not end there. It also bestowed the ability for each of the termites to generate a bit of white fog. This fog was capable of disintegrating any currently non-living material (including dead wood) it touched so long as at least one member of the colony was currently standing on or touching identical material. For example, if one member of the colony was perched against a tire, any fog produced by any of the termites could disintegrate any other tires. 

Materials dissolved this way could then be repurposed. The termites would simply produce more fog, manipulate it into the shape they wanted, and the fog would be replaced by the solid form made of their absorbed material. And while they were limited in how much material they could produce this way, it was not a one-one ratio with what they had dissolved. For every single pound of material the fog disintegrated, the colony as a whole could create ten pounds of the same material. Unfortunately, only original material could be multiplied this way. The termites could not, for example, disintegrate ten pounds of steel, create a hundred pound block, then disintegrate that and have access to a thousand pounds. 

That was the new colony, an intelligent collection of termites capable of working together to disintegrate any non-living material and use that material to build elaborate, incredible structures. Each could only produce a small amount of fog by themselves, but together, much large amounts could be used, and thus much larger structures created. 

With their new intelligence and individuality, the Colony of the Sphere (as they called themselves) attempted to reach out to the humans of the nearby small town of Merit, Kansas, by using their material-construction fog to create words made of stone, metal, and wood. 

Unfortunately, that attempt… did not go well. The humans they tried to communicate with, their first attempt at contact, reacted horrifically. They rejected the very concept that the termites could be intelligent. No, worse, they reacted as though the colony were monsters, and tried to kill them. Almost the entire greeting party had been annihilated. A thousand of their people, a thousand intelligent creatures, who had been looking forward to meeting real humans, were wiped out. 

And the humans had not stopped there. They had set about attempting to wipe the colony out entirely. Not all of them, naturally. But enough. And too few tried to stop them. After all, what they were killing were only insects. Poison, fire, huge drilling machines, they had gone to extreme lengths in their efforts to destroy the termite ‘invaders.’ 

The colony, of course, had retaliated once they understood that there was no negotiating, that there could be no compromise. Using their powers, they destroyed the drilling and digging machines, disintegrated the human weapons, even the clothes they wore. They moved further, destroying the very homes the humans lived in, the vehicles they drove, everything they could. They drove the humans to flee. And when more humans came with their weapons, their armored vehicles, their bombs, the colony destroyed those too. 

Eventually, the humans had stopped coming, for the most part. A few still approached, and those who could be trusted were traded with. One in particular, a human named Jerry Mose, had driven a scouting expedition of the colony across a large part of the state, to every junkyard, scrapyard, abandoned car lot, factory, everywhere that would allow the termites to disintegrate more incredibly useful metal and add it to their collective resources. The human authorities had subsequently cracked down much harder on anyone approaching or leaving the territory of the colony, performing very intensive searches to ensure none of the termites snuck beyond their borders. But by then most of the damage had been done. 

It was that, the addition of so much iron and steel (particularly given the colony’s ability to multiply any material they absorbed by ten), which allowed them to create the structure Bird-Chair-One was descending toward as he entered the tunnel. The tunnel, unlike those built by ordinary colonies, was made of concrete. The entrance area was quite wide, with a sharply angled ramp leading downward. Along the top of that ramp were twenty tiny, insect-sized boards with wheels under them. Each board had a spool attached to the back, with string leading from that spool to another one attached to the wall. Next to each spool was a small button. 

Essentially, any member of the colony could perch themselves on a cart and push off. The cart would carry them, much faster than they could walk, down the steeply angled concrete tunnel, staying within narrow grooves which prevented the carts from banging into one another. On the way, the string attaching the cart to the wall spool would unwind. Once the cart was at the bottom, either the button attached to the wall spool, or an identical one down there, could be used to open a small stream of water into a bucket that was linked to the spool on the far side of the wall. The weight of the water-filled bucket would pull the cart back to the surface, and once the cart was locked in place, the bucket would empty and return to its normal position. 

It was a complex system, and the colony was always trying to improve ways that they could get around. Particularly given the fact that their small size was the biggest disadvantage they had in their war for survival against the humans who kept trying to exterminate them. For now, it worked well enough, and Bird-Chair-One rode one of the carts down, down down. The concrete tunnel went through twenty feet of dirt, followed by a further forty feet of solid cement that matched the tunnel itself. And even then, after passing sixty feet deep into the ground through that mixture of dirt and concrete, the ride was only halfway over. A further sixty feet of solid steel, the exterior wall of the buried protective bunker that had become the primary colony home, had to be passed through. Twenty feet of dirt, forty feet of concrete, sixty feet of steel, all protecting the colony from the humans who had tried so hard to eradicate them.

For the moment, those humans had given up trying to destroy them, thanks to a mixture of the damage their very expensive equipment suffered any time it got close (the colony had scouting groups hidden in the wild watching all approaches toward their territory), and the arguments presented by those few humans that the colony counted as allies. They were intelligent and capable of rational thought, which prompted enough humans to speak up for their rights to exist that it was easier for the government to back off, put up signs and barricades blocking people from approaching the former town, and try to ignore the problem than it was to deal with it. 

But the colony had not forgotten. They knew that it was only a matter of time before more humans came to try to kill them. And they would not be helpless victims again. They prepared their defenses, their weapons, for when that time inevitably came. The next time humans decided to play exterminator with the Colony of the Sphere, they would find a much bigger fight on their hands. 

Bird-Chair-One and the rest of his people would not be wiped out. They had tried to extend a mandible of friendship to humans, and had been thoroughly burned. It was not a mistake they would make twice. While they could be allies with a few notable humans, those who had proven themselves, the colony would not expose itself to the risk of extinction again. Humans, as a general rule, were not to be trusted. 

Reaching the bottom of the ramp, Bird-Chair-One left the cart and raced through the maze of tunnels, passing many, many more of his people. Though not as many as there could have been, considering how much better the colony was at defending itself than most insects. Like other Touched-animals, they also seemed to live longer than most of their kind. Though given the fact that most termites lived only one to two years, and it had been merely a single year since they had been Uplifted, that was harder to gauge. 

The point was, they lived longer and thus the colony that had begun at a size of several hundred thousand should have been much larger. Yet something prevented that. Whether it was intentional on the part of the Sphere or not, their larvae only produced viable young at a pace that roughly matched their dead. Whenever they lost members of their species, for whatever reason, more larvae could hatch and grow. It kept the colony at roughly the same size, despite their greater intelligence and survival capability. 

Finally, the tiny termite soldier reached the entrance to the queen’s chambers. It was guarded by dozens of those like him, who would quickly be backed up by hundreds more at a moment’s notice. To say nothing of the various traps that could be triggered to block off the tunnel and fill it with things such as deadly spikes and a flood of water if need be. 

It took a few moments of telepathic communication of ideas and concepts before Bird-Chair-One was allowed to enter the queen’s chambers. Finally, however, the thick stone slab was moved aside, and he hurried in, before stopping to behold the queen herself. Truly massive in size compared to the lowly soldier he was, the queen perched in the corner of the room. Her gaze was centered on what, to humans, would be a tiny, cell-phone sized personal television that had been dragged in there. To the colony, it was a massive monitor, connected through a cable leading to a hidden metal satellite dish that allowed it to pick up these signals. 

She was watching the human news, the anchor reporting from a town over seventy miles away. Nothing of any great import, but Lion-Sapphire-Zero insisted on keeping herself up to date on everything the humans were talking about. Just in case. 

At the approach of her subordinate soldier, her attention moved from the commandeered television, and she sent the simple telepathic request of, Success or failure?

Success, Bird-Chair-One was happy to report. The boat floated properly on the water, and many of our people were capable of mounting it safely. 

This is excellent news, came the cheerful response from Queen Lion-Sapphire-Zero. Soon, we will be able to move our expedition along the river to the place the humans call Leavenworth. Let them watch our above-ground defenses with their satellites and drones. Let them continue to search our human allies to ensure none of us are smuggled beyond these borders. We will move our people through the underground tunnels to our boats, and sail them under cover of darkness far beyond where the humans expect to find our people.

After a brief pause, Bird-Chair-One felt safe enough in the queen’s good mood to ask, Will we attack them then, to repay the lost massacre? 

No, the queen informed him. We will not initiate hostilities. But we will place our people in position to retaliate if need be. 

And if the humans do make any move to exterminate us again, they will find the cost to be far higher than they could have imagined. 

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Homeward Bound 8-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, there I was, years in the future on some death trap space station or whatever. And who turns out to have apparently put this whole thing together? Elisabet. The woman who had already been missing for awhile back in my real time, had actually set up everything on this space station specifically to kill all the other people (whoever they were), give me access to my powers again, and release me. Just… what–how? Well, maybe she just showed up back home at some point in the intervening years and… found out I was gone? Or maybe I went back to the present before she showed up and told her where to go, eventually, to help me right now? But that–ow. Fuck. Yeah, figuring out time travel still sucked.

“Felicity.” The voice of Elisabet grabbed my attention once more, and I glanced up from where I’d been gazing off at nothing to find her waving her hand. “I need you to pay attention.” 

“Wha–are you–” I started, confused about this being a recording. Then I stopped. Time travel. Wait, if she did know how I reacted to this, didn’t that mean–nope! Nope, nope, not getting into that line of thought. I didn’t have nearly enough ibuprofen packed away to handle that pain.

Again, the hologram of Elisabet waited until I was done reacting before she continued. “First, yes, this is a recording. Right now, you are roughly four years in the future from where you were. Which is quite far off from Fossor’s intentions. His spell was meant to send you five years into the future, and directly to his stronghold planet, where you would have been met and restrained by an army of his personal minions, who had been given those five years to prepare for every possible action you could have taken in an attempt to free yourself.” 

Okie dokie, that sounded bad. Hearing that, I swallowed hard, trying to think of how that would’ve gone. Badly, for me. A bunch of Fossor-troops given half a decade to prepare for me and anything I could do? It wouldn’t have been pretty, that was for sure. But on the other hand, I wasn’t there. I was… wherever here was. And a year early. 

“As you’ve noticed,” Elisabet was saying, “you are not on Fossor’s planet. And, as I said, you were only sent forward four years rather than five. That’s because at the exact moment that Fossor triggered the spell intended to send you forward, I used a spell of my own, intercepting his spell and redirecting the energy. One year of the time portion was put instead toward altering your final destination to be what it is now. Which, of course, makes your immediate question…” 

“Why wouldn’t Fossor have people waiting here for me?” I promptly asked aloud. “He’s had four years to figure out the destination and time were wrong too. Unless he had to be right there at the place he sent me off from and my friends kept him away?” 

“Your allies being at his old home was likely helpful,” Elisabet’s recording agreed. “But that is not all of it. I included obfuscation spells to mask your exact destination, providing over a dozen possible locations and many possible dates across that full five year span. If Fossor had been able to study your exact departure point for long enough, he almost certainly could have worked his way through those deceptions. But he was forced to employ other methods of checking your destination. Methods which were successfully masked. His only option was to prepare for your arrival in any of the possible locations on any of those dates. Hence positioning these stations, such as the one you are on, exactly where you could possibly have arrived, full of mercenaries in his employ, with magic specifically intended to leave you personally trapped with no powers. The people on that station, and all the others like it, will have been waiting years for your possible arrival.”

She went on a bit more, explaining that this station that I was standing on had originally been positioned to watch the Meregan homeworld. That was part of how Fossor captured Gavant and the others. And the Meregan homeworld was where Elisabet herself had been trapped. Apparently that was a long story that she wasn’t going to get into right then. The point was, she had made her way to the station with some help from, in her words, ‘a friend of yours’, and had secretly placed the poison gas spells and the hints to me about what to do, programmed to activate only at the exact minute I showed up. She’d also left this recording. 

“Right now,” Elisabet continued after explaining that much, “you’re probably wondering exactly how this could have happened, how I knew precisely how to do this. That is because of–” 

The hologram cut out briefly, and suddenly I was staring at the image of a much different figure. It was a teal-skinned, white-haired teenage female. A Nereid, I realized. She popped up into frame, waving. “Hi, Flick! It’s Dexamene. Wait, you don’t know me yet, huh?” 

Except I did know the name. Dexamene the Nereid. Tristan had mentioned her. She was a friend of his from back on Nicholas Petan’s ship. His best friend from those times. And, if I’d been reading his expression right, potentially more than a friend. She’d meant a lot to him. But he’d had to take his chance in getting back to his sister and the rest of his family. He’d known it would be five years before he could see her again, after he was sent back. 

And yet now I was seeing her in this recording. Wait, now… now for me would be five years since Tristan was sent back to Earth by Petan, wouldn’t it? 

Dexamene was snickering. “Yup,” she informed me, “it’s been a long time. Anyway, here’s my side of things. You make it to Lord Petan’s ship, and you tell us about how you were sent into the future and that we need to send you back. Except you sent me to Aiken’te’vel, errr, that’s the Meregan homeworld, to help Elisabet here so that she can help you by redirecting the first time travel spell. See? You showed up where you are now so that you could end up on Lord Petan’s ship, so you could send me to Aiken’te’vel to help Elisabet, so you could end up where you are now. It’s a loop.” She twirled her finger around in a circle a few times. “But umm, as Tristan would say, don’t think about it too hard, or you might go cross-eyed.” 

Too late, I was already thinking about it too much. Did that mean I’d always ended up here? But that didn’t make sense, because there had to have been a point when I ended up on Fossor’s world, right? The loop had to start somewhere. I must have ended up there at some point, escaped or something, and somehow created this loop. There had to be a point where I… or someone else, had set this whole thing up to work this way. 

Ouch. Yeah, I was going cross-eyed. I should’ve listened to the advice. 

“Told you,” Dexamene’s recording teased. “Don’t think about it so much. You’ve got other things to worry about.” 

“Yes.” That was Elisabet, apparently doing something to push Dexamene out of the way so she could appear on the hologram once more. “You do have other things to worry about. According to your future self, we cannot tell you very much if this is going to go the way we all need it to. You need to act on instinct, not by following a script. But it was important that you know what kind of situation you are in. Your arrival will have triggered whatever measures Fossor prepared for sending reinforcements to collect you. If you don’t wish to meet them, you must follow the steps I’m about to give you for leaving the station. When this recording ends, a bag with a keycard, magic tools, and a diagram of a spell, complete with specific notations and instructions will appear. You must follow this guide to create the spell that will take you off of that station, where you will find yourself in a… hazardous situation. That is all I can tell you. Be prepared, act decisively, and you will eventually find your way to Nicholas Petan’s ship, where you can set these events in motion. With any luck, you will then be able to transport back to the time you left from. But remember, for this situation to exist, you must send this Dexamene girl to the Meregan homeworld on a specific date a couple months earlier than the one you were sent away from.” 

There was a moment where it looked like Elisabet was going to say one thing, before she seemed to reconsider. Finally, she spoke in a quieter voice than before. “Unfortunately, every bit of power I’ve been able to store up went toward enacting this, and now… now it’s all I can do to avoid the Fomorians. I won’t have the ability to reach out to Jophiel or anyone else on Earth before all of this comes to a head. Felicity, you have to make it back to Earth. You have to warn the others and stop the Necromancer.” She paused before adding, “And I would appreciate it if, when you are done with that, you could send a little aid this way. There are other things to deal with once Fossor is no longer an immediate threat.”  

She gave me a few more details about what I should do. But, as promised, kept quiet about most of the details. Eventually, Elisabet finished with, “I… hope you manage it, Felicity.” 

“Yeah, good luck!” Dexamene piped up. “And I’ll see you soon. Oh, right, when I meet you, tell me that the tueln is under my bed. That umm… will and did really freak me out.” 

The recording ended then, the hologram going dark. Staring at the spot where it had been for a long moment, I exhaled. Finally, I whispered, my own voice startling me as it cut through the silence. “Okay, this is a lot.” My hands covered my face, as I mumbled against them, “A fucking lot.” And wasn’t that just the biggest understatement in the universe? Really, how was I supposed to deal with all this? There was just so damn much. Time travel. I was in the future, and future future me had apparently set a whole thing up to have Tristan’s old friend travel to the Meregan world in the past in order to find Elisabet and have her set up a spell that intercepted Fossor’s spell, altering it to send me to this place, which Elisabet then prepared ahead of time for me. 

That was enough all on its own. But now I was apparently supposed to go find Nicholas Petan’s ship using only hints (from myself, apparently) about where to go. No idea what might be between that ship and me. No idea what would come afterward. Except that I somehow had to get myself sent back to Earth, shortly after I’d left it. And I had to get there not only to save my mother, but everyone. Every Bosch Heretic was going to be killed and turned into Fossor’s slaves if I didn’t get back there in time to stop it. Mom was still his prisoner. Nobody else knew what he was planning. If I didn’t get back there, Fossor would have a literal army worth of enslaved undead Heretics to play with. And that… fuck. That would be the end of the Earth. There was no way he’d bother hiding out or being patient at that point. He would have the Seosten over the barrel, forcing them to take Heretics from him to fight their war with the Fomorians in exchange for allowing him to keep Earth for himself. He’d turn the entire planet into the same thing as his own homeworld. He’d turn not just all of humanity, but all of everyone who lived on Earth into his slaves, just like he’d done to his own people. And with every Bosch Heretic under his control, nobody would be able to stop him. Unless I got back there in time. 

