Summus Proelium

Patreon Snippets 20 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 20th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Murphy and Roald

“What do you think she’s like?” Roald asked Murphy as the two of them trotted up the last short distance to the pawn shop that Paintball had directed them to before taking off to deal with those Easy Eight people. “I mean, if she’s working with Paintball, she must be pretty cool, right?” 

Shrugging, Murphy looked up at the sign above the door as they approached. “Wren’s Nest. Looks like this is the place. So I guess we’re about to find out if she’s cool, or just some boring old rich chick who likes to build things.” She made a face then as a shudder ran through her. The two moved away from the front door to head around the back the way Paintball had said they should. “God, I hope she doesn’t smell funny. I’m not sure how much I can work for some old chick if she smells funny.”  

“It’s a real job,” Roald reminded her. “Paintball, he… he gave us a chance. He’s giving us a chance. C’mon, Murph. We can work for someone who smells funny, just get that chapstick stuff that smells really good and put it under your nose. Just remember, we’re not working for some smelly old woman, we’re working for a superhero.” Belatedly, he added, “Um, and don’t tell her she smells funny, okay? Even if she does. Cuz–” 

“That was one time, Roo!” Murphy shot back, holding up a finger. “One time. And that woman smelled like she walked through the perfume aisle at the store and dumped every single bottle they had on herself. There was a little girl on that bus who was crying because of that smell. She couldn’t breathe. Nobody could breathe. That woman was a danger to everyone. I’m pretty sure the driver was practically blind from the fumes! I did everyone a favor.” 

Snorting, Roald nodded slowly before pointing out, “Sure, right. It was bad. I’m just pretty sure there was a better way to handle it than dumping your water bottle out over her and asking if she was aware that chemical weapons are a war crime.”  

With an audible snicker, Murphy lifted her chin. “Hey, it got the point across, didn’t it? She got off the bus at the next stop. And I’m pretty sure she took it easy on the perfume after that. I really did a service to everyone she ever meets in the future. Sometimes you have to go with the direct approach. Tough love.” As she said that, they had reached the back door, and the girl put a hand out to ring the buzzer there. 

“Yeah, well,” Roald replied, “at least you don’t have a water bottle this time.” 

Spinning on him at that, Murphy pointed. “That’s why you wouldn’t let me stop to get a drink, you–”

She was interrupted then, as the door abruptly swung open to reveal a six-foot tall, roughly fifty-year-old man with dark slicked back hair and a pronounced potbelly that was at odds with the rest of his quite thin body. “You know, if you kids are trying to play Ding Dong Ditch, you forgot the ditch part.” When he spoke, the two could smell cigarettes. 

“Oh God,” Murphy managed, “are you Wren? I swear, he said she, right?” She looked to Roald. 

Squinting at them, the man grunted after a second. “Hold up, you’re those kids Paintball was gonna bring over.” He leaned out the doorway then, looking both ways before turning his attention back to them. “So, where is he?” 

“Uhh… he had to go fight some bad guys,” Roald hesitantly replied. “Easy Eights, they were driving by in a truck and um, and it looked like something bad was about to happen. So he sent us here, uhh, Mr. Wren, sir.” 

“What?” the man blinked that way, then laughed. “Hell naw. Name’s Fred, not Wren. C’mon, I’ll introduce you.” He stepped back then, holding the door as he waited for them to enter. 

For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked at one another, silently communicating. Finally, they shrugged and stepped in before looking around. Murphy gave a low whistle. “Wow. This place looks awesome. Look at all the shit you’ve got around here. Holy crap, is that a real record player? Like, that thing’s real and not just some fake with an MP3 player built into it or something, right?” She was already moving that way to squint at the thing on the shelf. 

“Uh huh!” A new voice piped up from right in front of Murphy, as a small blonde girl popped into view from where she had been bent down behind the shelf. She had an armful of random objects that she’d clearly just picked up. 

Murphy, of course, yelped and stumbled backward while cursing. “Shit, shit, fuck, what, what?” 

“Sorry!” the younger girl blurted before turning to carefully put the stuff she had collected into a nearby box. “You just sounded really excited about the record player. It’s a Pioneer PL-55X. Classic.” 

Roald, who had come up to Murphy’s side, blinked at the kid. “Oh, uhh, hey. That’s cool. So, is this your… mom’s shop? Your grandmother’s?” 

“Well,” the girl frowned thoughtfully. “It was my dad’s, but… but my parents died.” She went quiet then, before shaking off those feelings. “Now it’s mine.” 

“Yours?” Murphy managed a bit weakly, as the truth began to dawn on both of them. 

“Oh! I’m dumb. Sorry, hi.” With that, the younger girl extended her hand with a bright smile. “I’m Wren!” 

That, of course, left the two teenagers staring at her, then at each other, then back at her again. Roald was the first to find his voice. “Wren the… second, right? You live here with your… grandmother and…” He looked back to Fred. “And him.” 

“That’s Uncle Fred,” Wren informed them. “And nope, it’s just us. Me and Uncle Fred. We help Paintball! And now you get to help us help Paintball. Isn’t that great?” 

In a dull, flat voice, Murphy agreed, “Totally fantastic. He just uhh, he didn’t exactly mention that…” 

“He didn’t tell them you were a kid,” Fred grunted from where he was standing by the door. The man sounded amused by the whole situation. “Probably wanted to see their faces or something. His loss.” 

“So–so wait, wait.” Murphy was clearly still reeling from the whole thing. “This is real? Like, really real? It’s not a joke? You–you’re the Tech-Touched Paintball wants us to help around this place?” 

Scrunching up her face a bit, Wren hesitantly asked, “Is… is something wrong?” 

Once more, the two teenagers exchanged looks before turning back to her. Roald shook his head. “You know what? Nope. Nothing’s wrong. We’re good. You’re like, this really cool Tech-Touched, right? You can really build things?” 

“Can we see some of it?” Murphy put in then, her eagerness totally eclipsing the uncertainty she felt about apparently working for a child. 

The worried, uncertain look on Wren’s face faded quickly, and she brightened. “Sure! C’mon, I’ve got some really great stuff.

“If you think the record player’s cool, wait till you see the machine that makes people really, really slow. Or the teleporter, or–” Abruptly, she hit something on her sleeve, and a pair of dragonfly-like wings sprang out, as she lifted off the ground. “Or these!” 

“You know what, Roald?” Murphy managed, staring up at the hovering, giggling girl, “I don’t care if she’s a kid, a toddler, or an old lady. Even one that smelled. 

“This is gonna be an awesome job.” 

********

Peyton

“Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What’s up with you? What? Whaaaat? Are you serious? Fell-Touched? Like, real bad guys? What? No, no, I wasn’t there. Nope, I was at McDonalds. I was walking home. I was at the bus stop. I was grabbing a sandwich from the store. I was behind the mall buying a bagful of drugs to sell at school. You should see the profit margin on that shit.” 

As she walked across the back parking lot behind the apartment building where she lived, Peyton Favors slowed, grimacing. “Yeah, probably not that last one.” Opening her cupped hands where the assortment of colored marbles quivered and pulsed excitedly, she asked, “What do you guys think? Which excuse is Mom gonna buy?” 

The marbles floated up off her hand, spinning around in circles rapidly before bouncing off each other. Which wasn’t exactly helpful for making up the right thing to say, even if it was cute. Plus, they were going to attract attention. So Peyton quickly pulled them back and pushed the marbles into her pockets. “Just be quiet for a little bit, okay? I can’t explain you to Mom. She just… she wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t understand any of this.” Muttering that last bit to herself, the girl took a deep breath and then jogged across the parking lot. “Time to face the music.” 

She still hadn’t settled on exactly which excuse to use by the time she had gone in the back entrance and used the elevator to reach the ninth floor, where the apartment she and her mother lived in actually was. There, she headed down the hall, and was just about to use her key to unlock the apartment itself when the door suddenly swung open. 

Automatically, Peyton began to launch into her recited speech. “Hey, Mom. Yeah, I’m good. What–” 

If her mother noticed that the girl had accidentally started responding to questions she hadn’t even been asked yet, she didn’t show it at all. Instead, the short, red-haired (just like her daughter) and almost abnormally skinny woman grabbed Peyton by both arms and pulled her into the living room, then hugged her so tight the girl thought she might’ve cracked a rib. “Oh my God, you’re home! I was just talking to the police, they told me you weren’t one of the hostages down there and I told them how fucking incompetent they were and–” 

“Mom! Mom, what–” Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for what was coming while her mother was holding her so tight, Peyton managed to extricate herself. “What are you talking about? You called the cops because I was a little late? What hostages? What? Mom, what happened? What did you say to them?” She did her best to look completely baffled and lost about the whole situation, hoping her mother wouldn’t see through it. 

Then she met her mother’s frantic gaze and had to suppress the urge to react. Oh boy, this was hard. It wasn’t like Peyton enjoyed lying to her mother. As much as she might have bristled against the woman’s overprotectiveness lately, she really did love her. Seriously, it had been the two of them basically on their own for as long as she could remember. Lying to her mother right now was hard. But she knew what would happen if she didn’t. Her mom would overreact. She would try to stop her from doing anything dangerous. After Peyton’s dad left, they just… she kind of lost her mind at the thought of losing her daughter too. 

Peyton understood that. She really, truly did. But she couldn’t let that stop her. She had these marbles, these powers, for a reason. She had to use them to help people. Someday, she would be able to explain it to her mother, once she proved that she was a real hero. She would establish herself–her Touched self, as a bonafide, genuine hero. Then she would show her mother who she really was. Once her mother saw what she could do, how she could help people… maybe she would understand? 

Pushing all those thoughts down, she focused on looking as confused as possible while her mother went on about the attack at the shopping center. Through it all, Peyton continued to insist that she hadn’t been there, that she went earlier but had been gone by the time any of that went on. She claimed she was eating with a few people from school that she’d run into. Thankfully, any doubts her mother might’ve had were forced to contend with the fact that Peyton was right there in front of her and that the cops had told her she wasn’t with the group of hostages. 

Of course, Peyton had to explain why she hadn’t answered any calls or texts from her mother. Thankfully, she had an excuse ready for that. Namely, her phone was dead. Mostly thanks to the special app she had downloaded and run to make sure it had been completely drained by the time she got home, but still.

Finally convinced that her daughter was fine after all, and had never been in any actual danger, Suzanne Favors gave a long sigh before looking over to her own phone. “Okay, I guess I’ve got a police lieutenant to apologize to. Let me get that done and then I’ll make you some–oh, you’re not hungry.” 

Peyton started to object that she was starving, only to catch herself. Fuck. She’d said that she was eating with those people from school. Right, damn it. She was going to have to grab some food later. Eating now would just make her mother suspicious again. “Yeah,” she murmured, “couldn’t eat another bite. I uhh, I’m gonna go to my room.” 

Her mom hugged her once more with a sigh of relief, before Peyton headed off with a sigh of her own. But hers was not one of relief. She heard her mother starting to apologize on the phone, hesitating before looking over her shoulder to see the woman standing with her back to her. For a moment, Peyton just stood there, staring for a moment while listening to that. Her voice, when she spoke, was a barely audible whisper. “Sorry, Mom.” 

Yeah, it was probably a good thing she wasn’t trying to eat anything right now. 

She probably wouldn’t be able to keep it down anyway. 

**********

Cavalcade

Technically, the woman who drove her Range Rover through the gates of the storage facility somewhere in the middle of Detroit, a mile or so away from downtown, was known to the world at large as Cavalcade. But no one would have recognized her now. Her hair in that public identity as a Sell-Touched was long, flowing, and black. The woman who was parking her vehicle near the building that served as the main office had short blonde hair styled in a pixie cut. She also wore thick-rimmed glasses. And yes, she was aware that she was leaning into that trope, but the truth was she actually needed them. The goggles she wore in costume weren’t just for show, after all. They had prescription lenses. 

In addition to the different hair and the glasses, she wore a pair of slightly loose jeans and a somewhat too-large shirt and jacket that helped to play down and conceal rather than emphasize her voluptuous figure. The opposite of her Touched-Self’s red bodysuit. 

No, it was quite clear from both a glance and further inspection that this woman and the mercenary known as Cavalcade were very different. By design, of course. Being someone who worked for the highest bidder on either side of the legal line tended to also make you enemies on both sides of that line. Even when you lived by your own code, kept things professional, and refused to either rat out criminals who employed you or work with total psychopaths like the Scions, there were still those who would love to make life hell for a poor mercenary who was just trying to get along. 

Okay, ‘poor’ was a very bad descriptor for her in almost every way. But still. 

Stepping out of the Range Rover before crossing the short distance to the main office on a pair of simple, functional tennis shoes, the much-less outrageous and attention-getting woman tugged open the door before poking her head in. “Morning!” she called toward the desk that took up about half of the room in this small office. 

“Miss Mclean?” the dark-haired young woman, practically a kid really (she was still in college, after all) rose from the seat. “Is everything okay?” 

Brianna Mclean. That was what people (generally) knew her as whenever she wasn’t being Cavalcade. It wasn’t the name she had been born with, of course. She’d left that behind at least two identities ago. But Brianna Mclean worked. 

“Oh, absotively!” Brianna confirmed with a smile, still standing in the doorway. “I just wanted to let you know I got your request for next week off, and you go right ahead. We’ll get people to cover your shifts, you focus on studying for that test, Jessie.” 

Brightening, Jessie thanked her, and Brianna gave the girl a quick thumbs up before stepping out again. There, she had done her job as the owner of this place. Time for a little fun. 

She left her vehicle where it was. It wouldn’t surprise anyone, since her apartment was actually connected to the lot itself. She often left her vehicle at random places on the property. 

However, rather than walk toward that small building, barely a stone’s throw away from the door into the main office, Brianna turned the opposite way and began to stroll through the parking lot, past dozens of storage sheds where random people kept their random junk. 

Walking to a specific storage unit, Brianna hummed to herself while reaching out to open the nearby keypad. Thumbing in the code, she waited until it gave a confirming beep, then looked straight at the tiny lens on top, waiting for it to scan her face. As it did, there was one more beep, followed by a ding. The ding was from the woman’s phone in her pocket, where she would have just gotten an alert that the door had been accessed. Even if someone managed to copy her face and get her code (and know to come here in the first place), she would get the alert that they were there. 

Taking the phone from her pocket, Brianna entered the six digit code there that would prevent the place she was about to enter from engaging security measures. Then she reached down, hauled the door up, stepped inside, and let the door roll back down behind her. 

The storage room looked like any other, on the surface. There were boxes stacked up that had various clothes and books, a pair of skis, a rundown chair, and some paintings in the corner that weren’t worth more than twenty to thirty bucks a piece. Walking around all that, Brianna moved to the back corner of the room. Taking her phone out, she pressed a button, and, with a low grinding noise, a small section of the floor there slid away to reveal a set of stairs leading down. 

She descended, letting the hidden trapdoor slide shut behind her before continuing on to emerge into what turned out to be an enormous penthouse condo that took up a large portion of the underground area beneath the storage facility lot. The place would have been right at home functioning as the imperial suite in a five star hotel. 

This was Brianna’s real home. She spent enough time in her supposed apartment at the edge of the lot to make it look as though she lived there, and it was where her official residence was. But this was where her money went. This was where she relaxed. She had everything she needed here, far from prying eyes and legal entanglements. 

With a smile, the woman glanced around the luxurious living room that her hidden tunnel opened up into. Her gaze passed over the ‘windows’ along the opposite wall, which were actually video screens showing a view of the skyline over Tokyo at the moment. 

“Lana,” she addressed her personal assistant computer. “Dim the lights to half, run a hot bath in the master whirlpool, and put last night’s Pistons game on the screen in there, starting from the second quarter when I had to leave.” 

“Yes, Brianna,” came the soft response. 

As the lights dimmed and she heard the distant sound of basketball and running water, Brianna sighed in appreciation. Then she walked that way, stripping down as she went. 

Even the Evans couldn’t have it much better than this. 

*********

The following takes place a short time in the future from the current regular chapters

Right, I couldn’t avoid it anymore without drawing attention. Even though I was still dealing with everything that happened (and was still happening) with Paige, there was something important I had to do. Okay, there are a lot of things I had to do, but this one jumped to the top of the list. I had to go to court. Well, I had to go to the courthouse and give my depositions for everything official that had happened since I started this whole Star-Touched thing. Every bad guy that got arrested because of me, every official police case I had any involvement in, all of that. 

First, I’d gone through that same unremarkable building a block away from the courthouse That-A-Way had directed me to so I could turn in those papers about holding Ashton prisoner before. I’d even been escorted through to the tunnel that led to the courthouse itself by my old pal, Officer Metts. 

And now, here I was, sitting in one of the so-called deposition rooms. As Flea had promised, the room consisted of a long table. The judge sat at one end, the court stenographer at the other end. I sat in the middle on one side, while a couple empty chairs sat opposite me, and one just a little bit down from where I was sitting. 

The judge, an old, entirely bald black man with the last name of Pamure, gently asked, “Do you know how this is supposed to work?” 

Swallowing back the nerves that I felt, I nodded. “Those folders next to you are all the cases that I have something to do with. You’ll go through each case one at a time, call in the lawyers for both sides. The defendant lawyer sits over there, the prosecuting attorney sits over here on this side. They each get to ask questions about everything in the case, just like they would in court. The stuff I say gets recorded by her, and by that.” I nodded toward the stenographer, then to the camera up in the corner of the room. We do that for every case, then move on.” 

Judge Pamure confirmed, “Yes, pretty much. We also like to move these things along as quickly as possible, because there’s a lot to go through every month. You, it’s been more than a month, but we let newbies slide a little bit. Not like the system doesn’t have enough to deal with anyway.” He cleared his throat then. “Anyway, that’s the gist. You don’t have to answer any questions about your identity, your personal life, anything you feel uncomfortable with. We’ll zip through the questions from both sides, you just tell the truth about what happened–you’ll be sworn in before we start, and we’ll all get out of here. Okay, you’ll get out of here. I’ll move to the next Touched in line. So, you ready?” 

After I confirmed that I was, the judge had the first pair of lawyers brought in by the bailiff–who happened to be the same man who subsequently had me put my hand on a copy of the state constitution and swear to tell the truth. I did, of course, and everyone settled in for the first set of questions, from the prosecuting attorney. 

Ashton. This was all about Ashton. I should’ve figured they’d start with this one. Bit by bit, question by question, I established everything safe for them to know about what had happened, why we held him prisoner for a short time, what we’d done to get back the vials that he had stolen and why, and so on. 

Ashton’s lawyer, of course, had her own questions. But honestly, she didn’t seem all that invested. Oh, she did her job. She pushed back on a few things I said, just enough for the judge to calmly tell her to back off at least once. But she didn’t really seem completely devoted. Probably because she was a public defender. She did her job well enough to be counted, but Ashton wasn’t an important case to her. He was just a number. I also had the feeling that some of those questions had come from Ashton himself, thinking he was going to trip me up. A few I saw her cross off with a pen without even reading them. So those ones must’ve been real doozies. 

Eventually, it was done. Both lawyers said they had no more questions. But instead of leaving, they both shuffled some papers around, and suddenly we were talking about a different case, a random mugging I’d stopped weeks back. It took me a bit by surprise before I recovered. Right, of course the same lawyers would work different cases. They were going to run through every case that involved the same attorney(s) while they were already here. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. But at least I only had to do it once a month. So, I pushed my thoughts away from worrying about that whole… Paige thing and focused on answering questions. 

If nothing else, trying to answer all these questions without saying the wrong thing was a pretty good distraction from everything else going on in my life.

