Summus Proelium

Fault 10-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Back when the fact that Seraph Hills had the piece of equipment Wren needed to complete that suit had come up, I’d completely dismissed the idea of actually breaking into the place. Because while it was a ‘university’ in the strictest sense (with attached teaching hospital), it was also the Detroit headquarters of the Seraphs themselves. Hence the name. And the Seraphs were… dangerous. Private security team or army, whichever one wanted to call them. The point was, they were not ones to be fucked with. There was a reason they were able to keep their appointed locations safe and enforce neutral zones around medical places. 

Except for that children’s hospital that Pencil and his people attacked, but that was one of the biggest reasons the Scions had been sure to block all communication out of the area. It kept the Seraphs from noticing what was happening and responding. And apparently the ones who were stationed at the hospital itself were drawn away somehow. I still wasn’t sure on the specifics, but it was clearly a big deal behind the scenes that the public was only seeing a tiny hint about. I’d heard my dad on the phone defending the Seraphs to the mayor and pointing out that it was her decision to have minimal Seraph forces in the hospital at the time. Something about having protection for the route the VIP’s would be taking on their way in and out of the area. 

So yeah, the point was, I chose not to even attempt to break into that place at the time. Now here I was, about to go in there willingly… and I still wasn’t going to try to sneak in. Nope. Sure, Hallowed had made a comment about me maybe giving it a shot, but without having recorded evidence of him saying that? I wasn’t going to play that kind of game. No, thank you. Especially not right after I’d just gone through all that shit with those idiot kidnappers and Braintrust. 

Instead, I just strolled right up to the front gate (the medical school was surrounded by a well-guarded wall that looked like stone but was obviously something stronger) and looked at the guard in the little hut there while he watched me over the top of his ipad. “Hiya,” I started when it was clear the man wasn’t going to speak first, “appointment for Paintball with Hallowed? I know I’m late, but you would not believe the traffic.” 

The man didn’t smile. He just stared at me for another few seconds, like he was sizing me up. Then he set down the ipad and announced in a flat, emotionless voice, “Prove you’re him.” 

That was the same thing the cop on my way into the courthouse had said. Did bad guys or nut jobs dress up as established Touched a lot and try to fake their way into places? That sounded dangerous for everyone involved. In any case, I did so, touching my hand against the nearby wall and insta-painting a cartoonish rendition of the guard himself. “Good enough?” I asked. “Or would you prefer a whole comic page? I could make you fight Dracula or something.” 

“My kids would like that,” the man replied, apparently taking it entirely seriously. “Not on the wall, but a book. Think it over and let me know what you charge. I can give you a fair price for it.” 

Taken aback that my joke had been treated like an actual offer, I stumbled a bit over my words. “Oh, umm, I–yeah, I can–I mean I’ll think about… right, yeah. Wait, are you being serious?” 

“My son likes that sort of thing,” the man informed me. “In fact, if I bring you a picture of him, could you involve him in the story? His birthday’s coming up and I didn’t know what to get him.” 

Quickly, I nodded. “Um, uh, sure, yeah, I mean… let me–yeah. I can totally whip something up for you.” 

“Don’t whip it up,” the man retorted, taking my words literally once more. “If I’m paying you for it, I want you to spend some time to make it right. Come visit after your appointment, we can hash out the details. I’ll talk to my ex and find out what kind of things Josh might like in a story.” 

After I hurriedly agreed and promised to come back to talk to him about the details of the picture book for his son’s birthday, the man buzzed me through the gate, with instructions to follow the sidewalk beyond to a labeled waiting area, where I would be met and taken to my meeting. 

Stepping through the open gate, I looked around. It looked like… well, a university campus. There were several clearly school-related buildings arranged in a vague U shape straight ahead of me, with a grassy area in the middle where students were walking around, sitting under trees, or on benches that lined the twin brick paths. To the right were a line of what looked mostly like administrative and faculty buildings. 

Off in the distance to the left I could see the actual teaching hospital. They took real patients and everything there, it was just that a lot of the medical personnel were still learning. Or something like that. The hospital was set away from the rest of the campus, with a whole small park area separating them. I was still near the school part, and the guard’s directions sent me even further away from the hospital, to the right along the sidewalk where those administrative buildings were. Ahead, I saw the promised sign pointing me into a small, two-story structure with a lot of windows. 

On the way to that building, I passed a few groups of students. A few looked up, but no one said anything. They were all either too absorbed in hurrying to their next class, or they were just so accustomed to seeing Touched around there, given it was the Seraph base, that it just didn’t phase them at all. Probably a bit of both. 

Either way, no one bothered me. Though I did get a couple distracted waves before making it to the labeled welcoming center. Stepping through the doors, I saw a lot of posters and informational fliers about new student acclimation, applying for scholarships, registration, that kind of thing. Crazy stuff for a Welcome Center to have, for sure. 

The elderly woman behind the nearby counter looked up as I came in and offered me a smile. I’d never actually met my grandparents, but it still made me think of a grandmotherly expression. “Oh, hello, dear. I hope that poor girl you were trying to help is safe now?” 

“Yup,” I replied easily, “she’s fine. Ticked off at the guy who thought ‘no you’re a gross old pervert’ meant ‘throw me in the back of your car to woo me’, but other than that… yeah.” I was trying to play it off a bit, but seriously, that whole situation just gave me the heebie jeebies. To say the least. Outside of the Touched-Tech gun, that had all just been a normal creep kidnapping the teenage girl who told him to buzz off after he catfished her online. In some ways, that was worse than the totally outlandish stuff I’d already seen. Because it was just… normal. In a totally skeevy, horrible way. 

Making a tutting sound at that news, the old lady primly announced, “Young men like that need a stern talking to. And a good visit from a wooden spoon on their knuckles. You remember that, yes? Doesn’t matter how famous and popular you get in the course of all this superheroing and such, you treat your young ladies with respect. Or young men, if that’s your fancy. Don’t make no never-mind to old Tricia.” 

My small smile was hidden behind the mask and helmet, as I nodded. “Don’t worry, ma’am, if I ever acted like that guy, I might just break my own jaw. I’d sure deserve it. And trust me, he’s gonna have a good long time to think about what he did. Well,” I amended thoughtfully, “a long time anyway. I don’t know about good.” 

Picking up a nearby glass bowl full of hard candy, the woman insisted, “That’s good to hear. Now, you take a handful of these and have them later, you hear me? Miss Patchwork will be here to see you soon. Until she makes it, feel free to have a seat right over there.” With the bowl, she pointed toward some leather chairs arranged in the corner near a television that was playing some news station. That was probably how the lady here had seen what I’d been up to earlier.

“Patchwork?” I echoed while obediently taking a few pieces of candy. I knew who that was, but… “I guess that means I’m not seeing Hallowed today?” 

“I’m afraid he’s a bit busy at the moment,” Tricia informed me. “Don’t you worry, Miss Patchwork will take very good care of you. She’s a sweet girl.” 

That, apparently, was the cue for one of the nearby interior doors to basically slam open. The costumed girl who emerged seemed to be in her late teens or early twenties. She wore black leather pants, motorcycle boots, a black mesh shirt over dark green body armor that covered her upper half, black motorcycle gloves, and a green visor that matched the armor across the top of her face, between her nose and forehead. Her hair was dyed green and cut short and spiky. 

“Hey you!” the new arrival demanded, pointing my way. “You’re that fucking… guest newbie guy I’m supposed to put to work or whatever, right? Come on, I’ve got shit to do, let’s go.” She whistled while making a ‘round up’ gesture with her finger, pivoted on her heel, and headed back the way she’d come. “Move your ass, we don’t have all day!” 

“Don’t worry, dear,” Tricia assured me in a low voice, “she’s really quite pleasant when you get to know her.” 

So, I followed, of course. We passed out of the waiting area and into a narrow corridor. As the two of us approached some kind of laser grid security system, the older girl glanced at me. “So, I know you’re Paintball. You know who I am?” 

“Patchwork,” I replied simply. “You heal people. Um, sort of.” 

She snorted at that while stopping by the laser grid and looking at me once more. “Heal people, sort of. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I touch anything that’s alive, focus on one specific part of them like their leg, their lungs, their eyes, and then I can copy the state of that part onto anyone else I touch within five minutes. Say Billy Bob has a busted leg, I can touch Susie-Q’s perfectly intact leg, copy that perfect intactness, and then touch Billy Bob and heal the leg. You know what my two limitations for that are?” 

I hesitated before answering slowly. “Um, you can’t copy your own physical state, you need someone else to touch for the healing to work. Plus it’s really specific, like, you can’t copy someone’s left leg to heal someone’s right leg. And um, it’s really temporary if the person doesn’t have powers.” 

“Two hours,” Patchwork confirmed. “If the person I’m healing isn’t Touched, everything I do disappears in two hours and they go back to the way they were. Works pretty well for stabilizing them to get to a hospital, but it’s no miracle cure.” 

“It’s still really cool,” I assured her. “Plus, maybe you can’t copy your own physical state, but you still do that cool transformation thing.” 

That earned me a toothy smile. Very toothy. She literally showed wolf fangs before winking. “It is pretty cool, huh?” 

It was. She wasn’t limited to just copying the physical state of things when she touched people (or animals). She could also copy the parts themselves and then make them appear on herself any time she wanted after that. Like the wolf fangs she was showing me. Or a giant turtle shell I’d seen her manifest in a video once. Apparently, if she used her power on something enough times and manifested all the different parts at once, she could do full shape-shifting. Animal or human. Between that and the healing aspect of her power, yes, it was very cool. 

When I nodded, she continued. “Great, so here’s the deal. You, unlike all those ninnies running around out there, are Touched. So, if you’re doing your superhero thing and you get hurt, you gimme a call and next time I’ve got space and energy to squeeze you in, I’ll see what I can do. Fair?” 

“Uhh… yeah, fair.” I quickly nodded, a bit overwhelmed by all that. “Call you if I need healing.” 

“Not all the fucking time,” she was quick to snap. “I mean if you really need it. I ain’t your own personal fucking medic. Got lots of people who need it, and I don’t fucking relish being anyone’s living band-aid. And if it’s not life or death, you sure as shit better be ready to pay for it, either with cash or some kind of trade, favor, whatever. But yeah, if you need it and you’re ready to pay, give a shout and I’ll see what I can do. Especially if it helps keep your identity secret. We all know what a bitch that can be.”

That much said, Patchwork tapped some kind of code into the nearby console, and the laser grid deactivated. Then she waved me through and we walked on. “Anyway, you’re here to do something useful to make up for taking our shit without permission. And that starts right in here.” 

With that, she stopped at a door, pushing it open to reveal a place that looked… well, it looked like a tornado had hit it. The room was maybe a hundred feet by forty feet, rectangular, and a total and complete disaster area. Seriously, the walls were peeling and looked ugly, there were some holes in them, the whole floor was covered in various bits of debris, overturned chairs, broken desks, a half dozen filing cabinets were overturned and had papers strewn everywhere, and more. It looked like a tornado hit the place. 

“Yeah, looks like shit, huh?” the girl beside me bluntly remarked. “We had some… issues in here. It’s been like this for awhile. Long story and I ain’t getting into it. Point is, you’re gonna clean it up. See all those papers and folders and shit? Get all that off the floor. Move the filing cabinets into the room across the hall, fill them with the folders in alphabetical order. Take the broken furniture, rubble, and everything else that can’t be fixed down the hall to the freight elevator and then down to the bottom floor and stack it on the loading dock you’ll see there. Then use the phone in the hall, dial zero and ask for Bernard. Tell him you need help fixing up the holes. When that’s done, you can paint the floor and walls something nice and pleasant for kids to be around. This place is gonna be some kinda playroom or something. You can go elaborate with images they’ll like, or just keep it basic. Whatever, I don’t care.” 

That all said, the woman watched me for a moment before dryly adding, “And don’t worry, we don’t expect you to do all that in one day. Come in whenever you get some time, do a bit of work, then leave again.” 

“And the umm, the lasers?” I asked, glancing into the hall. 

“I’ll give you a guest code to get past them,” she replied. “It’ll let you on this floor, into the freight elevator to go straight down, and give you phone access. Do I really have to–” 

“Don’t wander, got it,” I confirmed, giving her a thumbs up. “Just clean this place up, make it pretty for the kids, and I can come whenever I get some free time.” 