But, you know, no pressure or anything. 

“We’ve gotta go,” I said out loud, looking toward my ghost companion. “Elisabet was right, Fossor’s reinforcements are gonna show up soon. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be here when they do.”

“Yes,” came the dry response, “something tells me my brother is rather unhappy with both of us. And if he has succeeded at his ploy in this time, he will have very dangerous threats to throw around.” 

That was a point that made me blanch, pressing a hand against my stomach briefly. No. No, I didn’t even want to think about that. If he had that kind of power to throw at us–worse, if he had my friends to throw at us, my… no. I was going to move on and make sure I didn’t have to deal with anything like that. 

But in any case, those thoughts were another reason why getting out of here right now was the best move. Quickly, I turned to open the bag that had appeared, as promised, when the hologram disappeared. Inside was a field-engraver for spells, a red and violet keycard, a piece of paper with a long series of symbols written on it that were all connected by an intricately swirled line (along with notes about how to make this spell work), and one of those enner things, the coins that held spell energy. Sliding all of those into my pockets, except for the field-engraver, I moved quickly out of the room I was in. Time to go, time to go, beyond time to go! 

Running by that point, I went straight for the same room I’d originally appeared in. I had to ignore all the bodies, had to not think about them at all. Not right now, there wasn’t time. Not if I actually wanted to avoid any confrontations with… anyone. 

Reaching that first room, I moved to the middle and knelt down before grabbing the paper from my pocket, dropping the field-engraver for the moment. Instead, I touched my free hand to the floor and used my inscription power to copy over each symbol in the sequence one at a time. I would stare at the symbol being copied, touch my hand to the right spot on the floor, and focus for a second before it appeared. So much faster than actually drawing all those things. 

But I did still need that field-engraver that Elisabet had provided. According to the notes written on the paper, each of these symbols had to be connected with that intricate line that was on the paper as well. And they had to be connected in a certain way. First, I touched the engraver to the enner while murmuring the activation word the notes mentioned. As soon as I did that, the power from the enner drained right into the engraver, and it grew somewhat warm in my hand. It was ready. 

Touching the tip of the empowered field-engraver against the first symbol, I carefully drew it up and out, checking the paper before making a small loop, doubling back on the line slightly. Then I angled it downward to barely touch the next symbol, angling across in a sort of underline motion. 

Telling myself not to get into a rush, I followed the line through the rest of the symbols at the specific speed and path the notes had been crystal clear about. Careful, I had to be careful. If I got into a rush and fucked it up… yeah, that would be bad. Do it right, Flick. Just calm down and do it right. 

Of course, thinking that just made me remember all the times in the past when I had believed I was thinking to myself, only to later find out that it was actually Tabbris secretly giving me advice. 

I missed my sister. I missed everyone. Fuck. If Fossor succeeded in his plan back then, what had happened to Tabbris? What had–

No. Stop it. Just stop it. Focus right now. Do what you have to do right now to make sure then doesn’t turn out like that. 

With that firmly in mind, I finished the connected symbols. According to Elisabet, the spell had to be drawn right here because of its distance to the station’s various power sources. I looked over the whole finished product hurriedly, comparing it to the paper. Good, good, right, it looked fine. As perfect as I could make it. 

Finally, I produced that keycard and moved to the console that was nearest the door. Crouching, I felt around behind it until I found the slot that Elisabet had described. Shoving the keycard in that slot, I waited just long enough for the console to light up purple before blurting the last command that had been carefully written on the paper, “Execute Evac Elisabet Nine Nine.” 

Instantly, every bit of power the station had was drained. The actual lights dimmed down to near nonexistence, and I was floating as the artificial gravity disappeared. But right there in the middle of the room, the symbols of the spell that I’d been instructed in making were glowing bright green. Then, one by one, they all shifted to be silver. At the very instant that the last symbol changed color, a glowing silver-blue portal was projected into the air above the spell. 

Also at that exact moment, I heard voices. They were coming from the corridor, through the hatch I hadn’t bothered to close. There were people out there. Fossor’s back-up minions. They were here. Were they random thugs, or people I knew? Were they–

Fuck it. Shoving every doubt, concern, and worry I had deep down into the pit of my stomach, I shoved my feet against the nearby wall and hurled myself at the portal. From the corner of my eye, I saw figures start to come through the hatch. I heard a shout. Was it–was that my name? Was–

Then I was through the portal, and gone. 

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New Deals 13-04 (Summus Proelium)

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When I abruptly told the Sell-Touched that I would go with her after all, she did a quick doubletake. Obviously, she hadn’t been expecting that. For a second, the woman just looked in my direction, squinting through the goggles. “That right?” she finally settled on, before adding, “Just a quick little tip kid, if you think you can use this whole thing as a way to make a name for yourself by busting a bunch of people just having fun at this casino, I don’t know what kind of–” 

“It’s neutral ground, I know,” I quickly assured her. “Starting shit at the casino is a good way of pissing off everyone in the city who isn’t government-aligned. And even some of them. When you’re at the casino, you play nice with everyone else that’s there, or you become a target.” That much had been made clear in the documentary about Detroit Touched that I’d watched awhile back. They didn’t actually get to go to the place (or any other couple designated neutral points), but there’d been enough details from interviews and the like to make that much clear. 

After another brief moment of watching me, clearly trying to read exactly what I intended, Cavalcade gave a short nod. “Okay, kid. Let’s go to the casino. I’ll show you how independent Star-Touched like you are supposed to get there. But first…” She trailed off meaningfully. 

“Money, right.” Giving a quick nod, I reached into my pocket, producing the five one hundred dollar bills that I’d already set aside before holding them out for her. “We’re good now, yeah?” 

“Sure, kid, we’re good.” That answer came after Cavalcade had taken the money, examined it carefully as though to check for counterfeits or something, then tucked the five bills away. “We’re totally good. Now, let’s get to the games so I can be even better than good.” 

Something told me Cavalcade and Pack could have a whole conversation about how much they liked getting paid, or just money in general. Maybe between the two of them they could eventually get a big pool full of cash and swim in it. Actually, Cavalcade was still a bit of a mystery, but I really wouldn’t put it past Pack to do exactly that if she had the chance. 

In any case, the Sell-Touched led me back to her car, already explaining. “The way people like you get to the casino is a little different from people like me, or Fells. Don’t think of it as people not trusting you, but uhhh… actually yeah, yeah, think of it as people not trusting you. You’re a fine, upstanding citizen, a good guy. So you don’t get to know exactly where the casino is.” 

As we drove, she explained that there was a building for Star-Touched like me to go to, a place nowhere near the actual casino. There would be a guard whom I would tell about wanting to visit the casino. He’d do whatever he needed to in order to make sure I was on the up-and-up, then send me in to the next step. 

Cavalcade explained everything I needed to do, before pulling to a stop in front of an old three story office building across the street from a car dealership. “Here we go, kid. I don’t feel like going through all the rigamarole, so you have fun. Maybe I’ll see you in there. But just–one more time, don’t start shit just because you see a bad guy, okay? Save it for the streets.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I stepped out of the car and walked toward the building. It had occurred to me that I could insist that Pack meet me elsewhere to avoid going in a place like this. But she’d seemed insistent that she had to show me something. Plus, I was kind of curious to see how this casino thing worked. Hell, I had a suspicion it might actually be connected to my parents after all. Neutral ground that was somehow enforced for everyone? That sounded a lot like Ministry-related stuff to me. 

So, taking a deep breath as I approached the doors, I focused on the man who was standing there. He looked like any ordinary guard, wearing a pair of brown pants and a white, ill-fitting shirt with a random security company name across the sewn-on badge. He was leaning against the doorway, straightening when I walked toward him. “Hey, there, Paintball!” His voice was cheerful, and when I got closer, I could see the smile stretched across his face. He was kind of a heavy-looking guy, with a bright, flushed face and lines that made it clear smiling was his default expression. He kind of looked like a young, brown-haired Santa Claus, to be honest. Only maybe a little more cheerful. He definitely did not look like a hardcore guard protecting a possible entrance to a place full of Fell-And-Sell-Touched, that was for sure. I was pretty sure he wasn’t even wearing a weapon aside from the heavy maglight that hung from his belt. 

“Um, hi.” I hesitated before raising a hand. Cavalcade had said this was the right place. Plus, come to think of it, they obviously wouldn’t want someone who looked like a paramilitary badass standing out in the open. So, I pushed on with the phrase the woman had given me. “I’d like to play a ginny run up to the royal flush.” Apparently the passphrase changed every once in awhile and you had to be in good standing to get the new one. But it was always something like that. 

“Well!” The man in front of me smiled even more, letting out a loud chuckle that filled the air around me. It actually made me feel a little better about the whole situation, taking some of the uncertain tension out of me. I felt like everything was going to be okay. “You’re not trying to get in there to fight or arrest anyone, are you?” His tone was light and teasing, as if I couldn’t possibly be doing anything like that. And in that moment, I knew I could trust him. He was a good guy, a friend. He was everything I’d been looking for in a confidant. 

A confidant. That was it. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I could tell him everything I knew about the Ministry. I could tell him about my family, about the fact that I was really a girl, even about the whole situation with my memories, and about Pa–

“Paintball?” A familiar voice interrupted my rush of thoughts, making me jerk that way.

She wore a mask, a simple white cloth mask secured to her turtleneck. But I knew the voice immediately. It was the voice of a person whose name had, in that very moment, been in my mind. Paige. It was Paige Banners, in the flesh, standing a bit behind me with her arms folded. The white simple, blank white mask with eye holes in it couldn’t disguise her voice. It was her, I knew for a fact. She was squinting curiously at me. “What’re you doing here?” 

Blinking at the masked Paige, a rush of thoughts came over me. First of all, what the fuck?! Not her, this guy. I had been about to spill every possible secret I had to him if he’d asked. In that moment, I’d thought he was my best friend, someone I could trust with my life. How–what the fuck?

Power. He had to be Touched. That was the only explanation. He was Psy-Touched. That was the one that meant their power affected other people’s minds. 

No wonder he was guarding this door. Not only did he look completely non-threatening, he had a power that made people confide in him. God, what if he’d asked something that made me spill something important? 

“Tell.” Paige looked past me to the man in question, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “You weren’t trying to get secrets out of my friend here, were you?” 

The man looked abashed, waving a hand. “Shucks, Miss Kahn, I wasn’t actually gonna make him spill anything important. I know the rules, I was just checking to see if he was here for anything bad, you know? Gotta do my job and all, and it’s my job to make sure overzealous heroes and the like don’t find their way into the casino. Keeps everyone safe and all. I know how to ask safe questions.” 

“Uh huh.” Paige (or Miss Kahn, according to the guard) didn’t sound convinced, but also didn’t push the issue. Instead, she looked at me. “You sure you wanna go in there, Paintball? It’s like the guy said, they don’t allow any funny business, and if you break up the truce, well… I’d hate to see you turn into target numero uno for everyone in the city with a grudge against heroes.”

For a second, I just stared at her. Seeing Paige like this was just… weird. She was wearing a mask like it was second nature, was interacting with the La Casa guard as if she’d done so dozens of times. And she was talking to me like a normal person, not as if she loathed my very existence. 

Had it really been like this before? Had Paige, the girl who had done everything she could to insult, belittle, and demean me for every day that I remembered her, actually been my friend once upon a time? Had we really once been so close that, upon being found surrounded by dead bodies, she pleaded with the authorities to find me? Did she really just not remember, like I didn’t? 

There were so many questions I wanted to ask. But I couldn’t. Especially not right then, in front of our onlooker. Instead, I snapped myself out of it just as my silence had dragged on almost too long, blurting, “I’ve just got somebody I need to talk to, no big deal. I’m not going to cause trouble.” 

“There, see, Tell?” Paige gestured to the guard. “He’s not about to cause trouble. He’s with me anyway, I’ll take him.” She gave me a sidelong look, her voice pointed, “I’m sure he won’t make me look bad.” 

Oh boy, were there a lot of things I almost wanted to say to that. But I bit my tongue and gave a quick nod. “No trouble here. Like I said, I just need to talk to someone–err, someone who will want to talk to me. This isn’t like a confrontation or anything.”

The guard, Tell, apparently, stepped out of the way while opening the door. “In that case, go ahead, Paintball. And it’s great to see you again, Miss Kahn. You both have a fun, safe time. And good luck at the games if you play any.” 

Paige walked past me, grabbing my sleeve on the way past. With a quick glance toward Tell, who had turned his attention back to the road, I followed her into the small lobby. The place looked empty. Paige didn’t even glance at me on her way to the nearby elevator, where she hit the button to go up. The doors immediately opened, and she stepped through. 

Right, if Cavalcade had been on the level about this, the elevator was actually connected through Touched-Tech to another building entirely somewhere else in town. It would deliver us to the casino. this way people who weren’t exactly trusted by La Casa could visit the place without actually knowing where it was physically located. There was also supposed to be jammers blocking any phone signal or other tracking devices. When you went to the casino, you had to go dark to the outside world. 

So yeah, here was hoping I didn’t end up in some kind of trouble in there, or my parents didn’t suddenly have a panic attack about not being able to reach me. Cuz I was about to be out of contact for awhile. 

With a deep breath, I stepped into the elevator, letting the doors close behind me. My voice cracked just a little. “So, come here often?” 

Instead of answering immediately, Paige reached out to hit the door stop button. Which was weird, because the elevator wasn’t moving yet anyway. She held that button down, then hit four of the floor buttons in quick succession before looking to me. “Okay, we’ve got privacy now. Seriously, Paintball, I know you said you’re not going in there to make trouble, and I believe you, but do you know what you’re getting into?” 

Whelp, there was a lot I wanted to say to that too. There was a lot I wanted to say to Paige in general. A part of me wanted to just take off the mask and ask her what the fuck happened all those years ago, if she remembered us being friends, if she thought I betrayed her or something, why she singled me out to hate so much. I just–damn it, I wanted answers. Every time I thought I was about to get some answers when it came to Paige, I just ended up with more questions. So yeah, part of me wanted to just get the whole thing over with, expose who I was and what I knew about her our apparently shared past, and just… deal with it. 

But as with everything else, that was a genie that I wouldn’t be able to put back in the bottle. The second Paige knew who I was, she’d stop treating me like Paintball and start treating me like Cassidy. And ever since I remembered knowing her, treating me like Cassidy meant bad things. Treating me like Cassidy meant I couldn’t trust her. 

I couldn’t take that risk. I couldn’t expose my identity and secrets like that. Not to her. Especially not before I knew more about her whole situation and why she had started acting this way. The danger of what would happen, of what Paige could do if she reacted poorly to the whole thing was too dangerous. 

So, I just kept things simple. “I need to talk to one of the La Casa Touched. Nothing bad or anything, just… need to tell them something I found out. We’re sort of… working on something. It’s mutually beneficial.” Yeah, something I found out, like the fact that Braintrust had their eyes on Wren and wanted her to start paying taxes. The paying part wasn’t even an issue, really. I’d work on that myself if it came down to it. But Wren deserved to know what was going on, and that Braintrust wanted either money, donations of tech, or consultation in exchange for leaving her alone. 

If it was about me, I’d tell them to fuck off and take my chances. But Wren was just a kid, and she deserved the chance to be left alone to do her work without dealing with someone whose entire schtick involved, in part, making Touched-Tech temporarily not work right. I couldn’t be there to back her up all the time. Until–unless there was a better answer, a better way of making Glitch and the rest of Braintrust back off, keeping them happy by playing along was the best thing I could think of. 

Paige was staring at me. “Mutually beneficial,” she echoed flatly. 

Clearing my throat, I gestured. “Uhh, yeah, anyway, what about you? You look pretty comfortable wearing that mask, walking into a place like this.” 

“Most people wear masks in the casino,” Paige informed me, stressing the word to make it abundantly clear. “Even the Prevs. You’d be surprised what kind of important people show up there that you’d never think would hang out in a place owned by supervillains.” I had a feeling she was smiling behind the cloth that covered everything but her eyes. “No one can attack each other, forced neutrality, full privacy, everything you could want. They even have pretty good food and entertainment. And no one bothers enforcing any kind of minimum age requirement. Not like they’re going to be raided by the cops, you know? Hell, a lot of the people in there are the cops. Dirty ones, anyway. Not that they’ll admit that. Another one of the rules is you can’t call people out on who they are if they’re trying to keep it hidden, no matter how obvious it is.”

“You sure know an awful lot about all this stuff,” I pointed out gently. And oh boy was that the understatement of the century. What the hell was her deal? What was–what was everything about Paige? Where had she come from, what happened to her memory, why was she connected to Anthony, who was her father, why did she hate me now, why had she been around those dead bodies, what was she doing

At the moment, what she was doing was offering a shrug while glancing away with a thoughtful, “Point is, it’s a good place to have secret meetings.” 

“You have a lot of secret meetings?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I wanted to violently shake her until she gave me real answers. It was a really close call.