Previous Chapter

Interlude 16B – Conservators (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – For anyone who might have missed it due to me forgetting to mention, the non-canon for Summus Proelium was posted last weekend right here

At one point, an enormous warehouse had taken up an entire block of Gratiot Avenue. The original, smaller version had stood for many years before Touched had become a thing. Once the city began to be revived, the warehouse had been almost entirely rebuilt and expanded to take up much more room. Just another in a very long list of ways that Detroit had been reborn. 

And now it was gone. The entire place had been burnt almost entirely to the ground. There was barely anything left, save for a few pieces of wall, some of the foundation, and scattered rubble. 

In a way, that perfectly fit with the whole comparison to the city being reborn thanks to Touched. Because they did a lot of damage too. The warehouse was reborn, expanded, and improved. But in the end, it was also destroyed. The very thing that gave it new life ended up taking that same life, and now there was almost nothing left. It had been rundown before, but at least it existed. Now, after a relatively brief burst of renewal, it was all-but completely gone. 

The woman known to the public as Flea truly hoped that the analogy with Detroit itself wouldn’t go that far. And yet, as she stood on the sidewalk surveying the broken remnants of the demolished building, she couldn’t help but compare it to the gang war that only seemed to be getting worse. 

“There a reason Smithy doesn’t have to play detective today?” 

The voice that interrupted Flea’s thoughts belonged to Dynamic. She was a speedster of unlimited stamina who was capable of draining other people’s powers by running near them, then using that power to create energy constructs with additional elements related to the powers she had drained. And that unlimited stamina thing extended as far as never needing to sleep. It truly was a bottomless well of energy.  Which was one of the main reasons Flea and Dynamic worked so well together. The fact that Flea was capable of draining stamina from people to add to her own, combined with the fact that Dynamic had an unlimited amount of it, meant that any time the Detroit Conservators’ second-in-command needed a little hit of energy to keep going, she could always take some from the speedster. They had an arrangement for that. 

“Silversmith had prior commitments.” As she gave that simple, pat answer, Flea glanced over toward the younger woman. At that moment, she couldn’t help but compare their appearances. Her own costume consisted of a black Tech-Touched chainmail-like top, simple blue pants that were loose on her legs and gave her very free range of motion, and a helmet that was essentially that of a samurai, with mandible-protrusions to fit with her theme. A light blue cloak with gold trim hung from her shoulders, and she carried a katana across her back along with two short swords attached to her hips. 

Dynamic, on the other hand, looked very different. Her entire body was encased in gem-like purple armor that was so smooth and featureless she appeared to be a glass statue when standing still. The look was completed by the fact that the helmet she wore left only the vague impression of facial features, as if they had been chiseled into the amethyst gemstone the armor appeared to be made out of. In motion, Dynamic was incredibly fast and agile. But when she wasn’t moving, an onlooker could be excused for believing that some incredibly talented artist had sculpted her. 

“Prior commitments, huh?” Dynamic made a noise in the back of her throat that made her opinion of that clear. It was… odd. While the man was a clear champion for the city, who had risked his life so many times and was loved and trusted basically above all else by basically everyone of note, for some reason Dynamic had never liked him. Oh, she followed his orders and did everything she was supposed to. She worked with the team, and he was the leader of the team. She didn’t argue with him… much. And never in battle. But she never liked him. It was a fact she kept mostly quiet about to everyone except Flea. Yet when the two of them were alone, she made no secret of her dislike for the man. 

Then again, Dynamic generally liked to be contrary anyway. She was one of a quickly growing number of people pushing to have the name Conservator changed. Apparently they wanted to rename the organization Corona (as in the circles of glowing light seen around the sun or stars for Star-Touched) and call members of the group Coroknights. The movement had been gaining traction in recent weeks when several members of the senate had expressed interest.  

“Yes,” Flea replied simply, “prior commitments. He has his own life he has to take care of. A… family, I think.” That was another odd thing, this time about Silversmith himself. And perhaps a big reason for Dynamic’s dislike. The rest of the Detroit Conservators had all unmasked to one another. They knew each other’s real names, their families, everything. Which certainly wasn’t required. Anyone on the team was allowed to keep their identity secret if they chose to. But the fact that their leader was the only one who exercised that right was, perhaps, a little strange. He, however, simply said that he had people he loved who had to be protected and that as long as everyone knew he never let even his own teammates know his identity, no one would try to get at those loved ones through that team.

For a moment, the two women looked at each other. Flea imagined she could see Dynamic’s slightly younger (twenty-four compared to her own twenty-eight) Hispanic face through that violet gem-like helmet, staring pointedly at her, eyes silently yet clearly insisting that their team leader was just as much of a dick as she had always been convinced he was. 

However, before either of them could speak again, the sound of footsteps approaching made them turn to see the rest of the team (sans Silversmith, of course) approaching. Three figures, all male. They came from the van that they had clearly just arrived in and parked across the street. 

“You guys found anything important yet?” Kriegspiel asked. He was the oldest member of the team. Older than Silversmith even, Flea was pretty sure. The man had turned fifty a month earlier, though he was in pretty good shape for that. Which was helped by his Touched ability. It allowed him to enhance the strength, power, speed and so forth of everyone in an area he considered an ally, as well as allowing them all to communicate with one another mentally and even see through each other’s eyes or share what they were seeing. He always used his power on himself to even greater effect than others, meaning that though just over fifty, he had the physical attributes of someone half his age in top condition. For ten minutes at a time (one minute less for each additional person he was aiding beyond himself), he could push his power and raise that boost to about double what a normal human was capable of. He was also a fairly tall man at nearly six foot five, with gray-black hair worn long, to his shoulders. His costume consisted of tan body armor under a brown duster, with a black mask that covered the bottom half of his face, and a wide-brimmed sable fedora identical to that worn by Indiana Jones. He wore what appeared to be an ordinary revolver, but was actually a Touched-Tech gun, from a holster on one hip. 

“Nope.” The answer didn’t come from Flea or Dynamic. Instead, it came from the shorter man walking to Kriegspiel’s left, who happened to be the youngest member of the team at barely twenty-two. RePete (his real name wasn’t Pete, he just thought it was amusing to make people think it had to be) wore his usual costume of green camo pants, army boots, a black turtleneck, dark gloves, a green ski mask, and quite possibly half of the guns in the city. He wore a pistol on either hip, a shotgun across his back, a smaller pistol on either ankle, and another pair of small pistols holstered halfway up either arm. Those last two were holstered with one on the outside of his right arm and one on the inside of the left, their grips positioned so that he could cross his arms and yank both weapons free. 

And those were just the guns that were in plain sight. Flea was confident that he had more. 

“They just got here, same as us,” RePete continued.  

“Reap,” Dynamic flatly reminded the man while using what the team had settled on as the more serious ‘nickname’ version of his chosen moniker, “you know everyone hates it when you do that, right? We’ve made that clear?” 

“As crystal,” was the response. If he was abashed at all, the man didn’t show it. No matter how often they complained, he would still randomly use his power to, in his mind, speed along conversations. His gift was a powerful, though limited one. It allowed him to set a marker and then repeat (hence the name) the previous five seconds with everything he already knew from that time. After that, he could choose to repeat four of those seconds again, then a third time for the last three of those seconds before the marker would expire. It gave him three increasingly short-windows to change or react to something. 

Or, in this case, to answer a question someone else had answered in the original timeline.

“Hey, hey, be nice to the ladies!” Those words came from the final member of their team. And what a member he was. Walking on Kriegspiel’s right, opposite from RePete, was a wiry black man in his late thirties, just over six feet in height. His costume consisted of full padded body armor. But rather than being dark or camo-colored, the torso part of the armor was colored and patterned after a bright, loud Hawaiian shirt (he had several versions using different specific colors, this one was blue with bright palm trees). The pants part of the outfit were the usual black. Meanwhile, his identity was concealed behind a metal helmet that covered the top half of his face and almost his entire head, leaving only his mouth exposed. His eyes were covered by lenses whose color matched that of whatever Hawaiian pattern he was wearing at any given time. 

He was, in short, not what people pictured if they knew that his chosen name of Bokor referred to a male vodou sorcerer who created zombies. That was, however, a decent name for someone with his power, which allowed him to create zombie-like duplicates of any person he could see. The duplicates weren’t able to use any Touched powers the original had, but they were very strong and tough. Plus, they could expel a gas from their mouths that made people who breathed it in tired, weak, clumsy, and generally more likely to surrender. 

“After all,” Bokor was saying, his voice bright, “we’re a team here, yeah? To be a good team, we make each other comfortable, not annoy each other. Hey, who wants to hear a joke?” 

Though no one on the team answered him, Bokor nodded toward a figure who had just appeared next to RePete. A ‘zombie’ duplicate of him who stood with his arm raised. “Why thank you, ReRePete,” Bokor spoke with a broad smile at his own humor. Then, he quickly asked, “How did the man build his house out of snow? Iglood it!” As soon as the words left his mouth, he was already guffawing, pounding a fist against his own chest. “My nephew told me that one!” The pride in the man’s voice made it clear just how he felt about the joke, and about his nephew in general. 

Chuckling despite herself, though mostly out of admiration for how much Bokor cared about and doted on his sister’s little boy, Flea gestured. “We need to get busy. Spread out, look for anything that might give us an idea of who or what took down this building. Anything the regular searchers might have overlooked or just missed.” 

So, that was exactly what they did. Each of them began picking through piles of ashes and debris. There was, of course, very little to find. Whoever had burned this building down had done a very thorough job. They had clearly wanted to be certain that it would be impossible, or near to it, to find anything that explained what this place had really been, or who had been behind it. The original inspectors had found nothing useful. That was why the Conservators had been called in to begin with, out of the hope that something would stand out to them based on their own experiences. Or that one of their gifts would be useful somehow. It was a long shot, but then, they didn’t exactly have much else. The authorities were torn between being very confused about why this place had been burned so thoroughly, and not… particularly caring that much because it was just a warehouse with no owner stepping forward to claim damages. The biggest reason for the investigation was due to just how thoroughly the place had been destroyed. Ironically, whoever had taken such pains to ensure that there would be nothing for investigators to find had actually drawn more investigators than there would’ve been otherwise. 

In any case, now it was time to find out just what there was to find around here. 

******

Nothing. There had been nothing to find… in the remains of the warehouse. Fortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the area around the warehouse. The authorities had already asked nearby businesses for access to security footage, of course, to no avail. However, while doing a run around the neighborhood, Dynamic had spotted something curious. A single, almost entirely-hidden camera pointed in the direction of where the warehouse had been. The camera was small, one of those that was meant to be set up above a garage or door at home for personal security. It had been secured to the wall of a building across the street, hidden behind a dumpster in a way that ensured it was almost impossible to spot. The camera itself had sent its footage across a wi-fi signal to a device attached to the bottom of the dumpster itself, which would in turn broadcast that footage to a receiver far away. 

It had taken some time, almost two hours, to get their tech people to track that signal to its source. Which was almost a miracle in and of itself, because according to the tech guys, the receiver was set up so that whoever was on the other end should have been able to shut it down the second they started tracking it. The thing had sent an alarm that way before they could stop it. Yet, the connection was never turned off. Apparently the person wasn’t paying attention to their alarm for whatever reason. The alarm they had specifically set up to warn them about someone tracking the signal, and yet they weren’t doing anything to stop that very thing? 

Regardless, the tech guys found the source. Which was what led the five Conservator members to this spot out in the middle of nowhere, an hour and a half from Detroit itself. Specifically, a literal cabin in the woods near Lake Victoria. 

They’d driven out here in a van, despite Dynamic insisting she should run ahead. Mostly because she got bored sitting still in a vehicle. Being capable of running hundreds of miles per hour, and having unlimited stamina, Dynamic really didn’t see the point of spending time in vehicles. Not knowing what might be out there, Flea had refused. She wanted everyone together, just in case they were about to walk into something bad. Whoever had gone through the trouble of burning down the warehouse had wanted to be damn sure nothing was ever found of it. And yet, they didn’t bother to shut down the signal from their hidden security camera after it was traced? Something strange was going on, and Flea didn’t trust any of it. Part of her wished Silversmith was here, whatever Dynamic’s reservations.

The cabin itself was a couple of miles up a gravel road once they had passed through a metal security gate. Or what had once been a gate. Something had smashed into it somewhat recently with enough force to slam the thing open permanently. That had led to even more confusion about what was going on here. Was this whole situation some kind of fight between two mysterious parties that no one knew about? Was it possible that the person who burned down the warehouse wasn’t the same person who owned or operated it? That had been discounted by the authorities simply because of how much work and set-up burning that place down so completely would have required. It wasn’t a simple arson fire. Someone would have had to be inside for an extended time, possibly weeks, to ensure everything was set properly for it to be so thoroughly destroyed so quickly. 

Hopefully, they would find some answers inside this small cabin. At least, that was what Flea told herself as the five of them stood together about twenty feet from the porch, eyes carefully scanning for anything out of the ordinary. They had parked the van so that the headlights illuminated the front door, and thus far had seen nothing suspicious. On the other hand, they hadn’t seen anything not suspicious either. They’d seen nothing, heard nothing. The cabin appeared to be empty. Which would go a long way toward explaining why nobody had responded to the alarm the camera had sent when they started tracing the signal, but still. 

“Hey, Flea,” Dynamic called over to her from the far end of their assembled line, “your family’s pretty rich, how many cabins did you grow up with?” 

“Just in the woods like this, or on the beach too?” Flea retorted. “Three and five respectively. Oh, six if you count the villa in Italy. That’s sort of a cabin. A little bit. Anyway, doesn’t really matter. I haven’t been to any of them since… you know.” They all knew. Her father had been angry with Flea (or rather, Irelyn) for choosing to go from the Minority to the Conservators rather than signing up to lead his own corporate security team. So angry, in fact, that he, and the rest of her family, had barely spoken to her since she’d done it almost ten years earlier. There was the occasional hurried e-mail, text, or christmas letter from her mom, and a bit more than that from her younger sister. But for the most part, they followed the family patriarch’s orders to leave the family traitor out in the cold. 

It had been a hard choice, but Irelyn wouldn’t change it if she could. She was overall happier this way, even if it had meant walking away from her family and her easy, privileged life. 

“We doing this?” Bokor finally asked, once the five had taken in the view for long enough. 

“Yeah,” Flea confirmed. “Go for it.” 

With a nod, the man gestured. Immediately, ‘zombie’ duplicates of  the five of them appeared and began to walk toward the cabin. Flea and the others weren’t going to take any chances about this place being booby-trapped, just in case. In fact, they took a few extra steps back closer to the van, and watched as their clone-like selves approached the door.

“And,” Kriegspiel announced, “we’re live.” 

With that, Flea was abruptly able to, with a small bit of focus, see through the eyes of her zombie duplicate rather than through her own. It had been a strange thing to get used to at first, but she had plenty of experience by now. Around her, the others would be linked to their own copies, as Kriegspiel used his power to connect each of them with the zombies that Bokor created. He also linked them with their other selves telepathically, allowing them to send messages. Normally this would simply be communication, but since Bokor had ordered the zombies to obey them, Flea and the others could essentially steer and control their duplicates through that mental connection. It was one example of how well Bokor and Kriegspiel worked together. Now if only the two of them would figure out the feelings they had for each other before she had to strangle them both. While Bokor had been an out-and-proud pansexual man since he was a teenager, Kriegspiel had grown up over a decade earlier and had more problems. He had been self-closeted through twenty years of an unhappy marriage before finally separating, and was only beginning to explore the fact that he was gay. 

The two of them really were great together, in personality and the way they could use their powers, but it wasn’t Flea’s place to point that out. No matter how much she wanted to.  

Instead, she turned her attention back fully to what her duplicate was seeing as they all worked their way through the cabin. Whoever had been living and working out here had something to do with that warehouse. Whether they were responsible for burning it down or not, they clearly knew something. Which meant the Conservators needed to talk to them. 

“Found something,” RePete finally announced, once they had been searching the cabin fruitlessly for about ten minutes. 

It was strange to hear that voice coming from just a couple feet to her left where the real RePete was standing, yet have to walk her zombie duplicate all the way through the cabin to where his was. But soon, Flea and the others had done just that, until all of their duplicate selves were standing together in what turned out to be the bathroom. 

“Couple envelopes fell behind the toilet,” RePete informed them, holding them up. “Whatever was inside is long gone, but we’ve got a name, at least.

“So who exactly is Robert Parson?” 

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Interlude 16A – Spartans (Summus Proelium)

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Despite a heavily clouded sky in the middle of a dark night, most of the streets of Detroit were brightly illuminated by various artificial lights. While not nearly as busy as a certain other American city that had full claim to the title of never sleeping, Detroit over the past twenty years had become well-known in its own way for remaining quite active at all times of the day. Many parts of the city never really stopped moving, the streets there always having some level of traffic. 

One such eternally-busy thoroughfare was known as Moores. It was a long, winding road that had been one of the first new additions a couple of decades earlier when the city began to expand. It had quickly become the main connection to at least half a dozen important manufacturing plants that had sprung up over the years once the previously abandoned automotive assembly plants were all taken up and put back to use. Moores linked a few of the more residential parts of the city with the new secondary industrial center, allowing thousands of workers every day to get to work. Accordingly, dozens of fast food, car repair, clothing, grocery and more shops had been built up along either side of it. Everything that those employees could possibly need at any point, visible along their drive to and from work in order to ensure that particular shop would spring into their mind anytime they needed that particular service. 

“Skin-Head, what do you see?” The terse question came from a woman crouched behind a half-broken wall in the middle of an alley somewhere around the middle of Moores. She wore dark blue and white camo, with a matching tactical combat helmet that had a thick, interwoven mesh covering any formerly exposed parts of her face, and bright blue lenses over her eyes. Mika Holt, also known as Brumal, leader of the state-level Star-Touched team called the Spartans. Unlike the Federal-level Conservators, the Spartans only held authority within the specific states they were assigned to (Michigan, in this case), and could not legally operate outside those borders. They could participate in Collision Points that took place in other states if they were able to get there in time, at least. But they couldn’t legally pursue their normal Star-Touched duties outside of their home state. That was the main difference between Spartans and Conservators. Or whatever each separate team called themselves. Spartans and Conservators were the default names, but some teams went with different titles depending on the area. 

At this particular moment, that didn’t exactly matter, considering Detroit was well within the Spartans’ jurisdiction.  Really, it was the center of their operation. There was more than enough happening here in the city to keep them plenty busy without worrying about traveling to other parts of the state where they did have authority, let alone going any further than that. No, Detroit kept them plenty busy all by itself. Especially right now, with the whole gang war situation that showed no signs of relenting. 

The subject of Brumal’s question was not crouched next to her behind that wall. Instead, she was speaking in the direction of a small, flickering blue-white flame on the ground nearby. Her voice carried through the flame to an identical one on the roof of the building next to her. The fire was cold rather than hot, leaving trails of ice everywhere the flames licked. When Brumal focused, she could cast not only her voice, but any of her senses through her cold-fire. 

Doing so right then allowed her to see the person she was addressing. Skin-Head, a tall, skinny, black man (he personally found his chosen moniker irreverently amusing) in his mid-thirties, wore very little in the way of costume, specifically to avoid any conflicts with his power to manipulate, extend, and harden his skin. Mostly he wore a simple metal band around his face that covered from his mouth up to his eyes, complete with hard black lenses for vision protection, a pair of black baggy shorts, and tennis shoes. The rest of his body was completely exposed. Not that it left him vulnerable at all, given his skin was constantly hard as steel (yet incredibly flexible) and could temporarily become even harder if he chose to focus on that at any point. Exposed as he was, Skin-Head was one of the two safest members of the Spartans in any physical confrontation. 