“Just don’t make us wait months without seeing progress,” Patchwork retorted, before pivoting on her heel. “There’s one more thing when you’re done with all this, but his royal highness told me to wait until then. You need anything else?” Even as she asked it, the woman was almost out the door. 

“Um, no, I think I get the–” I started. 

“Two, one, zero, nine,” she called back. “Two, ten, nine. That’s your guest pass to get in, got it? Shouldn’t be an issue because Tricia won’t let anyone past her who isn’t supposed to be here. But still, redundancies. Check in with her anytime you come in, put in the guest pass at the security system there whenever you pass through it, then check out with Tricia or whoever happens to be sitting there whenever you fuck off, got it? Oh, and our regular working hours start at six and end at midnight, so don’t show up outside of those hours.” 

With that, she was gone, off to do… whatever her next job was. Watching the empty doorway for a moment, I finally shrugged and turned to the room in front of me. 

Right… well, time to get to work. A little manual labor wouldn’t be too bad, right? 

*****

Fuck manual labor. 

Okay, okay, it wasn’t that bad. And God knew I could use the actual work. It definitely wouldn’t kill me. I just… definitely wasn’t accustomed to this sort of thing. At least having my purple paint for strength and red paint to move things around (with orange to protect it from damage) helped with the heavier stuff. But still, a lot of it was just… boring. It took most of the first couple hours just to start getting some kind of organization and to get most of the folders and bits of paper that I could see (moving some of the furniture pieces to get at buried piles), and to move the filing cabinets themselves into the other room. Never mind sorting through all those files to put them in alphabetical order in the cabinets. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. I would have to go back soon. But for the moment, I was done. As I was on my way out the door, however, my work phone buzzed. I checked, and the message was from Eits. It read, ‘Got bit 4 thing we talked about. U good 2 read? What did u help me get from roof?’ 

Right, he wanted me to tell him that it was safe to send sensitive information, and proof I was the right person. Glancing around, I sent back, ‘Yes. Baseball.’ 

A moment later, the next message came in. ‘Got records from middle school on Banners, link to file at bottom. Adopted age twelve, earlier records heavy sealed. Need physical access 2 get further. No link 4 Banners/Anthony Tate. No link 4 Banners/supervillain. No Tate school records. Homeschooled. Need info on crash that killed Tate family, check survivor.’ 

Frowning, I sent back a quick, ‘Survivor?’ 

The response came, ‘Security consultant. Went with Tate family to Texas. Was in car at crash. Survived. Gave witness testimony. Retired. Picture coming.’ 

A moment later, the promised image came in, and I did a double-take. I knew the guy I was looking at! I knew him! It was Robert Parson, this guy who used to drive me around when I was younger. He was basically a bodyguard, then he just sort of… disappeared. I remembered really liking Rob–Bobby. I called him Bobby. 

But what did my old bodyguard have to do with Anthony Tate? Why was he with the family when they crashed down in Texas? I.. did he kill them? The thought made my blood go cold. Did my old bodyguard, the guy I remember thinking was so cool and brave… kill that little boy and his family? 

One thing was for sure… I was going to find out.

Previous Chapter

Fault 10-02 (Summus Proelium)

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So, there I was. Standing in an alley facing twelve men with Tech-Touched guns, my hand held by the teen girl that I’d been rescuing from what I thought were normal (if well-armed) kidnappers. The space was wider than a typical alley given it opened up into the space behind these buildings. But the part where the men were standing was still narrow enough that they were all bunched up. Actually, bunched up as they were, maybe I could get some blue paint at their feet and really throw off–

“Don’t do it, Paintball.” That voice came from behind me, and I spun quickly, putting myself beside the girl with my right side mostly facing the group of armed men so I could keep track of what they were doing out of the corner of my eye. To my left as I glanced that way, I saw a single figure. He stood about seven feet tall, but that was deceptive, because his legs and arms were both very clearly artificial. They looked like the limbs from the endoskeleton of the T-800 Terminator from the Schwarzenegger movies. He’d replaced his limbs with robotic prosthetics.  

While the man’s metal arms and legs were exposed, his torso was covered in black armor sculpted to his muscular body (or at least made to look like his body was muscular) with the insignia of an F slightly in front of a W on the upper left portion of the chest, both letters looking like they were made out of girders. Given they were kind of silver against a black background, you had to squint a bit to make them out. Finally, his face was covered by a black helmet with three glowing red dots on the front, two where his eyes would be and one where his mouth would be. 

I knew this guy. Well, not personally, of course. But he was called Framework. His whole deal was attaching Tech-Touched devices and weapons to his body and deploying them as needed. When he was in battle, he tended to appear in any of several full-on personal mech suits, which ranged in size from basically what he was now, all the way up to his full twenty-foot tall version.

Oh yeah, he was also one of the Fell-touched of Braintrust, the Tech-Touched gang. Which made sense, considering a bunch of their minions were currently blocking my exit from the alley. 

“Gee,” I started quickly while glancing back and forth between the assortment of troops and the Fell-Touched man himself, “are times really so hard for you Tech villains that you have to resort to using a whole army to kidnap one girl? I bet there’s an online training course you can take to learn how to be competent villains and get all the way up to robbing banks in no time if you try.”

Shockingly, that was apparently the wrong thing to say, as all the men to my right abruptly raised their weapons with a collective sound of annoyance and anger (though I swore at least one guy snickered a little bit before it was quickly cut off at a look from his companions) at the insult.  

Thankfully, Framework raised his voice. “Stop.” He looked to the troops sharply, waiting until they relented before turning his attention back to me. “We didn’t come to start a brawl with you, Paintball, though we’ll finish one if we need to. We came to get our property back, that’s all.”

Feeling offended on behalf of the girl who was still tightly clinging to my hand, I glanced to her with what I hoped was a reassuring look despite the blank visor of my helmet before snapping at the man. “Yeah, you know what? Maybe if you keep calling the girl you were trying to kidnap your property, I’ll just go ahead and jump right into that brawl you were just talking about.”  

There was a very brief pause as Framework’s head tilted. The red dots on his helmet dulled, flickering briefly before flashing a couple times as the sound of what I belatedly realized was a chuckle came. “No,” he replied flatly. “I wasn’t talking about the girl. We don’t even know who she is. Take her, return her to her school, do whatever you like. We came for that.” He raised a hand, pointing at the ground to one side. Looking there, I saw the Tech gun I’d tossed out of the car. 

Blinking a couple times, I tried to catch up. “Um. Excuse me? You brought a bunch of armed men to grab the gun just because I threw i–wait, no.” Turning, I pointed at the guy who was still in the car and hadn’t moved to get out. “Them. That guy and his friends. You were after them because they weren’t with you, and they had a gun that–that they stole from you, right?” 

Framework inclined his head, regarding me while those lights flickered a bit once more. Then he gave a short nod. “Smart boy. Like I said, we’re not here for the girl. We don’t care about her. We’re here for our property. It was taken from us and we’re taking it back. Stand aside from that and we’ll have no issues. This time, anyway.” He added the last bit after a momentary, pointed pause. “Any future conflict can be saved for just that. The future.”   

I thought about it for a second, but honestly… yeah, I couldn’t see any real point to insisting on a fight right now. Not for something like this. I wasn’t arrogant enough to think I could easily take on a whole group of Tech-armed soldiers who could have had any number of tricks, and a Fell-Touched guy whose entire deal was bringing mech suits into play. Pushing for a fight just to stop them from taking one of their guns back? That actually seemed pretty stupid, honestly. Especially with this innocent girl standing right next to me who would end up in the crossfire.  

So, I slowly nodded. “Fine, take your gun and leave. We’ll save the fighting thing for later.” 

Without moving from where he was standing, Framework gave a short nod to one of the men. That guy stepped forward carefully, leaning down to grab the gun from the ground. As it was stowed away, he asked his boss, “What about him?” He was looking toward the guy still inside the car. 

“He stays here,” I quickly put in. “You can take your gun, but the guy stays. He’ll go to jail for kidnapping… ummm…” Trailing off, I glanced toward the red-haired girl beside me. 

“P-Peyton,” she provided, eyes wide as she kept staring at the assorted weapons around us. 

“Peyton,” I echoed with a nod. “He’ll go to jail for kidnapping Peyton. That’ll have to be enough.” 

Framework simply shrugged. “Is that really a fight you want to have right now? You’re really willing to throw down with all this over protecting a guy who kidnaps some innocent girl?”  

“I’m definitely not willing to just let you take justice into your own hands,” I retorted. “He’s here with me, he’s going to the authorities. The question is, are you willing to start a fight right now when other Touched could show up any second. Not to mention cops. I mean, the news chopper was–” As I said that, my eyes glanced up toward the sky, only to pause. There was no chopper in sight. Which was weird, because I was pretty sure they should’ve found us by now. 

“I wouldn’t worry about the authorities or anyone else showing up to start, or finish, any problems,” Framework informed me. “We’ve got nothing but privacy for the moment.” 

As he said it, the man looked pointedly toward one of the rooftops. I glanced that way, only to see another of the Braintrust Touched. This was a man with sleek silver body armor that had dozens of scenes from various TV shows and movies playing across its surface in a collage of random images. It was Fabulist, a guy whose inventions were able to create illusions, elaborate special effects, that kind of thing. He was clearly making sure that the news chopper didn’t find us. Hell, he’d probably created a whole separate chase scene for them to keep following. I was alone. 

Swallowing slightly, I straightened. “You’re still not taking him without a fight. I can’t just let you walk away with that guy. Not when I’ve got a good idea of just how he’ll be treated.” 

For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure how Framework was going to take that. He regarded me in silence before holding up one finger as though telling me to wait. His head turned and he spoke aloud, “Glitch, slight issue.” 

Glitch. That was the leader of Braintrust. As I understood it, she was able to identify problems or flaws in technology, even of the Tech-Touched variety. She could even improve them, basically allowing her to upgrade the work of everyone in her gang. Beyond that, she could also make specific technology within her vicinity fail to work, or install ‘glitches’ into it that would flare up now and then for awhile even after the tech was away from her. 

So yeah, there was a reason she got to be the leader of a group entirely focused around technology and inventions. I just hoped she was also the leader because she was capable of making rational decisions. 

While the man in front of me was having a murmured conversation with his boss, I turned slightly to look at Peyton. “Are you okay?” 

She was staring at the assembled group, who weren’t exactly pointing their guns at us, but hadn’t lowered them either. “Um.” Her voice was very tentative and uncertain. “I… I don’t know. I just wanna go home.” 

“Do you have any idea why those guys grabbed you?” The fact that they had used what was apparently a stolen Tech-Touched weapon made me doubt that it was a completely random abduction. And I was really hoping this wasn’t about to turn into a whole new mystery. I had enough of those. 

There was a brief pause before the girl explained, “I was chatting with this guy online. We really hit it off. He was funny and everything. Then I found out that he was using his little brother’s pictures. He was a lot older. So I broke it off and he got all upset. I never told him where I lived, but I guess he picked up on my school.”

Turning a bit, I stared at her. “Hold on, you’re saying this whole thing is because one of those idiots that was in the car catfished an underaged girl and his response to that being broken off was to steal a super gun and kidnap you in broad daylight and then have a high speed chase?!” My voice got louder and more incredulous by the word. “Which one was it, Larry, Curly, or Moe?”

Coughing quietly, the girl nodded toward the vehicle. “The… um, idiot that’s still in the car.” 

Before I could do more than give a sharp look that way, Framework cleared his throat for attention. When I turned to him, he announced, “Mmmkay, you can take the genius. We’ve had our pound of flesh.”

My mouth opened, but said genius blurted from the car, “What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Framework was all too happy to explain. “We found your address and torched your apartment.” To me, he added pointedly, “Made sure there were no living things in it and contained the burn to only that apartment. Also put up a nice sign letting his neighbors know that this whole thing was because he tried to diddle a fifteen year old. Including pictures of their chat transcripts. Oh, and we sent the same thing to his employer, family, and university. So, you know, we figure we’re even on the whole stealing our equipment issue.” After a brief pause, he asked flatly, “We good here?”

