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 her. “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.
Grinning 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.”