Standing up on the roof, the man glanced toward the small flickering blue flame where he clearly knew Brumal was watching. “We’ve got nothing up here. Not yet, anyway. Unless the kid sees something?” With that, he looked over to that side, where the Minority member known as Whamline stood in his standard black and brown army camouflage costume. His face was covered by a ski mask, and he wore a pair of heavy gauntlets, which enhanced his strength and had a few other tricks within them to help supplement his own powers.

“Nope,” Whamline answered simply, his gaze still focused on the street below. “Looks quiet.” 

“Both of you keep your eyes open,” Brumal ordered before shifting her focus. Rather than seeing through the flame on that roof, she was now seeing through one across the street, behind a fast food restaurant where two other members of her team, Versed and Boulderdash, were waiting. Versed was a pale young woman in her mid-twenties, wearing dark green pants and a black long-sleeved shirt, both of which were skintight and quite suited to showing off the girl’s athletic form. She also wore black gloves and boots, with a green bandana-like mask over the top half of her face that left her blonde hair exposed in a ponytail, and a pair of dark goggles. Her powers allowed her to instantly know how to use any object as soon as she touched it, gradually growing those basic-level skills up to master-level the longer she kept hold of the object. Though she could only retain mastery of up to five objects at a time, gradually losing her skill with anything else the longer she went without touching that particular thing. 

Boulderdash, meanwhile, was one of those Touched who didn’t really need a costume, as his condition was very obvious. He couldn’t live a normal life, since he appeared to be entirely made of thick gray-black rock, with a very heavy turtle-like shell on his back. His own powers amounted to greatly enhanced strength and toughness (making him the other member of their team well-suited to a physical confrontation), along with the ability to roll himself into a ball surrounded by his shell. In that state, he was almost entirely invulnerable and could roll around at a speed of nearly a hundred and fifty miles per hour.

After checking in with those two briefly and ensuring there was nothing visible from their side of things, Brumal turned her attention to the ice-fire next to the last member of her team. This particular flame lay in the back of a moving semi-trailer truck which was making its way through Detroit at that very moment. As soon as she focused her vision through it, she could see a single figure in the back of that truck. This was her final teammate/subordinate, Trivial. The youngest member of the Detroit Spartans at barely nineteen, Trivial wore tan pants over dark brown boots, with dark purple scalemail-like body armor and a black hooded cloak. Beyond the cloak, her face was also covered by a purple metal helmet with a dark visor. Her own powers were quite extensive, yet also quite minor. She had many different abilities at an incredibly low strength. She could turn invisible, but only for a few seconds. She could teleport… a single foot at a time. She could hover… five inches off the ground. She could make things slightly warmer by staring intently at them. Her senses were very slightly increased. She could telekinetically move a single object weighing one pound or less that was within five feet. 

And so the list went on. A dozen or more quite common powers, but only very slight versions thereof. If her powers had been stronger, she could have been one of the most powerful beings on the planet. As it was, Trivial was well-named, and used her collection of minor powers quite effectively, particularly in close-combat. She had spent years using skill and versatility to compensate for a lack of all-out strength. It was that determination and hard work that had made her quite popular on her Nebraska-based Minority team. Popular enough that there had been a bit of a rush to recruit her once she graduated. In the end, Brumal had convinced the girl to come here to Detroit, where she had been for the past nine months. It was, as far as the Spartan leader was concerned, a perfect fit. The team had needed fresh blood, someone with drive to make them better. Not only did this girl do that, her assortment of minor powers allowed her to fill many different slots, even if she would never be the type of Touched who stopped an Abyssal or anything like that.  

“Trivial,” Brumal spoke through her cold flame, “street’s clear. Have you heard anything?” 

Glancing toward the flame, the youngest member of the team shook her head. “Nope, not a thing, boss. It’s been completely quiet. Haven’t heard a peep out of anybody since we started moving. Hell, I can barely hear the music the driver’s listening to. Dude’s not cranking it like most of ‘em do. Seriously, If I was any less professional, I might’ve fallen asleep back here.”

“Well, don’t do that,” Brumal instructed dryly. “Walk around a bit more if you need to. Just stay alert. The info we’ve got is good, trust me. Someone is coming after this shipment tonight, and we’re right around the spot they’re going to hit it at.”

“You got it, boss lady,” came the response. “And don’t worry, I’ve been in a lot more boring situations than this. Hell, did I ever tell you about that time I was supposed to walk all the way–”

“Save it for later, Trivial,” Brumal quickly put in. Good as the young girl was to have on the team, she was also a bit of a talker. Okay, a huge talker. She would babble on for hours if no one stopped her. And now that she had been stuck by herself in the back of a truck for so long, that urge was obviously boiling up inside her. Time to nip it in the bud before she really got going. 

After reminding the girl one more time and to keep her eyes open and be ready, Brumal returned her attention to her regular senses. Blinking away her cold-flame sight, she focused on the wall in front of her, listening to the moving cars on the street beyond. It had to be soon. Their contact had said the attack on the truck would be somewhere along this stretch of street. And she trusted that contact. Hell, she’d certainly paid enough money over the months to trust it. And yet, she’d expected to be able to see some sign of those supposed attackers setting up here long before the truck arrived. But there was nothing so far. Not a single hint of an ambush. Which wasn’t good. If they couldn’t figure out where the ambush was before it happened, the truck would be driving straight into it, and that was something she’d been trying to avoid. But if she told the driver to call it off and take a different route, there was no way they’d catch these guys. Could they still handle it if the truck was in the middle of things, or should she go ahead and play it safe, even if that meant losing this chance? And if she called off the truck, only for absolutely nothing to happen, she would look even more paranoid. As it was, the company already thought she was being overly cautious for having her whole team plus a member of the Minority waiting for what they thought was probably a hoax. 

The rise of Touched over the past couple of decades had done a lot to affect innate sexism in this sort of work, given that girl you were insulting could potentially burn a middle finger into your chest with her eyes. But it wasn’t gone entirely, and Mika was both a woman and Native American. It was still pretty easy for the fat cats at the top of these corporate ladders to dismiss her opinion or just think she was being hysterical. Which made it really tempting to just let them lose a truck or two here or there, but she refrained. After all, it wouldn’t really hurt those assholes that much. It’d hurt the normal guys.  

Damn it, what was the right call? Pull the truck off or let it keep going and risk an attack from any side when they still weren’t sure what was going on? She had two minutes to decide, if that.

One more round. She would check on everyone one last time, then decide which way to–

“Incoming!” That call came not through her fire, but over the communicators they all wore. It was from Skin-Head, up on the roof. “We’ve got three unmarked and tinted SUVs coming in fast from the north. They’re taking up every lane, forcing drivers off the road. Looks like they’ve got a couple with mounted grapples. This is it, boss, they’re gonna try to take the target off the road.”

As soon as that report came in, Brumal was already shifting her focus to a flickering flame she had left up on the edge of a different roof, pointed that way. Sure enough, she saw exactly what the man was talking about. Three very dark SUVs were driving straight toward them at high speed, taking up basically the entire road. They were even forcing oncoming traffic to veer off. The two on either side had those enormous mounted grapple hooks, clearly intended to shoot at the semi they were speeding toward. This wasn’t some minor operation, it was the real deal. 

Acting immediately, Brumal called through the flame in the truck for Trivial to have the driver stop, and to keep an eye on the road behind, just in case there was a pincer attack from that direction. Then she ordered the others to move on the SUVs, already vaulting her way over the half-broken wall in front of her and making the run out to the street beyond. A glance to the right showed her the truck just barely in view as it skidded to a stop with a loud scream of brakes protesting. Meanwhile, glancing to the left revealed the oncoming SUVs as they sped down the street straight toward her and the truck itself.  

From one side, she saw Boulderdash in his rock form, already racing ball-like along the side of the road straight toward the right-most vehicle. Meanwhile, Skin-Head and Whamline were dropping down on the one to the left from above. Just before they hit, Brumal sent a full wave of ice-flames up along the road. The cold-fire hit all three SUVs at the same time, instantly freezing the fronts of the vehicles solid and stopping them in place with a protesting squeal of metal. That single gesture was all it took to stop all three heavily armored SUVs in their tracks, which couldn’t have done wonders for the inhabitants. 

 An instant later, Boulderdash slammed full-on into the side of the truck to the left, shattering half the vehicle’s frozen front-end before transforming back to his humanoid shape in time to rip the door off and grab the driver. 

At the same time, Whamline and Skin-Head had dropped onto the hood of the left-most vehicle. The Minority kid used two of his energy coils to rip the door off the center truck, pulling the passenger out and tossing him down along the road. Meanwhile, Skin-Head had already thrown himself through the cracked windshield of the left-truck to deal with the guys in there. 

“Boss,” Trivial called through their comms, “You were right, got two more vans coming up from behind. ETA fifteen seconds. Driver wants to know what we’re doing.”  

Cursing under her breath, Brumal pivoted that way and  started to move. “Versed, with me. Trivial, tell the driver to stay right where he is. The truck’s safest there. We’re on the way.” 

As ordered, Versed came roaring out of the nearby alley on a motorcycle. Its loud motor filled the air just as she passed Brumal, slowing just enough to give the woman time to hop on the back before taking off once more at full-speed. Together, the two of them raced straight toward the waiting truck before splitting off to one side. As they passed the cab, both heard the driver shout out that he had a schedule to keep. Brumal’s eyes rolled, as she muttered, “Just hope you make it at all, dude.” 

By that point, their ride had made it past the truck. Those two vans that Trivial had reported were already there, turned sideways with the sliding doors in the midst of being hauled open to reveal two more mounted grapple guns inside. Grapples that were already being aimed toward the back doors of the truck. Just before they could fire, however, Brumal leapt from the skidding bike and sent a wave of frozen-fire into the air. The four-foot-long grappling hooks attached to the long chains were launched an instant later, but froze in mid-air as they hit Brumal’s flames. The cold fire progressed all the way down the chains to the mounted launchers, leaving the whole system frozen solid. 

Meanwhile, Versed had produced a pistol with one hand and used several quick shots to blow out the tires of both vans before hopping off the still-moving bike as it went sliding into the driver’s side door of the nearest van just in time to slam into it as the man within was trying to hop out. 

Glancing over her shoulder, Brumal saw Trivial at the back door of the semi, already dealing with one guy who had apparently made his way there. He had a pistol pointed at her, but just before he fired, the girl’s body seemed to flicker as she used her one-foot-at-a-time teleportation power to shift instantly to one side. He tried to adjust, but she vanished again. That time, it was her ‘three-second-invisibility’ power, but the man didn’t know that. He quickly spun around as though expecting her to appear behind him. Instead, Trivial reappeared right where she had been, lashing out with a kick that took the man in the back with enough force (her strength may have been only slightly enhanced, but it was still more than most people expected to come from a small waif of a girl like that) to knock him off the truck before he landed hard on his stomach on the ground.

“You good?!” the Spartan leader called that way. 

“Am now,” Trivial confirmed, hopping to the ground with a slight use of her hovering power to slow the drop. Before her opponent could pick himself up, she had already slipped a pair of stay-down cuffs on him. “But who the hell are these guys?” 

Turning back to the two vans, where more random troops were already slipping out, Brumal shook her head. “I dunno yet. 

“Let’s go ask them.” 

*******

Unfortunately, no real answers were forthcoming. Mostly because the men weren’t talking. A few of them managed to escape and disappeared off into the night, but the rest just… clammed up. They wouldn’t talk about what gang they worked for, or even admit that they had been trying to hijack the truck full of high tech supplies. They wouldn’t say anything at all. Once they were captured, the men simply remained completely silent. They didn’t even try to escape once the handcuffs were on them. It was kind of… weird, if Brumal was being honest. The whole situation was weird. She’d gotten the info about the attempted hijacking from one of her street contacts, but that person hadn’t known anything about who was actually doing the attack. Just that the word on the street had been that it would happen. 

And it had. These guys were well-equipped, well-trained, and clearly meant to grab the supplies out of the truck. Yet they didn’t appear to be working for any of the established gangs. And they didn’t have any Touched with them. So what was going on? 

Standing there at the edge of the street, watching as a small army worth of police poured over the unmarked, unlabeled SUVs and vans, Brumal slowly shook her head. “That’s not good.” 

“What’s not good, ma’am?” That was Whamline, approaching from one side. “I thought we did pretty great, to be honest. The truck and cargo are safe, no one was seriously hurt, and we caught most of the bad guys.” 

With a very short nod, Brumal agreed. “You’re right. That part’s good. But we still have no idea who sent these guys, or why. They’re well-trained, well-equipped, and they know to keep their mouths shut. I don’t think they match any known gang in town either. This isn’t the work of anyone we know. Which means we have a new player in town.” 

Whamline shrugged. “I mean, they don’t even have any Touched with them. So they can’t be that bad, right?” 

“Something tells me we haven’t seen even the slightest hint of what they’re capable of,” Brumal informed him. “This was some kind of test. A test of their men, or their equipment, or us. I’m not sure which. Maybe all of the above.” 

After a momentary hesitation, the boy slowly asked, “If it was a test, did they pass or fail?” 

“That’s what I’m worried about, kid,” Brumal quietly replied. “I have no idea. 

“But I’m pretty sure we’re going to find out at the worst possible time.”

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Building Connections 16-13 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, congratulations! We have pushed over the 400 dollar per month mark on the Patreon! Which means you’ve hit the reward level that raises the minimum chapter length from 3000 words to 3500 words! As long as we stick above 400 (or generally close to it) I’ll keep that minimum length there. And hey, if we ever get up to 500, that will mean the minimum length goes up to 4000 words! Thank you all so much and now let’s get on with the last chapter of this arc.

Of course, talking to Peyton about Paige meant that I was going to have to expose a bit about the other girl. But what else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t save her by myself. Well, I could try, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t go very well. If there was someone in there that was giving Paige a hard time, if that virus duplicate was enough to make Paige desperately call for help, then I couldn’t deal with her by myself. I just couldn’t. And I was pretty sure even one other person helping wouldn’t be enough. Especially considering Wren wouldn’t have any control over what happened once I was in there. I’d seen plenty of movies and games about going into computers, and the person in control tended to be able to, like, manipulate the environment. That would complicate things, to say the least. Especially if I was in there by myself. 

Yeah, I had no choice but to involve Peyton in this situation (if she was willing to be involved), because I was going to need all the help I could get to save Paige from this virus thing. It wasn’t the most… optimum situation. But then, when had I ever been in an optimum situation since that first night? The night when my entire life had changed, when I’d found out the truth about my family. Or started to. Things had been complicated ever since then, and they only seemed to be getting more so as time went on.  

At the very least, it was possible that I could stop Peyton from actually finding out who Paige really was beyond her first name and what she looked like. Seriously, it wasn’t like she had any reason to recognize the girl on-sight or whatever. Paige wasn’t famous, and her face wasn’t all over the news. She hadn’t been reported missing. Most people had no idea who she was, thanks to the fact that her family (her adopted family anyway) didn’t exactly go showing her off for the press or whatever. Sure, she was pretty and all that, but lots of people were pretty. I was fairly sure that even her name wouldn’t be recognizable. Well, maybe her last name if it happened to come up for some reason. But just a blonde girl named Paige? Yeah, maybe I was just trying really hard to justify it to myself, but I was pretty sure Peyton wouldn’t have any clue who the other girl was, even if she heard her called Paige and saw her face. After all, she definitely didn’t go to our school. That was one benefit to knowing who Peyton was. I already knew for a fact what school she went to. Paige would be just some blonde girl she knew nothing about, right? 

Not to mention, all of that, again, depended upon Peyton actually agreeing to go along and help with this ridiculous, insane thing. As I reached the main store and saw the girl in question over helping Murphy and Roald pick some things up and restock them, I had a sudden wave of doubt. Should I even bring it up? God, what was the right answer?  Even if she wanted to contribute to this, what if something happened to her in there? Okay well, supposedly nothing could happen to her in the virtual reality system. It was basically the safest mission we could go on, aside from what would happen if we failed and the evil virus duplicate took over and started controlling Paige. And the best way to stop that would be to have as much help as possible, right? Yeah, just great. This was all just so great. Wonderful situation I’d found myself in, yet again. 

Taking a deep breath just as the others noticed me and looked over, I walked that way. “Hey, Alloy, could I talk to you for a minute outside? It’s kind of important. Okay, it’s really important.” I was trying to stress that importance with my voice without actually sounding as panicked as I felt about the whole thing. 

After a brief pause where she glanced at the other two, Peyton shrugged and nodded. “Uh, sure, yeah. No problem. I’ll be back, you guys. But remember, don’t you dare ask the kid what that machine in the corner is without me. I’ve still got five bucks that says it makes waffles and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you cheat me out of it.” 

That said, the two of us headed out through the back door together and into the alley behind the shop. Once we were there, Peyton just watched me curiously while I hemmed and hawed for a few long seconds, trying to decide exactly how to bring this whole thing up and explain it. Because boy was this ever hard to jump into. Seriously, how was I supposed to easily bring her up to speed and then ask her to get involved?  

Finally, I settled on giving her the basic story, that there was a girl who was part android thanks to her evil Tech-Touched father who wasn’t in the city anymore, but her identity had to remain mostly secret for her own safety. I explained that we had to use virtual reality to go into her mind, essentially, to stop an evil duplicate virus from that same evil father from taking over and controlling her into doing lots of horrible things. And yes, the longer I went on, the more crazy it sounded even to me. And I had been living it. I knew it was true, but I still felt like a complete gibbering psycho the more the words about it came out of my mouth. How did I go on day by day living with this kind of insanity? 

Unsurprisingly, by the time I finished, Peyton was staring at me like I had just told her the most ridiculous, absurd story she’d ever heard. Funny, that. She made a noise now and then as though to say something, but no words came out the first several times she tried to speak. Finally, with one finger raised (the index, not the middle as some might have after that kind of story), she asked, “Are you fucking with me right now?” 

Snorting at that despite myself, I shook my head as firmly as possible. “No, believe me, a big part of me wishes I was. I wish this whole situation was a joke, that my life wasn’t actually this complicated and ridiculous. And you really don’t even know a quarter of it.” Muttering that part under my breath, I shook it off and pushed on quickly. “But the point is, I’m telling you the truth about what’s going on here. You seriously don’t need to get involved in this if you don’t want to. Trust me, I will absolutely understand if you decide to turn around and run away as fast and as far as you can. Err, metaphorically speaking. Don’t run away from home or whatever. The point is, this is just something I have to do. And it would be pretty nice to have as much help as possible, especially considering I have no idea how much control this virus thing is going to have over the… you know, environment or whatever in the virtual reality system. Honestly, I don’t know anything about how it’s gonna go in there. Maybe you’d be safer leaving well enough alone. Maybe you’ll regret it if you go. Maybe we both will. But I’m going in there, and if–if you’d help me do it, I’d be really grateful.” Yeah, that whole thing sounded and felt incredibly awkward both in my head and out loud. But what else was I supposed to say? This was the simple and easy part of how things were. If I told her the full story about my family, the Ministry, and all of that, I was pretty sure she really would run screaming in the other direction as fast as she could go and I’d never see her again. Sometimes, I really wished I could do that. Just run away from the whole thing.

So, I just got all of that out there, breathed a couple times, and looked to the girl with a hesitant, “So, ready to change your mind about that whole ‘teaming up’ idea now that you know what kind of insanity comes with it? Believe me, I will absolutely understand if you’re ready to bounce.”

For a few seconds, Peyton was completely silent. She seemed to be weighing the whole thing. Which, I honestly couldn’t blame her for either. I would have needed a hell of a lot more than a few seconds if I was going to process being told what she had just been told without any real warning. It was a lot to take in. Eventually, however, she straightened and looked at me. “If this is the kind of stuff you’re involved in, then it’s the kind of stuff I’m involved in. I told you, I wanna team up. I know you’re still keeping a lot of important things away from me. I’m not dumb. But I don’t blame you for keeping things to yourself. You don’t even know me. Not really. And if this is how I can start to earn your trust, I’ll do it. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but we’re teenagers with superpowers, of course it all sounds crazy. For all I know, this is a completely normal day for Touched people. Maybe they go into virtual reality machines to help android girls all the time. I just–I wanna help, Paintball. Seriously, I want to be involved. Whatever it takes for me to prove you can trust me.” 