While I was still staring, Peyton leaned over and whispered, ”I’m not supposed to root for the bad guys. Help.”

Shaking my head, I muttered that I wasn’t doing any better on that (and not just from today) before meeting Framework’s gaze. “Yeah. We’re good.”

He held the look, then twirled his finger in a quick circular motion. “Pack it up! We’re gone!”

And just like that, he, the rest of the troops down on the ground, and Fabulist all left. They simply walked away. I stayed tense for another couple seconds while watching just in case. But they didn’t come back. 

Then a brief sound caught my attention. Turning quickly, I saw the man in the car starting to scramble out. Before he could get very far, however, Peyton stooped, picked a chunk of concrete off the ground, and smacked him in the face with it. It was an awkward swing that made it clear the girl had probably never thrown a punch in her life. But the sound of the smack was still satisfying. As was the man’s yelp as he fell back into the car and held his nose.

“Yeah, I’d stay there if I was you,” I informed him while taking out my phone to call the authorities. 

“Or don’t. I’m not averse to her hitting you a few more times.”

*******

Eventually, that was done with. Peyton was in the hands of the authorities, who could take her home. And her abductor (plus his buddies) were in custody.

So that was one problem dealt with. I thought to avert another possible one by contacting the Seraphs to let them know why I was late. Not that I actually needed to, considering the person on the phone just said that they saw the news. 

I was in the midst of my third task, calling Wren to fill her in and thank her, when a voice spoke up from the side of the roof where I was standing. “So who are they?”

Turning quickly, I saw the figure from before with the television shows playing all over his silver costume. Fabulist, the holograms and illusions Tech guy. “What? What do you want?” I snapped, suddenly wary. 

The man held up both hands, not that that made me feel any better. “Easy. We’re just curious where you’re getting your tech from.” Turning his arm a bit, he showed me a screen on it that appeared to be a series of meters. “We detect Touched-Tech. Scanner works even when you’re not actively using it or just when you’ve been around it recently. Makes it easier to track down our stuff. And you… you’ve been around very advanced stuff. We don’t know what. Just that it’s impressive. Cutting edge. But who makes it for you? It’s none of us.”

Wren. He wanted to know about Wren. Well, fuck that. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, that’s on a need to know basis, and I don’t see any reason you need to know that.” Oh, please don’t let this turn into a fight now after I’d managed to avoid one with these guys just a few minutes earlier. 

Thankfully, the man simply considered me for a moment longer before offering a shrug. “We will find out in time. We are very interested in this tech.”

I started to reply that he could go ahead and be interested, but the man simply vanished in a cloud of smoke. Given his particular proficiency, I wondered if he had even actually been standing there at all.

Speaking of his proficiency, I quickly left the roof and made my way several blocks without saying or doing anything. Reaching a small park, I made my way into the outdoor restroom, locked the door, and stripped myself down. Then I spent ten minutes poring over the entire costume and helmet looking for any possible thing he could have stuck to it that could be a bug or something. I went over it with a fine tooth comb several times in my paranoia before then turning my attention to my phones. I carefully checked them as well, running virus checks and everything. Only then, after dressing once more, did I relax a little bit. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t bugged. I’d hoped not, considering as far as I knew, he never got near me. But given his powers and Touched Tech in general… yeah. I was being careful. 

But the tech gang knew about Wren. Or at least that she existed. And it probably wouldn’t take them long to find out more. I was going to have to warn her to be careful now that she had their interest. That whole thing could get really complicated really fast.

When I called, she wanted to know everything that happened from the moment the news chopper lost sight of us. Apparently the holograms had led them on a wild goose chase far from the actual confrontation. 

So, I explained everything, including how it was resolved and that they had detected her technology.

“Wren, you better make sure you focus on your defenses now,” I insisted. “You know how Braintrust is about recruiting. Make sure you’re safe.”

“I am, I will!” she chirped. “Don’t worry, Paintball, I’ve got lots of ideas. It’s gonna be great. Oh, and really safe, obviously. Those guys don’t get to tell me what to do, or what to build, or who to build it for, or anything! I don’t build for anybody but me! Um, and you! And people who buy stuff from me! But not bad guys! That’s the important part. No bad guys.”

Chuckling a little after extracting that promise for her to take care of herself, I thanked the kid a few more times for letting me know about the abduction. Assuring her that Peyton really was safe, I promised to come see her soon. Then I disconnected and exhaled. That was over. It had been a brief, no important distraction. But now I had to focus on the actual reason I was out here in the first place. 

Time to go see the Seraphs. And hope that I didn’t run into any more kidnapping victims along the way. 

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Fault 10-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Eits didn’t really find anything useful enough to share (other than letting me know he was still looking into it) over the next few days. Days that I spent doing things like practicing with my paint, getting accustomed to using my spiffy new wall-sticking shoes, and trying (failing) to figure out what the damn pink paint was used for. Aside from that last part, it went pretty well. I also spent some time helping Izzy get a new phone so she could call or text me. Or anyone else. 

So, I was doing okay on the whole practicing with the powers I knew about thing, still had no idea what was going on with the pink paint, was avoiding Tomas as much as possible without looking like I was avoiding him, and remained almost completely clueless about whatever the fuck was going on with Paige and her real father living on the inescapable prison island thing. 

The point was, pretty soon, it was Wednesday afternoon. I was going to visit the Seraph HQ in a few minutes. But first, I was determined to finish up at least one more of the pictures for the people who went to Amber’s party. She was waiting patiently for them, but I really needed to put a dent in the list. Not that that took too much time, considering how easy drawing suddenly was for me. But it took longer than it could have, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to use my actual paint on the pictures. No way would I risk leaving that kind of incriminating evidence about who I was. Instead, I had a pad that I was sketching the requested pictures in before inking them later. And coloring the ones for the people who requested and paid for that extra bit, eventually. 

So there was just one more I wanted to finish right now, a sketch of the guy in the picture (his name was Alan and he was a senior) doing a, ahem ‘sick flip’ on his skateboard off one of the castle-like towers of the Grand Army of the Republic building downtown (which was where I was now so I could draw it more effectively). Apparently he’d always wanted to do that but there was no way it would ever happen. So he paid for a drawing of it rather than do anything stupid like actually try. Which, well, kudos to him for thinking it through.

I was sitting cross-legged against the side of one of a nearby building’s brick chimneys. Yes, I was using my shoes to switch my gravity so that I could sit against the side of the chimney as though it was the ground, facing downward as I worked intently, drawing on the pad. With it in my lap, the pad seemed to be affected by the same change in gravity so it didn’t go flying away from me. Of course, I was in costume. Well, mostly. It was harder to draw with gloves, so I had those off as well as the helmet, with just the mask on underneath. I wasn’t sure exactly why I was drawing like this in costume rather than doing it at home or whatever, I just didn’t want to be home. Besides, I was heading to the Seraph base pretty soon. I just needed to finish this picture with a bit more detail on Alan himself as he came off the building. After all, what was the point of buying a picture of yourself doing something awesome if you couldn’t tell it was supposed to be you?

So intent was I on getting the boy’s face right, that the sudden sound and feel of my phone buzzing made me jerk in surprise. The pad fell a few feet to land on the roof below, and I quickly reached to my pocket. The call was coming in on my ‘work’ phone, so to speak. Taking a quick look to see who was calling, I said a few quick words aloud to make sure my voice changer was working right before answering. “Yo, Wr-I mean Trevithick. What’s up? Gotta say, these shoes–”  

Before I could say anything else, Wren quickly interrupted, sounding pretty wound up about something. “Paintball! Um, are you anywhere near MLK High? That place by Larned.”

“I know where it is,” I answered while hopping off the chimney to land lightly on the roof as I glanced over toward the nearby landmark building I’d been drawing a moment earlier. “I’m a couple miles away, by Grand River Avenue. Why, what’s going on? Are you okay?”   

“Oh! Oh, they might be going that way,” the young Tech-Touched blurted. “It’s on the news, there’s this red sedan, these two guys just grabbed a girl that was outside the school and now they’re driving down, umm… Uncle Fred, where–Lafayette. They’re coming your way on Lafayette but they might turn! The cops were chasing them, but they used a sonic cannon or something that blew one of the cars like a million miles away so they don’t dare get close. I think they’re trying to call in Touched for help but if the car gets out of sight they could disappear!” 

It took me a second to put that all together, but I was already using red paint to yank my helmet up. “Red sedan speeding everywhere running from cops and trying to hide, got it. On my way.” Thanking the girl and promising to call back, I disconnected while stowing the drawing pad in my nearby bag, hiding it out of sight, and slipping my gloves on. Then I took a running start, leaping off the building with a bit of blue paint to launch myself forward and up. Red yanked me toward the next building, and then my feet hit it, the shoes allowing me to run along the side without having to worry about putting more paint down to stay there. 

I’d been grateful for the shoes already, of course. But they meant more now than before. Thinking about some girl being grabbed by guys for… whatever reason made me push harder, using my mix of red, green, and blue paints to race along the sides and tops of buildings while scanning the road below. It didn’t take long to reach Lafayette, and I kept going that way. 

The kidnappers were using at least one Tech-Touched weapon. That didn’t necessarily mean they were Tech-Touched, just that they had access to it. A sonic based cannon was one of those things that popped up in the news now and then, often enough that I knew it was a black market thing. Hopefully, whoever these guys were, they’d just bought their weapon that way. 

But why would people with the kind of cash that it took to get and keep one of those things be grabbing some random high schooler? Unless she wasn’t random. Or unless they’d just found the weapon somewhere? Whatever, there were a lot of options and guessing would get me nowhere.

Of course, while I was running, my other phone went off. It was my actual Cassidy phone. I would’ve ignored it, except I’d already set the phone not to put any calls through that weren’t from my important contacts. Sure enough, when I took a second while running along a roof to unzip the pocket and glance at it, it was Mom on the phone. 

Pausing briefly, I weighed my choices. But in the end, I didn’t want to give them any reason to wonder about me. So I quickly deactivated my voice changer and answered the phone before starting to run again. “Hi, Mom!” I chirped, trying to sound normal. 

“Cassidy,” came the warm response, “I wanted–are you running?” 

I leapt from the roof of that building, windmilling through the air while replying, “Oh, uhhh, yeah. I–” My hand snapped out, shooting a bit of red that yanked me to another wall I could run along the side of. “You know, just trying to stay in shape. Beside’s, running’s fun. Sorry, I–” I flipped sideways off the edge of the building, landing on top of a signpost before using blue paint to launch myself up and forward, “–didn’t forget something, did I?” 

There was a brief pause before the answer came. “No, no, you did not forget anything, dear. As long as you’re okay?” 

“Yup!” I replied as cheerfully and simply as I could, doing my level best not to let her know that, at that exact moment, I was flying through the air as my red paint pulled me to another roof. “You know me, just can’t sit still for very long. What’s–umm, what’s up?” I nearly misjudged that particular landing, stumbling a little before catching myself. I really hoped this wasn’t going to be a long conversation. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t. Mom just wanted to ask me if I minded dressing up and going out for dinner the next night, since there was apparently some kind of award show at the country club that Dad needed to attend. I agreed, she made me promise not to run too much, and I disconnected the call (turning the voice changer back on, of course). Then I exhaled. Talking to my mother while doing all this… Paintball running and jumping stuff was nerve wracking. It felt like she could see me while I was talking, even though she couldn’t. Shaking that off, I focused on the task at hand. Namely, finding that car before they managed to completely disappear.

In the end, I didn’t actually have to look that hard to try to find the car. All I had to do was look for the news chopper in the sky. They seemed to be staying well back, probably to avoid getting nailed by that sonic cannon. But it gave me a general area to look in as soon as I saw the chopper hovering above one of the buildings about a mile from my starting point. And sure enough, as I landed against a billboard and stared intently toward the road, I saw it. The red sedan came screaming around a slow-moving semi, racing my way with a squeal of tires. 

Okay, right, I could do this. I could do it. There was an innocent girl in that car, I had to get her out of there, even if the idea of throwing myself at guys with access to at least one extremely dangerous Tech-Touched weapon made me want to whimper. I had to forget about how dangerous it was, forget about how easily a weapon like that could probably maim or kill me, and just… jump. 

