A/N – For anyone who does not read Heretical Edge, this month’s Non-Canon chapter for Summus Proelium (focusing on a look at an alternate reality where Cassidy joins La Casa) has been posted on Patreon and is available for everyone to read right here. And remember, Patrons of any level get those non-canon chapters one day early, $5+ Patrons get to vote on which non-canon ideas are made into chapters, and $10+ Patrons get to GIVE ideas to be voted on. Not to mention, of course, the fact that $5+ Patrons always get every chapter a day earlier than the public!
I had no idea how long Paige and I stood there staring at one another after I took off that helmet. It felt like hours. Hours where the two of us simply stood in silence. I could see the array of emotions and competing thoughts that played across the other girl’s face. Confusion, disbelief, and much more made her expression twist. Once or twice, she opened her mouth as though to say something, but nothing emerged. For once in this entire thing, Paige was the one who looked completely lost. She was shocked, that much was certain. She’d had absolutely no idea who I really was under that helmet. And now that she did, it seemed like her brain had blue-screened.
Of course, I wasn’t doing much better. The terror of exposing myself to anyone, let alone someone who had (however unwillingly) been such a horrible bitch to me for so long, left me practically quivering in place. God, fuck, what was I doing? What was I doing?! What if this was a mistake? What if she had been playing me this whole time… somehow? What if I’d just thrown my life away by revealing my secret to Paige Banners?! What the hell was wrong with me?
Yeah, I had a lot of doubts, to say the least. And a lot of emotions. It didn’t matter how illogical they were, how little sense the idea that Paige had somehow manufactured all this just to fuck with me made. None of that mattered. I was running on pure emotion in those few seconds. And my emotions were doing a real bang-up job of showing me all kinds of worst-case scenarios.
Approximately seven years later (my mental state might have been exaggerating the length slightly), I finally managed to find my voice just enough to quietly say, “So, I guess we have a lot to talk about.” Yeah, the words sounded absurd given the enormity of what was going on, but I had to say something. Especially the way Paige was still gaping at me like a fish.
At the very least, it also prompted her to find her own voice. “You–” After that single word, Paige’s head shook, like she was trying to clear it before trying again. “You’re really–” Again, she stopped. That time, however, it was because her hand was snapping out to grab my arm. Before I even knew what was happening, Paige was yanking me off my feet and tossing me to the floor behind her while snapping a quick, “Get down!” In the next instant, a semi-muffled gunshot rang out, before the bullet struck the wall right near where my head had been.
Fuck, right, there were still bad guys here! Behind me, I heard Paige launch herself at wherever that shot had come from. Scrambling a bit, I managed to shove the helmet back on my head and turned in time to see the blonde girl catch one of those suited guys by the wrist, shoving it to the side so his next shot went far wide. In the next instant, a gleaming knife appeared in her other hand as she shoved the blade right into the man’s throat. Blood spurted out as he fell.
“Paige!” Leaping back to my feet, I took a quick glance around to make sure we weren’t about to be immediately jumped by another guy before lunging that way. “Stop!” My hands caught her arm, turning the girl to face me. Somehow, it felt safer doing so from behind the helmet, even if she did already know who I was. I stared at her. “You can’t just keep killing all these guys! I know they’re bad, but… but you can’t just kill all of them. And you can’t–” My voice caught in my throat while I grabbed the other girl tightly by both shoulders. “You can’t kill yourself.”
For a moment, Paige just stared at me in silence. I could, yet again, see a lot playing out in her eyes. A lot of things she didn’t say, or thought of saying and didn’t know how to put words to. Finally, she murmured a soft, “Cassie, it’s… it’s you.” With those quiet words, her hands rose to touch either side of the helmet before using her thumbs to push up the black visor so she could see my eyes. “All this… everything that… you were… it was always…” Visibly swallowing, she shook her head. “It was you. All that time, it was you. You’re Paintball. Everyone thinks–but you’re actually–it was you. It was you.” There was a mixture of awe and bafflement in her words.
“Believe me,” I managed in a weak voice, “I was pretty confused by all of it too. More than you are, I think. Pretty sure you know more about what’s going on than I do.”
Flinching a bit, Paige quickly blurted, “I–I’m sorry. Everything–all the stuff–all that–”
“I saw the video,” I quietly assured her. “I saw it. Like I said, you can’t kill yourself. You can’t. And you can’t just keep killing all these people. I know they’re bad, but they’re still people.”
“No.” To that, Paige shook her head. “They’re not people, Cassie. They’re biolems.”
Well, I’d had a lot of thoughts about what Paige would say next, but that definitely wasn’t on the list. “Biolems?” I echoed.