Yeah, even after she said that, a part of me wanted to tell her to turn around and get the hell out of here. But I pushed the impulse down and just told the girl to be back here tomorrow evening. And that we would focus on looking for that Amanda Sanvers girl once we dealt with this situation. Yeah, repaying Deicide was important, and so was doing whatever we could to get rid of Pencil before he killed more people. But we had to prioritize, and Paige came first right now. Especially after everything she had done to avoid killing me. I owed her.

Finally, Peyton looked to me before asking, “So, it’s just you and me going in there tomorrow? Or are you taking your minions in too? That Murphy girl seems like she’d be a good scrapper.” 

My head shook quickly. “We’re not taking them in. But there is someone else. There’s… okay, so there’s this girl I’ve sort of been… right, this is gonna sound weird, again.” With that, I explained that Pack would be coming over to help, assuming she agreed. Which required a lot of explanation about how I was almost, kind-of, sort-of friends with someone from La Casa and all that. Even after I did explain it, I was pretty sure that Peyton was still confused about the whole thing. Which, who could blame her? The entire situation was really strange. But, she basically accepted it, shaking her head before muttering something about how I seemed to have a lot of contacts on both sides of the fence. 

“Actually,” the girl quickly put in, “that reminds me, what’s that whole thing about how it’s not ‘time yet’ for you to talk to Glitch? Or whatever you said. Something like that. You thought Cavalcade was there to get you to talk to Glitch instead of Deicide. How many bad guys do you owe favors to? And does that have anything to do with why you won’t join the Minority or any other team? Is this about trying to play both sides just to make good things happen? Cuz that seems pretty complicated. Oh, wait, is this about me? Do you owe Glitch a favor because of me and that whole thing?” 

Snorting at that, I replied, “Trust me, it’s definitely complicated. And no, it’s not really about you. It’s about…” Glancing over my shoulder, I gestured to the store behind us, explaining the whole thing about Glitch wanting to be paid a fee to allow Wren to operate in the city without being part of her gang. 

Immediately, Peyton asked, “What about Switchshift? You know, the Tech-Touched who works for Ten Towers. Do you really think he’s paying some kind of fee to a bunch of villains just to work in the city, when he’s actively working for people like Ten Towers? Hell, do you think they’d let that happen? I mean, it wouldn’t really be good for their business to let themselves be extorted, right? Not when their entire thing is, like,  keeping businesses safe from bad guys.” 

Right, Switchshift did exist. People didn’t really see a lot of him, since he didn’t do much in the way of fieldwork. Which came from the fact that he was apparently paralyzed from the waist down. Or at least, he had to use a wheelchair. Still, he was a guy who made ‘things that transformed, changed position, or switched places.’ There were rumors that he helped make special tools that allowed the heroes of the city to quickly get from one area to another, though nobody was really sure how that worked. Or if it was even true, aside from the fact that the Star-Touched did tend to be able to get around faster than you might expect in this city. 

Anyway, the point was, he was part of Ten Towers. Who might indeed have a problem with paying extortion money to a group of villains just to allow their guy to operate without the constant harassment. For a moment, I considered that, weighing it back and forth my head.

“Maybe,” I finally murmured. “Or maybe they consider paying a small, secret fee to be better than having to fight all the time. Especially if there’s some kind of provision about how much Glitch and her gang are allowed to do against them as long as they’re paid up. I mean, we’re talking about a bunch of corporations here. They care about the bottom line. Like, I can see them deciding that writing off a monthly or yearly fee or whatever is worth it if it makes a group like Braintrust play somewhat nice.” Getting all that out, I reconsidered, adding, “On the other hand–” 

“On the other hand,” Peyton put in for me, “Braintrust attacks Ten Tower places all the time. Okay, I mean, not all the time. But they definitely do it. Would they really be okay with paying them off to leave one guy alone, while Braintrust just keeps hurting their customers? It’s like you said, if they were going to make that deal, they’d want to get more out of it. I mean, if that was even on the table, they probably go ahead and pay enough of a fee to get Braintrust to back off completely, right? It just seems weird if they’ve got some financial arrangement like that with a group that’s actively attacking their property and stealing from them.” 

Thinking about that for a moment, I gave a slow nod. “Okay, so maybe they don’t go after someone like Switchshift because he’s got strong friends around him. Too strong for Glitch and her gang to intimidate. Or maybe it’s something else. The point is, they are coming after Wren. They want her to start paying them for permission to operate here in the city, and she doesn’t want to join Ten Towers, or any other big group in the city that could protect her from them.” 

Peyton was squinting at me, her voice dry. “Yeah, gee, I wonder where she could possibly have gotten the idea that joining some big, powerful group in the city would be a bad idea.”

Flushing a little, I shook my head. “It’s not like that. It’s not– I mean–  okay, maybe I’m not sure what it’s like. I just…” This was getting entirely too close to a conversation we weren’t ready to have yet. Instead, I waved that off. “I know it sounds bad, but I think the best thing to do is to pay the fee, at least for now. We can work on getting rid of Braintrust later, or at least getting into a position where we’re too strong and they have to back off. Right now, I really don’t want to give them a reason to target Wren or this place, you know? We can’t be here twenty-four seven. She’s got defenses already, and she’s working on more, but these are other Tech-Touched. It just–it feels like a bad idea to push things when we don’t have to. If they’ll take money to leave Wren alone until we’re in a better position and know she can protect herself, it just feels like that’s the best move.” 

Peyton thought about that for a few seconds. I wondered how much she was considering what the Braintrust people had done for her before, when they ruined that asshole’s life and exposed him for being a creepy pedophile piece of shit. Even if they had basically done it for their own purposes, just to punish him for stealing their equipment, it had to affect the way she saw them, right? Did she think they were nicer than they really were? I wasn’t sure how that would go. 

In the end, she gave a short nod. “Okay, but is this place even ready to start paying fees, or whatever? Cuz I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly get enough of an allowance to help pay off a supervillain gang. And I don’t think this is the best time to go get a job.”

“Actually,” I pointed out, “it might be the very best time to get a job. Just not a real one. Or at least, not a normal one.” As the other girl stared at me, I quickly explained, “If your mom thinks you have a part-time job, she won’t be as curious about where you keep going all the time, right? It might keep her happy.”   

“Okay,” Peyton agreed, “maybe, but where exactly am I supposed to find a place where I can pretend to have a job, which includes getting paid, but also be able to run off with you whenever…” She trailed off, following my pointed gaze back toward the building we had come out of. Staring that way, the girl raised a hand, then lowered it, quietly murmuring. “Oh. Wait, you really think that’d actually work? You think I can just pretend to have a job here?”  

I shrugged. “I don’t see why not. I mean, come on, it’s just a small pawn shop as far as your mom would be concerned. Run by some guy and his little niece after her parents passed away. They’d pay you to clean up, help around the store, whatever. It sounds like a good cover to me.” 

She was quiet then, considering the point for a few seconds before giving a slow nod. “Okay, yeah, I guess that might work. But isn’t that asking for this little pawn shop to pay out even more money when they haven’t even officially reopened or whatever? I mean–wait, they’re doing more than just pawning stuff, aren’t they?” 

Chuckling, I nodded. “As soon as Wren gets a chance to catch up on everything, which includes this… situation we’re dealing with tomorrow, she’s gonna start working on projects that she can sell. That’ll bring in more money. Trust me, she’s already got ideas, and I’m pretty sure they’re good. The pawn shop’s just a cover. But it should be a pretty effective one. It’s–it’s gonna be okay, Peyton. I know everything seems really complicated right now, and it is. I can’t even–fuck. I can’t get into it right now. But if you can stick with it, I think playing at being an employee here could really give you the cover you need to…” 

“To go out with you and help people?” she finished for me, offering a slight smile. “Sorta like a sidekick?” 

Squinting at that, I looked away, running the thoughts through in my head before turning back with a short nod. “Yeah,” I murmured, “that’s probably fair. You know, to try it out, see if you umm, if you actually want to stick with it once you see how crazy everything is.” That said, I extended a hand to her, waiting for her to take it. “I know I haven’t told you everything. That’s gonna take awhile, if–it’s gonna take awhile. We’ll work up to it. I’m not exactly super-quick to trust people. I mean–it’s a long story. Maybe I’ll even get into it someday. But for now, if you’re up for it, I… yeah, I’d like to work together. You really up for all that, sidekick? What do you say?”

“What do I say?” Peyton echoed. 

“I say, give me a month, and I’ll get you to call me partner.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Building Connections 16-12 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I was already spinning on my heel to walk to the nearby door before stopping myself as I realized that I didn’t have any idea where I was going or what to do. Holding my arms tightly against my chest, I spun back that way. “Except I don’t know how to do that. How are we supposed to save Paige right now? How are we supposed to do anything right now? We don’t even have anyone lined up to fix the computer orb thing yet! We don’t–wait.” Realization came to me as I blink at the younger girl. “You went out to get a bunch of stuff. What were you–” 

Wren quickly nodded. “It’s okay, Paintball! I mean it’s not okay. It’s really scary. But I didn’t just call you with problems. I’ve got solutions too! I mean sorta maybe solutions, I mean help for–”  Cutting herself off, she took a deep breath and let it out before starting once more. “We still gotta  find someone to fix the little orb-computer thingie, but I think we can help the good Paige stop the bad Paige. You know, send her reinforcements so she doesn’t get taken over or erased or anything. It’s not perfect, but it’ll, you know, buy her some time? If it works. I think it’ll work. I have to adjust some stuff, but it should work. I mean, if the first part works like it’s supposed to, like he said it should, then I can adjust the second part and make it… work?” Clearly realizing she was babbling and repeating herself, Wren trailed off and shrugged helplessly, adding a very quiet, “I think, maybe.” 

Forcing myself to calm down from the rush of panic, I took a step that way. “You mean you have a plan?” I tried to keep my voice as steady as possible. Inwardly, I was screaming at myself. Of course Paige’s father would have some kind of fail-safe to overwrite her or whatever. That just made sense, especially since I knew he’d managed to hit her with that virus in the first place. Stupid, stupid. Why did I take so long trying to find someone who could fix her? Telling myself it had only been a few days didn’t help. The guilt kept welling up in me no matter what I thought. 

“What do you mean you have to adjust something? Who is this ‘he’ you’re talking about? Did you really already find someone that could help? Are you sure it’s someone we can trust with this? Who is this guy, where did he come from, what does he do? How did you find him so fast?”  

Wren, for her part, held up both hands for me to slow down too. Waiting for quiet, the kid finally started to explain. “Okay, so, this guy isn’t actually someone I talked to about this. He doesn’t even live anywhere near here. He’s in France. He’s a Tech-Touched in France. Anyway, we started talking about our toys–err, our inventions, and he told me about this machine he made.  They’re going to start selling it over there soon. He’s gonna make a lot of money! It–” Clearly catching herself from going too far off-subject, Wren quickly reeled it in. “Sorry, I mean the point is, when he told me about it, I thought it could help. But only if I make a second part that moves the first part over to where we need it cuz his invention is just a video game thing and that’s really cool and all, but it doesn’t help with Paige. But if we can move it over to where she is, then–” 

It was my turn to hold up both hands. “Hold on, hold on. Okay, one thing at a time. What did he make that’s supposed to help with Paige? You said something about it being a video game?” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! Paintball, he made this really cool virtual reality thing. You put it on and it like, projects your consciousness into the game. I mean, not really. You’re really sitting right there with the machine wired up to you. But your brain thinks you’re in the game. You can see things and interact with things and move them around and it’s all super real to you and to the machine. You can change things in the machine, in the game.” 

She stopped, staring excitedly at me while I processed that. Rocking back on my heels, I managed, “You’re saying he made a virtual reality game that plugs you into the machine.” Thinking about that, I gasped. “And you want to use that to plug me into Paige’s computer core? That’s what you’re trying to adjust. You don’t want to put me into some random virtual reality game, you want to put me into Paige’s computer so I can help her deal with this duplicate.”

Again, Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! I talked to my friend in France and he said he could help. I mean, I didn’t tell him the whole story, just that it was really, super, incredibly important, life and death important. He trusts me, cuz we’re friends and I promised I wouldn’t make money off his thing. He said he’d send the list of stuff I need and the blueprints to make a prototype version of his thing. It won’t be as good or as stable or anything, but it’ll work for this, we think. I just have to fix it so that instead of going into a game, it moves you over into Paige’s computer.” 

Okay, this was all a lot to take in on short notice. Especially considering I hadn’t even known that she had a friend in France. But I supposed that made sense. Of course Tech-Touched talked to each other and compared notes. The internet made that super-easy to do. 

Still, it was a lot to deal with. Seriously, virtual reality stuff? She wanted to plug my brain or whatever into Paige’s computer so I could go in there and help her deal with this crazy duplicate virus before it took over. What the hell kind of psychotic Tron-crazy shit was this? Seriously? I’d done some of that VR stuff before, of course. It came with the territory of having rich parents who liked to spoil you by throwing all the newest special toys your way. I’d been in full-scale simulations, some better than others. But it was still weird to think of something like this being used this way. Full-scale virtual reality outside of just putting a helmet on your head and faking it wasn’t exactly common. Mostly it was limited to a few very specific demonstrations. And I had no idea if this French guy’s version was any good, especially if it was basically being cobbled together to work with however Paige’s system worked. Two systems I didn’t know at all being taped onto one another by one little kid, who wasn’t even the person who originally made either of them. This was a whole new level of crazy desperation, wasn’t it? 

But I had to push all those confused thoughts aside and focus on the main situation, the main problem. Paige. Whatever happened next, we had to help Paige. So, I simply reached out and put my hands on Wren’s shoulders, squeezing a bit. “Do you really think this can work?” I asked quietly, yet intently. There were so many questions I had beyond that. Especially when it came to who this guy in France was, whose name I didn’t even know. But we didn’t have the months (at least) that it would take for me to decide that I trusted him myself. I was going to have to go solely off what Wren thought. I trusted her with this. I had to. 

Clearly realizing just how important my question was, Wren met my gaze with a look of maturity that far outweighed her years. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Yes, Paintball. It can work. It won’t be super-stable, and you’ll have to be really quick about it. And it would be better if you had someone with you. Someone else who could fight with you. I don’t want to send you in there by yourself. Maybe you could get Pack, or that new girl you just brought back today? Or both! Both would be better, a lot better.” 

“Alloy?” I blinked at the suggestion, glancing towards the elevator down to where we had left her and the others. “I don’t know if we should involve anyone else in something like this. It’s–” 

“It’s dangerous!” Wren interrupted, blurting the words loudly as she stared at me. “It’s super-dangerous! I mean yeah, if you get hurt or whatever in there, I don’t think it’ll actually hurt you out here. It’s not like that old Matrix movie or whatever. It doesn’t work like that, cuz that’s silly. It would be a really bad game if it did. But if you get knocked out, you won’t be able to go back in very fast. It’ll take awhile to get back to where you were, you know? And in that time, maybe Paige will lose. Maybe she’ll be taken over and erased! That could happen! She sounded really scared in that message, Paintball. So this evil virus duplicate thing is probably really strong. So if you go in by yourself and you lose, then you wouldn’t have actually helped her. I think… I think you need to trust someone else to go in with you. More than one, if you can. You know, because it’s dumb to take risks like that when it comes to actually helping someone you care about, right?” 

Fuck. Yeah, she had a point. As much as I hated the idea of involving other people in this, I was pretty sure I didn’t have much of a choice if I really wanted to save Paige. If I went in there by myself, I’d probably just end up getting my butt kicked. I needed to take others for back-up, and there really wasn’t anyone I could trust with it beyond those two she had already suggested. Pack and Peyton. If they’d even go at all. I couldn’t be sure they’d agree to the plan, after all. 

“Actually, wait,” I suddenly blurted as a thought occurred. “That reminds me. We can’t even use our powers in that place, can we? Which would make all of us pretty helpless if we’re supposed to be saving Paige. I mean, it’s like a virtual reality thing–or wait, do we get like… all the powers because it’s virtual reality? You can just cheat code everything if it comes down to it, right? How does that work, exactly?” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Not exactly,” the kid hesitantly answered before quickly pushing on. “I mean, we’re not exactly putting you in a place we made up, you know? You’ve gotta go inside the place her computer made, in her like.. computer mind or whatever.” She was poking the floor with her foot uncomfortably, clearly upset about not having better news. “I can build my friend’s virtual reality thing, but it’s like… sorta duct taped to Paige’s thing to make it work and I can’t change too much and I definitely can’t mess with what’s going on inside Paige’s mind cuz that’s not really what my thing is and it’s not what this is and I’m really sorry, but–” 

“It’s okay, it’s alright,” I quickly interrupted, holding up both hands. “Thanks, Wren, I know you’re doing your b–hell, you’re doing better than your best. You went totally above and beyond, dude. You got help from some guy in France to figure this out and to give us a chance to save Paige. That’s amazing, you’re seriously–you’re great. I didn’t mean to make it seem like you should be doing more. I was just–yeah. Sorry, dude. Whatever we can do for her, anything at all, really.” 

After managing to get all that out, I waited for a second before adding, “Okay, so we can’t have cheat codes to go in there, because you can’t control what happens inside Paige’s computer. You’re just like–like her thing is the game server and all you can do is hack us a couple player accounts?” I had no idea how accurate that was, but it seemed like the best comparison. 

Thankfully, Wren seemed to get it, already nodding. “Uh huh, uh huh! Like that. The server will only accept you if you go in as yourself. Like, I can change your clothes or whatever, but it accepts the umm… the you in your head. The way you umm… see yourself, pretty much? Which, um, I think should mean you can use your powers in there, cuz they’re a part of you.”

“Well hey, that’s something, at least.” Giving the girl a thumbs up, I looked past her to where Paige was. “Okay, so how long do we have before you can put all this stuff you’ve got together? Cuz I’m pretty sure we don’t have umm… okay, I’m pretty sure Paige doesn’t have a lot of time.” 

Following my gaze, the kid immediately made a sound in the back of her throat that sounded like a half-yelp, half-gasp. “Oh! Yeah, I can–I mean it’s still gonna take time to put all this together, and I’ve gotta do a lot of it myself cuz only I can understand the instructions. I mean, I don’t–it’s not like you’re stupid or anything, it’s just got a lot of really specific technical stuff and if we mess up putting it together it could break and if it breaks we have to spend a lot more time fixing it and finding the hard-to-get parts and if that happens we might not have time to save this Paige girl so I really don’t wanna have to do it all over again, not cuz you’re dumb or anything, just cuz–” 

“Got it, I get it.” Once more, I held up my hands for her to stop. “Trust me, it’s okay. Do it right. If there are ways I can help, let me know. But, how long do you think it’ll take you to put it together the right way? You know, making sure it’ll work the way it’s supposed to and all.”  

Wren looked hesitant for a moment, clearly nervous about the job she had taken on. But, in the end, she straightened a bit before firmly replying, “Tomorrow evening. I–I can have it done by tomorrow evening, I promise. I–I’m sorry it can’t be done before then. I wanted t–I know it’s dangerous. I know she’s in trouble, but if I try to go any faster, I might mess up, and if I mess up-” 

“If you mess up, we don’t get another shot at this,” I finished for her gently. “At least not in time to actually save Paige before that virus takes over. I get it, really. It’s okay, Wren. Do it right the first time. Take however long you need. I mean, try to hurry and all, but don’t rush too much, okay?” 