In response to the question, the other girl reached out to hold the door closed button again, before pushing the nine button four times and the eight button three times. Which would’ve looked kind of odd in general, given this building only had two floors. Immediately, the elevator made a humming sound. It felt sort of like we were moving, but not really. It was a strange sensation that made my stomach just a little queasy for a moment. 

Either way, while that was happening, Paige finally replied, “A girl’s gotta keep herself busy, you know? Believe me, I’m being careful. And hey–” She gave me a quick hug that left me sputtering. “–thanks for not being all pissed at me, dude. See you around, and good luck with your meeting with the lizard girl!” 

Then the elevator opened to admit us to the casino, just before Paige was through the doors and gone. 

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Homeward Bound 8-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, apparently when Fossor decided to get someone out of the way for awhile, he didn’t go in for half-measures. Fuck. I’d really pissed him off this time. Now I was stuck somewhere far away from Earth. And worse than that, I had also been hurtled several years into the future. Years. He’d gone all out to send me pretty much as far away from him and his plans as physically possible. Which, in some ways, was almost flattering. It made me realize how angry he was, how much I’d actually gotten to him that he was willing to go to those extreme lengths. 

But this was bad. Really bad. Years–how many years? How long had I been gone exactly? How far ahead had I been thrown, and how far away? Where was I and when was I? And in the time that had passed, how much shit had Fossor gotten up to? What had happened on Earth in the time that I was gone? What had happened to my friends and family? Had Fossor… had he carried through on his threat? Was everyone I knew now the undead slave of that monster?  

Those thoughts and more, a rush of panicked terror, blew through my mind in those few brief seconds while I was coming to terms with what Rahanvael had said. I was in the future. Everything I’d been trying to stop had already happened. Or been stopped without me, hopefully. But… but years. Years had passed and I was nowhere near Earth. I had been gone. 

For a brief moment, I considered using the Seosten possession recall ability. Now that I wasn’t trapped in Fossor’s place, the default recall should link me to my dad. I could recall there and… no. No, anything could’ve happened back there. If Fossor had gotten his spell off and me recalling back to my dad triggered it for me… yeah, it would all be over. And I didn’t trust my own skill not to accidentally send my whole self there even if I tried just connecting mentally. 

Or maybe I was simply terrified of what I would see if I peeked. If I used the mental recall, connected to my dad, and found out the whole… that everyone was dead, I wouldn’t be able to control my reaction. I would probably fully recall without trying. Then I’d either be Fossor’s dead puppet slave like the rest of them, or surrounded by all the people I loved who already were. 

Worse, my dad could be dead entirely. What if trying to recall linked me to someone like my Grandpa Arthur? What–would I even recover from that? Even knowing I wanted to go back to stop it, how would I get past knowing my father was dead?  

Anything could’ve happened back there. Everyone I knew, everyone I loved, could be a dead and risen necromantic slave for that evil, despotic piece of shit. What if… what if they were…

“Felicity.” The pretty, yet eternally sad face of Rahanvael floated in front of me, hovering over my head as I lay there on my back. “Stop. You’re panicking too much. Breathe. Close your eyes.” 

“Close my eyes?!” I stared at her, blurting, “How the fuck can you tell me to close my eyes when–” Then I stopped myself as she held up a hand. She was right. I had to calm down for a second. I was already in the future. It wasn’t like I could get any further in the future.

Wait. No, yeah, I got further in the future with every passing second, sure. That was the whole thing of how linear time worked. But still, the point was that the damage had been done. A few more moments wasn’t going to make any difference at all. I had to stop and collect myself. 

So, I closed my eyes. Folding my hands against my stomach to ward off its violent, uncomfortable rolling, I took a long, deep breath. It was shuddery, and I could feel the terror, confusion, and anger in myself as I let out the breath. I did it again, then a third time. Breathing. I had to breathe. Panicked, horrified, desperate as I was, I had to make myself think straight. 

After another moment of that, I stopped breathing so heavily and just laid there, eyes closed. Okay. I had it. I was together. Oh, I was still freaking out, of course. No way would that disappear so easily. But I had something of a fence put up around that panic, and had basically designated one corner of my mind to focus on that while the rest dealt with the situation at hand. 

And speaking of the situation at hand, my eyes opened. I stared up at the white, spotless ceiling over my head before pushing myself up to a seated position. Right. Now I could breathe and focus, so I had to deal with the situation that I was actually in. I had to take this whole thing one step at a time. And the first step of that was to figure out where I was, exactly. Also when I was, but that could come after I established my physical location. And just how much trouble I was in.

To that end, I slowly looked around the room once more, taking in details. As with the first time, everything was gleaming silver and white, immaculately clean. The room was about twenty feet across and forty feet long, with three control panels along the narrow end opposite me, a sealed metal hatch of some kind behind me on the opposite narrow end, and a handful of viewing ports or windows (or just video screens, possibly) showing a selection of stars. 

The problem was, thanks to my time at the Aelaestiam base that had become the Fusion School, I knew that seeing stars didn’t necessarily mean anything. Again, those could be holographic screens showing a view of stars that were several trillion miles away. Or further.

“Do you know where we are?” I asked quickly, glancing toward the ghost figure hovering in the corner before I moved to look at the nearest console. On the way, I glanced at the stars. Yeah, I wasn’t an astronomer or anything, but I was pretty sure none of those stars were anything like what I would see from anywhere near Earth. “Any of those look familiar to you?” A second later, I blurted, “Wait, are we near your planet?!” Yeah, that thought had suddenly struck me. Of course it made sense that Fossor might hurl me toward his own planet. Where else did he have more control of the situation? On the other hand, if he did send me to his own world, why had I ended up here, in this place, all by myself? That was… wrong. Something was wrong about all this. Beyond the obvious point that I had been teleported years into the future and far away from home. Why was no one here? Wherever I was, there should’ve been somebody ready to meet me, right? Fossor would’ve had all that time to get ready for my arrival and either be here himself or have someone else waiting. Was the fact that he wasn’t a sign that he’d lost? Did I dare hold out that kind of hope? The idea that Fossor had been beaten while I was gone flared up in me and I just… wasn’t sure what to think of it. It would be an unbelievable relief in almost every way to believe that Fossor had actually been beaten and that I didn’t have to do anything. 

But on the other hand… I didn’t believe it. I didn’t know why he wasn’t here, or why there wasn’t at least one of his people here waiting in this exact spot for me after he’d had years to prepare, but I was almost positive it wasn’t because he was gone. I honestly didn’t believe I was that lucky. 

Wait, time travel. How did that work? Was–was it possible that I would go back into the past, help everyone beat him back then, and that was why he wasn’t here to find me now? That was possible, right? That could be how this whole time travel thing worked, if it was–ergh. Headache. My head hurt. Time travel was annoying. On top of all the other horrific atrocities he’d committed, Fossor had to make me think about the mechanics of time travel? Bastard. 

Rahanvael’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “No,” she answered firmly, no trace of uncertainty in the words. “We are nowhere near my homeworld. The stars are different. I don’t recognize them. I know we’re very far from Earth, but how far, or where… I’m not certain. I’m sorry.” 

“So, we’re somewhere else,” I muttered under my breath, before focusing on my item sense. 

Or rather… trying to focus on my item sense. Nothing happened when I did. I couldn’t even sense the stuff I was wearing, and I was pretty damn sure I wasn’t naked. A quick glance down confirmed that. Yup, definitely not naked. I had all my clothes and everything. I even had my staff. It was lying a few feet away on the floor, with Jaq and Gus sitting on top of it, watching me. I couldn’t sense them either. 

One by one, I tried several other powers. Portals, infrared vision, nausea liquid generation, and more. None of them worked. Nothing worked at all. 

“There’s a magical field within the room,” Rahanvael informed me when I blurted that out. “It’s possible that the field is blocking your powers somehow. I am still here because I’ve bound myself to you. Try to force me to move.” 

I focused on that for a few seconds before exhaling when nothing happened. “Right, so I’m trapped here in this room. Can you get out? I mean, on your own.” 

She tested that, putting a hand against the nearby wall before shaking her head. “The magical field seems to be keeping me here as well.” 

“Right.” My eyes rolled. “This is definitely feeling like a Fossor thing. He knew you were with me, and he’d want to keep you here. But if so, where is he?” 

“Do you really want him to have been here waiting for you?” my ghost companion pointed out.

“Fair,” I muttered before punching my own palm. “Okay, if Fossor set up this trap or whatever but something’s stopping him from being here, let’s see if we can get out before he gets back.” 

With that, I focused on the nearby consoles. The holographic controls meant nothing to me. There were what looked like words on some of them, but they were in some alien language. “Do you understand any of this?” I asked, gesturing that way a bit helplessly. 

Rahanvael floated over, squinting at the controls for a moment before answering. “No, it’s not a language I understand. Wait, look.” She pointed to one of the other nearby control panels. 

“What?” Moving that way, I looked down. What was she–wait. Felicity. One of the holographic levers had the word ‘Felicity’ right above it. That… couldn’t be a coincidence, right? Every other bit of language around here was made out of completely alien symbols that didn’t look anything like the English/Latin alphabet. The odds of that ending up with an exact copy of my name was just… astronomical. If I ever got back home, maybe I’d ask Vanessa what the exact odds were. 

When. When I got back home, damn it. Because whatever it took, I was going to get back home. I was going to get back to my family. Whether that would be in the now time or after managing to get sent back to the past… err… present, damn it, past-present was up in the air.

“Okay, it says Felicity,” I murmured aloud, squinting at it. “But do I trust that? I mean, obviously it’s supposed to tell me to pull the lever. But why would I do that? It could be Fossor or one of his people. Maybe I pull this lever and some kind of inescapable forcefield pops up or something. Or it summons a bunch of ghosts or zombies or something. Can you imagine how much he’d laugh if he actually managed to trick me into pushing the button that ends up trapping me again after all that? Seriously, that’s something he’d do, just for shits and giggles.”  

“You’re right,” Rahanvael agreed in a quiet murmur before looking over to me pointedly. “He would. But on the other hand, you are already trapped here. We are years in the future, on some far side of the universe, trapped in a room that is shielded by magic to stop you from using your powers to get out of it.” She offered me a shrug then. “Besides, remember, your friends were all right there when you were sent away. They’ve had years to figure out where and when you were going to end up. It could be them somehow extending help.”

Considering that briefly, I grimaced. “Yeah, I guess you’ve got a point. I’m stuck here already. But… damn it. But if I pull this thing and I’m wrong…” I trailed off, trying not to dwell too much on just how bad it could be.

If I had my powers, I could just leave. The hatch wouldn’t have stopped me. Not for long anyway. I could’ve just gone through and taken my chances with seeing what was in the rest of the station. But no, I had to deal with it this way because some asshole put up a magical field blocking those powers. Which I didn’t even know was possible, so fuck. 

Either way, I had to pull this lever. There was no other choice. Yes, it could be a trick from Fossor, but at that point, what did I have to lose? Besides everything that I had to lose. 

“Fuck it,” I finally blurted, reaching out to grab the lever. It was made of solid-light, warm under my grip as I yanked the thing down while holding my breath. I really wished I had my powers right then so I could’ve pulled the lever through a portal from the other side of the room. 

The lever went down, and… there was no visible trap. Fossor didn’t pop up to laugh at me or anything. Better still, a very low hum that I hadn’t even consciously noticed abruptly stopped. 

“It’s gone,” Rahanvael quickly informed me. “The power-negation field. It’s not here anymore.”  

Instantly, I tested that by using my item-sense. She was right, I could feel everything around me again. I could feel my staff, my cyberform mice, my clothes, the hatch, the electronics in the consoles in front of me, everything. 

I could also sense that there was no one beyond the hatch. Well, no one my power could detect anyway. They could be shielded, or just be a creature who didn’t wear clothes or armor. Still, it was somewhat encouraging. Actually, just having my powers back was encouraging. 

“Let’s get out of here,” I announced, heading for the hatch. My hand reached out for it, then I stopped. Wait. Just because my item sense couldn’t pick out anything didn’t mean everything was hunky dory. Time to be smart about this. Especially since I still didn’t know anything about where I was or who else might be here. 

To that end, I touched the hatch and focused on one of the powers I’d picked up recently, from that car chase in Vegas. It was the power to designate an object, then see and hear through that object. In this case, I designated the door as my object and focused on seeing through it. 

Okay, now I was looking at myself. But by essentially mentally pushing my vision around (it felt like turning my eyes in a circle, which was weird) I was able to shift the view to see through the other side of the hatch. There was a short corridor leading away from the hatch. It was only about ten feet long before it reached another door. To the left from my hatch, there was also a small alcove area where an enormous figure with gray fur and a warthog-like face was lying on his side. A huge axe lay nearby where he had dropped it. Belatedly, I realized there was also a smaller Rakshasa figure next to him, also lying motionless. 

“What the hell?” Shaking my head, I figured the only thing there was to do was go out there. Luckily, a stray neuron fired in my brain at the last second as I was about to do that, and I suddenly stopped myself. “Wait. Two guys—at least two guys out there are down with no visible wounds. This room is sealed. What’re the odds there’s…” As I was saying that, I focused on creating one of my small portals with one hand while still seeing through the hatch to make the other end of the portal out there. Quickly turning off the object-vision power, I turned to look at the portal and sniffed. 

Yeah. Poison. There was poison coming through the portal from the other room into this one. Thanks to one of the guards on the ship back when I’d been trapped in Seosten space (possibly the first time, depending on where I actually was right now), I could smell the poison. Good thing the same power that allowed me to smell the poison gave me a brief immunity to it in order to do so without being affected by it. 

Quickly shutting off the portal before too much of the gas or whatever could come through, I backed away from the spot where I could still smell it. “Okay, that poison smells really bad. And if it was able to put that big guy out there down, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t last very long with it. I can hold my breath for ten minutes or so, but the second I open that hatch, if I don’t have a plan to get rid of the poison, that’s–wait.” Pausing, I looked to Rahanvael. “You can go out there, huh?” 

The ghost girl smiled just a little, giving a short nod. “Would you like me to?” She’d obviously been waiting patiently for me to work my way through all that. When I gestured for her to go ahead, she passed right through the hatch. With a thought, I made myself see through it again, watching as Rahanvael looked at the downed figures before floating right down the short hall to pass through the second hatch there. 

She was gone for a few minutes, but I could still sense her. Things seemed to be fine, so I just waited until she came back. Floating through the hatch, the girl looked to me. “There is another console in a room on the control deck of this small station that is also labeled with your name across several buttons. And there are more bodies, all apparently killed by the same gas.” 

I considered that. “Another console? Right, gonna guess that’ll either totally secure this trap, or vent the poison. Only one way to find out. Let’s go do this.” 

Yeah, there was poison out there. But that was okay, because thanks to one of the other guards on the same ship, I could hold my breath for a full ten minutes. Which would be plenty long enough to get to that lever. 

So, I stooped to grab my staff before moving back to the hatch. Jaq and Gus jumped to my shoulder together, and I reached up with one hand to pat both of them. “Let’s go spring this trap and/or rescue, guys.” 

The hatch was locked, but that didn’t last long. The second I pulled at the manual release, it resisted for just a second. Then my pass through locked doors power kicked on, and the hatch slid open. Just as it did, I took a deep breath and held it. The poison gas was already seeping in, as I moved through the hatch, glancing toward the two bodies nearby. But I didn’t slow down, heading quickly down the corridor. 

Rahanvael led me through the short maze of corridors on this station, around a corner, up a narrow flight of stairs, and straight to the control deck she had mentioned. There were more dead bodies there. Bodies I tried to ignore for the moment while hurriedly stepping over to the console my ghost companion was pointing to. 

There it was. My name was on the console. It was Flick this time, rather than Felicity. But it was also scrambled. The console was covered in buttons, with F over a button in the top right, an L in the bottom left, an I near the middle, C just under the F, and a K in the upper left. Obviously, I was supposed to hit the buttons in the order of my name. 

So, I did just that. Quickly, my fingers hit the buttons in that order. Once I did, the holographic controls vanished before being replaced by the image of a floating hand. After a second, I realized it was the exact size and shape of my own hand. So, I touched it. 

The moment I did that, the very instant my own hand touched the hologram hand, a new sound filled the room. It was the sound of rushing air. The poison was being vented out of the room, out of the entire station or whatever this thing was. A few seconds later, it stopped, and all was silent. 

Well, silent for as long as it took me to exhale and take in a new, fresh breath now that the poison was gone. As soon as I did that, a voice suddenly piped up. “Hello, Felicity.” 

Jerking that way, I found myself staring at a hologram. A hologram of a familiar face. 

“I imagine you have a few questions as to how we brought you here. Hopefully, this recording will help answer enough of them,” the hologram of Elisabet informed me.

A/N: The chapter setting up Elisabet being involved in this was Interlude 2B – Elisabet for Year 2, which can be found right here. And the chapter from several years ago that introduced future Flick in the first place is Interlude 15 for Year One, which can be found here.