I jumped, pushing off the wall into a backflip just as the car got close. They clearly hadn’t seen me yet, and I used just a touch of yellow paint to slow my fall right before the end, timing it just right. Which, again, was something I didn’t actually think about. It was kind of like when I’d been racing through the dark forest to get to Paige the other day. I’d just stopped thinking and knew where all the trees and bushes were, even in the darkness. Just like that, I didn’t stop to think about how to time my drop to coincide with the car’s passing, I just… knew how to do it. 

It worked. With the help of that bit of yellow, I landed perfectly in the middle of the passing car’s roof, falling slowly enough at that point that it only dented the thing in a bit. Sure, they really knew I was there by that point, but at least I didn’t just go right through the roof entirely or cave it in completely. Red paint yanked my hands down to stay on the car an instant later as it swerved hard to one side. Yeah, they definitely knew I was up there. So, without thinking about it, I painted the image of a man in purple armor holding an orange shield on my chest, activating the latter part.

Rolling quickly toward the passenger side, I popped my head down near the open window. “Hey, do you guys have any idea how fast you’re going?!” Using that moment, I took stock of the car’s occupants. Three guys and a girl. The only guy in front was the driver, with two guys in the back on either side of the clearly high school-aged girl. She looked maybe fourteen or fifteen, slim with short red hair. The guys all looked… well, normal. They weren’t wearing any kind of costumes or uniforms linking them to any of the Fell-gangs in town. Both the guys in the back had guns out. Not the sonic cannon, at least. They held regular handguns. 

Before they could react to my blurted words, I quickly pointed both hands (using a tiny bit of red on my chest to keep myself in place), hitting the girl with a pair of paint blobs. One was orange, and I activated it immediately, just in case this went south in the next few seconds. Hell, I didn’t know what these guys might do, but taking away their ability to just shoot and kill her that easily felt like a pretty solid idea right then.

As it turned out, it was me they wanted to shoot at. Both men in the backseat pointed their pistols my way, opening fire. They were silenced (the good Tech-Touched silencers that made the gunshots sound like soft coughs), but being quiet made them no less dangerous. I quickly jerked myself up despite the orange paint, not wanting to get hit at all if I could help it. They adjusted quickly and were already shooting up through the roof of the car as I used green paint to speed myself up, rolling backward to get off that spot while several bullets passed through it. 

Since I was near the back of the car, I slapped one hand down with red paint to keep myself in place. The driver was swerving all over the place, and I would’ve gone flying without that. As it was, my legs slid off the side, and one of the men clearly noticed because a shot hit one of them. The orange paint was still active, so it just stung a bit, but still. This wasn’t great. 

With a grunt, I jerked my legs back up onto the roof. Then I shot two more quick red blobs of paint ahead of us to the buildings on either side of the street. Another bullet from the assholes inside the car popped through the roof and rebounded off my shoulder. Which, ow. That was starting to hurt. I needed to handle this, right now. Especially before I ran out of paint. 

With that in mind, I activated the other paint blob I’d shot onto the girl a few seconds earlier. The non-orange one. It was white, and the car was suddenly filled with a blinding flash. As the people in there reacted, the car jerking to the side, I let myself slide right to the back window while activating the purple paint of the armored figure on my chest. Then I swung one leg back and drove my knee in through that rear windshield. The impact knocked a hole in the window, and I quickly threw myself in that way while everyone was still blinded and confused. Landing in the narrow space just above and behind the rear seat, I snapped my hands out to slap against the arms of either guy there. 

They reacted quickly despite being blinded, their guns pointing my way. But I was faster, activating the red paint I’d just slapped onto both of them. Linking them to the two spots of red I’d shot at the buildings we were now just barely passing, I sent both men flying out through the mostly-broken rear windshield with a pair of twin screams. 

But things weren’t exactly free and clear yet. The driver, who, despite being at least half-blinded by the white flash, still managed to flip the car’s autodrive on. That autodrive was now taking the car down an alley while the driver himself grabbed something and turned. The ‘something’ turned out to be a high-tech weapon that looked kind of like a futuristic silver and green sawed-off shotgun with oversized barrels. The sonic cannon, probably. 

Whatever it was, I did not want to get hit by it. To that end, I threw myself off the window area and into the backseat, landing basically in the kidnapped girl’s lap while lashing out with one foot. The purple paint was still active, so my kick actually broke the driver’s seat when it collided, knocking the man forward into the steering wheel just as he was trying to aim that weapon. It went off, the sound utterly fucking deafening in those close quarters. The blast blew the passenger side front door off, crumpling it up and sending it flying. Meanwhile, the collision of the man with the steering wheel took off the autodrive and the car suddenly veered in the other direction, slamming hard into the wall of the alley. The car stopped, I fell to the floor, the driver rebounded off the suddenly triggered airbag, and the kidnapped girl bounced off the back of the front passenger seat before her seatbelt yanked her back down. She might’ve been screaming. We all might’ve been screaming. But the deafening effect of that sonic cannon made it a moot point. 

Before the man could fire that damn thing again, I forced myself to pop up, snatching it out of his dazed hand. I threw the weapon out the shattered back window, then grabbed the girl’s hand. “Come on!” I shouted, though I was pretty sure she couldn’t hear me. I couldn’t hear me. But she had the basic idea anyway, squeezing my hand like it was a lifeline as I kicked one of the back doors open and pulled her out. It was time to get this girl out of there, before the driver recovered or either of those guys I’d sent flying caught up. 

Or not. Because as soon as the two of us emerged from the car, we found ourselves facing a whole group of maybe twelve men. And these guys didn’t look like the random criminals the ones in the car had seemed to be. All of them were wearing militaristic dark body armor and full face-covering helmets with white lab coats, and they were holding what looked kind of like submachine guns. But I was pretty sure those weapons did more than fire bullets. Because these weren’t ordinary thugs. They were troops who worked for Braintrust.

Well, I didn’t have to worry about one Tech-Touched gun anymore.

Because I was facing about a dozen of them instead. 

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Interlude 9B – More Lost Memories

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Seven Years Ago

“Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeer! Pew, pew, pew!” Running through the front foyer of his house, nine-year-old Anthony Tate held a toy jet fighter out to one side as he imitated laserfire. The boy’s unruly mop of light brown hair matched his eyes, and a light coating of freckles dusted his face. A face that was covered by a wide smile that showed his crooked teeth as he called in his best approximation of a pilot’s commanding voice. “Target locked, dodge this, you alien scum! Missiles away! Whooosh, there they go!” With a sweep of his hand, he indicated their path.

“Weeerrbblee reebble rabble!” Anthony’s best friend, Cassidy Evans, held a toy fighter of her own. This one had started out its life looking almost identical to the one that Anthony was playing with. But the two of them had carefully painted it bright pink with purple lightning bolts (or as close as they could get to lightning bolts) on the wings, and glued a second pair of wings to the bottom of it to make the fighter look a little more alien. Granted, they easily could have asked for and received an entire fleet of alien toys within fifteen minutes. But they wanted to do it themselves. Plus, it was fun, and it gave Anthony something to do with the plane whose wings had broken off. 

“Werble rebble rabble?” the boy echoed, head tilting in obvious confusion as he watched Cassie zoom in circles around him, the ‘alien fighter’ held out beside her. “What does that mean?” 

Grinning, the short-haired girl chirped, “That’s the sound of the anti-missile shield! It’s like a tractor beam, only it pushes things away instead of pulling them in!” Quickly, she added, “But it takes all the power from the shield to push things away, so the aliens hafeta time it right, or–” 

“Pew, pew, pew!” Anthony blurted, suddenly realizing where the girl was going with that before she finished describing how the shields being down to power their anti-missile system would leave the aliens vulnerable to other attacks. He made his fighter do a quick loop and a barrel roll while indicating the path of his lasers with quick flicks from his fingers. “Pew, pew!” 

“Naaaaargh!” Cassidy cried out, making the fighter spin around while speaking in her best high-pitched alien voice. “Damage, damage! Return to mothership, return to mothership!” With that, she began racing up the nearby stairs two at a time. “Accelerating out of Earth’s atmosphere! Divert remaining power to boosters to escape gravitational pull!”  

Quickly, Anthony started up the stairs after her. “Oh no you don’t!” He called. “Come back here, you alien scum! We modified this fighter to reach space, you can’t get away that easily!” 

“Come and get us, dirty human!” Cassidy called back from the top of the stairs, still using her high-pitched alien voice, while adding a buzzing sound just because she thought it sounded better that way. “You can’t hope to stand up against the firepower of our main battle–oof!” 

That last bit came because Cassidy had run straight on into a man who had just stepped out of one of the rooms on the second floor. Just as he appeared, speaking over his shoulder, Cassidy bounced off him, landing on her backside with a yelp as the man grunted and stumbled a bit. 

“Cassie!” Anthony quickly flung himself up the last couple stairs, dropping beside his friend. His plane fell to the side, forgotten for the moment as he checked on her. “Are you okay?” 

“Uh huh,” she confirmed, staring up at the man she had run into with large doe-like eyes. She didn’t recognize him. He was in his mid-late thirties, with dark blond hair and brown eyes. “Sorry, Mister.” 

There was the slightest pause before the man offered a faint, yet genuine smile, shaking his head. “Not at all,” he assured her, holding a hand out to the girl, helping her up. “I’m afraid it was entirely my fault for getting in the middle of a…” He glanced from the modified ‘alien’ fighter on the floor, to the normal one lying nearby where both had been dropped. “spaceship dogfight?” 

“Anthony, Cassidy?” Anthony’s father appeared in the doorway behind the other man, stepping around him. “Is everything okay out here? You’re not bothering our guest too much, are you?” 

“Oh, it’s quite alright, Russell,” the man assured him. “I managed to stumble my way out into the middle of a fight to save the planet, that’s all.” He winked at the kids before turning to Anthony’s father. “No harm, no foul. Shall we continue our discussion in the other room? I have a few more examples of just how we can revolutionize the entire industry.”  

Giving a good-natured roll of his eyes at the bold claim, Mr. Tate waved for the children to be off. “Why don’t you kids play outside for a little bit and run off a little more energy? I’ll have Ricky bring you out some treats to the pavilion.” That said, he began to walk off with his guest, informing him, “You know, a lot of people claim what they have will ‘revolutionize things.’” 

“Ah,” the other man retorted while following. “But they don’t have what I have. Results.” 

Standing there, the two children watched the men leave, before Anthony turned to Cassie with a sudden grin. “Hey! I saw the truck that guy came in. It looks all funny, like a van and a truck all smooshed together. That can be the alien mothership and we can fly around it and stuff!” 

Cassidy immediately jumped at that idea, and the two of them grabbed their respective fighters before rushing down the stairs and out the door. As promised, there was what appeared to be a van-truck hybrid in the long, half-circle driveway, near the exit gate with its back end pointed toward the mansion. With gleeful whoops, the two kids raced past the fountain and to the vehicle with their ships held out to the side in flying mode, already blurting the onomatopoeia for their respective laser and missile sounds as they split up at the back of the truck-van, each racing around it in a different direction. Anthony went toward the driver’s side while Cassidy ran on the passenger side, each sprinting to reach the front of the designated ‘mothership’ first. 

Before Cassidy could reach it, however, the heavy side door of the vehicle slid open right beside her, and she stopped abruptly. Turning, the nine-year-old found herself facing another girl who had just slid the door open. This girl was perhaps a year older than the other two, a pretty blonde ten-year-old who sat cross-legged in the back of the truck-van, which turned out to be full of random crates, electrical equipment, and tools. Both girls stared at one another in silence for several long seconds. Finally, Cassidy piped up with, “Hi!” 

“Hi!” the girl echoed brightly, though she remained sitting in the same position. 

“Who are you–” Anthony, having reached the front of the vehicle, came around to join her before seeing the girl sitting there. “Oh! Uhh, hi.” 

Abruptly focusing on him, the blonde girl chirped, “Hi, Anthony!” She looked positively delighted, giving a dazzling smile. “Did my dad tell you to come get me? I was bored.” 

“Um.” Exchanging a brief, confused look with his friend, Anthony shook his head. “Not really. Your dad’s still talking to my dad. He made you stay out here by yourself? Oh, um, this is Cassidy.” He gestured that way. “How come you know who I am?” 