She agreed, and I asked if there was anything I could do to help without getting in the way. Unfortunately, there wasn’t. She said she really just had to focus on it and asked, as politely as she could, for me to go away and come back tomorrow. And for me to bring Peyton back so she could talk to ‘the cool marble girl’ again when she wasn’t so distracted. 

So, I asked one last thing. “Did you send another message to Paige? You know, to let her know that we got her message and we’re working on it?” 

Offering me a very faint smile, Wren nodded. “Uh huh, I sent a message so she’d know she wasn’t talking to nobody. But… I think it’d make her feel better if you sent a message too. Like I said, it’ll take a long time for her to get it, but you can type the message into the thing there and tell her you’re working on it. Like I said, it’ll only send one or two words every fifteen minutes. But you can type whatever you want and just let it go. I won’t… uhh, disturb it, I promise.” 

Oh, right. Slowly, I stepped over to where the Gameboy/Atari thing was and picked up the little handheld part. Looking at the screen, I could see where you moved the cursor around to select letters for the input. Okay then, here went nothing. 

And for a moment, ‘nothing’ was exactly what went. Seriously, what the hell was I supposed to say to let Paige know that I had her message and that I was working on it? What would actually make her feel better or whatever? 

In the end, after thinking about it for a minute, I carefully typed a short message into the device. 

PAINTBALLC

WE’VE

GOT

PLAN

STAY

STRONG

COMING

PROMISE

Yeah, it was a little silly or whatever. I really didn’t know what else to say in a brief message. As it was, it would take a few hours for Paige to get that entire thing. I just had to say my name first so she’d know who was talking, and add a C at the end which she would hopefully understand to mean ‘Cassidy’ so she would be certain it was me. As for the rest… yeah. It was the best I could do without saying too much. The last thing I wanted was for a message I sent to Paige to end up exposing who I really was to anyone else who read it. I just… hoped it was enough to help her keep going long enough for us to get in there. 

And speaking of us getting in there, I took a breath and turned back to the younger girl. “I guess I should ask the others if they’re free to help go into virtual reality land tomorrow.” Oh boy, this was going to be a fun couple conversations. 

“Good luck!” Wren was smiling distractedly, her mind clearly focused on the work she still had to do. “I’ll do my part, I promise.” With that, she saluted, then turned her back to me, put her phone up on the table, and called that French friend of hers for help. The last thing I heard while heading back downstairs was the sound of a teenage male talking in heavily accented English, happily greeting Wren by name and asking if she had everything. 

Right, time to leave the tech people to do their thing, while I did mine. Which… huh, was asking Peyton to help me save Paige in virtual reality more or less crazy than asking her to help me scour the city to find a witness who could potentially take down Pencil? 

She sure picked one hell of a time to decide to jump on Team Paintball. 

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Building Connections 16-11 (Summus Proelium)

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On the way through the back alleys to the shop, I explained who Trevithick was (as well as what the name meant). It was all stuff I’d meant to tell her as we were making our way through the city, but then our little race thing happened and well, here we were. So, I just filled her in with the brief SparkNotes version. As we approached the back door, I mentioned that the kid was pretty young, and asked if she would have a problem working with someone like that. 

I clearly hadn’t thought that question through entirely, because Peyton looked at me pointedly and asked, “Young like you? Because I’m pretty good with that. I don’t think I get to judge what a kid can do after one saved my life like… twice within the same month, dude.” 

Burying my annoyance at being seen as a kid again beneath the much more useful fact that my disguise was stopping anyone from suspecting who I really was, especially my parents, I nodded once. “Younger than me.” It was the literal truth, after all. Wren really was younger than me.  I just wasn’t specific about how much younger. “She’s a kid. But she’s a genius Tech-Touched.” 

That said, I reached up to hit the buzzer. But before I could, the back door was flung open, and Murphy stood there, looking back and forth between the two of us for a moment before seeming to realize who Peyton was. “Ohhh, it’s marble girl. You changed your armor.” With that, she looked the other girl up and down briefly as though judging it. “I like this one better.” 

Peyton, in turn, stared at her briefly before turning to me. “She’s not younger than you.” 

Exactly how many times was I going to be tempted to blow my cover within a five minute span? Seriously, I was starting to think this was just gonna be a thing going forward. Exhaling, I shook my head and gestured between them. “This is Murphy, she’s… helping. It’s a long story.” 

“He caught me and my friend, Roald, after we broke into a gas station to steal food, and told us we could be his minions and help out around here or whatever instead of going to jail,” Murphy promptly summed up. Then she looked at me and added, “It’s really not that long of a story.”  

Peyton, meanwhile, had turned to look at me with obvious incredulity. “Wait, you have minions?”

Before I could respond to that, Murphy put in (with a voice that was basically the most cheerful I had ever heard her sound), “Just for now. But I think if we do a good job, he might upgrade us to henchpeople.” That, of course, was accompanied by the girl raising both hands to show her crossed fingers. “I’m pretty sure that’s when we get the matching uniforms.” 

Shaking my head, I gestured for the girl to step back so we could come in. Once the door was closed behind us, I asked, “So where’s Trevithick? Upstairs?” 

“Who?” Murphy blinked at me before remembering. “Oh, right. Nah, she had to run out. Took Fred and Roald and made me stay to watch the shop. Something about needing to grab important supplies or whatever.” Her hand gestured my way. “Kid said she was gonna text you an update.” 

“Text me an–” As I echoed those words, my hand was taking the phone from my pocket, and I blanched a little behind the helmet. I had a message from Wren, alright. Sure enough, it was all about how she had to go grab a few super-important things and that she would explain everything about what was going on once they got back. “Oh, well okay then. I guess we’ll wait here for them.” 

As I finished saying that, Murphy had already shrugged and moved back to a corner of the main shop floor where she had apparently been sweeping and mopping. From the look of it, she was actually doing a pretty good job. Okay, a very good job. Better than I could have, considering I’d basically almost never done anything like that except for the times when I was a kid trying to help the maids. Actually, I remembered that being kind of fun. But even now, I knew the reason it felt ‘fun’ to me at the time was because I could stop any time I wanted to. It didn’t depend on doing that to live or put food in my mouth. If I had to do it every day, as much as the people who worked in our house or at my school had to? Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It was a thought that made me shift a little uncomfortably. Yet Murphy seemed pretty fine with what she was doing. It made me wonder how much cleaning she ended up doing at home. Which also made me think about her brother. Part of me wanted to ask how that was going and if he’d stopped being pissed at her about not running those drugs over to his friend. But I was pretty sure that would be pushing a bit even if we were alone, let alone with Peyton here. 

So, I decided that conversation could wait. Meanwhile, Peyton herself had started to walk around the shop floor, picking up and examining various things from the shelves. “Wow,” she murmured quietly while turning an old miner’s helmet over in her hands, “they’re actually selling all this random junk?  

Wincing, I stepped over that way. “Don’t let the kid hear you calling it junk. This was her dad’s store, she’s pretty protective of it. And right now I think a lot of it is just a way of having basically any random thing she needs at any point when she starts building stuff.” 

A noise of regret escaped the other girl, as she turned to me while shaking her head. “I–sorry. I didn’t mean to just–ugh. I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t trying to like–insult her family’s shop or anything. I was just… yeah, sometimes I don’t think before I speak.” She muttered the last words before giving a heavy sigh. 

“It’s okay,” I assured her before reaching out to squeeze the girl’s arm. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. All this stuff is a lot to get used to. Believe me, I know.” And boy was that a severe understatement. A lot to get used to? Wait until she learned the real truth about the city–no, stop it. I couldn’t tell her the full truth about the city. Except she was already helping, and she was going to push that help as far as helping me find the girl who might be able to take Pencil down. Even if the idea was to stay completely away from that piece of shit and never directly involve ourselves with him, there was no definite one hundred percent certainty that we wouldn’t see him. And she was still here, still willingly putting herself in danger. Didn’t I owe her the–fuck. Would this question ever end up getting me anywhere except for more uncertain and confused?

“Dude.” Peyton, who I belatedly realized had been staring at me for the past few seconds while I went through all that in my head yet again, spoke up hesitantly. “Are you okay?” 

“It’s fine,” Murphy called from where she was still working. “He just does that sometimes. I think he likes brooding or something. That or he’s listening to podcasts in that helmet and gets distracted.” 

Flushing a bit behind the aforementioned helmet, I shook my head. “It’s not brooding or podcasts. I just–never mind. I was just thinking.” 

“Hey, speaking of just thinking,” Murphy called out again, “what do you call yourself, anyway? I mean, we can’t just stick with ‘that marble girl’ all the time, right?” 

It was Peyton’s turn to blush, slightly visible through the space that left part of her face around her eyes uncovered. “Uhh, we sort of went over some ideas, but I’m not sure. It’s really hard to come up with a good one that doesn’t sound stupid or overly dramatic or… whatever.”

“Oh, I know all about that too,” I muttered mostly to myself before gesturing. “Well, while we’re waiting, why don’t we go over the list? You wanna help, Murphy?” 

She, in turn, looked at the mop in her hand for a moment before setting it aside to step over where we were. Shoving her hands in her back pockets, the brown-skinned girl rocked back on her heels before asking, “What sorta options are you working with?” 

So, Peyton and I tugged a couple random stools over and slid one over to Murphy before starting to go over all the potential names. The three of us went back and forth for awhile about the ones that sounded good, why they were good, the ones that probably wouldn’t work, and so on. 

We went over all that for a good ten minutes. Finally, Peyton said she had some favorites, especially after talking to the two of us, but she wanted to think about it some more before deciding, and maybe ask the others what they thought. Which was pretty good timing, considering it was only a couple minutes after that before Wren showed up with Fred and Roald. 

“Wow,” Peyton murmured very quietly in my direction as the trio arrived with armfulls of paper grocery bags, “you weren’t kidding about her being young. But she’s really that good?” 

“She’s really that good,” I confirmed before stepping that way to take a bag from Wren. It was heavier than it looked, geez. The bag was completely filled with what looked like half of an average-sized store’s electronics department. Peyton was already doing the same for Fred. “Hey guys, look who I brought back. It’s… uhh, she doesn’t actually have a name yet. So TBD. But TBD, this is Wren or Trevithick, her uncle Fred, and Roald.” 

That was followed by both Fred and Roald shaking the girl’s hand, the latter commenting that her armor looked different this time. Peyton then explained how that worked with her marbles. Both of them seemed a little awkward and uncertain in a way that almost seemed kind of cute. Especially when Murphy inserted herself and all three of them went back and forth about different types of armor and weapons she might be able to make with the various marbles. 

For her part, Wren waited until all the bags were put down and was quietly respectful of letting the other three talk for about ten more seconds before flinging herself that way with an added boost from her flight pack wings (the pack was on under her jacket and it projected the wings through a couple almost-invisible slits in the back) to cross the distance before landing directly in front of her. “Hi! I’m Wren, like he said! You are so cool, I watched the videos of you fighting those bad guys like eighteen times! When you hit Juice with the battering ram and then threw him with the gloves, that was so awesome! You were like, ‘don’t you touch him!’ then wham! Did you really just get your powers? You totally kicked his butt before he even knew what was happening!” 

Peyton, looking more than a little taken aback by the enthusiasm, managed a little giggle. “Uhh, thanks. Just beginner’s luck, really. I think he was more focused on being mad at Paintball, so he wasn’t paying any attention to me.” 

“He was definitely distracted,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t take away from the fact that most people wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of that distraction the way you did. Seriously, she’s right, you were awesome back there. I would’ve been screwed without your help.” Blanching a little, I added, “Still don’t know why they keep calling you my ‘sidekick’ though. I mean, I haven’t even been doing this for two whole months yet.” 

Wow, saying that part out loud made me think about just how much had happened in the past six-ish weeks. The vials, finding out about my family, being taken by Pencil, the whole situation with him and the rest of the Scions at the hospital, the Paige thing… Just how damn busy was I

While I was focused on that, Peyton had started to explain her whole naming situation and the various ideas she was working off of. Roald, Wren, and Fred gave their own opinions and went back and forth for awhile, until Peyton finally held up both hands. “Okay, okay. I’ve got it, I think. The name I’m gonna go with is…” She took a breath, letting it out before finishing. “Alloy.” Even after she said it, the girl looked uncertain. “I mean, is that good? I think– never mind. Sorry. I’m terrible at making decisions! I even like boys and girls cuz throwing out half my options is bullshit!” With that cry, she waved both hands vaguely. 

It was Fred who spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you uhh, close your eyes for a second.”

Looking a little confused and uncertain, the girl did so with a quiet, “Um, okay.”  

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up loudly. “Alloy, Paintball needs your help, get out there!” After a pause, he asked, “So, did that sound right? I mean, the name, did it sound like something you’d like to be called?” 

Peyton opened her eyes. I had the feeling she was smiling behind the mask. “Uh huh. That’s it. That’s the right name. Thanks, uhh, Mr. Donovan.” 

“Fred’s fine,” the man insisted, looking self-conscious as he rubbed his head. “I just know sometimes it helps to hear the name from someone else. It’s how…” He paused briefly before continuing in a softer, more subdued tone. “It’s how I helped Wren’s folks choose her name.” 

Well, that was sobering. I still wasn’t sure about the whole story there, other than the fact that her mother and father had died in the hospital after racking up quite the medical bill. Which was the whole thing that led to Fred selling that device to Ashton so he could steal the vials in the first place. Not that Fred had known what his plan was at the time.

Of course, thinking about that reminded me of why we had come here today to begin with. “Um, Wren? You said you had something really important to talk about. What’s wrong? And, uhh, does it have anything to do with the fact that you just went on a huge shopping spree? All this stuff looks pretty intense.” I said that while gingerly reaching into one of the bags and picking up what appeared to be a circuit board with seven different colored wires leading out of it and a large computer power supply attached to one side.  

Immediately, Wren looked guilty about her distraction. “Oh, uhh, yeah. I should probably talk to you upstairs about it.” She winced, shifting back and forth on her feet, clearly anxious. 

I had the feeling Peyton really wanted to ask what was going on. Instead, she gestured to the others. “Hey, you wanna see how I raced Paintball to get over here? I could show you outside, if y–hold on!” Tugging her buzzing phone out, she blurted, “Everybody be quiet, or sound like shoppers!” Then she was answering it, talking to her mother, who was checking in again. After a moment, she muted her phone, grabbed Murphy by the arm, and hissed at her to pretend to be someone named Dana coming up to say they had to check out some sale somewhere.  

Looking to Wren while that was going on, I whispered, “Are you okay?” 

“Wha–oh.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s not about me. It’s–it’s about Paige.” 

Of course it was. I’d figured it had to be as soon as whatever the problem was didn’t turn out to have anything to do with bad guys at the shop, her or Fred’s health, and involved her going out to buy a bunch of things on an emergency shopping trip. Much as I might’ve loved to hope this whole thing was just a kid overreacting to some brand new idea she had about an invention that she wanted to show off, I knew Wren better than that. And I knew my luck better than that. 

So, while Peyton (or Alloy now) took the others out back to show off the whole hoverboard thing, I went with Wren upstairs. The two of us took the elevator, the younger girl being oddly quiet and subdued all the way. Finally, once the door opened and we stepped out into the hall, she turned to face me. “Okay, see, I felt really bad that I couldn’t help wake up your friend. So I thought maybe if I could at least find a way to communicate with her, it might help. You know, connect with her umm, mind or whatever?” She was fidgeting nervously or self-consciously. 

“Did… did you manage to communicate with her?” No, that didn’t make sense. Why would her succeeding at something like that make Wren so… like this? It certainly wouldn’t be an emergency. 

Sure enough, the blonde girl shook her head quickly. “No–I mean yes, I mean sort of. Hang on–c’mere.” Pivoting, she grabbed my hand and led me into the lab where Paige was lying comfortably (I hoped) on a padded table. There was a wheeled cart nearby with some electronic equipment stacked up on it. Wren picked up what looked like the drum and tubing part of a stethoscope that led into what I swore was part of an ancient Atari video game system with an original Gameboy attached to it via a series of wires. Yeah, it was a whole confusing thing.

“This,” Wren told me while holding up the end of the stethoscope, “sends electronic messages and receives them at close range. It–okay it gets complicated. The short version is that you’re supposed to be able to put it on Paige close to where her CPU thing is, then it’ll send a message to her. Then she can send a message back. Or, you know, whatever tiny part of her is still conscious. They have to be simple messages, and slow. Like one or two words every fifteen minutes. It’s like talking to her in her dreams.” 

“I’m guessing the big emergency isn’t that it didn’t work?” I asked hesitantly, staring at the thing in her hand, then back to Paige. 

“No,” she confirmed quietly. “It worked. I sent a message asking, ‘Can you hear?’ and she sent back, umm, well it took awhile to get all of it, but…” 

Rather than finish, she simply picked up the Gameboy and turned it so I could see the screen. Written across it were eleven words in succession, one under the next, all in capital letters. 

HELP

DAD

VIRUS

SECOND

ME

COPY

TRYING

ERASE

REPLACE

KILL

HELP

PLEASE

Reading all that through, I took a second to process it before my eyes widened. “Her dad made a virus that’s like a copy and it’s trying to replace her. I–we don’t have any more time to try to come up with the perfect plan or find the perfect people to help. We don’t have time for any of that.

“We have to start saving Paige right now.”

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Building Connections 16-10 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There is an update for voting on Peyton’s name in my first comment at the bottom of this chapter! If you’d like to participate in the final round of determining what her Touched name will be out of the three finalists, jump down there once you finish this chapter!

Deicide didn’t know exactly where this Amanda Sanvers was, of course. That would have been too easy. Instead, she had a list of possible last locations, along with people who had spoken to the girl somewhat recently and might be able to give a better idea of where she was. Apparently Deicide was worried that if she or her people dug any deeper than that, Sanvers herself would hear about it and go even deeper into hiding out of paranoia that they were somehow working for the monster who had traumatized her so much years ago. 

She also told us a bit more about that situation, about how a very early Pencil, before even taking up leadership of the Scions, had taken this girl’s family prisoner. Apparently, on camera, he had forced Amanda’s parents to shoot each other in order to save the lives of both Amanda and her brother. Nick Sanvers had completely disappeared within a year, something about going to an Alaskan oil rig to work. But Amanda had stuck around for one reason or another, mostly going underground, changing her name repeatedly, that sort of thing. From what Deicide knew, it sounded like the girl was staying specifically to testify against Pencil if they ever managed to catch him. So the police and Star-Touched kept her somewhat informed about how their various investigations into the Scions were going. It wasn’t really by-the-book, but they were impressed by how tough she was to not take off for another continent. And honestly, so was I. If she had experienced Pencil firsthand and still wanted to stick around to testify against him given the chance? Yeah, she was pretty brave. 

Brave, but not entirely stupid. Hence the whole changing her name and disappearing thing. A couple of the authorities knew how to contact her, but even they had to jump through certain hoops to do so. She refused to go into normal witness protection. Something about not trusting it and wanting to manage on her own. Which, apparently she was pretty good at if the girl was still alive after all this time. So yeah, kudos to her. 

Which, of course reminded me of a certain other person who had stayed hidden from the Scions for a long time now. Robert–Bobby Parson, my old driver and the man who had apparently saved me back when my own grandfather had sent his men to kill Anthony and his family, and to abduct me. Yeah, Bobby was another one I needed to find. I had the feeling that he would be able to answer even more questions about my family. Especially considering everything I’d already found. Like the toys in his cabin with the code that had led me to find out more about Paige. Why did he have those there? And where was he now? Had he just gone deeper after finding out Pencil had gotten so close to finding him? And why was Pencil really after him? If the psychopath was that obsessed with tracking him down, it had to be something pretty important, right? 