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New Deals 13-03 (Summus Proelium)

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The building that Cavalcade had brought me to was an old pizza restaurant that had been closed for awhile. The neon sign with the place’s name was still above the door, but several of the letters were missing, and there were boards over the windows. It looked like there should’ve been boards over the door itself too, but they had been pulled off and moved to the side. The interior lights were on, so there was at least still power in the place, and I could hear music. 

Glancing to my escort, I waited until she pointed to the door. Then I sighed and walked that way, opening it up before stepping through with the mercenary right behind me. Here went nothing.

Most of the tables that had been in the dining area of the pizza place were gone. What remained was a single card table that had obviously been brought in just for this, along with a couple metal folding chairs, all of which was arranged in the middle of the room. A single figure sat casually at the chair facing the door where we were coming in, and a couple more were at the far end of the room behind the counter, half-hidden by the enormous pizza ovens. 

The two Touched at the back of the room were instantly recognizable. One was Fabulist, the guy in gleaming silver armor that displayed a bunch of various television and movie scenes in a collage across it. The guy next to him was shorter and wore what amounted to random robot pieces that looked like they were scavenged from an ancient black and white movie. That was the unfortunately named Rotwang, the guy who built robots and stuff like that. Apparently he’d taken his name from some old scientist in a movie from the 1920’s. If you asked me, he should’ve given up on the reference and kept looking for a better name than Rotwang.  

My eyes focused on the woman at the table then. Glitch, of course. Her costume consisted of burgundy cargo pants with dozens of pouches and belts full of bits of equipment (in addition to what was in all those pockets), with a black long-sleeved turtleneck shirt. The shirt had visible scales, making it look like very fine armor. She also wore a white leather jacket. At least, it looked like a leather jacket. But I knew from the news that the ‘jacket’ could expand in an instant to become a full suit of armor, strong enough to take an ongoing barrage of gunfire or a full strength lightning blast from Cuélebre without any apparent ill-effect. And those pockets and pouches of hers were filled with dozens of Tech-Touched toys to totally terrorize towns. 

In any case, beyond the pants, armored shirt, and transforming jacket, the Braintrust leader also wore a metal choker around her neck, but no mask at all. Her face was perfectly visible. I wasn’t fooled by that, however. People had been in the past, when she first showed up without anything apparently covering her face. But that was deceptive, because the choker around her neck was a special shapeshifting toy. It allowed Glitch to make her face look like anything she wanted it to. She could change a lot about her appearance with the collar. The only limits seemed to be that it could only affect what her face and hair looked like. Or her skin color in general, I supposed. It couldn’t change her build, height, or anything else about her actual body. Sometimes she showed up looking like a pale blue-eyed blonde, other times she had darker hair with green eyes, or could even appear to be a black woman. Right now, she looked Asian. But who the hell knew what her real appearance was. She fucked with people constantly by looking slightly different every time she appeared. Hell, until people had found out that her choker allowed her to change her appearance, there had been a rush to identify her from the pictures. An innocent woman had almost been put in prison for looking almost identical to her. But then Glitch herself had shown up outside the courthouse, showed what her choker could do, and actually apologized to the woman who had been mistaken for her. 

Yeah, that had been a huge thing. So now nobody could trust any description for Glitch. Or any of her people, for that matter. There were rumors that Braintrust was working on mass producing those disguise chokers and equipping all their rank and file Prev gang members with them. Which would be just fucking fantastic, really. 

“It’s Paintball, right?” Glitch was saying, already gesturing toward the folding chair across from here. “Take a load off, kid. You want something to drink? We brought soda, coffee of the hot and iced variety, water… sorry, no pizza. Seems our hosts took all the ingredients with them when they left this place. But we could order out if you like. Might be worth it just to see another pizza joint deliver to this place–wait, there’s another one of these places within delivery distance, right? Can you imagine if they had to drop off a pizza here? Come on, you wanna see that?”

Opening and shutting my mouth, I quickly shook myself and moved to take the offered seat. A part of me felt like I should keep standing, but being rude right now felt like a bad idea. Yeah, these guys were Fell-Touched, but they were being casual enough about all this (aside from paying a mercenary to bring me to them) that escalating things straight off was the wrong way to go. Besides, Cavalcade had made it clear that she would only help me get out if I didn’t start shit and played nice. 

“I’ll get a burger later,” I finally managed to reply while starting to sit. Partway through, however, I stopped. Hovering without actually sitting, I rose once more, watching the woman in front of me while I picked up the chair and turned it over to look at the bottom real quick. I’d seen enough movies. The last thing I wanted was to sit down on a seat that had some kind of pressure sensitive bomb on it or something and end up trapped there. 

Right, nothing visible. Which, given the gang I was dealing with, didn’t actually prove anything. But what else could I do. Shrugging, I put the chair back down and sat. 

Glitch had watched through all of that, finally chuckling once I was down. “You see, boys?” she called to Fabulist and Rotwang. “I told you our boy here was a smart one. Wouldn’t’ve survived through half the shit he’s already been thrown into if he wasn’t smart.” Her voice adopted a conspiratorial tone. “Wang over there wanted to play this rougher. It’s why he’s not the negotiator. Or the leader.” 

Rotwang’s only apparent response to that was to fold his arms tightly across his chest. The weird bulky, square 50’s alien robot head that functioned as his helmet had two little glowing rounded antennae sticking out either side of it that turned colors. Both went from being white to red, which I was going to guess meant he was annoyed. But he stayed silent. 

“You can relax, kid,” Glitch informed me. “We’re not here to fight, or play hardball. We just wanted to have a little chat. Sorry, I just wanted to have a chat. Wang over there thinks we should say something about making your friend work for us or else yada yada bad things threats, you know how it is.” 

“Friend?” I made myself echo, watching her reaction. 

Her reaction, as it turned out, was to laugh. Her head shook as she chuckled. “Come on, let’s not treat each other like idiots, Paintball. Fabulist already told you that we have ways of detecting T-Tech. Obviously, you’re not the one making it. And it’s no one we know about. The style’s different. You’ve got a Tech-Touched working with you. One that has annoyed Cuélebre a great deal, from what I hear. And you are the only person they seem to be working with. What are we talking about here, is this a sibling? A brother maybe? Or a sister. Ah, maybe a younger sister, one you feel like you have to protect. That would explain why you’re the only Touched they’re working with.” 

I didn’t react at all at first. Honestly, let Glitch go off on her wrong assumptions. The more she thought that Wren and I were siblings, the less chance she had of actually figuring out who either of us were. I wasn’t going to dissuade any of that. 

Instead, I simply replied, “If you know I want to protect them, you’ll forgive me for not talking very much about them. Especially not with people whose entire thing revolves around recruiting Tech-Touched into their gang. And for the record, have you thought about expanding out into allowing other types of Touched? Cuz you’re really pigeonholing yourself with that one.” 

“Why?” came the casual response as the ‘Asian’ woman eyed me, “were you interested? Because if that’s what it takes to sign up your friend, maybe we can find something for you.” 

Yeah, I supposed I deserved that one. Grimacing behind the helmet, I shook my head. “Sorry, I prefer not being a wanted criminal. Makes it easier to get around town without all the cops chasing me.” 

“Well, from what I hear,” Glitch reminded me, “you already have enough people who want your hide as it is. Cuélebre is very unhappy with you. Pretty sure Janus is too. And there’s even rumors that you’ve managed to annoy Pencil himself. You have been a busy little bee. And you know how busy little bees survive and thrive? By being part of a hive. You could use some friends to help you pull through whenever one of those enemies you’re racking up makes a move.” 

“Sure,” I agreed quickly and easily. “You’re right, having friends is a good thing. You and I just disagree a little bit on who my friends are.” Pausing, I decided that might be a little too rude, and added, “But if I was into your side of things, I could probably do worse than signing up.” There, that was going to have to be good enough to fit Cavalcade’s request that I play nice. Which, judging from the very slight snort I heard from her direction, it was. 

“Yeah, I guess we do disagree a bit on that.” If Glitch was annoyed by my words, she didn’t show it. Instead, she remarked, “Since it’s been brought up, I guess I don’t have to ask if you know how our little Braintrust works. The more Techs we’ve got, the better off we are. And let me tell you something, kid, from everything I’ve heard, this new Tech of yours is a good one. One we’d really like to have around.” She paused, then added a bit more pointedly, “One I’d really like to have around.” 

I’d known this was where this whole thing was going from the moment Cavalcade had made it clear who wanted to talk to me. Hell, I’d basically known it was coming from back when Fabulist told me they could detect the Touched-Tech I was using. I’d just hoped it would come later, when I didn’t have so many other things to deal with. But that was obviously a stupid hope. 

Exhaling, I looked to the woman and chose my words carefully. “My Tech isn’t interested in your organization. Sorry, but they’re not. And you should know that it’s a bad idea to try to force Techs to work for you when they don’t want to. I mean, you can only use your power to stop them from retaliating against you so much. And this Tech has friends. Friends like me, and others, who won’t just let you abduct them. Saying this as… respectfully as possible, going after my Tech is not worth the hassle it would be for you. It would be a huge fight, one involving more people than I think you realize. Yes, they’re really helpful. But I promise, they are not worth what you’d be pulling onto your head by forcing this whole thing. Find someone else.”

There was a long pause as the Braintrust leader watched me. It was really different to be able to see the whole, unmasked face of one of these Fell-Touched people. I was used to staring into a mask, trying to judge their reactions from body language. But in this case, there was nothing covering the face I was looking at. And yet, in some ways it was even harder to guess her thoughts. Her expression was completely unreadable, flat and emotionless through those few seconds. I didn’t know how much of that was the shapeshifting choker helping her hide any reaction and how much was her natural poker face. But either way, I couldn’t read her. 

Finally, Glitch gave a very short nod. “That’s about what I figured.” She chuckled slightly as I stared at her. “Don’t be so surprised, kid. I run a whole gang full of Techs. You think I don’t know how dangerous they can be if you piss them off? Yeah, we play hardball on recruitment. But there’s a fine line between playing hardball and being stupid. Braintrust works because we put our heads together and work to make the best toys we can possibly make. If we have a rotten egg in there, it’ll spoil everything. I’m not about to kidnap your friend, chain them to a workbench, and start cracking the whip. That’s a good way to get shitty results at best. And probably explosive ones. And it affects everyone else’s work. We don’t have the vast majority of Tech-Touched in the city because I’m a slave driver, Paintball. We have them for two reasons. First, because Techs like working with other Techs. It helps to collaborate. Not just in the normal way, but literally. There’s been studies that show two Techs working together produce better results than working alone. Their own gifts get stronger. Make it a whole group, and well… yeah. 

“Anyway, the second reason we have the most Techs is because I pay my people very, very well. I provide resources, workshops, privacy, and other Techs to collaborate with, other people who understand them. You don’t win this kind of game with sticks, you win it with carrots. Between that and my own gift to improve what they make… it’s a good system. And don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but I’m not about to mess up a good system by chaining up an unwilling Tech and trying to force them to play nice. Bad egg, you see? I don’t care how good they are, it’s not worth that kind of pain.” 

Blinking a couple times behind my helmet, I hesitated before offering her a shrug. “Oh. Well, in that case, good luck on all your–wait I can’t say that, I’m one of the people who’s supposed to stop you from all those criminal things. Um. See you later, I guess? Glad this went so well.” 

There was a soft chuckle from the seemingly Asian woman, before she shook her head. “It has been going well, yes. But we’re not quite done yet.” She held a hand up placatingly. “Almost. We’re almost done. But there’s still something important about your friend we need to discuss. As I said, I’m not about to force them to work for me. That’s not how we do things. But see, there’s another part to all this. Yeah, we won’t make your friend work for us. But if they’re a Tech-Touched operating in the city, they still have to pay the tax.” 

I squinted at the woman for a moment before remembering that she couldn’t see that expression. “A tax,” I echoed almost flatly, allowing a hint of disbelief to enter my voice.

Ginning at me, Glitch confirmed, “Yeah, a tax. See, Braintrust is the official Tech-Touched organization. We… let’s just say we pay our dues. And part of that involves collecting taxes from people who don’t work for us. Put simply, if you’re not part of the organization, you don’t get the tax credit.” 

I watched her for a moment, glanced to Fabulist and Rotwang briefly, then turned my attention back to their leader. “You’re saying that you’re not going to force my friend to work for you, but in exchange for operating in the city, you want them to give you money.” 

She winked, leaning back in the chair a bit. “That’s right. Your friend pays a monthly fee to operate in the city. In exchange, we leave them alone. We don’t try to recruit them, we don’t try to drive them out of the city, we don’t cause problems for them in general. Because let me be clear, while it is not worth the effort to chain an unwilling Tech to a workbench, it very much is worth it to drive them out of the city if they don’t cooperate with the system.” 

“You’re basically a protection racket,” I pointed out. “You’re extorting Tech-Touched who don’t work for you. That’s the real reason why there’s so few independents in Detroit. Because they can’t afford your taxes and it’s easier to either agree to work for you, or leave to go somewhere else.” 

“What can I say?” Glitch shrugged. “I don’t like competition. But I’ll put up with it in exchange for cash. You tell your friend they’ve got two weeks to decide if they want to play ball or move to a new city. It’s totally up to them. Two weeks. If they agree, we can talk about the specifics. Oh, and they can pay either in cash or donations of tech. Or consultation time.”

“So if they don’t have cash for you, they can give you pieces of their technology that they made, or agree to ‘consult’ on your own projects?” I managed, thinking about how Wren would react to all that. 

“Or leave the city, yup. That’s plenty of options.” With that, Glitch gave a sharp wave of her hand. “Two weeks from today. I’ll send someone to get an answer from you. And hey, looking forward to the first time we get to actually have a little scuffle, kid. You seem fun.” 

She stood, turning to walk toward her two minions then. Even as she left, Cavalcade spoke up. “Let’s get out of here. I wanna get to the La Casa casino before all the good tables are gone. Actually, you wanna go too? Cuz I’m about to have five hundred bucks burning a hole in my pocket, and I wouldn’t mind making some more off you.”  

Shaking my head while muttering that I’d give her the money once we were out of there, I stood and headed past my mercenary escort to go out the same door I’d come in. In the parking lot, I brought my phone to my hand. Because there was someone I needed to talk to about all this. Pack. She was friends with Wren too. If anyone would understand the complication of this whole Braintrust situation, it was her. She knew Wren, she knew about Braintrust, she knew (at least some) about the Ministry. She was basically the best person possible to bounce this off of. 

Quickly, I typed a message, asking where she was and that I needed to talk to her about Wren, adding a joke about how Cavalcade had invited me to the casino if she wanted to meet there. I figured that would get her attention. 

I had no real intention of going to the casino with Cavalcade, of course. I had way too much to think about and deal with. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t want to make a point of hanging around a Fell-Touched place like that, even if it was supposed to be neutral ground. The rules, as I understood them, were that any Fell-Touched or Sell-Touched who weren’t actively at war with La Casa were welcome, as well as any Star-Touched who were independent/not connected to an actual official government team. If you didn’t start shit, you could be there and play. 

I had other things to focus on besides gambling. Actually, come to think of it, I was doing an awful lot of gambling lately. It just all had to do with risking my parents finding out what I knew or who I was, or one of the other Touched finding out I was a girl, or any of my other issues rather than money. Or even getting hurt. It was still a risk, still gambling every time I went out like this.  

And yet, barely a few seconds after I’d sent the message to Pack, my phone buzzed. It was a message from her, reading: ‘Come 2 casino. Have 2 show u. Huge’

Had to show me? Had to show me what? Frowning, I looked up to Cavalcade. “Uhh, well, I guess I’ll take you up on that offer after all. 

“Let’s go see this casino.”

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Interlude 7B – Michael and Tabbris (Heretical Edge 2)

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With a bright flare of energy in the shape of a pair of crossed angelic wings, a slim man with narrow shoulders and gray hair appeared in the middle of the forest. To most, he wouldn’t have looked all that different than any average accountant or bank teller. He wore thin, wire-rim glasses along with a dark suit and tie. In one hand, the man carried a leather satchel which was held shut by a gold clasp that, like the portal that had brought him here, was shaped like angel wings.

Standing silently in the shadows of the heavily wooded forest for a few long seconds, Michael, the Seosten who had once founded the city and subsequent civilization of Rome, inhaled the fresh air before giving a small smile. Without turning, he casually addressed the seemingly empty foliage behind him. “I taught you better concealment spells than that, Duckling.” 

There was a brief pause, before the figure that had been hidden there emerged. The invisibility spell faded away with a shimmering effect, as though she was stepping through a waterfall. “Perhaps it wasn’t you I was hiding from, Father.” With those words, she stepped that way, embracing the man who had adopted her when she was still no more than a babe. “I had to be sure you weren’t followed, after all.” She teased him with an added, “You are getting old and slow.” Despite her words, Gwen held him as tightly as she could, knowing he could take it. 

Take it he did, returning his daughter’s hug just as firmly for those few precious seconds before each mutually released the other. “Old and slow, am I?” he shot back pointedly once they let go. “Take up your swords and we’ll see just how slow I am, little girl.” His finger moved to push against her forehead. “You know the standing invitation. You win, you get the villa in Positano.” 