“Hi, Cassidy.” Smiling easily as she greeted the other girl by name that time, the girl added, “I’m Paige. My dad showed me your picture when we were coming over here. He really likes your dad.” She paused, as though only just thinking of something, before frowning. “But I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” 

Shrugging, Anthony pointed out, “He showed you my picture and told you my name, so I’m not a stranger, right? And this is my friend, so she’s not a stranger either.” 

“She?” Paige blinked once, looking back that way. “You look like a boy.” It was a statement made not of maliciousness, but youthful innocent frankness. 

Flushing, Cassidy cupped both hands to the side of her head, covering her short black hair before stomping once. “I’m a girl!” she insisted. “I just like short hair, that’s all.” 

“Okay,” Paige replied with immediate acceptance before adding, “I’m sorry if I said something wrong.” 

Cassidy shook her head. “It’s okay, everyone thinks I’m a boy at first. Um.” She hesitated before offering, “Do you wanna play with us?” The girl reached into her pocket before tugging out a small action figure, holding it out. “We’re the ships, but you could be a Star-Touched who comes to help Anthony’s ship! Like Silversmith!” 

There was another brief pause as Paige looked blankly at the toy being offered to her. Then her hand moved, taking it from Cassidy with a small smile. “You really want to play with me?” 

“Sure!” Anthony agreed, head bobbing up and down. “Your dad’s van is the alien mothership, okay? I’m the American fighter ship and Cassie’s the aliens. So, you wanna play?” 

Finally, Paige picked herself up from her cross-legged position, hopping nimbly out of the van. “Okay!” 

With that agreement, the three children immediately began running in circles around the vehicle, loudly exclaiming about everything they were doing in the course of their battle. 

*******

Two Years Later/Five Years Ago

 

A soft tap at Cassidy’s window drew her attention that way. She was in her bedroom, sitting on the floor as she stared at Anthony’s jet fighter and her own modified ‘alien’ ship. It had been mere days since the… attack that ended with her best friend’s death and that of his family and the house employees. Days since she had learned in such a traumatic fashion that her father was Silversmith, that her grandfather had sent those men to kill her friend and his family because he wanted to get at her. Days since Bobby had saved her life nearly at the cost of his own and since she had seen her father cut her grandfather’s head off in front of her.

Days since she had spoken more than a few words to anyone, or had done much of anything aside from sit, stare at nothing, and murmur or whisper to herself. Sometimes she watched TV, but she didn’t really engage with it. She’d had books in her hand but had barely read. She took toys and sat there staring at them, remembering all the things she had done with Anthony. 

As that tap came, the girl turned her head slightly to see a familiar figure crouched there by the window. There was a brief pause before she stood up, walked over to unlatch the window, and then stepped back. 

It slid up, and Paige slipped inside. The blonde opened her mouth, shut it, then stepped over to silently embrace Cassidy. The other girl let her, and they stood in silence for a few seconds with Paige tightly hugging her while Cassidy stood with her arms at her sides. She felt… tired. Just so damn tired. She wanted her best friend back. She wanted none of this to be real. She wanted… something. She didn’t know what, but she wanted something to change. She had spent so many long hours closing her eyes, wishing that everything that had happened would be a dream, and opening them. 

The only part of her days when Cassidy wasn’t sad were the moments just after she woke up, before the memory of what had happened settled in. She slept as much as she could, not only because she was tired (though she was), but because every time she slept and woke up, Anthony was kind of… sort of alive for just a couple seconds. 

Until she remembered that he wasn’t. 

Finally releasing Cassidy, Paige stepped back with a small, worried frown knitting her forehead. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I’m really sorry, Cassie. I–” She stopped, head tilting slightly before she admitted, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say right now. Dad never… told me how to talk to people like this. He never told me what I’m supposed to do.” Swallowing hard, her voice trembled as she added pleadingly, “I want to know what to do.” 

At first, Cassidy didn’t respond. She simply stood and stared over the other girl’s shoulder at the window. After a few long seconds of that, her eyes moved to meet the despondent Paige’s, and she asked in a quiet, brittle voice, “How did you get inside? There’s security cameras and stuff.” It was the most outward interest she had shown in anything since that horrific day. 

“Yes,” Paige agreed. “There’s a lot of them. But it’s not really hard to get past them if you…” She paused, considering for a moment before settling on, “… if you time it right. You just have to watch the cameras and go where they’re not looking.” She said it that simply, as if talking about learning how to water the lawn rather than how to sneak past a dozen cameras on the grounds of the richest family in Michigan. 

Again, Cassidy didn’t say anything for a moment. She stood there, looking at the window in silence before finally turning back to Paige. “Can you teach me how to do that?” 

“How to–” Paige started before looking over her shoulder at the window and back again. “How to get past your house security? Why do you want to leave? It’s… “ She paused, considering her words before deciding on, “Don’t you want to stay where it’s safe?” 

“It’s not safe here,” Cassidy replied quietly, a slight tremor in her voice as her head shook. “I…” A hard lump formed in her throat, and she had to swallow repeatedly before being able to speak again. “I don’t want to be trapped here.” Her gaze found the other girl’s urgently, lower lip quivering. “Please, Paige.” 

“Okay,” the blonde agreed softly. She took Cassidy’s hand and squeezed it. “You didn’t tell your parents about me?” 

“No,” Cassidy confirmed in a barely audible voice. She was looking away. “You always said you’d get in trouble if your dad knew you were playing with us when he came over.” For the past two years, about once a month, Paige’s father would visit Anthony’s house. While he was inside having long meetings, Paige would emerge and play with Anthony and Cassidy for awhile. She always seemed to know when her dad was coming back, no matter how long he took, and would tell the other two she had to go back to the van. Actually, it was kind of fun to have a secret friend nobody knew about. It was… kind of fun… while Anthony was alive. 

Stepping over to the window while tugging Cassidy by the hand, Paige carefully asked, “Are you really sure you want me to show you how to get past the cameras?” When the other girl gave a firm nod, Paige pulled her right up to the window. “Okay. 

“First, watch that camera right… there by the corner…” 

******

For the next hour, Paige taught Cassidy how to escape her house without being noticed. She showed her where the cameras were, where various motion sensors had to be avoided, how to get across the grounds without being seen from the guard shack, how the guard patrols worked, which windows to keep an eye on while leaving or approaching, and so on. She showed the other girl everything she needed to know to escape her own house. 

Eventually, however, they both watched from the bushes as a car arrived in the driveway of the house, a pale man with dark-blond hair emerging to greet both of Cassidy’s parents as they came from the house to meet him. He wore a crisp white suit. 

“Who’s that?” Paige whispered, as the two girls crouched in the bushes. 

Cassidy’s head shook. “I… I dunno.” She sighed, looking at the ground. The past hour had been the most she’d been able to forget what happened at Anthony’s house, and that made her feel guilty. She… she didn’t quite forget Anthony, just… she hadn’t been sad about it for a few minutes. 

What was wrong with her? Was she evil too? 

“Cassidy?” Paige prompted, squeezing the girl’s arm. “Are you okay?” 

Shaking that off, Cassidy managed a weak, “No. I miss Anthony.” 

“So do I,” Paige murmured, her own voice a very soft whisper. She started to say something else, before turning to look at the front door where the adults were talking. “Cassidy,” she put in a bit urgently. “We need to get back. They’re coming to talk to you.” 

“What?” Blinking, Cassidy looked to the house, where her parents and the strange man were going inside. “How do you–” 

“Come on.” Paige pulled her by the hand, checking the cameras before leading the girl to the side of the house. She had already showed her how to climb up the wall, and did so more quickly, helping Cassidy until they reached her room. Once the other girl was safely inside, Paige started to leave again before wincing. “Guard patrol,” she whispered. Then she looked over to the door. “Your parents are coming.” 

Cassidy looked to the door as well, before pointing. “Go to my closet,” she said simply. “You can hide there.” 

Paige did so, stopping briefly to embrace her friend. “I’m really sorry about Anthony. I wish… he was here to make you feel better instead of me.”

Sniffing, Cassidy closed her eyes tightly. “I wish he was here too,” she agreed in a shaken, trembling voice. Then she looked at the girl. “But I’m still glad you’re here. You’re… you’re my friend too.” 

The two girls, united by their grief for a lost friend, looked at one another for a moment. Then the sound of the doorknob turning spurred Paige into action. She raced to the closet, slipping into it and closing the door just as Cassidy sat on a chair facing the mirror. 

“Hi,” the blond man started while Paige peered out through the crack in the closet door. 

“My name is Jackson. Kent Jackson.” 

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Interlude 9A – Breakwater and Patreon Snippets 13B (Summus Proelium)

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The island was thirty-six miles long and sixteen miles wide. None of its inhabitants knew exactly where it was located, other than somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Its exact location was a tightly guarded mystery that only a few were actually cleared to know, and there were even multiple false locations and leads put out into the public to muddy the waters. Tech-Touched devices cloaked the island from most satellite detection, and no civilian flights went anywhere near it. 

On the island itself, dozens of buried or otherwise hidden emitters blocked any teleportation or other Travel-Touched powers from being able to carry their users any further than roughly one hundred yards into the ocean. Not that they would want to go further than that, as each of the inhabitants carried somewhere inside them a device that would explode and kill them should they leave the range of those emitters or do anything to hinder them. It was a catch-22. The emitters projected a signal preventing Travel-Touched powers from allowing them to escape, but also prevented their surgically implanted explosives from detonating. A third layer of protection in the system was that the implanted explosives continually projected their own, separate signal to the emitters. If that was disrupted, such as by the removal (or attempted removal) of the device, the emitters would project a debilitating sonic disruption until back-up forces could arrive and secure the offender. 

So, teleporting off the island was impossible because of the emitters. Disrupting the emitters was impossible because of the signal they sent to the implanted explosives. And tampering with the implanted explosives was impossible because of the signal they sent to the emitters. One would have to simultaneously, down to the second, disrupt every emitter within a particular range (which would involve actually finding all of the emitters whose signal overlapped your location, and being willing to risk your life that you were right) and disable the implanted explosive. You would need one person to disable each emitter in range of you at the exact same time that you disabled your implant. And any number of those who did so would die in the process as soon as the emitters were disabled, if no still-active emitters happened to be near them to prevent their bombs from exploding. 

And, of course, simply building a boat and sailing away was not an option when your body would incinerate the moment you weren’t within a football field’s length of the island. 

Many may have considered these measures to be inhumane and overkill. But this was not just any island. It was a prison. And its inhabitants of the island were not just any prisoners. They were the worst, most dangerous and irredeemable Fell-Touched in the world. In certain countries they might have been executed, given the choice. But the international community as a whole frowned on capital punishment. And so this compromise was struck. If those most dangerous Fell-Touched could be captured, they were brought here to be taken out of society’s hands and left to fend for themselves. In some ways it was almost a death sentence in and of itself, given the violence on the island. But putting them there allowed governments to at least say that they did not execute them. While, of course, ensuring that they would die if they ever tried to escape, before they could pose a threat to innocents. 

There was only one official rule on the island, as far as the jailers who left their prisoners on it were concerned. And that one rule was that you never left the island. That was all. Other than that, those who lived on the island were left to their own devices. Some formed small encampments to protect one another or to conduct quick attack raids against others. Some lived entirely on their own. People were split by various divisions including nationality, languages spoken, personal beliefs and prejudices, and many other possibilities. No group on the island was more than roughly twenty people in size. The egos and powers of the people who had been put here could not abide playing nice with more people than that. Larger groups always fractured and split, or simply disintegrated as members attacked and backstabbed one another.

The authorities did not leave the island’s inhabitants completely without any aid, of course. There were food and other supply drops weekly, both to regular designated locations, and to randomized spots whose location was announced through the island’s intercom system after the drop was made. Those lucky enough to be closest to these randomized drops could move quickly to grab the provided supplies before other prisoners beat them to it. Sometimes those extra drops were truly randomized, while other times they were intended to give a boost to a group who either needed it or whom the guard who chose that spot wanted to see thrive (or simply survive). 