“Biological golems,” she explained. “It’s what my father–look.” With that, she turned and grabbed the slumped body of the guy she had just killed. To my utter horror, Paige hauled him up a bit, then drove that knife of hers down into the top of his head. It must’ve been pretty damn sharp and she must’ve been pretty strong, because the blade went right through the skull without any apparent resistance.
Quickly, I made a sound of disgust before starting to raise my hand to stop her. Then I stopped, as Paige quickly cut a hole in the man’s head and tore it open. Horrifying as that was, I couldn’t help but see the inside where his brain was.
Or rather, where his brain should have been. Instead, there was a small metal orb, about the size of a baseball, with various colored flashing lights over it. Wires ran from the orb into the rest of the head and lower, toward the… the spine, I supposed.
Reaching in, Paige grabbed the metal ball and yanked it out with a grunt of effort. It tore free, pulling a handful of those wires with it. “Biological golems,” she repeated. “They don’t think, they don’t feel, they don’t make choices. They follow orders. His orders. My father’s.”
“Your dad… he… he’s Touched,” I managed. “He built these things?” That raised even more questions. And a few other thoughts that made my mind reel.
“He’s Tech-Touched,” Paige confirmed. “His focus is on biology, on medical things, on… on this.” She gestured to the body of the so-called ‘biolem’ before releasing her grip to let it slump back down. The metal orb was still in the hand she was using to gesture with. “This and a whole lot more. These are his foot soldiers, Cassie. They’re not built with any free will, no personality, nothing like that. They’re built to do what he tells them to, and to look like real people.”
Swallowing hard, I met her gaze. “Is… is that what he did with you? I mean, except with personality and all, because umm, you’ve definitely got one of those. But you said you didn’t have any choice but to obey his orders. And you… you’re stronger and faster than you should be. I just–all that stuff–you fought all those people and you won. You’re–are… are you…?”
“I’m different,” Paige informed me, sounding like this was all really hard for her to talk about. The words came out as though she was forcing them. “I’m not… exactly a–” Before she could finish, the sound of running footsteps drew our attention toward the door I had come through. We couldn’t see it thanks to all the servers in the way, but there were definitely people coming. A lot of them, from the sound of it. Or rather, more of these biolems, as Paige put it.
Worse, there were some coming from the other direction as well. There must’ve been a door at the far end of the room, because it sounded like an army was closing in on us from both sides.
“He had more than I thought,” Paige murmured. “He sent them all to stop me, to stop–” She looked to me, a rush of emotions playing across her face. “Cassie–”
The first guy came around the corner then, gun raised. Quickly, I painted a big orange smiley face on my chest, grabbing Paige to yank her around so the shots hit my back. “We deal with these guys!” I blurted out loud, even as more rushed to join in. “Then we talk!”
With that, I painted my gloves purple, grabbing Paige by her arms and lifting her before giving a heave to throw the girl up and over the heads of the three guys who came sprinting in from that direction. She landed behind them while they were still trying to pivot back that way.
Paige had those guys. I had to trust that Paige had them, because I had my own problems to deal with. Namely, the guy who was still shooting me in the back, and the three friends who had joined him. Four guys. Or four biolems. Whatever. The point was, they were very intent on killing the two of us.
Just before my orange paint could wear off, I added green to my legs and used that, coupled with the remaining strength from my purple gloves, to hurl myself at the nearest guy. His last shot hit my left shoulder hard enough that I knew there would be a bruise there. But I ignored the pain and caught his extended wrist, twisting it hard enough to break so that he dropped his gun.
Behind him, the other guys were starting to shoot. Clearly, they didn’t care that he was in the way. And why would they? If Paige was right, they were all mindless drones following orders.
But I couldn’t think about that right now. Instead, I used the last of the purple strength to hoist this guy up and bodily threw him into the three guys just before they could shoot. They all hit the floor together and I quickly sprayed them with red paint before they could disentangle themselves. Another shot of red went to the far back of the room and all four men were yanked that way. None of them screamed or even yelped. They were all silent while being hurtled the length of the room to crash into the wall. It was kind of creepy, to be honest.
Nor did it really seem to slow them down very much. Even as they collapsed to the floor, the quartet were already separating from one another and picking themselves up. The three whose guns I hadn’t taken even still had them, and were pointing them as they straightened.
Suddenly, there were four quick gunshots from just beside me. Paige was there, pointing a weapon she had taken from one of the others. And with each of those four shots, a matching hole appeared in the center of each man’s forehead. They all collapsed like puppets whose strings had been cut.