“That was a really tempting offer a long time ago,” Gwen retorted. “But you do know I have my own places over there now, right? You’re going to have to up the offer if you really want to spar.” 

The old Seosten winked at her, a flash of white teeth showing from his grin. “Well, that just proves you’re a wimp who doesn’t want to risk her old man knocking her on her butt again.” 

For another couple minutes or so, the two bantered about that and other things. They had lived very long lives (extremely long, in Michael’s case), including many years with one another. There were inside references, jokes, and discussions that could be picked up at random from decades or even centuries in the past. Much in the way a Bystander family could reference something that happened nine or ten years in the past during a conversation, Michael and Guinevere were able to easily bring up and discuss such things from over a millennium earlier.  

Finally, however, Michael cleared his throat. “Ahem, if you aren’t going to let your dear papa have a nice bout with someone who can almost keep up with him on a very good day when the sun is in his eyes and she gets really lucky, I would like to see the girl.” 

With a snort, Gwen remarked, “Just had to squeeze that in there, huh?” Her head shook, and she gestured before starting to walk back through the forest. “Yeah, they’re waiting for us back at camp. And they’re pretty interested in what you might say about the whole thing.” 

Leading the man that way, she waited for a moment before quietly bringing up, “Speaking of the things they’re going to ask you about, do you know if…” 

“I don’t know if the girl is related to me or not,” Michael gently answered. “They had all of us give enough genetic samples back when they were trying to duplicate the results of the project, so it’s possible any of those samples could have made their way to Kushiel’s lab for this.” 

“I didn’t know the wings were capable of being passed on,” Gwen put in while gently brushing the low-hanging branch of a tree out of the way, holding it back for her father. 

“They’re not supposed to be,” Michael replied, shaking his head while slipping past the branch. “I mean, they haven’t been before. Trust me, the Seraphim were very… enthusiastic about those tests. They tried to create more by having us mate together and with other Seosten. Back when we first found humans and realized what they could do, there was even a separate project to bond them to one of the Dyeusai.” 

Dyeus, seen by Bystanders as the sun god of ancient Proto-Indo-European mythology, was actually the name of both the project that had created Michael and his six companion ‘archangels’, as well as what the Seosten referred to them as. An individual was a Dyeus, while as a group they were the Dyeusai. 

“Didn’t work, I take it,” Gwen remarked, stepping out of the woods and into the camp itself. The day was still early enough that there were people bustling around doing their work. One of the on-duty guards took a glance toward Gwen and Michael before doing a double-take. He’d been warned about who was coming, of course, but that was different from actually seeing the man in the flesh and suddenly realizing who this small, unassuming figure really was. 

Raising his hand in greeting to the stunned Atherby guard, Michael shook his head. “No. The Dyeus core doesn’t… pass along like that. At least it hasn’t before. I’ll explain that in a minute, when we get to the others. But the point is, they tried to make Natural Heretics and offspring from us, and never could. It was supposed to be the seven of us and no one else, ever. Until now.” His voice was quiet, but couldn’t hide his continued surprise and interest (not to mention a bit of worry) in that fact. “I’d ask if you were absolutely certain of what you said, but you wouldn’t have said it if you weren’t.” 

By that point, they had reached the door of one of the cabins, where Lincoln Chambers and Athena stood. The latter gave a look toward Michael, actually flushing just a little bit before she stepped that way. Her hand rose in a fist with her index and middle fingers extended, tapping the remaining three closed fingers of the fist against her chest in an old salute/greeting. “Michael.” She used the old form of his name, pronounced ‘Mick-Ai-El.’ “Thank you for coming so soon. I know you’ve been… busy.” She trailed off a bit at the end before adding, “Gwen tells us that you’ve met with Raphael.” 

“We had a conversation, yes,” he confirmed, leaving it at that. “And this seemed somewhat important.” His voice was dry with those words, before he offered a hand to the much taller man next to her. “Michael. You must be Lincoln Chambers. Have to say, I read your article about Wallace Prim a few years ago. Pretty glad he’s not a senator anymore. And I’m even more glad he’s not alive anymore either.” 

“I… really should stop being starstruck by meeting you people,” Lincoln managed to mumble before accepting the hand. “Or by the fact that you’ve actually read anything I’ve written. You–you’re the… they said you were the one who… Rome.” 

Chuckling, Michael nodded. “Yeah, it’s been a busy life. But let’s see your little girl, hmm? First I spend months hearing about how special she is, and now she’s got wings too? I’m already jealous of you all getting to spend so much time with her.”

Offering a very faint smile that quickly faded, Lincoln spoke in a more subdued tone. “This makes her a target, doesn’t it? If your people find out what she–what she can do, they’ll want her.” 

Sobering, Michael reached out and up to squeeze the other man’s shoulder. “Yes,” he confirmed, not mincing words. He owed Lincoln and the others that much, at least. “My people have wanted to create more of me for a long time. If–when they find out what Tabbris can do, what she is? They will target her. They will want to bring her back to the ‘safety’ of their labs, to find out exactly how this happened. They’ll try to be diplomatic at first, to keep within the bounds of the truce, but there will be… let’s call it very strong pressure to at least have her visit so they can run tests. As I was telling Gwen, they’ve tried to create offspring of the Dyeusai before, but it never worked.” 

“He said their core doesn’t pass on through Naturals or children,” Gwen noted. “Which raises the question of how it happened in this case.” 

Athena, arms folded, gave a slight nod. A faint, thoughtful frown touched upon her face. “That’s why they’ll want to see her, up close and personal. Because they’ll be asking themselves the same question. That, and about whether they can duplicate it or not.”

“Yeah, pretty sure they can’t,” Michael noted. “At least, not the way they’d want to. I need to get a look at the star herself first, to double-check a couple things.”

“They can’t check her father,” Athena noted. “They’ve used the signature spell to see who it is, but that part seems… inaccurate. All Seosten know the glyphs of the Dyeusai, and none of them are what shows up in the portion of the signature that is supposed to indicate who the father is. I don’t even know who the Seosten that particular glyph belongs to is.” 

“He probably doesn’t exist,” Michael noted with a wink. “Security feature built into our aura signatures. Our own energy fuels the spell that creates a fake result. It was supposed to protect any of our families from being targeted by giving a false answer instead of showing one of our glyphs. If someone used the signature spell to find out who someone’s parents were, they wouldn’t find out we were related.” Belatedly, he added, “I can take care of it. One of us can always signature spell the others.” 

“In that case,” Lincoln started while turning to open the door. “Let’s go in and see her.” 

They moved into the cabin together, entering a kitchen area where Sariel and Tabbris sat at a table, looking over some photographs of Vanessa and Tristan as toddlers. As soon as the group joined them, the two stood, Sariel raising her hand in the same salute Athena had given. “Michael,” she said simply, that single word betraying very little of what she was thinking. 

Tabbris, meanwhile, tightly gripped the back of her chair to stop herself from shifting over behind her mother. Her eyes darted that way, but she stood firm. “H–” Her voice caught. “Hello, Mr. Michael.” 

The unassuming-looking man smiled faintly, stepping over to offer a hand to Sariel while responding to her daughter. “Please, just Michael is fine. It’s a pleasure to see both of you. All of you, in fact.” His eyes glanced around the cabin as he added, “Everything you’ve done recently is… very impressive. Not to mention fascinating.” 

“Flick did it.” That was Tabbris, piping up firmly while stepping out from behind the chair. “Flick and Gaia. And now… now Gaia’s imprisoned and Flick is…” Her eyes darted away as her voice dropped a bit. “She’s trapped in the future.” Abruptly, she snapped her gaze back up, voice rising. “But we’re getting her back. We’re gonna pull her back here.” 

“I definitely wouldn’t bet against you,” Michael easily agreed. “Not after the things I’ve heard. And if it turns out what you need is more raw power to pull it off, just a bit more fuel for your spell, you go ahead and have Gwen give me a call. It’d be a shame to lose years of that sister of yours pissing off the right people. So yeah, I’ll give a hand if it comes down to throwing in some extra power. Though from what I hear, you might have an unexpected source of that yourself.” 

“Oh.” Face turning slightly pink, the young Seosten straightened up. It had been less than a full day since the bonding she’d experienced with Lincoln, since… it happened. “You mean these.” Her eyes closed, face scrunching up with deep, intense concentration for several tense, silent seconds. Then they appeared. Two bright, glowing white wings made of pure energy emerged from her back before extending out a bit. Just enough for one of the wings to slice through the back of the chair she’d been sitting in, sending the wood clattering to the floor. 

Gasping out loud, Tabbris quickly made the wings disappear before blurting frantic apologies. Her parents both moved as though to help her, but the girl shied away from them both, terrified of what would happen if the wings came out on their own because she was too emotional.

Holding up a hand to stop the others, Michael took a step over that way before easing himself down to one knee. “Hey.” His voice was gruff, and firm enough that the girl reflexively looked to him before he continued. “Would you like me to teach you how to switch those things into safe mode so they’re no more dangerous than a flashlight?” 

Eyes widening a bit, Tabbris stammered. “You can do that?” Belatedly, she seemed to realize it was a silly question, and turned a little more red. 

Michael, for his part, simply nodded. “I can teach you a lot of things about it. But first, would you like to know who your…” He trailed off, turning his head to glance behind him. His eyes found Lincoln first, then Gwen, his own adopted daughter. Turning back, he corrected, “You know who your father is.” 

That earned a single, firm nod. “Yes, sir. I already know who my dad is.” Pausing, she hesitantly added, “It would be nice to know who helped make me though.” 

“Then we’ll do that,” Michael agreed, rising to step over toward the table. As Tabbris and the others watched, he produced a field-engraver, waiting for the young girl to hesitantly extend her arm. Once she did so, after an encouraging nod from both parents, Michael gently held her wrist while writing in the runes for the signature spell. At the end of it, he added a small bit that wouldn’t normally be there, explaining aloud that the addition would make the spell pull his own energy out and use that to unlock the obfuscation that was producing a false result. 

With a snap of his fingers, Michael activated the spell. As he did so, three holographic shapes appeared in the air. The first looked like a circle that was broken in half, each side pulled slightly away from the other. Between the two halves was an infinity symbol, and a thick line ran over the top of the entire thing from one point of the broken circle to the other. That was Sariel’s symbol, those gathered knew. The infinity sign was attached to all Olympians, merged with their original marker. 

The third symbol in the signature, the one marking Tabbris herself, also had an infinity sign mixed into it. The symbol itself looked like a wide V with the lines stretched down to be nearly flat, with only a very slight curve. Almost like the lines drawn on a landscape painting to indicate seagulls in the distance. An equally flat M sat atop the wide V, slightly smaller so that either end of it matched with the ends of the V. Finally, the vertical infinity symbol sat atop the whole thing. 

Then there was the second symbol, the one everyone was focused on so intently. That was what would show who Tabbris’s true father was. And, of course, it was the last to fully manifest, given the way the signature spell had to first use Michael’s energy to unlock the obfuscation. 

But, after a brief moment of uncertain swirling energy, the symbol solidified. It looked like an upside down Y, with an equals sign directly behind the point where the two legs split off, and two small, backwards, somewhat slanted C’s faced in opposite directions on either side of the top of the upside down Y. The entire symbol seemed to glow brighter and bolder than the rest of the signature.

“Well, that makes sense,” Michael murmured, staring at the symbol. 

Tabbris started to ask what it meant, or rather, who it meant. But her mother spoke first, in a hushed voice. “Jegudiel.” 

“Jegudiel is the most… gung-ho warrior of our seven Dyeusai,” Michael informed those who didn’t know. “He is almost always on the front lines of the war against the Fomorians, the one most committed to what he considers the honor of battle and glory. He believes in the war beyond a fanatical degree. But even more than that, he was the one of us most disappointed by the fact that our children could not…” He glanced sidelong to Tabbris before amending, “Ahem, supposedly could not inherit our gifts. He had some idea of building a dynasty of sorts.” 

“So what you’re saying is,” Athena put in, “if he finds out about her, he’s going to… be interested.” 

“He can be as interested as he wants,” Lincoln snapped, stepping over to reach down, picking up Tabbris. “It doesn’t change anything.” 

Sariel agreed, her hand moving to cup her daughter’s face as she added toward Michael, “You said you could teach her to use them.” 

“I can,” he confirmed. “I will. Soon as you’re ready, let’s go for a walk, kid.”

******

A short time later, Michael and Tabbris were moving away from the cabin together. The girl spoke quietly. “Mr–err… Michael, why is it so hard to make more of you? How come it’s supposed to be impossible for children to inherit the wings, or for Natural Heretics to work?” 

“Because offspring and Heretics don’t have a Dyeus core.” The answer came not from Michael himself, but from a short-haired brunette woman (who bore a very close resemblance to a young Audrey Hepburn). She stood at the edge of one of the cabins, where she had clearly been waiting. 

“Tabbris,” Michael introduced with a wave of his hand back and forth, “Jeanne d’Arc. Jeanne, Tabbris.” 

Eyes widening, the young Seosten blurted, “You’re the one who uses some of Michael’s power! Wait, but that means he… he did pass some of it to you.” A frown touched her forehead. “But…” 

Michael explained, “I used a ritual spell to allow Jeanne to access a small portion of my power. It keeps her young, heals her wounds, and allows her to channel that energy through her weapons. Essentially, it links her to my Dyeus core.”

“What… what is a Dyeus core?” Tabbris stammered uncertainly. 

Glancing to the man to see if he minded her answering, Jeanne waited for a nod before speaking again. “You know about the Suelesk?” 

Tabbris bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh. The Suelesk were the species who existed a long, long, long time ago. Like over a million years. They created dragons to try to fight the four giant monsters who almost wiped out the entire universe, and went through some kind of portal to another universe to get away from them. Seosten umm… found one of their crashed ships and built the first of our space technology off that.” 

“Oui,” Jeanne confirmed. “That is precisely correct. You also know of the dragons, and how they, as eggs, are placed deep in the middle of stars, where they spend many, many millennia absorbing the energy they need to eventually hatch. Except, as it turns out, the dragons were not the first effort the Suelesk made toward harnessing the power of the stars to destroy the creatures who threatened all existence. They had attempted to create a different biological superweapon, powered by energy from multiple captured stars, that would destroy anything it targeted. A living creature capable of projecting enough firepower to casually disintegrate entire planets. Something strong enough to kill the creatures who were ending all life in the universe.” 

Tabbris stared at her, belatedly realizing she had stopped walking. “M-multiple stars? Powered by more than one?” 

Michael nodded. “Yes. The Suelesk encased entire stars in what humans refer to, hypothetically, as Dyson spheres. The enchanted metal superstructure entirely surrounded the star, drawing all of its power.” 

“Wait, wait…” Tabbris stammered, “what you call a Dyeus core is a Dyson sphere?”

“Exactly.” Jeanne offered her a faint smile. “The Suelesk never finished their superweapon. They couldn’t get it to work. Their intention was to draw the power of multiple Dyson sphere-encased stars through the body of a single creature linked to the spheres through magic. That single creature would be capable of pulverizing whole worlds, powered by a dozen entire stars.” 

Michael took up the explanation once more then. “They failed to make their experiment work in time, before the facility working on it was destroyed. Yet they did manage to complete enough work to encase a number of stars within those Dyson spheres, and started some of the work on the spells needed to link them to a biological body. When the Seosten found that research, they–we took some time to finish the uncompleted spells. Our people found that what the Suelesk wanted, channeling all that power through a single body, was impossible. But, with some effort, it was possible to channel a single star’s power using an upgraded version of the spell, one that had to be written into us at the genetic level. A spell written into our DNA that would link each of us to one of the completed Dyson spheres. That is what provides the power source we use. It allows us to create our wings, and provides the boost to our magic, our regeneration, everything. Unfortunately, our people only found enough Suelesk records to point to seven encased stars. Seven stars, seven Dyeusai. They tried linking more than one person to the same star, but it didn’t work. The way the linking spell functions, it can only be used once. It activates, links that star to that being, and that’s it.” 

 “But…” Tabbris slowly managed, “why would they think it was possible to pass that on in the first place, if you have to be connected to one of those stars? Wait, how did it get passed on to me?” She blurted the last bit with wide eyes. 

“Like he said,” Jeanne pointed out, “it was written into their DNA. The idea was that there is plenty of power in each star, far more than one person would ever use. The linking spell could only be used once, but the Seosten thought that with a genetic relation, the spell might just consider them both the same person enough to allow more than one to connect to that star. They hoped it would just see them as the same person in multiple locations. As for Heretics, they hoped the bonding would perhaps link the human to the star as well.”

“But it didn’t,” Michael noted, eying the young girl. “Until now, at least. Somehow, you were connected to Jegudiel’s star.” 

“Couldn’t they make a new Dyson sphere around a new sun and just copy the same spells to make another one of you?” Tabbris put in, looking at him curiously. “I mean, I know they’re spending a lot on the war, but they’ve gotta have the resources. And if they can just look at the Dyson spheres that the Suelesk used…” 

“That latter bit is one problem,” Michael informed her. “Our people don’t know where the stars are, so they can’t examine exactly what was done to make them work. The spells are linked to them, but the Suelesk made a point of keeping the location of their encased stars very secret, and anything that actually explained their location wasn’t… among the resources that were discovered.” 