Whatever, the point was, I had a lot to deal with. Right now, I really had to focus on finding a different member of the ‘stay the fuck away from Pencil society.’ I had to focus on finding Amanda Sanvers. 

Okay, that wasn’t exactly the immediate concern. That, at the moment, was looking at me from across the roof both of us were standing on a few minutes after Cavalcade had dropped us off. She was just finishing the sandwich that the mercenary had insisted on picking up for us. I had one too, but wasn’t eating it yet. It was still wrapped up and tucked into one of the pockets of my suit for later. 

Taking a breath, I focused on Peyton. “Look, you really don’t need to be involved in any of this. Trust me, you don’t want to. Like I said, you don’t owe Deicide anything. And you definitely don’t owe me enough to put your neck anywhere near this shit.” 

Peyton just stared at me. “Dude, you’re like.. what, a thirteen-year-old kid? You shouldn’t be anywhere near this shit either. But you are, for some reason. Maybe that paper chick’s right about this Sanvers girl talking to you because you’re not a threat. But like, that brings up a good question. If Amanda Sanvers has been like… you know, cooperating with the authorities and trying to bring Pencil down, why does Deicide think she’s got this top secret information about his power or whatever?” 

“I asked her about that when you went out with Cavalcade and I stayed behind for a minute,” I informed her. “Apparently this Amanda girl thinks that the only reason Pencil hasn’t like… totally gone after her is because he believes she doesn’t know anything important about him. According to Deicide, Amanda saying she’d cooperate with the cops and then supposedly not being able to tell them anything useful is her way of letting the Scions know they don’t need to come after her. I mean, think about it. Pencil doesn’t really care about leaving witnesses. They know what he is and what he’s done. It’s not like he’s thinking ahead that much to a trial or whatever. The only thing that would make him come after her hard is if he thought she knew something dangerous about him, something that could bring him down or expose a weakness. So, Amanda makes it clear she’s trying to help the cops but can’t tell them anything helpful. Which reassures Pencil so he has no real reason to expend that much effort looking for her, because if she did know anything, she would’ve told them.” 

Peyton considered that for a moment, running it through in her head before nodding. “I guess that makes sense. But what makes Deicide think this girl actually does know something big?” 

I shrugged at that. “Something about hearing it through a friend of a friend of a friend, or whatever. Amanda said something to someone that made it sound like she might know a secret about Pencil’s power, and it got back to Deicide.” With that, I shook my head. “But seriously, like I said, you don’t need to be involved in this, Peyton. This is way, way too much to ask.” 

She, however, shook her head. “I’m not going after the Scions, dude. No fucking way. I don’t–I’m scared. Yeah, I’m too scared for that. But if this girl–if she really does know something that can stop those assholes from–” She choked a bit on her words, blanching while her arms folded across her stomach. The floating marbles that weren’t part of her armor hovered protectively in front of her. “Everyone knows what Pencil does to people. If this Amanda girl really does know something that can help stop him? I don’t care if it’s Deicide or the Star-Touched, the military, or the freaking Smurfs who pull it off. Getting rid of that bastard is a good thing. And if I can help do that just by helping you track down this girl? Then… then I wanna be a part of that.” 

Squirming on her feet, the girl quietly added, “I was… scared–terrified when that asshole and his friends abducted me, and they didn’t even have any powers. Then yesterday with Juice and those fucking–” Cutting herself off, she gave a quick shake of her head, eyes closing briefly as she pulled it together. “I’ve been really scared, so I know what that’s like. But I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be one of his victims. I can’t–” The girl swallowed hard, clearly afraid even as she pushed on. “Even if all I do is help a little bit, I wanna help stop other people from feeling as terrified as I was before. No, even more terrified, because… because the Scions are worse. All the things they’ve done, everything they like to…” Again, she trailed off, taking a moment to collect herself before forcing the last words out. “ Please. I just want to help.” 

Well, shit, what exactly was I supposed to say to that? No, you’re not allowed to be brave? No, you can’t contribute to helping people, only I’m allowed to do that? Wait a minute, was this how people like That-A-Way had felt about me throwing myself into danger while refusing to join their team (before she understood why I’d done that)? Hell, was this what people felt in general about me doing this sort of stuff? Or worse, since as far as they knew I was like, twelve or thirteen? 

Eesh, how did they deal with it? 

Shaking that off, I finally agreed, “Okay. I mean, I’m not sure how it’ll go, but yeah. If you wanna help out, that could be cool. And we can like… talk about doing some other Star-Touched stuff together, if you still want. You know, to help people and to help you figure out exactly how your power works.” Taking in a breath and letting it out as I struggled not to show my own nervousness about this whole situation, I faced the girl. “If you really want to join me and my friends, and just… help people without being part of a real team, then… then that’s cool.” 

I wasn’t going to tell her the full truth about the Ministry. Not yet. But I could ease her into things, take her to meet Trevithick and the others there. Which would also, hopefully, mean Wren would have another person to come help in case something bad happened at the shop. Yeah, yeah this was a good thing. And if eventually it turned out Peyton really could be trusted with the Ministry information, that had to be good too, right? 

Anyway, it was the best plan I had right now. Yeah, it wasn’t perfect and there were definitely still ways it could go wrong. Not to mention the guilt I would feel if Peyton got hurt specifically because she was hanging around me and all my problems. But it wasn’t up to me to tell her she couldn’t help. And I couldn’t bring myself to send her off to the Minority while knowing what I did about how she would likely be exploited and used. So, this was the best compromise I had. 

While Peyton was about to respond to that, the Touched-business phone in my pocket buzzed. Turning a bit, I took it out and glanced at the screen. There was a text from Wren, saying she really needed to talk to me asap, along with a few ambulance and police emojis. Then there was an added note that there were no cops and that she and the others were fine but it really was super-important bordering on emergency and–yeah, she went on a bit in several texts. Clearly, something big had happened but it wasn’t to the point of active gunfire or anything, and they weren’t in immediate life and death danger. But it was still an emergency. One she apparently didn’t want to get into over the phone for whatever reason. 

So, exhaling, I sent back a message that I would be there soon and that I was bringing our new friend. With that, I looked back to Peyton. “Well, I guess I’m needed back at… okay, there are some things I need to tell you. I’ll do it on the way. That is, if you still want to come?” 

Peyton, in turn, nodded quickly. “I’m in. I mean, I’m as in as you want right now, I guess. I mean–” Cutting herself off, she simply shrugged. “I wanna help. I wanna participate. I um, hold on.” Pivoting, she took her own phone out, which had apparently started buzzing as well. Transforming the helmet to expose her mouth so her voice wouldn’t be muffled at all, she started talking brightly. “Hey, Mom! Nope, like I said, I’m just fine. Uh huh. Oh right, the password is peppermint patty. Uh huh. Yes, I’m positive. Thanks. Yep, I’ll be good. Bye. Bye!” Repeating the last word emphatically, she hit the disconnect button and exhaled. “Sorry, Mom’s been a bit… protective ever since the you-know-what happened. If I don’t give her the password she thinks someone’s holding a gun to my head to make me say everything’s fine.”

“So, definitely not gonna tell her what you’re up to now, huh?” I put in mildly. 

Blanching, the girl shook her head quickly. “Not on your life. She’d never understand. I mean, I love her, she loves me, all that stuff. But she’d never really understand that… that I have to help make sure no one else feels helpless like I did.” Squaring her shoulders, Peyton faced me, the mask returning to cover the bottom of her face once more. “I’m ready to go.” 

With a nod, I turned to the edge of the roof. “Right, let’s get–” I’d taken two steps before stopping with my leg raised. Pivoting back, I blanched a bit. “Uhhh, right. I’m not sure how we get you over there. Think you could run alongside me and I could paint you to places once we–” 

“Dude,” she interrupted. “Check this out.” With that, the girl looked toward the marbles hovering nearby. “Show him, guys.” 

Immediately, the gold and white marbles flew into one another before starting to shift and grow. Soon, what looked like a gold surfboard with white trim literally hovered there in the air beside the girl. Peyton, in turn, floated up off the roof herself. She literally floated up a foot or so in the air. “I can make the armor lift me up,” she announced. “Sorta like flying. The armor floats and I go with it. But I don’t really um, have the hang of it yet. Hard to keep focusing on it while the armor pulls and pushes my–yeah. It’s easier to do this.” 

With a gesture from one hand, she sent the floating surfboard under her feet before landing on it. “See? My armor bonds to it, so…” To demonstrate, she flew up another few feet before the board turned upside down with Peyton still attached. She dangled there, hanging from her feet. Or rather, from the boots of her armor, which were firmly attached to the board. “Can’t fall off!” 

“Hah, dude…” Despite myself, I was grinning. “That’s cool.” It seriously was. I’d wondered if the fact that her marbles and the things they made could hover would mean the armor could actually fly, but it made sense that the armor yanking her around through the air wouldn’t be super comfortable. Maybe she’d get used to that or learn to adjust how she made it move so that she could actually fly normally with it eventually. In the meantime, the hoverboard (or was that flyboard?) was an amazing compromise. 

“Right?!” Clearly grinning behind the helmet, Peyton flipped herself rightside up. “Now I can keep up with you.” 

“Oh, can you?” Feeling myself start to smirk, I glanced toward the edge of the roof. “Let’s find out.” 

First, of course, I texted Izzy to let her know something came up over at Wren’s that I had to check out and that she should definitely go see that second movie. 

That done, I told Peyton what area of town we were going to, using a landmark she was familiar with. Then I gave her a short nod, a thumbs up, and took off running while activating the green wings I had painted onto my shoes. Behind me, Peyton shouted something about cheating, before taking off on her board just as I reached the edge of the roof and used blue paint to spring up and forward through open air in a long flip. Instantly, as soon as my body righted itself, I used red paint to yank myself the rest of the way to a billboard, adding a bit of blue against the sign itself to spring up and forward even further. 

As I landed on the next roof, Peyton on her flying surfboard was just gliding past the sign I had bounced off of. She was crouched a bit on bent knees, urging the board to go faster to catch up with ‘that dork.’ The girl was clearly saying the last part loud enough for me to hear, so I painted a face with its tongue out on my back just before activating another bit of green I had pre-painted to keep my speed boost going as I popped my skates out and practically flew along the edge of that roof. 

That continued over the next few buildings. I built up a lead while running with the green paint active, but I couldn’t keep it going forever. Peyton would close the gap with her steady speed and ability to fly straight over or around any obstacle, while I used red paint to pull myself ahead every time we hit the edge of a roof. Once in awhile, she pulled ahead, then I would use a combination of blue, red, and green paint to regain the lead. 

It was… fun. That’s all there was to it. We laughed, teasing each other and making up ridiculous claims or faux-threats while she flew upside down over my head and swatted the back of my helmet, or when I used red paint against her board to propel myself past her in one spot where there was a large gap between buildings. I could see some people on the street stopping and noticing, but mostly I was just paying attention to trying my level best to stay ahead of Peyton. 

Then she got creative. Just as I was increasing my lead again, something thin, long, and metallic went flying past me. It looked like a whip with a grappling hook attached, which latched onto the corner of the building I had just been about to jump to. Twisting around, I saw Peyton still on her board. She had one hand extended, while the black and bronze marbles had combined to transform into that whip-grapple thing. Even as I watched, flatfooted for a second, the grapple-whip (it was a good fifty feet long, just very thin) retracted, yanking her forward and past me even faster than she could fly. Now she was getting the benefit of the two marbles that made up the board and the two that made up the whip-grapple. 

“Wha–hey!” Just as the girl flew past me with a cackle, I sprang to leap after her. “Totally cheating, you’re not supposed to figure out new tricks to your power before I get to beat you!” 

Her response, of course, was more cackling. 

From there, things were even closer. Peyton had worked out that she could separate the black and bronze marbles into separate but shorter whip-grapples, lashing them forward to either side of her to catch hold of things and then pull herself forward. Or she could combine them for the longer one whenever it was needed to reach something further away. She used them not only for additional speed, but also for fine course corrections. They let her spin around corners much faster. It was pretty damn cool, honestly. What she was doing was kind of a mix between hoverboarding and like… grappling her way from building to building. 

Still, I had been doing this for a bit longer. I knew my way around the city like this, especially when it came to getting over to Wren’s place. So, at the last second, I took an alley shortcut that was practically invisible until you were right on top of it, coming out to land on the roof we’d agreed to meet at just barely ahead of the other girl. There, I jumped up and down with my fists up even as Peyton landed beside me, her board and whips turning back into marbles. 

“Next time!” she declared. “I am so gonna beat you when we go again.” 

Snorting at that, I headed for the edge of the roof. “Yeah, we’ll see. Come on, whatever’s happening, Trevithick made it sound pretty important. 

“So let’s go see what’s on fire this time.”

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Building Connections 16-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – See my first comment after this chapter for information about voting for Peyton’s Touched name.

Well, this was just great. Absolutely perfect, really. I’d set out to find a way to gently tell Peyton that she shouldn’t be too involved in my situation (or at least figure out how to keep her out of the worst of it), and now look at what was going on. Because of course things couldn’t just be simple for once. That would be too easy. Naturally, Deicide had to call in her favor right then

I tried to tell Cavalcade that the other girl wasn’t involved in this. But she insisted that both of us come with her. Apparently the fact that Peyton had been seen helping me last night, combined with the girl being here right now, convinced her that we were just what the news said. Partners, sidekicks, whatever. Either way, she said Deicide wanted me ‘and my new friend.’ Though she did pause a bit and note that Peyton looked different than she had yesterday. But the marbles were right, and she thoughtfully murmured something about shapeshifting materials. Yeah, she wasn’t an idiot. The guys last night would’ve reported about a girl with marbles that could transform into things (like the huge battering ram that hit Juice before turning into boxing gloves that hurled him off into the sky), and there had been video of it. Peyton wearing different armor right now wasn’t going to fool Cavalcade into thinking she was someone else. 

I considered several options, but the truth was that I really did owe Deicide. She’d helped save Blackjack’s daughter, and she could’ve held out for a lot more than a favor. Plus, I was kind of afraid that pissing her off might just give Janus and Juice the excuse they needed to really come after me (or even Peyton if they saw her) with the full force of their whole gang. And that was something I really didn’t want to deal with. I kind of had enough problems as it was. 

So, with a quiet murmur to the other girl that it would all be okay, I gestured to the SUV. “Guess we’re all going for a little ride then, huh? Do we need to worry about grabbing dinner on the way? Please tell me we won’t need sleeping bags. I do not do well at slumber parties.”

Cavalcade chuckled lightly under her breath. “This shouldn’t be a long trip. But, tell you what, if you’re still hungry when it’s done, I’ll grab you both whatever you want to eat on our way back. Think of it as my way of saying sorry for interrupting whatever you had going on here.” Belatedly, she added in my direction, “And you should tell your friend over there that she can stop shaking. It’s all fine. We’re–okay, we’re not friends here. But I’m not taking you to see Juice or Janus. That ain’t the type of thing I’m into. They can do their own dirty work. Besides, Deicide already told them to back off. Which is another reason you might want to keep her happy.” 

Reaching out, I took Peyton’s hand and leaned in close to whisper once more, “It’s okay. Trust me, nothing bad is gonna happen. Better if we just go along with this for now, I promise.”  

She, in turn, gave me a brief, clearly appraising look before nodding. Her hand rose, and the four remaining marbles flew down, disappearing into a hole that had appeared in the arm of her purple and silver armor.

The two of us started to the vehicle while the other girl murmured under her breath, “Do you want to tell me why you owe the leader of the Easy Eights a favor? Cuz, last time I checked, they’re the bad guys. Actually, they’re the bad guys who tried to kill both of us yesterday.”  

“It’s like she said,” I replied quietly, “this isn’t about Juice or Janus. Deicide’s their boss. She outranks them. More to the point, she scares them. And yeah, I owe her a favor. She… uhh…” Climbing in the back of the vehicle as my words trailed off, I reached out to help Peyton up while really hoping I wasn’t making a mistake by going along with this. Once we were in, I gave her a quick version of what had happened, basically telling the girl that in order to save Blackjack’s innocent daughter, we had needed to get all her medicine vials. I told her that Deicide had one of them and had promised to hand it over in exchange for a favor from both the La Casa leader himself and me. 

For a few seconds after I finished telling her that, Peyton just stared at me. She seemed to start to say something once or twice, only to trail off. In the end, the only thing she could manage to say was a slightly weak, “You’re a really busy person, you know that?” 

The words made Cavalcade, who had started the SUV and begun pulling out of the lot by then, chuckle. “She’s got you there, Paintball. You are not exactly one to coast along.” With that, she turned a bit to look over her shoulder at us. “And speaking of ‘she’, what do I call you, girl? Cuz I don’t think something like ‘Paintball’s Sidekick’ is gonna cut it for very long.”

“Um.” Now Peyton managed to look a bit embarrassed despite only her nose and eyes being visible. “Yeah, I thought about that all day. You know, trying to figure out a name that fit me. It’s really hard!” After that outburst, she coughed and slumped a bit in the seat. “Um, I kinda threw out a bunch of ideas for being too dumb or derivative or whatever. Like, I thought about Armsmaster, but that just sounds weird. Plus I’m not a master of anything. I’m like… Armsamateur and that’s silly. And Blacksmith is too close to Silversmith, so it sounds like I’m trying to play off his name, which is just… ehhh. Not really what I’m going for.” 

Boy oh boy did I not want her to do anything that attracted my father’s attention, like having a name that was similar to his. Keeping my voice flat, I agreed, “Yeah, let’s make it your name.” 

“Then I started thinking about other words,” the girl went on. “I thought of like… I keep making armor and weapons, so a knight sort of deal. Something like an assistant sort of knight in training. Like uhh, squire or a page.” 

The last suggestion almost made me audibly choke before I caught myself. I had to take a second to make sure my voice wouldn’t be strained before managing, “I think we can do better than page.” 

“Yeah.” Slumping with a groan, Peyton lamented, “Like I said, it’s hard. Hey, Lady Kidnapper, you’ve been doing this for a long time, do you have any suggestions?” 

“First off, I’m not kidnapping you,” Cavalcade retorted. “You’re just going to have a conversation that your friend there agreed to have. You’ll be fine. Trust me, we’ve been through this before. And this time I’m not even making the kid hire me to get you out of there. And I could’ve, you know. But I’m already being paid enough to bring you here.” 

While Peyton gave me a quick, confused look at that little tidbit, I waved her off while trying not to squirm too uncomfortably. “Never mind that. What about a name like uhh… Artisan?” 

“Nah, that just makes me sound like a sandwich,” she objected. “See? Told you it’s hard.” 

Cavalcade spoke up then, having thought for the past few seconds. “From what I heard, it sounds like you make those little marble things into whatever you want, like your armor and weapons. You make things, so what about something like Artificer? Or Alloy, for the way you mix them together. Or just Marble. I mean, that’s what they look like.” 

Thinking back to the names I had thought through before settling on Paintball, I put in, “There’s Chrome or Chromatic too. Or Facade, cuz you’re making sort of…artificial armor and stuff? Or… wait a second.” Taking one of my phones out, I typed on it briefly. “Hang on, where… okay so turns out no one knows where marbles were first invented. But they were first mass produced by someone named Sam Dyke–I suggest staying away from that name, in Akron, Ohio. Maybe Akron? One sec, let me make sure that’s not a bad word. Uhhh, right, apparently it comes from an old Greek word for a summit or a high point.” 

“Akron? You think I should name myself after the city in Ohio?” After saying that, Peyton breathed out. “Yeah, maybe. Everything sounds weird right now.” 