“Not real!” the other girl snapped at me. Blood was covering the front of her shirt and most of her face, giving her the look of a feral, primitive warrior. Well, except for the whole gun thing. “They’re not real people! They can’t feel, they can’t think, they can’t do anything except what they’re programmed to do. They’re flesh and blood, but robots. They’re robots, Ca–Paintball! They’re not going to stop just because you hit them a few times. You have to break them!”
“I–I’m sorry, I just–they look like people!” I stammered. “I can’t just kill–I mean–”
“You’re not killing them,” she informed me flatly. “Because they’re not alive. They never have been. They’re mindless drones, I swear. They don’t–down!” Pivoting with me, Paige fired a quick shot into the face of yet another incoming biolem who had been aiming at us from behind one of the rows of computer servers.
“God, how many of these things did your dad make?!” I reflexively blurted.
“Too many,” she responded darkly. “That’s why we have to get to the source. The main server.”
“What’re all these?” My hands waved quickly to encompass the room full of computers.
“Part of it,” she replied. “But not the part we need. It’d take too long to do anything here, trust me. If we’re going to stop Project Owl, we need to get to the heart of things. That’s this way. Now come on!” With that, her hand moved to grab mine and she started to run.
Quickly, I kept pace with her. “What the hell is Project Owl?!” I demanded as we sprinted past row after row of computer servers and made it to a small door that was almost hidden behind two larger server banks. Paige was already lashing out with a foot, kicking the door open. It led to a wide hallway with no windows or decorations of any kind. The floor, walls, and ceiling were made of solid concrete. This hall was all about function, not form.
“It’s an acronym!” the other girl informed me quickly, even as the two of us moved through the hall. It was L-shaped. At the far end, it turned to the left, revealing a heavy, vault-like door directly in front of us. “It stands for Organic Wonderwork Legacy. It–” Turning back toward me then, Paige looked as though she wanted to take another hour or so to actually explain everything, and the fact that we didn’t have time for that was frustrating her. Finally, she simply added, “It’s my father’s big plan. You remember that little metal ball I took out of that thing’s head back there? My dad wants to make advanced versions of those for everyone in the world, and let them upload their brains into them. Then they could have bodies built for themselves that can look like anything. Humanoid, animal, alien, giants, anything! They just have the body built, install the orb that has their brain and personality and all that, and off they go. They could even have multiple bodies and switch between them. He wants to give everyone in the world a perfect body, and put them in those little orbs so they can live forever. I mean, as long as the orb survives. If the body wears out, they just transfer to a new one. He wants to create immortality in perfect bodies that allows everyone to be exactly what they want to be, forever.”
For a moment, I just stared at her. “Um. What a…. monster? Wait, is he the good guy in thi–”
“He’s not a good guy,” Paige instantly snapped. “One, he wants you and your family dead. Two, there’s problems with his system. There’s–he’s–look, I can’t explain it all right now. But even though his goals might sound great, you really don’t want to put someone as crazy as he is in charge of literally every life on the planet. How long do you think it would take him to just stamp out the ones he decided he didn’t like? Giving one person that much power, especially someone like him… it’s a bad idea.”
While I was processing that, she turned back to the big vault door, focusing on a keypad next to it. “This is the part that could take a long time. I don’t know the password, so I have to do this the hard way.”
“Not that long,” I quickly put in, already pointing both hands at the door. Focusing, I started to spray a circle of paint on it a couple feet in diameter. As Paige watched in confusion, I painted my fist purple before punching into the pink bit, starting to tear it out. “Help me with this?”
She got it then, and the two of us started to tear out a hole in the door. I had to spray a couple more times, given how thick the thing was. But eventually, I managed to tear a full hole all the way through and into the room beyond.
Paige went first, shoving herself through the hole. I squirmed through right after her before straightening up to look around. Now we were in a circular room about twenty feet across. In the middle there was a two-foot-wide red obelisk-looking thing with a computer console attached to it, while more servers were mounted to the walls on all sides.
“What… the hell is this place?” I muttered. “What is all this for?”
“It’s the heart of everything,” came the response. “This whole place–it’s all part of his plan. In other parts of the building, there’s automated systems building more of those biolems, and working on more advanced versions of the orbs. Ones that can hold full human minds. Like I said, the ones we’ve faced so far are running on his default programming. But he wants to put actual human minds in the new ones. So this place is important. There’s redundancy after redundancy built into it. But if I can destroy this part here, he’s done in this city. He can’t do anything else. This is his pride and joy, the center of everything, the brain of his lab. This is the place I didn’t know about before. Without this, he’s dead in the water and can’t build any more of his biolems.”