For a moment, Tabbris just stared. “We–they–they’re using planetary destruction-level superweapons–wait, no, they’re jury-rigging planetary destruction-level superweapons and they don’t even know where the batteries the stupid things are actually pulling energy from are?!” 

“Well, when you put it like that…” Michael grimaced before nodding. “Yeah, that about sums it up. Our people were desperate for an advantage. This was even before the Summus Proelium project. They came across the remains of the Suelesk research station that was working on the weapons, managed to decipher what was going on there, and adjusted the spells to link a Seosten being to one star rather than one constructed mega-creature to all of them.” Pausing, he asked, “And speaking of linking to the stars, would you mind if I run a brief test? I promise, it won’t hurt.” 

Tabbris hesitantly agreed, and the man set out to do just that. It took him almost ten minutes of magical tests before he straightened. “Hm. I’m still not sure why it worked with you when it never worked with any of the other children. But I do see what’s happening, even if I’m unclear as to why. You are… draining Jegudiel’s own connection.” 

That made the girl give a quick double-take. “Dr-draining it? What do you mean?” 

Michael exchanged a glance with Jeanne before carefully replying, “From what I can tell, the power of the star is gradually being shifted over to you. You only possess a small portion of it right now, but over time you will become more powerful, while Jegudiel’s own link to the star wanes.”

Opening and shutting her mouth a few times, the young girl protested, “I–I didn’t mean to. I mean–I mean I didn’t–that’s–” 

Taking the girl’s hand, Michael nodded. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. And your family’s not going to let anything happen to you. Now come, I promised I’d teach you to use those wings properly.” Winking, he added, “What about flying?” 

“Flying?” Tabbris echoed before her eyes widened, a squeak of surprise escaping before she covered her mouth and mumbled through her hand, “They let you fly?” 

With a soft chuckle, Michael nodded. “Absolutely. Trust me, kid, those wings are going to let you do more than you ever thought possible. Especially when it comes to protecting the people you care about. If you want to learn.” 

“I do.” Tabbris quickly nodded. “I want to learn, please.” 

“You’re a good kid,” Jeanne quietly remarked. “Still can’t believe I didn’t know you were inside Flick Chambers. All that time and I never guessed it.” 

“All that time?” Tabbris echoed blankly, staring at her. “But we just met.” 

“Technically,” the woman agreed, “yes. But I spent a semester as one of Flick’s teachers in seventh grade, back when I was looking into what happened to her mother, and learning more about the girl for myself. An entire semester posing as Mr. Rawlings and I never had a clue she was possessed. I–” She stopped, blinking at the young girl’s wide eyes of realization. “Is something wrong?” 

Quickly, Tabbris shook her head. “N-no, ma’am. Nothing’s wrong. I’m ready to learn.” 

She couldn’t tell them. She couldn’t betray Flick’s trust when it came to personal details like that, not even for something so incredibly minor. But now Tabbris really couldn’t wait for her sister to return. Because she really wanted to see the look on the older girl’s face when Tabbris told her that the ‘man’ she had spent months crushing on back when she was thirteen was actually the woman Jeanne d’Arc. Joan of Arc. Flick had spent a large portion of seventh grade thinking she was crushing on a man when she was actually into Joan of Arc posing as a man. 

Actually, come to think of it, that kind of explained a lot.

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New Deals 13-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Well this night was suddenly potentially a lot worse. And why exactly did that surprise me anymore, after everything that had happened? How many times was I going to think my night out in the city was just about over without anything going too wrong, only to be blindsided? 

Right, what did I know? At least Cavalcade wasn’t technically a villain all on her own. She was Sell-Touched. In other words, she worked for whoever was paying her. That could be good guys or bad guys. The last one I’d known she was working for was Deicide, who I still owed a favor to. But Cavalcade had said that her new employer wanted to talk to me. That wouldn’t be Deicide. 

“Man,” the woman herself drawled with obvious amusement, “I wish I could see the look on your face right now, kid. I’ve been sitting over there on that building for the past twenty minutes watching your whole… thing here.” She gestured vaguely. “Gotta say, that didn’t go the way I expected it to. Makes you kinda intriguing, you know? Like, if I go find those kids you let go, would they have anything interesting to say about you?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t serious, just testing my reaction to all that. She was teasing me, pushing to see what I would do.

Somehow, I found my voice. “Well, you know, I was just super-busy and couldn’t take the time to turn them in. And hey, speaking of which, I hope this mysterious new employer of yours takes rain checks, cuz I really shouldn’t be stacking more onto my plate. So much to do, so little time.” 

There was a low chuckle of what sounded like genuine amusement. “They’re not really the type to wait patiently for someone like you to fit them onto your dance card, sorry. Let’s go ahead and squeeze you in right now.” There was a brief pause before she added pointedly, “While this is all still nice and casual.” The implied threat behind her words was crystal clear. This wasn’t a choice. She wanted me to go with her, or this would turn into a fight as she forced the point.

Could I outrun her? I wasn’t sure. Her power allowed her to make rapidfire, short-term duplicates of herself. They only lasted a brief couple seconds, but she made them incredibly quickly, and used that to simulate superspeed by making hundreds or even thousands of duplicates really fast, each one slightly ahead of the other. Plus, she could choose to make one her real self, dismissing the previous body to disappear like the others. That allowed her to travel through the city while leaving a rapidly fading ‘train’ of duplicates behind her, simply always making the body at the head of the ‘train’ her real self. And the fact that the duplicates lasted a couple seconds allowed her to pull off tricks like going straight up the side of a building by having the duplicate behind give the one ahead a push before they vanished. So getting off the ground to the rooftops wasn’t a solution for getting away from her. 

Plus, I couldn’t just use yellow paint to slow her down, because I was pretty sure it would only apply to the single duplicate I hit with it. And I couldn’t just keep hitting every single duplicate who showed up or something. As it turned out, her specific method of speed made my method of slowing her completely useless. Which was just fantastic, really. 

Right, so running away was probably out of the question. What about fighting her? Again, huge problem. Because I wouldn’t just be fighting her, I’d be fighting every duplicate she could summon in a short time span. I’d seen Cavalcade fight people before. She made dozens of duplicates really quickly, surrounded the target, and hit them from every side. Her clones lasted just long enough to throw a punch or two, then vanished. And she could choose to make any of them her real body. So even fighting back was hard. The best way to pull it off was with area-effect attacks that could hit every version of her at the same time or in quick succession. I could maybe pull something like that off with a wide spray of the right paint, but did I have anything that would actually knock her out or whatever before she just made more duplicates who weren’t painted? I didn’t think so. 

Yeah, this whole situation was really not conducive to anything I was ready to do. Fighting her was liable to end with me just exhausting myself without accomplishing anything. And I probably couldn’t escape by running. Again, at best I would wear myself out and she’d be just fine. 

Fighting and running were both bad ideas. But that wasn’t the real question. The real question was whether those two options were worse than the third one. Which was to actually go with her. My options were fighting, running, or going to see this employer of hers. So which one of those was the least bad? Because if her employer was, say, Pencil, I’d definitely take my chances with fighting or running. But on the other hand, everything I knew about the woman (particularly the fact that she did occasionally work with Star-Touched) said that she wouldn’t play nice with the Scions. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Pencil and his ilk. Unfortunately, there were still plenty of bad options. 

“Hey, kid,” Cavalcade interrupted my racing thoughts (that whole sequence had only taken a few seconds in my head, but still), “fun as it is to watch the smoke shooting out of your head from how hard you’re thinking about this, let me make it a little easier for you. My employer is Glitch, and she said to tell you that it’s worth your time to talk to her.” 

Glitch. Leader of Braintrust. Her whole thing was about improving technology or temporarily breaking it. She could take other Tech-Touched designs and automatically understand how they could be improved, and she could also focus on any given piece of technology and force it to either not work at all temporarily, or instill random glitches (hence the name). She was also obsessed with recruiting every Tech-Touched she could get her hands on. 

Wren. This had to be about Wren. She knew I’d worked with the girl and now she wanted to talk to me about something that, in her words, would be worth my time. Fabulist had already raised questions about where I was getting my tech from, back when I saved that Peyton girl. My guess was that they’d worked out more about the situation, maybe from talking to some of Cuélebre’s people, and now Glitch wanted to extend an offer to Wren, through me, to join her little gang. And I was equally confident that my saying no right now wouldn’t be the end of it. She might just end up trying to go straight at Wren by that point. And as much as the girl was working to keep herself and Fred safe, I wasn’t going to throw her into the deep end like that.

So, there wasn’t much choice about any of this. I had to at least attempt to talk to Glitch and get her to understand that Wren working for her just wasn’t worth the effort it would take. Which was bound to be fun, because I was super-sure she’d be totally reasonable about the whole thing.

With a sigh, I finally nodded. “Right, fine. I guess I’ll go with you. But can we do it without the cuffs this time? I’m just really not in the mood for that kind of thing right now.” 

“Now why does it sound like there’s a really interesting story behind that comment? One that I’d love to hear more of.” With those curious words, the woman stared at me. I could see her red-tinted eyes through the goggles, and wondered if she saw the whole world like that. It felt like that would make things more difficult. But then, given how much money she brought in for her services, the goggles were almost certainly Tech-Touched stuff. 

When I didn’t respond to her probing question, Cavalcade finally shrugged. “Well, maybe I’ll hear it later. Right now, I’m being paid by the task, not by the hour. So let’s get you over to have this little discussion.” 

“Wait.” I blinked, suddenly remembering that I had another super power I hadn’t considered through all that. “She’s paying you to have me over there for a discussion, right? That’s it?” 

There was a brief pause as the woman regarded me with renewed curiosity. When she answered, her voice was slow and thoughtful. “Yes, that’s right. It’s not some trick to shoot you in the back of the head in private or something. Mercenary’s honor, for what that’s worth. Probably not much, but hey. What’ve you got to lose? Okay, better question, what choice do you have?” 

Thinking quickly, I came to a decision. “I’ll go with you. I’ll help you fulfill your task so you can get paid. But then I want to hire you.” 

It was Cavalcade’s turn to sound surprised, her gaze snapping to me. “You want to hire me?” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. I’ll hire you to make sure I get out of there again in one piece. Your job right now is to get me there. So get me there and get paid. Then get me out again and get paid again. I don’t know how much you charge, but I’ll give you five hundred dollars to get me out.” 

There was a brief pause, before the woman chuckled. But she was clearly uncertain. “One, five hundred bucks isn’t much for my profession. Two, I’m just supposed to believe you’ve got that?” 

“It’s a fair amount for doing nothing except making sure I walk out of there in one piece,” I pointed out. “It’s like five minutes of your time. And I’m good for the money. After all, it’s not like you’ll just let me walk away from you without paying up. If I could just take off, I wouldn’t be here right now.” After hesitating while my mind raced, I quickly added, “Besides, if you work with me now, there’ll be more where that comes from, because I’ll know I can trust you to take the money.” Belatedly, I shrugged. “Plus, if you’re telling the truth about how Glitch just wants to talk to me and that she’ll make it worth my time, you shouldn’t have any reason to object to being given five hundred dollars just to escort me back out again. Say it’s five minutes of work. That’s a hundred dollars a minute.” 

Of course, I could have offered a lot more than that. Especially if I added the point of letting me collect money and give it to her later. Even then, I still had twice that amount on me, since I’d taken to keeping a little bit of cash on hand. But I felt like five hundred was safer to start with. I didn’t want the woman (or anyone else) to know just how well off I was. Besides, if she refused the initial offer, I needed something to raise it to. 

The Sell-Touched seemed to consider that argument for a few seconds, regarding me. “Five hundred bucks, huh, kid?” Her squint hardened as she seemed to practically be staring through my soul. Finally, she straightened and gave a short nod. “Fine. Five hundred bucks and I’ll take you out of there. But you show it to me first. Right here, right now. Show me you’ve got it.” There was a mixture of doubt and genuine curiosity in her voice. She wanted to know if I was good for it before she took the risk of potentially annoying a steady employer. Which I supposed was fair. 

So, I turned away from her, carefully unzipping my pocket while the woman watched silently. Collecting the five one hundred dollar bills, I turned back, holding them up for her to see. “Five. It’s supposed to be for paying my Tech-Touched. But they’ll get over it.” There, maybe a slight answer as to why I had that kind of money on me would help stop her from thinking too hard about it. 

Another brief moment of consideration passed, before Cavalade gestured. “Right then. Put it away and let’s get out of here. You’ve got a deal. I’ll take you in, let you have your talk with Glitch, then walk you back out again. Ah, but one caveat.” She added the last bit while looking at me pointedly. “No starting a fight in there. If you get attacked, you can defend yourself. I’ll help. But you don’t start anything. And you don’t be insulting. You treat them respectfully as long as they treat you respectfully. You try to start some fight thinking I’ve got your back and you’re gonna be disappointed.” 

“Deal,” I agreed a bit distractedly, my mind racing about everything that was about to happen. “I’ll defend myself if they pull anything, but I won’t start a fight. I’ll listen to what she has to say, respond as… politely as reasonably expected, and leave with you.” 

“Good.” Cavalcade gestured toward a sedan that was parked nearby. “Let’s take a little ride then.” Belatedly, she added, “It’s not as fast as I can be on my own, but a car stands out less to certain busybody Touched who have too much time on their hands.” Pausing, she added, “And that goes for Star or Fell. People don’t know how to mind their own business in general.” 

Right, she worked both sides of the line, so Cavalcade would obviously be more aware of how both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys could be similar. For a moment, I thought of my family and how they played both sides, just in a different way. But then, was it so different? She did it for money, and they did it for money and power. Just on a whole different scale than her. 

There were definite similarities. But I shoved those thoughts down before moving to get in the car she had indicated. A part of me wondered not only if I was going to regret this, but how much and how soon. Getting in this car to go see one of the city’s biggest Fell-Touched villains felt like a bad idea. But I didn’t have much choice if I didn’t want this whole thing to escalate even more. 

Besides, I’d rather the Braintrust people try to talk to Wren through me rather than going straight at her. I was going to try to shield that kid from as much of this as I could for as long as possible. At least until she had enough defenses up to really protect herself and Fred.

Cavalcade joined me in the car, starting it up before pulling away. “You like Toni Kalla?” she asked while turning the radio on to fill the air with pounding rock music. “If not, plug your ears. Or go ahead and punch yourself in the face, cuz Toni’s the best Touched-Singer in the world.”

Yeah, some Touched didn’t go for hero, villain, or mercenary. They used their powers for normal, everyday activities. Toni Kalla, for example, was a singer who could literally weave what amounted to holographic illusions using her voice. She used that to create a show that went along with the music. There were other aspects to her power, but mostly it was the hologram thing. 

Murmuring something noncommittal, I looked out the window. It probably wouldn’t do my secret identity much good for me to mention that I’d met Toni multiple times, had dinner with her both at restaurants and at our house, and that she’d already sent me a copy of the album that wouldn’t be out for another couple months. Maybe I was just crazy, but that felt like it might give a few too many hints about who I was. 

So, instead of focusing on that, I changed the subject. “You gonna try to blindfold me or something? Or, you know, make me duck down so I don’t see where we’re going?” 

The answer was a snort. “No,” she replied flatly. “They’re not having me take you anywhere near their base anyway, kid. We’re just going to a neutral meeting place. You wanna go scour it with a fine-toothed comb looking for clues and Scooby Snacks later, knock yourself out.” 

Despite how casual she was being about the whole thing, I couldn’t exactly relax through the drive. A voice in the back of my head kept screaming about how stupid this was and that I should fight tooth and nail, make her drag my unconscious body to this meeting if she could manage it. I pushed that voice deep down, but could still hear it yelling at me. 

To distract myself from the voice, I looked to my… sort-of captor(?) and asked, “How do you work with both good guys and bad guys?” 

“Oh, kid, don’t start on moralizing,” came the groaned response. “We all have to make a living, and I have my own lines I don’t cross. Besides, you’d be surprised how many supposed good guys aren’t that good.” 

Choosing not to debate that last point about how surprised I would or wouldn’t be, I instead corrected, “No, that’s not what I meant. I mean how do you get the good guys to let you work with them after you worked with villains like… the week before?” 

“Ah.” There was a brief pause before Cavalcade answered. “Because I’m useful. I have a really good power, and that gives me some leeway. Long story short, I have what you might call a special deal with the city. If they catch me doing bad things and working with villains, they get to take me in. But if they extend a contract, if they hire me to do a job, them or any of the other goodie teams, I get a free pass while that contract is going on. It’s written into every contract. My lawyer draws them up. Any time one of the Star-Touched teams wants my help, they have to sign one of those contracts. Means they can’t come after me for anything they think I did in the past for the duration of whatever they’re hiring me for.” 

“And they just… let you do that?” I managed, staring at her. 