Between the three of us, we went back and forth a bunch. Other options we came up with included Smelt, which Peyton mostly nixed based on the jokes people would play with that involving smelled, Chromatic Knight or Chroknight, Galatea for the mythological story about the statue that came to life, Mercurial, Shine, twisting Marble to Marbull, Marbelous, or Marball, Stoneshape, Iris, Palette, Color Wheel, Hexaknight, Orbits, Metallia, the Colored Cavalier, Hexalidin, or even Armory for the fact that she could make so many weapons and such out of her marbles. 

“Or,” the girl finally suggested, “I could go with something closer to like… your thing. You know, something like Pinball. Or Gumball. Those both look sorta like these marble things and they fit the Paintball theme.” 

“I have a theme now?” I managed, flushing a bit behind the mask. The two of us kind of shrugged at each other, both clearly trying to find the right thing to say. 

“Well, you’ll have to set aside some more time to think about it later,” Cavalcade informed us. “Cuz we’re here.” She had pulled the SUV into an old rundown motel, bypassing the front office before pulling backwards into a spot just in front of the room at the furthest end of the building. “For now I suggest you just answer to ‘hey you.’ Head inside. I’ll wait here for you to come out, then take you wherever you wanna go. You know, after we grab food. And hey, good luck.”

Squinting at the woman while opening the door, I muttered, “You get a kick out of saying stuff to make people nervous, don’t you, Miss Oh You’ll Be Fine It’s Just A Conversation?”  

She made an obvious snorting sound at that, waving me off. “You will be fine and it is just a conversation. But hey, I’ve gotta get my fun somewhere, don’t I? Now go on, get in there. I’d like to get this over with at some point so I can get on with my life. I don’t exactly get paid by the hour here.” 

There were a few things I wanted to say to that, but I stopped myself. Actually, it was weird how well I got along with the Sell-Touched woman, given basically every time I saw her, she was escorting me to a conversation I didn’t want to have. Huh, that was kind of a thing by now, wasn’t it? It was a little weird how many times it had happened already.  

Before going into the motel room, I stopped and put a hand against Peyton’s arm. “Listen, you don’t have to get more involved in this. No matter what she says, you don’t owe her a favor. I do. So don’t worry about it, okay? Whatever she wants to happen, if it’s something I can do without… you know,  compromising myself, then I’ll pay her back. You don’t need to do anything.” Pausing briefly, I added in an even quieter voice, “And once we’re out of this, if you want to take off and never talk to me again, I’ll understand. Trust me, I more than get it.”  

Peyton, however, shook her head. “I may not know much about what’s going on, but it sounds like you did the right thing. I mean, it’s not that kid’s fault her dad is a villain. Besides, there’s a lot worse villains than him out there.” Then she shrugged. “Plus, if helping with whatever she wants done makes her keep that big electric asshole off me, then it’s kind of a win-win.” 

Much as I hated to say it, she had a point. The Easy Eights were kept together despite lots of bad blood between them, and their individual lieutenants, out of the sheer power of Deicide and the threat of what she would do if she was annoyed at them. If she told them to stay away from us, or at least not to take it too far, they would follow the instructions. Basically, I was pretty sure they were more afraid of their boss than they were pissed at Peyton and me. So far, at least. 

So, after exchanging brief looks, the two of us moved to the motel room door and I opened it before stepping in first. Whatever happened next, I wanted to put myself in front of the other girl.

On the other side was an ordinary, incredibly dinky motel room. There was just a single bed, a long, low cabinet with a television bolted to it, an open closet with a couple metal hangers, and a bathroom. Oh, and a microwave next to the television. Finally, beside a small wooden table next to the bed, Deicide herself stood. She looked as imposing as ever, a tall, clearly feminine-armored figure made of bits of paper and pages torn from novels. A dozen more books hovered around her, half-open. When we came in, she looked our way before the open books began to randomly flip through pages. Words on the pages glowed before being spoken aloud in a booming female voice that came from the books themselves. “Paintball, and your new friend, welcome. Thank you for coming on such short notice.” The sentences were put together from words in different books, but there was no real pause between them. She had fine enough control over her power to speak in full, complete sentences simply by making the books around her flip to the right page and read out a word or two before the next one took over. 

It was impressive, yeah. But why did she do that? Was it just to show off and be impressive? Why didn’t the woman herself ever actually speak? Was there a reason for that? As someone who had to hide and disguise my own voice, maybe I was just projecting onto her. And yet, something was niggling at my brain. It felt like there was something there. 

Still, I pushed the thought back and offered the woman a shrug. “Oh, you know, it’s not like we had anything better to do.” Belatedly, I added, “Now, yesterday, we had some stuff to deal with. You know, like your people terrorizing a bunch of innocent civilians and trying to burn down their shops, destroy their livelihood, and use them as hostages. Just a few little things like that.”  

I wasn’t sure if the way Deicide spoke through the books allowed for intonations subtle enough to portray things like guilt or regret. But if she was capable of that, it didn’t show up here as she simply replied, “The Easy Eights are at best a loose alliance of forces. I hold them together at the top, but if I squeeze too hard, it will fall apart. And then Cuélebre and his gang will run over our fractured groups, gaining themselves even more power than they already have. Juice has been informed that he is not to direct his efforts to come after either of you until such time as I rescind such an order. That said, should you put yourselves in his direct path again, he will react accordingly. He will not expend effort to hunt you down, but nor will he avoid you should you be in his way or interfere again. What the three of you get up to in the middle of a battlefield is up to you. That is the most I can offer right now. And its continuance hinges on you fulfilling your side of our bargain.” 

“Right, that whole favor thing.” Grimacing, I let out a breath and glanced to see how Peyton was doing. She was silent, just staring at the Fell-Touched in front of us, so I turned back to Deicide and asked, “What exactly is it you need me to do? Don’t forget, I already said I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt people. Or lead to people being hurt.”

The paper-armored woman gave a very slight nod. “Of course, that was our agreement. As promised, the thing I wish for you to do does not entail harming or leading to anyone’s harm. Well, perhaps your own should you fail, but that is the sort of risk one takes. In fact, I dare say this is something that would greatly help this city and all the innocent civilians you care about so much, should you pull it off.” 

Okay, now I was curious. Which was clearly the intention, but still. Manipulation or not, it worked. Folding my arms, I slowly asked, “Help the city, huh? So, what exactly do you want?”  

The answer came immediately. “I think you would both agree that the Scions of Typhon are a much greater threat to the safety of this city than anyone in my organization, yes?” 

“Wha–are you fucking crazy?” That was Peyton. “We’re not going after the Scions! I don’t care how much he owes you.” She gestured to me. “That’s suicide and you know it. You can’t call in a favor to ask someone to go after those fucking psychopaths. Go jump off a fucking bridge!” With her outburst, the gold, white, bronze, and black marbles flew into view. The first two transformed into a pair of kite shields and hovered protectively in front of us while the remaining two combined to form a massive sword that was almost too large for the room.

“Stop,” I quickly put in, putting a hand on her arm. “I don’t think that’s what she’s asking. At least, I hope she’s not dumb enough to think that would fly.” 

Sure enough, Deicide (who hadn’t moved or shown any reaction to the transforming marbles) raised one hand with her palm out. “Easy. No, of course not. I happen to have some experience with assigning the right resources to the right problems. And while you may have had some luck in the past, you are not the right resource to point at the Scions. No, this isn’t about sending you after them. But I do want them to be taken off the board, just as I’m sure you do. That’s where this favor comes in. There is a witness, someone who experienced Pencil early on in his career. I believe she may know something important about how his power works, a way to exploit or stop it.” 

“If there’s some special witness, why hasn’t she helped the cops or Stars?” I put in. 

“She has been in hiding for quite awhile, out of fear of what that… man will do to her if given another chance,” came the answer. “But we’ve finally narrowed down her location enough that it should be possible to find her. I want to bring her in to answer questions, but I do not wish to traumatize the girl even more. Hence, sending you. That is my request for this favor. Find and speak with this survivor, ask what she knows about Pencil. She’s more likely to speak to a Star-Touched, particularly one like you.”

“One like–never mind.” Shaking that off, I asked, “So who is this mythical early survivor of Pencil who could maybe help take him down?” 

“Her name,” Deicide informed us, “is Amanda Sanvers.”

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Building Connections 16-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Doing a quick double-take at the other girl’s words, I reflexively blurted, “First day as a what?”

Yup, still couldn’t see her face through that helmet. But it was pretty easy to tell she was blushing. It was just the way her body language read, the way she squirmed and hesitated before seeming to set herself as she repeated, “Sidekick. I mean, it seemed a little presumptuous or whatever to say partner, you know? You’ve been doing the whole hero thing for a little while, and I’m not–I mean I never, except yesterday with the whole–and I was just there for–um.” Realizing she was rambling, the girl shrugged uncertainly. “I know it’s probably weird to like, have a sidekick that’s older than you and all, but I’m okay with that from my end. I mean, you saved–like, you’ve saved a lot of people. So, you know, I’m like… I’m okay with being your… student?” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I mean, just outright denying her would be mean and might backfire in several ways. But I couldn’t actually have her as a sidekick, right? Not really. It was way too dangerous for both of us. If she was on the level, I’d be putting her in so much danger and stress. And if she wasn’t, if she wasn’t trustworthy, I’d be exposing myself. What could I say? How could I gently deny her, or give her a different idea of what to do with herself, without screwing things up? What kind of suggestion could I make? 

Finally, I said the only thing that came to mind. “You could join the Minority, you know?” 

To my surprise, the girl snorted at that. “Well, that’s obviously a completely terrible idea.” 

“What?” I blinked, confused. “Why? What’s so terrible about joining the Minority?” 

Her even more confusing answer to that was a shrug. “I dunno. They seem pretty cool to me. Actually they seem awesome. They’ve got cool powers and they help people all the time. Plus, you know, they’re like… training for the big teams. And I hear you get a scholarship and shit for being part of them. Not just a salary, but like… super-good education benefits. And once you’re part of one of the adult teams, they help you get a good cover job or whatever. Seems cool to me.” 

My mouth opened, then shut before I managed a weak, “So why don’t you want to join them? You know, if they’re so cool and everything. I don’t get it. You just said you like them, and they have all these benefits. So what’s wrong?”

“Uh, first, my mom would never let me,” she pointed out with what sounded like a grimace. “They make you report everything to your parents, and my mother would lock me in a tower, Rapunzel-style, before she’d let me go do stuff like that. And I don’t think I can grow my hair that long. I mean, maybe someone could talk her into letting me do the simple stuff or like… something. But it’d be a big problem.” 

Hesitating, I slowly asked, “You said that’s one reason. And one you might be able to work around. What’s the other reason you don’t want to join them?”  

“You.” That was her flat response as she stared at me. Her eyes, visible through that helmet, seemed to look right into me. “You know they’re good guys. I mean, you work with them a lot. You keep showing up to help them, or calling for their help. The point is, you work with them. And you obviously know every good reason to join them that I already said. But you don’t work with them. You know they’re good, but you don’t join them. You’re good and they’re good, but you keep refusing to sign up. Even though you like, fight together sometimes, or join them on something here or there, you don’t join. You’ve needed their help before, you know they have all these benefits, they obviously want you to join. But… but you don’t.” 

When I didn’t say anything to that, my mind too busy reeling, she continued. “Yeah, I dunno what the problem is. They seem cool. They seem great. But you know all that and you still don’t join them. So obviously there’s something wrong with them. It’s not cuz you’re a loner or you hate working with people, cuz you still work with them. Just not officially. I think that probably means the problem isn’t one of them, but the adults you keep avoiding.” 

With a shrug, the girl added, “Or maybe you just don’t want to join them for my first reason. Maybe you’re avoiding letting your parents know you’re Touched and all. I mean, you are like… sorry, no offense, a kid. So first I thought that was it. But I dunno. I sort of… looked up everything I could about stuff you’ve been doing last night. I spent hours with it. Seriously, that was like, the most homework I’ve ever done. And the more I tried to understand, the more it seemed like just having protective parents wasn’t the real answer. Trust me, I deal with a super-protective mom all the time, and your thing just doesn’t feel like that. Not exactly.” 

Finally, she folded her arms, finishing with a quiet, “I dunno why you don’t want to join them. But you already saved me twice, so if you think there’s something wrong with them, I’m gonna take your word for it. Or, you know, not your word. Your… uhh, decision? Whatever.” 

For a moment, I tried to think of how to respond to that. What was I supposed to say? I could claim the first instinct was right, that I was really just trying to avoid letting my parents know about me. Which, technically, was one hundred percent true. But I was pretty sure she’d want more than that. I considered that briefly before blinking. “Wait, hang on.” Running what she’d just said back through my head, I looked back to her. “What do you mean, I saved you twice?” 

There was no response at first. Instead, the girl just stared at me. I had the feeling she was reeling inwardly for those several long, silent seconds before eventually managing a single, “Oh. I… uh.” Deflating a bit, she reached up to tap the side of her white helmet with one finger. Immediately, it popped off her head, transforming back into a small white marble. Now I could see her face. A face which, while not one I had seen much of, was still instantly familiar. 

“Wha–you!” I blurted out loud, pointing that way completely ridiculously. “It’s you! You–” The right name came to me abruptly, though I’d only heard it once. “Peyton?!” 

Squirming there on her feet, the red-haired girl offered a weak, “Hi, Paintball. Funny to see you again, huh? At least I didn’t get kidnapped by a pedo this time?”

While I was still trying to cope with the odds of all this, she quickly pressed on to tell me everything about what actually happened the day before. She told me about how she was shopping when those guys arrived, how she panicked and ran away when they told her to stay put, then got cornered in the bookstore until the orb showed up and gave her powers. 

Orb. Her saying that reminded me of the thought I’d had the day before. I’d been half-sure that I’d caught a glimpse of one of the orbs from the corner of my eye. That was the whole reason I’d turned around and looked just in time to see the Easy Eight people driving past. If I hadn’t thought I saw the orb right then, I would’ve missed them. And if I’d missed them, I wouldn’t have been at the shopping center place in time to help this gi–Peyton. And if I hadn’t been there, she might’ve–what? Would she have died? Would Juice go that far? I wasn’t–maybe. Either way, she would’ve been hurt. Or abducted. Maybe they would’ve turned her, or just injured her, or–it would’ve been bad. That was the point, it definitely would’ve been bad.

Did… did that mean the orb that gave Peyton her powers had then come to find me for help? Was–were they capable of that kind of–no. Of course not. They were just orbs. But maybe whoever was behind them had sent one to get my attention, somehow? No one knew who created the orbs, if it was some alien race or super-advanced secret society of humans or… or what. So maybe whoever sent the orb to her or… or whatever realized she was still in trouble and sent one to get my attention? But… but… that was just–that… huh. 

Well, that just opened up a whole new slew of questions that I didn’t have any chance of getting answers to any time soon. A whole lot of people much smarter than I was had been trying to figure out the truth about the orbs for a long time. I wasn’t about to solve that mystery.

Shaking all that off, I focused on the current situation. Peyton was here, the girl I’d saved from one kidnapping and then helped deal with a hostage situation. And she had figured out that I had a good reason not to join up with the Minority, even if she had no idea what that reason was. Suddenly, an already-complicated situation had become even moreso. Which was just perfect.

“Should I uhh, go grab a sandwich while you figure out what to say?” the girl hesitantly asked, offering me a somewhat lopsided smile. “I guess I could get one for you too, if you want.” 

For like the millionth time, I was grateful that my helmet and mask combination made it impossible to see when I blushed. That was an excellent costume choice on my part, really. But I quickly shook that off, focusing. I had to say something, had to explain–what? How much could I actually tell her? What… what was I going to say to the girl now that she had figured all that out? 

Finally, the solution I settled on was to take a deep breath before starting with, “Yes. I have a reason–reasons not to join the Minority or any of the Star-Touched teams. Good reasons. But… I’m not sure–I don’t think I should talk about them just yet. For my safety and yours. It’s…” Oh boy, how much further could I go with this? “It’s dangerous for anyone who knows about it.” 

Peyton was silent for a moment. She seemed to be considering that, weighing what I’d said in her mind to figure out if I was blowing her off. Eventually, she gave a short nod. “Sure, I get it. I mean, you barely know me. You don’t know me. If it’s important enough to make you not join any of the Star-Touched teams in the city, then–” A grimace crossed her face. “It must be pretty bad. And if it’s that bad, it’d be dumb to go babbling about it to every random girl you save twice.” There was another pause before she added, “You’re pretty mature for a kid, you know?” 

Oh boy did I really not know what to say to that. Or rather, a lot of potential things to say jumped into my head immediately, but none of them would’ve been a good idea. Instead, I coughed before gesturing. “I had to grow up fast. But you–you’re okay with not being told? Yet. You’re okay with not being told yet.” Somehow, I’d figure out if the girl could be trusted with the secret, and if it was a good idea to actually bring her in on it. I just needed time to sort through all of it. 

Her head bobbed a little. “Sure. Like I said, you barely know me. But seriously, if you’re not joining those guys, I’m not joining them. And I’m pretty sure I’d get in way too much trouble all by myself out there, especially since I just pissed off that Juice guy when he was like, ‘raaaawr’ and I was like, ‘yeet!’ Sooo…” Trailing off, she gestured to herself, then to me, then to herself, waggling her eyebrows in a way that made me giggle despite myself before I managed to clamp down on it.

“Okay, okay,” I made myself quickly put in. “Look, I’m really not sure about the whole… yeah. I’m not sure. But at least I can maybe help you get some idea about how your powers work and all that? You know, if you want. Though you seemed pretty good with them yesterday for just starting. Especially with the whole, uh, yeeting bit.” Yeah, that was a memory that made me smile. “I really wish someone got that on camera.” 

“What–they did,” Peyton quickly blurted. As I blinked in surprise, she stepped closer and turned, bringing up her phone to show me someone else’s video, apparently from the point of view of one of the hostages who had fled and was hiding around a corner. In the distance, you could see the three of us on the roof as the bolt of lightning hit me, then the way Peyton’s marbles formed the battering ram to slam into Juice. The person recording blurted some kind of half-curse and half-laugh just as the battering ram before shifted into the boxing gloves to hit Juice again, then scooped him up and flung him off into the distance. The half-laugh turned to a full-on guffaw. 

“Uhh, have a lot of people seen this?” I asked hesitantly as the video looped back to the beginning for additional sound effects when the Easy Eights lieutenant was sent flying. 

“Depends,” Peyton noted, checking the views. “Do you consider three hundred thousand views to be a lot? Wait, you don’t think it makes you look bad or something, do you? Cuz it’s really–” 

“No!” I hurriedly blurted, head shaking rapidly. “No, I think it makes Juice look bad, and he’s gonna be really pissed off at you. At both of us, really. But especially you. I just–uh, be careful, okay? Be really careful. I get the impression he doesn’t take being embarrassed very well.” 

“Yeah, I got that impression,” the other girl muttered under her breath, making a face before shuddering. “Believe me, I’m not about to go knock on his door selling cookies and candy bars.” Shrugging then, she added, “But you said you could help me figure out these guys?” With those words, the girl gestured to the four differently-colored marbles (silver, white, purple, and bronze) hovering in the air to the right, as well as her two-colored armor (black and gold). “Cuz right now they sorta just do what I think about them doing. Sometimes before I even actually think about it. Are your powers like that? Do they uhh, like, do stuff on their own?” 

“Nope,” I replied, stepping closer and taking both of my gloves off before gently reaching out so I could touch the purple marble curiously. It shied away from my hand, then stopped when Peyton looked at it and hovered there as I very gently brushed one finger against it. The thing felt warm, and mostly smooth but with a bit of roughness to it. Sort of like very fine sandpaper, or something like that. It seemed to almost pulse under my touch, making me jump slightly. Which made it jump. Yeah, I swore the thing bounced backward an inch or so in the air. As it did so, the other three quickly flew in as though to defend it. They didn’t snarl or anything, but I was pretty sure they would’ve if it had been possible. 