Yes, some of those who monitored the island treated it as what amounted to a reality show for violent supervillains, a game where they could watch the worst of society battle it out with one another. Those people weren’t the majority of those put in a monitoring position, but they did exist. And they took advantage of their position at times to advance their preferred gang. 

Others, of course, held a deep vendetta against one imprisoned villain or another, or even entire groups of them. These tended to direct extra supplies away from those criminals and toward the ones who would attack them. Those types tended to be rooted out by psychological testing earlier on and removed from their positions, but they still existed as well here and there. 

In all, the island was a very violent and unpredictable place, not only because of its inhabitants but also because of the monitors. People died often, and the average life expectancy wasn’t great. But those were considered acceptable conditions for a place that kept these dangerous psychopaths from using their Touched powers to endanger and terrorize more innocent people.

The Fell-Touched who came here were monsters. Monsters dumped in with monsters to fight and kill one another so that society didn’t have to deal with them anymore. Such was a fact of life on the island known across the world by various names, but in English as Breakwater. 

At this particular moment, it was nighttime. The island was cloaked in darkness save for spots of light created by various fires, torches, and Touched powers. One spot of light in particular came from a large bonfire in the middle of a clearing directly above a waterfall. Around that bonfire sat six figures, each watching the flames in contemplative silence, and a seventh figure who stood a few feet away looking over the falls to watch the water crash down far below.  

The first of the seven figures was a relatively small man (when standing, he reached about five feet, three inches in height), his skin covered in tiny, extremely sharp needle-like spikes that varied randomly in color between black, purple, and gold. His eyes were slightly oversized and contained two separate pupils within each, one red and the other blue. He called himself Pinprick, with the ability to launch and regrow the needles that covered his body. Each color needle possessed a different power. Black took control of things they struck, be that people, animals, or objects. Purple exploded into clouds of damaging acid. Finally, the gold needles did nothing to inanimate objects, but made living beings struck by them intensely ill while feeding that life force back to Pinprick himself to grant him a form of regeneration. 

The real trick to his gift was that any living being struck by at least three needles in short succession would, in turn, find their own skin covered in them for up to ten seconds before they would explode needles in every direction. One of his favorite things, back in the real world, had been to enter a large crowd of people, launch his needles into a large crowd, and watch the ensuing chaos and more and more people who were struck by at least three of them grew needles of their own to launch everywhere, and the entire situation escalated exponentially. It was positively hilarious, and the memory of those days was still enough to make him laugh now and then. 

To Pinprick’s left sat a much taller figure than the first man. So tall, in fact, that even sitting as he was on the ground, the man’s head was still higher than most people were while fully upright. When standing, the man was nearly nine and a half feet. He was also quite thin, for all his height, his skin a very pale and clearly unnatural white. Even more unnaturally, he had no visible face on the front of his head. No eyes, no mouth, no nose. Where his face should have been was nothing but blank skin. Adding the fact that he had no hair, only a bald head that showed off more of that paper-white skin, and the effect was quite eerie indeed. 

This was the villain known as Quell. How he could see, no one knew. And Quell himself wasn’t saying. His own gift allowed him, first of all, to absorb and reuse all sound within his earshot. Any sounds he heard could be retained and then replayed at any point, emanating outward from any part of his body he chose. He could also manipulate those replayed sounds, making them louder or quieter, changing the specific tone or even the voice used for words, and so on. 

Beyond simply absorbing sounds, as his name implied, Quell could also silence them. At will, he could project a field that rendered an entire area silent, sound incapable of existing within it. 

And more than that, the man was also capable of both absorbing and muting other things within his area, such as fire, electricity, emotions, and more. Or even Touched powers themselves. By simply turning toward and focusing on what he wanted to affect, be that a flickering flame, a bolt of lightning, a person with powers, or anything else, Quell could make the effects and powers disappear, dousing flame, erasing lightning, taking energy from an electrical device, or even making a Touched incapable of actively using their abilities so long as he was focused on them. Further, any effect that directly struck him would be absorbed so that he could, in turn, use it himself once. 

Quell was an extremely dangerous man, to say the least, who communicated primarily by stringing together the absorbed voices of others (he was capable of reusing sounds though not powers or effects) to form the sentences he wanted. For example, if he meant to say the sentence, ‘I took a long walk to the store for some milk’, ‘I took’, ‘a long walk’ ‘to the store’ ‘for some’ and ‘milk’ might all have been said by different voices and in different tones. 

Completing the group around the fire were a dark-skinned man in his late twenties with long black hair tied into braids, an Asian woman in her sixties with angular features and pale eyes, a red-haired and heavy-set white man clearly late in his fifties but quite fit, and a quite beautiful brunette with intensely, even unnaturally, blue eyes who didn’t seem to be fully out of her teens. 

The black man’s Touched name (no other identifiers tended to matter in this place) was Watchdog. The Asian woman was known as, somewhat strangely, Diesel. The red-haired man was called Rupture. Which left the young girl. Despite looking quite out of place against the rest of the group, she, perhaps more than most on the island, had earned her place there. Calling herself Zeal, her power allowed her to induce murderous, bindingly passionate emotions and loyalty for either herself or any given person or object. People affected by her power would fight and kill one another to protect it, to possess it, to take it for themselves, or to obey its commands. When multiple people were affected, she was able to share the skills and talents of any of those people amongst any others. The same went for any Touched powers they possessed, though those powers were often weakened by being shared. And she had used that gift quite a lot, amassing what amounted to an entire cult of obsessed followers who could and did kill for her before she was fifteen. 

The others in their small group had made it clear that if she used her power to control them outside of planned defensive measures, they would make her spend months begging for death. She, in turn, had let them know that anyone who touched her without her permission would find themselves targeted by the negative aspect of her power. A person or object affected in that way would find themselves not loved and desired, but loathed. Anyone who saw them would do anything in their power to utterly and completely destroy such a person or object. 

All of which left a single man, the one standing by the waterfall.  

Using a stick to gently poke the tinfoil wrapped package that was set close to the fire so that it would cook the food inside, Pinprick glanced toward Quell, nudging him slightly. “Hey, man, you got any more of that chocolate left from before? I’ll trade you a flavor tablet for two squares.” 

There was a pause before the answer of, “One tablet, one square. Orange, not lime,” was said in the voices of three separate people. “Two squares for root beer flavor. Three for real coffee.” 

“Yeah right,” Pinprick retorted. “If I had real coffee, I’d be taking your whole bar. Fine, I’ve got an orange tablet here.” He produced the wrapped candy-shaped thing, which would dissolve in a glass of water and grant its flavor. “Just need some fucking candy, they’re stingy with that shit.” 

After the two made the trade, Pinprick addressed the man who was still standing apart from the group. “What about you, big guy? You got any chocolate with you? Hell, you might’ve just joined up with us, but you’ve definitely been on this hellhole for awhile. How long’s it been?” 

Without turning around, the man replied, “Four years and seven months.”

Watchdog gave a low whistle at that. “Shit, Prick’s right, you’ve gotta have all sorts of stashes around this place, surviving that long. You gonna share with the rest of us?” 

“I’ll do better than that,” the man replied, turning at last to face them. He appeared to be in his early forties, with tanned skin faintly lined by age and stress, blonde hair with slight gray around the temples, and brown eyes. “Far better than giving you a few measly treats that would be gone in moments.” 

“I don’t know, I like my chocolate,” Rupture replied with a low chuckle. “I’d watch what you promise, lest you disappoint us. Don’t care how long you’ve been on this island, if I get disappointed, you won’t get much further.” 

“Now, be nice,” Diesel ordered, her gentle tone as at odds with her name as her appearance. The elderly Asian woman was quite polite and, to the extent that she was capable, enforced that politeness in her companions. But when a fight broke out, she was capable of doing untold damage.

Clearing his throat, Pinprick asked, “This got anything to do with why you keep going off on your own for days at a time before moseying on back here? You setting up some kind of surprise party for your new friends? Come on, you can share with us, we’re all buddies, right?”

“A surprise party, of sorts,” the man confirmed. “But not for you.” Pausing, he amended, “Let’s say you’re part of the party. If you’re patient.”

Watchdog muttered, “You’re pretty secretive, you know that? I don’t know if I like secrets.” 

“Hey, don’t worry, puppy,” Zeal put in teasingly, “I’m sure our new friend isn’t just leading us on. He’s sincere, aren’t you?” She turned her slightly pouting gaze to the man by the waterfall. “I really don’t want to be disappointed again. People are always disappointing me.” 

“Stop it,” the man ordered. “I’m not interested in you.” 

“You’re lying,” Zeal declared, stretching out to make a point of her considerable bust and athletic figure. “Everyone’s interested in me. Unless you’re gay, and you’re definitely not gay. You talked about having a kid the other day. I heard you.” 

Quell ‘spoke’ then, the words coming from a dozen different sources all put together to form the sentence he wanted. “She’s right. You did mention having a child. Or children. Sometimes you say child, sometimes you say children. Which is it?” 

Instead of answering the question directly, the man replied, “You’re right, I’ve been here for awhile. Long enough that I’m almost ready to put my plan into action. My… daughter, she’s just about old enough. Three more weeks.” 

“Old enough for what?” Rupture asked. “And I’ll thank you all to note how much I resisted making my own suggestions.” 

“You don’t get credit when you point it out,” Pinprick informed him before focusing on the standing man. “Seriously though, what’re you talking about? What’s your daughter almost old enough for?” 

“Almost old enough to be sent here,” was the response. “And when she is, Paige will make certain they put her on an express plane to this island.” 

The response to his claim was a flat, silent stare from all of his companions for several long seconds. Finally, Diesel gently pointed out, “Ah, honey, we don’t see how that actually helps anything here. Why would you want your child to be sent to this place, let alone plan for it?” 

“Yeah,” Watchdog put in, “and how the living fuck does your crotchspawn being tossed in this fucking hellhole with the rest of us actually help? I think you’ve lost your goddamn mind.” 

Stepping away from the waterfall finally, the man moved over to take his seat next to the fire. He didn’t answer the question at first, choosing instead to stare into the flames. Eventually, after the others had exchanged confused glances, he spoke. “Because when she gets here, this entire island will stop being a prison. Everyone on it, everyone, will be able to leave. We will all escape.” 

The response to his claim was mostly incredulous chuckling and outright laughter, yet he remained resolute. Finally, Pinprick managed, “Okay, okay, let me get this straight. Your kid is just waiting to be old enough that they’ll bring her here. That’s, what, seventeen at a minimum if the offense is bad enough to try her as an adult? And you think that, just because she gets here, this whole prison is gonna shut down? All the defenses they’ve got are just gonna turn off or whatever and we’ll all be free? Just like that?” 

“Something like that,” the man replied simply. “The point is, we’ll all be able to leave. You all can do what you want when it happens. Cause chaos, keep all the heroes busy and occupied. That’s why I’m here. That’s what all this has been about. A long-term plan. When it comes, when she gets here… unleashing every monster on this island into the rest of the world will give me the opening I need.”

There was another brief exchange of looks then before Diesel gently asked, “The opening you need to do what, dear?” 

Staring into the flames, the man answered in a voice that was so quiet, his companions had to lean in to hear him properly. “The opening I need to destroy the Detroit Ministry.” 

“Those fucks who run everything over there?” Watchdog blurted. “The hell makes you think you can pull off what no one else has? I mean, besides the fact that you’re crazy enough to think bringing your kid here is gonna somehow free everyone on this island. How are you gonna take down the Ministry? They’re always ready for anything people try to pull.” 

“They won’t be ready for this,” the other man murmured. “They’ll be too busy grieving.” 

With a curious look, Diesel asked, “Why will they be grieving?” 

He offered the group a casual shrug. “Because in three weeks, when my Paige turns seventeen, she’s going to kill the person she’s spent years establishing a history of hatred and abuse toward, the one person the Ministry’s leaders can’t live without. 

“Their daughter.”

 

******

 

Patreon Snippets 13B 

 

Aaron Jessup and Silversmith

 

“She really asked what you thought of the city after taking you prisoner in your own truck?” 