“Like I said,” she replied carelessly, “I’m really useful. Most Sell-Touched like me, the ones who work both sides, have something like that. But even then, bad guys tend to pay more.” She turned, winking at me through the goggles. “They have more disposable income and less whiny qualms about who they work with.” 

“That’s surprising,” I muttered under my breath before catching myself. Shaking my head, I looked back to her. “Not to get all moralizing or anything, but the whole… switching sides all the time doesn’t bother you?” 

“Nope,” came the flat answer. “Cuz I just plug my ears with all the money I make, and it makes it really hard to hear that annoying little voice like you’ve got in the back of your head telling you to be some paragon of virtue or whatever bullshit. People are selfish. They look out for themselves and the ones they care about. I’m just making a living.

“And speaking of making a living…” The car stopped. “Let’s go deal with this meeting and then get out of here.   

“Cuz I want that five hundred bucks.” 

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Interlude 7A – Dreamcalls (Heretical Edge 2)

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Lying on her stomach, sprawled sideways across the bed in a pair of dark blue drawstring pants and a gray tanktop, Sandoval Lucas (née Mason) snored lightly. Her outstretched hand, hanging off the edge of the bed, held a purple field-engraver loosely between several fingers, while her construction mace rested with the handle lying across her back. A soft drizzling rain sound from a prepared white noise sleep assistance spell drowned out most of those light snores, as the brunette girl continued to slumber. The blinds across the room’s windows were half-raised, with somewhat dim light from simulated stars within the simulated nighttime visible through the gap.  

At once and with no apparent warning, Sands jerked upward and very nearly fell off the side of the bed. Her hand clutched the field-engraver so tight she bent it nearly in half, while the mace fell off her back and onto the floor with a loud thump (which itself would be inaudible outside of the room, thanks to magically reinforced sound-proofing). Said soundproofing would also prevent anyone else from hearing the young woman’s abruptly blurted shout of, “Erin!” 

Eyes wide, Sands shoved herself off the bed. She nearly tripped over the fallen mace, before stooping to grab and set it up on the nearby chair. From there, she jerked a drawer open and began to hurriedly grab clothes almost haphazardly. In a bare handful of seconds, she had changed out of her sleeping attire and into jean shorts and a red tee-shirt, all in near darkness without bothering to flip on a light. Grabbing her phone and the mace, she shoved both into their containers on her belt before bolting for the door. The whole way, she muttered a mixture of curses and apologies under her breath, even as she jerked the door open to leave her room. 

In the corridor beyond her room, Sands almost ran into her twin sister. Sarah was just coming out of her own room. Both girls’ eyes were wide as they almost stumbled into one another. 

“Erin!” Sands blurted as soon as she’d recovered from the near-collision, staring wildly at her sister through the dim light coming from the open windows in the corridor. “Did you–” 

“Yes,” came the simple, flat response. Sarah gave a short nod, glancing over her shoulder back through her open door. “Erin came to my dream. Sort of. She didn’t… talk. But I saw her.” 

Sands’ head bobbed up and down quickly. “Yeah! Yeah, I saw her too. And she didn’t talk, but I got like… ideas. Impressions. She’s not at Crossroads anymore. She ran away or… or something. They’re looking for her. And she’s trying to talk to her dad but she can’t get through.”

“But she found someone to help her, another girl.” Those words came not from either twin, but from Vanessa, who had just climbed the stairs and stood on the top step, hand on the railing. “Someone who has… some kind of connection to my family. And they need us to find them.” 

Sands glanced that way, biting her lip as she stared at the blonde girl. “You got the dream message too… All three of us got it. You were roommates with her and we spent a lot of time with her when we were kids. That’s gotta be it, right? Whatever spell she’s using to communicate, it must need some kind of connection like that. So she sent the message to all of us just to make sure we wouldn’t blow it off or anything.” Even as she said that, a guilty flinch crossed the girl’s face. They’d left Erin behind back at Crossroads. After lying to her for a whole year and leaving her out of things. No wonder the other girl was afraid of being ignored now. 

From the look on Vanessa’s face through the dim light, she felt about the same guilt. Her voice was quiet. “I don’t know who this girl is that she found, or how she’s connected to my family. She couldn’t get that part across in the dream. But it doesn’t matter. Even if she didn’t have someone else, we still have to go help her. We can’t… we can’t just…” She trailed off, her voice pained. 

“We can’t fail with her like we failed with Flick.” Sands finished for the other girl. It had only been a couple days since the assault on Fossor’s compound. The Necromancer himself had escaped, of course, even if they’d managed to destroy a lot of his resources at what was apparently his primary residence. 

They’d destroyed many of his ghosts, had wrecked over a dozen ongoing horrible spells he’d had in various levels of readiness, had claimed a whole vault full of various magical artifacts, gold, and other useful tidbits. They’d driven him to retreat. 

They had hurt him. That much was indisputable. Fossor had been hurt and forced to abandon a large amount of his personal resources. But it wasn’t enough. He still got away, and they hadn’t accomplished the primary goal. They hadn’t saved Flick or her mother. 

There had been no sign of Joselyn at all. Wherever she was, the woman wasn’t in the palace when Sands and the rest of the quickly-gathered army had descended into Fossor’s secret underground chamber. 

But worse than Joselyn not being anywhere in sight, Flick had been right there, clutched in Fossor’s grip. And they’d still failed to save her. Fossor had used a time travel spell again. A much stronger one than before, according to the adults. From what Wyatt, Sariel, and Dries had been able to put together, Fossor had sent Flick several years into the future. Years. 

What the hell were Sands and the others supposed to do about that? For all they knew, that was where Joselyn was too. Either way, Flick was gone. The only way she could come back was if she on that end managed to get someone to send her back to some time after she was sent forward. 

Not that that was stopping Wyatt and the other spell-focused people. They were apparently working on a way of attempting to grab hold of Flick and yank her back through time from this end. But from everything Sands had heard, it was… pretty unlikely to work. Still, they were trying, and she couldn’t fault them for that. She couldn’t blame anyone for needing to try

“They’ll find Flick,” Sarah insisted. “Or she’ll find a way to come back. We can’t do anything about that now.” She turned to look pointedly at her sister, adding in a firm voice, “We can do something about this.” 

Vanessa was already nodding in agreement. “Right. We can get Erin and this girl she found, figure out what she has to do with my family, help Erin contact her dad… We can do that.” After a brief pause, she added, “We’ll need help to do that.”

Sands folded her arms, suddenly feeling uncertain. “I didn’t get an address or anything, but I got umm… images? It’s like the spell couldn’t give real words, just impressions and sort-of thoughts. Feelings, that kind of thing.” 

“There was a submarine,” Sarah put in. “A black submarine, in the water near a building. And a bunch of like… science places. There was a planetarium, a place where little kids were playing with science experiments.” 

Sands added, “And there was that red shuttle thing. Except not a shuttle. It was like… it didn’t go anywhere, but it went up and down and stuff and made you feel like you were moving when you were inside it? Except without any magic. That’s a Bystander toy thing, right? But where–”

“OMSI,” Vanessa abruptly interrupted. When the other two looked at her, she elaborated. “Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I’ve been there a couple times. I told Erin about it. She said we should see it sometime. That’s… that’s what she was showing us.” 

“Are you positive that’s the same place?” Sands asked before making a face. “Why am I asking you if you’re remembering something right?” 

“I’m positive,” Vanessa confirmed. “The submarine. That’s the big thing. The other parts could maybe be other museums, but OMSI has a big submarine right next to their building. You can go on it and look through the periscope and everything. That’s–” She cut herself off, swallowing hard. “That’s the place.” 

“What’s the place?” That particular question came from Dakota Coalbright. The dark-haired girl, much younger than the others, had been staying in Vanessa’s room for these past weeks because it happened to be where she felt the most safe. She attended her own classes for those her age, but lived in this house. Vanessa didn’t mind. The two had been getting to know each other more. Plus, Dakota was apparently trying to help Avalon and Miranda fix the Eden’s Garden vines so they could grow properly. 

Now, the older blonde girl winced as she glanced toward her roommate, lowering her voice. “Sorry, Dakota,” she murmured. “Did we wake you up?” 

Head shaking, Dakota insisted, “I had to get a drink and you weren’t in the room. Then I heard you guys talking. What’s…” She looked back and forth between them, suddenly pensive. “What’s wrong?” 

The other three exchanged brief glances before Vanessa explained the dreamcall that they had all experienced, and what it meant. Given everything Dakota had been through, being forced to kill her own family members, spending years in a mental institution, all because she had been the unwitting pawn of an evil, potentially world-ending plant monster, Vanessa wasn’t about to try to keep the girl out of what was going on, even if Principal Fellows thought she should. Dakota deserved to know the truth, despite the fact that she was young and had been through so much. Vanessa herself knew as well as anyone what it was like to be in that situation. And even she couldn’t fully comprehend what it was like to have actually killed people you loved at all, let alone when you were just a little kid. Trying to avoid telling her what was actually going on now wouldn’t be fair. To say the least. 

Hearing that, Dakota hesitantly started, “So, um, your old roommate needs help getting here, and she has a friend that’s like… connected to your family. And now she sent you a message about where to meet her. But it’s not like, word messages, it’s just images of a place you know.” Once those words were met by nods, the younger girl bluntly asked, “Are you sure it’s not a trap?” 

“A trap,” Sands echoed thoughtfully, with a glance toward her sister, who grimaced. 

“Sure,” Dakota confirmed with a vague gesture. “You know, from those Crossroads people. Come on, your old roommate happens to run into someone connected to your family and they send you a magic dream message showing you where to meet them? That smells like a trap to me. What’re the odds of your friend finding some long-lost family member or something?” 

“You uhh, might be surprised,” Sands offered with a weak cough. “But yeah, you’ve got a point. On the other hand, we can’t just ignore it or abandon them.” Her voice was more firm then. “Erin was our friend for a long time. Even if we had to leave her out of stuff last year, even if we didn’t… couldn’t… get her involved, she’s still our friend. If she needs help, we have to be there.” 

Vanessa agreed hurriedly. “Yeah, she was nice to me. She helped me not umm, not stay in the library all the time. She was a really good roommate and I just… I just left her there. If she really does need help to get here and to contact her dad, then I’m going to help.” 

“But you’ll be careful, right?” Dakota insisted pensively. Her wide, perpetually sad eyes were focused on Vanessa as she continued, “You have to be careful. I mean–” Flushing belatedly, she waved both hands to indicate the twins as well. “Everyone, you all have to be careful.” 

“Don’t worry,” Sarah reminded the girl gently, “we can’t go anywhere without telling the adults what we’re doing.” Under her breath she muttered, “Even though we all technically are adults. I mean we’re eighteen, what–” Coughing to cut herself off, she finished with a shrug. “And they’ll insist that we all have a plan.”

Vanessa agreed, “Yeah, believe me, Dakota, we’re not just going to run off right now. We need a plan, and we’ll have plenty of help.” After a second of thought, she looked to the other two. “You didn’t get a time or a day or anything, right?”

“They’ll probably just be waiting there all day,” Sarah pointed out with a shrug. “You know, waiting for us to show up. 

“That was dreamjaunt they were using to communicate, right?” Sands put in as the memory of an old lesson from their mother came back to her. “Maybe we could find someone like Wyatt to mix some together and send a message back. You know, to let them know that we got it and show them like a clock or something.” 

“No!” That was Dakota, who hurriedly insisted, “If it’s a trap, you don’t want to give them any idea of when exactly you’ll be there. If they’re just waiting around there all day, it’ll be easier to check to make sure it’s not a trap. They have to wait around. But if you give them an exact time, they can plan a trap around that really easily, see?” 

“I get the feeling you and Wyatt are gonna get along really well,” Sands informed the kid before acknowledging, “But yeah, right, good point. Okay, so we just go tell our Moms what’s going on, right?” 

“We might want to wait a little bit on that,” Vanessa pointed out. 

“What?” Sands shook her head. “Why’re we waiting?” 

“Because,” Sarah reminded her sister while pointing to the nearby dark window.

“It’s two-thirty in the morning.” 

********

Thirty-eight hours later

 

Sands had wanted to go the very second the museum opened, of course. But Sariel, Larissa, Haiden, Principal Fellows, Professor Dare, and Professor Kohaku all insisted they wait until late in the day, to give the group time to plan a quick approach and extraction. As Kohaku put it, even if Erin and whoever she was with were on the up-and-up and weren’t trying to trap them, it was possible that someone from Crossroads or Eden’s Garden might have caught on anyway. They couldn’t be sure that Erin didn’t have secret minders following her around in case she might lead them somewhere important. 

Even without Wyatt (who was busy focusing on his attempt to work on a targeted time-travel spell to pull Flick back out of the future), the rest of the adults were definitely providing enough paranoia. Not that Sands could blame them, really. She knew all the dangers and everything, she just… she just wanted to get Erin out of there so she could say they accomplished something. With Flick banished years into the future, and no total guarantee that they’d be able to pull her back here… It was bad. It felt bad. But with Erin and whoever she had with her, that was something that had an immediate fix, something Sands and the others could do right then. They couldn’t help Flick right at the moment. But they could help another friend, the other one they had abandoned. 

As part of preparing to meet Erin and her friend, Dare and Kohaku, who had taken charge of the mission, such as it was, had sent several groups through the museum all day long. They were a mix of Natural Heretics whom Erin (and hopefully any Bosch Heretics following her) wouldn’t recognize and Alters who didn’t set off the Heretic sense for various reasons. 

They’d spotted Erin with some pale, dark-haired girl around the same age fairly quickly, apparently. From the description, Sands didn’t recognize her. Neither did Sarah or Vanessa. Or Tristan, for that matter. He’d insisted on coming too, and was currently sitting next to Sarah in the van they were all waiting in, the two of them whispering about some movie they’d watched or something. 

Sands knew those two had a thing. It had become progressively more clear over the past few weeks, even if they were obviously taking things slow. The pair read books together, went for walks together, watched movies, had food. They did all the dating things aside from actively calling it a date or kissing or anything. At least, Sands was pretty sure they weren’t kissing. 

Part of her felt like warning Tristan about hurting her sister. But she pushed that thought aside. Sarah didn’t need her to fight her battles or play protective sister for her. She was fine. Tristan was obviously going slow through all that stuff, and neither of them needed Sands butting in. 

Still, she couldn’t help but squint at the boy every time he wasn’t looking at her, before quickly looking away when he glanced in that direction. 

“Okay.” That was Larissa, sitting in the driver’s seat. “The four of you can make your approach. Tanner says they’re out by the submarine, sitting on a bench. We’ll be all around you. Kohaku’s nearby, just out of sight. Dare is on the submarine itself. We’ve got people on the roof, and I’ll be a few steps back in disguise, just in case.” As she said that, the woman took a masker and pulled it on, turning her appearance to an elderly, gray-haired woman. “Everything looks clear. But be careful.”

Sands, Sarah, Vanessa, and Tristan all slipped out of the van and headed that way. They bought their tickets, were informed that the place would be closing in forty-five minutes, and headed around toward the submarine. On the way, Tristan remarked, “You know, it’s too bad we have to rush in and out of here. This place looks pretty cool.” 

Vanessa shot her brother a quick look, eyes wide. “It’s science stuff. You want–” 

“Yeah, yeah, I said it’s cool.” Tristan nudged her. “Don’t have a coronary. Seriously though, we should come back here sometime.” His face and voice darkened then. “With Flick, if we can get her back sometime before we’re all over legal American drinking age.” 

Sands started to insist that they would get Flick back before then. But she was interrupted by the sudden sight of Erin. The girl’s hair had been bright pink the last time Sands saw her, but it was back to being blue. She was also, as promised, sitting next to a pale, anorexically thin girl with dark hair, who was staring intently at a very old-looking leather book in her hands. 

With a shrug, Sands walked that way with the others. Both seated girls looked up, before Erin quickly stood with a murmured word to her companion. 

“Hey, Erin.” Quickly, Sands stepped over to embrace her old friend. “You guys wanna get out of here?” She tried not to sound as nervous as she suddenly felt. 

Erin’s head bobbed, even as she took the time to embrace Sarah and then Vanessa. “Yes. Fuck yes, let’s go. There’s more than just you guys, right? Y-you’re sure there’s no Crossroads people here?”

“Definitely sure,” Sands confirmed. 

“Why?” That was Larissa, who had removed the masker and took Erin into her arms for a tight hug. “Do you think you might’ve been followed? And who’s your friend here?” 

“This is Dylan Averty,” Erin quickly introduced them all before adding, “And we have to get out of here. I have to tell you about Baron Dallant.” 

“Jeremiah?” Larissa frowned. “What about him? He’s undercover, but he’s on our side.” 

“He may be undercover,” Erin agreed, “but I’m pretty damn sure he’s not on our si–” 

“Pardon me.” 

The interruption came from a new figure, one who simply appeared a short distance away, prompting everyone there to jerk that way, drawing weapons and readying powers. Dylan had one hand raised with a small, strange, clearly magical bag clutched in it. Larissa and Dare were both right there in an instant. All of them faced the figure who had spoken. 

He was tall, purple, with red eyes and a long beard. Not to mention partially translucent. 