“It’s okay! It’s okay!” Peyton blurted hurriedly, stepping up behind the marbles. “Sorry, they’re just a little nervous and protective.” She hesitated before adding, “I’m not sure how I know that. I mean, I’m not just making it up. I can sort of feel what they feel? That’s pretty weird, huh?” 

Shrugging, I pointed out, “Lots of powers are weird, believe me. Here, let me try it this way.” Reaching out with my palm up, I held it close to the marbles but not quite touching them. Gradually, the purple marble lowered itself, gently touching the end of one finger before it moved to settle in my palm. It was still quivering a little bit, but stayed there while I moved my other hand up and very gently brushed one bare finger along it. After that initial moment, the marble seemed to enjoy the sensation and the others joined it. I gently brushed all of them, before looking toward the other girl. “I think your friends and I are starting to get along.” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed, “these two are jealous. Hang on.” With that, the girl seemed to focus briefly, before the gold and black armor melted off of her and transformed back into two more marbles. As soon as they did, the purple and silver marbles lifted off of my hand and flew that way. They formed into new armor for Peyton that looked slightly different. Instead of being a medieval-type chestplate and bracers and such, the new armor looked like it was from one of those Super Sentai shows, or the old Power Rangers stuff. The base suit was purple, with the silver marble making up the outlines and highlight designs up through it. Also, the silver part stretched itself up to cover her neck and throat in a sort of protective sheath before spreading across the bottom half of her face. From there, the purple armor raised itself in the back to cover the back of her head, then up over the top, stopping just above her eyes. The result left her hair entirely concealed while only her eyes and nose were exposed. 

“Whoa,” I managed just as the gold and black marbles came over to be petted. “Did you do that yourself?” My fingers gently brushed over them while all the remaining marbles crowded up for attention. 

“Uh huh.” With that confirmation, Peyton looked down at herself. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” 

“Definitely cool,” I agreed. From there, I started to say something else, but the sound of a car engine drew both of our attention over to the nearby alley. Frowning, I checked to make sure her face was still covered before pulling my gloves back on. “Careful,” I murmured. “Might be nothing, but–” 

By that point, a black SUV with heavily tinted windows had pulled up just in view, through the alley. There was a brief moment of silence and I was about to tell the other girl we were leaving, when the driver-side door opened and a familiar figure stepped out. 

“Cavalcade?” I blurted, while Peyton made a noise of surprise behind me. Yeah, it was the Mercenary Sell-Touched woman who made rapid-fire duplicates to simulate super speed. Among other uses. 

“Hey, kid,” the woman greeted. “Ah, kids, I guess. Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. But we need to take a little ride.” 

“What?” My head shook. “It’s not time to talk to Glitch yet.” Behind me, I heard Peyton half-whisper that name, clearly baffled by this whole situation. 

“No, you’re right,” Cavalcade confirmed. “This isn’t about Braintrust. It’s about Deicide.

“She’s calling in that favor.”

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Commissioned Interlude 8 – The Bees And The Termites (Summus Proelium)

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At one time, a road had led all the way into Merit, Kansas. Back when there had been an actual Merit, Kansas. Before a series of mistakes, overreactions, and bonehead decisions by relatively few people had doomed not only the first contact between humans and an intelligent hive of Touched-Termites. A few paranoid, drunk types who happened to be the first people the termites attempted to contact. They, of course, lashed out and killed a lot of them. Then they went to get their friends to chase down more, trying to wipe out the ‘monsters.’ By the time anyone with actual authority (or simply a brain between their ears) knew anything about what was going on, the war had already begun. And it was a war the human citizens of Merit lost, as soon as the termites began to melt down every material object in the city with that fog stuff they could project.

It was Mayor Gilbert Sullivan (yes, he had heard all the jokes) who had made the decision to evacuate. Many in the town had wanted to stay. Now that the fighting had started in earnest, they figured it wouldn’t be hard to stomp on, poison, or otherwise kill the termites if they just stuck it out. But Gilbert, a very young mayor in his mid-twenties, had insisted that the point wasn’t whether they could wipe out the termites, but whether they should. And in his mind, there had been too much death already. Against the advice of several on the city council and his own police chief, Mayor Sullivan had the town evacuated, ordering everyone to take anything they could carry and escape. They’d had fire engines, garbage trucks, police cruisers, every vehicle either owned by the town or capable of being commandeered loaded down with everything and everyone they could carry. And then they had simply left. 

Once the place was evacuated, the military had been called in, and since that day no one had gone within several miles of the town. All access points were blocked off, and the grounds in between were patrolled both on foot and by drones. Until they had some idea of how to settle things with the termites properly, the citizens of Merit had been compensated for their losses out of the funds set up to handle large-scale Touched damages (commonly used to aid neighborhoods and cities in recovering from Collision Points), which itself was funded through a mixture of taxes and merchandise sales across every country who contributed a member to Armistice. For one year, those blockades had stood. After the first couple humans attempting to negotiate had failed to convince the now-rightfully paranoid termites of their peaceful intentions, things had been locked behind politicians debating the situation at the state and national level. 

Finally, one pencil-pusher at a desk somewhere had managed to state an obvious idea to the exact right person at the exact right time. It wasn’t the first time that idea had been bandied about, but in this as in so many other cases, it was about who heard the idea and when. 

In this particular case, the idea was heard and pushed along by the right person, until FBI Agent Izan Deans was finally appointed to follow through. Following through, in that situation, meant traveling to Eastland (soon to be Honeyland), Oregon in order to contact a hive of Touched-Insects that humans actually had pleasant contact with, to ask for their help in negotiating with the Termite hive in order to bring a fully peaceful resolution to the entire messed up scenario everyone had found themselves in. 

His trip to Oregon was successful, and now Izan himself (a Latino man in his early-to-mid thirties with crew-cut black hair and a clean-shaven face) had returned with a few friends in tow in order to have the negotiations with the termites. At least, that was the idea, anyway. In practice, things were a little more complicated. Because of course they were. 

“You need an escort, Agent Deans. I don’t know how to put it any simpler than that.” The man talking wore national guard fatigues and wore rank insignia marking him as a colonel. He was clearly close to retirement, or should have been, with a very balding head and the barest wispy hint of white hair. His pale skin was marked by several old scars, while his eyes were sharp, glaring intently at the man in front of him. “No one goes in that town without a squad of my men walking you through. I don’t care what sort of diplomatic namby pamby hakuna matata mission you’re on. You ain’t getting in there without the help of my men.” 

“Would that be the men with the flamethrowers, Colonel Rodon?” Izan asked, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses so the man in front of him couldn’t see them roll. “Somehow, I think that might give the locals in there the idea that we’re not serious about this being a peaceful talk.” 

Straightening up to his full, still less-than-impressive height of five feet, seven inches, Colonel Rodon gave Izan an even harder stare. “And if something happens to you and your little… friends while you’re in there, we end up in an even worse situation. I’m not saying I want to send a whole battalion in there with you. Just a little protection in case things go sideways. Cuz if they do, and those friendly insects you’ve got end up dying, we could go from having a hostile situation with one hive to a hostile situation with two of them. Diplomacy ain’t about looking or being weak.” 

“If we may, Colonel.” Those words were projected, in perfect chorus, from a small swarm of thirty bees that had flown up in formation together directly to the side of Izan’s head so they could look at Rodon. Their voices were projected from tiny speakers on the bottom of their abdomens that were connected through their brains to a chip on the back of their thoraxes. 

The colonel, for his part, still looked a little disconcerted. But he kept it together and gave a slight nod. “Yeah, what is it, ahhh, what do I call you all anyway?” 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” came the chorused response from all thirty. “And it would be our pleasure to explain, you would not be at war with our hive-queen should the worst happen due to our choices. We understand this is a dangerous situation, and have all volunteered for this service knowing the risks. The only thing that could lead to a strained relationship would be your refusal to abide by our requests, or those of Agent Deans, causing our deaths.” 

“Yeah, and I’d be pretty ticked off too,” Deans himself put in casually. “Now, you know what the guy who managed to set this whole thing up said. He got those termites to agree to a meeting with the bees and one human. That’s me. Not one human and a squad with flamethrowers. Not even one human with a flamethrower, before you even suggest it. Me and the bees. The bees and me.” Turning his head slightly to look at the insects hovering beside him, he added, “Which of those sounds like the better band name?” 

“The Bees And Me,” came the immediate response from all thirty insects. “Definitely that one.” 

With a nod, the agent turned back toward Rodon. “Look, if you prefer, we can take this up the line and some pencil-pusher behind a desk, or some guy just looking to get re-elected, can tell you what I already said. The risk is mine and theirs to take.” He gestured to the bees. “We know what’s at stake here, believe me, Colonel. Let us go in there and see what we can do. I’d say something stupid about the worst thing that could happen, but, I think we both know this whole situation could legitimately get a lot worse. That’s why we’re all here. You’ve been here on guard duty around this town long enough. Let us go in there, talk to these termites, and see if we can get you and your men assigned somewhere else. I’m sure you’d all like to go home and be done with this whole thing.” 

There was a long, silent pause while the man stared at him indecisively. Finally, Colonel Rodon heaved a long, heavy sigh. It sounded as though he was going against his better instinct. “Yeah, if I give up this shot at getting out of here, my husband might just kill me himself. Fine. You go in there with the bees. But if you have to come running out again without any clothes cuz those termites went and melted them off your naked tookus, don’t cry to me about it. You understand me, son?” 

“Completely, sir,” came the response. “No crying about my potentially-naked tookus to you.” 

As one, the hovering bees turned in the air to look at their companion. Their combined voices were curious. “Isn’t any body part that is not already literally naked, potentially so?” 

“Any body part that is not already naked is potentially naked.” Saying that out loud, Deans added, “And with that, you have summed up at least half of the thought process for every teenager between the ages of about thirteen to seventeen.” 

“Oh yes,” the bees droned, “puberty.” 

 On that note, the group was waved past the barricade and proceeded to move along the road. Well, for as long as the road lasted. It only went on, pavement wise, for another hundred yards. Then the concrete ended, where the termites have finished stripping it. In its place was a wide dirt path with a single narrow stone walkway that had clearly been recently added. According to the message that Deans had received, going anywhere except on that narrow path would be a bad idea. It would be seen as hostile, and there were members of the termite colony who were watching for just such a betrayal. 

So, he stayed on the path, while his companions flew, mostly silently, beside him. They continued on for another mile or so before reaching the very outskirts of the place that had once been Merit. 

At the end of that mile, a very… interesting sight waited for them. Spaced a couple feet apart all along the remains of the former road were a dozen dogs with wagons hooked to them by harnesses. In the back of each of those wagons was what looked like a small ballistae, complete with a loaded spear. A small glass orb, about five or six inches across, sat at the front of each wagon, and they could see a termite in each. They were clearly the drivers of the dog-powered wagons, waiting right there for the new arrivals.

We will have your names. 

He had been warned about the telepathic voices, but it still made Deans jump slightly. An act he regretted, but apparently the termites were either cooler headed than the humans they had first met, or they were under very strict orders not to fire unless there was a truly hostile act. Either way, he exhaled and started with, “Agent Izan Deans, with the FBI. You should be expecting me. And this… well, they speak better for themselves.” He had intended to introduce them himself, but in that moment, the man had a flash of inspiration that it might go over better if he treated his companions like equals. 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” the bees chorused. As a group, they flew ahead of Deans, splitting into two smaller, fifteen-member-sized swarms a moment later. One such group stayed just a few feet in front of him, while the other flew about half the distance closer to the termite-driven wagons. 

It was that second, closer group that spoke next. “It would be our pleasure to speak with you and yours about the troubles you have had with humans.” 

Troubles. That single word was filled with a mix of scorn and sorrow. Regret. There was regret there. How much of it was regret that things had gone poorly, and how much was regret that they had even tried, Deans wasn’t sure. All he knew was that this was a chance to fix that. 

Yes, we have had troubles. Those of us who were most excited to speak with humans, those who loved them the most, were slaughtered. Massacred with no mercy or thought. Those are the troubles we have had. 

“Yeah, my people can be real stupid sometimes,” Deans announced. “I know you’ve rejected everyone else who’s tried to say it, but there are plenty of us who are horrified by what happened. But then, I think you know that. That’s why you’ve let a few negotiators in now and then. You even trade with a couple people. You haven’t given up entirely. That’s why you agreed to this meeting.” 

There was no response to his words. At least, none that he heard. Instead, silence filled the air for a few long seconds before the two bee swarms, which had rejoined one another, simply said, “Yes.” At first, he thought they were agreeing with him belatedly. Then there was silence once more before they said, “No. Many people. Yes. Because they are our friends. Yes, we were fortunate.” 

He was only hearing one side of the conversation, the man realized. So, he stood silently and waited for another minute of that before a few chimes filled the air and several of the dogs abruptly began to move forward, turning in a wide circle to leave a path open. 

You will all come this way, the voice in his head instructed. Our spokesman awaits. He speaks for the queen. There was a deliberate pause, then, You will never see the queen. 

Yeah, that was fair. Especially after what had happened. Exchanging a look with the bees, Deans began to walk that way. They, or rather he, was escorted on all sides by those ballistae-armed wagons. Which made him nervous, but he kept it in check and just walked. 

There were no houses left in town, nothing the termites could have stripped down and used for their constructions. Practically all he saw that indicated where the town’s buildings had been were a few foundations here and there. 

Eventually they reached what his own studies had said was once where the city hall had stood. Now, like everything else, it was a vacant lot. In the middle was a tree stump that stood about four feet high. Under escort by the dog wagons, he approached that way before coming to a stop directly in front of it. Only then did he see the tiny figure waiting on that stump. It was another termite, though this one was different from the others. Larger than the others, with wings. Not a queen, of course. An alate, if he had the word right. Either way, it perched there, waiting for his approach. 

Agent Deans, Diplomatic Swarm Alpha, the alate’s telepathic voice spoke. Somehow, it ‘sounded’ different from the one that had been speaking in his head before. I am Horse-Spoon-Eleven. I will be speaking the negotiations on behalf of our queen. Rest assured, she is aware of all that occurs and is said here today. I speak her words. You have been escorted here today by the lead of Bird-Chair-One. 

With a simple nod, Deans replied, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. And you too, Bird-Chair-One.” He was assuming that was the one who had been speaking before, though that didn’t really answer which wagon had held the one in question. Either way, he continued. “It was my original belief that an actual diplomat would be talking to you with my friends here today. But I was told you refused to talk to anyone except the FBI agent who brought the bees to begin with. Which is funny, because up to that point, we weren’t aware that you knew that an FBI agent was the one bringing them at all.” 

We have learned to seek out and treasure intelligence about what our… There was a brief pause before Horse-Spoon-Eleven amended, About what others whose actions may affect us are doing. And we have no desire to entertain the platitudes of those paid to argue for a living. Queen Lion-Sapphire-Zero wishes to speak to you and the emissaries from the Oregon hive. No others. 

“Okay, well–” Deans started, only to be interrupted. 

Not yet, Agent Deans. Apologies, but we are not prepared to speak with you until we hear directly from the representatives of Apis mellifera. We wish to know… why they work so closely with their own humans. And how.

Thus began another conversation the man himself was not a part of. This time, however, he was at least able to hear all of it. Standing quietly, he listened as the termite and his bee companions went back and forth about what exactly had led the Honeyland Hive to their current peaceful conditions with the humans there. Once in awhile, another termite approached and demanded to know if the bees wouldn’t be better off on their own rather than relying on ‘undependable humans.’ But the Diplomatic Swarm insisted that the benefits of cooperation outweighed the risks, and that the humans of the town were their friends. 

Finally, Horse-Spoon-Eleven summed it up as, To our queen, it is seeming that the path to peace is one of usefulness. And yet, we do not believe any level of use would make those of this place wish for our presence. Nor would we feel safe. 

After a brief pause at that until it was clear they were waiting for him, Deans managed a slow nod. “Yeah, we sort of figured that. We don’t see a peaceful resolution coming from you staying here.” 

Do tell us, Agent Deans, came the response, how do the humans see this ending? 

Oh boy was this far beyond his pay grade. With a sigh, Deans hesitated before deciding to go all in. “Well, I think it’s safe to say that nobody wins when it comes to our current situation. We know you’ve been building up a bunker, and that it would probably take a hell of a lot to punch through it if the more… trigger-happy among us ever get their way. And we know that you’ve probably got some of your own people spread out anywhere they could get to so they can do a hell of a lot of damage elsewhere if it goes that way. This whole thing goes violent and both our sides are gonna end up losing a lot. Thing is, there’s a lot more people on our side and a lot more stuff. More than you can break. You’d do a lot of damage, but you wouldn’t win. Not in the end. And us? We’re not exactly the good guys any way you slice it. Losing everything your people would wipe out just so we can kill off an intelligent species? Like I said, nobody wins in this situation. Just losers all the way around.”

Yes, that is our estimation too. The termite representative was staring intently at him, which was a disconcerting feeling. At best, such a conflict would be a matter of doing as much damage as possible before your people destroyed us. There was a long pause then, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven added, I was one of those who was most excited to meet the humans before, Agent Deans. I had many friends who were killed by the intolerant among you. A hard lesson to learn, but an important one. There are humans who will never accept us. And yet, as we have both said, this conflict will only end poorly. 

“Then let’s change it,” Deans put in. “You’re right, the Honeyland bees have a great relationship with the humans there. Those people are already accustomed to living with Touched-Insects, and they know how useful that can be. I’m sure you can all help each other out.” 

You would have us leave the place we have spent all of our time and effort to fortify, to go somewhere new? The tone of the termite’s response wasn’t exactly a refusal, more curiosity. 

Deans, in turn, nodded. “Look, I know you got burned really bad on that leap of faith before. But I don’t think you really have another option here. We’ve already been over it. If this keeps up, everyone loses. At least if you go to Honeyland, your colony has a chance of surviving.” 

The response that came was silence. The termite turned away from him, seeming to look off at nothing. He had the impression that it was conferring with others, before finally turning to the bees. Would you trust this man in our situation? 

“Agent Deans has proven himself an honorable human and worthy of respect,” Diplomatic Swarm Alpha chorused. “And the humans we live and work alongside would be happy to have a second hive–pardon, colony to work with. We believe that bees and termites could do much good together, for all of our peoples.” 

Again, there was silence for awhile as the termites conferred, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven eventually announced, We would have one request. The work that we have put into our bunker cannot be ignored or dismissed. If we are to travel to this Oregon, we would have the bunker extracted and taken with. And we would have you along for every step of that journey, Agent Deans. To avoid any… mistakes. 

Exhaling in relief, Deans gave a short nod. “Of course. Whatever it takes, I’m sure we can work up something. Especially with help from your new partners here.” He gestured to the bees. “But I’m going to have to bring some other people in and hammer out the full details.” 

One of the dog-pulled carts approached, and Horse-Spoon-Eleven seemed to gesture with one hand. Go with Bird-Chair-One to… hammer these details, as you say. We will await hearing more. 

The winged termite then sat silently upon the stump while the human and his bee companions moved off with their designated escort. Only once they were out of earshot did another voice speak. Another human voice. 

“Does this mean our deal is off?” 

Horse-Spoon-Eleven turned to where two human figures in metal armor had appeared from seemingly thin air. No. It is as I believe you humans say, do not put all of your eggs in one basket. We will send half of our colony to this Honeyland to see what the humans there have to offer. The other half will fulfill our agreement with you. We will come to your city and work as you would like, in exchange for your protection and aid. 

“Excellent,” the male figure murmured. “That’s excellent news, isn’t it, White?” 

“Indeed, Gold,” the female figure agreed. “And have no fear, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. 

“The Ministry will take very good care of you and yours. We keep our deals.”

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