“So we destroy it,” I agreed. “Then we get out of here.”
“It’s not that simple,” she insisted. “I can blow it up, but I… there’s security measures, Cassidy. If I tell it to blow up and then leave, the self-destruct will just be disabled. I have to be here when it goes, up to the very last second. Otherwise, the system will just turn off the self-destruct.”
For a moment, I stared at her. “You mean you have to be standing here when the place blows up. That’s what you meant when you said you’d kill yourself.”
“That and me being dead means my father can never use me to hurt you again,” Paige said in a soft voice.
“You being dead would hurt me!” I quickly insisted. “It–I don’t have anyone else to talk to about–I can’t–Paige, you’re not dying. We have to find another way. There has to be another way.”
For a moment, it looked like she was going to argue. Then Paige hesitated before quietly murmuring, “There… is a way I could shut the security brain down directly so it can’t turn off the self-destruct. But to do that, I’d have to plug directly into it.”
“Plug directly into it?” I echoed, frowning a bit behind the helmet.
She nodded, looking a little uncertain and self-conscious. “Cassidy, I–I’m like them. Like those biolems. Only different, more advanced. I’m pretty much a real person. I mean my brain is, my mind is, my personality… my self is real. My dad…he–he had a wife and a daughter, a little girl. But they got caught in a Collision Point. His wife was killed and his daughter, she was just a toddler, was hurt bad. Catastrophically bad. He built her a new body, but it was taking too long. Back then, it took a lot longer. He was still new to all of it. It was taking longer than she had, so he had to try to copy her mind, her personality, and hold it somewhere until he had the new body ready. That’s when he came up with the orbs. He had the idea of copying minds over to them, but he had to test it first. I was the test, the first prototype when he tried to copy his daughter’s mind. It–I wasn’t a perfect copy. But I wasn’t supposed to be. I was just his first attempt while he ironed out the wrinkles. Then he was going to copy her full brain. But… but she died before he could. She died, and all he had was me, the incomplete copy. He filled in the blanks as much as he could with data from other brains he copied, but even then I was never going to be the real thing. I was just based on his daughter.
“The point is, he copied most of his real daughter’s brain over to create me. Then she died, and he didn’t–I think he never got over the fact that I wasn’t a perfect copy. I was just what he was left with. I was the closest thing he had to his real daughter, but I wasn’t close enough for him. He never forgave me for not being his real daughter. But he had to use me or have nothing, so he uploaded me into the body he made for his daughter. It was based on her DNA, so I’d grow up looking the same way she would, and… and you think I’m a freak now, don’t you?”
I was staring at her. Because that was a lot to take in. Seriously, what the fuck. Her dad lost his wife and was about to lose his daughter, so he built a new body to transfer her into, but she died before he could finish, so he had to use the prototype mind transfer that wasn’t a perfect copy of her brain and put that in what was supposed to be his real daughter’s new body? And now Paige–the girl I knew as Paige, she was actually a… a… I… What the fuck.
Swallowing, I shook my head. “Paige, trust me, I don’t think you’re a freak. I don’t–never mind. Just do that thing you said. Plug in directly.”
“But if I do that,” she insisted, “it’ll mean I’m completely shut down out here. I couldn’t do that before because those biolems would just come in while I was helpless and… and stop me.”
Meeting her gaze, I quietly replied, “But you can do it now. I’m here. I’m right here, Paige. I won’t let them stop you. I won’t let them hurt you. Trust me.”
Paige, for a moment, looked completely vulnerable and afraid. Then she straightened a bit, giving me a short nod. “I do. I trust you, Cassidy. But… but be careful. Please be careful. And remember what I said, they won’t stop unless you break them completely.”
“I remember,” I murmured. “Paige, we can do this. You can do this. Plug in, shut this place down. I’ll keep you safe. I swear. I won’t let them stop you and I won’t let them hurt you.”
With one more nod, Paige turned back to the console. Her hand reached out, pressing against the keypad. I saw a few little wires emerge from her fingertips, snaking their way through the keypad and into the console itself. A second later, her eyes went dull. It was hard to explain, except that I could tell she wasn’t seeing anything out here. She had loaded herself into the system.
A second later, I heard lots of running footsteps, even as the big vault door began to swing itself open to allow the incoming biolems entrance.
Okay. They were coming, and Paige was completely offline. I had to keep her safe long enough for the girl to shut this place down. She was completely helpless, and from the sound of those running footsteps, we were about to be attacked by a small army. It was up to me to give Paige the time she needed to finish this.
I turned to the opening door and set myself to welcome them.