“Ghost,” Dare immediately snapped, her sword snapping upward. “One of Fossor’s.” 

“No.” That emphatic, sharp denial stopped the woman from lashing out. The purple ghost gave one shake of his head. “I am not his. Not anymore. That, in fact, is entirely why I have spent all this time searching for someone connected to the Chambers.” 

“What are you talking about?” Dare demanded, making certain to keep herself between the ghost and the teens, her sword already prepped with a ghost-harming spell. 

“I am no longer bound to the orders of that creature,” the spirit informed them. “Thanks entirely to the efforts of your… Felicity. And I am here to repay that incredible favor. 

“By leading you to where Fossor is, so you may stop him before it’s too late.”

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Patreon Snippets 16B (Summus Proelium)

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That-A-Way’s First Experiments With Her Powers, Just Over One Year Ago 

“Okay, what the hell?!” Amber O’Connell blurted in the privacy of her own bedroom, while the speakers from her computer blared out music from Spotify to ensure her mother wouldn’t hear what she was up to. She was standing by the door, staring very intently at a spot by the closet directly across from her. “Work! Come on, you did it before! What the fuck, did I get a defective orb or something?” 

The Summus Proelium sphere. That’s what it was. That was the thing that had appeared earlier that day, while Amber was losing her mind over the realization that all the work she’d put into finding the person who had killed her father in a hit-and-run was useless because the car had been stolen. So the owner wasn’t responsible. It was a total dead-end. She had been… not dealing with that very well, when the sphere appeared in front of her. She’d touched it, seen visions of herself, her dad… her poor dad. She saw the car that had hit him, the man she thought was responsible, she saw everything she’d done to track him down, all for nothing. 

Then she’d come out of it, stumbled forward, and in an instant, she had been a hundred yards away. She’d teleported. She had absolutely, totally teleported! 

But now she couldn’t. She was standing here, where no one could see her, and her power just wouldn’t work. Was that it? Had her power been something like, ‘teleport one time?’ What bullshit was that?! How was she going to find her father’s killer if her powers didn’t even work? 

Annoyed, Amber stalked forward while throwing both hands up in the air. How was she supposed to use a superpower that wouldn’t listen to her?! Was teleporting hard? She’d focused on it as much as she could for the past five minutes, but nothing happened. Not even a flicker. Why didn’t it work?! In frustration, she brought both fists against her closet door. 

And her hands went right through it. Through it as in through it, as if the door wasn’t there at all. The door was still intact, but her hands were… were like ghost-hands. Wait. Eyes wide, the dark-haired girl slowly extended both arms, sticking them further through the closet. 

Behind her, the bedroom door started to open while her mother called, “Amber, what’ve I said about blaring your music so–” 

Spinning, Amber lunged that way with a gasp. And, in the next instant, she was there. She was right next to the door. Teleport. She had teleported again. Also, her hands were solid, a fact she found out quite suddenly as she banged into the door to stop her mother from barging in. “Sorry, Mom!” she blurted. “I’ll turn it down.” No way was she going to explain all of this right now. 

After a quick back-and-forth where Amber promised to gather her laundry and bring it down, her mother left. With a sigh, the girl shoved the door shut once more and turned. “Okay, teleport. Since you’re working again, let’s go.” Once more, she focused on the spot by the closet. 

Nothing. Again. A long, heavy groan of frustration left her. “What?! Why–what the hell?” 

Okay, wait. With a thoughtful frown, Amber walked forward toward the closet, still trying to focus on her power. Her hand rose and extended, until she walked right into the closet door… and passed through it. Her hand was in the closet, sticking through the door like it wasn’t there. 

She couldn’t teleport from the entrance of her room to the closet, but she could… turn intangible? And if she went from her closet to the bedroom entrance… Amber looked that way and focused again. 

There. She was right there, by the bedroom door. She’d teleported across the length of her room with a thought. So what the fuck? Why could she do it in one direction but not another? What sense did that make? And why was she intangible going the other way? What? 

Turning back toward the closet, Amber focused once more. She thought about using her power and stepped forward while slowly putting her hand out toward the end of her bed. And just like that, she was intangible again. Her hand passed through the foot of the bed like it wasn’t there. 

Okay… she turned to look at the bedroom door, only to yelp as her hand abruptly jerked away on its own. It had gone back to being solid and automatically snapped away from the bed it had still been inside of just because she turned–wait. Just because she turned to face the other way. 

A thought sent her from the bed over to the entrance to her room. Teleport. Turning back the other way and focusing on her power, she was intangible (a fact that was proven as she waved her hand out to the side and made it pass through a shelf full of trophies and pictures). 

Right. She could teleport, but only when going one specific direction? Was the direction from her bedroom door to her closet the same way she’d been facing when she’d teleported the first time? It had to be, right? And facing the other way, toward her bedroom entrance, she was intangible. But why? Why did she have one power facing one way and a different power facing the other way? Gluegirl (the hot super chick on the New York Conservators that Amber’d had a crush on basically since she’d figured out she liked girls) didn’t have to worry about things like what direction she was facing. 

Wait, more importantly, did it work in other directions? Did she have teleportation through a hundred and eighty degrees  and intangibility through the other hundred and eighty? Curious, Amber stepped to the middle of the room, facing the closet. She did an about-face, turning to her right at exactly the midpoint between the closet and doorway. Taking a breath, she focused again on using her power. The problem, of course, being that she wasn’t exactly sure what the power was. Would it just be teleportation or intangibility again? Curious, she put a hand out toward her desk. Nope, solid. Definitely solid. Then she focused on staring intently at the spot by the window. Teleport… teleport… nothing. Right, so she didn’t just have the two powers. There had to be something else, but how was she supposed to guess what it was? 

With an annoyed sigh, the girl took a step toward the window. And suddenly, she was slamming face-first into the window. She hadn’t teleported. No. She had actually moved through the entire space to get there, she’d just done it incredibly quickly. So quickly that she’d actually crashed into the window and bounced off it with a yelp. 

Hold on, hold on! Scrambling to her feet, Amber turned to the door, thinking hard about the hallway outside her room. 

She was there. She’d faced the bedroom entrance, thought about it, and was suddenly on the far side of the door, in the hallway. 

Oh fuck, that was really stupid. If her mother had been standing there, what–shit. She’d been so intent on testing this out that she hadn’t even thought about that. Luckily, however, her mother had gone back downstairs. Amber was alone in the hall. 

Turning to face the same way she’d been going when she’d bounced off her window, Amber hesitated just for a second before launching herself into a sprint. Once again, she was incredibly fast, crossed the entire distance, past her parents’ bedroom, the sewing room, and the upstairs bathroom all in an instant before bouncing off the wall at the far end. She yelped, falling on her rear at the top of the stairs. 

“Amber?” Her mother called from below. “What’re you doing up there?” 

“Nothing, Mom!” the girl blurted, hurriedly picking herself up. “It’s fine, I’m fine, I’m just–” Under her breath, she finished, “–a fucking superhero.” 

Wait, wait. What about the other way? Looking back the way she had come, Amber thought about it. Intangibility when she was facing her closet. Teleportation when she was facing the entrance to her bedroom. Superspeed when going toward the stairs at this end of the hall. But what about going back the other way? 

Well, shit. After another five minutes of focusing and walking back and forth, she still had no idea. She had a sense of something happening. There was just a feeling she got somewhere in the pit of her stomach when her power was working. It was there when she was fast, when she teleported, and when she turned intangible. And it was definitely there when she was facing the other way. But as to what it actually did? No clue. None. She definitely couldn’t fly. And how weird would that be anyway, being able to fly but only in one direction? Probably only slightly weirder than only being able to teleport or run superfast in one direction, come to think of it. 

Either way, she had no idea what moving that direction did. Which was just dumb. How many Touched got powers and couldn’t even figure out what one of them did? 

With a sigh after failing for another ten minutes at deciphering the power, she headed downstairs. She’d been smelling cookies for awhile. Getting some sugar and chocolate, that would help her think about how to figure this out, right? 

Seeing her mother down the hall in the laundry, Amber called, “Hey, is it okay if I grab a couple of those cookies?!” The whole time, she kept focusing on her power, trying to see if anything would happen. 

“Is it okay if you what?” Her mother prompted without turning around as she sorted the clothes. 

“Please,” Amber added, restraining the urge to roll her eyes. 

“Yes, take a few,” came the answer. “But leave enough for the Moensens, I’m taking some over there in a couple minutes!” 

“Kay!” With that, Amber moved into the kitchen. There, the cookie sheet was on top of the stove. Full of delicious, delicious chocolate chip scrumptiousness. Reaching out, she tapped the metal pan once to check the heat before picking it up and turning with it to grab a plate so she could slide the cookies she wanted right off onto it. 

Fucking owww! The second that Amber turned toward the island counter, the metal tray in her hand abruptly turned burning hot, and she yelped while dropping the pan. 

The cookies and pan were falling. But they were doing so incredibly slowly. Speed. Her speed, she was facing the right way to have speed, and it had kicked in. In a rush, Amber forgot her burned hand, quickly grabbing a nearby oven mitt from the island. She had time to slide it onto her hand, grab the pan, and quickly right it while catching all the falling cookies before any could hit the floor. 

That done, the girl turned back to the stove and set the pan down once more before staring at it with wide eyes. Hot. It had suddenly turned hot as soon as she wasn’t facing this way. Did that… did that mean…? 

She reached out without thinking about her power. She’d been focusing on it the whole time she’d been in the kitchen, so intent on trying to figure out what the power actually did while facing that way, that she hadn’t even thought about using it while picking up the pan. 

Fuck! Hot! Without focusing on her power, the tray was too hot to touch. But then she focused on it once more, getting that feeling in the pit of her stomach. And once again, the tray wasn’t hot at all. Did… did that mean her power when facing this way was ‘immunity from heat?’ 

No, wait. Hold on. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure her mother wasn’t around, Amber reached out to grab a knife from the nearby drawer. Taking a breath and letting it out slowly, she once more focused on her power while touching the knife to her own arm. Gently at first, but with gradually increasing pressure. 

It worked. Or rather, it didn’t work. The knife wouldn’t cut her. 

She’d figured it out! Invulnerability. She had teleportation when moving one way, intangibility the opposite way from that, superspeed when moving a third direction, and she was invulnerable when moving the opposite way from that. Four different powers when moving in four different directions! She finally had it! Holy shit, she had superpowers and she knew how to use them! 

“Oh fuck,” Amber managed, while staring at the tray full of rescued cookies. 

“What the hell am I gonna name myself?” 

 

********

 

Lucent 

 

As the sun set, and the streetlights began to glow, a single dark-colored bird perched atop one of those lamps. There were identical bird figures atop the roof of the nearby pharmacy building, on the edge of a railing across the street, atop another streetlamp a block away, and on the ladder of a fire escape in the alley between the pharmacy and the building next to it. 

None of those other figures moved. But the first, the one atop the light directly in front of the pharmacy itself, cocked his head to the side, studying the doors below, then the street in either direction. From the perspective of anyone down there, he would be almost invisible in that position, perched above the light. 

That near-invisibility grew even stronger as the dark raven’s feathers abruptly shifted color. What were once black turned a silvery-gray to blend in with the lamppost. At the same time, the motionless bird figures shifted to match the color of their surroundings as well. Then there was peace, the only sound being that of the cars passing by below and a few pedestrians hurrying to their own vehicles to get home. 

That relative calm was interrupted by the sound of a voice cackling, “Hehe, hey Luci, heard you’re a proud papa now.” 

The voice was only audible through the tiny earpiece, hidden under his feathers, that Lucent wore stuck gently but firmly in the hole. The earpiece conveyed sound through the various communication networks the Touched raven was linked to. In this case, it was a personal channel, one that he and other Touched animals throughout the country were a part of. Some of them were more active talkers than others, some used a text-to-speech program to talk, and some didn’t say anything at all. They simply listened. Lucent understood those last ones. They found it hard to find the right thing to say, but still wanted to be a part of the Touched-animal chat room to stave off the loneliness that came with being part of the few non-human intelligent creatures on the planet. Touched animals of any kind were rare to begin with, so any individual would at best have a few others of their species. Some had none at all, and lived their lives as the only member of their kind with intelligent thought. 

The one teasing him through the com, in that moment, was a member of that last type. His name was Postal, and he was an alligator living in Florida. The only Touched alligator that was known to exist. Beyond his enhanced intelligence, Postal’s powers allowed him to mark any target he was looking at. As long as he continued looking at that target, any non-melee attack that Postal was aware of could be redirected to it rather than to its intended destination. This included gunshots, ranged powers, even such simple things as thrown balls. In addition, Postal could mark a single target that any ranged attack would veer away from. This he didn’t need to constantly look at, but the effect would fade if the marked target left his general area. 

“You have been reading the Sphere… forum again, I presume?” Lucent calmly replied, pitching his voice to be quite low. The pause in the middle came as he took a breath. He wasn’t wearing the device on his beak that often projected his words. As a raven, one of the few animals in the world who could physically speak human language without extra technical aid, Lucent didn’t actually need such a device all the time. But it made extended conversations easier, as given his small size, he lacked much lung capacity for speaking long sentences without taking a break to breathe. 

In this case, however, he’d wanted to blend in and look like any other bird for anyone who had been watching him approach this place. There were rumors that one of the Fell-gangs was going to make a move on the pharmacy he was perched outside of, and Lucent was determined not to let another shipment of much-needed medical supplies disappear. The other bird-like figures perched around the street were part of his own power. Essentially, they were statues whose heads could move to look around. Lucent could shift his own vision at any point to see through their eyes in order to watch more of the surrounding area. In any combat situation, the statues could also project concussive blasts from one eye and lasers from the other. 

“Sure have,” Postal confirmed that he had been reading Sphere. “How come you never told me you had a bouncy bundle of joy in the world, huh? Really bouncy, from the sound of it.”

For a moment, Lucent didn’t respond. He was watching a pair of figures at the far end of the street, half-hidden in a doorway. He’d thought they might have been suspicious, just standing there in the shadows. Then he realized they were rather involved with one another, physically

“Well now,” he abruptly replied while instinctively puffing himself up a bit, “‘Twould hardly be… appropriate to put such a… son in the spotlight before he… was properly raised, would it?” Again, he had to pause now and then to take a breath. 

That raised a few comments from other Tonis (TOuched Nonhuman Individual) in the chat, including Lion, the Tech-Touched mouse from Seattle who designed elaborate defensive structures. She’d been too busy with a recent project and had no idea what they were talking about. So, in a way that made it clear he was leaning into the obvious joke, Lucent explained the ongoing theory amongst those in the Detroit section of the Sphere forum that the newest (very human) Star-Touched was secretly Lucent’s own son. 

After more teasing back and forth, there was a soft chime followed by the sound of Lion saying her name, an alert that she was inviting him to a private chat. He accepted after taking another look around to ensure the area around the building was still clear. 

“Lucent?” came the always hesitant, nervous voice of Lion. “I ahh, I know you joke about it. But how’re you doing with this whole son thing? I know you… that boy you used to be with in that theater, before you were Touched…” 

“Bradley,” Lucent managed, as a wave of pain washed over him. Bradley was the son of the man who had actually ‘owned’ Lucent before he gained his intelligence and powers. It was Bradley who cared for Lucent the most, who ensured he was fed and played with him. The two had been nearly inseparable for a couple years, living in an old, yet well-loved theater where Lucent had originally learned to speak by mimicking the old medieval-style language spoken in the plays the theater’s owner (and Bradley’s father) was so fond of. 

The boy had been about the same age that this Paintball must be, when tragedy had struck. Tragedy that resulted in the destruction of the theater, the deaths of many people including poor Bradley, and Lucent gaining his new powers and intelligence (and later, a new name, as he felt the old him had died back then with his best friend Bradley). 

“Ohhh, oh, I’m sorry,” Lion lamented. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m so sorry. I just–I wasn’t sure how you were–I wanted to–” 

“Tis quite understandable… dear miss,” Lucent quickly assured her. Nervous and skittish as Lion was, particularly about reaching out to people, he didn’t want to make the tiny mouse feel bad. “Little as I know this… Paintball, I do believe he… is a fine and upstanding young… man whom my Bradley would… have gotten along quite well with. He’s a strong, smart… creative lad. Being seen as… in any way responsible for that… even as mere jest… is a fine honor and one I… look on with pride.” 

There was a brief pause, before Lion tentatively asked, “You’re sure you’re okay with it?” 

“Aye,” Lucent confirmed. “Lad’s a true hero. And I hardly fault… others their fun. My only concern is for… the boy himself, and his feelings. But from all evidence… he would find it as amusing as I.” 

“Maybe you two should find a way to play into the joke,” came the mouse’s quiet suggestion. 

“Mayhaps we shall,” Lucent agreed, before going silent as a dark sedan approached the building. It turned down the nearby alley, and he shifted his vision to the statue he had parked on the fire escape there to watch as men in masks began to step out of the car once it had come to a stop. 

“Ah, pardon me, milady,” he informed his conversation partner while pushing himself off the lamppost, taking to the air on silent wings. 

“Duty calls.” 

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