Hearing that question, Aaron Jessup exhaled slowly. He had been staring down at his own dirt-encrusted work boots, thinking about the last time he’d bought a new pair. They looked old and grungy against the pleasant light blue carpeting of the interview room in this Conservator outpost in downtown Detroit. The room itself was clearly meant to put people at ease, with comfortable seating, soft lightning, rounded edges on all the tables, and several windows looking out into the main lobby along with two large, open doors at either end. The doors and windows could be closed for a more private discussion, or for those who might be afraid of being seen. But when set like this, the intention was obviously to make people not feel trapped. With the wide windows and two large doors, they wouldn’t feel quite so penned in. 

It definitely wasn’t an interrogation room, that was for sure. As a truck driver who had driven routes all over the states for a good sixteen years, Aaron had been in both kinds. He preferred this version. 

Finally, he looked over to the man who had asked the question. He was Silversmith, man of gleaming metal armor and a sterling reputation. The leader of the local Conservator (or Federal-level Star-Touched) group was one of the most well-known Touched not only in the state, but the entire country. Jessup had never met the man before, but he knew plenty about him. The guy was one of the good ones. He could be trusted. 

“Yeah,” Aaron confirmed with a nod. “Asked me what I thought of your city while she had her big lizard gorilla thing ready to smack me into next week if I didn’t behave.” 

Eyeing Aaron briefly, as though judging how he was feeling, Silversmith gave a light chuckle while shaking his head. “That girl’s still pretty new around here, but she’s already something else.” 

“You almost sound like you admire her,” Aaron pointed out. Part of him felt… almost offended by that, but not quite. He’d been robbed before, by people who were a hell of a lot more nasty about it than that girl had been. Lizard monsters or not, it paid to have some perspective. And when you still had a scar on your left shoulder and your right hip from jumpy assholes with guns who thought you weren’t giving them what they wanted fast enough, you tended to appreciate the more professional thieves. Not that he wouldn’t like to see her behind bars for that shit. 

“Admire her?” the silver-armored hero echoed before shaking his head. “No, I wouldn’t say admire. But given some of the monsters that come scurrying out of the shadows to terrorize the people of this city, this lizard girl’s a damned peach in comparison.” 

“Like that Pencil guy,” Aaron murmured. He knew about the Scions of Typhon. Who didn’t? They, and those like them, were psychopaths beyond all description. The stories that made it into the national news about that son of a bitch…

“Like Pencil,” Silversmith agreed with a heavy sigh, glancing toward the other man. “Or any of his freaks. Believe me, as much as I wish you could have made it through our city without a problem like this, it could’ve been worse. Your cargo’s all CIF insured, right?” He pronounced it ‘kif.’ It stood for Cooperative International Funding, a pool put together by most of the first world countries drawn mostly from taxes on Tech-Touched devices and manufacturing, as well as merchandise sales for Star-Touched teams and similar things. Everything went into that pool and was used to rebuild after Collision Points and other very damaging Touched Events. Companies and even individuals who paid to be CIF insured sent funds into the pool as well, in order to be covered if and when they themselves were victims of Touched crimes. 

“Yeah, that’s all covered,” Jessup confirmed. Getting robbed wouldn’t be on his neck, at least. 

“Good.” With a brief pause, Silversmith looked to him. “I wanted to ask you something else. In your report to the first officers on the scene, you said that the Minority member That-A-Way ‘sort of’ fought your attacker. Why do you say ‘sort of?’” 

“Ehhhh…” Grimacing, Aaron shook his head. “Look, I don’t want to get the girl in trouble or anything. She did her job, a job she shouldn’t have to have at her age. She’s a good one in my book.” 

“She is a good one,” Silversmith agreed, his tone easy and casual. “I’m not asking you to tattle on her, Mr. Jessup. I think That-A-Way is one of our finest young Star-Touched and an incredible young woman in her own right. But given the age situation of the Minority and how careful we need to be with protecting and guiding them, if there is an issue, it’s better for me to know about it now before it becomes a problem. We need to know if our teenagers need a break for their own mental health, or if they need to be kept away from certain threats for their own safety.” 

After a long pause, Aaron gave a long, heavy sigh. “Well, best as I could see from where I was… she and that Pack girl did seem to be… uhh… maybe… flirting a little bit? Don’t get me wrong, she still fought her, but it was like… neither of ‘em were really up for hurting each other. And they were just… yeah, flirting a bit.” He grimaced once more. “Just don’t give the kid a hard time about it?” 

He could hear the easy smile in Silversmith’s voice. “Trust me, Mr. Jessup, this isn’t the first time we’ve had an issue of young, still-maturing Touched developing feelings for people on the other side. You were right to tell me about this. And don’t you worry, we know how to handle it. 

“Everything will be just fine.”

****** 

 

Pack and Broadway 

 

An unlabeled white van pulled up to the mouth of an alley, idling there as the window rolled down. 

“Hey, sweet thing!” called a voice from within the van. “You need a lift?”

Rolling her eyes behind her mask, Pack abandoned the shadows and moved to the van. Holiday, Twinkletoes, and Mars Bar followed suit. As she approached, the side-door of the van slid open, held by Tuesday, the lizard-monkey chittering at them in a voice that seemed to be an order to hurry up. Their traveling cage sat next to him. 

One by one, Pack reached out, touched one of her menagerie to shrink them back into their normal lizard forms, and placed them in the cage. Riddles flew down from where she had been playing lookout and returned to being a bearded dragon. Tuesday was last, and she tickled under his chin before putting him back to his ordinary gecko shape. Setting him in the cage, she closed it up, then slid the back door shut and moved around to get into the front passenger door.  

KD was in the driver’s seat. Or rather, Broadway as she was known in the field. She wore what amounted to a power-suit, metal armor that boosted her height by a few inches (useful for disguising her identity) and enhanced her strength and speed to the point of lifting about six hundred pounds and running forty miles per hour. The suit was dark purple to the point of being almost black, with what looked like narrow white vents all along both arms, down both legs, and in the chest and back. They weren’t vents, however. They were speaker-systems that could blast sound at ear-splitting decibels all on their own, even before KD’s own power to manipulate and enhance sound itself came into play. Without the suit, she could clap her hands, then magnify and direct the result until it punched through a concrete block. She could do that to any sound in her vicinity. She could also disperse herself into soundwaves in order to avoid attacks. And if she used her power to focus sound toward one area (similar to what she would do when narrowing it for a sonic attack), then turned herself into sound and jumped into the wave she had just created while it was moving, she could reappear at the target. Basically, she teleported along her own manipulated and directed blasts of sound. And there were other tricks she could do with sound beyond straight up damage or teleporting. 

She could do all that without the suit. With it, her power was enhanced to incredible levels. Instead of punching through concrete, she could magnify the sound that came from the suit’s speakers to the point of being able to damage or even destroy a military tank or other armored vehicle. 

The helmet of the suit was also dark purple, with three white vertical speaker-vents along either side. They were positioned where her ears would be and angled toward the front. Over the face part was a wide V-shaped visor. Whenever Broadway spoke, bright multi-colored lines bounced across the surface of the visor roughly in rhythm with her words. Like a speaker system with the lights in front that pulsed along with the music it played. 

Once Pack was inside, she shut the door and Broadway pulled away from the curb. The van made it through the maze of side-streets before approaching the freeway. Only once they were heading up the ramp did KD remove the helmet and set it aside, exposing her pale skin and bright blue-dyed hair fashioned into pigtails. Dani took her own hood down and pulled the black, featureless mask off her face to reveal her dark skin with short, spiky hair that was mostly black aside from the bright white-dyed tips. 

Both girls grinned at one another before fist-bumping as the van joined the rest of the traffic on the freeway.  “Could’ve gone worse,” KD chirped. “Got half the stuff.” 

“Could’ve gone better too,” Dani retorted, leaning back in the seat a little to watch the cars around them thoughtfully. “We could’ve gotten all of it.” 

“Yeah, true,” KD agreed easily, drumming her fingers along the steering wheel to some tune in her head. “Still, half isn’t bad considering that Touched girl showed up.” Trailing off meaningfully, she added, “Speeeeaaaking of which…” 

“Nothing to speaking of which about,” Dani insisted, feeling a slight flush cross her face as she turned to look out the passenger window. Boy, those lights in the city sure were interesting. 

There was a slight giggle from behind her, before KD spoke again. “That was the girl you were trapped in Jailtime’s funhouse with, right?” 

After a brief pause, Dani nodded. “Uhh, yeah, That-A-Way, that’s right.” 

“And the girl who helped at the hospital,” KD pressed. “The one who saved Holiday.” 

There was another brief pause from Dani, then a slightly more quiet, “Yup.” 

“Ah,” KD murmured. Her voice sounded totally noncommittal and barely interested. “Kay.” 

Several long moments of nothing further happened, while the van traveled down the freeway. When she was met with so much silence, Dani very hesitantly turned to peek over her shoulder at her companion. 

KD was grinning brightly, staring that way. As soon as Dani turned to glance at her, she blurted cheerfully, “You like her!”

Blush deepening, Dani flailed a little. “What–nooo, no, come on, don’t be stupid. She’s one of the good guys, she’s a hero and stuff. She wants to arrest me, remember? What do you think that whole fight back there was about?” 

“Oh yeah,” KD deadpanned, “she really looked like she was totally dead set on locking you up forever and throwing away the key. However will you survive the dreadful wounds she inflicted?” 

Making a face at her friend, Dani retorted, “The point is, she’s Star-Touched. I’m Fell-Touched. Good guy, bad guy. Not really conducive to a relationship. Even if I did like her.” 

“People can change sides, you know,” KD pointed out. “This stuff isn’t set in stone.” 

Dani gave her a sharp look. “I’m not joining the Team Good Samaritan just because I think That-A-Way is hot. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she totally is. But I’m not changing my whole life over it. I made my choice about being who I am.” 

“Who said anything about you joining them?” KD replied. “It can work the other way too.” 

“Something tells me that girl is not interested in joining our side any more than I am in joining her side,” Dani muttered.  

KD nodded in agreement, her tone thoughtful. “Maybe not yet. But you know what? 

“I’m pretty sure whatever’s going on between you two is just getting started.”

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Private Affairs 9-06 (Summus Proelium)

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The latest Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge were posted as an extra chapter on Saturday. If you missed it, you might want to click right here to read them.

Paige didn’t end up saying much else of interest. Mostly it was just things about how she was ‘working on it’ and that the man she was talking to should give her time and stop being impatient. It didn’t really… sound like she was talking to her father, at least not one she respected or even liked that much. But on the other hand, if he was a supervillain on Breakwater, maybe I could understand that much. In any case, there was definitely something about that whole relationship I was missing. For one thing, what the hell was that about him selling her to her ‘parents?’ Because just that all by itself raised a hell of a lot of questions.

Pretty soon she left, heading back to the street and leaving me sitting there lost in thought. My brain was working a million miles an hour in every direction, but I forced it to focus on one thing. The name. The name she’d said, what was it? Tate. Anthony Tate. I knew that name… I knew…

Oh, right. I did know Anthony Tate.  All I had to do was think about it for a bit, then I remembered. He was a boy I’d known while I was back in elementary school. I hadn’t really known him very well, because he was homeschooled, but that at least explained why the name was familiar. Though it didn’t really explain why he was important. From what I could remember, I only saw him once in awhile. But he’d moved away when I was in sixth grade, in my first year of middle school. A couple months later, he died in a car accident. I remembered my dad telling me that one of the kids I used to play with had passed away down in… where was it? Texas or something. I was pretty sure it was Texas. 

Anyway, I didn’t remember that much about the kid back then. I remembered being sad about someone I kind of knew dying, but it didn’t feel that real at the time because I barely remembered him. We weren’t close or anything, he was just a boy I saw sometimes.

But none of that actually answered the question of what was so important about the kid. 

So, perched on the roof of the library, I used my phone to do an internet search. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about him having a sister who could have been Paige. Both his parents were killed in the accident as well. The three family members were buried together in a cemetery in… yup, I was right, Dallas. Mother, father, and their only son were buried in Dallas, Texas after a drunk driving accident. 

So how did that connect to Paige and this guy she called her father, who happened to be a supervillain imprisoned on Breakwater? How did they know this kid and what did his death in a car accident in Texas have to do with my family here? I was missing something really important, just like the whole thing about the relationship between Paige and her imprisoned father. I had some pieces of this ridiculous puzzle, but not enough to put it together. Not just yet, anyway.  

I was going to have to really look into this Anthony Tate and the rest of his family. Maybe that car accident wasn’t such an accident? At first I’d thought that it might have something to do with the memory that Mr. Jackson had apparently erased, but with the accident happening all the way down in Texas, I wasn’t sure how that could be true. I definitely couldn’t have seen the accident, if it actually was one. And as far as I could tell, it really had happened down there. There were several news reports about it, accident scene photos, everything. So… what then?

Mom had said that Mr. Jackson removed a traumatic memory. A car accident was bad, but for someone I barely knew? I was probably just trying to tie two independent things (my removed memory and this whole thing about Paige’s secrets) together when they weren’t actually related. Which seemed like a good way to end up getting utterly lost and not figure out anything at all. 

Regardless, the point remained that I had to find out more about this accident. That might help me figure out what Paige’s involvement was–wait. What if her dad was the drunk driver that hit Anthony’s family? Or the guy who was blamed for it, if my family was actually involved. But what did that have to do with Paige? Was she related to him in some way? Wait–shit, duh. Friends. What if they were friends? I hadn’t known Anthony very well, but maybe Paige had. Which… didn’t explain why her father was in prison, unless he’d known the family too. Okay, maybe that was it? Maybe Paige and her father knew Anthony’s family, and when they died in that accident, those two found out my family was involved… somehow? Hell, if they had reach all the way over in Britain, I should probably believe they had reach in Texas too. That made some kind of sense. 

Okay, wait. What if this Anthony kid and his parents found out about my family and took off to protect themselves, but my family got to them anyway even down in Texas. Then Paige and her father found out the truth, and my dad, as Silversmith, had her dad locked up on Breakwater? He probably would’ve had to actually have powers to make that work, but maybe he did. Maybe that’s why he’d been so dangerous, because he knew about my family and had powers, so they sent him to Breakwater. But why not just kill him? Maybe he’d been arrested before they could? 

Yeah, I had an awful lot of ‘maybes’ in all this. I was speculating too much. And none of that actually explained how my family wouldn’t know what Paige was doing or who she really was. They were the ones with the memory-altering guy. If she was the daughter of some guy who knew about the family business and who had been sent to the supermax Touched prison, I kind of figured they’d keep track of her. So that didn’t actually make much sense either, unfortunately.

And on top of everything else, I still didn’t know how she was immune to the memory alteration power herself. I had a ten gallon bucket worth of questions and a teaspoon full of possible answers. It wasn’t enough. I had to get more information than I could find out in a simple search.

But to do that, I had a feeling I might need a little help. Even if it was a risk. And there was one person I could think of who had already proven that I could trust him to keep my secrets. 

*******

“If this is a trick to arrest a Fell-Touched and prop up your numbers, I’m going to be simultaneously disappointed in you as a person, and impressed at your long-term strategy.”

The words were from Eits, who spoke up about an hour later as I walked up to the bench in a small, out of the way park where he’d said I could meet him to talk. He’d been sitting there in costume, doing something on one of his phones before jumping up as he saw me approach. 

“Don’t worry,” I replied dryly, “I don’t usually think that far ahead. Also, I’m pretty sure tricking you into coming out here just to arrest you would end up being bad for me in the long run anyway.” Pausing, I tilted my head. “Which, now that I say that out-loud, those first two points kind of counteract each other, don’t they? But uhh, no, seriously, I really do need your help with something. You…” Hesitantly, I asked, “You did come alone? I know I didn’t say much, but–” 

“I’m alone, yeah,” he assured me. “I mean, for the most part. I kind of told Pack I had something to do, so she’s hanging out with Broadway a couple blocks that way.” He gestured to the left. “We were… um, practicing for something when you texted, but we needed a break anyway.” 

Blinking twice, I slowly asked, “Eits, did I interrupt you and your criminal friends doing crime?” 

“Absolutely not,” he insisted firmly, holding that for a moment longer before relenting with, “Practicing for doing crime, maybe. But not actually doing it. So see, you’re totally in the clear.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I’m not sure that’s how that works. But I guess it doesn’t matter. This is… bigger. Maybe. I don’t know. I just–” Stopping as I stared at him, I started to think this might be a bad idea. Involving him in this, even if it was only tangentially related to my family… what if they actually were involved in the Tates’ deaths? What if he found out through his digging, and tried to do something with it? Or what if my parents found out he was digging and went after him? What if I was putting him right in their crosshairs by having him look at this? What if…

“Hey, Paintball, you okay?” Apparently I’d zoned out for a second, as Eits looked worried. Well, as worried as one could look with diagonal bands covering a good part of his face. “You seem pretty freaked out right now. Did umm…” He paused, glancing around for a second before carefully asking in a quieter voice, “Did someone else find out about you being… you know.” 

“No,” I replied. “It’s not that. I just… I’m looking into something and I could use some help. But it could be dangerous, so I want you to be really careful, okay? Don’t let anyone know what you’re doing. I mean it, Eits. Don’t talk to anyone directly, just use computers, and make sure no one knows what you’re looking for. Erase your tracks when you’re done. Don’t write things down. I–” 

Holding up both hands, Eits quickly put in, “Hey, hey, I get it. I’ll be careful. But I could probably do a better job of telling you how careful I can be if you tell me what you actually need to know.” 

Okay, okay, I could do this. I had to do this. I was going in circles by myself. The only way I was going to get anywhere anytime soon was with his help. I had to take this leap. Exhaling slowly to steady myself, I nodded. “The point is, keep it quiet. But I need you to look into this kid. His name was Anthony Tate. He used to live here in Detroit, but he moved to Dallas about… five years ago or so, then died in a car accident a couple months later. He and both his parents.” 

Eits was clearly squinting at me. “Um. Okay, so… far be it from me to ask too many questions about all this, but why do you want to know about some poor kid who died five years ago in an accident a thousand miles away? Did you… did you know him or something? And why now?” 

“I can’t say why now,” I informed him. “And no, I didn’t know him. I just heard someone important say the name and what I just told you is all I could find out by myself. There’s something going on that I’m looking into and the next step is to find out more about that kid. But like I said, it’s really dangerous. I mean super dangerous, Eits. I’m not kidding. I know you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I shouldn’t have even involved you, I just didn’t know what else to…” I sighed, long and heavy. “Please be careful, that’s all I’m saying. Look into it quietly.” 

To his credit, Eits didn’t dismiss my caution. He watched me for a moment, clearly taking the time to think about his response before giving a short nod. “I get it. I’ll keep it quiet. My little friends can run internet searches a lot faster than I can anyway, without actually letting anyone see what they’re doing. And I’ll delete everything about it, even on my own computers. If this is as big of a deal as you seem to be implying it is, I’ll probably have to look into a few restricted databases, but I’ll make sure to grab a huge chunk of info to pour through so if anyone does happen to notice that the files were accessed, they won’t know exactly what I was looking at.” 

I wasn’t sure that would be good enough, but at this point, I was up against a brick wall. I had to find out more, and if my parents were involved in the deaths of the Tates, I wouldn’t be able to find it myself. Hard as it was, I had to let him help. So, I exhaled once more, trying to let out my own hesitation along with the breath while slowly nodding. “Okay. Oh, and while you’re at it, I need you to look into a couple more things. A couple more people. Only–okay, this is hard to explain. First, I need you to look into this girl. Her name is Paige Banners. She’s seventeen and she goes to… hold on, I wrote it down.” Digging into my pocket, I came out with a scrap of paper that I’d prepared ahead of time for this. “Cadillac Preparatory School. I need you to find out if there’s any link between her and this Anthony Tate. And if there’s any link between either of them and any supervillain from either Detroit or Dallas who was sentenced to Breakwater in the past five years and is still alive out there. I know they track that from one of those documentaries, but how?” 

He shrugged at the last part. “I’m pretty sure they use some bracelet or something that’s supposed to keep track of where you are and all your vitals, so they know if you try to escape, and can retrieve your body if you die so it doesn’t just lay there. Which is nice, I guess.”

“There’s a villain on the island called Potluck,” I informed him. “He gets random powers or boosts to powers that he has through eating people who have powers. They don’t want him to get even stronger than he already is. That’s why they retrieve the bodies. Also because eeugh.”   

Blanching as he took that in, Eits muttered something clearly disgusted under his breath before looking back to me. “Right, well, got it. I’ll definitely cross Breakwater off my list of potential vacation spots in that case. But let me see if I have this straight. You need to know about the Tate family and how they died, this Paige Banner girl, and any supervillain from Detroit or Dallas who was sent to Breakwater in the past five years? And any connection between all of them.” 

“Banners,” I corrected. “But yeah, that about sums it up. I know it’s a lot to look into, especially when I’m telling you to keep it quiet and not telling you why I need to know. But I swear, it’s important. And I wouldn’t come to you with it if there was anyone else I could, but, I mean…” 

“It’s okay, Paintball,” he put in. “You don’t have to explain. We’re good. I’ll look into it and let you know what I find out, and I’ll be careful doing it. But…” He trailed off, biting his lip as he stared at the ground before looking back up to me. “But if it’s really this dangerous, then you should be careful too, okay? I don’t know what you’ve gotten into, but it sounds like it could be pretty bad. Especially if you’re investigating some Breakwater villain. Don’t go getting yourself in trouble.” 

Managing a slight smile that he couldn’t see anyway, I tried to put him at ease by casually replying, “You’re probably just afraid that if I go away, you might have to deal with a hero who’s more competent and doesn’t make these kind of deals with big, bad supervillains like you.” 

“Yeah, that’s totally it,” he agreed with a snort before sobering. “Watch yourself out there, okay? I’ll contact you when I find out anything. Or even if I can’t. But it’ll probably take a few days.” 

“That’s okay, take your time,” I assured him. “Be careful and thorough. I’d rather get the info in a week instead of two days if it means you cover your tracks better. Or however long it takes.” 

I thought about telling him about what happened with Hallowed and the Seraphs. But in the end, I decided to keep it to myself. It wasn’t Eits’ fault, after all. Not really. At least until I found out what they wanted me to do at that meeting on Wednesday. Then I’d just… go from there, I supposed. 

So, after making him promise one more time to be careful, I left Eits to go back to his business (while hoping that said business wouldn’t end up being too bad) and made my way home. I changed out of my costume well away from the house, of course, keeping it in my backpack as I snuck past the cameras and up to my window. 

Climbing inside carefully, I switched on the light and immediately saw something wrong. There was someone in my bed. Thinking it might be Izzy, I leaned closer. But the figure wasn’t quite right. Actually, there was… Frowning, I reached out, tugging the blanket down. Pillows. There were two pillows set up under my blanket to look like a figure, and one of my larger dolls that had hair sort of like mine. 

As I was staring at that, there was a quiet knock on the door. My gaze snapped that way in time to see Izzy peek inside. Her voice was very soft. “I wanted to make sure your mom and dad would think you were there if they looked.” 

My mouth opened and shut. I dropped the bag and gestured. “Come in, Izzy. What… what do you mean?” My throat felt dry. 

She entered hesitantly, closing the door after her. She almost looked ashamed. “I didn’t want you to get in trouble for sneaking out. So I made up your bed like that. Then I thought you might really get in trouble out there, so I stayed up to make sure you got home. I was… I’m sorry.” 

“Izzy, you don’t have to be sorry,” I quickly assured her. “I just… you… you had a nightmare and I wasn’t here.” Staring as the girl gave a hesitant nod, I closed my eyes and felt a rush of shame. “C’mere.” 

She came, and I reached out to embrace the younger (yet not really that much smaller) girl tightly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here, Izzy. You–you couldn’t find me and you still covered for me.” 

“I think that’s what friends are supposed to do, right?” she asked, blinking up at me with those wide, emotional eyes. 

“They’re also supposed to be there when you need them, and I wasn’t here for you,” I admitted. “I just…” I couldn’t tell her the truth. “I have to stretch my legs sometimes. I have to get out and just… I mean–never mind. I’m gonna give you my number so you can call or text me any time, even if I’m not here.” 

“I don’t have a phone,” she pointed out quietly, still not letting go of me. 

“Well, then we’ll have to take care of that tomorrow, won’t we?” I replied. “And hey, you can even afford it.

“After all, you do have a pretty good allowance right now.” 

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